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George Breitman

Myths About Malcolm X
A Speech

(March 1967)

From International Socialist Review, Vol. 28, No. 5, September–October 1967, pp. 43–60.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

George Breitman, the editor of Malcolm X Speaks and author of The Last Year of Malcolm X: Evolution of a Revolutionary, gave this speech at the Detroit Friday Night Socialist Forum, March 17, 1967

Three weeks ago the Friday Night Socialist Forum held its third memorial meeting for one of the greatest men of our time, Malcolm X. It was organized in such a way as to provide a broad range of opinion. There was a panel of several local poets, headed by Dudley Randall, reading their contributions to the new book, For Malcolm: Poems on the Life and the Death of Malcolm X. The chairman was attorney Milton Henry, who had worked with Malcolm, published the magnificent record of Malcolm’s Message to the Grass Roots, and was the principal speaker at our second memorial meeting one year ago. The speakers were Dave Wesley of SNCC, Derrick Morrison of the Young Socialist Alliance, and Rev. Albert Cleage, chairman of the Inner City Organizing Committee.

The usual custom at the Friday Night Socialist Forum is to have a discussion period after the formal talks, with the audience invited to ask questions or express opinions. But it was not considered proper to have a discussion period at a memorial meeting, and it was omitted three weeks ago. However there was an unusual amount of desire for further discussion expressed after that meeting, much of it stimulated by the remarks of Rev. Cleage. And so the committee in charge of the forum decided to have another meeting on the subject at the first open date, which was tonight, and to follow the customary practice allowing for discussion.

Much of what Rev. Cleage dealt with in his talk concerned myths about Malcolm X, or what he considered to be myths. I am going to deal with the same subject – myths about Malcolm X, or what I consider to be myths. Since I have spoken and written about this subject before and it is a vast subject, I shall try to confine myself tonight mainly to points raised by Rev. Cleage. That is, I will take his remarks as a point of departure for mine.

Someone asked me if I think it worthwhile to give a whole talk in that form. My answer, of course, is yes. In The Last Year of Malcolm X, I spent a whole chapter discussing the interpretations of Malcolm made by Bayard Rustin, the social-democratic reformist and pacifist, and I consider Rev. Cleage to be a much more important figure in the movement than Bayard Rustin. In 1964, for example, Rev. Cleage led the most advanced expression of independent black political action in the country – the Freedom Now Party – at a time when Bayard Rustin was campaigning for Johnson and pressuring the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to accept Johnson’s rotten compromise offer at the Atlantic City convention of the Democratic Party. It is true that two years later Rev. Cleage took a backward step – a very wrong and harmful step, in our opinion – when he went back into the Democratic Party to run as a Democratic candidate in a primary election. But even so, he remains the spokesman for an important militant wing of the black freedom movement, and a leader and sponsor of campaigns worthy of support, which we have supported despite his backward step; and what he said in his talk three weeks ago, which I think was his first on the subject of Malcolm, deserves serious consideration.

[The next portion, a 10-minute summary of Rev. Cleage’s speech, is omitted from this transcription.]

That ends my summary of Rev. Cleage’s speech. Of course I haven’t done it justice as rhetoric; Rev. Cleage is one of the best orators in the country, one of the few people who could speak from the same platform as Malcolm without looking bad by comparison. But I have presented all of his main ideas, points and implications as objectively as I could.

I agree with Rev. Cleage that there has been a profusion of myths spread about Malcolm in the two years since his death, and in a moment I will try to explain why. But I don’t agree with him when he says there is a danger that the real Malcolm will be forgotten or obscured through distortion. There was a danger of that when Malcolm was killed, but I don’t think it is a serious danger any longer; at any rate, the danger has grown smaller. I don’t think the real Malcolm can successfully be distorted – whatever Rev. Cleage may say, whatever I may say, and no matter how many more myths may be manufactured and circulated. Because the truth is now too widely known, and becoming better known every day – the whole truth, and not just part of it.

When Malcolm died, there was virtually nothing of what he had said that was in print. But since then many thousands and thousands of people have had the chance to read and hear what Malcolm had said, including large numbers who had never heard of Malcolm while he was alive. Milton Henry told me three weeks ago that he had just returned from the West Coast where he had spoken at a memorial celebration for Malcolm (there were more such memorials held this year than in the previous two) and he said he had run into children, literally children, who were quoting passages from Malcolm X Speaks.

And they were quoting what Malcolm really said and thought, not myths. So we have to keep on knocking down any and all myths that are raised, but I believe we can do this in a spirit of optimism, not despair, because the truth is on the march.

There are many reasons for the myths. Malcolm was a remarkable man, a great man, and when he died, he became a folk-hero. Even if we leave aside the unsolved questions about who arranged the assassination, which were bound to spur various speculations and rumors, Malcolm was the kind of man around whom legends grow – not necessarily hostile legends either; favorable ones too.

But there are other reasons for misconceptions about Malcolm. One of these was the fact that Malcolm was cut down before he had finished his work, before he had formulated all of his ideas and brought them together in a consistent whole. In his last year many people thought or knew that Malcolm was developing new ideas, perhaps a new body of thought, theory or philosophy. But because of the press distortions, and because Malcolm did not yet have an organization capable of reaching the masses, they didn’t know exactly or fully what his thinking was after he left the Black Muslims. This is always a breeding ground for rumor and myth.

More than that. One of the things that distinguished Malcolm from almost all of his contemporaries was his ability to grow, to change, to move forward; even – how hard this is! – to admit an error and correct it. These qualities became more prominent after he broke away from the dogmas of Elijah Muhammad and began, as he put it, to think for himself. Free to think for himself and to speak for himself, he had the courage to admit to himself he had been wrong about something if he thought that was so, and the courage to admit it publicly, and to present a new position that he thought was more correct than an old one. It is the rareness of this quality, along with the vital importance of the questions he was reconsidering, that makes a study of his evolution during his last year so rewarding.

But to people whose minds are fixed in a rut – that is, most of us – this was confusing. It wasn’t that Malcolm was confused, but that some people, whose impressions of Malcolm had been formed and hardened and pigeonholed when he was a Black Muslim, some of these people became confused when Malcolm changed a position during his last year – merely because he wasn’t saying word for word and slogan for slogan what they had become accustomed to hearing him say. No matter how logically, how lucidly, Malcolm stated these new positions, such people remained confused – some to this day; and when they spoke, their confusion contributed to myths about Malcolm.

And finally there was the malicious motivation for myths, which Rev. Cleage referred to. Because Malcolm became a martyr and hero after his death, some groups have tried to claim him for their own, even though they did not speak up for him when he was alive. They have tried to “interpret” him in such a way as to make his views appear to coincide with their own. In order to do this, they have to try to make us forget embarrassing facts such as their dislike of some of the positions he took.

So what they do is chop Malcolm up, keeping the parts they like, the parts it suits their purposes to remember, and discarding the other parts as unimportant or irrelevant where they don’t deny their existence altogether. This attempt to preserve only part of Malcolm, the part they find useful, while ignoring or denying the other parts that are needed if you want to see the real Malcolm, the whole Malcolm, is of course bound to result in myths, even if they are presented in the name of opposing myths.

Rev. Cleage is absolutely correct when he labels as a myth the story that Malcolm became an “integrationist” as a result of his trip to Mecca in the spring of 1964. This myth, or lie, is spread, as you can expect, by integrationists. Malcolm did not become an “integrationist” at Mecca, or at any time after that. Until the day of his death he remained an opponent of what is generally or popularly understood, or misunderstood, as “integration.” I find it easy to join Rev. Cleage on this point because we, the Marxists, have been exposing and opposing this myth since Malcolm died, even though Rev. Cleage’s remarks may have left some ambiguity about this.

But while Malcolm did not become an “integrationist” at Mecca, or after, his views on race did begin to change at Mecca – his views on race, race relations, black-white relations, the possibility of eventual brotherhood. They began to change there, and they changed even more after he left Mecca and went to Africa and held discussions with many revolutionary Africans. Rev. Cleage did not mention this, but the impact of revolutionary African thinking on Malcolm was much greater and deeper and more profound than the impact of Mecca.

The change, stated too briefly, was this: Not that Malcolm embraced “integration” as a solution, but that he saw the cause of racial oppression in a new light. He saw it as rooted not in merely racial or color differences, but as rooted in economic, political, social and cultural exploitation. From this he began to conclude, not that “integration” is the answer, but that racial conflict might be eliminated by eliminating exploitation; that racial enmity is not inherent in human beings or immutable or necessarily ordained to last for all time; and that it is possible (not certain) that eventually, some day (not now) oppressed blacks and oppressed whites might be able to march together in genuine brotherhood and fight together against their common oppressors and exploiters. But, and he always qualified this thought immediately, it can’t happen until the blacks first organize themselves independently and create their own movement, their own power. No worthwhile alliance can be created, he insisted, until blacks come together first and create their own organization with their own uncompromising program.

Now Rev. Cleage says he doesn’t believe what Malcolm is supposed to have said at Mecca; he says Malcolm wouldn’t have been taken in by the window dressing, that Malcolm was too intelligent to believe that blacks and whites could march together, and so on. Well, this is really an argument between Rev. Cleage and Malcolm, not between Rev. Cleage and people who accurately report what Malcolm said and wrote. Perhaps Rev. Cleage believes that Malcolm was not saying what he really thought; if he does, he should explain why. I, for one, after carefully studying everything I could find, believe that Malcolm said what he thought, popular or unpopular, especially after he left the Black Muslims, was no longer under their discipline and no longer required to express their ideas. If Rev. Cleage believes that what Malcolm said and wrote has been misrepresented by others, then I think he has the obligation to examine what Malcolm said (available on many tapes) and what he wrote (available hi his own handwriting) and to show where the reports are mac-curate or misleading.

It is not enough to say merely, “I don’t believe it.” It is necessary in addition to square this disbelief with the evidence of Malcolm’s own voice and Malcolm’s own pen, and show why that evidence cannot be accepted or trusted. Rev. Cleage said that what has happened with Malcolm enables him to understand better the various myths about Jesus. But we have nothing about Jesus now except myths; we’ve got facts about Malcolm to balance along with myths. The world has changed since the time of Jesus, and in some ways it has changed for the better – especially technologically. I am thinking about the discovery and development of the tape recorder – a marvelous invention. Thanks to it, we can hear and know what Malcolm said, which is the best antidote to mythology that I can imagine.

So Rev. Cleage is on firm ground in rejecting the myth that Malcolm became an “integrationist.” But the reasons he gives for rejecting it are not so sound, and the conclusions he tries to draw – that Malcolm did not change any of his views – have not been demonstrated factually or logically; and I don’t think they can be demonstrated.

I cannot go along with Rev. Cleage when he says that it is a myth that Malcolm wanted to internationalize the Afro-American struggle. Malcolm spoke here in Detroit twice after leaving the Black Muslims – in April 1964 and in February 1965, one week before his death. On both these occasions Rev. Cleage was present, and at both of them Malcolm called for internationalizing the struggle. What he said both times is preserved on tape, as are many other speeches when he said the same thing. So this is a matter of fact, easily verified.

Besides the question of fact there is the question of interpreting the fact. Rev. Cleage spoke of people who have a mystique about Africa and who say that Malcolm said that the African nations are going to free American black people, and therefore all that Afro-Americans have to do is sit around and wait for that happy day. I haven’t run into many people with this particular interpretation of Malcolm’s call to internationalize the struggle, but of course Rev. Cleage is correct to pronounce this as a distortion and myth, which can only do harm by promoting passivity, instead of struggle.

But this particular distortion or misunderstanding of what Malcolm was talking about does not change the fact that Malcolm did advocate an alliance of Afro-Americans with Africans and other non-whites to coordinate their struggles, and even their strategy, against their common enemy, against what Malcolm called “the international power structure,” whose headquarters he correctly placed in Washington, D.C. I don’t see how anybody can question the fact that Malcolm became an internationalist (this is one of the things that made him so dangerous in the eyes of the imperialists and their CIA), and that internationalism, by definition, means efforts to internationalize the struggle.

One of the ways in which Malcolm sought to internationalize the struggle was by bringing an indictment of racism against the United States government before the United Nations, the so-called world court. He raised this proposal immediately after he left the Black Muslims in the spring of 1964, and he worked hard trying to get African leaders to bring the indictment into the United Nations, and to get American civil rights leaders to join in promoting this project. He did not succeed, for various reasons, but he still had it on his agenda at his death.

When he first publicly raised this project in the spring of 1964, he tended to overstate its possibilities – that is, he gave too rosy a picture of what the probable results would be. The Militant printed an article by me in May 1964, supporting Malcolm’s proposal to take Washington to the United Nations and expose its racism and hypocrisy, but noting that the US government and its allies control the United Nations, and that the UN cannot be expected to do anything seriously against the interests of American imperialism. I didn’t say it as pungently as Rev. Cleage did three weeks ago, when he said you can’t expect any more justice from the so-called world court than you can from the Supreme Court or Detroit’s Recorder’s Court, because all of them are run by crackers, but I said essentially the same thing almost three years ago. Even though my article was critical, Malcolm sent me a message of thanks for writing it.

Now Rev. Cleage says Malcolm couldn’t have believed that much would be accomplished by going to the United Nations, and therefore it is a myth to say he wanted to internationalize the struggle. But this is a fallacy of over-simplification, a non sequitur. The truth is more complex, and the conclusion to be drawn different. Malcolm did get carried away at the beginning about the possibilities of taking Washington to the UN; I am sorry to say this now, as I was sorry to say it then, but it happens to be the truth. And the truth is what we are after, not simplifications. So: at the beginning Malcolm went overboard in what he said could be accomplished by going to the UN. Later, however, he took a more balanced view of the project, he stopped speaking of it as a move that could solve the problems of black people, he corrected himself in assessing its probable results. But he continued to push this project. After modifying what he said about it, he continued to work for it. Because he did want to internationalize the struggle – that’s no myth – and this was one way of doing it, even though it would not be the final solution, but only a step in that direction. If Malcolm was ready to acknowledge and correct mistakes, I don’t think we do him or the struggle any service by denying either the mistake or the correction; or by saying “I don’t believe” he made this mistake in order to deny that he wanted to internationalize the struggle.

Rev. Cleage’s stated intention – to explode myths in order to preserve the real Malcolm – can only be applauded. But I am afraid that he was only partly successful with some of the myths he aimed at, and that in the process he may have contributed some myths of his own.

His basic mistake, I think, is to present Malcolm the Black Muslim as the real Malcolm, the only one worth remembering, the only one worth building on and continuing from – and to dismiss as unimportant, inconsistent or irrelevant the last year of Malcolm’s life, when Malcolm himself began to build on and continue from his previous positions. This, I submit, is not the way to see or understand the whole Malcolm. Rev. Cleage mentioned the blind men, each of whom touched a different part of the elephant, and came up with a different concept of the elephant. Rev. Cleage is doing that too – he’s saying the hide is the elephant, and the feet and the tail – but not the trunk or the tusks. It is harder to forgive him than those blind men, because he is not blind, and all the parts of Malcolm can be easily seen by anyone who wants to look at them.

I say Malcolm is both the Malcolm of the period before the split and the Malcolm of the year after the split, and I want to see and understand the whole man. I want to see the whole man – the parts that remained constant and never changed, and the parts that did not remain constant and did change; the parts that fit preconceived notions and the parts that contradict preconceived notions; what he was trying to do after he decided to think for himself instead of with the mind of Elijah Muhammad; and in what direction he was moving. That is why in editing his speeches, I included everything available, not just the parts I agree with. That is why in the book about his evolution I was just as concerned in presenting his positions that diverge from my own as I was in exploring those that resemble or approach mine. If I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t really have the right to talk about myths spread by other people. A myth can consist of nothing but the exclusion of relevant facts.

Rev. Cleage wants, in effect, to dismiss the last year of Malcolm’s life; he could find only one favorable statement to make about that year – that Malcolm was beginning to make a transition to organization, to structure. The last year was the period when Malcolm was developing his own ideas rather than popularizing those of Elijah Muhammad. The reason Rev. Cleage wants to dismiss the last year is not that he agrees with all of the ideas of Elijah Muhammad, but that he disagrees with some of the ideas Malcolm was expressing in this, the independent phase of his life. In a moment I will list some of those ideas. First, I want to call your attention to the way that Rev. Cleage seeks to justify such dismissal.

In the last year, Rev. Cleage says, Malcolm was under constant harassment, under fierce pressure, under never-ending threat of assassination. All of this is completely true. As a result, Rev. Cleage continues, Malcolm made a number of confused and confusing statements, fragmentary statements, which unscrupulous people use to distort the meaning and tradition of Malcolm. Is that true? – not how Malcolm’s statements are used or misused, but is it true that Malcolm’s last year was distinguished by confused and confusing statements?

Rev. Cleage says it is true, I say it is not true, and it is up to you to find the answer. Because on it will depend your judgment about whether the real Malcolm tradition ended when he left the Black Muslims, or whether it continued and reached a higher level after he left.

How are you going to decide this? Rev. Cleage more or less invites you to take his word for it, since he doesn’t suggest any alternative or offer any documentation or evidence. I invite you not to take my word, because there is an alternative. And that is: Read what Malcolm said during his last year. Read it for yourself and judge for yourself if it is confused or confusing – or just the opposite. Read the book Malcolm X Speaks, which contains everything from his last year that was available at the time it was published at the end of 1965. It has been in print now for one and a half years and has now been read by tens of thousands of people. So far, not one challenge to its veracity or accuracy has been publicly presented by anybody. Liberator, a magazine which is not sympathetic with the views of the editor of Malcolm X Speaks, calls it “the source book for what Malcolm actually said.”

Then, after you have read it, if you have the slightest doubt about its accuracy, you should listen to the tapes from which most of Malcolm X Speaks was taken. I have listed them all at the end of The Last Year – 22 tapes from Malcolm’s last year – which are available for anyone who wants to listen to them. And since The Last Year was printed there are three more tapes from that period that have become available.

By this method, I contend, you can arrive at a solid judgment not only about the accuracy of the printed material by Malcolm, but also about whether the ideas presented there are confused or confusing; and about whether they are fragmentary, that is, presented out of context. I have no doubt whatever that the outcome of this method of investigation will establish conclusively that it is a myth to assert that Malcolm’s statements in his last year were anything but lucid, carefully thought out, closely argued, and amazingly consistent, despite all the adverse conditions under which he had to operate.

Now what were some of the main ideas that Malcolm developed and adopted in his last year? I cannot deal with this fully tonight, but I have tried to do it in The Last Year of Malcolm X. There I have presented Malcolm’s main ideas, citing in each case the source, the place, the date, etc., and including both the ideas I agree with and the ones I question or differ with. In addition, I have given my interpretation, my interpretation of the significance, trend and direction of these ideas. It will not surprise me if some people will disagree with my interpretations, but it will surprise me if anyone successfully challenges the facts I have presented there.

Malcolm came to the conclusion that the Black Muslims had gone as far as they could go, and he wanted to go farther. He wanted to get into the active struggle, influence it ideologically, and revolutionize it. He wanted to build a new movement, on new foundations, and therefore he reviewed all his ideas – keeping some, modifying others, casting aside still others. He began to move to the left.

The concept that “the white man is the enemy,” which Rev. Cleage calls the essential strand in Malcolm’s philosophy, is the beginning of wisdom for black people who have had illusions that the white power structure is going to hand them freedom on a platter some day. To reject that illusion, and to get to understand that the black man has to fight for freedom, and that he has to depend first of all on his own organized strength, on black power – that is a great step forward, an indispensable step. But it is the beginning of wisdom, not the end of it; it is not a formula sufficient by itself for achieving freedom. After the need for independent black power is learned and absorbed and becomes a guide for action, there are other questions that have to be asked and answered.

If the white man is the enemy, are all white men equally enemies? – both the white men who have the power in this country, the rulers, and the white men who don’t have power, and who are exploited by the rulers – not exploited as much as black people, but exploited too? If the white man is the enemy, is there some way of dividing the enemy, splitting them, driving a wedge in among them, setting them to fighting each other – to the benefit of the black man? If the white man is the enemy, is there some way of transforming the situation so that some of the whites can be demobilized, or neutralized, or even, under certain circumstances, turned into allies or potential allies of the black man because it would be in their own self-interest?

These are some of the questions Malcolm was beginning to think about and work out in his last year. The main allies of Afro-Americans, he decided, are the black, brown, yellow and red people of the world; but then he also began to see the possibility of alliances with what he called “militant white” Americans. In fact, he said, to bring about the changes that are needed such alliances will be necessary. He didn’t think they would be consummated right away – first, he always stressed, blacks must organize themselves independently, with their own leaders, their own movement, their own program. After they did that, which was his main preoccupation – then there might be alliances with militant whites, the right kind of alliances. And by the right kind of alliances he did not mean working in the Democratic Party.

None of this made him into an “integrationist.” But it did make him go beyond the simple formula, the white man is the enemy, which is not the end of wisdom. It did make him think about and study the causes of racism and to see the possibility of its elimination some day. It led him to study the nature of American capitalist society, and of world capitalism – always from the viewpoint of how the interests of black people could be promoted and protected. And from his thought and study – especially from the thinking initiated through his discussions with African revolutionaries (whose impact on him far exceeded the influence of the religious Muslims in Mecca) – he came to the conclusion that capitalism is the cause of racism, that you can’t have capitalism without racism, and therefore socialism should seriously be considered as an objective by black Americans as well as by Africans and Asians and Latin Americans. At the very least, you can say that in his last year he became pro-socialist and anti-capitalist.

Now these are only a few of the ideas Malcolm was thinking about and trying to work out in his last year, and on some of them, I want to be the first to stress, he had not completed his thinking when he was struck down. Rev. Cleage, who doesn’t agree with some of these ideas, wants to discard these parts from the Malcolm tradition as irrelevant, as confused. He says the great speech, Message to the Grass Roots, made while Malcolm was still in the Nation of Islam, is his last will and testament. But I think the evidence shows that Malcolm added to that testament, if you want to call it that, much that is rich, valuable, indispensable, and that he did it knowingly, consciously, and with a clear mind. You may not agree with what he added, but you can’t say he didn’t add it or that he added it out of confusion.

I would also like to offer an explanation of why Rev. Cleage rejects the contributions of Malcolm’s last year. Rev. Cleage is, and has been since the end of 1963, an advocate and defender of black nationalism. Now when I say that, I am not – as anyone who knows me or the Marxist position is aware – I am not attacking him or using the term as an epithet. As I have said and written for many years, black nationalism is progressive and potentially revolutionary. To show what I mean by black nationalism, to show that it is not a negative thing to me, I would like to read you the definition of black nationalism presented in The Last Year of Malcolm X. Black nationalism, I say,

“... is the tendency for black people in the United States to unite as a group, as a people, into a movement of their own to fight for freedom, justice and equality. Animated by the desire of an oppressed minority to decide its own destiny, this tendency holds that black people must control their own movement and the political, economic and social institutions of the black community. Its characteristic attributes include racial pride, group consciousness, hatred of white supremacy, a striving for independence from white control, and identification with black and non-white oppressed groups in other parts of the world.”

End of definition. In the same chapter I try to show why black nationalism should not be equated with what is called separatism by those who advocate a separate black nation, but I can’t go into that here.

If the definition of black nationalism I have just given is correct, then Rev. Cleage is a black nationalist, and that is not an epithet but, from my standpoint, a scientifically correct designation and an expression of respect. Also, according to this definition, Malcolm was a black nationalist, and remained one to his last day – even though in his final months he began to wonder if that was the right label to describe what he was after.

But within the broad category of black nationalism it is possible to see many subdivisions. (This is one of the reasons why the various kinds of black nationalists unfortunately have been unable so far to unite into a single nationwide movement.) For present purposes I cannot discuss the various subdivisions of black nationalism but have to concentrate on the one I call pure-and-simple.

In Marxism and the Negro Struggle, written in 1964, and again in The Last Year, I have presented the argument that

“The pure and simple black nationalist is concerned exclusively or primarily with the internal problems of the Negro community, with organizing it, with helping it to gain control of the community’s politics, economy, etc. He is not concerned, or is less concerned, with the problems of the total American society, or with the nature of the larger society within which the Negro community exists. He has no theory or program for changing that society; for him that is the white man’s problem.”

When Rev. Cleage became a black nationalist, he became a pure and simple nationalist (in fact, it was by studying his statements, activities and development that I first became aware of this subdivision), and he remains a pure and simple nationalist. Malcolm too was a pure and simple nationalist before he left the Black Muslims, and he remained one for the first few months after the split. But then, after his first trip to Africa in the spring of 1964, mainly as a result of the thinking started by his discussions with African revolutionaries, he began to move beyond pure and simple nationalism, to transcend it – if not transcend it, to add something to it that changed it into something else. What was it he added? He added the belief that society as a whole has to be changed, revolutionized, if black people are to achieve their freedom. This did not contradict his conviction that blacks must control their own community, that is, his black nationalism; it was an addition to his black nationalism. Black control of the black community, yes – but that is not enough, because even a black-controlled black community inside a reactionary and exploitative social and economic and political system cannot provide full and genuine freedom. The implication is that Afro-Americans must fight not only to gain control of their community but also to change society as a whole, to reconstruct it on a truly non-exploitative basis.

Malcolm accepted this implication, which is profoundly revolutionary, without ceasing to be a black nationalist. Rev. Cleage does not accept this implication. That, I believe, is the theoretical explanation for Rev. Cleage’s tendency to reject most of Malcolm’s last period, and, perhaps, not even study it with the care it deserves.

This is not only a mistake, but a sad mistake, because Malcolm was ready to give his life, he did give his life, for the right to be able to say the things he did in his last year. I mean that literally. He could have lived by keeping quiet. But he had things to say in his last year that he considered vital, things that it is dangerous to say, things that he knew it was dangerous to say – and still he put his life on the line for the right and opportunity to say them. To discard what Malcolm himself considered the most important part of his legacy, and for which he gave his life – that is indeed a sad mistake.

Despite my differences with Rev. Cleage’s evaluation of Malcolm, which I have tried to present objectively and without personal rancor, I think I agree with what may have been the main intention of his talk three weeks ago. If I understood it correctly, his main intention was to inspire black people to make the Malcolm tradition their own – to interpret it according to their lights and needs, cherish it, make it a weapon in their struggle for freedom. With that intention I am in full accord.

I think this is already being done, to a far greater degree than Rev. Cleage does. The same night he spoke here, Eldridge Cleaver spoke in San Francisco about how the ideas and tradition of Malcolm have been “internalized” by black people all over the country. That is true, and in addition there is a growing body of written literature about Malcolm by black people, interpreting him and shaping his tradition, which Rev. Cleage overlooks or may not be aware of. On the West Coast there are people like Cleaver, not only writing about Malcolm but trying to continue what he began. In the Midwest, Milton Henry, Robert Higgins, Lerone Bennett, David Llorens. In the East, LeRoi Jones, Calvin Hernton, Rolland Snellings, Lawrence Neal, A.B. Spellman, Robert Allen, John O. Killens, Robert Vernon, Sara Mitchell, C.E. Wilson, – these are only a few of the many black people whose articles spring to mind (I hope the others will forgive me for not mentioning them too) – whose interpretations I may not always agree with, just as Rev. Cleage may not, but which show that black people have been doing what he urges, in sufficient quantity to fill many volumes. James Baldwin is reportedly considering writing a play about Malcolm’s Autobiography; a play called Message from the Grass Roots is soon to open in England. And the poets – I detected a slight tone of condescension or irony in Rev. Cleage’s voice about the poetry by black people about Malcolm, a little surprising when you consider that in his profession he quotes poetry every Sunday – the poets too, in their own way, and it is not a way without influence, are making contributions to the preservation of the real Malcolm.

I agree, as I say, with what I take to be Rev. Cleage’s intention. Malcolm is more than a hero and martyr, he is what Eldridge Cleaver calls “the standard” and “the model.” I think he is and should be the standard and model for revolutionary and radical-minded people of all races, and will be for all who take the trouble to investigate him without prejudice and to learn from him. But he does belong, in a special sense, to black people first of all, and especially to young black people, whom Malcolm counted on to lead their people to freedom. If anyone should be the custodian of the Malcolm tradition, it should be they.

Rev. Cleage called me the custodian, perhaps softening it a bit by granting my sincerity. To make sure, I looked up the word “custody” in the dictionary. It says: “1. keeping, guardianship, care: (example) in the custody of her father; 2. the keeping or charge of officers of the law: (example) the car was in the custody of the police; 3. imprisonment: (example) he was taken into custody.” Well, I am not the custodian of the Malcolm tradition, I have not been, and I do not aspire to be. What I have been, or rather, what Marxists have been – because Rev. Cleage really means the Marxists rather than me personally – are (1) the chief circulators of the Malcolm material, and (2) interpreters of it, from our own point of view.

Circulators, because nobody else showed any interest in doing that job. Of this we are quite proud; we feel it has been a genuine contribution – but it is a task that we do and will gladly share with anyone else. The circulation of this material has been a contribution to everyone, black and white. It is the raw material – not distorted in any way, not dragged in, not partially presented or partially withheld to suit anybody’s factional purposes – it is the raw material which everyone, white or black, can use in order to understand and then fashion the Malcolm tradition. In addition, as I said, we Marxists have interpreted the raw material – again, not by distorting what Malcolm said, only by giving our analysis and opinion about what he said and did. That is everybody’s privilege, that is the duty of anybody who considers himself a radical, and we hope that all tendencies will work out and present their interpretations, as we have done, so that all interpretations can confront each other openly and provide a sound basis for what will be the historical judgment and tradition.

So I join with Rev. Cleage in urging black people to find out what Malcolm really said and stood for, write about it, preserve it, interpret it, circulate it, and use it in the struggle. All I say is that when you do this, don’t do it partly – do it all the way; don’t chop the Malcolm tradition to pieces – preserve the whole thing, confront the whole Malcolm, preserve the whole Malcolm, utilize the whole Malcolm to advance and win the struggle. If you do, and if your aim is to revolutionize society, then I think you will cherish the final part of the whole Malcolm, the part that he gave his life to add, as the most useful part because it is the most revolutionary.

From the Discussion Period

Question: Rev. Cleage said he didn’t know anything about Marxism. You say Malcolm was not a Marxist, but did he know anything about it – had he read or studied it?

Answer: What Rev. Cleage actually said – and I quote from the transcript of his speech, which I have here – was, “I am not a Marxist – I don’t pretend to be, I don’t even pretend to know anything about it.” Maybe the key word here is “pretend.” I don’t know how much he knows about Marxism, but in one speech he gave in this hall some years ago, and in at least one article he wrote, he gave some reasons why he does not accept Marxism. So I imagine he has some knowledge about it. Or else I don’t see how he could reject it.

Of course I think everybody, and especially leaders, should find out about Marxism, whether they will accept it or not. I can’t say for sure whether Malcolm did, or how much. I know that he read papers and magazines that claim to be Marxist, including small, obscure and uninfluential ones. When I wrote an article for the International Socialist Review in 1964, attempting to present a Marxist defense of the Freedom Now Party against various misconceptions, including some spread by so-called socialists, I know that Malcolm ordered a couple dozen copies for leading members of his organization because he thought they should be acquainted with this point of view.

Someone who knew Malcolm in prison before he became a Black Muslim, and later worked closely with him in the Nation of Islam, told me that Malcolm did read and study more than radical papers and magazines; that even while he was in prison he read some radical books and pamphlets, and that he later read some basic works of Marxism. But I am not sure of this from my own knowledge.

Question: Rev. Cleage said that if Malcolm had actually become an “integrationist” at Mecca, then he could have become a Marxist and joined the Socialist Workers Party. Does he really think that believing in “integration” is a condition for joining the Socialist Workers Party?

Answer: What Rev. Cleage said was that if Malcolm had actually become an “integrationist” and accepted the ideas that go with that concept of race relations, then there would have been nothing to stop him from joining the NAACP, or singing We Shall Overcome with Martin Luther King, or becoming a Marxist and joining the Socialist Workers Party. In fact, Rev. Cleage said, these things would follow logically.

On the contrary, leaving the bit about the NAACP and King aside, there is nothing logical about it. The Socialist Workers Party does not view “integration” as the solution any more than Malcolm did, or than Rev. Cleage does; in fact, the Socialist Workers Party reached this conclusion before Rev. Cleage did. So even if Malcolm had become an “integrationist,” that wouldn’t have been any reason for him to join the Socialist Workers Party.

Let it be clearly understood: Malcolm was not a Marxist, and he was not about to join the Socialist Workers Party. That’s what we said when he was alive, and that’s what we’ve said ever since. The only ones who circulated a contrary story were his enemies – as a way of discrediting him, they thought.

The facts are these: Malcolm respected the Socialist Workers Party, and was willing to work with it in certain areas – just as he would have been willing to work with any organization that he believed was opposed to racism and the racist government. He praised The Militant as one of the best papers anywhere, and there were copies on sale at his headquarters. He had become pro-socialist in his outlook after his trips to Africa, urging black people in this country to learn about socialism – and he did this not only when he spoke before socialist audiences, but also “at home,” when he spoke before his own organization in Harlem.

Despite this, he was not a Marxist, for reasons I have discussed in The Last Year of Malcolm X. Whether he would ever have become a Marxist, nobody can say. The most you can say is that it was possible in the long run. But he was not a Marxist at the time of his death, much as we wish he would have become one, and we Marxists have never claimed he was. Anybody that says we do is guilty of misrepresentation.

Question: The impression I got from listening to Rev. Cleage last month is that he was saying that after Malcolm died and couldn’t speak for himself, the Marxists jumped on the bandwagon in order to distort his views and print speeches which he wouldn’t have printed, “fragmentary statements” and so on. Will you comment on this and Malcolm’s relations with the Socialist Workers Party?

Answer: Well, Rev. Cleage did not quite make that specific charge against the Marxists in his talk three weeks ago. But I do believe that when he spoke about distorters, calling them “they” and “somebody else,” when he said certain people remember “the things it suits their purposes to remember,” when he said “everything that is written that they can put their hands on will be saying that Malcolm X said something he never said, that Malcolm X meant something he never meant,” when he said, “I don’t care what else they drag in from wherever they drag it,” and similar statements – I do believe that he meant at least to include the Marxists among his targets. And that would support the impression you got.

First of all, I should point out that our interest in Malcolm, the sympathetic interest of the revolutionary socialist movement in his ideas, did not begin after his death in 1965. Nor did it begin only after his split with the Black Muslims in 1964. It goes back further than that, to the time when he was still a Black Muslim. You can read the pamphlet, Freedom Now, adopted in the middle of 1963, and see that the Socialist Workers Party, in that resolution adopted at its national convention, pointed out the progressive potential of black nationalism – that is, while Malcolm was still a Black Muslim, we were pointing out the good aspects of what he was saying. If that can be called jumping on a bandwagon, all I can say is that there weren’t many other people on it besides us.

Even before that, the Friday Night Socialist Forum of Detroit was the first socialist hall in the country where a Black Muslim was a guest speaker – Wilfred X, who was received in a sympathetic way because we saw the potential of the Black Muslims while Malcolm was a leader. Later that year, in the fall of 1963, Malcolm was a speaker at a meeting sponsored by the Young Socialists at Wayne State University – still while Malcolm was a member of the Nation of Islam.

When Malcolm broke with the Black Muslims in March, 1964, The Militant was the only paper in the country to point out its great significance for the future of the freedom struggle and the radical movement as a whole – we predicted then that he could change the whole course of the movement, the same thing Rev. Cleage said after the fact here in 1967; and it was the only paper in the country to print Malcolm’s Declaration of Independence in March, 1964.

In the following 50 weeks Malcolm spoke three times at the Militant Labor Forum in New York, and the last time he said he’d speak there again any time he was invited. Again and again he praised The Militant, not only when he spoke at the Militant Labor Forum, but also when he spoke before his own Organization of Afro-American Unity in Harlem. In his talk on Afro-American history one month before his death, he mentioned that the Negro press largely ignored what the OAAU was trying to do, while The Militant reported it accurately and fully.

Malcolm’s three Militant Labor Forum speeches were all printed in The Militant while he was alive, not later. He didn’t think they were inaccurate in any way. If he had thought so, you can be sure he would have said it, and he wouldn’t have had a bundle of The Militant on sale in his office. He did not think the printing of those speeches was something “dragged in” – on the contrary, he was grateful that this paper was willing to print them at a time when nobody else would. A month before his death, he agreed to go on a national speaking tour for the Young Socialist Alliance; and if he hadn’t been killed, he would have spoken here in Debs Hall during that tour.

Excuse me for taking so long with this, but I’m still speaking about the myths about Malcolm, and I want to say a few words about the key book to understanding him, the book of speeches, Malcolm X Speaks. This book begins with the Message to the Grass Roots, when Malcolm was still a Black Muslim, and which Rev. Cleage admires; but the rest is from his last year, after the split, about which speeches Rev. Cleage had nothing good to say. The idea for this book, it is true, was suggested by Marxists, who wanted to help Malcolm publicize his independent ideas. But it was not a book thought up after Malcolm’s death – it was suggested to Malcolm himself, while he was still alive, as a book of his speeches following the break with Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm’s response to the suggestion was favorable, and he was going to select the speeches himself. But he was killed a month later, before he could start on the project.

Merit Publishers then asked one of Malcolm’s closest co-workers, who had been present at the original discussion about the proposed book, to select the speeches for the book and edit it. In The Last Year of Malcolm X, I have told how I was later brought in as co-editor, to speed up the publication, and how finally Malcolm’s co-worker withdrew from the project. But before he withdrew we had agreed on the contents, most of which had been supplied by him – the speeches the book contains. So their selection was not a unilateral choice of Marxists, but one made in collaboration and agreement with one of Malcolm’s closest collaborators – who, I should add, not only was not a Marxist, but did not approve of Malcolm’s entry into any kind of politics. The book contains everything from Malcolm’s last year – I repeat, everything – that was available when the book was published in 1965. Since then, other speeches have become available, such as the one by Malcolm on Afro-American history, and that has been published too, verbatim, without any change.

I stress “everything” because I want to make the point that the material was not picked over to present only things that Marxists like and agree with – it includes what Malcolm liked and agreed with, and that was the sole and overriding criterion that was used in preparing Malcolm X Speaks. So, yes, “everything we can get our hands on” has been printed, but, no, nothing has been “dragged in.” I told you earlier how you can check this for yourself.

This is important because Malcolm X Speaks, more than anything else, and more than what people claim they remember without any documentation, is the basis for forming your judgment about the value of Malcolm’s last year. You know, Malcolm was not a fool; if he had thought we might misrepresent his ideas, he wouldn’t have trusted us an inch. And he did trust us. But you don’t have to trust us or take our word for anything. Malcolm himself had some wonderfully pertinent words about this in his remarks to Mississippi students visiting Harlem two months before he died. He said:

“One of the first things I think young people, especially nowadays, should learn is how to see for yourself and listen for yourself and think for yourself. Then you can come to an intelligent decision for yourself. If you form the habit of going by what you hear others say about someone, or going by what others think about someone, instead of searching that thing out for yourself and seeing for yourself, you will be walking west when you thing you’re going east, and you will be walking east when you think you’re going west. This generation, especially of our people, has a burden, more so than any other time in history. The most important thing that we can learn to do today is think for ourselves.

“It’s good to keep wide-open ears and listen to what everybody has to say, but when you come to make a decision, you have to weigh all of what you’ve heard on its own, and place it where it belongs, and come to a decision for yourself; you’ll never regret it. But if you form the habit of taking what someone else says about a thing without checking it out for yourself, you’ll find that other people will have you hating your friends and loving your enemies. This is one of the things our people are beginning to learn today – that it is very important to think out a situation for yourself. If you don’t do it, you’ll always be maneuvered into a situation where you are never fighting your actual enemies, where you will find yourself fighting your own self.” (Malcolm X Speaks, pp. 137–138, paperback edition.)

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Last updated: 12 February 2020