Movement Carries On : Malcolm X: Grass-roots group is promoting understanding of the slain black leader’s philosophy and relevance to African-Americans today.
“Uncle Sam’s hands are dripping with blood, dripping with the blood of the black man in this country. . . . Expand the civil rights struggle to the level of human rights, take it to the United Nations, where our African brothers can throw their weight on our side.... Let the world see how bloody his hands are.”
--from “The Ballot or the Bullet,” a 1964 speech by Malcolm X
After months of traveling in Africa and the Middle East, Malcolm X returned to Harlem in 1964 armed with a new strategy: He would take the United States government before the United Nations and charge it with genocide against African-Americans.
The lynchings, Jim Crow laws and unpaid labor during the years of slavery were not civil rights violations he argued, but human rights violations and should be dealt with in an international forum.
There he could garner support from African nations engaged in their own liberation struggles in his battle to expose what he saw as the U.S. government’s historic and contemporary crimes against black people.
“If Angola and South Africa were precedent cases then there would be no easy way that the U.S. could escape being censured right on its own home ground,” Malcolm X wrote in his autobiography.
Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965 before he was able to carry through on his plan. Still, it is tactical philosophies such as these that activists and scholars say make him a leader worthy of study decades after his death.
And as many are grabbing a first look at the leader through a flood of articles, television spots and Spike Lee’s film, many black activists are struggling to ensure that the black community moves beyond the image to an understanding of Malcolm X’s political philosophy and its relevance to the battles being fought by African-Americans today.
“We believe that Malcolm X, his ideas and example represented one of the best, most contemporary examples of what our people struggled to do and to be,” said Kamal Hassan, a member of the Los Angeles chapter of the 2-year-old Malcolm X Grassroots Movement.
“We didn’t create the ideology. What we do in this modern period is we raise it like Malcolm raised it in his time period. What we’re doing is keeping that tradition going.”
Started in Jackson, Miss., the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement is a coalition of organizations across the nation that are dedicated to continuing Malcolm X’s legacy by educating and organizing in the black community. The local branch has about 10 members, and organizers estimate that the movement has several hundred members nationwide.
For Grassroots Movement members, the study of Malcolm X’s political views is not just academic. Dubbed the “Malcolm X Doctrine” by the group’s organizers, those views form the cornerstone of the organization’s political philosophy: self-determination, self-respect and self-defense.
“Self-determination for us is to have the right to decide our own destiny as a people, to have the right to control our government and our personal lives,” said Akua Jitahadi, who has been a member of the Los Angeles chapter since its inception.
One goal of the non-religious, nonpartisan group is to provide the black community with the education and information it needs to be self-determining, to make informed and “correct decisions for themselves,” she said.
Although the group has a clearly defined political ideology that includes the belief in reparations for African-Americans, and a belief that “there are over 100 people in U.S. jails who are incarcerated for their political actions and beliefs,” members say the group is also broad-based so that individuals who may not share all these views can still study with the group and organize within the community.
Locally, the group, which until recently worked out of an office on Crenshaw Boulevard, has organized demonstrations against the war in the Persian Gulf, protested the Rodney G. King beating, served as advocates for prisoners’ families and held study sessions and symposiums on issues affecting the black community.
Nationally, the group plans to press forward with Malcolm X’s campaign to persuade the United Nations to condemn U.S. racial practices. The organization “keeps documentation of the human rights abuses within the United States” to be used in this effort, Jitahadi said.
Groups within the coalition have held a march on the United Nations attended by 5,000 people and presented the international body with petitions charging the U.S. government with denying African-Americans basic human rights. Three years ago, group members were called to Geneva to speak before a U.N. commission about individuals whom the group has identified as “political prisoners” being held in U.S. prisons, Hassan said.
There are many other groups and individuals who see themselves as carrying on the tradition of Malcolm X. There are others, from inner-city schoolteachers to artists and entrepreneurs, who are also bringing life to Malcolm X’s words.
But with the popularity of Malcolm X and the hype surrounding Lee’s movie, groups and individuals have found themselves facing a dilemma that was almost unforeseeable 10 years ago.
For years, they have advocated the study of Malcolm X and worked to keep his legacy alive in the African-American community, even “when our youth didn’t know anything about Malcolm, when everyone else seemed to have forgotten him,” said Makini Hassan, a member of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement who was active in the community before the organization was founded.
Now that the leader’s image appears on everything from T-shirts and baseball caps to air deodorizers and potato chip bags, some are disturbed not only by what they see as exploitation, but by what they call a remaking of Malcolm X by the American media: Malcolm X the militant is becoming Malcolm X the moderate, with everybody from comedienne Roseanne Arnold to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas invoking his name.
“We see a lot of people standing up wearing his shirts now, but when Malcolm was alive, they would not stand up for his (ideology),” said Aquil Basheer, a Muslim community activist who teaches martial arts to inner-city youths and gives motivational talks at community centers and prisons.
The legacy of Malcolm X--and the movie, in particular--has been the subject of forums and discussion around the country since its release last month, with some activists arguing that the film is historically inaccurate and has been “sanitized” and “co-opted” to make Malcolm X more palatable to white America.
“What is done in the movie is not anywhere near a substantive portrayal of the political person,” said James Turner, national chairman of the Malcolm X Commemoration Committee and a professor of political sociology at Cornell University. “We certainly don’t want people to think the movie can be taken as a historical document.”
Malcolm X’s pan-Africanist views and his extensive travels in Africa, where he was greeted by heads of state, is given little attention, Turner said. Nor is his emphasis on understanding “structures of domination,” the relationship between racism and oppression in the United States and colonialism and imperialism abroad.
Shortly after the movie was released, Eso Won Books, a black-owned bookstore in Inglewood, held a discussion on the film. Some who attended were critical of the film. Others, such as co-owners James Fugate and Tom Hamilton, dismissed the criticisms as “petty” and praised the film as the “most powerful” movie ever done about a black person.
Underlying the discussion and debate seems to be the question of who best represents the legacy of the slain black leader, a question complicated by Malcolm’s evolving political philosophy during his lifetime.
Even some who criticize the current portrayals of Malcolm X also acknowledge the value of his growing popularity to their efforts to educate the community about his political legacy.
“I think there are pluses and minuses to this popularity,” Turner said. “The popularity is bringing very broad recognition to Malcolm X and establishing his historical significance. . . . I think what we cannot miss in all of this attention (being paid) to Malcolm X is that many, many young people are being drawn to this man’s work.”
At Eso Won Books, sales of the “Autobiography of Malcolm X” have increased every year for the last four years, Fugate said. The book is now on national bestseller lists.
“People are searching out information about Malcolm X,” Fugate said.
Regardless of the mainstream media attention, grass-roots activists say, the socioeconomic conditions that existed in the black community when Malcolm X lived continue today, and so must their efforts.
“We’re going to continue to do the work that he did,” Kamal Hassan said.
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