Perceptions of Malcolm X

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Malcolm X: The Man and the Myth

The American perception of the so-called 'Black Muslim' movement has been largely characterized by fear and distortion, what the Black Muslim community itself has referred to as a "natural reaction" of the oppressor race when faced with the same vitriol it holds for its victims.  The most prominent example of this distortion lies in the popular legacy of Malcolm X (El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz), whose belief in self-defense against racist aggression has been ambiguously immortalized as a violent racism.  This perception is not necessarily based in reality and is not really a fair portrayal of the beliefs of Malcolm X, especially after his splitwith the Nation of Islam in 1963. The origin of the misconception about the nature of Malcolm X's beliefs likely started with Mike Wallace's 1959 documentary, “The Hate that Hate Produced”. The documentary was released while Malcolm was touring Africa, and featured a presentation of the Nation of Islam (NOI) and the Black Muslim movement that has been characterized by modern black scholars as “blatantly one-sided”[1] and “a piece of yellow journalism”.[2] The documentary certainly featured some language that inspired fear, referring to the Nation of Islam was a “disturbing” “black supremacist” group that “ "preach[es] a gospel of hate that would set off a federal investigation if it were preached by Southern whites." While many of these accusation are arguably true in light of the now fairly well-known nature of the NOI, Historian Herbert Shapiro argues that the piece “confuses condemnatory rhetoric with actual commitment to violence against whites.”[3] while the defense of violent rhetoric on the premise that it is not direct violence is questionable, Shapiro makes a salient point by stating that white-supremacist rhetoric was translated into violent action on a frequent basis.[4] The Nation of Islam certainly preached a message of black supremacy, replete with the demonization of the the “white race” as a fantastical race of super-villains.[5] However, as Shapiro argued, there was never any actual plan of violence against whites. The misconception of Malcolm X as a violent activist begins first with his criticism of the nonviolence movement. Malcolm argued that, “Concerning non-violence: it is criminal to teach a man not to defend himself when he is the constant victim of brutal attacks.”[6] Malcolm believed that groups traditionally violently oppressed should be ready to defend themselves through violent means, if necessary. While this position is certainly more militant than the Martin Luther King's Ghandi-inspired rhetoric, there is a fine line advocating a willingness to defend with violence and advocating its visitation on others. Self-defense was an essential part of Malcolm's message and one that was taken to heart by many African Americans. This was particularly evident when the Black Panthers, inspired by Malcolm's words, walked armed into the California State Legislature in 1967 (legally) to make a point about their willingness to defend themselves from police brutality. Malcolm's position on self-defense was not ambiguous and was reinstated several times in his writings and speeches - “I don't even call it violence when it's in self defense; I call it intelligence.” and “Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery.”[7] These are stirring quotations, but not by any means citations to commit racial violence. Malcolm's criticism of the MLK-style of nonviolence was not just based on his willingness to suffer police brutality. He argued in a 1963 television panel that non-violence worked in India because the Indians massively outnumbered the British Imperials. Thus their nonviolent efforts had a correspondingly heavy impact. It could not work the same way in America, he argued, because the black minority would not have the same leverage.[8] Activist...