Malcolm X and Martin Luther King: revolution and black liberation

Amy Thomas looks at the lives and political evolution of two giants of the black rights movement in the US

A Chicago police officer fired 16 bullets into black 17-year-old Lacquan McDonald after he surrendered. Now, 13 months later, protests are spreading in the city after footage of the murder has finally been released. Police and the Democratic administration had worked in concert to cover it up.

Teachers at Lacquan’s school say he was working hard to get his life back on track—but tragically, he became yet another black person whose life was senselessly cut short. Unbelievably, the US government keeps no comprehensive records of those killed by authorities. The Guardian’s project The Counted, that aims to do that, puts the numbers on track to reach 1200 killed this year.

Like the cases of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Eric Garner in New York, and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Lacquan McDonald’s death showcases that decades on from the explosive struggles for civil rights, and with the first black President at the Helm, racism still runs very deep in American society.

Two of the most famous leaders of that civil rights struggle, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jnr., both grappled with the inadequacy of formal, legal equality for achieving black liberation.

In fact, towards the end of their lives—both, tragically cut short by assassination—they both began to talk about systemic inequality and the need for fundamental social, if not quite socialist, transformation.

Their insights are worth attention when something so basic as “Black Lives Matter” still has to be asserted. While the achievement of formal equality has created a path to riches for a small minority of black people, little has changed for the vast majority.

Despite the end of formal segregation, it exists effectively lives on in cities, schools and services. The economic crisis of 2008 hit blacks the hardest. It was single biggest wipe out of black wealth in history. As the police killings demonstrate, racism is entrenched in the judicial system. Between 1970 and 2005, the prison population exploded by 700 per cent. The vast majority of new prisoners were black.

Politicians from both establishment parties have worked hard to craft an image of black people as violent, criminal, drug addicted, lazy and dependent on welfare: in short, to blame for their own oppression.

King and civil rights

American society is a society born of slavery, which was justified at the time by racist notions that blacks were sub-human. It’s often said that the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, issued in the midst of the American civil war, freed the slaves. In reality, it was the slaves that freed themselves, in mass desertions and rebellions.

Their masters were not happy, and after their loss in the war, segregation was their way of holding back on the promise of freedom. The racist Southern Democrats—known as Dixiecrats—oversaw a racist system of exclusion known as Jim Crow that operated at every level of black life. This lasted until the civil rights movement exploded in the late 1950s.

After the Second World War large numbers of jobs became open to blacks as the economy boomed. Incomes improved and black workers joined unions. Having returned from a war “fighting fascism”, many believed they were owed equality at home.

In this context, legal challenges to segregation were successful. Most famously Brown vs the Board of Education in 1954 ordered the desegregation of public schools. And yet it was simply never enforced.

While in the South Jim Crow affected virtually all blacks, in the North there was no legal segregation. A tiny number of Blacks had made it into the corridors of power, but the vast majority were oppressively poor. In the black neighbourhood of Harlem, New York, 40 per cent of blacks lived in houses judged “not fit for habitation”.

It was in these circumstances that a little known Baptist Minister from Atlanta, Georgia, Martin Luther King Jnr, came to lead the movement for desegregation in the South that would surpass all his expectations.

The lynching of Emmett Till in 1955 was a turning point. Till was killed by white racists and his killers were let off by an all-white jury in just seven minutes. Just after this, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger and was arrested.

Martin Luther King Jnr called for a one-day boycott of the buses. This turned into a year long struggle that was eventually victorious. The struggle shifted MLK’s ideas quickly. He explained, “Feeling that our demands were moderate, I had assumed they would be granted … I came to see that no one gives up his privileges without strong resistance. I saw further that the underlying purpose of segregation was to oppress and exploit the segregated, not simply to keep them apart.”

King was not a radical to begin with—he was an anti-Communist and at first did not call for an end to segregation. But the struggle changed him and showed how resistance was effective.

Today, the aspect of his non-violence philosophy that is often promoted at an official level is the idea of “turning the other cheek”. But in this modern, sanitised re-telling, what’s missing is that the civil rights movement was dedicated to mass mobilisations, breaking laws and taking beatings. King was scornful of those who attacked him for encouraging civil disobedience.

In his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, where he launched one of the most famous desegregation struggles, he wrote, “The Negro’s greatest stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the Ku Klux Klan—but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice … who paternalistically believes that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom.”

The struggle developed momentum, with sit-ins at lunch counters, freedom rides, voter registration drives and desegregation campaigns in various cities.

King formed an organisation, the Southern Christian Leadership conference, whose main aim was winning the right to vote. Politically, King vacillated between the Democrats, who wanted to incorporate and slow down the movement, and a base of activists that were radicalising out of their experience.

One iconic display of this was the March on Washington in 1963, where King delivered his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. The demonstration was in many ways a celebration of a Civil Rights bill by John F Kennedy, and Kennedy worked to try and censor criticism. But one leader of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, John Lewis, took him to task nonetheless, saying, “I want to know, which side is the government on … Mr Kennedy is trying to take the revolution out of the streets and put it in the courts.”

The march showed the huge depth of the movement. 250,000 mostly black people showed up. Spotted watching it unfold under a tree was a man who described it, famously, as the “Farce on Washington”.

Malcolm X and black nationalism

Malcolm X was known first as Malcolm Little, Detroit Red, then Malcolm X, then El-Hajj Malik Shabazz. He was, by the time of this visit to Washington, a well-known minister in the Nation of Islam whose politics of black nationalism were attracting radicals sick of the Democrats’ betrayals and considering whether non-violence really worked in the face of beatings and terror.

When he was a child in the 1930s, Malcolm’s family home was burned down by the Ku Klux Klan and his father, a follower of black nationalist Marcus Garvey, was likely murdered in an extremely brutal manner by white racists.

He worked variously as a pimp, a burglar, a sandwich seller and a marijuana dealer, until his imprisonment for a very unprofessional burglary job. He was sent, first of all, to a prison so vile it was called America’s Bastille.

This is where he converted to the obscure sect the Nation of Islam (NOI), or the Black Muslims. Their leader, Elijah Muhammed, declared himself Allah’s messenger on Earth. The NOI believed that blacks were descended from the original black inhabitants of Mecca, that white people were created by a mad geneticist, Yacub, and that Allah decreed they would rule for 6000 years before the time would come for blacks to rule.

In practice, they abstained from political activity. They were separatist, rejecting any political co-operation with whites.

Yet in Malcolm X’s hands, the beliefs of this strange sect turned into a rhetoric of self-respect, self-reliance, pride, self-defence, and an uncompromising attitude to racism. That was the root of his appeal.

He rejected “integration”, King’s alternative to segregation, saying, “When someone sticks a knife into my back nine inches and pulls it out six inches they haven’t done me any favour. They should not have stabbed me in the first place.”

He and King only met once, shortly before Malcolm’s assassination. It was a cool meeting—not surprisingly, as Malcolm had called King “a moderate Uncle Tom” and worse. He was ruthless about the Democrats, as well as the movement’s focus on Southern segregation that seemed to ignore the despicable conditions for blacks in the North.

Malcolm’s frustration with the NOI’s abstentionism brewed slowly, and ultimately led him to break with them, after he was suspended and then expelled for his comments on John F Kennedy’s assassination (“The chickens have come home to roost … being an old farm boy myself, chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad, they always made me glad.”)

He said of the break, “it could be heard increasingly in Negro communities—‘those Muslims talk tough, but they never do anything’ … [they are] too sectarian, too inhibited.” And he announced that he would co-operate in the civil rights struggle.

He went on a pilgrimage to Mecca and a tour to newly post-colonial African states, where he converted to orthodox Sunni Islam, but also to Third Worldism, meaning an identification with third world liberation movements. His meetings with white Muslims had challenged his perceptions, too, and he rejected his previous statements that all whites were the problem.

He began to talk about capitalism and imperialism, saying, famously, “It’s impossible for capitalism to survive, partly because the system of capitalism needs some blood to suck”.

Yet his view of socialism was synonymous with a black nationalist ideal of independence and economic development, not workers’ power as an alternative to capitalism.

Just as he was starting to engage with these ideas, however, he was gunned down by members of the NOI, with the knowledge of the FBI.

He had earned the wrath of the establishment. The New York Times wrote of his death, “Malcolm X’s life was strangely and pitifully wasted … The world he saw through those horn-rimmed glasses of his was distorted and dark … Yesterday someone came out of that darkness he spawned, and killed him.”

The meeting of ideas

Despite King and Malcolm coming from two different traditions, both began to see the limits of formal equality. In 1965, King reflected that “legislative and judicial victories did very little to improve the lot of millions of Negroes in the teeming ghettos of the North” and called the civil rights movement’s victories “surface changes, not substantive changes”.

He went further in 1967, stressing the need for the redistribution of wealth and saying, “the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society … [and] begin to question the capitalistic economy … the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are tied together.”

More powerfully than ever before he condemned the barbarity of American capitalism, which condemned blacks for rioting while dropping napalm bombs in Vietnam. In his famous speech against the Vietnam war, he said, “I knew that I could never raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.”

Like Malcolm, his radical turn didn’t please the elites. The New York Times called him a, “country bumpkin who hadn’t read a newspaper in years”.

King was shot in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was visiting to show support for striking sanitation workers.

At the time of their deaths, both King and Malcolm had begun to draw a similar conclusion: racism was structured into the capitalist system. In Malcolm’s words, “this system can never provide freedom for black people”. They both rejected the capitalist Democratic Party. And they both, in different ways, defended the right of the oppressed to resist. Those in themselves are powerful lessons from the civil rights movement that remain pertinent today.

King began to talk more explicitly about the politics of class. In his last sermon in 1968, known as “The Drum Major Instinct”, he linked the oppression of white workers to their acceptance of racism, saying, “The poor white has been put into this position, where through blindness and prejudice, he is forced to support his oppressors. And the only thing he has going for him is the false feeling that he’s superior because his skin is white—and can’t hardly eat and make his ends meet week in and week out.”

In statements like this, he came close to drawing socialist conclusions that racism’s stranglehold on white workers prevented them from challenging a capitalist system that held them back, too. As the abolitionist Frederick Douglass put it, “They have divided both to conquer each.”

In a seminal study in the early 1990s, the sociologist Al Symanski found:

The higher black earnings relative to white, the higher white earnings relative to other whites.

The greater the discrimination … the higher the inequality amongst whites.

This shows how racism and oppression plays a crucial part in maintaining a capitalist system that is based on the exploitation of workers. Unity against racism is crucial—this is part of what Marx meant when he said, “Labour in the white skin can never free itself while labour in the black skin is branded.”

This insight also points to the importance of working class action to challenge an oppressive system that relies on their labour.

The ruling class have tried to incorporate King, gutting his history of its radical content. He has a national holiday. Malcolm X’s face is on a postage stamp.

On Martin Luther King day last year, the mega corporation McDonalds tweeted: “This #MLKDay2014, we’re proud to celebrate our rich tradition of diversity and inclusion.”

Workers, black and white, have united in the Fight for $15, a campaign for a national living wage that is taking strike action at workplaces like McDonalds. They, and their fellow activists in the Black Lives Matter movement organising against police violence, are the true inheritors of King’s legacy, and Malcolm X’s, too.

Both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King lost their lives fighting for a the dream of a society free from racism and exploitation. That dream is still worth fighting for.


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