The new movie “Selma,” reviewed in last week’s issue of the Militant, has sparked interest in the legacy of the victorious fight to overthrow Jim Crow segregation in the 1950s and ’60s. The film tells the story of the campaign in Selma, Alabama, in early 1965 that forced officials there to remove obstacles to the right of Blacks to vote and led to the passage of the federal Voting Rights Act later that year. In Dallas County, where Selma was located, less than 1 percent of the Black population had been registered to vote.
The civil rights fighters in Selma, including thousands of high school students and younger, stood firm in face of brutal violence, including beatings and fire hose blasts by Selma and state police and attacks by racist thugs.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s strategy of reliance on the “good will” of Democratic Party politicians like President Lyndon Johnson and refusal to countenance protesters defending themselves against racist terror was increasingly controversial among many Black rights fighters. King was in the city jail when, at the invitation of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee members, Malcolm X came to Selma for a one-day visit, speaking to the press and a public meeting of young people Feb. 4, 1965.
Last week’s film review noted that “Selma” distorted and omitted aspects of Malcolm’s visit. To fill in the gaps and let Malcolm speak for himself, the Militant is publishing an excerpt from Malcolm X, Black Liberation and the Road to Workers Power by Jack Barnes, the Spanish edition of which is one of Pathfinder’s Books of the Month in February. In the excerpt from the chapter “Malcolm X: Revolutionary Leader of the Working Class,” Barnes explains what Malcolm X posed in Selma. Copyright © 2009 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.
In addition we are reprinting Malcolm’s exchange with the press there and a major excerpt of his speech later that day, both taken from February 1965: The Final Speeches . Copyright © 1992 by Betty Shabazz and Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.
A Malcolm-Martin convergence?
BY JACK BARNES
In early February 1965, Malcolm spoke to a group of three hundred young people at a local church in Selma, Alabama. Since the beginning of 1965, King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), had been leading voting rights demonstrations in and around Selma, in the course of which protesters had been subjected to cop brutality and some 3,400 had been arrested. After Malcolm had addressed a meeting of several thousand on February 3 at nearby Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, students there insisted that he go with them to Selma the next day, and Malcolm agreed. King was being held in jail in Selma at the time.
When he spoke to the young people in Selma, Malcolm again condemned the Johnson administration for its refusal to deploy federal troops to protect Blacks fighting for their rights. Malcolm said he was “100 percent for the effort being put forth by the Black folks here” and believed “they have an absolute right to use whatever means are necessary to gain the vote.” But he added that he didn’t believe in practicing nonviolence in face of violence by organized racist forces. He concluded: “I pray that you will grow intellectually, so that you can understand the problems of the world and where you fit into, in that world picture” — once again the internationalist starting point, “broadening your scope,” that Malcolm was always working to promote. And then he continued:
“And I pray that all the fear that has ever been in your heart will be taken out, and when you look at that man, if you know he’s nothing but a coward, you won’t fear him. If he wasn’t a coward, he wouldn’t gang up on you. … They put on a sheet so you won’t know who they are — that’s a coward. No! The time will come when that sheet will be ripped off. If the federal government doesn’t take it off, we’ll take it off.”
What Malcolm had to say about the struggles in St. Augustine, Selma, and elsewhere reminds me of Che Guevara’s answer, during his visit to New York in December 1964, in reply to a question about how he saw the Black rights struggle in the United States. “It seems that racial violence is rampant in some U.S. states,” Che replied. “In face of that, different responses are possible. You can crouch a little more to see if the blow hurts less. You can protest vigorously and then receive more blows. Or you can answer blow for blow. But that’s easy to say; it’s very difficult to do. And you must prepare in order to do that.”
The young people in Selma met Malcolm’s talk with uproarious applause. But that wasn’t the response of SCLC leaders. Malcolm described their reaction in a speech to a February 15 meeting of the OAAU [Organization of Afro-American Unity] at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, less than a week before he was gunned down in that same hall.
“King’s man didn’t want me to talk to [the youth],” Malcolm said. Malcolm was referring in particular to the current Democratic Party mayor of this very city, Andrew Young — a former U.S. congressman from here, and also U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the Carter administration. In Selma that day, Young had schemed unsuccessfully with Coretta Scott King to stop Malcolm from being given a microphone.
“They told me they didn’t mind me coming in and all of that,” Malcolm told the OAAU meeting — but they didn’t want him to talk, because “they knew what I was going to say.” The young people, both from Selma and from Tuskegee, however, “insisted that I be heard. … This is the only way I got a chance to talk to them.”
You don’t have to take Malcolm’s word for it. King, who was in jail when Malcolm was in Selma, said, shortly after the assassination: “I couldn’t block his coming, but my philosophy was so antithetical to the philosophy of Malcolm X — so diametrically opposed, that I would never have invited Malcolm X to come to Selma when we were in the midst of a nonviolent demonstration, and this says nothing about the personal respect I had for him. I disagreed with his philosophy and his methods.”
And in a column for the Harlem-based weekly Amsterdam News, written a few weeks after Malcolm’s assassination, King wrote that when his wife Coretta had spoken with Malcolm in Selma, Malcolm had “expressed an interest in working more closely with the non-violent movement, but he was not yet able to renounce violence and overcome the bitterness which life had invested in him. … Like the murder of [Patrice] Lumumba, the murder of Malcolm X deprives the world of a potentially great leader. I could not agree with either of these men. …”
So, no, there was not a “Malcolm-Martin” convergence during that last year. To the contrary, the divergence widened, as there was a clarification of Martin Luther King’s conviction that capitalism and its injustices could be reformed. Meanwhile, Malcolm never stopped advancing in his commitment to the need for the oppressed and working people of all skin colors, continents, and countries to join together in revolutionary struggle against the capitalist world order responsible for racism, rightist violence, the oppression of women, economic exploitation, and war.
Malcolm X: Why I came to Selma
Remarks to the Press
QUESTION: Why are you here today?
MALCOLM X: Well, I spoke at Tuskegee last night and many of the students invited me to come up here today. Yes. I was at Tuskegee last night to speak on the Black revolution and to stress the relationship between the Black revolution that’s taking place in Africa with the Black revolution that’s taking place here in America. And many of the students, after the lecture, invited me to come here this morning. And since I’ve been invited to attend a congress of African organizations in London over the weekend and to represent the plight of the Black man in this country to those people over there, I thought I would pass through Selma and get a good, closer look at the condition of our people in this country, so that I’ll be in a better position to describe it when I get over there.
QUESTION: Are you going to be down in the building this morning?
MALCOLM X: Which building?
QUESTION: The County Building.
MALCOLM X: I’d rather not say right now what I’m going to do. But I’m going to do, while I’m here, whatever will produce some positive and constructive results.
I might point out that I am 100 percent for any effort put forth by Black people in this country to have access to the ballot. And I frankly believe that since the ballot is our right, that we are within our right to use whatever means is necessary to secure those rights. And I think that the people in this part of the world would do well to listen to Dr. Martin Luther King and give him what he’s asking for, and give it to him fast, before some other factions come along and try to do it another way. What he’s asking for is right. That’s the ballot. And if he can’t get it the way he’s trying to get it, then it’s going to be gotten, one way or the other.
QUESTION: Are you in agreement with Dr. King’s nonviolent—
MALCOLM X: I don’t believe in any kind of nonviolence. I believe that it’s right to be nonviolent with people who are nonviolent. But when you’re dealing with an enemy who doesn’t know what nonviolence is, as far as I’m concerned you’re wasting your time.
QUESTION: Are you saying that nonviolence ought to be abandoned here in Selma now?
MALCOLM X: Whatever means will get results in Selma is the means that should be used. Dr. King and his followers are very intelligently trying to impress the people of this area that they should give the Black man the right to vote. Now, if the people in this area are not intelligent enough themselves to recognize what they consider an intelligent approach, then I think the intelligence of the Black people in this area will compel them to devise another method that will get results.
The house Negro and the field Negro
Excerpts from Malcolm X’s Feb. 4, 1965, speech in Selma.
If the federal government does not find it within its power and ability to investigate a criminal organization such as the Klan, then you and I are within our rights to wire Secretary-General U Thant of the United Nations and charge the federal government in this country, behind Lyndon B. Johnson, with being derelict in its duty to protect the human rights of twenty-two million Black people in this country. And in their failure to protect our human rights, they are violating the United Nations Charter, and they are not qualified to continue to sit in that international body and talk about what human rights should be done in other countries on this earth. [Applause] … [Gap in tape]
I have to say this, then I’ll sit down. Back during slavery, when Black people like me talked to the slaves, they didn’t kill ’em, they sent some old house Negro along behind him to undo what he said. You have to read the history of slavery to understand this.
There were two kinds of Negroes. There was that old house Negro and the field Negro. And the house Negro always looked out for his master. When the field Negroes got too much out of line, he held them back in check. He put ’em back on the plantation.
The house Negro could afford to do that because he lived better than the field Negro. He ate better, he dressed better, and he lived in a better house. He lived right up next to his master — in the attic or the basement. He ate the same food his master ate and wore his same clothes. And he could talk just like his master — good diction. And he loved his master more than his master loved himself. That’s why he didn’t want his master hurt.
If the master got sick, he’d say, “What’s the matter, boss, we sick?” [Laughter] When the master’s house caught afire, he’d try and put the fire out. He didn’t want his master’s house burned. He never wanted his master’s property threatened. And he was more defensive of it than the master was. That was the house Negro.
But then you had some field Negroes, who lived in huts, had nothing to lose. They wore the worst kind of clothes. They ate the worst food. And they caught hell. They felt the sting of the lash. They hated their master. Oh yes, they did.
If the master got sick, they’d pray that the master died. [Laughter and applause] If the master’s house caught afire, they’d pray for a strong wind to come along. [Laughter] This was the difference between the two.
And today you still have house Negroes and field Negroes. [Applause]
I’m a field Negro. If I can’t live in the house as a human being, I’m praying for a wind to come along. If the master won’t treat me right and he’s sick, I’ll tell the doctor to go in the other direction. [Laughter] But if all of us are going to live as human beings, as brothers, then I’m for a society of human beings that can practice brotherhood. [Applause]
But before I sit down, I want to thank you for listening to me. I hope I haven’t put anybody on the spot. I’m not intending to try and stir you up and make you do something that you wouldn’t have done anyway. [Laughter and applause]
I pray that God will bless you in everything that you do. I pray that you will grow intellectually, so that you can understand the problems of the world and where you fit into, in that world picture. And I pray that all the fear that has ever been in your heart will be taken out, and when you look at that man, if you know he’s nothing but a coward, you won’t fear him. If he wasn’t a coward, he wouldn’t gang up on you. He wouldn’t need to sneak around here. [Applause] This is how they function. They function in mobs — that’s a coward. They put on a sheet so you won’t know who they are — that’s a coward.
No! The time will come when that sheet will be ripped off. If the federal government doesn’t take it off, we’ll take it off.
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