Malcolm, whilst in prison was aware of Paul Robeson. Robeson a political activist had borrowed the idea of lodging a petition that accused the United States of violating the human rights of African Americans from Marcus Garvey. Malcolm would in the years 1964-65 have the same idea of bringing the issue of civil rights to the level of human rights and lodging the case to the United Nations. Robeson and Garvey’s ideas were an influence on Malcolm which can be seen in his letters of that time.
Malcolm’s experiences of white people in his childhood would later come to haunt him upon his recollection of his association with them. “My mind was involuntarily flashing across the entire spectrum of white people I had ever known.” This made it easier for him to accept the doctrines of the sect. The Nation of Islam empowered many African Americans to reject racism and to build upon their own societies without the need of external help, just as Marcus Garvey had done a few decades earlier. Up until 1963, this was the ideology Malcolm was developing and putting into direct action and he whole heartedly accepted without question. It is of no surprise that in 1963 after his break with the organisation that he announced “Now that I have more independence of action, I intend to use a more flexible approach toward working with others to get a solution to this problem.”
Malcolm Little was the seventh child to Reverend Earl Little (Baptist minister) and Louise Little. He was born in 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska. His father was a Garveyite (Black Nationalists that were led by Marcus Garvey) who believed in independent economic action for the blacks. Many a times Malcolm in his early age would be taken by his father to meetings held by the Garvey UNIA. At such a young age Malcolm was exposed to economic nationalism. Hence he had a family history of the influence of Black Nationalism. By the time of his fathers murder by the Ku Klux Klan in 1931 (Malcolm was aged six) the Little family faced hardship that American depression had to offer. With eight children to feed, Louise Little faced financial difficulties as well as psychological trauma and by 1939 she was admitted to Kalamazoo, Michigan state hospital. This early childhood would resonate twenty years on when Malcolm became a minister for the Nation of Islam. As mentioned previously ideology of the Nation of Islam of Black Nationalism would be taken on board. His early childhood with his mother as the sole guardian of the family also saw a change in the religious beliefs of the family. Louise became a Seventh day Adventist. The Christian denomination followed strict codes of conduct. They were not allowed to eat pork, and had to abstain from tobacco, liquor, drugs, gambling and extra marital sex. These experiences of his, namely the Garveyite ideology of self reliance and repatriation to Africa and his mothers’ ascetic lifestyle would come back full circle two decades later and does appear to have filtered through to his ideology, although in a different form as a puritanical Black Muslim.
By 1957 Malcolm was the official spokesman of the NOI and the likely successor to Elijah Muhammad. The ideology of the movement was his ideology as their ideology was based on the historical treatment of the black American by the white American. It was something he could relate to.
They demanded that African Americans be independent of all whites and also live in separation since the white man could never really accept integration. Their vision was having a sustainable economy for the black community and to own their businesses as well as social and religious institutions to nurture their culture. Their religious ideology was reactionary to the status quo. It was a form of Black Christianity. Just as Christians deified Jesus as the Son of God and regarded him white skinned through depictions, the NOI deified a man known as Master Fard Muhammad as God and believed God to be non-white. The message unsurprisingly was motivational and eye catching and packaged well which Malcolm related to, more so than Orthodox Islam. It was a Black Nationalist and a Black Separatist movement. Malcolm had helped to transform the minuscule NOI of 400 members to a mass organisation with members numbering tens of thousands, not mentioning the sympathisers. Breitman has a contrasting perspective. He points out that Malcolm was responsible for infusing Black Nationalism into the NOI. This is a plausible interpretation as there is evidence to suggest this from complaints made by ministers that Malcolm was directing a religious organisation into a Black Nationalist movement. This indicates that Malcolm had influences on his ideology at the time from other sources.
Sources of Influence
In 1959 Malcolm travelled to Africa and met Gamal Abdel Nasser, the president of Egypt. Nasser an ardent nationalist and a victor of the Suez Crisis may have had some influence on the ideology of Malcolm. Malcolm was witnessing the decolonisation of Africa and the movements behind this. His return to Africa in 1964 would see in himself a new direction to his ideology as we shall see.
He had by 1960 met Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Sekou Toure of Guinea and the most disturbing figure for the American government, Fidel Castro. (Malcolm’s newspaper articles revealed support for revolutionary nationalist and socialist movements in Cuba, Algeria and other African countries)
When Castro arrived in New York for his inauguration into the U.N, Malcolm X met with him and the media was to accuse the NOI of having ties to communism to discredit it. Malcolm played down the accusation and confirmed his ideology “the NOI is allied with Allah in whom we believe; hence we cannot be affiliated with communism since it’s atheistic.” This source corroborates that by 1961 Malcolm’s ideology was still in line with the NOI with sustaining independent social, religious and economic programs (independent from secular ideologies). It could be argued that he only wanted to avoid government investigation, hence the statement, but that is unlikely as he was fully aware of the infiltration of FBI agents within the NOI.
Malcolm’s views were publicised by the media in the early sixties. After a speech at Harvard University in 1961 he espoused on the idea of a separate state for African Americans as a solution to the ongoing race problem and the likelihood of Armageddon. With Malcolm being more outspoken with NOI rhetoric, Elijah Muhammad felt the need for subtlety and so reprimanded Malcolm. Although in public the two men displayed unanimity in ideology behind the scenes a split was developing. A split that would change the already evolving Black Nationalist ideology of Malcolm X. As popularity gripped Malcolm he came into contact with varying organisations with different methods of attaining the same goal of emancipation for the African Americans. These struggles were at odds with NOI’s ideology and also were disapproved of by the ‘divine’ messenger.
Change in Direction
The early sixties saw mass protests, headed by civil rights movements, in the form of marches, boycotts, sit-ins all known as ‘direct action’ campaigns. The NOI was an apolitical ideology and with the continued political events that were gripping the country Malcolm felt dissatisfied with the lack of action by the NOI. The absence of collaboration with the civil rights struggle he believed was isolating the NOI, which could have brought great advantages to the organisation. He obviously differed from the Christian ‘turn the other cheek’ philosophy in response to brutality and he favoured self defence in these cases. But the fact was at this time the NOI played a back seat role and like spectators watched the events unfold.
These longer term causes of a likely split between Malcolm and the NOI required a trigger. Malcolm had been bogged down with NOI’s ideology that was more over apolitical and aloof of participation in the mainstream civil rights struggle. He saw the benefits of political involvement that included the majority. He realised the importance of a secular strategy to involve the masses and not confine to any particular faith or group. He wanted a redefined strategy without rupturing the already fragile relationship with Elijah Muhammad.
November 22nd 1963 was the trigger that fate was awaiting, as President John F Kennedy was assassinated, and America was in mourning. Elijah Muhammad ordered all NOI officials to abstain from commenting on this. Many NOI members including Malcolm saw this assassination as a fulfilment of prophecy towards America’s destruction by the year 1970 (one of Elijah Muhammad’s many prophecies). But this welcomed news was contrary to the façade the NOI displayed in public with publishing a picture of ‘their’ slain president on the front page of their newspaper Muhammad Speaks in his honour.
Malcolm believed the death of the president came as no surprise with the aggressive American foreign policy in Vietnam, the CIA involvement in the assassination of Lumumba in the Congo and the CIA attempt on Castro’s life. He bluntly labelled the Kennedy assassination as the “chickens coming home to roost”. Though Elijah Muhammad would have agreed to this statement, he admonished Malcolm for fear of backlash from the media.
In addition, Malcolm was also aware of the fact that Elijah Muhammad fathered children from different teenaged girls, this was a threat for Elijah Muhammad’s leadership and so Malcolm was forced out of the movement. This was to be the incident to finally split the two ideologues.
In March 1964 Malcolm announced his split from the NOI. He announced the inception of a new religious body called the Muslim Mosque Incorporated which affiliated to Orthodox Islam. In his statement he confirmed his existing ideology as “our political philosophy will be Black Nationalism, our economic and social philosophy will be Black Nationalism, our cultural emphasis will be Black Nationalism…” The difference now though he was in a position and was willing to work with other leaders. This step would allow him to transcend the confines of an isolationist policy and religious dogma and to start developing what would become a search for the ideology to emancipate the African Americans.
His acceptance of Sunni Islam prompted him to pilgrimage Mecca and fulfil his religious obligation. The racial harmony he witnessed there led him to throw away his previous convictions of the impossibility of integration yet he still believed that America was deep rooted with racism and integration in America was a far cry. This influenced his ideology as he now no longer spoke of separation and the repatriation of African Americans to Africa (he could no longer be labelled incorrectly a black separatist). He believed that African Americans had to control their own political destiny within America.
This interpretation has been challenged by Perry who asserts that the trip was to secure funds from oil rich states for his fledgling organisation rather than the search for his ideological direction. A look at Malcolm’s organisation and his own assets casts doubt upon this perspective. The author Dyson also questions whether Perry is biased towards African-American history since he is white.
DeCaro also shows scepticism on Perry’s theories. Though there is evidence of aid offered to Malcolm such as scholarships for members of his organisation to study at the Islamic University of Cairo and the University of Medina.
After Malcolm’s pilgrimage he continued his travels throughout Africa and the Middle East and was officially recognised by many states. His views were further consolidated on the need for Black Nationalism and self reliance when he saw it bringing an end to European imperialism and the freedom of Africa from the yoke of oppression. As the African Nations were gaining freedom he also saw them turning away from capitalism and towards socialism. When asked in May 1964 what his political and economic ideology was he answered “I don’t’ know. But I’m flexible… all of the countries that are emerging today from under the shackles of colonialism are turning toward socialism. I don’t think it’s an accident…” He saw the benefits of Socialism and Black Nationalism and understood the need for them, yet he didn’t label himself with any ideology.
In mid-1964 after his return from his travels he announced the organisation of a secular body to battle oppression and modelled it after the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), which he called the Organisation of African American Unity (OAAU). One of the main aims of this organisation was to lift the African-American struggle from the level of civil rights to the level of human rights. The idea was to take the case of the black Americans to the United Nations and charge the American government with human rights abuses just as was the case with the blacks in South Africa and Angola (Garvey and Robeson’s influence). Malcolm had by now internationalised the awareness of the race problem in the United States. Something no other black American leader had done prior. This was a serious concern for the American government, and so continued CIA and FBI surveillance of Malcolm’s ‘subversive’ activities increased. The need to return to Africa, to forge links with the nation states of Africa and the 22 million African Americans as well as pledging support for the case against the United States human rights abuses, arose. His ideology by the end of his visit was clearly anti-capitalist, as he witnessed the devastation caused to the African Nations, and the exploitation of the natives and the mineral wealth. Within less than a year Malcolm had changed his methodology and was willing to work with effective civil rights leaders. Evanzz believes Malcolm and Martin Luther King were gradually planning on working together. King had alluded to this “…the movement will have to depend on a constructive alliance [Malcolm X]…” The usefulness of this source is in doubt as Martin Luther King doesn’t specifically state who the constructive alliance maybe with and so the interpretation is of Evanzz. Malcolm though previously openly attacked King, was now referring to him as a friend. The flexibility of Malcolm is what really makes it difficult to pin point a specific ideology to him. In January 1965 a month before his assassination he was asked whether he would run for mayor if he was nominated by any leftist organisation, he answered about the political spectrum “… I don’t believe that groups should refer to themselves as leftist rightist or middle-ist, I think that they should be whatever they are and don’t let people put labels on them – and don’t ever put them on yourself. Sometimes a label can kill you”
Nkrumah, Ben Bella, and Nasser all Pan-Africanists invited Malcolm to the second OAU conference as an official observer. Malcolm had direct links now to the African Heads of state, many of whom were revolutionaries. He had befriended many and also invited them to speak at conferences organised by his OAAU, including the communist revolutionary Abdul Rehman Babu from Tanzania. Babu had a deep impact upon Malcolm’s anti-imperialist world view.
His political ideology was not definite at this time as he had been thinking and reappraising his definition of Black Nationalism after being questioned by a white Algerian revolutionary about the validity of Black Nationalism. Malcolm questioned whether Black Nationalism in its entirety could solve the problems of his people. He had stopped using the term for several months and admitted he would be “hard pressed to give a specific definition of the overall philosophy” that would be necessary for the liberation of the black people in his country. His views of women had also changed. The Black Muslim movement functioned as a patriarchal organisation believing that women played more of a family role. This wasn’t alien to his era but would have been accepted as the norm. His return from his second trip in 1964 changed his views on the role of women, or rather placed them in more of a responsible position to help the dynamics of class struggle. He witnessed “In every Middle Eastern or African country I have visited, I noticed the country is as '"advanced" as its women are, or as backward as its women. By this I mean, in areas where the women have been pushed into the background and kept without education, the whole area or country is just as backward, uneducated, and "underdeveloped." Where the women are encouraged to get education and play a more active role in the all-around affairs of the community and the country, the entire people are more active, more enlightened, and more progressive.” This further proves his matured outlook and the influence travel had on his evolving ideology as he moved away from the status quo.
Malcolm had by now become a well known figure throughout Africa and he was offered many governmental posts including an offer by Nasser, as the head of the African section of Cairo’s foreign ministry. In the eyes of the American Intelligence the worst was to come when Malcolm was invited to the Bandung Conference scheduled for March 1965. This indicates his alliances with specific ideologues. It is clear Malcolm’s influences were now from the left of the political spectrum. These included many Marxists, Socialists and Islamists. Black Nationalism was Malcolm’s ideology until mid-1964 when he started to reappraise his direction. His obligation was an international one not confined now to the American frontiers. He was against colonialism in all its forms.
George Breitman a white Trotskyite believed that Malcolm, by February 1965, was a Black Nationalist plus a Socialist and may well have eventually accepted Marxism as the liberating ideology, just as Castro had done. Dyson questions Breitman’s perspective on the Black Nationalism/Socialism synthesis since Malcolm had distanced himself from the Black Nationalism term “…I haven’t been using the expression for several months.” This seems plausible but Black Nationalism cannot be wholly excluded from his ideology since many aspects he found agreeable. Breitman’s prediction of the possibility of Malcolm accepting Marxism seems overstated. Malcolm was a deeply religious Muslim and accepting Marxism in its entirety seems contradictory. It’s something that may never be known. On the 21st of February 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated.
Malcolm living his tumultuous life had gone through religions and ideologies. In his youth he turned from Christian to Atheist to Muslim. He had been exposed to many ideologies spanning the spectrum. He is remembered as a Black Nationalist simply because of his association to the NOI. His ideology though in reality was still in transit and was prevented from completion with his ‘untimely’ death.
To isolate a specific ideology only raises more questions than answers. The influences on Malcolm and how they helped form his “ideology” are clear. Malcolm X was flexible and was willing to attain freedom for his people by “any means necessary.”
© Saqub Siddique. All rights reserved.
Baradat, L. Political Ideologies Their Origins and Impact, Prentice Hall International: London, 1988
Breitman, G. The Last Year of Malcolm X, Pathfinder New York, 1992
Breitman , G. Malcolm X Speaks, Merit Publishers: New York, 1965
Carson, C. Malcolm X The FBI File, Ballantine Books: New York, 1995
DeCaro, L. On the Side of My People, NYU Press: New York, 1996
Dyson, M. The Myth & Meaning of Malcolm X, OU Press: New York, 1995
Evanzz, K. The Judas Factor, Nia: London, 1998
Haley, A and Malcolm X. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Penguin Books: London, 1968
Marcus, A. Malcolm X and the Third American Revolution, Humanity Books: New York, 2005
Natambu, K. Critical Lives: Malcolm X, Alpha Books: Indianapolis, 2002
Ovenden, K. Malcolm X Socialism and Black Nationalism. BookMarks London, 1992
Perry, B. Malcolm The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America, Station Hill Press: New York, 1991
[Accessed 10th January 2008]
PBS [Accessed 10th January 2008]
Africa Resource http://www.africaresource.com/content/view/264/222 [Accessed 10th January 2008]
Malcolm X Quotes http://www.malcolm-x.org/quotes.htm [Accessed 10th January 2008]
Ambabu http://ambabu.gn.apc.org/bioghpy.htm [Accessed 10th January 2008]
© Saqub Siddique. All rights reserved.
Baradat Political Ideologies Their Origin and Impact (1988) pp1-2
Elijah Muhammad was regarded as a divine messenger by the adherents of this sect.
Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, (1968) Penguin p336
Malcolm Little replaced his surname with ‘X’ as was common with Nation of Islam members which was a form of protest against their slave owners’ name.
Natambu Critical Lives(2002) p148
Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, (1968) Penguin
Evanzz The Judas Factor (1998) p21
A. Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, (Penguin 1968) p253
Breitman Malcolm X Speaks (1965) p20
Haley, A Autobiography of Malcolm X (1968) pg 80
Ibid. pg 101
Breitman The Last Year of Malcolm X (1992) p9
Natambu, K Critical Lives (2002)
Evanzz The Judas Factor p85
Natambu, K Critical Lives (2002) p244
Malcolm X was the 2nd most sought after speaker. see Haley, A Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) pg 388
A. Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1968), p411
Breitman Malcolm X Speaks (1965), p21
Breitman The Last Year of Malcolm X (1992) pp63-64
Breitman (1965) Malcolm X Speaks
Evanzz The Judas Factor p266
Malcolm X Speaks George Breitman (1965) p228-229
Evanzz The Judas Factor p279
Marcus, A (2005) Malcolm X and the Third American Revolution p128
Dyson, The Myth & Meaning of Malcolm(1995) p68
Malcolm X, (2008) http://www.malcolm-x.org/quotes.htm