Why Malcolm X Still Speaks Truth to Power

Fifty years after his death, Malcolm X remains a towering figure whose passionate writings have enduring resonance

From the Smithsonian National Museum of American History (Platon / Trunk Archive)
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Malcolm X was music in motion. He was jazz in motion, and, of course, jazz is improvisation, swing and the blues. Malcolm had all three of those things. He could be lyrical and funny and, in the next moment, he’d shift and be serious and push you against the wall. The way he spoke had a swing to it, had a rhythm to it. It was a call and response with the audience that you get with jazz musicians. And he was the blues. Blues is associated with catastrophe. From the very beginning, from slavery to Jim Crow, that sense of catastrophe, of urgency, of needing to get it out, to cry out, to shout, somehow allowed that fire inside of his bones to be pressed with power and with vision. He never lost that.

 The button bearing an image of Malcolm X—created after his death as an act of commemoration—is in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, a talisman of his loss. 

Let me talk about that loss. Just before he was shot in New York on February 21, 1965, Malcolm was setting up his own mosque. He was a Sunni Muslim leader. When we think what it means to be a revolutionary Muslim in this day, when people are looking for ways Islam can be compatible with democracy, his assassination robbed us of that. He could have been a model of what it means to be a revolutionary Muslim, in the way in which Martin Luther King Jr. became a revolutionary Christian. 

It’s a fascinating development that could have taken place, and both perspectives could have begun to overlap.  In fact, Malcolm was a Muslim but he invoked Hebrew prophets, Isaiah, Amos. He invoked Jesus, emphasizing that perspective of looking at the world from below, echoing the 25th chapter of Matthew: What you do for the least of these—the prisoner, the poor, the stranger, the widow, the fatherless, the motherless, the weak, the vulnerable—has lasting value. 

You can’t talk about one without the other—Malcolm X without Martin Luther King. For me, Malcolm had a revolutionary fire that Martin didn’t have initially; Martin had a moral fire from the very beginning that Malcolm didn’t get until later. Malcolm’s love for black people was so strong and so intense that early on it led him to call white folk devils and give up on them, and I think he was wrong about that. Martin never did that. But Martin didn’t have the revolutionary fire that Malcolm had until the very end of his life. 

Malcolm would say over and over again, “What do you think you would do after 400 years of slavery and Jim Crow and lynching? Do you think you would respond nonviolently? What’s your history like? Let’s look at how you have responded when you were oppressed. George Washington—revolutionary guerrilla fighter!” So Malcolm was saying explicitly, “Be honest, y’all!”

Malcolm X is the great example of parrhesia in the black prophetic tradition. The term goes back to line 24A of Plato’s Apology, where Socrates says, the cause of my unpopularity was my parrhesia, my fearless speech, my frank speech, my plain speech, my unintimidated speech. The hip hop generation talks about “keeping it real.” Malcolm was as real as it gets. James Brown talked about “make it funky.” Malcolm was always, “Bring in the funk, bring in the truth, bring in the reality.”

Now Martin would come back and say, “You’re scaring them, brother. Oh, you got them upset. They get so scared, they’re going to be harder on us than ever.” And Malcolm would say, “I’m not talking about strategy. I’m talking about the truth at this point.” So you can imagine the juxtaposition.

If there were an imaginary meeting between Malcolm and Martin, it would go as follows: Malcolm would say: “Brother Martin, Marcus Garvey and others have told us that the vast majority of black people will never be treated with dignity. They will always live lives of ruin and disaster tied to the prison system, in the ’hoods and the projects. There might be spaces for the middle classes, but there will never be for the masses.” And Martin would say: “No, I can’t believe that. We’ve got to redeem the soul of America.” Malcolm would say: “There is no soul, Martin.” Martin would reply: “That can’t be true, Malcolm.” And Malcolm would come back and say, “The chance of your integration full-scale is a snowball in hell. It’s a truncated integration, an assimilation. Some may go all the way to the White House, but even then there’s still going to be crack houses, the prison-industrial complex, unemployment getting worse and worse.” 

And then Martin and Malcolm would look at each other, tears flowing down their faces, and they’d say, “Let’s sing a song.” They’d sing a little George Clinton, maybe a little Stevie Wonder. Some Aretha Franklin, some Billie Holiday, some Curtis Mayfield. They’d say, “We’re just going to keep on pushing.” It’s a matter of what has integrity, of what is true, what is right, and what is worthy of those who struggled and died for us. That’s what brings Martin and Malcolm together.

And how they are remembered is important. The issue of memory in a commodified society is always difficult. Malcolm has become commodified. In a country obsessed with patriotism, they designate a stamp for him. That’s the last thing he wanted. “I want a free people. I don’t want a stamp.” 

When Malcolm looked at black life in America, he saw wasted potential; he saw unrealized aims. This kind of prophetic witness can never be crushed. There was no one like him in terms of having the courage to risk life and limb to speak such painful truths about America. It is impossible to think about the black prophetic tradition without Malcolm X, regardless of what the mainstream thought then, thinks now or will think in the future.

It is a beautiful thing to be on fire for justice.    

Adapted from Black Prophetic Fire by Cornel West in dialogue with and edited by Christa Buschendorf. (Beacon Press, 2014). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

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