Malcolm X: a conscience that couldn't be licked

December 24, 1998|By Crispin Sartwell

WE DIDN'T land on Plymouth Rock. Plymouth Rock landed on us." That's how Malcolm X characterized the history of African Americans in the United States, a history that he rightly regarded as disastrous for black people and shameful to white folks.

Early next year, Malcolm X's likeness will appear on a postage stamp issued by the government he fought and despised.

It might seem a little late -- nearly 34 years years after his death -- to co-opt Malcolm X. It might seem a little late to engage in the pretense that this visionary realist and revolutionary was a member of the establishment.

However, Black Americans are still incredibly proud of Malcolm X: He's a symbol of strength, defiance and, above all, truth. Malcolm could not be silenced and he always said in the clearest possible way what he really believed. It is that symbol that the U.S. Postal Service is trying to compromise.

The Postal Service, in announcing the stamp, described Malcolm X as having called for "a more integrationist solution to racial problems" in his later years.

Roger Wilkins, a history professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., who has written about the civil rights movement, was quoted in the Washington Post as saying that Malcolm X stopped saying "outrageous things" and started preaching racial harmony.

But Malcolm X's development after he broke with Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam, became an orthodox Muslim and founded the Organization for African-American Unity was not a journey from insanity to sanity, hate to love, or Elijah Muhammad to Martin Luther King Jr.

Malcolm X remained an advocate of armed self-defense and complete self-determination.

It is true that he renounced the Nation of Islam's position that white people were "devils" after he saw people of all races praying together in Mecca. Also, he came to see through NOI's mumbo-jumbo (for example, the notion that white people were the creation of a mad scientist).

However, he never became a safe, mainstream figure or, for that matter, an integrationist. He declared that white people could not join the OAAU on the grounds that when white people joined black organizations, the whites ended up in control, forcing black leaders to compromise.

He continued to believe that the most promising solution to racial problems might be a separation of the races that could lead to total black self-determination: that is what he meant by "black nationalism." As always, he urged armed self-defense.

A few days before he died -- in February 1965 -- Malcolm X made these comments in an interview with a Village Voice reporter: "The only person who can organize the man in the streets is the one who is unacceptable to the white community. . . . We must make them see that we are the enemy. That the black man is a greater threat to this country than Vietnam or Berlin."

That is not the voice of a postage stamp; it is not the voice of a nonviolent integrationist; it is the voice of a revolutionary. There were two things that accounted for Malcolm X's credibility in the black community: He was unacceptable to white folks and he had lived the life of a street hustler and drug addict and had then hauled himself toward a kind of furious purity.

For better or worse, that is the Malcolm X who should be remembered. That is the Malcolm X who could never be licked. Malcolm X the integrationist, Malcolm X the invention of the U.S. government, should never be mailed to anyone.

Crispin Sartwell's latest book is "Act Like You Know."

Pub Date: 12/24/98

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