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Vol. 74/No. 8      March 1, 2010

Malcolm X, King had
clashing class outlooks
The following is the sixth in a series of excerpts the Militant is running from Pathfinder Press’s latest book, Malcolm X, Black Liberation, and the Road to Workers Power, by Jack Barnes, national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party. We encourage our readers to study and discuss the book. This excerpt is from the chapter “Malcolm X: Revolutionary Leader of the Working Class.” Subheadings are by the Militant.

As I noted at the opening of this talk, it is simply untrue to talk about a political convergence between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. King was a courageous individual who helped lead powerful mobilizations for Black rights, from the time of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 right up until his assassination in 1968… .

Martin Luther King’s individual courage is not the question. We’re talking about two clashing class outlooks, two irreconcilable political courses.

One of the pieces of “evidence” displayed time and again to support the “Malcolm-Martin” myth is a photograph of the two of them together, smiling, after running into each other by happenstance at the United States Capitol building in Washington, D.C., in March 1964—just two weeks after Malcolm announced his break with the Nation of Islam. But there was no political content whatsoever to that chance meeting. As King himself later said in an interview with Alex Haley, “I met Malcolm X once in Washington, but circumstances didn’t enable me to talk with him for more than a minute.” And King went on in that same January 1965 interview to condemn what he called Malcolm’s “fiery, demagogic oratory,” charging that “in his litany of articulating the despair of the Negro without offering any positive, creative alternative, I feel that Malcolm has done himself and our people a great disservice.”

That was Martin Luther King’s political assessment of the person who was arguably America’s greatest single mass revolutionary leader of the middle of the twentieth century.

The actual political relations between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were demonstrated a few months after their unplanned encounter, when King traveled to St. Augustine, Florida, in June 1964. King went there to support activists who had been repeatedly beaten by the Ku Klux Klan and arrested by cops for organizing lunch counter sit-ins and other civil rights protests. The Democratic administration of Lyndon Johnson had contemptuously spurned King’s call for federal troops to protect the demonstrators and enforce their rights.

On behalf of the newly launched Organization of Afro-American Unity, Malcolm sent a telegram to King at the time saying, “If the federal Government will not send troops to your aid, just say the word and we will immediately dispatch some of our brothers there to organize self-defense units among our people and the Ku Klux Klan will then receive a taste of its own medicine. The day of turning the other cheek to those brute beasts is over.”

King flatly rejected Malcolm’s offer, calling it a “grave error” and “an immoral approach.”

Nor did that political chasm narrow over subsequent months. 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.  
Youth invite Malcolm to Selma
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.” …

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 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 [Atlanta], 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.” …

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.
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