“You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear
You’ve got to be taught from year to year
You’ve got to be carefully taught.” –Rodgers and Hammerstein, “South Pacific”
Most people are taught to think. They may be taught at home or at school. But they are taught.
Fifty-seven years ago, on Feb. 21, 1965, one Black man shot and killed another Black man and changed the course of history. The killer could have been from the FBI, he could have been from the Nation of Islam, he could have been a finger on the hand of both. Who the guy was, we do not know — all we know is that he was Black, he was effective, and that he was taught to think differently from Malcolm X even though they were the same color.
Malcolm X’s death changed the world.
Because of that assassin, a way of thinking was effectively diluted. It still is to this day.
Malcolm was the bad boy of that era; Martin Luther King Jr. was the saintly one. Martin was nonviolent and turned the other cheek. Malcolm was for plucking out your eyeballs and teeth. It is true that they both had the same goals, they just went about it differently. It was the Beatles versus the Rolling Stones. They both made beautiful music. Bad boys, however, don’t get a national holiday named after them. They may get a boulevard in Harlem, but not a paid vacation day. Saintly ones become martyrs.
Malcolm X voiced the thoughts that many people, mostly Black, were thinking but were afraid to say out loud.
Malcom said that Blacks were being played for suckers; that we were believing that Black people’s failures were our own fault since we had no knowledge of root causes or our oppressed history. He talked about the seminal philosophies of a Black nationalist party. Clearly, neither the Republicans nor the Democrats were interested in the needs of Black people. Neither party kept their promises, not to Black people, not to people of any color, not to poor people of any stripe. He said that even when voting as a bloc, the politicians were white with white values, even those few Black existing politicians had to have white values, or else they would never have been permitted to run or get elected.
“I’ll have them n______ voting Democratic for the next 200 years.” –Lyndon B. Johnson [said to two governors regarding the Civil Rights Act of 1964, according to then–Air Force One steward Robert MacMillan]
The notion of Black people forming a political party that favored Blacks was an anathema to me. A political party should represent all the people, Black and white. It should answer to the needs of all its constituencies.
I never said that I was bright. I was earnest, but not very bright. Huge numbers of Black people thought the same way. Malcolm was going too far. He must pull back on his rhetoric if he was going to attract college-educated Negroes like myself. Of course, I did not know about the Lyndon Johnson quote at the time. If I did, I probably would have made some sort of namby-pamby, rationalized excuse for him. I may have been college-educated, but it was a white college, and I had “liberal” white values. I didn’t know the difference between civil rights and human rights. Malcolm taught me that. Civil rights are the rights that a government gives to civilians. Human rights are the rights you have as a human being. Civil rights are protected by civil law; human rights should be protected by natural law — the right to life, education, employment, food, shelter. That’s not my definition, it is the definition of the United Nations. Black people had none of those rights.
It never occurred to me that both mainstream political parties were white people who upheld the needs and the power of white people. They were one group of wealthy white people opposing a different group of wealthy white people as to who could steal the most from poor people who trusted them. True, they represented all the people. All the people who were wealthy and white.
Malcolm supported forming cooperative towns which were Black-owned, Black business, Black professionals, Black curriculum, and run by Black people. It was a good idea, I guess he never heard of Tulsa. If Malcolm had his way, there would have been massacres throughout the United States. Tulsa wasn’t the only self-sufficient Black community that was destroyed when the community got power. The Elaine Arkansas Riot in 1919, the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898, Africville, and many others were decimated as well.
If Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town” had been written by August Wilson about an all-Black town with an all-Black government, it would have been thought of as “agitprop” theater. I know, because I wrote one. The very thought that Black people could oversee their own lives scared the bejesus out of white people. They thought, “Oh, oh, what if the situation is reversed? Will they treat us the way we treated them? Will they learn to hate us from the lessons we taught them?”
Malcolm thought of himself as a revolutionary. Revolutionary in thought and in action. He wanted to put the power into the hands of the constituents who lived in communities. In the past, to do that, a lot of blood was shed. Patrick Henry shed a lot of blood, so did Washington. They were seeking freedom from England; Blacks were seeking freedom from the institutionalized racism as stated in the Constitution of the United States of America.
Malcolm wanted to have a bloodless revolution. “Give me freedom or give me death,” said Patrick Henry. “Let my vote mean something,” said Malcolm X.
Here it is 50 years later, and the vote still doesn’t mean anything. In fact, it’s going backward. The Democrats (the people’s party) couldn’t even protect the voting rights bill. This means that it will be state authorities who will be responsible to protect fair elections. Now, how do you think that is going to play in Georgia? Georgia’s Republicans are dancing up and down with joy with their success in sabotaging the Black vote.
Malcolm had a lot of brilliant theories, all of them about making the world a better place, all of them aimed at equalizing the races, distributing wealth more evenly, and instead of trying to bury 10 percent of America’s people, encourage them, extol them, because that 10 percent will make America stronger.
Here is something Malcolm didn’t count on: white callousness and white guilt.
Historically, the cruel treatment of Black people from Jamestown to today has given some white people a thick skin, an inability to see a situation from another person’s point of view. Those kinds of white people haven’t a clue about life from the eyes of a Black person. Other white people feel so guilty that they are ashamed of being white. At a meeting of the M.V. Diversity Coalition, some people bemoan the fact that they are white, and own up to the atrocities their ancestors have bequeathed. They are aware of the privileges that come with being white, the luxury of being part of the ruling class, yet it churns in their stomachs and in their minds, and they cannot find peace. I’m not saying that we should feel sorry for these white people. I’m simply saying that racism affects us all in different ways. Fannie Lou Hamer was clearheaded and firm when she talked about the bravery of the young white people who went to the South to organize the vote. She loved them as much as she loved those who needed to know that they could vote. Mrs. Hamer also recognized the need for Black sustainability.
Well, Malcolm understood her position, and it was when his attitude toward whites was evolving, that “they” shot him. Clearly, they had to.
If Malcolm was given the opportunity to unite the exploited, to affect their thinking, all hell could break loose. Poor people would be helping other poor people across the board. Democracy would be about representing the majority by the majority. According to opensecrets.org, in 2012, the median net worth for members of the 113th Congress was $1,008,727. Skip ahead seven years to 2019, and the poverty threshold for a family of four was $25,926.
Now you know good and well that the concerns of the congressperson who is worth over a million dollars are not the same concerns as someone whose annual salary equals the congressperson’s weekly salary. There were 34 million people who lived below the poverty line in 2019.
Malcolm was beginning to realize that in addition to race, it was how you think that separates us. True, the white man can be your enemy, but then again, don’t wealthy Black people exploit workers as much as anyone else?
It’s how people think that separates them more than anything else.
When Malcolm returned from Mecca, he said, “That morning was the start of a radical alteration in my whole outlook about white men.”
In his introduction to “The Autobiography of Malcom X,” by M.S. Handler, he says that “Malcolm’s attitude toward the white man underwent a marked change in 1964.” Many people talked about his trip to Mecca. Charles Wilson said, “Even his attitude toward whites was affected by his experiences in that holy place … he became less and less doctrinairely antagonistic toward whites.”
Those who followed Malcolm were disappointed in this change of attitude, and made a big fuss about denying it. In their heads, Malcolm could never become an “integrationist.” If only the covert assassination government agencies saw it that way, perhaps they would not have murdered him. The truth is, he was not talking about racial integration, he was talking about people sticking together with the same thoughts; the voter registration people 50 years ago, the non-Black, Black Lives Matter supporters of today. Having a community of like-minded people who understood the needs of humanity. Mecca taught him to see the beauty inside a person. He recognized that Daniel Shays did not risk his life by singing “We Shall Overcome,” he risked his life by gathering a group of like-minded men and threatening the government with pitchforks. That threat is what persuaded the “Founding Fathers” to write the Constitution. Malcolm didn’t dismiss Shays because he was white. Malcolm admired him because he represented his community.
So, what is our “bad boy’s” legacy? Well, the Black National Party, which had its roots with Marcus Garvey, evolved into the Black Panthers, then SNCC, SDS, and CORE, and now BLM. Everything Malcolm said is true; every single organization formed to empower Black people has been besmirched by politicians and the press.
In 1969 J. Edgar Hoover said, “The Black Panther Party, without question, represents the greatest threat to the internal security of the country. ‘Schooled in the Marxist-Leninist ideology and the teachings of Chinese Communist leader Mao Tse-tung, its members have perpetrated numerous assaults on police officers and have engaged in violent confrontations with police in cities throughout the country, Leaders and representatives of the Black Panther Party travel extensively all over the United States preaching their gospel of hate and violence not only to ghetto residents, but to students in colleges, universities, and high schools as well.”
The Panthers’ biggest campaigns were self-help programs, such as their breakfast for grammar school children.
In 2020, ex-President Trump said of the Black Lives Matter movement, “The stated goal of BLM organization, people, is to achieve the destruction of the nuclear family, abolish the police, abolish prisons, abolish border security, abolish capitalism, and abolish school choice — that’s what their stated goals are.”
To my knowledge no politician or news outlet has corrected either one of them.
It’s not color, it’s the way you think which separates us. It’s the ability to have compassion, the ability to care. If it were color, no Black man would have killed Malcolm. The idea of taking action for profit and greed, to take action against another human being to benefit yourself, those are the things that separate us at least as much as color.
There is no proof that Lyndon Johnson ever uttered that quote. In fact, it is exceedingly unlikely. And he was utterly instrumental in passing the Civil Rights Act.
Not sure why you feel the need to attack him?
Aron, it was not an attack, it was a way of showing how…even when you think someone is on your side, their thinking shows differently. Johnson was famous for using the “N” word.
“According to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, he also uttered this cynical-sounding statement, which sometimes circulates in tandem with the “voting Democratic” remark:
These Negroes, they’re getting pretty uppity these days and that’s a problem for us since they’ve got something now they never had before, the political pull to back up their uppityness. Now we’ve got to do something about this, we’ve got to give them a little something, just enough to quiet them down, not enough to make a difference. For if we don’t move at all, then their allies will line up against us and there’ll be no way of stopping them, we’ll lose the filibuster and there’ll be no way of putting a brake on all sorts of wild legislation. It’ll be Reconstruction all over again.”
Let us not forget, he was the one who pulled the plug on Fannie Lou Hamer.
I am simply trying to show that politicians think one thing and say another. For Black people, its a matter of choosing between two non-caring parties.
Thank you for taking the time to read the piece and to comment on it.
LBJ singularly made things worse for Blacks in the US when he ushered in ”The Great Society” His social welfare programs incentivized poverty and broke down the Black family. The current state of dysfunction in the black community (astronomically high crime rates, very low rates of home ownership and single motherhood as the norm) are not the natural state of the black community in the United States, but closely tied to the role that social welfare programs play.
And who gave you the right to speak for all Black community? Especially when you are posting such ridiculous falsehoods.
The Great Society was the greatest victory in the War on Poverty since the New Deal.
We all have the God given Right to speak for anyone we want.
We do not have the Right to make them listen.
Levy. the War on Poverty was not just a failure but a catastrophe. 14 percent poverty then and 14 percent now and after about 15 trillion dollars since 1964. The falsehood is yours.
AE: Why was the War on Poverty a failure? We enacted legislation to bring the descendants of an enslaved people up from poverty. True, the effort fell short despite that the exalted white majority which owned and controlled the economy did everything possible to make these people full equals. So why… how did it fail?
Johnson spoke like students and teachers did when I was in school in the 60’s.
My fifth grade blond haired blued teacher did not actually use the “N” word.
When referring to “Those People”she used the word Negros and pronounced it Nigras.
We have come a long way in the last 150 years.
We have a long way still to go.
I think your essay is terrific and accurate. Thanks for an insightful piece.
Possibly you could also mention Professor Manning Marable’s seminal work, “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention”, and published four days after Marable’s death on April 1st, 2011, coincidentally in the same hospital in which Malcolm had died. I had the honor of transcribing this book for Dr. Marable, both when he was a summer resident here on the Island, and also when he would fax me pages of his book and other books and articles and speeches from Columbia University where he was head of IRAAS.
Really interesting article. It’s great to find an article like this in our local paper. Glad I read it and thank you for writing it! But you should make one change. I think you are referring to J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI, not the former President Herbert Hoover (who died in 1964).
You are correct. We’ve updated the piece. Thank you.
Fascinating article, Abigail, and I think your writing proves how bright you truly are (in contradiction to your statement about your college-aged intellect). My boyfriend in the late 60s was the national secretary of SDS so I was all over Malcolm’s revolution. Now there’s been so much saintly devotion to Martin, it gets in the way of the polarity they presented back in those days. There was so much going on, then and now, that we’ve clearly got to keep the conversation going.
As for the debate about LBJ’s quote, try this analysis:
check out the “Intellectual Takeout” website regarding this quote.
Thank you, Abigail, for bringing me back. Summer 1964, at age sixteen, I got off at the Melrose Station to head to my first camp counselor job at the Bronx Union YMCA. I entered another world, another language and culture, where I felt alive, more “at home” than in the alienating suburbs of my mother and grandmother’s house. It was the time of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, debates of philosophy spread hope of change, minds were expanding. The heat and humidity acted like a pressure cooker ready to spew out anger at the uncovering of blatant inequities. Fifteen-year-old African American James Powell was killed by NYPD Lieutenant Thomas Gilligan who was found not guilty, all charges dropped. In reaction to the murder, a bloody and violent uprising and confrontation continued for six days until July 22nd.
Two days later, July 24th, 1964, my father, my champion, and a fighter against racism and anti-Semitism, died of a heart attack while Harlem was erupting. I honor my father with a commitment to racial equity and human rights, and an openness to the lessons spoken by MLK and Malcolm X, the discourse and debates that exposed injustices, that challenged us to actively eradicate racism and discrimination. So many lessons to learn from the struggles fought by freedom fighters who lost their lives fighting for humanity, for decency, for fairness. I was fortunate to have had these teachers in my lifetime, to have those shoulders to stand on, and to appreciate the younger generations of leaders who guide us forward as we build a better future together.
Abby, your piece brought back so many memories of a period of exploration and learning in my life; and reading and studying the wise words of Malcolm X as he shared his own voyages of discovery were essential for me to learn and understand the culture of our country. Thank you
Excellent piece, very thought provoking.
I agree whole-heartedly with Brian Hughes. It is great to find an article like this in our local paper. I look forward to reading Abigail McGrath’s pieces because she always hits the nail on the head about the issue, is charming, funny and never makes me feel guilty. I wish she wrote more articles like this. We are a sophisticated island, and we deserve sophisticated writers. I wish you would publish more of her works.
Thank you so much for this thoughtful article. We need more of these conversations at the forefront of our community dialogue. I was born and raised on this island, and I never learned about Malcolm X in school. We talked plenty about Dr. King, though. Non-violent protest is much less threatening to white teachers and students than “by any means necessary.” If not taught appropriately, Malcolm X can be so gravely misunderstood. Students should be taught about the two great men side-by-side (along with the other brilliant activists of the time), to compare their strengths and challenges, and how their thinking and actions evolved throughout their too-short lives. Before his pilgrimage, Malcolm’s rhetoric was a powerful catalyst for the white fragility and fear we still see in America today. In Mecca, when he saw all his Muslim brothers and sisters coming together, of many different colors from many different countries, he realized it couldn’t be color alone that should separate us and began to shift his thinking in the direction of Dr. King. I often wonder what ideas Malcolm would have shared had he lived longer. Either way, our students deserve the truth about Malcolm X’s brilliance and legacy, and should have the opportunity to see his evolution as a thinker and activist.
Love this piece. We all need to keep thinking about history from so many angles in order to keep making the present better
Brava Ms McGrath
Comments are closed.