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The Media Made Malcolm X

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The black activist Malcolm X was not a civil rights leader. Nor was he a victim of the mass media. He was its beneficiary, in life and death, argues Peter Ling.

Malcolm X promoting Black Muslim policies during a civil rights demonstration in Brooklyn, New York, 1963. Getty Images/Time LifeTeaching the civil rights movement to predominantly white middle-class students in England is a largely enjoyable but frustrating experience. The enjoyment comes from their conspicuous fascination with an episode in the history of the human struggle for justice that is truly inspiring. The frustration stems from their equally self-evident tendency to regard the topic as a moral exercise in which they get to play the ‘good guys’. Nothing illustrates the latter tendency better than their attitudes toward Malcolm X (1925-65). Every year without fail there are students who want to make him the cornerstone of their approach, or at the very least the counterpoint against which everything and everyone else is judged. By comparison Martin Luther King (1929-68) is fulsomely critiqued. With glue-like consistency, my students embrace Ella Baker’s comment that: ‘The movement made Martin more than Martin made the movement.’ From this starting point they readily move on to King’s male chauvinism and his tendency to accept plaudits for the work of others. They celebrate the organising efforts of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and of local activists whose bravery provided the platform for King’s national appeal to America’s conscience. They see his practice of nonviolent direct action up until 1965 as largely calculating and pragmatic, using the media to embarrass the American establishment into passing civil rights legislation. After 1965 they praise his opposition to the Vietnam War but remain sceptical about the efficacy of non-violence as a strategy for addressing the injustices of the ghetto. Instead they express solidarity with the advocates of Black Power, the angry so-called ‘children of Malcolm X’.

Their sympathies compel me to spend my time as an iconoclast. First and foremost, admirers of Malcolm X have to consider the nature of the Nation of Islam (NOI), since its doctrines were those that he accepted during the bulk of his public career, after becoming the organisation’s pre-eminent spokesman in 1954. To be blunt, the Nation was not a civil rights organisation. It did not believe that improvement of the African-American condition could come from efforts to agitate for full rights as American citizens. The NOI believed that white racism was a permanent feature rooted in the essential and unchangeable character of the white race. Insofar as Malcolm articulated the Nation’s view that attempting to reform race relations was a waste of time he cannot be described as part of the civil rights movement. The NOI’s clarion call to black America was one of retreat. It urged withdrawal from contact with white America and as far as possible to concentrate on building institutions that would foster self-reliance within the Nation.

Of course it is well documented that in the period between Malcolm’s suspension as a minister and spokesman for the Nation in late November 1963 and his assassination in February 1965 he signalled his desire to participate in protest efforts to secure justice for African Americans and to contest – by whatever means necessary – the racism they faced. Vital to this shift was his pilgrimage to Mecca, his embrace of orthodox Islam and his public rejection of the deeply heretical version of that faith promulgated by the Nation’s leader, Elijah Muhammad (1897-1975). Whatever Malcolm had said about whites being devils whom Allah would destroy in his own good time was superseded now by his new position that he was prepared to work with people of all races pursuing the common goal of human rights. However, to evaluate the significance of Malcolm’s transformation in what proved to be the final phase of his short life one needs to assess the importance of the two organisations that he formed as his base of operations: the Muslim Mosque Incorporated (MMI), founded in March 1964 to oversee his work seeking converts to Sunni Islam; and the Organization of African American Unity (OAAU), set up two months later to oversee efforts at political organising in New York City in cooperation with other groups.

Mortal threat

One of the most valuable parts of the late Manning Marable’s newly published, monumental biography of Malcolm is his investigation of these two fledgling organisations. For three decades at least Marable was arguably the most eminent African-American Marxist in the American academy and the decades he dedicated to the study of Malcolm’s life reflected his belief that Malcolm was the black nationalist leader who best understood and articulated the visceral feelings of working-class African Americans. A sympathetic biographer, Marable portrays Malcolm as a figure increasingly frustrated by the limits imposed on him by the NOI and is therefore keen to stress the positive aspects of the two organisations that Malcolm formed after his break with the Nation. Even so, Marable admits that the two were in many ways incompatible with each other, since the MMI was mostly staffed by people who had left the Harlem NOI temple with Malcolm and largely shared his old views, whereas the OAAU attracted far more secular and better educated men and women, drawn to the new agenda of revolutionary internationalism that Malcolm had begun to espouse. Both organisations struggled to develop because so much of their energies had to be expended just on protecting Malcolm from the mortal threat posed by vengeful members of the Nation of Islam and because Malcolm, partly to escape his enemies, spent much of the last year of his life travelling overseas. With no clear programme of action or shared agenda and no strong organisational structures, but clear external threats and deep-seated internal weaknesses, neither the MMI nor the OAAU provided as strong a platform for Malcolm as he had had in the Nation of Islam. Thus the reformed Malcolm was far weaker in terms of material influence than his previous incarnation.

Video: Malcolm X, In His Own Words

Another way of sharpening our understanding of Malcolm’s position in 1964-65 is to consider his career in terms of the concept of ‘social capital’. The term, popularised by the sociologist Robert Putnam over the last decade, underlines the value of social connection by likening it to other assets: financial capital, physical capital (buildings) and human capital (education and skills). At the heart of many kinds of disadvantage is social exclusion and one facet of privilege is access to the right people.

Putnam uses the term ‘bridging social capital’ to refer to those loose ties that link individuals from different places and groups by virtue of a perceived shared status. Middle-class professionals feel comfortable with each other because their education and values are similar. In Putnam’s words bridging social capital is ‘good for getting ahead’. Bonded social capital, on the other hand, like family ties, refers to a network of similar individuals in a particular place whose limited experiences reinforce a commonality of values, expectations and knowledge. This kind of social capital is the essential basis for survival in many poor communities and is ‘good for getting by’.

Putnam’s work has highlighted that a major obstacle to the rehabilitation of convicted criminals is the fact that their social ties are limited and tend to lead them back into the patterns of life that gave rise to their criminality in the first place – a useful point to consider in relation to Malcolm X, who converted to the Nation of Islam while in prison for burglary in 1948. By the time he was saved by his conversion to Islam he had become a figure who had weakened his ties to others through various acts of deception and abuse. He had mistreated people, notably women, and had been deceived himself. Initially in prison he was intent on alienating everyone around him. While the belief system of the Nation served to make sense of his current difficulties as one of the many victims of the white devils the NOI’s social network ultimately was important in providing him with a support network outside prison that enabled him to transform his way of life. One of the gravest disciplinary threats used within the Nation, that of ostracism or exclusion, reflected the fact that the Nation became the foundation of a believer’s life. The organisation represented for Malcolm a form of bonded social capital stronger than that provided by his family, so much so that he was even prepared to reject his own brother at the behest of Elijah Muhammad. But, as Malcolm’s talent as a proselytiser and publicist for the NOI became increasingly apparent, his ability to bind newcomers to the Nation was offset by a jealousy and mistrust among Elijah Muhammad’s inner circle.

Elijah Muhammad, the American leader of the Nation of Islam, at a press conference following the assassination of Malcolm X, February 1965. Getty Images/Getty Images/AFPMarable argues that part of this tension reflected the fact that Malcolm wanted the Nation to take a more active role in defending African-American interests, such as when he tried to organise a public campaign to support NOI members prosecuted following a police raid on a Los Angeles temple in 1962. Wary of inviting state repression, Elijah Muhammad urged Malcolm to avoid inflammatory political remarks. The instruction would ultimately provide the grounds for Malcolm’s 90-day suspension from the NOI in December 1963, after he told reporters that the assassination of President Kennedy was just a case of the ‘chickens comin’ home to roost’ and gave the strong impression that he did not share in the Nation’s grief at this event. Once expelled from the Nation Malcolm lost his support network. Apart from the loyalists who joined him in the MMI he lost the bonded social capital provided by the NOI as a largely introspective pietistic sect. Instead Malcolm began to garner support from many different, widely scattered groups. He was able to secure significant international support beyond the United States and among African Americans. In this respect, the final manifestation of Malcolm was shaped by bridging social capital as he networked from New York to Saudi Arabia.

The temporary suspension from the NOI was made permanent in March 1964 and Malcolm decided to seize the opportunity to make the Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca that all devout Muslims must try to complete. The highly positive reception that he received during his five-week tour of Africa and the Middle East is generally attributed to his charismatic ability to generate support for the African-American cause. Malcolm’s acceptance by the leaders of newly independent African and Arab states has been seen as a sign that he was recognised as a potential member of a network of anti-colonial revolutionary leaders, seeking to break free from white Western control. However little attention has been given to the question of why President Nasser of Egypt and the Saudi royal house became Malcolm X’s principal financial sponsors in the final phase of his career.

The granting of special observer status to Malcolm at the 1964 Organization of African Unity conference in Cairo is generally considered a sign of the sympathy he stirred for the African-American freedom struggle. But the move may have had more to do with Nasser’s political position and calculations than Malcolm’s charismatic qualities. By 1963 Nasser’s dreams of greatness through his pan-Arabist experiment, the United Arab Republic, had foundered. Instead he had turned his attention to establishing his credentials as an African leader and clearly hoped that the conference in Egypt would allow him to gain ground on his rivals, President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. In this context his conspicuous recognition of Malcolm can be seen as part of a bid to secure legitimacy in the eyes of the continent’s black majority, as well as a display of independence from the threatening neo-imperialist power of the United States. Malcolm held a symbolic value for Nasser that he was ready to exploit.

The other key international supporter of Malcolm was the House of Saud, whose patronage was vital in enabling him to complete his journey to Mecca in April 1964. The kingdom also signalled a willingness to back the MMI in America as part of its role as defender of orthodox Sunni Islam. Malcolm was playing a complicated diplomatic game in this respect, since he was also cultivating ties with Muslim clerics in Egypt who were regarded as rivals by the Saudis and were also suspect in the eyes of the secular nationalists around Nasser. These intricacies have not been widely discussed by historians. Rather the actions of the Saudi leadership have been seen in generous, apolitical terms arising from religious solidarity, as well as through the personal appeal of Malcolm himself. A neglected aspect of their calculations has been the fact that, as a promoter of orthodox Islam within the US, Malcolm was tied firmly to his New York city base. Were he to be successful as an evangelist for Islam, he would create an African-American Muslim community in New York and do so in conjunction with his stated political objective of indicting the US government for its mistreatment of African Americans before the UN General Assembly – also located in New York. Although Malcolm in the 1963-65 period was more open to interracial cooperation than hitherto there remained within his speeches occasional flashes of antisemitism, sentiments that resonated with his local black audiences, who encountered Jewish Americans as ghetto store-owners and landlords who charged higher prices, as lawyers and social workers within deeply racist, justice and social welfare systems and as schoolteachers who sometimes exhibited a negative view of African-American educational potential. Should Malcolm be able to use Saudi money to build up a black Muslim bloc in New York city and to mobilise it to petition the UN he would simultaneously also provide the Arab world with a locally significant counterweight to one of its greatest concerns, the American-Jewish lobby. Thus Malcolm’s ability to find supporters internationally had its own political logic.

Malcolm, media creation

A standard complaint among Malcolm’s supporters has been that, throughout his career, he was misrepresented by the media. The main charge is that the white media overstated his commitment to violence and portrayed him as an advocate of racial hatred, especially after Mike Wallace’s 1959 television documentary about the Nation of Islam, The Hate that Hate Produced. They played up the contrast between Malcolm and Martin Luther King, the proponent of non-violence and champion of integration. In the final phase of his life, it is implied, Malcolm’s sincere attempts to cultivate a broader alliance with civil rights leaders in pursuit of racial justice were frustrated by the media’s insistence that he remained a man of violence who hated white people. The bridges that Malcolm wanted to build at this stage were never completed because the more established leaders remained suspicious of him. This depiction of Malcolm as a victim of media manipulation is itself distorted by the frequent inference that this misrepresentation was designed to strengthen the position of the whites’ preferred figure, Martin Luther King. Malcolm is seen as the victim of media manipulation and King as its beneficiary.

A demonstrator wears a Malcolm X T-shirt at a march on the Department of Justice in Washington DC to protest against issues surrounding hate crime, November 2007. Getty ImagesIt is true that the contrast between King’s rhetoric of loving one’s enemies and Malcolm’s invective against white people for their brutal mistreatment of African Americans held powerful appeal to writers then and subsequently. But it is also the case that reports of Malcolm’s denunciation of the historical conduct of whites were not misrepresentations and that his unalloyed attacks formed a key part of his appeal. His brilliant elucidation of white crimes and his skilful insistence that African Americans had every reason to mistrust whites, as well as a compelling need to join together to undo the harm they had done, were all essential to his popularity. Listening to Malcolm excoriating white Americans for their bestial conduct over the decades was a vital part of what drew African Americans to him. When they witnessed his diatribes against whites and saw the discomfort they elicited. African Americans shared a sense of moral victory and communal identity that was empowering. In this respect he sought out the media as a channel for spreading his critique of white America as a deeply corrupt and sinful society whose wealth was rooted in the most appalling exploitation of peoples of colour. He also tapped into an almost gothic fascination among sections of white America with their society’s misdeeds, in the same way as other preachers of the time captured their audiences as much through their lurid accounts of Sodom and Gomorrah and of hell as from any heavenly promise.

Since the Nation of Islam had prevented Malcolm from developing a positive programme of political action by 1964 he was in the eyes of the mainstream press a celebrity critic whose influence rested on his ‘shock value’. This status ensured that, when he carefully fed back to American contacts details of his positive reception overseas, the media was prepared to accept his evaluation of the support being offered to him and in this respect they bolstered Malcolm’s efforts to retain his public standing as a spokesman on racial matters. His attempts to forge a new career for himself as an independent leader ended tragically with his violent death on the stage of Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom at the hands of Nation of Islam members on February 21st, 1965. Neither the MMI nor the OAAU had developed sufficiently to wield significant influence after his death. Yet, in death, Malcolm X was a more influential shaper of African-American protest tactics than he ever was during his lifetime and, in this sense, posthumously he was more clearly a factor within the freedom struggle. The publication in November 1965 of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a heavily edited version of his life by Alex Haley, later the author of Roots: the Saga of an American Family, drew thousands of fresh admirers and has been fundamental to Malcolm’s subsequent reputation. The redemption narrative resonated for thousands of young African Americans in the 1960s and it continues to do so. With its emphasis on how his family was steadily destroyed, the early part of The Autobiography can be read as an account of how racism denied Malcolm Little and his family the chance of a decent life. To imagine a Malcolm X without the biography is rather like trying to imagine history, if Martin Luther King had had a voice-paralysing attack of stage fright at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. Thus it would be fairer if my students added the line: ‘The media made Malcolm’ to their chants of the ‘movement made Martin’.

Among the groups that supported Malcolm in his final phase by providing him with speaking opportunities was the Socialist Workers Party (US) and after his death the party played an important role in collecting and publishing his speeches. It also tried to recast Malcolm as a revolutionary, whose black nationalism had matured into a genuinely radical, class consciousness. More recently writers have presented the trajectories of Malcolm’s and Martin’s lives as on convergent courses, allowing their readership to indulge the fantasy of a hybrid, black superhero, a kind of ‘Super-M’ in which the idealism of King and the sharp defiance of Malcolm provide a way out of what both men regarded as the nightmare of racial injustice. Thus to suggest that Malcolm was not vital to the civil rights movement is seen by my students as a sacrilege. But throughout his career Malcolm was always more symbol and teacher than leader and strategist. He certainly contributed to the African-American freedom struggle, as distinct from the civil rights movement, even while in the Nation of Islam. He did so in terms of his ability to inspire pride and solidarity and to dissipate the profound fear that racism instilled in black people. He was a foil for the leaders of the civil rights movement in the sense that King and others warned whites that, if their efforts made no progress, Malcolm and others would capitalise on the subsequent despair.

But Malcolm X was not a civil rights leader. He did not lead a single significant campaign for civil rights during the final phase of his career, however positive and protean his developing ideology may appear. Furthermore we distort history if we see his international support as being due to his charisma or to an intrinsic solidarity born of pan-Africanism or the unity of the Islamic world. The calculations of others are also a part of the story. Finally it is perverse to see Malcolm as a victim of the mass media when he was and is so much a creation of it. In terms of a programme of action Malcolm’s main tactic was to publicise his critique of white America as a form of protest and as a source of communal pride and the media helped him do that. Without the Autobiography Malcolm’s impact on the freedom struggle would be hugely diminished and that impact continues through the myriad invocation of Malcolm X in movies, music and art. So repeat: The media made Malcolm.

Peter Ling is Professor of American Studies at the University of Nottingham.

From The Archive:

More Malcolm's Year than Martin's

Peter Ling compares the impact of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X on black culture in the 1990s.

Further reading: 
  • The Autobiography of Malcolm X [with Alex Haley] (Penguin Modern Classics, 2001)
  • Manning Marable, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (Viking-Penguin, 2011)
  • Michael Dyson, Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm (OUP, 1995) 
  • Louis DeCaro, Malcolm and the Cross: The Nation of Islam, Malcolm X and Christianity (New York UP, 1998)


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