When the NS met Malcolm X

12 June 1964.

At the recent New Statesman debate on the motion "Did the Left Win the 20th Century", one of the strongest arguments in favour was the improvement in global race relations. 50 years ago Brian Glanville interviewed Malcolm X shortly before his assassination in 1965. The article was written three months after his exclusion from the Nation of Islam and his founding of the Muslim Mosque Inc. Malcolm had recently returned from Mecca and was rethinking many of his views and the direction of his racial relations campaigns. Having become a Sunni Muslim and distanced himself from many of his earlier standpoints, Malcolm toned down his aggression, but not his passion.

He focused less on racism and black supremacy and more on equal rights from a Pan-African standpoint. He also became more willing to give interviews and work with other civil rights movements and leaders. In april 1964, two months before the article below was published, Malcolm gave his famous “Ballot or the Bullet” speech, in which he urged all African-Americans to exercise their right to vote. They should tone down the violence, but not forget it was an option should their rights be ignored in the future.

Along with Martin Luther King Jr, whom Malcolm met briefly only once, their speeches in the early 60s became one of the turning points in global race relations. Half a year after this article was published, Malcolm X was assassinated by members of the Nation of Islam.

Introduction by Christian Jensen

Malcolm X

"I don't think we’re outnumbered. We’re part of the Afro-Asian world, and that means that we're in the majority. White America is in the minority." The speaker was Malcolm X, the most powerful and eloquent figure in the American 'Black Muslim' movement. The origins of the movement are a little obscure. Probably it began in Detroit some 30 years ago, founded by a man called Wallace Fard about whom very little is known. His followers were poor, humble and largely illiterate. Not long ago, a Hearst newspaper carried the story that Fard was actually a white man, an allegation strongly denied by Elijah Muhammad, the sanctioned leader of the Muslims, who offered a large reward to anybody who could prove that Fard was white.

The question, "Why Muslims?" is one which Malcolm X-brushes quickly aside. "Our people are from Nigeria and Ghana. They tell us we're from West Africa, and I think historically that's sound doctrine. The Mali empire stretched through Ghana, Guinea, Senegal." When the Negroes were imported as slaves, he believes, they "had to be cut off from Islam; Islam does not say turn the other cheek; it says fight those who fight you. If you turn the other cheek, you can be enslaved for 1,000 years."

One can quarrel with his analysis here; white American motives for weaning their Negroes from Islam — if they did — were probably less devious and more evangelic. What the embracing of Islam does represent is a deliberate taking of position against Christianity as a white religion, which has been used to seduce and exploit the Negro. Malcolm X talks of Christianity with hatred. "I went to prison" (he served a seven-year term, during which he was converted to Islam) "as a Christian. and while I was a Christian, I did what most Christians in this country do. Which means I engaged in many vices. That's the Christian way. Christians are drunk. Christians are dope addicts. Christians rob banks. In fact you ask any drunk, 'What are you?' 'I'm a Christian?' When you find him robbing a bank, 'What are you?' 'I'm a Christian.' But when I became a Muslim, I put that life behind me."

Elijah Muhammad, the father of the movement, with whom Malcolm X has now effectively split, was born Elijah Poole in Georgia, 67 years ago. The story goes that the 'prophet' who appeared in Detroit — presumably Fard — appointed Elijah his Messenger. At the time he was without formal education, the son of a Baptist minister, who had little to recommend him but his dynamism.

It was not until the Fifties, and the national growth of the civil rights movement for Negroes, that the Muslim religion began to flourish. Muhammad ran it in authoritarian manner with his sons and his son-in-law as his deputies. The doctrine preached was one of absolute separation between the races. If white wanted nothing to do with black, here was black saying it wanted nothing to do with white; merely the right to set up its own autonomous state within America.

Given the structure of the movement, it was perhaps inevitable that the rise of a forceful young leader outside the family circle of the Muhammads would lead to tension. Malcolm Little, otherwise Malcolm X, a tall, dignified, handsome Negro, born 38 years ago in Omaha, Nebraska, grew quickly in power and popularity. He might profess the doctrine of separatism, but there was no doubt that he could meet the white man on his own ground, and, with his lucid eloquence, fascinate him as well as frighten him. After the murder of Kennedy, a tactless statement about chickens having come home to roost gave Muhammad the opportunity to ban Malcolm from public speaking. Malcolm proceeded to form, in New York, his splinter group, the Muslim Mosque Incorporated, and to trot around with him his own particular trump card and convert, the heavyweight champion, Cassius Clay.

"When we say South," says Malcolm X, "we mean south of the Canadian border. America in its entirety is segregationist and is racist. It's more camouflaged in the north, but it's the same thing." His bitterness is not difficult to understand. When he was a child, his father died in ambiguous circumstances. "They found him one night underneath a street car, dying. They called it an accident, but he was run over by the rear wheels of a street car, which means he was thrown under after the front wheels went by. This wasn't in the South. This was in Michigan."

Malcolm X has taken up his headquarters in Harlem's Theresa Hotel, where Joe Louis used to stay after his fights and where Cassius Clay stays now, making periodic excursions to the street, to be acclaimed by his joyful admirers. The heavy, painted glass doors of the Muslims' offices are inscribed Eve Nelson Cosmetics. Inside, several Negroes work diligently at a table in a long, light room, with green and white checked linoleum. Their courtesy, in a country where courtesy is so often the thin shell over violence, is immense. On a green, slatted blackboard, words are chalked up, as if in some strange free association: Fuzzy Wuzzy . . . Office schedule . . . Physical fit. . . There is a tide . . . Cowards die many . . . Red letter.. Eyes of the world on you.

The question of violence, how far the movement's aims make it inevitable, is one which increasingly perturbs white Americans. "All I've said," explains Malcolm, "is that if the government is unable or unwilling to defend Negroes, Negroes should defend themselves by whatever means are necessary. If it's lawful to have a rifle club to kill pheasants, it should be just as lawful to have one to kill wolves or dogs that are being sicked on little black babies. In fact it's constitutional. Article Number Two of the constitution" — he takes a handbook out of his inside pocket — "guarantees the right of every citizen to own a rifle or a shot gun."

'We're not opposed to violence, we're opposed to brutality. We're opposed to being the victims of violence. Non-violence didn't even work in India. The Indians are still subservient to the West, whereas the Chinese aren't. I think India and China are the two best examples we can look to, to see the result of these so-called negotiated freedoms. The people of India have gone from physical colonialism to economic colonialism."

As for the American Negro, "we're just as thoroughly colonialised as Angola, Mozambique. This is not a democracy. I don't think any man has exploited, has oppressed and degraded, just based on the colour of another man's skin, as western man has done. And the American segment of western man has done it more evilly than any other man, because they've done it hypocritically. They've condemned the colonial practices of the western European nations, while they're practising colonialism here. Texas is the same as Mississippi, and that's the state from which the present President comes. Now, how can he straighten out the national mess when he can't even straighten out what's going on in his own state?"

When he speaks, the pain is evident, almost palpable, the analysis hard to refute. But the solution, the all-Negro state, seems chimerical, mere pie in the sky. Malcolm X won't have it; when Washington began, he says — a little ingenuously — his task seemed harder still, and he accomplished it. One asks him how long he thinks it will take, a decade? And he answers : "There's not a black man in this country will wait a decade to get this problem solved. This generation wants a solution now." But it will clearly take a long time for the Black Muslims to organise; even those sympathetic to them feel that their cohorts are at best disciplined, rather than trained. Nor is their fundamentalism, their aggressive brand of Islam, carrying the intellectuals; the Baldwins and the Ellisons, men too sophisticated for such easy dichotomies. This is not to say that they are not sympathetic.

When I spoke to James Baldwin — that tiny, endearing figure, now as hotly besieged as any film star, he showed this clearly. "It's impossible to argue with facts. Facts are facts. But obviously I'm not going to teach my children or anybody I know that they're better because they're black; it seems to me it's a repetition, let's say, of the whole doctrine of white supremacy." He feels, though, that "this is the first time in the history of this country where people . . . are forced to recognise some of the facts of Negro life. It's no longer possible for them to contain it and pretend it isn't true. A man like Malcolm X has this utility, that he frightens people so much that finally they'd rather talk even to me than to him." As for the labelling of the Black Muslims as extremists, "there's no great hue and cry as far as I know, calling some of the Senator Eastlands extremists. What they mean is that Malcolm is an extremist because he makes them uncomfortable and because he argues that not all Negroes are non-violent, which happens to be true."

Indeed, a point which has been widely made is that the rousing of the Negro masses must inevitably lead to violence, precisely because protest action so far has been largely in the hands of those diligently trained in nonviolence. "There's another point which is very important," Baldwin continued. "We are one tenth, and it is true that we couldn't hope to win let's call it a shooting war, but it is also true that we're very well placed to bring this economy to its knees."

Where Baldwin and the Muslims differ most profoundly is in the concept of difference through race. "As long as you think people are white or black," said Baldwin, "you fall into the same traps. I'm not a Negro, I'm a man." To which Malcolm X replies, "I don't have to say I'm a man; my actions will speak for me; and if my behaviour doesn't reflect masculinity, then I shouldn't seek to be referred to as a man. And in America the Negro has been robbed of his masculinity and he doesn't get it back by saying 'I'm a man'; he gets it back by deeds. To say 'I'm a man' is not sufficient."

Malcolm X in Oxford before addressing university students on the subject of extremism and liberty. Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage