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International Socialist Review, Spring 1965


Robert Vernon

Malcolm X: Voice of the Black Ghetto


From International Socialist Review, Vol.26, No.2, Spring 1965, pp.36-37.
Transcribed Danielo Gaido.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Robert Vernon, frequent contributor to the ISR, is the author of the recently published pamphlet, The Black Ghetto, with preface by Rev. Albert B. Cleage Jr. and introduction by James Shabazz. Published by Pioneer Publishers, 5 East Third Street, New York, N.Y. 10003.

* * *

The embattled black people of America suffered an irreparable loss when bullets fired by assassins struck down Malcolm X in New York, on February 21, 1965. This criminal act did more than silence the voice of the most articulate spokesman for the poor of the teeming black ghettos of our northern metropolises. It robbed all the oppressed – black and white, yellow and brown – inside and outside the United States – of a brother, of an incorruptible voice, of a revolutionist of uncommon talent and ability who was yet to reach his peak as a brilliant revolutionary agitator and mass leader.

Since the underprivileged and oppressed masses of black people in the large cities of the north constitute a key sector of the American working class, surpassing all other sectors in combativity, in group consciousness, in concentration, and in estrangement from the affluent Great Society, this loss must be seen as a terrible blow to the development of revolutionary consciousness and revolutionary organization in America.

At this stage in the development and reconstitution of American radicalism, including black radicalism, cadres and leaders of ability are precious assets. A unique leader of the towering potential exhibited by Malcolm X, who gave voice to the feelings and aspirations of a crucial sector of the oppressed masses, and at the same time possessed a horizon of vision and ability to learn and develop which would have later rendered him an effective leader of white students and white workers as well, could advance the progress of revolutionary politics on a mass scale by leaps and bounds.

Malcolm X’s potential as effective agitator and mass leader was proven in action in the movement which reshaped him and which he helped shape into a mass movement, the Nation of Islam (or “Black Muslims”). This apocalyptic religious movement, a product of the black ghettos of Chicago and Detroit, was the first movement since Garvey’s time to interact effectively with the ghetto masses on a mass scale, and differed from all other religions and all other mass movements in its close association with those ghettos. Malcolm X was a major factor in the swift expansion of this movement in the past decade. His contribution was quantitative as a dynamic recruiter and qualitative as a two-way link between the turbulence of the ghetto and the movement. [1]

The development of this peculiar religious mass movement, with its strong appeal to black workers in the ghettos, was a puzzling symptom manifested by social forces at work. What were those social forces? Why should their first manifestation be a religious one? If a religion could become a mass movement, what was holding back the development of an effective political mass movement attracting the same layers of the exploited?

In addition to the usual comforts of religious spirituality, the Nation of Islam had developed a slashing indictment of Christianity on a religious-political basis which struck home deep to many black people, utilizing the very Bible of the Christians to illustrate in vivid terms the hell the black man was experiencing in America. [2] This was accompanied by a pungent indictment of white society in general, in words and imagery which resonated in the consciousness of their black audiences.

But the overtones of a radical political mass movement as promoted by Malcom X, interacting more closely with the political and social aspirations and problems of the working-class Harlems in America, set up an explosive disequilibrium in the Nation of Islam. A conservatised religious hierarchy appreciates any increase in influence, in members, and especially in income and property, but sees its priorities in stability and respectability. This led to an inevitable schism in the movement, and the freeing of Malcolm X from the religious cocoon. [3]

This split, in early 1964, was consummated at a time of heightened turmoil and intensified searches for clarity and program in the civil rights movement and in black radical currents. Ghetto rebels were searching for concrete, effective ways to develop organizationally and politically. Civil rights activists, dissatisfied with white liberal leadership and control, and realizing the limitations of “solutions” based on “integration” and “acceptance” by whites, cast about for new methods, new ideas, new allies. Revolutionary socialists were learning that the “Negro struggle” was not just civil rights, freedom rides, self-defense, equality-under-socialism and Negro-White Unity, and that the black ghettos were the key not only to the Negro struggle but also to the class struggle.

Malcolm X embodied in his person and thought all the contradictions and limitations of the black movement, and with them embodied also distinct possibilities of resolving these contradictions in a creative and dynamic synthesis.

Malcolm X understood, and stressed with penetrating clarity and pungent wit, that “integration” and “civil rights” could barely even begin to solve the problems of black people in America – that the friendship of a handful of remote white liberals and the passage of a few unenforced laws will not mean jobs or liveable conditions for black people, will not provide an adequate education for black children cheated by inferior slum “schools,” will not stop rats from biting black babies, will not keep cops from putting their nightsticks and electric cattle prods upside the heads of black youth. At the same time, Malcolm X understood, and pointed out insistently to his Harlem audience, that endless talk about black nationalism and race pride, whatever its value, must not substitute for effective organization and effective action to produce results.

Malcolm X displayed an uncommon ability to think in unfettered, innately dialectical terms, free of fetishism and fixation on slogan-words. He saw clearly that mass struggles have to be joined in and developed further from the level of consciousness of the people immediately engaged in them, and that the gains of an immediate struggle for partial ends and the experience acquired in such a struggle will lead to a next phase of broader, more uncompromising struggle.

Malcolm X did not limit his participation in struggle to a parochial identification solely with his Harlem following. Unlike the “dedicated, responsible Negro leader” approved by white liberals, Malcolm X spoke out loud and clear against the crimes of the U.S. government in the Congo, against American aggression in South Vietnam. “If we’re going to be nonviolent at home, then let’s be nonviolent abroad, too.” Such an attitude is no way to win friends among white liberals, or to win invitations to White House luncheons, or to win Nobel peace prizes.

Malcolm X stood firm as a rock against the wild stampede to dive under Johnson’s skirts for protection from the Big Bad Wolf Goldwater. Malcolm X would not yield an inch in his opposition to the “LBJ All the Way” hysteria which lined up all the Negro “leaders” at attention before the Great White Father in the White House.

In the last year of his life, Malcolm X voiced an unambiguous stand for socialism and against capitalism. His honesty, his contempt for dissimulation, the way he “told it like it is,” stand out in sharp contrast to a degenerate society which lives on “images” and “postures,” which rewards those who settle for part of the truth and part of the pie.

Shallow thinkers will measure Malcolm X through the shortsighted eyes of liberals, and speculate on his “changing” toward the “mainstream” of the Negro movement, i.e., toward the civil rights sector controlled by white liberals. In the time-honored manner in which dead revolutionists are transformed into harmless, toothless icons, reams of worthless literature will appear picturing Malcolm X as on the road to finding his place as a civil rights liberal when he met his tragic end. Such “eulogy” is actually insulting.

Malcolm X lived as a revolutionist, died as a revolutionist, and at his death was developing into a more effective revolutionist, on a local and on an international scale, in the fight for black people in America and in the fight for the oppressed all over the world.


1. In the New York Times Nov. 8, 1964, Black Muslim leaders Henry X and Joseph X of Muhammad’s Temple No.7 in New York complained that it was Malcolm X who put the ghetto where the religion was. “They said it was Malcolm who injected the political concept of ‘black nationalism’ into the Black Muslim movement, which they said was essentially religious in nature when Malcolm became a member.”

2. The Islamic or pseudo-Islamic ritual was entirely irrelevant to this process. So long as the movement had meaning to the ghetto poor in terms of their own experiences, and provided psychological and material therapy against the ravages of a white-dominated hell called America, the religion could have been Black Buddhism or Black Brahamism or Black Anything with equal effect.

3. “Any time I’m in a religion that doesn’t let me fight a battle for my people, I say to hell with that religion.” – Malcolm X, Nov. 30, 1964.

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