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By Any Means Necessary

By Any Means Necessary

malcolm-x-by-any-means-necessary

February is Black History Month in the United States, where we recognize the achievements of African Americans and honor our culture of diversity.

A lot of attention during this time is focused on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and rightfully so. Above my desk is one of his most famous quotations:

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is this: what are you doing for others?”

This question troubles me, as it should.

As much as I love MLK, though, I’m also a big fan of another martyr of the Civil Rights Movement: El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, or Malcolm X, as he is more commonly known.

I’ve been intrigued by Malcolm since I first began learning about social movements more than 10 years ago. If you’ve never read his autobiography, I highly recommend it. The movie by Spike Lee with Denzel Washington is also good.

The conventional narrative on Malcom X is that he was a bit too hard-core for a while, but then in the end after he went to Mecca and adapted his belief system to be more inclusive, he turned out alright.

The logic breaks down like this:

Militant Leader – Not Okay. Threatening. Unwilling to give deference to generally recognized leaders (President Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., etc.)

Conciliatory Leader – Okay. Socially acceptable. “He’s finally come around,” etc.

If you’ve studied sociology or history, you probably know that this kind of categorization is fairly typical of anyone doing anything militant. The idea is that it’s acceptable to be outspoken in your early days as long as you calm down later in life.

Like other interesting people throughout history, Malcolm was a seriously complex guy. I hesitate to categorize him one way or the other in a short blog post, so watch this video to get a few snippets of the early, militant side:

It was extremely unusual for a black leader to criticize President Kennedy, but here Malcolm calls him a “trickster” and accuses him of helping “everyone except the people who put him in office.”

Here’s another clip, following Kennedy’s assassination and a 90-day period of silence that Malcolm was subjected to –

This one includes one of my favorite statements. When the interviewer asks him if progress is being made, Malcolm says:

I will never say that progress is being made if you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches… there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out, that’s not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made, and they haven’t even begun to try to pull the knife out. They won’t even admit the knife is there!

And finally, watch this last one from towards the end of his life, after he had left the Nation of Islam and returned from a trip to Mecca –

In this clip, Malcolm discusses meeting white Muslims for the first time, his split from the Nation of Islam, and the threats on his life. “I have no fear whatsoever of anybody or anything,” he says at the end.

***

We have a lot to learn from people in history who have fought against the status quo under challenging circumstances. The case of Malcolm X is especially interesting, since at times he dealt with several different battles simultaneously. Even now, his role in the Civil Rights Movement and American history in general lacks consensus.

In the end, Malcolm X was a modern-day Julius Caesar, murdered by the same people who helped him get started as a spokesman. Just imagine: Not only are you fighting for equality and justice, you also have to deal with mainstream black leaders who say they disagree with you… and then you find yourself being accused by the same group you tirelessly supported for years. (Talk about being alone.)

Muhammed Ali, a former friend and apprentice, refused to shake his hand or acknowledge him when they were both in Africa at the same time. (Talk about rejection.)

And when you talk about sacrifice, Malcolm X walked the walk, showing that there was more than one way to fight against injustice. I’m grateful for people like Malcolm who were willing to give so much for equality in my country.

The United States, and probably the whole world, is much better off because of his courage and service. I give respect!

###

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48 Comments

  • Patrenia says:

    When I think of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., I see the strength and courage they both had to keep pressing and working daily to help their fellow brothers and sisters. I love the quote you use above…our goal daily should be to help each other. I think about their fears as well. Although we never saw it, they both probably dealt with their own inner fears, but they didn’t let it overtake them. Great lessons from great people…

  • Brian says:

    Yes, thanks for shining a light on Black History Month and challenging us to give it more than lip service.

    If you’re interested in more about the tension between militant/conciliatory leaders and movements, you should check out “How Non-Violence Favors the State.” It starts out a little dense, but if you’re into that sorta thing, definitely worth the read.

  • Gordie says:

    As a non-American I have to ask why do all the great leaders of social movements seem to get assassinated?

    Yes, him and MLK together took on the same problem but in quite different ways. I think it was Malcolm X who said that if you have the same thinking at 50 years of age that you did at 30, then you’ve wasted 20 years.

  • I appreciate you talking about Malcolm X in a way that isn’t dismissive or ignorant of the realities of the time. I always think that more progress gets made when there are people shouting as loud as they can from as far left as possible, so that the (wimpy, soft, conciliatory) left-ish people in government seem moderate by comparison. I myself tend to be a bigger fan of the Black Panther Party and would highly recommend Elaine Brown’s book A Taste of Power.

  • Eduard says:

    I totally agree that we have a lot to learn from people in history who made things happen. One thing I’m starting to believe is that a lot of them had a combination of non-conformism and realism which aloud them to stand out, get followers and generate positive change.

  • Very inspiring,
    In the last 30 days, i have been reading “The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr”. I have been inspired by his Passion and Courage. And that is exactly what you see in the eyes of Malcom X ~ Passion and Courage.

    Thanks.

  • Etsuko says:

    I watched the movie “Malcom X” when I was still in Japan, I was like 18 at that time, and coming from almost homogeneous society and never been to the U.S. I don’t think I fully understood or appreciated the complexity of the issue. I’d love to rewatch or read the book you recommend. My kids will grow up partly here (well they are Americans) and I want to educate myself more about this country.

    Thanks Chris for putting lights on the other black leader in the history.
    Etsuko

  • So glad to see you highlight Malcolm X, as much as I love what MLK did, I’ve always been very fond of Malcolm and what he brought to the table.

  • Kevin says:

    This was a great post, not just today — the first day of Black History Month in the US — but any day. Dr. King’s quote is a great daily reminder of how we need to be men and women in service to others.

    The commentary about Malcolm X, and importantly the context in which those comments were made, were a great reminder. They made me want to go back to re-read The Autobiography of Malcom X.

    Thank you

  • Scott Webb says:

    I really love the part right before the “I have no fear” comment. I live like I’m already dead or died 20 years ago. That is brilliant. Never saw that before. Thanks!

  • Jim says:

    Great post. I think as a country we have come a long way, but still have a lot of growth left. Diversity does not mean that we all are in agreement and sing campfire songs while holding hands. To me it is recognizing that there are differences, and learning to appreciate them instead of oppressing them.

    Not sure I agree with The Frugal Hostess though, I think there is too much shouting from both the left and the right, it seems at times that it is more about volume and repetition than about substance. In the beginning it is probably necessary to shout – to get attention, but I think it is important to quiet down to keep the attention. I think there is a lot truth to the saying if you want someone to think something is important, whisper.

  • Lyndon says:

    Interesting!!! As an African American, I appreciate your expressions regarding Martin & Malcolm and acknowledging their achievements. However, there were and are so many more that never get mentioned. I suggest a book by Dr. Dennis P. Kimbro titled, “What Makes the Great Great”. Contained in the book are incredible inventions and achievements of other African Americans: BLOOD BANK-The idea of a blood bank was pioneered by Dr. Charles Richard Drew (1904-1950). POTATO CHIP invented in 1853 by George Crum. MAIL BOX-DOWNING, PHILIP B. GAS MASK & TRAFFIC SIGNAL-Garrett Augustus Morgan (March 4, 1877 – August 27, 1963) To name a few.

  • Shakira says:

    I agree with The Frugal Hostess in thanking you for speaking about Malcolm X in a non dismissive manner. He was progressive leader with a difference of opinion willing to speak his mind.

    Bravo for your bravery in saluting a great leader.

  • Betsy Talbot says:

    I like Gordie’s point about change throughout your lifetime. Imagine how difficult it would be for Malcolm X to embrace new ideas when he was already famous for his old ones. That takes a lot of character and is a great lesson for all of us as we keep moving through life.

  • Mohd Saad Bhamla says:

    Wow. For me, this is one of the most enlightening posts of yours. I was a casual reader till some days back. This one got my attention.
    I really appreciate the way you used the video snippets to explain your message.
    Good Job !

  • Ami says:

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post (and the reminder about Black History Month). Your examples from Malcolm X’s life remind me of a question that rumbles around in my head: Do we have the courage, values, conviction and commitment to make great change in the way that Malcolm X and others did?

  • Let me just say that the fact that you wrote this post and acknowledge Malcolm for the great leader he was says a lot about you. I have followed you for a long time and your principles are amazing. The smart business thing for you to do is praise King (who I love) and stay away from Malcolm. Big respect Chris!

  • Greg says:

    Bravo for highlighting Malcom X…..now that’s remarkable!

  • Indigene says:

    It isn’t often, that you find someone, who is from the United States, and not a person of color that share your viewpoint! Your article was refreshing and well-developed! It was a refreshing glass of water, in an often desert! Thank you.

  • Fly Brother says:

    Great post, Chris! While teaching high school in Colombia, I balanced the heavily MLK-tilted curriculum (good on them for even including that) with the Spike/Denzel biopic. The students in my senior-level English class sat riveted by the imagery and many of them commented that they could definitely identify with Malcolm’s more confrontational stance. Like many others here, I appreciate that you have developed and put forth your understanding of an oft-villified freedom fighter, who most certainly lived life unconventionally. Many thanks.

  • Rosemary Nulty says:

    Thanks for starting Black History Month with a controversial figure. Malcom drew attention to a cause by being extreme. Like so many great leaders, non-conformists and movements, starting with a bang is how you bring much needed attention to an issue. Burning bras, burning draft cards, early gay pride parades. I lived in San Francisco during all of this and saw the courage and conviction of ordinary people being extraordinary. Over time, leaders, movements and non-conformists seek and learn as they go and find a way to forgo the extreme and employ a method, a voice that people can hear. They find where they belong within a culture/society where they can apply the attention/power they generated and use it to create change. Perhaps not as extreme as Malcolm, but President Obama seems to be following this model. Respect and gratitude to all.

  • Thank you for a fascinating look at a complex man, who lived in such a complex time in history.

    What I didn’t expect when I began to read/watch – is how much of those clips & his opinions seem totally reflective of the feeling within the LGBT community today. The clip regarding his feelings about Kennedy, almost mirrors many quotes you can find from LGBT leaders regarding Obama.

    The quote you shared about progress and the knife blade just blew my mind. Not just in terms of the African American Civil Rights Movement, not just in terms of the current LGBT struggle for civil rights – but on a deep, personal level. This has been a week of intense heartache for me, sense of betrayal, lots of questions. That quote made me step back from it all and realize that for any of us to heal, we have to pull that knife blade all the way out, and work actively on healing the wound. Mine. Yours. Ours. Everyones.

    Thank you.

  • Martha says:

    I’m also aware of our lingering debt to Malcolm and other such courageous people, feel tremendous gratitude, and am glad you put that out there to a larger audience.

  • Hannah says:

    I agree, The Autobiography of Malcolm X is a great book. Probably one of the few I read in college that stays with me.

  • deb harpster says:

    I think back to the ’68 summer Olympics when U.S. athlete Tommie Smith won the 200 meter race, Australia’s Peter Norman was second and U.S.’s John Carlos finished third. At the podium, Smith and Carlos received their medals shoeless but wore black socks to represent black poverty. Carlos had his tracksuit top unzipped to show solidarity with U.S. blue-collar workers and wore a necklace of beads “for those individuals that were lynched, or killed and that no-one said a prayer for when they were hung and tarred.” As “The Star-Spangled Banner” played, Smith and Carlos raised their black-gloved hands in the Black Power salute. Smith later said “If I win, I am American, not a black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro. We are black and we are proud of being black.” Now, over forty years later, I still give thanks to these brave men for the lessons they taught and the sacrifices they made.

  • Ginger says:

    Thank you for this challenging contribution, especially written by a white man. I is great to have historical development brought up again in contemporary time. It makes you reflect on current developments and also inspires courage. Other countries can certainly learn from the civil rights movement in the States.

  • Danielle says:

    I appreciate all the sacrifices throughout history and in our current time people make to bring this humanity to its full potential of equality and “live and let live.” The American civil rights movement continues not only for African Americans but for LGBT. The parallels are undeniable – descrimination in the work place, denial of equal federal rights and protections, denial of the right to marry the person you love. The LGBT community has not yet come as far as the African American community in securing equal rights but, with sacrifice and persistence, I believe the US will one day be a country of full Equality. This must start with seeing the parallels between these two civil rights causes so that we do not have to repeat history and “reinvent the wheel.”

  • anwar says:

    In South Africa we have a similar history – the wounds take long to heal if you are not prepared to help your neighbour

  • Like everyone else, I appreciate the shout out to both of these amazing revolutionaries.

    I would also like to throw in that I get frustrated when folks are dismissive of any life stage–be it the idealism and exuberance of youth or the practicality and compassion of later years. Both mindsets are required for any kind of long-term substantive change.

    Many dismiss the radicalism of youth as absurd and the practicality of age as weak. I see folks doing that frequently with Malcolm X as you have stated. However, I don’t agree with your take on the consensus surrounding him. I’ve seen far more people dismiss him because he became more inclusive, as if doing so made him a “sell-out.” What I find most impressive about him is not that he was hard-core or inclusive, but that he grew, changed, and continued to fight the good fight throughout the course of his life. Change takes courage; there’s nothing weak about it.

  • I’ve been interested in learning more about Malcolm X life for awhile now. In fact, it’s on my to read list this year. He has definitely inspired a lot of people and had many traits worth learn from and developing in our own lives.

    Thanks for sharing Chris.

  • Sanford says:

    As an Anglo male who graduated High School in ’67, I would like to thank you for starting off with Malcolm X.

    The 60′s were a time of great social and civil unrest that brought some change to America. If it hadn’t been for the more militant factions, I doubt that the calmer, non-violent people would have been heard.

    The major media will probably get around to mentioning Malcolm X around the middle of the month, in passing.

    Respect to you, My Friend.

  • Liam says:

    You must be trolling… Malcolm X was a blatant black supremacist, and a racist.

  • Chris says:

    @Liam,

    You must not have read the actual post, or you must not know very much about Malcolm X.

    It’s OK if you disagree with something, but you should understand more about the subject before you criticize so harshly.

  • Amazing article, I have been reading your blog for a few months now but this is the first time I’ve commented. I am an avid believer that Malcolm X revolutionized the civil rights movement, although here in the UK it is often argued adversely. Most believe that his views and what he preached where too extremist & aggressive/violent, and as such made people unresponsive.

    I believe the opposite, that his radical and straight-to-the-point messages were just what was needed to bring light to, and start to break down, the oppressive culture that was present at the time. This is sort of how I feel sometimes, I am constantly told that I put too much thought into issues and that some of my views are outlandish or “unrealistic.” But I think that is just what today’s society needs; more people actually putting real thought into their actions, and ‘quirky’ or non-conformist individuals who constantly attempt to break the mold!

  • Iyabo Asani says:

    Thank you for writing this. I feel safe in this environment to write this. I am particularly touched by a white male writing this post in particular. This is the reason for black history month. Black history month is not just a time for African Americans to remember their history. Their history is part of American history and it is for all of us to connect with that history that makes up the beautiful tapestry that is called America.

    I do not consider myself African American although I am. My father was African and my mother was Irish American yet, I do closely identify with the African American community as I live in the US.

    I appreciate your putting together this great information.

  • Tiffany says:

    This post encourages my spirit. It is not often that we salute Malcolm X at the onset of Black History Month. I find that he is more of an afterthought for many too concerned with his perceived “militancy.” But, if many of us are honest with ourselves, Black people who now live in a world where we are not limited by our skin color, we would find ourselves aligned with his camp, were we alive in his day. Both Malcolm and Martin were visionaries. And both their dreams have been realized by countless Black Americans in the United States. Thank you for this intelligent post in a world of ignorance.

  • Sha says:

    Chris, This post made my day… Reading the comments added the icing to the cake. As a black American I am very much aware of the sacrifices that brother Martin and Malcolm have made for me. By reading the comments that were posted, I can tell that the majority of your readers (myself included) agree that they were BOTH very important to OUR civil rights movement. This is especially important in Malcolm’s case, considering that he is often portrayed as a militant/extremist. It’s great to see people from various nationalities, cultures, ethnicities, and races all comment on how they are moved by brother Malcolm’s plight.

    Thanks again to our brothers Martin King and El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz

  • Austin says:

    Malcom X was sadly one of these people I never really knew anything about until I too read his book a couple of years ago. His story was unreal and the fact that he stood up for what he believed in when he knew he was going to die was admirable.

    Great topic, Chris.

  • Sam says:

    Excellent post, I read Malcolm X’s Autobiography as a young man and was struck by what a courageous leader he was. I think his views were certainly formed by his difficult childhood, and he really made the most of what talent and ability he had, especially learning to read in prison, starting with a dictionary! He and MLK were both great leaders, I feel, and both are important for us to understand and learn from.

  • LMB says:

    Chris,

    I was absolutely floored by your post. As an African-American and former diversity consultant, I was always amazed at how many white people could not “even admit the knife is there.” Thank you for taking such a bold step toward healing the wounds. The way you live your life is an example of courage and you did not need to take the “risk” of acknowledging such a controversial man. But you did. You rocked my world today. :)

  • Arif says:

    Beautiful post. But enough talk. Who amongst us commenters will stand up and be the Malcolm-X of today?

  • Mighty says:

    Hi Chris, the issue of racism is always contentious even up to this day, I think. Although I am not from the U.S. I really admire the courage and conviction of people like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and even Nelson Mandela. There are still frontiers in racial relations that must be conquered and these leaders have already shown what peaceful resistance can do.

  • Don Parker says:

    Thank you, Chris.

    I’m a white guy, born and raised in Texas. And I was in many civil rights marches and anti-war protests in the 1960s and 70s, in Texas and DC. To me reading The Autobiography of Malcom X in the 70s was a seminal moment.

    What an amazing man he was. He and MLK and Rosa Parks and many others–black, white, old, young, rich, poor–made this a better country, not just for African Americans but for all of us.
    …………………….
    @ Liam. I hope you will read The Autobiography of Malcom X and learn more about him and the movement. And I hope you will allow light and love into your dark, twisted heart. We’ll all be better for that.

  • African American history IS American history. I love this month, because it highlights so many important aspects of our collective history as a Union. When I was a kid, African American history was limited to slavery, as if that was the whole story. Kinda crazy. So, I’m thrilled that we take this month to shine a light on this rich and beautiful tapestry created by such strength and courage. But it is our collective history 12 months out of the year as well.

    Just had to toss in an extra 2 cents. :)

  • Christianne says:

    Thank you for this. I’ve been studying nonviolence for the past year or so and have come to believe more and more that it is the way we are meant to live and exist with one another.

    Malcolm X is someone on my list of people to read, but I’ve not yet gotten to his autobiography. This was a great overview of who he is and how he matured over time. That is fascinating to me most of all.

  • connie barrett says:

    I think this post is important because America has become such a passive country that I can’t imagine a Malcolm or even another MLK rising to power again. I was in college in the late 60′s and early 70′s and then taught high school for 25 years. The times they have a changed–a whole lot and it’s very sad. The media is unrecognizable now. There is no news on the news and working people come home exhausted and the most they can do is watch 30 minutes of news. I wish Obama would see himself as the educator in chief. Change cannot happen and a democracy cannot endure without an educated populace.

  • This was a great post! Malcolm X was very important to our history here in the states, and I’m always glad to see him acknowledged as such. So many people know all about Dr. King and all that he has done for America, but Malcolm X is so often dismissed or passed over as “a radical.” Both were brilliant, very important men. I hope to grab that autobiography and read it soon.

    The US has so far to go, but we have definitely come a long way, too!

  • @Connie Barrett: GREAT post!

    My boyfriend and I lament every day at what we see as the massive dumbing down of America.

    I ditched TV service years ago, and I have never felt freer or more alive. I get my news in bits and only read when something REALLY interests me–I just need to know what is going on.

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