International Socialist Review, September-October 1967
Rev. Albert Cleage
Myths About Malcolm X:
From International Socialist Review, Vol.28 No.5, September-October 1967, pp.33-42.
Mark up: Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Rev. Albert Cleage, chairman of the Detroit Inner City Organizing Committee, gave this speech at a memorial meeting for Malcolm X at the Friday Night Socialist Forum in Detroit, February 24, 1967.
You were very kind to ask me to be here.
I am not a Marxist – I don’t pretend to be, I don’t even pretend to know anything about it. I am a black man in a world dominated by white oppression, and that is my total philosophy. I would like to get rid of that oppression, and that is my total objective. So I bring to this occasion rather a simple approach – personal reflections on the significance of Malcolm X.
I can remember a number of occasions when I talked to him, when I was with him, when I spoke on platforms with him; and so I am not indebted to printed material for my impressions of Malcolm X. I remember the last time he was in the city – not so much the speech, which was not one of his best by any means; it reflected, I think, much of the tension that he was under, much of the confusion, the constant living on the brink of violence. But I can remember him backstage, in the Gold Room I think they call it, of Ford Auditorium. Recently he had suffered smoke inhalation, the doctor had given him an injection, he was trying to sleep, he was irritable. But he was here because he had promised to be here, because he thought some people were concerned about what he had to say.
I remember him at the King Solomon Baptist Church on one of the occasions he spoke there – sort of in concealment backstage, constantly harassed with the danger of assassination. And I can remember the occasion at the King Solomon Baptist Church when he gave the Message to the Grass Roots, which I think is his best speech, his most typical statement, and which I personally think is his last will and testament. I remember him, I talked to him, I agreed with him. He was a Muslim, I am a Christian, and yet I can think of no basic matter upon which we disagreed.
Two years after his death Brother Malcolm is more important to more people than he was at any time during his lifetime. I think this is true. Young people who never saw him, who never heard him, speak of him with reverence and say, “I love Malcolm.” This is a
tremendous thing. Older people who heard and saw him select from the things they heard and saw the things they want to remember, or even the things it suits their purpose to remember. This too is quite a thing – that an individual should be important enough to be remembered even with distortions or for reasons not quite only of love.
Brother Malcolm has become a symbol, a dream, a hope, a nostalgia for the past, a mystique, a shadow sometimes without substance, “our shining black prince,” to whom we do obeisance, about whom we write heroic poems. But I think Brother Malcolm the man is in danger of being lost in a vast tissue of distortions which now constitute the Malcolm myth. The Malcolm myth or the Malcolm myths, the complex of myths which more and more tend to cluster about Brother Malcolm, remind us of what happened to Jesus Christ. I think I understand much more now the things that are written and said about Jesus, because I can understand how the life of a man dedicated to people can so easily become a focal point for the things people want to make that life mean.
The Malcolm myth or myths depend for substance upon the last chaotic and confusing year or two of his life – fragmentary statements growing out of his trip to Mecca and his efforts to bring the problems of black people in America to the attention of African leaders. Out of this period of his life comes the confusing complex of myths. According to the myth, his pilgrimage to Mecca turned Brother Malcolm into an integrationist. I’ve heard that seriously stated by people who claim to be scholars and students of the life of Brother Malcolm. In Mecca, they say, he saw blue-eyed whites and blacks worshipping and living together, in love, for the first time in his 39 years – and his whole concept of white people changed. This is the myth. And he rejected his former position that the white man is the enemy and that separation is inescapable. This is the myth.
The implication here is that this new insight changed his orientation; that with this new insight he was now free to join the NAACP, or to sing We Shall Overcome with Martin Luther King, or to become a Marxist and join the Socialist Workers Party. And certainly, if we accept this basic myth as being true, as being fact, if his experience in Mecca changed his conception of white people, then all the implications certainly follow logically. If in terms of his experience in Mecca he came to believe that there is no enmity between black and white, that blacks and whites can march together in unity and brotherhood, then why shouldn’t he join the NAACP, or sing We Shall Overcome, or become a Marxist in the Socialist Workers Party?
I say that is the myth, and from my personal point of view, realizing that we are in the position of the blind man who inspected the elephant and tried to describe what an elephant is, I say I do not believe this myth. I reject it completely, totally and absolutely. I say if Malcolm X, Brother Malcolm, had undergone this kind of transformation, if in Mecca he had decided that blacks and whites can unite, then his life at that moment would have become meaningless in terms of the world struggle of black people, and we would not have any occasion to be here this evening. So I say I do not believe it.
Brother Malcolm knew history and he was guided by his interpretation of history. He interpreted the things that happened to him in terms of his knowledge and his understanding of the past. He would not have been taken in by what happened in Mecca. Brother Malcolm knew that the Arab Muslims had been the backbone of the slave trade. Those of you who have a sentimental attachment to the “Black Muslims” in America, or the Muslims that happen to be black, might not like to remember that the slave trade with black Africans in Africa was fostered, encouraged and carried on by the Arab Muslims in Africa. Brother Malcolm knew this. He would not have been taken in by the window dressing in Mecca. He would not have forgotten this important fact – that blacks and whites do not unite above the basic fact of race, of color. He would not have forgotten this in Mecca any more than in New York or Chicago or San Francisco. He knew that in Saudi Arabia they are still selling black Africans into slavery, they still make forays into Black Africa and bring back black slaves for sale in Arab Muslim countries. Brother Malcolm knew this. And to me it is preposterous to say that in Mecca he became an integrationist.
Also, according to the myth, Brother Malcolm tried to internationalize the black man’s struggle in America. Certainly he brought the black man’s struggle to the attention of African leaders. The implication is that Brother Malcolm felt that the black man in Africa could help us through the United Nations and that we would be better off before the white man’s World Court than before the white man’s Supreme Court. I do not believe it. Malcolm knew that one cracker court is just like another cracker court. He knew it, I know it and you know it. And to say now that he came to the conclusion that, if he could get the black man’s problem in America before the World Court, it would somehow mysteriously be changed and transformed is ridiculous. To take it before the World Court would have been interesting – but certainly no solution. We are no more apt to get justice before the World Court than before the Recorder’s Court downtown here in the city of Detroit. Crackers run both of them.
Don’t be afraid, brothers, don’t be afraid – I am not hurting the image of Malcolm. I am just’trying to save it, because you are about to lose it, you are about to forget what Malcolm said. By taking the last moments of confusion, when he was getting ready to be assassinated, and saying that the confused little statements he made in those last moments were his life – that’s a lie, that wasn’t his life. I heard him, I talked to him, I know what his life was, and he understood the relationship between blacks and whites.
Certainly Brother Malcolm wanted to relate our struggle, the struggle of black people in America, to the struggle of black people everywhere. I say to the struggle of black people everywhere, because
that is a struggle that he understood, that I understand and that you understand. I am not talking about relating it to the struggle of oppressed people everywhere, but relating it to the struggle of black people everywhere. But he expected little help from the Africans and the African nations. Malcolm wasn’t running around Africa thinking that the African nations were going to free us. Malcolm wasn’t that kind of an idiotic idealist. He went to our black brothers because they were our brothers. He talked to them about our problems because their problems are our problems, and we are as concerned about their problems as we want them to be about our problems. But he didn’t go to Africa expecting them to free us.
Sometimes we forget that, and we sit around waiting for somebody in Africa to send somebody over here to free us – “like Malcolm said they were going to.” He never said it and they are never going to do it. If you are going to be free, you are going to free yourself, and that is what Malcolm told us. The African nations can’t free us, they can’t save us. They couldn’t save Lumumba in Africa, they couldn’t wreak vengeance upon those who perpetrated his death in Africa. They couldn’t save the Congo; they couldn’t save the black people of Rhodesia; they couldn’t free the black people of South Africa. Then why should we sit here in our own oppression, our own suffering, our own brutality, waiting for some mysterious transformation when black armies from Africa are coming over here and free us? They could use some black armies from over here to free them.
Malcolm never said it, and don’t be misled by the statement that Malcolm tried to internationalize the black man’s struggle. He tried to tell us quite simply that the white man has given you hell here in the United States and he is giving black men hell all over the world. It is one struggle – black men fighting for freedom everywhere, in every country, in the United States, in Africa, in Vietnam, everywhere. Black men fighting against white men for freedom. He tried to tell you that the white man is not going to free you. I don’t care what persuasion or philosophy he has, he is not going to free you, because if he frees you, he must take something away from himself to give it to you.
Funny how we can so easily forget what Malcolm said. I don’t believe it. Certainly he wanted to relate it to the black man’s struggle throughout the world. He knew we were struggling against the same enemy. He knew that we could expect no more justice from the World Court than from a Supreme Court. So much for the Malcolm myth.
Brother Malcolm’s contribution is tremendous. What Brother Malcolm contributed to the black man’s struggle in America and throughout the world cannot be equaled or surpassed by the life of any man. Oh, we can think of individuals like Marcus Garvey. When he looked at the world and said, “Where is the black man’s government?” it was tremendous. Because he understood that the black man was engaged in a struggle against an enemy, and that if he was engaged
in a struggle there were certain things that were necessary – he had to have power, he had to have a government, he had to have economies, he had to have certain things. Marcus Garvey understood it. But no man surpasses Malcolm in his understanding of the meaning of the struggle in which black people are engaged everywhere in the world. And there was no subterfuge or confusion or weak-kneed pussyfooting in Malcolm as long as he lived.
I want to tell you this: we get all confused because we don’t know who assassinated him. I don’t believe that the Honorable Elijah Muhammad assassinated him. You believe whatever you want to, I do not believe it. And because we get confused about who assassinated him, we say there was never any good in Elijah Muhammad or the “Black Muslims.” I don’t believe that either. I believe that the basic truths that Malcolm X taught came from the basic philosophy and teachings of Elijah Muhammad. I believe that the basic contribution which he made, the basic philosophy which he taught, stems directly from the teachings of Elijah Muhammad and the “Black Muslims.” I do not accept all the teachings of Elijah Muhammad or the “Black Muslims,” but I understand what Malcolm X did to those teachings. He took the teachings of a cult, with all the mythology of the “Black Muslims,” and universalized them so that black people everywhere, no matter what their religion, could understand them and could accept them.
I can accept the teachings which he abstracted from the cult philosophy and mythology of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. I do not believe in the story about Yacub and creating the white man as the devil in 6,000 years, but that has nothing to do with the essential truth. I do not believe that the white man is the devil. He does devilish things, but I don’t believe that he is a devil. Because to say that he is a devil is to say that he is more than human, and I don’t believe that. You know that in the Christian religion the devil was flung out of heaven; he was an angel, he was more than a man, and to believe that the white man is a devil is to attribute to him supernatural powers. That is a cult mystique. There is nothing about the white man that is supernatural. He is just exactly like we are – that’s why we can understand him so well. There is nothing mysterious about what he does. He wasn’t condemned to be a devil for 6,000 years – he just acts like a devil because it suits his purpose, and he mistreats us, he oppresses us, he’s brutal to us, because it’s in his interest – not because he is a devil.
It is closer to the truth to say that he is a beast, and that is what Malcolm said. You would like to forget that now, but every time I talked to him, he referred to the white man as a beast. And those of you who are white here will agree with him that most white people are beasts – you can’t deny it. On the basis of the way the white man has treated black men in America and throughout the world for 400 years, you cannot deny that he certainly had a truth there when he said that the white man is a beast. But not a devil. A beast is lower than a man, a devil is higher than a man. Certainly the white man is not a devil, but he is in many instances a beast.
Malcolm was different when he was in the “Black Muslims.” You have got to remember that too – he had a power base then. You know, as quiet as it is kept, it is one thing to operate out of something, to talk out of something, to have something behind you when you go into a town or a city – to go knowing that there are people there who are preparing things for you. It is another thing to step out by yourself and try to go around the country without a power base, without any protection, without any organization in front. And that was the difference when Malcolm X stepped out of the Muslim movement and became an individual. Then he faced the harassment, the danger, the confusion and everything in these last years that those who want to distort Malcolm X want to make so much out of. At the beginning, when he was with the Muslims, there was a power base from which he operated, a philosophical foundation upon which he could build. And he built well and he operated well in terms of a power base. He abstracted the general truths that we still remember. And these things we have got to preserve – we have got to preserve, brothers, I’m telling you, we have got to preserve.
We have a great tendency to turn our leaders over to somebody else. Who is the custodian of Malcolm’s tradition? Who is the custodian? (Voice from audience: “We are.”) But we aren’t acting like it. You know who the custodian is, don’t you? – there he sits, right there. If Mr. Breitman stopped writing, nobody would write anything. And he’s doing it in terms of what he believes is a proper interpretation. If we want to preserve our heroes, we have to become the custodians of that tradition. Who is the custodian of DuBois? Black people? No, we don’t have one thing that he wrote. The Communist Party has it, and they will let us read what they want us to read. I’m talking to you black brothers, I don’t care what the rest of these people think. We have got to become the custodians of our own heroes and save them and interpret them the way we want them interpreted. And if you don’t do it, then you have to accept what somebody else says they said. Who is the custodian of Paul Robeson? (Voice from audience: “The Communists.”) All right, we don’t have it. The great things he said, all of the things – where are they? The CIA has taken over perhaps all of the African Encyclopedia that DuBois was working on in Ghana. Nobody knows where it is. We don’t protect these things. We are careless and we get caught up in the myths that other people spin for us. In another five years our children won’t know what Malcolm X was really like. Because we won’t write it down, and 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.
I say Malcolm X was tremendously important, beyond even our comprehension today, because Malcolm changed the whole course of the black man’s freedom struggle – the whole course of that freedom struggle not only in America but throughout the world. Black people everywhere in Africa, in the United States, everywhere, black people are fighting today a different battle than they fought before Malcolm began to talk. A different battle because Malcolm laid down certain basic principles that we can never forget. He changed the whole course. The first basic principle that Malcolm laid down that we can’t forget is this: The white man is your enemy. That is a basic principle, we can’t forget it. I don’t care what else they drag in from wherever they drag it – remember one thing, Malcolm X taught one truth: The white man is our enemy. We can’t get away from it, and if we accept and understand that one basic truth, his life was not lived in vain. Because upon that one basic truth we can build a total philosophy, a total course of action for struggle. Because that was the basic confusion which distorted the lives of black people, which corrupted the movements of black people. That was the basic area of our confusion, and Malcolm X straightened that out.
The white man is an enemy – he said it. We must break our identification with him, and that was his basic contribution. He didn’t just say it, he didn’t sit off someplace and just write it – he went out and he lived it. He asked for moments of confrontation. He said we have got to break our identification, we can’t go through life identifying with the white man or his government. You remember what he said down there at King Solomon Baptist Church: You talk about “your” navy and “your” astronauts. He said forget it, we don’t identify with these people, they are the enemy. And that is the basic truth. We must break our identification with the enemy, we must confront him, and we must realize that conflict and violence are necessary parts of a struggle against an enemy – that is what he taught. Conflict, struggle and violence are not to be avoided. Don’t be afraid of them – you heard what he said. There has got to be some bloodshed, he said, if black men want to be free – that is what he taught. Now you can’t take that and say that he believed in blacks and whites marching together. He said black men have got to be willing to shed their blood because they believe that they can be free. The white man is an enemy.
We must take pride in ourselves – you know that is what he said. But he didn’t make a mystique out of Africa. He didn’t sit down in a corner and contemplate his navel and think about the wonders of Africa. He said we have a history that we can be proud of. Africa is our history, African blood is our blood, African soil is our soil. We can take pride in our past – not by sitting down and contemplating it, but by using it as the basis for a course of action in today’s world, as a basis for confrontation with the enemy, as a basis for struggle, for conflict, and even for violence, if necessary. We fight because we are proud; and because we are proud, we are not going to lie down and crawl like snakes on our bellies. We are not going to take second-class citizenship sitting down, saying, “Well, in a few years maybe things will change.” We want to change it now. That is what Malcolm told us, that is what we believe, and that is the basis of our struggle today.
A corollary of that, which you must understand and which is essentially Malcolm’s contribution, is that integration is impossible and undesirable. Integration is impossible – he said it time and time and time again, under all kinds of circumstances – integration is impossible and undesirable. Now this was harder for black people to take than for white people. Because white people never wanted it in the first place, and were determined that it would never come to pass in the second place. But black people had been led to believe that it was a possibility, always just around the corner. So black people had pegged all of their organizational efforts toward integration. We sang We Shall Overcome Someday, believing that overcoming meant integrating. The NAACP pegged its whole program on the possibilities of integration. We are going to build an integrated world, we are going to build a world in which black people and white people live together, we are going to build an integrated world – that is what Dr. Martin Luther King said. “I’ve got a dream for America tonight, a dream when the children of slaves shall walk hand-in-hand with the children of slavemasters.” And we believed it until Malcolm X told us it is a lie. And that is a genuine contribution – it is a lie.
You will never walk hand-in-hand with anybody but black people, let me tell you. If you do, it is just a moment of mutual hypocrisy in which you are both engaged, for some purpose best known to yourselves. You may build a position of strength, a position of power from which you can negotiate with strength instead of weakness, and if you are willing to negotiate, then you can talk to the white man as an equal. That is as close to brotherhood as there is – there is no other brotherhood. If you talk to a man as an equal, he is your brother. But there is no other kind of equal. You cannot get down on your knees and talk up to a man and talk about brotherhood. Because you stopped being a brother when you got down on your knees. And if you are afraid to get up and look him in the eye and take a chance of getting killed if necessary, then there is no hope of brotherhood for you. Integration is impossible and undesirable – Malcolm taught it.
We have our own communities. The white man “gave” them to us. He forced us into them. He separated himself from us. And white people went all around the country all the time Malcolm was alive, saying, “He wants separation.” They had separated themselves from us in every area of life, and yet they said, “He is bad, he is wicked, he wants separation.” And if he had asked for integration seriously, they would have killed him more quickly.
He said we are going to control these separate communities. We have them, the white man “gave” them to us, and we are going to stop being ashamed of them. We are going to live in them and we are going to make them the best communities in the world. We are going to make the schools in them black schools and good schools. We are going to make our housing black housing and good housing. We are no longer going to believe that a block is no good till a white man comes and buys a house on it. We are no longer going to believe that if we can move into a community where half of the people on the street are white, that that is a better community. We are going to take our separate communities, we are going to work with them, we are going to control them, we are going to control their politics, we are going to control their economy – we are going to control our community.
Malcolm X laid the entire foundation for everything Stokely Carmichael says. Stokely hasn’t said one word that was not completely implicit in everything that Malcolm X taught. He is just a voice carrying on upon the basic foundation that Malcolm X put down. Integration is impossible and undesirable. We are going to control our own communities. We are going to stop worrying about being separate. We are not worried about busing black children into white neighborhoods. We are not worried about open occupancy, except that we want the right to live any place, and unless we are given that right, we will take it. And when we take it, we will still live together, because we do not want to live with you. That is a philosophy, that is Malcolm X’s philosophy. We have learned it, we still remember it, and there is nothing you can do today to take it away from us. But I’m telling you, brothers, we have got to write it down because they are about to mess it up so we won’t recognize it next year.
The whole civil rights movement has changed. The NAACP is washed up, through, finished. The Urban League is nothing but the social service agency it started out to be. The civil rights movement now is nothing but Stokely Carmichael and Floyd McKissick – that’s it. Because they got the message. They are building today on what Malcolm said yesterday. The civil rights movement, the freedom struggle, the revolution – call it what you will – black men fighting for freedom today are fighting in terms laid down by Brother Malcolm. No other terms. You can’t go out into the community – the brother here said “let’s go out into the community” – you can’t go out into the community with anything other than what Malcolm X taught. Because they won’t listen to you, they won’t hear you.
The whole movement has changed. The last great picnic, as Floyd McKissick said, on the White House lawn, that “great freedom march” – that was the end, that was it. From here on in, black people are trying to build, to organize. Malcolm in his last days was trying to make the transition to organization, to structure; to fight not only in terms of words, of ideas, but to build the organizational structure. He didn’t do it. But he was making the transition because he realized that the next stage is an organizational stage – that if you want to be free, if you want power, you have got to organize to take it.
When you were just begging the white man to give you something, you didn’t need organization. All you needed was a kneeling pad so that you could kneel down and look humble. But if you want power, you have got to organize to get it – you have got to have political power, you have got to have economic power, you have got to organize. Malcolm realized that, and the feeble beginnings he made in the area of organization were pointing the way. Today we have got to carry on that organizational struggle that Malcolm pointed out.
I was in New York, I went to his headquarters while he was over in Africa, I talked with his lieutenants. They didn’t have the slightest idea of what was going on. They loved Malcolm, and they were sitting in the Hotel Theresa in a suite of rooms, but they didn’t have the slightest conception of how to organize. They were waiting for Brother Malcolm to come home so he could tell them what to do. I said, “My God, one man never carried such a load all by himself! He has men here who are supposed to be doing something and they are sitting there waiting for him to come back.” And they were carrying around his letters – he would write back a letter and they were carrying it around like it was the Bible: “Look, we’ve got a few words from Brother Malcolm.”
He did not want reverence – he wanted people who could do something, who could organize, who believed in action, who were willing to go out and sacrifice; and he didn’t have them. And all of us today – black people, brothers from coast to coast – when we get together and do reverence to Malcolm, let us remember that the last message was organize. We didn’t do it and that is why he died. We didn’t have organization enough to protect him. We didn’t have organization enough to give him funds to do what he had to do. We let him die. The message is the same today, and still we are not organizing, we are not doing the work that has to be done. If you love Brother Malcolm, write your poems at night and organize and work in the daytime for power. Because until you get power, Malcolm X is just a memory. When we get power, we will put his statue in every city, because the cities will belong to us. Then we can do him reverence.
But until we get power, let’s not play with images and myths. Let’s remember that he gave us certain principles, certain ideas, and we have got to do something with them. All of us have the task – to organize, to build, to fight, to get power. And as we get it, as we struggle for it, we will remember that we are struggling because we believe the things that he taught. That is the message of Malcolm, and don’t let anybody get you all mixed up. He never turned into an integrationist, never. He wasn’t fooled in Mecca, he wasn’t fooled in Africa. He told it like it was and he knew it like it was. That is our Malcolm. Some other folks may have another Malcolm – they are welcome to it. But brothers, don’t lose our Malcolm.