Malcolm X and the Revolutionary Turn in the Civil Rights Movement
During the 1960s in the United States, the salience of revolution as a strategy to achieve the objectives of freedom, justice, and equality for African Americans became a prominent consideration among participants in the Civil Rights Movement (CRM), as well as broader groups of political activists, observers, and analysts. Anticolonial struggles in Africa and Asia, such as the Mau Mau in Kenya, the FLN in Algeria, and the National Liberation Front in Vietnam became important revolutionary referents; and especially influential was the Cuban Revolution that brought Castro’s regime to power and introduced many African Americans to the revolutionary theses of Che Guevara. Coupled with the independence movement in Africa, which made personages such as Nkrumah, Lumumba, Touré, Mandela, and Ben Bella as prominent in the discourse of the CRM as Gandhi had been, the expression of support for the CRM of extant revolutionary regimes such as Mao’s China encouraged the view that the reformist objective of the CRM to eradicate Jim Crow was insufficient to achieve the revolutionary objective of ending white supremacism in the United States. A constant—albeit marginal—strain in black activism of the twentieth century, in the post–World War II era revolution as a political objective became a prominent focus of African American political mobilization.
Among CRM activists of the late 1950s and early 1960s, Robert Williams of the Monroe, North Carolina, NAACP was a prominent and early advocate of armed self-defense for blacks seeking an end to white racist oppression. A Korean War veteran, after his highly publicized armed resistance to white racists and his open opposition to nonviolence, his treatise on black self-defense, Negroes with Guns, influenced black revolutionists throughout the black power era. There were other proponents of armed self-defense such as the Deacons for Defense, which emerged in 1964 in Jonesboro and later Bogalusa, Louisiana (Hill, 2004); as well as supporters of “defensive violence,” such as the Defenders, which organized in 1964 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama (Nelson, 2006). Many more groups advocating armed resistance would emerge following the Watts revolt of August 1965, which for many marked the onset of the BPM. While discussions related to the desirability of revolution, beyond armed defense, took many forms and drew from myriad sources, the most influential proponent of black revolution emerging from the CRM itself was Malcolm X. Malcolm X drew inspiration from activists such as Robert Williams, for whom he raised funds and featured as a presenter in his Harlem NOI mosque; nevertheless, by 1961 Williams was in exile in Cuba and by 1966 in China, and he would not return to the United States until 1969. Well before then, his influence as a revolutionary leader of the BPM had been eclipsed by Malcolm X, who by no later than 1963 had proposed a novel and influential conception of black revolution in the United States in what would become one of the most popular speeches of the black power era, “Message to the Grassroots.” Malcolm’s base in the Nation of Islam (NOI), which he helped expand dramatically given his administrative skill and restless energy, extended his influence even farther, as did his prominence in national and international media.
Malcolm X’s advocacy of black revolution to overthrow white supremacist rule stood in contrast to Martin L. King Jr’s contemporaneous call for nonviolent protest to end Jim Crow segregation. Malcolm X endorsed armed self-defense and rejected the nonviolence of mainstream CRM organizations; promoted black separation and rejected black integration; viewed land as the basis of independence, rather than desegregation as a political objective; linked black liberation in the United States to international politics, rather than strictly focusing on domestic politics in the United States; supported the interests of the black masses (i.e., the “grass roots”) over those of black liberal and conservative elites; and promoted African more than African American culture, history, and identity. These were among Malcolm X’s perspectives that provided the theoretical and programmatic latticework of the major organizations that generated and defined what became known as the black power movement (BPM). These ranged from the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)—during its black power phase, Us, the Black Panther Party (BPP), the Republic of New Africa (RNA), the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (LRBW), the Congress of African Peoples (CAP), and the Pan-African Orthodox Christian Church (PAOCC) (aka the Shrine of the Black Madonna), among others. They inspired the Black Arts Movement (BAM), and encouraged revolutionary formations such as the Black Liberation Army, as well as revolutionary groups among Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and European Americans.
As seminal as Malcolm’s thesis on black revolution in the United States was to the BPM, it is important to remember that it had been developing over his last two years—mainly from November 1963 to February 1965. It was multifaceted, multidimensional, and multistaged. It also was often contradictory. In fact, by 1965 Malcolm’s thesis on black revolution had modified or, in some cases, contradicted almost every one of the major orientations listed above, that he had previously promoted. For example, in his “Message to the Grassroots” speech of November 1963, he was unequivocal in his claim that revolutions were violent; but, in “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech of April 1964, he asserted that revolutions could be nonviolent; and in “The Black Revolution” of April 1964 he argued that revolutions could be violent or nonviolent. By 1965 Malcolm X had asserted that separation and integration were only methods—not philosophies—for black liberation; and advocacy of—or opposition to—either should not preclude blacks from working toward the common goal of black liberation. In 1964 he championed the mainstream CRM’s efforts toward desegregation and offered support to SNCC’s initiatives in the South. During that time, he also promoted black electoral participation and an independent black political party.
The modifications, contradictions, and nuances in Malcolm’s framework for black liberation in the United States reflected changes in his black nationalist ideology in which it was situated. In fact, Malcolm’s thesis of black revolution in the United States derived from and developed along with his black nationalist ideology, from the separatist-oriented, millenarian conception of black nationalism that he drew on as a member of the NOI to the pluralist-oriented, secular conception of black nationalism embedded in the charter of his major post-NOI organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU). The former viewed the black nation as a pan-Islamic, race-based entity, based on the “Asiatic black man,” and was at most rhetorically fitted to revolutionary activity in the United States or abroad. The latter viewed the black nation as a pan-Africanist, culture-based entity that, while aligned to black racial identity—and identified explicitly with the American Negro—also associated “blackness” with the diverse nonwhite people of the “third world” struggling to overthrow white imperialism. Consistent with his pan-Africanist and culture-based conception of black nationalism, Malcolm viewed the black revolution as part of a “worldwide revolution.” For Malcolm, the worldwide revolution proceeded in two stages: the first was a classic political (military) revolution against Western imperialism and was evident in the anticolonial wars throughout the third world; the second was a cultural reawakening, galvanizing black Americans to mobilize against white supremacy in a black cultural revolution, which would be associated with a political revolution in the United States. In radically transforming the most powerful country in the world, the black revolution in the United States would culminate the worldwide revolution.
For Malcolm, the black revolution in the United States could be violent, nonviolent, or both, depending on the leverage exerted by black revolutionists and their domestic allies inside the United States, supplemented by their international supporters and coordinated through the OAAU, and on the resistance these forces faced from white supremacists and their allies. The breadth of this revolution influenced Malcolm X’s view that political, economic, and social/cultural factors were intimately tied together—thus the broad program of the OAAU. These political, economic, and social factors were linked in Malcolm’s theoretical arguments, which were grounded in his black nationalism, which, likewise, focused on political, economic, and social dimensions of black liberation. Consistent with the breadth of the black nationalism in which it was embedded, Malcolm’s thesis on black revolution similarly focused on liberation from political, economic, and social domination.
As influential as Malcolm X was to a generation of revolutionists, rarely was his revolutionary thesis appreciated in its fullness, as a multifaceted, multidimensional, and multistaged thesis for black liberation. Instead, many who saw themselves as heirs to Malcolm’s revolutionary legacy adopted singular aspects of his thesis as representative of the whole—often with little appreciation of the challenges and contradictions that compelled Malcolm to modify elements of it in whole or in part. For example, the BPP adopted his approach to the necessity of revolutionary violence but dismissed and even denigrated his focus on bloodless revolution. Similarly, they ignored his thesis on cultural revolution, going so far as to insist that “cultural nationalism”—as opposed to “revolutionary nationalism,” a term they appropriated for themselves—was inherently reactionary, making it an epitaph in the organization’s lexicon. The RNA focused on the “land question” but paid less attention to Malcolm’s focus on electoral politics.1 The BPP, the LRBW, and eventually CAP accepted Malcolm’s critique of capitalist-inspired consumerism but minimized his concerns regarding communism. And nearly all ignored his assertion of the importance of women’s rights in black liberation struggles.
Just as apparent was the failure of those who saw themselves operating in Malcolm’s tradition to reconcile his theoretical arguments with those of previous theorists of black revolution in the United States—especially those that recognized the peculiarity of American national development and the role of blacks in it, as well as the significance of black culture as a galvanizing force to orient blacks toward revolutionary objectives (e.g., Du Bois, 1935). This is no slight to BPM revolutionists, who were more consumed with the challenges and opportunities of their active participation in revolutionary struggle than with providing an exegesis of the myriad works of their revolutionary predecessors, but recognition that these activists were often theorists as well, and in several cases developed original theses on black revolution in the United States, even as they engaged a range of forces aligned against them. For example, Woodard (1999) notes that in Detroit, Michigan, in particular, many of the leading activists were also theorists, such as Albert Cleage (aka Jaramogi Agyeman), who was not only a leader of the Group on Advanced Leadership (GOAL), the Freedom Now Party (FNP), and most notably, the Shrine of the Black Madonna, but also an important theorist of black liberation theology. Imari Obadele was not only the leader of the RNA, but an important theorist of black nationalism; James and Grace Lee Boggs were central to several black liberation organizations including RAM and the FNP, and they were theorists of dialectical humanism, as well. The confluence of activism and theory was not unique to Detroit, but was representative of black power theorists more generally: Stokely Carmichael was not only a leader of SNCC but a theoretician of black power; Maulana Karenga was both leader of Us and a progenitor of kawaida theory; Huey Newton was not only a co-founder of the BPP, but he proffered his revolutionary intercommunalism; and Frances Beal of SNCC contributed to feminism in her thesis of double jeopardy, which is a direct forerunner of intersectionality. Thus, it makes sense to focus on BPM revolutionists as theorists as well in their engagement of Malcolm’s revolutionary thesis.
Yet, BPM revolutionists generally failed to capture the breadth of Malcolm’s thesis on revolution, although many had interacted with Malcolm personally. They often insufficiently engaged the major shortcomings of Malcolm’s thesis, as well, including (1) Malcolm’s assumption that black Americans had no culture—he assumed that it was stripped from them during slavery, which led him to diminish the centrality of African American culture in his conception of black nationalism and the black revolution it was assumed to stimulate; (2) Malcolm’s privileging of events in Africa over those in the United States as a focus of black revolutionary praxis, which precluded him from drawing on prior black revolutionary praxis in the United States; (3) Malcolm’s assumption that the conditions facing African Americans were similar to those faced by Africans on the continent, which suggested the salience of a colonial—or in the case of African Americans, a domestic colonial—framework as the key to understanding black oppression in the United States and its amelioration; (4) Malcolm’s misunderstanding of the calculus of third world leaders ostensibly willing to challenge the United States in support of black Americans, which led him to focus on a UN plebiscite as a rallying tool for black claims against the U.S. government, following a strategy that had largely failed when attempted two decades before. To better appreciate these claims, it’s important to review the development of Malcolm’s thesis on black revolution in the United States.
The Revolutionary Theses of Malcolm X
NOI Precursors and Revolutionizing the Civil Rights Movement
Malcolm X’s conception of black revolution evolved from his earliest formulations during his tenure with the NOI under Elijah Muhammad’s leadership. The NOI was a black nationalist offshoot of Garvey’s UNIA & ACL and the Moorish Science Temple of Timothy Drew (aka Noble Drew Ali), which advocated black separatism in the form of emigration to Africa or the establishment of an independent black territory in the continental United States—ostensibly under Muhammad’s leadership—funded by compensation from the United States as a form of reparations. The NOI’s variant of black nationalism was a religious-based millenarian conceptualization, which in Muhammad’s rendering was only marginally pan-Africanist internationally (its pan-Islamism made sacrilegious for most Muslims worldwide by the apostasy of the NOI’s belief that Wallace Ford aka W. Fard Muhammad was Allah incarnate, or that Elijah Muhammad was the Messenger of Allah, and not Prophet Muhammad ibn Abdullah of seventh-century Arabia), while failing to engage with the institutions of American politics (e.g., NOI members did not vote or involve themselves in civil rights protests) domestically. Elijah Muhammad’s aversion to organized protest against racial discrimination was as personal as it was political. He lived in perpetual fear of the federal government, which had imprisoned him in Milan, Michigan, for sedition from 1942–46, and subsequently imprisoned his son Wallace for fourteen months for refusing induction into the U.S. military in 1961.
While he was a member of the NOI, Malcolm’s thesis on black revolution reflected the NOI’s theology as espoused by Elijah Muhammad. For example, as an NOI minister, Malcolm contrasted the “black revolution,” which was the separatist program that the NOI proposed, with the “Negro revolution” of the mainstream CRM, which he derided. Where the latter sought integration into the political, economic, and social institutions of U.S. society mainly through large-scale protest based on the principles of nonviolent noncooperation, the NOI’s “black revolution” advocated separation of blacks from the United States and their reconstitution under self-rule, but eschewed sociopolitical protest while reserving for themselves the right of self-defense, mainly for fellow NOI members. For example, in June 1963, while still a member of the NOI, Malcolm gave a speech, “The Black Revolution”—a title he used many times for what often were quite different speeches—in which he argued that the “black revolution against the injustices of the white world is all part of God’s divine plan” (Malcolm X, 1971, p. 71). Malcolm acknowledged that he and other followers of Elijah Muhammad “religiously believe that we are living at the end of this wicked world, the world of colonialism, the world of slavery, the end of the Western world, the white world or the Christian world, or the end of the wicked white man’s Western world of Christianity.”
Malcolm shared Elijah Muhammad’s opposition to integration and stated that “[w]e want no part of integration with this wicked race of devils.” The revolution—as envisioned by Muhammad and articulated by Malcolm—sought physical separation of blacks from whites in the United States through emigration to Africa or the establishment of a separate black territory in the United States. Malcolm echoed Muhammad’s contention that blacks “should not be expected to leave America empty-handed” because “[a]fter four hundred years of slave labor, we have some back pay coming.” Therefore, the NOI demanded that upon either emigration or the establishment of an independent black state, the U.S. government should provide “everything else” that repatriated or resettled blacks “need to get started again in our own country . . . in the form of machinery, material, and finance—enough to last for twenty to twenty-five years until we can become an independent people and an independent nation in our own land.” He concluded:
If the government of America truly repents of its sins against our people and atones by giving us our true share of the land and the wealth, then America can save herself. But if America waits for God to step in and force her to make a just settlement, God will take this entire continent away from the white man. (1971, p. 75)
Upon leaving the NOI, Malcolm abandoned Muhammad’s religion-based, fatalistic conception of black revolution, for a more historically grounded, activist formulation, while retaining elements of the NOI’s program such as its focus on land and reparations.2 Malcolm’s emergent perspective was first broadcast to a major audience in his “Message to the Grassroots” speech, delivered in Detroit in November 1963 (Breitman, 1965). It was markedly different from any of his—or Elijah Muhammad’s—previous statements on black revolution and was the most influential conception of black revolution in the United States for black power activists at the time. In “Message to the Grassroots,” Malcolm wholly detached his conception of black revolution from the NOI’s millenarian program. Malcolm argued that unlike the Negro revolution, which was his characterization of the mainstream CRM that sought integration into the segregated institutions of U.S. society through nonviolent direct action, the black revolution was part of an international struggle against white supremacy—especially against Western imperialism—which was evident in anticolonial struggles throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In Malcolm’s view, the CRM remained out of touch with these revolutionary developments in world politics. He argued that this was largely a result of the failure of the CRM leadership, and African Americans more generally, to appreciate, historically, what constituted a revolution, its characteristics, and its objectives; and in “Message,” Malcolm sought to remove any confusion regarding these issues.
Malcolm was unambiguous that unlike the ongoing nonviolent protests for blacks’ civil rights that characterized the CRM, revolutions were violent, they were based on the desire for land, and they were aimed at overthrowing political systems. Malcolm challenged his Detroit audience:
Sometimes I’m inclined to believe that many of our people are using this word “revolution” loosely, without taking careful consideration of what this word actually means, and what its historic characteristics are. (1990, p. 7)
He noted that the American, French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions were all based on the violent acquisition of land. Malcolm chided:
Look at the American Revolution in 1776. That revolution was for what? For land. Why did they want land? Independence. How was it carried out? Bloodshed. . . . The French Revolution, what was it based on? The landless against the landlord. What was it for? Land. How did they get it? Bloodshed. . . . The Russian Revolution, what was it based on? Land: the landless against the landlord. How did they bring it about? Bloodshed. You haven’t got a revolution that doesn’t involve bloodshed. (ibid.)
Then, in his typical fashion, he levied a discomfiting charge at his primarily black audience:
And you’re afraid to bleed. I said, you’re afraid to bleed.3 As long as the white man sent you to Korea, you bled. He sent you to Germany, you bled. He sent you to the South Pacific to fight the Japanese, you bled. You bleed for white people, but when it comes to seeing your own churches being bombed and little black girls murdered you haven’t got any blood! You bleed when the white man says bleed; you bite when the white man says bite; and you bark when the white man says bark. I hate to say this about us, but it’s true. How are you going to be nonviolent in Mississippi, as violent as you were in Korea? How can you justify being nonviolent in Mississippi and Alabama, when your churches are being bombed, and your little girls are being murdered, and at the same time you are going to be violent with Hitler, and Tojo, and somebody else you don’t even know. (ibid., pp. 7–8)
Then Malcolm raised the key contradiction regarding the salience of the use of violence in defense of the rights of black Americans:
If violence is wrong in America, violence is wrong abroad. If it is wrong to be violent defending black women and black children and black babies and black men, then it is wrong for America to draft us and make us violent abroad in defense of her. And if it is right for America to draft us, and teach us how to be violent in defense of her, then it is right for you and me to do whatever is necessary to defend our own people right here in this country. (ibid., p. 8)
Malcolm argued that, in contrast to the Negro revolution, “[t]here’s been a revolution, a black revolution, going on in Africa.” For example,
In Kenya, the Mau Mau were revolutionary . . . they believed in scorched earth, they knocked everything aside that got in their way, and their revolution also was based on land. . . . The Algerians were revolutionists, they wanted land. France offered to let them be integrated into France. They told France, to hell with France, they wanted some land, not some France. And they engaged in a bloody battle. (ibid., pp. 8–9)
Malcolm brought home the point by contrasting these historic and contemporary revolutions with the Negro revolution, which he did not view as a revolution at all:
There’s no such thing as a nonviolent revolution. The only kind of revolution that is nonviolent is the Negro revolution. The only revolution in which the goal is loving your enemy is the Negro revolution . . . the only revolution in which the goal is a desegregated lunch counter, a desegregated theater, a desegregated park, and a desegregated public toilet—you can sit down next to white folks on the toilet. That’s no revolution. Revolution is based on land. Land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice, and equality. (ibid., p. 9)
Revolution is bloody, revolution is hostile, revolution knows no compromise, revolution overturns and destroys everything that gets in its way. And you, sitting around here like a knot on the wall, saying, “I’m going to love these folks no matter how much they hate me.” No, you need a revolution. Whoever heard of a revolution where they lock arms, as Rev. Cleage was pointing out beautifully, singing “We Shall Overcome”? You don’t do that in a revolution. You don’t do any singing, you’re too busy swinging. (ibid.)
Malcolm was unequivocal:
It’s based on land. A revolutionary wants land so he can set up his own nation, an independent nation. These Negroes aren’t asking for any nation. They’re trying to crawl back on the plantation. (ibid., pp. 9–10)
For Malcolm, to the extent that the ongoing CRM came close to approximating the black revolution it happened during the mobilization in local communities preceding the “March on Washington” of 1963. Malcolm distinguished between the masses of blacks, the grassroots or “field Negroes,” who were imbued with a spirit of revolt and initiated the “march talk,” and those blacks who, redirecting this spirit of revolt toward integration and the interests of liberal whites, came to comprise the leadership of the march, the “house Negroes”—specifically the “Big Six” (Martin L. King of SCLC, Whitney Young of the Urban League, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, A. Philip Randolph of the AFL-CIO, James Farmer of CORE, and John Lewis of SNCC). Malcolm saw the origins of the march in the increasing number of protests, disruptions, disturbances, and acts of resistance among blacks in 1963, epitomized in the militant protests in Birmingham. Malcolm argued that
[t]he Negroes were out there in the streets. They were talking about how they were going to march on Washington . . . march on the Senate, march on the White House, march on the Congress, and tie it up, bring it to a halt, not let the government proceed. They even said they were going out to the airport and lay down on the runway and not let any airplanes land. . . . That was the black revolution. It was the grassroots out there in the street. It scared the white man to death, scared the white power structure in Washington, D.C., to death. (ibid., p. 14)
Malcolm argued that in the event, the march was taken over by the Big Six, through manipulation by liberal whites who controlled the finances of the movement. He said, “They joined it, became a part of it, took it over. And as they took it over, it lost its militancy. It ceased to be angry, it ceased to be hot, it ceased to be uncompromising. Why, it even ceased to be a march. It became a picnic, a circus” (ibid., p. 16). Tied down by its adherence to integration, and guided by a leadership dedicated to nonviolence and financially beholden to white liberal interests, the CRM, for Malcolm, was doomed to failure insofar as it remained detached from the black revolution and the black nationalism that inspired it.
Malcolm saw nationalism as the transformative force in contemporary revolutions throughout Africa and Asia, and he maintained that the same was true for the United States. Focusing on African Americans, he asserted that “[a] revolutionary is a black nationalist”; and “[i]f you’re afraid of black nationalism, you’re afraid of revolution. And if you love revolution, you love black nationalism” (ibid., p. 10). Malcolm viewed black nationalism as a broad, dynamic, and evolving ideology having political, economic, and social dimensions rooted in the belief that African Americans comprised a “nation within a nation,” and as such it had the right of self-determination, which meant that the black nation had the right and responsibility to determine the political entity that would govern it.
Black nationalism was then, as now, the historic theoretical and programmatic counterpoise to the integrationism that dominated the major organizations and institutions of the CRM. From just prior to his departure from the NOI, Malcolm had been consciously reworking his theoretic and programmatic conception of black nationalism from the fatalist millenarianism of the NOI to the revolutionary, culturally based nationalism of his post-NOI phase. Contrary to what some analysts have argued—including his recent biographer, Manning Marable—following his departure from the NOI, Malcolm was not loosening his ideological moorings away from black nationalism, but revising his black nationalism and reconciling his thesis of black revolution with it. For example, Marable alleges that during his final months Malcolm X resisted identifying himself as a black nationalist. This is incorrect. In an exchange on a New York City radio show three days before his death, Malcolm remarked: “If you think that nationalism has no influence whatsoever, the nationalists, the Organization of Afro-American Unity, are having a rally at the Audubon Ballroom” (Breitman, 1965, p. 181). These are hardly the comments of—or the context for—someone reticent to associate himself with black nationalism.
To appreciate the development of Malcolm’s black nationalism it is important to understand the historical development of black nationalism in general. Although we will examine black nationalism more fully in the next chapter, at this point its sufficient to point out several key misconceptions in the literature related to it. Lost on many otherwise insightful analysts is an appreciation of black nationalism as the seminal ideology that emerged from the collective consciousness, practices, statements, institutions, and early organizations of a multinational largely enslaved diasporic African society, whose members comprised diverse African peoples captured and transported to the United States (Moses, 1996). This diaspora synthesized an amalgam of its African cultures into an African American culture manifest in folk customs and a host of African retentions that ultimately were given American institutional forms (Stuckey, 1987). These customs provided the bedrock of African American culture, which endured through slavery and both provided and reflected the commonalities that are the foundation of black national consciousness. This incipient national consciousness was reinforced by the commonality of black racial oppression in terms of white exploitation of black labor through racial slavery for the black majority in the South and racist discrimination for the black minority in the North. In addition, the galvanizing impact of the concerted effort of blacks to fight to overthrow slavery during the Civil War, the reconstitution of black families after enslavement, and the institutionalization of prominent black cultural practices ensured the enduring significance of racial identification for black Americans. These factors combined to provide a sense of national identity among African Americans and a framework for black culture (Franklin, 1984). Black nationalism, which emerged from this diasporan sense of national identity, reflected “a spirit of Pan-African unity and an emotional sense of solidarity with the political and economic struggles of African peoples throughout the world” (Moses, 1996, p. 20).
The oft-repeated critique of the “narrowness” of nationalism is hollow with respect to the scope and content of black nationalism in the United States. As any serious student of American politics realizes, black nationalism has not only focused on the domestic politics of the United States, but it has had an international dimension since its inception, rooted in its pan-Africanism. Beyond the pan-Africanist roots of its “internationalism,” black nationalism has and continues to have among its programmatic objectives international goals. As early as the eighteenth century, black nationalism manifested a dual focus on territorial objectives abroad in Africa, North America, and the Caribbean, as well as in the United States; and these are evident, for example, in Cuffee’s request for the establishment of a settlement both in Africa as well as on the frontiers of the young U.S. republic, while advancing a strategy to industrialize Africa and undermine U.S. slavery (he previously had petitioned for voting rights of free blacks in New England). These initiatives predate the emigrationist initiatives of other prominent black nationalists such as Martin Delany, Mary Shadd Cary, and Alexander Crummell of the nineteenth century; the anticolonialism of the Pan-Africanist Congresses led by W. E. B. Du Bois, J. E. Casely-Hayford, and later Kwame Nkrumah in the twentieth century; or similar global programs of Marcus Garvey’s UNIA & ACL. Relatedly, to refute the erroneous claim that nationalists imagined a singular homogenous unified black national monolith, by the time of Malcolm’s articulation of his distinction between field and house Negroes—and demonstrably, at least a half-century before—black nationalists had recognized the class stratification within black communities and the variability across black communities in different regions of the country—both North and South, urban and rural. They did not assume a singular black political entity, but simply articulated their preferences for the establishment of black nationhood. Distinctions regarding the form that such an entity should take were evident in the contrasting arguments among black nationalists for and against emigration no later than the nineteenth century.
Wilson Moses (1978) noted that classical black nationalism endorsed a form of civilizationism that advocated territorial separation but cultural assimilation. He distinguished between two eras of black nationalism: classical and modern.4 Classical black nationalism often advocated emigration, and although supportive of the overthrow of slavery, largely viewed enslaved African Americans as uncultured displaced Africans. Moreover, it conceived the purpose of repatriation to Africa as an endeavor to not only free blacks from racial oppression—including racial slavery—in the United States, but to bring American Christianity and technology to the benighted African. The latter is what Moses refers to as the cultural assimilation of classical black nationalism, which employed a similar cultural arrogance—though without the racial supremacy—consistent with the prominent argument of Western imperialists, especially in its Anglophile version. This orientation toward territorial separation (i.e., emigration) and cultural assimilation (i.e., shared Anglophilia) was a common view of nationalists ranging from Delaney and Crummell to Turner; and characterized much of black nationalism’s “golden age” during the latter half of the nineteenth and the early twentieth century (Moses, 1978). It was Du Bois who modernized black nationalism from the Anglophilia of the classical era to a positive conception of African and African American culture. While hailing both the roots of civilization in Africa as well as the prominent contributions of African peoples and their cultures to world history, Du Bois highlighted the importance of African American culture in the United States as well. African American culture was constituted, in part, from African cultural retentions such as found in black churches, and, more directly, it derived from black folk culture, which emerged from the slave plantations and was becoming increasingly urbanized in the early twentieth century, especially in the post–World War I era.
Similarly, Malcolm was modernizing black nationalism to address the challenges of the post–World War II and Cold War era, and the incipient BPM. Malcolm’s black nationalism built on many of the factors that Du Bois had highlighted. Although Malcolm demurred on the issue of African American culture—an important distinction that we will return to below—he appreciated that blacks constituted “a nation within a nation,” and he advocated black autonomy within the communities in which blacks were situated in large numbers. That is, he argued that blacks should control the politics, economics, and society of their communities. Malcolm’s black nationalism emphasized the relevance of black liberation theology (especially but not exclusively Sunni Islam), third world solidarity, domestic colonialism, and women’s rights. In addition, it recognized that revolution in the United States should reflect the interests of the “field Negro,” which was Malcolm’s characterization of the black masses whom he differentiated from “house Negroes,” suggesting an incipient intraracial class analysis for Malcolm. Given these multidimensional foci of Malcolm’s black nationalism in which his thesis of black revolution was situated, Malcolm was convinced that just as political, economic, and social/cultural factors were intimately tied together in his black nationalism, they should be similarly linked in his thesis of black revolution. Thus, his conception of black revolution focused on liberation from racist, classist, and sexist domination.5 The breadth of Malcolm’s focus is evident in the broad program of the OAAU, which addressed issues of politics, economics, and society; and the cultural sinews binding these in black communities, which political mobilization needed to address. These multiple dimensions of black communities converged in a common conception of black cultural identity that suggested a political and economic orientation for the community toward black liberation. Attentive to its socially cohesive and liberating aspect, Malcolm advocated an anthropological conception of culture in its material as well as its aesthetic senses, to encapsulate, inculcate, and direct the revolutionary change that he sought. His resultant formulation was his thesis on black cultural revolution.
These intellectual and programmatic developments in Malcolm’s black nationalism were evident in his arguments in his “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech of 1964. Free of the intellectual fetters of the NOI (he was still a member of the NOI at the time of “Message to the Grassroots”), in “The Ballot or the Bullet,” Malcolm advocated centering the black liberation struggle on human rights instead of civil rights, while broadening his examination of U.S. domestic politics and the role of blacks in it, paying particular attention to the contradiction between black support for the Democratic Party nationally and the party’s failure to support the CRM’s agenda—epitomized in the opposition of segregationists within the party, the Dixiecrats.6 Abandoning the NOI’s refusal to participate in electoral politics, Malcolm advocated electoral engagements in his support of a national black political convention, while endorsing armed insurgency as a strategy for black liberation if electoral options were continually blocked by whites. Remarkably, in “Ballot,” he no longer argued that revolution was inherently violent; proffering instead a conception of “bloodless revolution,” an orientation he had disparaged in “Message to the Grassroots.”
Malcolm’s rationale for advocating human rights as the focus of black mobilization over civil rights was actually a continuation of the abortive strategy of the National Negro Congress (NNC), which was adopted by the NAACP and spearheaded by Du Bois in 1946–47. The NAACP sought to petition the UN to intervene on behalf of African Americans on the basis of the violation of their human rights as detailed in Du Bois’s edited treatise An Appeal to the World (Dudziak, 2000). Cold War intrigue, including the duplicitousness of NAACP board member and UN delegate Eleanor Roosevelt, who foreswore her nominal affinity for human rights in favor of maintaining her bona fides as a liberal cold warrior, undermined Du Bois’s efforts (Anderson, 2003). She threatened to resign from the board of the NAACP if it sided with Du Bois, allying herself with segregationists, assorted racists in the State Department, Congress, and the Truman administration—and eventually Walter White, the executive director of the NAACP, who previously had championed the petition—thereby ensuring that the petition would not be heard, much less voted on by the UN General Assembly (Anderson, 2003). Moreover, the support that advocates of the UN petition strategy assumed would be forthcoming from the Soviet bloc and third world nations revealed the naiveté of their assumptions in light of the serious problems these states often faced with their own subjugated minorities, which gave them little incentive to either raise the issue of human rights violations with respect to minority populations in the United States—lest attention be turned on their own repressive records (e.g., it was an issue the Soviets had no interest in seriously supporting)—or to risk the loss of U.S. economic and technical support through supporting its oppressed black minority. It was not clear how Malcolm X planned to overcome these obstacles that beset Du Bois and previous supporters of the UN petition strategy, which were no less prevalent during the BPM. Seemingly oblivious to developments roughly a decade and a half prior to the March on Washington, Malcolm viewed a focus on human rights as original and timely.7 For example, he argued:
When you expand the civil-rights struggle to the level of human rights, you can then take the case of the black man in this country before the nations in the UN. You can take it before the General Assembly. You can take Uncle Sam before a world court. . . . Civil rights means you’re asking Uncle Sam to treat you right. Human rights are something you were born with. Human rights are your God-given rights. Human rights are the rights that are recognized by all nations of this earth. And any time anyone violates your human rights, you can take them to the world court. (Breitman, 1965, pp. 34–35)
Expand the civil rights struggle to the level of human rights, take it into the United Nations, where our African brothers can throw their weight on our side, where our Asian brothers can throw their weight on our side, where our Latin-American brothers can throw their weight on our side, and where 800 million Chinamen are sitting there waiting to throw their weight on our side. . . . Let the world know how bloody his hands are. Let the world know the hypocrisy that’s practiced over here. Let it be the ballot or the bullet. (ibid., p. 35)8
Malcolm argued that blacks increasingly saw the limitations of appeals to civil rights through their alliance with the Democratic Party because they realized that their support of Democrats empowered the Dixiecrats, who formed a bloc against civil rights legislation. He argued, “A Dixiecrat is nothing but a Democrat in disguise,” and, “The Northern Democrats have never put the Dixiecrats down,” which is one reason why the “Dixiecrats in Washington, D.C., control the key committees that run the government.” Malcolm noted that “[t]he only reason the Dixiecrats control these committees is because they have seniority. The only reason they have seniority is because they come from states where Negroes can’t vote” (ibid., p. 28). He repeated this charge throughout 1964, thusly:
If Negroes in the South could vote, the Dixiecrats would lose power. When the Dixiecrats lose power, the Democrats would lose power. A Dixiecrat lost is a Democrat lost. Therefore the two of them have to conspire with each other to stay in power. The Northern Dixiecrat puts all the blame on the Southern Dixiecrat. It’s a con game, a giant political con game. The job of the Northern Democrat is to make the Negro think that he is our friend. He is always smiling and wagging his tail and telling us how much he can do for us if we vote for him. But at the same time that he’s out in front telling us what he’s going to do, behind the door he’s in cahoots with the Southern Democrat setting up the machinery to make sure he’ll never have to keep his promise. (ibid., p. 56)9
Although Malcolm argued that blacks should focus on human rights rather than civil rights in their broader struggle, he found resonance with blacks’ increasing recognition of the “con game” being played by Democrats. Thus, unlike “Message to the Grassroots,” in “The Ballot or the Bullet” Malcolm supported independent black electoral politics and even black political parties—as well as many initiatives of CRM activists—as part of a dual strategy for the attainment of black political power in the United States. In fact, Malcolm advocated working with the major CRM organizations—including those practicing nonviolence—in an array of projects such as voter registration (ibid., p. 42); and advocated a black national political convention by the end of 1964, which he insisted “will consist of delegates from all over the country who are interested in the political, economic and social philosophy of black nationalism” (ibid., p. 41). He added that “[a]fter these delegates convene, we will hold a seminar, we will hold discussions, we will listen to everyone. We want to hear new ideas and new solutions and new answers. And at that time if we see fit then to form a black nationalist party, we’ll form a black nationalist party.” The latter initiative, probably informed in part by the influence of the black Freedom Now Party led by associates and colleagues of Malcolm such as William Worthy, Harold Cruse, James Boggs, and Albert Cleage, among others, was indicative of Malcolm’s plan to challenge the hegemony of the Democratic Party among blacks, and not simply to contribute to a slew of black elected officials, who would do the Democratic Party’s bidding, instead of politically conscious black nationalist politicians who would be ideologically and practically disposed to act in the interests of black people—especially the “grassroots.”
Nevertheless, in the next line of “The Ballot or the Bullet,” he advises that “[i]f it’s necessary to form a black nationalist army, we’ll form a black nationalist army” (ibid., p. 41), which reflected the second component of Malcolm’s dual strategy for black political power. Malcolm admonished that if whites foreclosed the option of blacks’ use of “the ballot,” then those blacks had the right to pursue their liberation through “the bullet,” that is, armed insurgency. In his words: “It’ll be the ballot or the bullet. It’ll be liberty or it’ll be death” (ibid.). Significantly, although Malcolm continued to endorse revolutionary violence; he seemed to be less tied to its historic inevitability—or to the centrality of violence as a characteristic of revolution. Malcolm continued to stress the importance and utility of guerilla warfare in the United States in order to achieve the political objectives of black Americans that could not or would not be realized through electoral means (ibid., pp. 37–38); yet, in his “Ballot” speech delivered in April 1964 in Detroit, he referred to the possibility of a “bloodless revolution” in the United States, as well.
Malcolm provided a more expansive discussion of the prospect for “bloodless revolution” in his “The Black Revolution” speech of 1964. To understand the increased prospects of a bloodless revolution, for Malcolm, it was important to appreciate the rising influence of black nationalists in black communities throughout the United States. Their rise, in turn, was reflected in the increased concerns with human rights more than civil rights among black activists and the black grassroots more generally. For example, in “The Black Revolution,” Malcolm rejected both separation and integration as strategies, concentrating instead on what he saw as a more important distinction between advocacy of human rights and advocacy of civil rights, which had important implications for revolutionary struggle. For example, Malcolm argued that
[o]ur people have made the mistake of confusing the methods with the objectives. As long as we agree on objectives, we should never fall out with each other just because we believe in different methods or tactics or strategy to reach a common objective. (ibid., p. 51)
He added that
[i]ntegration is only a method that is used by some groups to obtain freedom, justice, equality and respect as human beings. Separation is only a method that is used by other groups to obtain freedom, justice, equality or human dignity. (ibid.)
Malcolm asserted that blacks
have to keep in mind at all times that we are not fighting for integration, nor are we fighting for separation. We are fighting for recognition as human beings. We are fighting for the right to live as free humans in this society. In fact, we are actually fighting for rights that are even greater than civil rights and that is human rights. (ibid.)
Malcolm added that “so-called Negroes” in the United States who are most concerned with civil rights typically view themselves as a minority in the country, and are more concerned with compromise, while viewing the black struggle as a matter of domestic politics; and these folks, he maintained, predominated in civil rights organizations. In contrast, those most concerned with human rights saw themselves as a majority among the world’s population, viewed the black struggle as a matter of international politics, and were more concerned with revolution, and these were the black nationalists, who predominated in black nationalist organizations and were emerging in civil rights organizations as well (ibid., pp. 52–53). So Malcolm differentiated between
two different types of Afro-Americans—the type who looks upon himself as a minority and [whites] as the majority, because his scope is limited to the American scene; and . . . the type who looks upon himself as part of the majority and [whites] as part of a microscopic minority. And this one uses a different approach in trying to struggle for his rights. He doesn’t beg. He doesn’t thank you for what you give him, because you are only giving him what he should have had a hundred years ago. He doesn’t think you are doing him any favors. (ibid., p. 52)
For Malcolm, the black nationalist was not fooled by the hollow overtures of liberal racists any more than by those of conservative racists. Nevertheless, Malcolm observed an important synthesis of these tendencies insofar as “these two different types of black people . . . are beginning to wake up and their awakening is producing a very dangerous situation” (ibid., p. 53).
In “The Black Revolution,” Malcolm anticipated the volatility wrought from an expanding black nationalism among so-called Negroes in the CRM, and reaffirmed the earlier point in “Message to the Grassroots” that “[i]n the past revolutions have been bloody. Historically you just don’t have a peaceful revolution . . . revolutions are violent, revolutions cause bloodshed and death follows in their paths” (ibid., p. 56). Nevertheless, by the end of “Revolution,” Malcolm appears to pivot; and he states that “America today is at a time . . . where she is the first country on this earth that can actually have a bloodless revolution” (ibid.). He repeats for emphasis: “America is the only country in history in a position to bring about a revolution without violence and bloodshed” (ibid.),10 and he asks rhetorically, “Why is America in a position to bring about a bloodless revolution?” He answers:
Because the Negro in this country holds the balance of power, and if the Negro in this country were given what the Constitution says he is supposed to have, the added power of the Negro in this country would sweep all of the racists and the segregationists out of office. It would change the entire political structure of the country. It would wipe out the Southern segregationism that now controls America’s foreign policy, as well as America’s domestic policy. And the only way without bloodshed that this can be brought about is the black man has to be given full use of the ballot in every one of the fifty states. (ibid., p. 57; emphasis added)
Here Malcolm was again invoking the importance of blacks garnering the right to vote and wielding their votes in pursuit of their electoral interests and not simply aligning themselves with the Democratic Party, which was increasingly seeking their support.
Malcolm’s call should be wedded to his view of the necessity of a black independent party. Implicit in it was his conviction that the liberating black vote he envisioned was not manipulated by gerrymandering—a powerful tool of white supremacists, which he castigated. It stands to reason that Malcolm’s electoral strategy would entail advocacy of some form of proportional representation so that black self-determination would not be undermined by the winner-take-all approach of the two-party system, which often left minorities subject to an overwhelming white and racist majority not only in Southern voting districts but throughout the United States as well. So, for Malcolm, the “ballot” aspect of “The Black Revolution” was not adequately addressed by simply observing black voting rights, but required changes in both voting procedures and the voting system to provide mechanisms to ensure that where warranted the vote would facilitate and not undermine black political representation and would make possible black community control. To be effective, Malcolm’s approach would have to be extended to abolishing the U.S. Senate and the Electoral College, two of the most undemocratic institutions of U.S. governance, which undermine even the façade of representative government. Only these types of structural changes would make the “ballot” aspect of his thesis meaningful and a constructive alternative to the pursuit of revolutionary violence to achieve the ends of black liberation.
Malcolm explained this important “electoral strategy” addendum to his heretofore violence-oriented, land-based conception of revolution, in terms of the deepening insights of blacks as they contrasted the promises of democracy with the concrete reality of the practice of white supremacist Herrenvolk democracy. He noted that the “low condition” of “the black man” was “because he has had no control whatsoever over any land” and as a result “[h]e has been a beggar economically, a beggar politically, a beggar socially, a beggar even when it comes to trying to get some education” (ibid., p. 57). This was a situation Malcolm analogized to a “colonial system among our people,” which was generating a “colonial mentality” among blacks (ibid.). Yet Malcolm also witnessed important challenges to this mentality as well (ibid). He noted that “as the young ones come up, they know what they want. And as they listen to your beautiful preaching about democracy and all those other flowery words, they know what they’re supposed to have” (ibid.). Further, these blacks who were “awakening” were gaining insights into the contradictions of the electoral system—and other domestic institutions of the United States—through which they were ostensibly to realize their political objectives. They understood better the political “con game” represented by black allegiance to the Democratic Party, which included the Dixiecrats, and the unlikelihood of meaningful change resulting from nonviolent appeals to the political system, which was controlled by these white supremacist forces. As a result, only fundamental changes in the electoral system, such as universal black proportional representation, would facilitate the full citizenship rights of black Americans. Thus, Malcolm’s allusion to the “ballot” represented a dramatic democratic restructuring of the U.S. political system targeting the institutional protections of white supremacism, transforming it from a Herrenvolk democracy to a multiracial democracy recognizing black autonomy.
At the same time as there were those committed to transforming the United States to make it live up to its promises of political democracy, Malcolm argued that there were some among them who did not hold out any hope that the political system could be changed in this way. In fact, he noted that “today we have a new generation of black people . . . who have become disenchanted with the entire system, who have become disillusioned over the system, and who are ready now and willing to do something about it” (ibid., p. 56). He was convinced that “[t]he new generation of blacks that have grown up in this country in recent years are already forming the opinion . . . that if there is to be bleeding, it should be reciprocal—bleeding on both sides” (ibid., p. 48). For this group, the “ballot” was no longer a meaningful option, the “bullet” was necessary. These orientations were both reflecting and motivating a resurgence of black nationalism, which Malcolm was seeing evinced among young people even in prominent civil rights organizations such as SNCC, CORE, and the NAACP. It was associated with the increasing tendency of so-called Negroes, in Malcolm’s view, to reject nonviolence as a philosophy rather than as a tactic; and to view their fight as part of a broader struggle for freedom, justice, and equality as typified in the anticolonial struggles occurring throughout the third world—what Malcolm referred to as the “world-wide revolution.”
Malcolm X and the Worldwide Revolution
Malcolm noted that
[w]hat happens to a black man in America today happens to the black man in Africa. What happens to a black man in America and Africa happens to the black man in Asia and to the man down in Latin America. What happens to one of us today happens to all of us. And when this is realized, I think that the whites . . . will realize that when they touch this one, they are touching all of them, and this in itself will have a tendency to be a checking factor. (ibid., p. 48)
In the absence of such a “checking factor,” Malcolm augured that “the racial sparks that are ignited here in America today could easily turn into a flaming fire abroad, which means it could engulf all the people of this earth into a giant race war” (ibid.). These connections formed the basis of Malcolm’s conception of a “worldwide revolution.”
Malcolm was convinced that
1964 will see the Negro revolt evolve and merge into the world-wide black revolution that has been taking place on this earth since 1945. The so-called revolt will become a real black revolution. Now the black revolution has been taking place in Africa and Asia and Latin America; when I say black, I mean non-white—black, brown, red or yellow. Our brothers and sisters in Asia . . . our brothers and sisters in Africa . . . and in Latin America . . . who were colonized by the Europeans, have been involved in a struggle since 1945 to get the colonialists, or the colonizing powers, the Europeans, off their land, out of their country. This is a real revolution. (ibid., pp. 49–50)
This revolution—especially in Africa—was influencing the consciousness of African Americans, as well. Malcolm told a New York audience less than a week before his assassination that “[y]ou and I are living at a time when there’s a revolution going on. A worldwide revolution. It goes beyond Mississippi. It goes beyond Alabama. It goes beyond Harlem. There’s a worldwide revolution going on” (Perry, 1989, 127). Malcolm argued that the revolutions in Africa and Asia were not only checking white imperialist power in the periphery, they were providing a model for so-called Negroes suffering under an only slightly different form of white imperialist oppression within the United States. Malcolm argued that African independence struggles had a huge impact on black America because prior to the decolonization struggles American Negroes “used to be ashamed of ourselves, used to look down upon ourselves, used to have no tendency whatsoever to stick together”; but “[a]s the African nations become independent and mold a new image—a positive image, a militant image, an upright image, the image of a man, not a boy . . . It has given pride to the Black man right here in the United States.” He observed that
as fast as the brother in Africa and Asia get their independence . . . begin to rise up, begin to change their image from negative to positive—this African image that has jumped from negative to positive affects the image that the Black man in the Western Hemisphere has of himself. . . . So that when the Black revolution begins to roll on the African continent it affects the Black man in the United States and affects the relationship between the Black man and the white man in the United States. (ibid., p. 128)
The effect of black liberation struggles brought together the disparate strands of the global African community under a common banner of struggle against white political (military) and economic power; but, as Malcolm observed, it also rejuvenated a sense of shared value in being a black person in a way that checked white cultural domination. For example, Malcolm noted that whereas blacks had been divided by a lack of positive racial identity and a lack of cultural pride,
as the African nation got its independence and changed its image [black Americans] became proud of it. And to the same degree that [black Americans] became proud of it [black Americans] began to have something in common. . . . So, whereas formerly it was difficult to unite Black people, today it is easier to unite Black people . . . today you find Black people want to come together with Black people. . . . And as the brothers on the African continent lead the way, it has an effect and an impact upon the brothers here. (ibid., pp. 128–129)
Malcolm rooted the latter development in the “spirit of Bandung,” referring to the 1955 conference in Bandung, Indonesia, aimed at promoting Afro-Asian economic and cultural cooperation and opposing aspects of the colonialism and neocolonialism of the Cold War blocs (Vitalis, 2013; Wright, 1956). He argued that
it was the spirit of Bandung that fed the flames of nationalism and freedom not only in Asia, but especially on the African continent. And that same spirit . . . got into the heart and the mind and the soul of the Black man in the Western Hemisphere who supposedly had been separate from the African continent for almost 400 years. (Perry, 1989, 168)
Malcolm noted that “the same desire for freedom that moved the Black man on the African continent began to burn in the heart and the mind and the soul of the Black man here” (ibid., p. 168). He argued that “[u]p until 1959 when you and I thought of an African, we thought of someone naked, coming with the tom-toms, with bones in his nose” (ibid., p. 170). He admonished that
[t]his was the only image you had in your mind of an African. And from 59 on when they begin to come into the UN and you’d see them on the television you’d get shocked. Here was an African who could speak better English than you. He made more sense than you. He had more freedom than you. Why places where you couldn’t go . . . all he had to do was throw on his robes and walk right past you. . . . The Black man throughout the Western Hemisphere . . . began to identify with that emerging positive African image. . . . And when he saw the Black man on the African continent taking a stand, it made him become filled with the desire also to take a stand. (ibid., pp. 170–171)
For Malcolm, in their efforts to overthrow the system of colonial domination in their states, African revolutionists were providing African Americans a model of successful revolutionary struggle to guide their activism in the context of domestic colonialism in the United States. Simultaneously, they were generating a cultural reawakening among black Americans that was helping to transform their self-concept, self-identity, and appreciation of their self-determination, as well. These processes and developments led Malcolm to differentiate between types of revolution, in particular, distinguishing between political and cultural revolutions. Thus, in the 1964 “Statement of the Basic Aims and Objectives of the Organization of Afro-American Unity,” Malcolm X (1970, p. 427) stated that “[w]e must launch a cultural revolution to unbrainwash an entire people.” He insisted that “[c]ulture is an indispensable weapon in the freedom struggle” and that blacks “must take hold of it and forge the future with the past.” He emphasized that “[a]rmed with the knowledge of the past, we can with confidence charter a course for our future” (ibid.). Cultural revolution would affirm a sense of black national culture, and national identity; and help establish and reinforce the drive for national self-determination that would provide the ideological support for black political revolution. Malcolm’s call for cultural revolution was consistent with his recognition that the black liberation struggle in the United States was part of a larger “world-wide revolution,” which consisted of both a political (military) revolution against Western imperialism, modeled on the anticolonial struggles occurring throughout the third world, and a cultural revolution galvanizing black Americans, in particular, to mobilize against white supremacy in the United States. The former suggested a politico-military mobilization against white racist rule in the United States to liberate the black domestic colony; and the latter entailed a simultaneous process of mobilizing black culture to transform the major politico-economic institutions of black communities and the broader U.S. society, as well. Through these two processes, the worldwide revolution would be brought home to the United States.
On its face, Malcolm’s thesis did not necessitate that one need follow the other. Malcolm’s cultural revolution may have reinforced the revolutionary processes extant among blacks, and in that way encouraged a subsequent political revolution, or it may have occasioned a simultaneous political revolution. Malcolm’s thesis left room for both possibilities and he did not seem to privilege either, nor did he fuse them into a single coherent process; however, the ambiguity therein could have been addressed if not resolved by linking them to their intellectual precursors beginning in the Harlem Renaissance (which we’ll expand on in chapter 3). In that era, W. E. B Du Bois and Alain Locke historicized and theorized, respectively, a relationship between black cultural and political revolution in the United States. Du Bois argued in Black Reconstruction (1935) that profound changes in slave religion motivated the “largest slave revolt” in U.S. history, the General Strike, in which slaves allied with the Union military to fight for their freedom in the U.S. Civil War. This Slave Revolution compelled Lincoln to change his war aims from simply ending secession to overthrowing chattel slavery, making the Civil War a political revolution. Du Bois’s historical account demonstrated how a black cultural revolution motivated a political revolution. Locke provided a theoretical formulation of the process Du Bois outlined. He insisted that African American culture, like cultures in general, is diverse, dynamic, and gravitates to expressing its latent cosmopolitanism, which he argues is facilitated by democracy. For Locke, the struggle for cultural democracy involves expanding the domain of political and economic democracy into the cultural sphere, and in such a way that facilitates racial democracy. Inferring from this relationship, the attainment of cultural democracy in the United States necessitates a black cultural revolution. As applied to Du Bois’s historical depiction from Black Reconstruction, Locke’s thesis suggests that a transformation in black culture (i.e., slave religion) ramified into the political and economic spheres in ways implicating multiracial democracy; and the resolution of this confluence compelled a political revolution for both black America (i.e., through the General Strike) and the United States (the Civil War—with the revolutionary aim of ending chattel slavery). Thus, the historical black revolution in the United States, the Slave Revolution, proceeded from a cultural revolution that stimulated a political revolution.
This exegesis makes clear that on the cusp of the CRM there was an extant thesis of black revolution in the United States that was available to BPM revolutionists who would study their African American intellectual precursors; yet, what should have been a maxim or at least a point of departure for Malcolm X and many BPM revolutionists instead remained an unresolved and exceptionally factious issue for them, and for many future activists and scholars, as well. Further, although Malcolm’s Harlem contemporary—and the first BPM revolutionist to proffer an explicit thesis of black cultural revolution—Harold Cruse was aware of these precursors and their salience to the incipient black liberation struggles of the late 1950s and early 1960s, Malcolm and most BPM revolutionists seemed oblivious to them. As a result, Malcolm’s thesis on black revolution—and black cultural revolution, in particular—was undertheorized, yet this aspect of Malcolm’s broader revolutionary thesis was to heavily influence the BPM.
At the time of his death, Malcolm’s thesis on political revolution also was in a state of flux. The trajectory of the political revolution, for Malcolm, seemed to follow the path of recently successful revolutions in China, Cuba, and Algeria and ongoing insurgencies, such as in Vietnam. He viewed it as two-pronged: aimed first at achieving political power through the expansion of the realm of democratic civil society and reform of the state through electoral means; and if and when those efforts were rebuffed, then, second, organizing militia for insurrection, targeting local police forces in urban enclaves, or centering on rural bases from which to engage the country in a protracted guerilla insurgency. The actual coordination of such an insurgency, understandably, was largely an underground affair; thus, Malcolm made reference to it but did not articulate its specifics publicly (see Ahmad, 2007). Nevertheless, his approach converged with that which was being formulated and articulated by Robert Williams (1964).
For Malcolm, the cultural revolution was as difficult to conceptualize as the politico-military revolution was to organize. This was not only because the two revolutions were related—with one possibly embedded in the other—but because of the difficulty of conceptualizing black culture, delimiting its preferred institutional forms, and outlining the way it might be employed to realize revolutionary objectives. Malcolm did not sufficiently develop these aspects of his argument, which contributed to the misunderstanding of his thesis on black revolution. This explains why, for most black activists and analysts, the Black Arts Movement (BAM) represented the cultural revolution that Malcolm sought. But this is at best debatable. For Malcolm, the concept of black culture central to his thesis and program was one that motivated the revolutionary orientation, practices, and insights of the “grassroots,” epitomized in his conception of the field Negro. The dichotomy of field and house Negro was Malcolm’s characterization of the prominent socioeconomic differentiation in black America, which generated divergent political interests. For Malcolm, the field Negro approximated the masses and their political perspectives, regardless of their specific class station. They were mainly black nationalist, and the house Negroes were mainly integrationist. In considering the revolutionary orientation of the black masses, Malcolm drew on his experience with the NOI and his personal transformation from pimp, drug dealer, and burglar to Muslim minister and revolutionist. Malcolm’s transformation—and his seeming ability to help others transform—convinced him of the importance of culture, especially religion—in his case, Islam—in the process. For him, transforming “so-called Negroes” into committed participants in black liberation struggle required, inter alia, a radical cultural transformation.
Also key for Malcolm was the necessity of organizing the varied elements of the black masses, including former criminals—those whom Marx called the “lumpenproletariat”—who would have to be committed to the transformation necessary to allow them to contribute to the black liberation struggle. Malcolm was convinced that they could be organized, educated, and politicized to realize their revolutionary potential. Malcolm was convinced by his positive experience with the NOI that the transformation of the lumpenproletariat should include a strong cultural element—specifically, an ethical thrust—and religion was essential to this process. Malcolm was convinced by his negative experience with the NOI that the lumpen would have to be transformed before joining—much less given positions of responsibility in—movement organizations, and then very selectively being admitted to responsible positions after a period of training, education, participation, and supervision—especially positions associated with leadership, finances, education, or security. Malcolm had no intention of replicating in any of his subsequent organizations the NOI’s Fruit of Islam, which had suborned and nurtured many of the lumpen in the NOI to continue their criminal activities—usually carried out against NOI members.
Moreover, Malcolm was convinced that a mass-based organization would be essential in facilitating either political or cultural revolution, and that it should operate on political, economic, and social fronts. Malcolm’s plan to realize these objectives was a dual one: the construction of a religious-based organization, Muslim Mosque Inc. (MMI), which was essential to continuing Malcolm’s work of promoting Sunni Islam in the United States and maintaining and expanding the links with Islamic states, movements, and leaders globally; and a secular political organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU)—patterned after the Organization of African Unity (OAU), formed in 1963 by independent African state leaders—which would facilitate the pan-Africanist links that Malcolm had fostered with African leaders and organizations, and, just as importantly, promote the panoply of domestic initiatives in the United States essential for transforming the CRM into a revolutionary struggle for black liberation. Thus, MMI would be a traditional Sunni Muslim mosque, with the OAAU as a black nationalist organization that would participate in the CRM and the incipient BPM. A key focus of both organizations, for Malcolm, was the promotion of a black cultural revolution.
Malcolm X and Black Cultural Revolution
Since Malcolm never proposed an actual theory of cultural revolution, he never completed the second component of his revolutionary thesis. This would contribute to one of the enduring fissures among black revolutionists of the BPM: the distinction between political and cultural revolution. Following his assassination, Malcolm X’s views were characterized by some as “revolutionary nationalism,” in contrast with ostensibly nonrevolutionary “cultural nationalism,” but such a dichotomy ignores Malcolm’s clear advocacy of both political and cultural revolution in the United States. For Malcolm’s ideological heirs, such as the Black Panther Party, political revolution in the United States was viewed in terms of those ongoing in the third world such as in Cuba and Vietnam, and earlier ones in Russia and China, which were aimed both at overthrowing governmental authority and establishing communist rule. For the BPP, this was not only consistent with Malcolm’s thesis of black revolution but was viewed as the only legitimate form of revolution that the BPM could have as an objective. The BPP and other advocates of this perspective appropriated the title revolutionary nationalists for themselves and viewed supporters of cultural revolution as “nonrevolutionary” and improperly focused on superficial aspects of black oppression—e.g,. black culture—that were easily compromised and accommodated to the status quo, as well as inattentive to the fundamental basis of black oppression, which they viewed mainly in terms of class and capitalism.
In contrast, advocates of cultural revolution such as RAM viewed themselves as following Malcolm’s admonition that a cultural reawakening of black people was necessary to throw off the psychological yoke of white supremacism, which they saw as a prerequisite for political revolution. In their view, culture was anthropological—comprising both material and aesthetic aspects—informing and interconnecting the major institutions of black Americans, and not simply reflecting the aesthetics of black art and literature. Advocates of this view, such as Us and the RNA, asserted that without an affirming and liberating black culture and its grounding in the key political, economic, and social institutions of black communities, then blacks would not have the wherewithal to assert their rights of national self-determination. Denied their culture—including their history of resistance to white oppression—blacks required a cultural revolution to provide the basis for the political revolution such as that which the BPP and the LRBW sought. For revolutionists, such as RAM, Us, and the RNA, the key mode of domination was race more than class; therefore, they had less faith that eradicating capitalism would lead to the overthrow of white supremacism.11
While these competing viewpoints will be discussed more fully later, for now it’s important to point out that Malcolm did not cast these perspectives in opposition to each other, but saw important aspects of each as complementary. As noted above, he did not seem to cast political and cultural revolution as sequential, but, seemed to understand that they could be coincidental. In Malcolm’s view, they seemed to be parallel, potentially self-reinforcing, and dependent on the popular support, institutional development, and resistance that each generated. The view that these could be simultaneous processes seems contradictory to Malcolm’s larger theoretical formulation in which his theory was embedded. This is evident given that cultural revolution presupposes, or at least strongly implies, the existence of a culture and/or cultural institutions that may serve as a basis for cultural transformation or cultural (re)construction that the term cultural revolution embodies. That is, to re-Africanize culturally seems to require a preexisting African culture (e.g., Wolof, Kikuyu, Zulu, Yoruba, Fon) to which one could re-Africanize after some period of cultural suppression, typically from slavery or colonialism. Revolutionzing and reconstructing African American culture, implies a preexistent African American culture to serve as a referent. But Malcolm’s reverse civilizationism suggests that there is no referent African American culture—since so-called Negroes presumably were stripped of their culture during slavery; hence, such a culture would have to be developed. For Malcolm, there seemed to be only one legitimate source for this culture: Africa. Therefore, to follow the path of cultural revolution or reconstruction for African Americans required the attainment of African culture.
The latter contention is consistent with Malcolm’s speech on the founding of the OAAU of June 28, 1964. When Malcolm X (1970, p. 427) turned to concerns of culture he asserted that “[o]ur history and our culture were completely destroyed when we were forcibly brought to America in chains.” He insisted that black Americans had culture before slavery in the United States, that it was “as old as man himself,” and that it was “a high state of culture [which] existed in Africa”; but slavery had “stripped us of all cultural knowledge,” such that now “we know almost nothing about it” ibid.). This was consistent with his earlier comments in a 1963 speech in which he argued “the poor so-called Negro doesn’t have his own name, doesn’t have his own language, doesn’t have his own culture, doesn’t have his own history. He doesn’t have his own country. He doesn’t even have his own mind” (Perry, 1989, p. 33). As a result, black Africans were more conscious of themselves as cultural and political agents as compared to black Americans; therefore, black Americans needed to follow their lead. In light of this, Malcolm X (1970, p. 427) insisted that black Americans “must launch a cultural revolution to un-brainwash an entire people”; and that “cultural revolution must be the means of bringing us closer to our African brothers and sisters.” In Malcolm’s view, “[t]his cultural revolution will be the journey to our rediscovery of ourselves” (ibid.); allowing blacks to confidently “charter a course for our future” because “[c]ulture is an indispensable weapon in the freedom struggle” (ibid.).
In this rendering, Malcolm’s reverse civilizationism is unambiguous: African Americans do not possess a culture because their original African culture was stripped from them in the brutal process of American slavery. Eight months later, in the version of the OAAU Charter that was to be presented on February 15, 1965, his reverse civilizationist view of African American culture is no less evident as he discusses the desire to “renew the culture that was crushed by a slave government.” Malcolm emphasized that “we are determined to rediscover our true African culture, which was crushed and hidden for over four hundred years in order to enslave us and keep us enslaved up to today.” He asserted that the cultural revolution that the OAAU would pursue would “provide the means for restoring our identity that we might rejoin our brothers and sisters on the African continent, culturally, psychologically, economically, and share with them the sweet fruits of freedom from oppression and independence of racist governments.” He emphasized that “we are determined to rediscover our true African culture, which was crushed and hidden for over four hundred years in order to enslave us and keep us enslaved up to today.” He was convinced that “[w]e must change the thinking of the Afro-American by liberating our minds through the study of philosophies and psychologies, cultures and languages that did not come from our racist oppressors”; and Malcolm maintained that this liberation of Afro-American minds should center on Africa more than black America. Pursuant to the latter, the Charter noted that “[p]rovisions are being made for the study of languages such as Swahili, Hausa, and Arabic,” which, in Malcolm’s view would “give our people access to ideas and history of mankind at large and thus increase our mental scope.” The OAAU would “encourage the Afro-American to travel to Africa, the Caribbean, and to other places where our culture has not been completely crushed by brutality and ruthlessness.” Not surprisingly, a Cultural Committee was one of the nine major committees of the OAAU (Malcolm X, 2018).
Malcolm’s reverse civilizationism as reflected in both versions of the OAAU Charter asserts that black Americans were stripped of their culture, and their hope for acquiring a culture rested on reconnecting with historic and contemporary African cultures to reconstruct those that were stripped from them; yet, in the later version of the Charter there is reference to both “African culture and Afro-American culture,” which seems to reject the view that black Americans are devoid of culture. It also suggests that these two cultures are at least distinguishable, notwithstanding that the latter might be derivative of the former. It appears, then, that Malcolm X recognized that there was an existing “Afro-American culture,” one that should be “respectably” expressed and whose “survival” he was intent on ensuring.
This apparent ambiguity is the result of the fluidity of Malcolm’s thesis in the last tortuous months of his life, and also in his focus on implicating white supremacism in the oppression of black America. With respect to the latter, Malcolm excoriated the trans-Atlantic slave trade and U.S. chattel slavery, often emphasizing heinous and even genocidal acts of specific aspects of the slave system. To demonstrate the magnitude of whites’ depravity, Malcolm, understandably, paid less attention to the slaves’ acts of resistance and retention of Africanisms, or the reconstitution of a cultural essence that became the “slave culture” that Stuckey (1987) observed in the antebellum era; yet, he spoke of the historical significance of slave resistance—evoking Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, and Gabriel, among others—especially the Haitian Revolution, and he situated himself and the field Negroes in this tradition. Thus, with respect to its historical significance, a black culture of resistance was clearly evident to Malcolm from the slave era. Therefore, Sales (1994, p. 80) is probably correct that “[t]he political role that Malcolm assigned to African American culture assumed that the only legitimate Black culture was that of the masses of dispossessed African Americans.” For Malcolm, there was at least an aspect of African American culture that may have been dormant, but when it was expressed it supported black liberation. Therefore, Malcolm’s reverse civilizationism did not appear to have been total—it allowed for the existence of some aspect of African American culture—but on the whole, it maintained that black Americans were deficient in terms of culture compared to their African brothers and sisters, and as a result they were deficient in terms of their revolutionary consciousness.
Returning to the relationship between culture and revolution, it seems that while Malcolm X’s argument about the worldwide revolution posits that the cultural and political revolutions may be simultaneous or sequential, the logic of his reverse civilizationism seems to necessitate that the cultural and political revolutions are consecutive. That is, blacks seem to require a cultural revolution in order to pursue political revolution. Not surprisingly, given the influence of reverse civilizationism on subsequent BPM theorists, the first of the major BPM organizations that openly advocated cultural revolution, RAM and Us, both accepted the view that the cultural and political revolutions were sequential. This perspective would have implications for their development as organizations, their interaction with other BPM organizations, and the trajectory of the development of the BPM itself. What was unambiguous was that Malcolm did not envision the cultural revolution simply in terms of the appropriation of African aesthetics or black arts, nor did he envision the political revolution in Marxist terms. Although he understood the importance of race, class, culture, and gender, Malcolm envisioned and attempted to foster a distinctly African American process that would fuse the political and cultural in a revolutionary synthesis. Thus, not surprisingly, Harold Cruse would characterize Malcolm’s thesis as “revolutionary cultural nationalist.”
Although Malcolm’s conception of black cultural revolution was the least developed aspect of his revolutionary thesis, he thought that the manner by which it would be constructed would require an engagement with the peculiar history and circumstances of black America that tied political, economic, and cultural forces together in novel ways. Du Bois, Locke, as well as Cruse, had made seminal contributions to such theorizing—and Malcolm may have been familiar with some of these, and Cruse’s arguments in particular; nevertheless, he did not live to develop this aspect of his revolutionary theory. Instead, Malcolm analogized the construction of such a theory to the improvisation of the jazz artist. He saw black music as one of the rare areas of black autonomy that could stimulate, generate, and reinforce African American values, aesthetics, and institutions. No less creativity and insight would be required for the construction of black revolutionary social theory that would provide a template for revolutionary praxis. Where Du Bois evoked the “sorrow songs,” Malcolm evoked the “soul” in black music that he found at the root of black experience and ethos. The key was to capture it, improvise, and mold it for black liberation. But theory construction is not something one simply improvises; it comes from rigorous study of the historical conditions and contemporary reality facing peoples.12 Malcolm X did not have time to develop such a theory before five members of the NOI assassinated him in front of his wife, children, and supporters in Harlem.13
To be sure, Malcolm’s thesis on black cultural revolution was a major theoretical focus in his last year. Although it was undeveloped, it was influential among his acolytes, while often misunderstood by both supporters and critics, which was as evident during the BPM as it is now. For example, in his recent Pulitzer Prize–winning biography of Malcolm X, Manning Marable does not mention Malcolm’s thesis on black cultural revolution. Marable is hardly alone in this neglect of black nationalist theorizing given that black nationalism is often treated as inherently conservative, with progressive and revolutionary aspects only to the extent that it embraces some form of Marxism or Social Democracy. Malcolm’s thesis of black revolution is likewise poorly analyzed on its theoretical merits and in its multidimensional aspects. Malcolm was a religiously inspired, black nationalist revolutionist whose thesis on black revolution developed concurrently with his understanding of the black nationalism in which it was embedded. He formulated his black nationalism into a progressive thesis on revolution eschewing the millenarianism of the NOI; but he incorporated its reverse civilizationism, which likewise informed his thesis on black revolution. The latter led him to conceive of black revolution in the United States as largely a function of the replication of methods practiced by Africans on the continent. Accordingly, his black cultural revolution would to a large extent rest on replicating the processes if not the extant forms of African cultures found on the continent. Reverse civilizationism led Malcolm away from a deeper focus on the transformative elements of African American culture in the United States—largely black urban culture, which was more relevant to, and practicable in, U.S. society.
One wonders whether if Malcolm had lived to see the Watts revolt in Los Angeles, the first of the large-scale urban rebellions of the Long Hot Summers of the 1960s, he would have reconsidered his view that black Americans lagged behind Africans in their propensity to revolutionary social change, leading him to channel the energy of Watts into more enduring and focused revolutionary struggle? Whether such revolts might have been coordinated—much less by Malcolm’s OAAU or other BPM organizations—is beside the point for the moment, but what Watts displayed was that major policy victories such as the Voting Rights Act, which had been signed a week before the uprising in August 1965, were inadequate to address the demands of blacks seeking racial justice, especially outside of the South. If, through revolt, black Americans could exercise greater leverage on the racist policies of the United States, then this would allow them to assume greater leadership in the worldwide revolution, given the strategic position of the United States.
In the event, Malcolm’s reverse civilizationism drew his focus away from the revolutionary praxis of black Americans that preceded and should have informed his and others’ theses on black revolution in the United States during the BPM. BPM revolutionists—including Malcolm—derived inspiration from revolutions around the world, but they ignored the theoretical significance of Du Bois’s thesis in Black Reconstruction, published in 1935.14 As a result, they had not drawn from the one revolution aimed at black liberation that probably had the greatest salience for their struggles: the Slave Revolution during the U.S. Civil War. Although the Civil War occurred a century prior to the CRM, its relevance to 1960s activists was fourfold: (1) it occurred in the United States; (2) it involved descendants of the same or similar protagonists; (3) it occurred in the context of a sectarian crisis, one even greater than the dissension during the Vietnam War in which the BPM was situated; and, most importantly, (4) it secured freedom for enslaved blacks, overthrew chattel slavery, and defeated the CSA. As will be fleshed out more fully in chapter 3, a key to the success of the black revolution during the Civil War was the role of religiously inspired black folk—similar to Malcolm personally and the grassroots whom he imbued with so much revolutionary potential.
Malcolm X’s reverse civilizationism affected his acolytes’ discernment of the salience of culture in revolutionary struggle, which led to the bifurcation between “revolutionary” nationalists and “cultural” nationalists (the latter a redundancy after Du Bois modernized black nationalism), but even where black liberation activists theorized the impact of black culture on political change they often built on one or the other of the two aspects of Malcolm X’s conception of black cultural revolution. The first was evident in the Black Arts Movement’s attempt to articulate and develop a Black aesthetic, to create Black cultural organizations, and through them, to institutionalize Black art—including Black theater, Black music, and especially Black literature. The second was evident in the political organizing of cultural revolution theorists, whose institutions were largely seen as vehicles to facilitate and encourage culturally based activism necessary to “unbrainwash” blacks as a precursor to their acceptance of the relevance and necessity of political revolution. The latter suggested the need to develop parallel institutions of civil society staffed by black revolutionists, which would publicize the contradictions embodied in the provision of ostensibly public services to blacks—especially the poor—by dedicated activists by making clear the absence of the same from the actions of the government agencies mandated to provide them. It raised the contradiction of the exceptionally poor quality of the provision, content, and delivery of services and resources to black people and black communities by government institutions and social service agencies as compared to those given to whites and white communities.
The promotion of black aesthetics and the development of parallel institutions were tied to a conception of culture that wedded it to promoting political objectives, which was reminiscent of Du Bois and Locke’s discourse from the Harlem Renaissance. Moreover, following Harold Cruse’s arguments, which incorporated aspects of Haywood’s Black Belt thesis—both of which we examine more fully in later chapters, many leading BPM theorists, including Malcolm X, adopted his domestic colonialism model as both the descriptive metaphor of the black American context in the United States and the analytical framework for understanding black oppression and strategizing black liberation. In light of it, BPM revolutionists proposed a variety of theoretical formulations aimed at organizing revolution to free the black “colony” from its “colonizers” in the manner that had proven successful throughout the so-called third world. In this way, theses of black cultural revolution grafted more from third world modalities, while largely ignoring the peculiar trajectory of black political development in the United States—which did not approximate domestic colonialism—when formulating their theses of social change. The latter was exacerbated in those instances in which activists/theorists explicated domestic colonialism through neo-Marxist formulations, which further reduced the applicability of the models to the historical development of black America, as Du Bois (1935) and Cruse (1963), among others, would demonstrate (and we examine more fully in chapters 3 and 4).
The problem of the domestic colonialism analogy involved less the conception of black America as a nation within the territorial borders of the United States than the deduction that black liberation in such a context must take the form of similar anticolonial struggles in the post–World War II era. One result was that many black nationalist domestic colonialism theorists, in their attempts to mirror liberation struggles occurring throughout Africa and the broader colonized world, adopted rural and communal African precepts and practices in the name of “returning to the source” or seeking “full re-Africanization,” and applied these largely communal African “traditions” to a predominately urban and increasingly industrialized working-class African American context. Such conceptions misunderstand the unique context of black America, to which the domestic colonialism analogy does not seem to apply: it comprises a subjugated, nonindigenous, racial minority nation located within the most powerful country in the world. There is simply no other colonial or domestic colonial relationship that mirrors that of African Americans in the twentieth century, and certainly not during the Cold War era. The colonial analogy simply did not fit the structural conditions of black America, nor did it pose strategies to liberate the presumed black colony given the absence of analogues in the modern era. Thus, Cruse was correct that American blacks would have to formulate their own original thesis of national liberation to overcome their oppression, arising from the unique historical conditions that gave rise to it. Unfortunately, the availability of the colonial analogy decreased the motivation of black revolutionists to articulate a theoretical argument rooted in the peculiarities of black America rather than one grafted from an often imagined, traditional colonial Africa. The colonial analogy offered a ready-made theoretical framework to graft on to a very different U.S. society.
Given the different systems of white supremacism in the de jure segregation of the South and the de facto segregation of the North, the hypothesized black political revolution in the United States was unlikely to occur simultaneously in the South and North, and it was proceeding unevenly during the second half of the twentieth century. As a result of contention among different white supremacist social systems, the black struggle in the South promoted intraracial unity across classes in black communities as they fought a largely interracial conflict, while the black struggle in the North (and West) was less racially cohesive, stratified across intraracial class interests, and aimed at specific institutions of white power, especially those implicated in the devastation in the black ghettos (e.g., police, schools, housing authorities, private real estate agencies, banks and lenders, insurance companies, retail businesses, white homeowners associations, etc.). The Southern CRM did not articulate a program for the transformation of the whole of African American society (i.e., the entire black domestic colony in the United States) because its material conditions and subsequent demands were qualitatively different from those in the North. This is not to say that Northern and Southern blacks could not find common cause, but only that, facing different institutional forms of oppression, they were not likely to develop a convergent strategy on their liberation. In fact, the convergent strategy of the CRM was for blacks throughout the United States to come South to help overthrow Jim Crow. Once the locus of the CRM moved North, major fissures developed as it attempted to address the myriad forms of Northern white racism that did not require Jim Crow signs, yet ensured Jim Crow outcomes (see Rothstein, 2017). The impact of region (e.g., South, North, West) not only shaped the institutional expressions of white supremacy, but also the type of resistance likely to form within each region.
The colonial analogy did not fit the black domestic colony in another important way: colonialism usually suggested a relationship between a relatively powerful rich Western country and a much weaker, poor non-Western country. But the situation in the United States didn’t match on either front. First, the United States was not simply a powerful and rich Western country, it was the most powerful and richest country in the world; and second, the black domestic colony was not a third world backwater, but a highly technological, heavily industrialized, relatively well-educated, and politically developed society whose per capita income would have registered it well above most third world countries—and many “second world” countries, as well. Nationalists in search of an analogy were so preoccupied with the third world revolutionaries that they ignored the greater structural similarities between ostensibly domestic colonialism in the United States and that found in other advanced industrialized nations, such as Great Britain with respect to Northern Ireland.15 This suggests that Michael Collins may have been a more useful referent than Che Guevara. Struggling if not in the “belly of the beast” then surely in its “large intestine,” the revolutionary leader of the IRA devised a successful strategy of urban guerrilla warfare that relied heavily on counterintelligence and counter-counterinsurgency strategy that brought the world’s most powerful empire at the time to the negotiation table. It was clear that the political revolution involving the U.S. “domestic colony” was not going to be carried out in the jungles and swamps of some third world country but in the well-paved streets, highways, buildings, parks, backyards as well as the fields, forests, and streams of the metropolitan homeland.
In sum, the problems of conceptual and historical fit of the colonial analogy to the conditions of black America redound to the fact that there was no contemporary equivalent to the black liberation struggle in the postwar era. There was no analogue among the twentieth-century revolutions from which BPM theorists drew on for guidance of a poor racial minority waging a successful revolution against a rich racial majority government of a major power in a homeland that they both shared. The national liberation struggles of the twentieth century on which BPM revolutionists drew were not remotely equivalent to those of black America. The colonial analogy was an artful metaphor, but it was unsuitable as an analytical device. BPM revolutionists would have been better served drawing on the historical case from the United States that fit better the context of black American oppression: the revolution that blacks waged during the U.S. Civil War, which, as we’ll explain in the next chapter, was as relevant to the theory and program of BPM revolutionists as it was ignored by them.
The problems of the domestic colonial analogy that are evident with respect to political revolutions are even more debilitating when applied to cultural revolution. For example, cultural revolution theses needed to specify the culture that was being overthrown and the one replacing it. The most prominent of such theses in the BPM—such as Malcolm’s influential one—relied too much on the analogy to African cultural processes, which largely ignored the ways differences in cultural development under settler and domestic colonialism would affect cultural revolution. African American cultural development would require much more than simply continuing extant cultural practices that had been restricted or undermined during colonialism. Instead, it would entail a process of cultural education, which would have to be far more extensive than would be necessary in Africa. Unlike in Africa, it was not simply a matter of a Somali resuming his/her precolonial cultural practices once the fetters of colonialism were removed; or even the more difficult task of an Ewe, Yoruba, Acholi, or Bakongo maintaining their ethnic identity as their postcolonial nationality became Ghanaian, Nigerian, Ugandan, or Congolese, respectively. Black Americans had an astronomically more difficult task of cultural reacquisition since they did not have a readily identifiable precolonial culture to serve as a referent for identification, much less for revolutionizing.
African Americans were a diverse pan-African amalgam of predominantly West and Central African culture groups from which there was no single, identifiable, preexisting, national culture that they practiced. Moreover, even if such a referent culture existed, the processes by which blacks would adopt it were much more profound than that which faced postcolonial Africans. Black Americans of the black power era were not going to stop speaking English or attending church to adapt to such a preexisting culture if one were uncovered. Clearly, among an influential group of BPM activists there was a promotion of Kiswahili as a lingua franca; and there were small communities in the United States focusing on Yoruba culture, as well as African-associated (or “black”) forms of Islam (e.g., the Moorish Science Temple, the NOI, MMI) and Judaism (e.g., the Black Hebrew Israelites); these were minimal in comparison to the prevalence of English and the association with Christianity, respectively, among black Americans of the era—and today. What is more, most black Americans were unlikely to accept a vision of themselves as African, New African, or other arbitrarily imposed designations of their identity over their more enduring racial and/or religious identities. In fact, many blacks had come to even more strongly embrace a synthesis of their identity as a particular type of American whose ancestry was from Africa, African Americans, and on that basis were asserting their rights as American citizens who had overcome slavery and were attempting the same with respect to Jim Crow. This they were undertaking while acknowledging and reinforcing their cultural roots in their overwhelmingly black churches, which were increasingly demonstrating both their spiritual and political salience in the apogee of the CRM.
To be sure, if nothing else, the CRM under Martin L. King Jr’s influence was giving new political life to the Black Church, as an institution, and as a key locus of black political mobilization, which Malcolm also was clearly recognizing. The contradictions facing black nationalists was that the Black Church, historically, was built on a black nationalist base, but its programmatic and political thrust during the CRM had been integrationist. The contradictions didn’t run one way because integrationists’ organizations relied on the Black Church, which even if no longer nationalist was an independent black institution, and one that was hardly intent on “integrating” itself out of existence. This inconsistency provided an opening for black nationalists if they cared to engage the Black Church as it was, and not as so many of them imagined it: an institution whose time had passed. In light of the latter, even as many of Malcolm’s acolytes advocated black cultural revolution they had difficulty integrating the major black cultural institution, the Black Church, into their theoretical arguments and often were antagonistic toward it—with the exception of the PAOCC. Ambivalent, at best, on whether African Americans possessed a culture—much less a liberating one—and often rejecting the major black cultural institution, the Black Church, nevertheless they seemed to recognize the need to fill the spiritual and institutional vacuum created by this and sought to create parallel spiritual equivalents such as Us’s “Temple of Kawaida” (see Brown, 2003; Woodard, 1999), or the BPP’s “Son of Man Temple” (see Alkebulan, 2007). As a result, a largely metaphorical construct deriving from black nationalism, the domestic colonialism thesis, worked against one of the novel theoretical frameworks informing black revolutionary theses, black cultural revolution.
The failure to adequately engage the Black Church as an important institution in the black cultural revolution that BPM activists sought both resulted from and reflected a broader problem of BPM theorists that was exacerbated by reverse civilizationism. That is, advocates of black cultural revolution often did not adequately distinguish between aesthetic and material dimensions of black culture, nor did they synthesize their respective roles in the revolutionary change they sought. To be sure, aesthetic and material aspects of culture are imbricated; but in the event, BPM activists were more attentive to the former than the latter. Thus, this era was marked by a resurgence of African referents not seen since the Garvey era, including the adoption of African fashion in dress and names, a deference—mostly superficial and very selective—to perceived African customs, rituals, and even religion, but with much less attention paid to the development and articulation of the material aspects of the respective societies from which these largely aesthetic expressions were drawn. For example, Congolese dress or dance might be appropriated, but the Congolese institution of palaver would not be seriously considered as a mechanism for democratic decision making by BPM organizations. The musical forms of South Africans Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela were celebrated and copied, but much less attention paid to the strategic doctrine of Umkhonto we Sizwe. With respect to black culture, the BAM was mostly an assertion of aesthetic more than material claims. Cruse attempted to fuse the two, but with several notable exceptions that are discussed in subsequent chapters, most activists either misunderstood or failed to institutionalize his vision. Without a prominent materialist thrust, Malcolm’s black cultural revolution, in particular, devolved to an assertion of aesthetic representation or even reclamation, but it did not pose a materialist corollary to its aesthetic critique.
Relatedly, reverse civilizationism dictated that where black revolutionists invoked culture it often would be either some variant of a mythologized monolithic African culture or some bricolage of “traditional African” village or communal culture, but rarely would it take as its reference the modern urbanized culture evident throughout African states in the era. Those BPM organizations advocating black cultural revolution saw themselves as following the path laid out by anticolonial revolutionists in Africa and the third world more broadly; thus, they often had little use for those cultural—as well as political and economic—institutions in the United States, and the “first world” more broadly, that were not associated in their minds with the revolutionary pursuit of black liberation. As a result, they had little use for extant African American cultural forms or, more importantly, African American cultural institutions, which would have to be made anew. This view had its most dramatic impact on the relationship between the BPM and the Black Church. By privileging developments on the African continent instead of in the United States, reverse civilizationism militated against drawing from African American culture those elements, processes, and objectives that would help generate black cultural revolution in the United States. It also would compel BPM activists to couch not only their revolutionary rhetoric but their material claims in terms that were more befitting a colony seeking redress from a metropolitan power abroad, rather than seeking a basis for asserting the cultural claims of African American citizens of the United States, and in such a way as would implicate broader economic and political demands tied to the liberation of the black nation within the United States.
In combination, reverse civilizationism and an overemphasis on aesthetic rather than material aspects of black culture (e.g., a focus on names, language, dress, and creative arts as opposed to developing independent black cultural institutions such as black churches, black labor unions, black businesses, black political parties, or black militia) would complicate and often undermine the programs and projects of black revolutionists throughout the BPM who attempted to fuse black culture with their revolutionary projects and in that way build on the revolutionary thesis of Malcolm X. Nevertheless, Malcolm X’s theses on black political and cultural revolution informed the theoretical arguments, programs, and policy preferences of the major organizations of the BPM, including RAM, Us, the BPP, the RNA, the LRBW, CAP, and the PAOCC. Yet, these BPM organizations had difficulty articulating a coherent theory of black cultural revolution applicable to U.S. society. In fact, many BPM theorists seemed to pay little heed to the precursors of their theoretical, formulaic, and institutional expressions in the Harlem Renaissance and especially the complementary and contrasting revolutionary theses of Du Bois and Locke, who, as will be discussed more fully in chapter 3, historicized and theorized black political and cultural revolution in the United States prior to the BPM. Their work suggested a theory of black revolution in the United States that was as relevant as it was ignored by BPM activists and theorists.
Malcolm X’s thesis on black revolution in the United States evolved from a static, unidimensional, religious-based conceptualization of his NOI years into a dynamic, multidimensional, secular framework of his post-NOI years; yet, those who built on his legacy rarely captured the fullness or complexity of Malcolm’s thesis, and as a result, did not incorporate it into their strategy for black liberation or in their important institutions. For example, Malcolm’s focus on revolutionary violence and petitioning the UN was adopted most notably by the BPP; his focus on land and statehood by the RNA; his focus on Africa and cultural revolution by Us; his focus on electoral politics by CAP; his critique of capitalism by the BPP and the LRBW; his focus on worldwide revolution and the field Negro by all of his major legacy organizations; and his challenge to sexism by almost none of them.16 With respect to the latter, although Malcolm elevated women to leadership in the OAAU, “no clear pattern of women’s leadership was established for the organizations that claimed Malcolm’s legacy” (Woodard, 1999, p. 123). Just as notably, these legacy organizations adopted many of the shortcomings in Malcolm’s analysis: his reverse civilizationism was adopted by Us, the RNA, CAP, and the PAOCC; and his failure to link the black revolution with previous black revolutionary initiatives in the United States was evident in all the major BPM organizations.
Malcolm’s successors often did not appreciate or sufficiently capture in their revolutionary theses and programs the valences and inconsistencies in Malcolm’s thesis, which modified, challenged, and in some cases even contradicted almost every one of the major orientations that they adopted. Adherents of Malcolm’s thesis on black revolution insufficiently appreciated its varied dimensions and stages, as well as its major shortcomings, and as a result fell prey to its deficiencies. Three were particularly salient: (1) Malcolm’s reverse civilizationism, which informed his black nationalism and his thesis of black revolution; (2) his failure to fully appreciate the role of African American culture in the social transformation of African Americans, including their revolutionary initiatives in the United States; and most importantly, (3) his failure to appreciate the revolutionary antecedents in African American history to inform revolutionary praxis in the 1960s. Each of these shortcomings would confound the major BPM organizations that derived their analyses of black revolution from Malcolm X.
The problems in Malcolm’s conceptualization of black revolution in the United States were indicative of historical difficulties in articulating a cogent and coherent thesis of black revolution dating back to the nineteenth century. They reflected the challenge for theorists and activists to devise such a thesis that appreciated the peculiar political economic development of U.S. society and the role of blacks in each phase of its development as slaves, landless peasants, proletarians in a split labor market, and consistently a culturally debased racial minority population in a white supremacist society that was nominally free. These difficulties were not unique to Malcolm X, but many analysts, activists, and scholars also misunderstood the processes operative in black liberation struggles tracing back more than a century, including those that would assist the BPM in realizing its revolutionary objectives. Ironically, W. E. B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction, which was published in 1935, provided a historical example of black political revolution in the United States, and one which implied a thesis of black cultural revolution as well. Thus, as Malcolm X was arguing the necessity of black cultural and political revolution while looking abroad for examples of both, there was an extant thesis of both that was as relevant as it was ignored. Du Bois’s thesis is the subject of chapter 3, but before taking up that issue, it is important to examine the intellectual roots of Malcolm’s revolutionary thesis that so strongly influenced the BPM, black nationalism. As noted above, black nationalism is rarely analyzed as a dynamic, multifaceted ideology, but it is important to understand it conceptually and historically in order to appreciate Malcolm’s thesis of black revolution—and especially his argument on black cultural revolution in the United States, which was its centerpiece. It is to these issues that we turn in chapter 2.
1. Former RNA 2nd vice president Chokwe Lumumba won the mayor’s office in Jackson, Mississippi, in 2014 on a platform reflecting aspects of a modified RNA strategy.
2. Malcolm X (1970, p. 123) proffered this logic on reparations: “If you are the son of a man . . . and you inherit your father’s estate, you have to pay off the debts that your father incurred before he died. The only reason that the present generation of white Americans are in a position of economic strength . . . is because their fathers worked our fathers for over 400 years with no pay. . . . Your father isn’t here to pay. My father isn’t here to collect. But I’m here to collect and you’re here to pay.”
3. In a recording of MTTG, the voice of future LRBW leader General Baker, is heard responding from the audience, “We’ll bleed!” to Malcolm’s rhetorical challenge, generating Malcolm’s repetition of the charge.
4. Moses refers to a prior “proto-nationalist” era as well.
5. Woodard (1999, p. 123) notes that after leaving the NOI, “Malcolm X eventually abandoned notions of gender exclusion”; in fact, Malcolm argued that “the Black Revolution pivoted on the political consciousness and social development of women.” In the OAAU, he “encouraged the leadership of Lynn Shifflet and Sarah Mitchell” and “sought to recruit Maya Angelou from Ghana.”
6. Following defeat of the segregationist Republican Barry Goldwater by the Democrat Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 presidential election, the Dixiecrats began a shift to the Republican Party, which was completed by the Reagan Era, creating a new home for segregationists and their apologists in the Republican Party—the party of Lincoln—which remains today.
7. The BPP advocated a similar UN petition strategy, as did the RNA.
8. Malcolm’s allusion to support from “800 million” Chinese “waiting to throw their weight on our side” in the UN ignores that Mao’s People’s Republic of China was not a member of the UN at the time. China’s seat was held at the time by U.S. ally, Taiwan, led by Chang Kai-shek.
9. Where the South openly oppressed Negroes attempting to vote, Malcolm noted that the North was simply shrewder in suppressing the black vote; and the key to the latter was gerrymandering.
10. In TBR of April 1964 in Detroit, he stated: “America is in a unique position. She is the only country in history in a position actually to become involved in a bloodless revolution” (original emphasis).
11. Malcolm implied as much in MTTG in reference to the dispute between Khrushchev and Mao, which he implied was instigated by the persistence of Russia’s “white nationalism” in the USSR.
12. Malcolm asserted that “we need new ideas, new methods, new approaches. We will call upon young students of political science throughout the nation to help us. We will encourage these young students to launch their own independent study and give us their analysis and their suggestions.”
13. While federal and local police forces were responsible for fomenting dissent in the NOI, the NOI leadership and its members carried out the assassination, introducing internal terrorism to the BPM.
14. I’ve referred to this previously as one of the “unintended consequences” of Malcolm’s cosmopolitanism (Henderson, 2018a).
15. Notably, Hechter (1975) applied the concept of internal colonialism to Ireland.
16. It would not be ignored by important black feminists, such as Audre Lorde.