NEW YORK—Malcolm X, unlike Martin Luther King Jr., did not believe America had a conscience. For him there was no great tension between the lofty ideals of the nation—which he said were a sham—and the failure to deliver justice to blacks.
He, perhaps better than King, understood the inner workings of empire. He had no hope that those who managed empire would ever get in touch with their better selves to build a country free of exploitation and injustice.
He argued that from the arrival of the first slave ship to the appearance of our vast archipelago of prisons and our squalid, urban internal colonies where the poor are trapped and abused, the American empire was unrelentingly hostile to those Frantz Fanon called “the wretched of the earth.” This, Malcolm knew, would not change until the empire was destroyed.
“It is impossible for capitalism to survive, primarily because the system of capitalism needs some blood to suck,” Malcolm said.
“Capitalism used to be like an eagle, but now it’s more like a vulture. It used to be strong enough to go and suck anybody’s blood whether they were strong or not. But now it has become more cowardly, like the vulture, and it can only suck the blood of the helpless. As the nations of the world free themselves, then capitalism has less victims, less to suck, and it becomes weaker and weaker. It’s only a matter of time in my opinion before it will collapse completely.”
King was able to achieve a legal victory through the civil rights movement, portrayed in the new film “Selma.” But he failed to bring about economic justice and thwart the rapacious appetite of the war machine that he was acutely aware was responsible for empire’s abuse of the oppressed at home and abroad.
And 50 years after Malcolm X was assassinated in the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem by hit men from the Nation of Islam, it is clear that he, not King, was right. We are the nation Malcolm knew us to be. Human beings can be redeemed. Empires cannot.
Our refusal to face the truth about empire, our refusal to defy the multitudinous crimes and atrocities of empire, has brought about the nightmare Malcolm predicted. And as the Digital Age and our post-literate society implant a terrifying historical amnesia, these crimes are erased as swiftly as they are committed.
“Sometimes, I have dared to dream … that one day, history may even say that my voice—which disturbed the white man’s smugness, and his arrogance, and his complacency—that my voice helped to save America from a grave, possibly even fatal catastrophe,” Malcolm wrote.
The integration of elites of color, including Barack Obama, into the upper echelons of institutional and political structures has done nothing to blunt the predatory nature of empire. Identity and gender politics—we are about to be sold a woman president in the form of Hillary Clinton—have fostered, as Malcolm understood, fraud and theft by Wall Street, the evisceration of our civil liberties, the misery of an underclass in which half of all public school children live in poverty, the expansion of our imperial wars and the deep and perhaps fatal exploitation of the ecosystem.
And until we heed Malcolm X, until we grapple with the truth about the self-destruction that lies at the heart of empire, the victims, at home and abroad, will mount. Malcolm, like James Baldwin, understood that only by facing the truth about who we are as members of an imperial power can people of color, along with whites, be liberated.
This truth is bitter and painful. It requires an acknowledgment of our capacity for evil, injustice and exploitation, and it demands repentance. But we cling like giddy children to the lies we tell ourselves about ourselves. We refuse to grow up. And because of these lies, perpetrated across the cultural and political spectrum, liberation has not taken place. Empire devours us all.
“We’re anti-evil, anti-oppression, anti-lynching,” Malcolm said. “You can’t be anti- those things unless you’re also anti- the oppressor and the lyncher. You can’t be anti-slavery and pro-slavemaster; you can’t be anti-crime and pro-criminal. In fact, Mr. Muhammad teaches that if the present generation of whites would study their own race in the light of true history, they would be anti-white themselves.”
Malcolm once said that, had he been a middle-class black who was encouraged to go to law school, rather than a poor child in a detention home who dropped out of school at 15,
“I would today probably be among some city’s professional black bourgeoisie, sipping cocktails and palming myself off as a community spokesman for and leader of the suffering black masses, while my primary concern would be to grab a few more crumbs from the groaning board of the two-faced whites with whom they’re begging to ‘integrate.’ ”
Malcolm’s family, struggling and poor, was callously ripped apart by state agencies in a pattern that remains unchanged. The courts, substandard schooling, roach-filled apartments, fear, humiliation, despair, poverty, greedy bankers, abusive employers, police, jails and probation officers did their work then as they do it now.
Malcolm saw racial integration as a politically sterile game, one played by a black middle class anxious to sell its soul as an enabler of empire and capitalism. “The man who tosses worms in the river,” Malcolm said, “isn’t necessarily a friend of the fish. All the fish who take him for a friend, who think the worm’s got no hook on it, usually end up in the frying pan.” He related to the apocalyptic battles in the Book of Revelation where the persecuted rise up in revolt against the wicked.
“Martin [Luther King Jr.] doesn’t have the revolutionary fire that Malcolm had until the very end of his life,” Cornel West says in his book with Christa Buschendorf, “Black Prophetic Fire.” “And by revolutionary fire I mean understanding the system under which we live, the capitalist system, the imperial tentacles, the American empire, the disregard for life, the willingness to violate law, be it international law or domestic law. Malcolm understood that from very early on, and it hit Martin so hard that he does become a revolutionary in his own moral way later in his short life, whereas Malcolm had the revolutionary fire so early in his life.”
There are three great books on Malcolm X: “The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley,” “The Death and Life of Malcolm X” by Peter Goldman and “Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare” by James H. Cone.
On Friday I met Goldman—who as a reporter for a St. Louis newspaper and later for Newsweek knew and covered Malcolm—in a New York City cafe. Goldman was part of a tiny circle of white reporters Malcolm respected, including Charles Silberman of Fortune and M.S. “Mike” Handler of The New York Times, who Malcolm once said had “none of the usual prejudices or sentimentalities about black people.”
Goldman and his wife, Helen Dudar, who also was a reporter, first met Malcolm in 1962 at the Shabazz Frosti Kreem, a Black Muslim luncheonette in St. Louis’ north-side ghetto. At that meeting Malcolm poured some cream into his coffee. “Coffee is the only thing I liked integrated,” he commented. He went on:
“The average Negro doesn’t even let another Negro know what he thinks, he’s so mistrusting. He’s an acrobat. He had to be to survive in this civilization. But by me being a Muslim, I’m black first—my sympathies are black, my allegiance is black, my whole objectives are black. By me being a Muslim, I’m not interested in being American, because America has never been interested in me.”
He told Goldman and Dudar: “We don’t hate. The white man has a guilt complex—he knows he’s done wrong. He knows that if he had undergone at our hands what we have undergone at his, he would hate us.” When Goldman told Malcolm he believed in a single society in which race did not matter Malcolm said sharply: “You’re dealing in fantasy. You’ve got to deal in facts.”
Goldman remembered, “He was the messenger who brought us the bad news, and nobody wanted to hear it.” Despite the “bad news” at that first meeting, Goldman would go on to have several more interviews with him, interviews that often lasted two or three hours. The writer now credits Malcolm for his “re-education.”
Goldman was struck from the beginning by Malcolm’s unfailing courtesy, his dazzling smile, his moral probity, his courage and, surprisingly, his gentleness. Goldman mentions the day that psychologist and writer Kenneth B. Clark and his wife escorted a group of high school students, most of them white, to meet Malcolm.
They arrived to find him surrounded by reporters. Mrs. Clark, feeling that meeting with reporters was probably more important, told Malcolm the teenagers would wait. “The important thing is these kids,” Malcolm said to the Clarks as he called the students forward. “He didn’t see a difference between white kids and kids,” Kenneth Clark is quoted as saying in Goldman’s book.
James Baldwin too wrote of Malcolm’s deep sensitivity. He and Malcolm were on a radio program in 1961 with a young civil rights activist who had just returned from the South. “If you are an American citizen,” Baldwin remembered Malcolm asking the young man, “why have you got to fight for your rights as a citizen? To be a citizen means that you have the rights of a citizen. If you haven’t got the rights of a citizen, then you’re not a citizen.” “It’s not as simple as that,” the young man answered. “Why not?” Malcolm asked.
During the exchange, Baldwin wrote, “Malcolm understood that child and talked to him as though he was talking to a younger brother, and with that same watchful attention. What most struck me was that he was not at all trying to proselytize the child: he was trying to make him think. … I will never forget Malcolm and that child facing each other, and Malcolm’s extraordinary gentleness. And that’s the truth about Malcolm: he was one of the gentlest people I have ever met.”
“One of Malcolm’s many lines that I liked was ‘I am the man you think you are,’ ” Goldman said. “What he meant by that was if you hit me I would hit you back. But over the period of my acquaintance with him I came to believe it also meant if you respect me I will respect you back.”
Cone amplifies this point in “Martin & Malcolm & America”:
Malcolm X is the best medicine against genocide. He showed us by example and prophetic preaching that one does not have to stay in the mud. We can wake up; we can stand up; and we can take that long walk toward freedom. Freedom is first and foremost an inner recognition of self-respect, a knowledge that one was not put on this earth to be a nobody. Using drugs and killing each other are the worst forms of nobodyness.
Our forefathers fought against great odds (slavery, lynching, and segregation), but they did not self-destruct. Some died fighting, and others, inspired by their example, kept moving toward the promised land of freedom, singing ‘we ain’t gonna let nobody turn us around.’ African-Americans can do the same today.
We can fight for our dignity and self-respect. To be proud to be black does not mean being against white people, unless whites are against respecting the humanity of blacks. Malcolm was not against whites; he was for blacks and against their exploitation.
Goldman lamented the loss of voices such as Malcolm’s, voices steeped in an understanding of our historical and cultural truths and endowed with the courage to speak these truths in public.
“We don’t read anymore,” Goldman said. “We don’t learn anymore. History is disappearing. People talk about living in the moment as if it is a virtue. It is a horrible vice. Between the twitterverse and the 24-hour cable news cycle our history keeps disappearing. History is something boring that you had to endure in high school and then you are rid of it. Then you go to college and study finance, accounting, business management or computer science. There are damn few liberal arts majors left. And this has erased our history. The larger figure in the ’60s was, of course, King. But what the huge majority of Americans know about King is [only] that he made a speech where he said ‘I have a dream’ and that his name is attached to a day off.”
Malcolm, like King, understood the cost of being a prophet. The two men daily faced down this cost.
Malcolm, as Goldman writes, met with the reporter Claude Lewis not long before his Feb. 21, 1965, murder. He had already experienced several attempts on his life.
“This is an era of hypocrisy,” he told Lewis. “When white folks pretend that they want Negroes to be free, and Negroes pretend to white folks that they really believe that white folks want ’em to be free, it’s an era of hypocrisy, brother. You fool me and I fool you. You pretend that you’re my brother, and I pretend that I really believe you believe you’re my brother.”
He told Lewis he would never reach old age. “If you read, you’ll find that very few people who think like I think live long enough to get old. When I say by any means necessary, I mean it with all my heart, my mind and my soul. A black man should give his life to be free, and he should also be able, be willing to take the life of those who want to take his. When you really think like that, you don’t live long.”
Lewis asked him how he wanted to be remembered. “Sincere,” Malcolm said. “In whatever I did or do. Even if I made mistakes, they were made in sincerity. If I’m wrong, I’m wrong in sincerity. I think that the best thing that a person can be is sincere.”
“The price of freedom,” Malcolm said shortly before he was killed, “is death.”
Chris Hedges previously spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years.