Wed May 22, 2024
May 22, 2024

The Legacy Of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X And The Crisis Of Pacifism And Racialism

By Wilson Honório da Silva (National Education Secretariat of PSTU – Brazil) and Américo Gomes (National Leadership of PSTU).


In the previous article we draw a line of the decade before the foundation, in October 15th of 1966, of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, rising some questions specifically regarding the change of perspectives and tactics of the Black movement since middle of the ‘60s, when the persistence of racism and its socio-economic effects, even after achieving institutional civil rights, generated a crisis among Pacifism and Racialism (that is to say, the defense of the struggle against racism is exclusive for Black people), and some of the main leaders of the time approached classist and/or socialist positions (on different levels and perspectives).

Here, we want to approach this debate once again, from two emblematic figures regarding this matter: Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. It is necessary to dig into the legacy of this two Black leaders because, by being murdered when they were still reformulating their political and ideological perspectives, both left a legacy that made the history of the movement (including the Panthers) to be, because of the different interpretations of it, a many times contradictory mix of theoretical, tactic, political, programmatic and strategic references.

Over the next two texts, we will approach the debates regarding the “Black Power” slogan and factual information (a chronology) on the years of its foundation and expansion, between 1965 and the beginning of 1968, when the FBI launched the infamous COINTELPRO [Counter Intelligence Program], which pointed the Panthers as its open target.

Luther King And The Crisis Of The Pacifist Dream

Since the post-war period, the black population migrated massively from rural to urban zones. Around 1970, about 75% of black people were already living in cities where the demand for civil rights (end of segregation laws, right to vote, etc.) did no longer respond to a reality that was sinking into sub-employment and unemployment, as much as in social and economic obstacles stopping the access of black people to health, education, housing, transportation, etc. And all of this while surrounded by persistent discrimination and marginalization, leaving the segregation in the schools and workplaces -and other aspects of human life- practically intact.

The most wicked example of the continuation of Racism –up until today- was the institutional brutality (so, driven by the State, mainly its police and judiciary apparatuses), which made the pacific policies and actions to be more questioned each time.

A description made by George Jackson (Panther’s member, killed by the prison guards in August, 1971) exposes very well the situation of beginning of the ‘60s”: “black men born in the US who are lucky enough to live passed 18 are conditioned to accept prison is inevitable”. A situation that unexpectedly influenced the militants and debates of the time -that he also described-: “I knew Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Engels and Mao when I was in jail, and they redeemed me”.

Luther King’s case is an example that there was not only the youth that, imprisoned or pushed by reality itself, was questioning the practices used during the struggles for civil rights, and looking for new references. It was after being brutally beaten, in 1963, by the Birmingham Police (Alabama), than King stated the protests that exploded in solidarity with him were actually “a class revolt, of the subjected against the privileged ones”.

In 1967, when the Panthers were occupying the streets, Luther King had radicalized his conclusions even more, defending, for example, that “we are moving towards an era that must be the era of the revolution… what good is it for a person to be able to access the cafeteria [when the ban to black people accessing was annulled] if he/she cannot even buy a hamburger?”.

He had also given steps forward towards a more internationalist understanding of the matter, embracing demands against the government and the system, as it becomes evident in his famous speech: “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence”, given on April 4, 1967, an exact year before his murder: “There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I, and others, have been waging in America. (…) Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So, I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such”.

And he continued: “And so we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. And so we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor”.

Finally, despite making several anti-communist statements along his life, in 1968 Luther King was becoming closer and closer to the workers’ movement. And, consequently, he meant an each time more significant threat for the government and the system. A disgraceful proof of this is the fact he was killed the night after talking in a meeting of the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Union, which was on strike due to the death of two black workers because of the terrible work conditions.

Malcolm X And The Questioning Of Racialism

Since midst of the ‘60s, Pacifism was going through a crisis and there was also a major debate about the perspective to be adopted by the movements. In this regard, it is necessary to approach, once again, some of the positions of the main reference of the Panthers, Malcolm X, specifically regarding the point that opposes Racialism to the view of “race and class”.

First it is worth to recall, since his times as part of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm was ferociously critical of Pacifism: “Just as the slavemaster of that day used Tom, the house Negro, to keep the field Negroes in check, the same old slavemaster today has Negroes who are nothing but modern Uncle Toms (…)to keep you and me in check, keep us under control, keep us passive and peaceful and nonviolent”.[1]

This type of thought clearly led to questioning the capitalist system itself, even though the black leader did not break completely with the defense of “Racialism” that, in practice, undermined the unity of the oppressed and exploited ones, as it became evident in a speech pronounced in 1960, when he was still part of the Nation of Islam: “No white men really want black men to have the same rights”[2]. To have an idea of how much Malcolm believed this, it is enough to quote a concept frequently used by him: “white demons”.

Malcolm started breaking with this characterization as he became more distant of the Nation of Islam, by the end of 1963. At the time, he affirmed the divergences with the main leader of the group, Elijah Muhammad, were regarding matters like sectarianism, lack of political commitment, concrete militancy and direct actions, focusing his activity in what the Nation called “moral reform”.

As quoted in the previous related article [Black Panthers: A Roar Still Echoing Against Racism], Malcolm believed it was an epoch of revolutions that demanded the unity of “the oppressed against the oppressors, the exploited against the exploiters”, and which also demanded the end of religious sectarianism. Consequent with this, he made a differentiation between “white people” in general and the sector responsible for the monopoly of economy and over-exploitation.

Regarding the religious matter, the position of the new entity founded by Malcolm, which also implied a delimitation regarding the system, was synthesized on a interview given to Pierre Berton, in on January 19th, 1965: “(…) but being black Americans, though we are Muslims, who believe in brotherhood, we also realized that our people have a problem in America that goes beyond religion. We realized that many of our people aren’t going to become Muslim; (…) so we set up the Organization of Afro-American Unity as a nonreligious organization which all black Americans could become a part of and play an active part in striking out at the political, economic, and social evils that all of us are confronted by”.

Regarding Racialism, a passage of its autobiography, issued in 1965, shortly after his death, synthesized the new Malcolm’s thought: “In the past, yes, I have made sweeping indictments of all white people. I never will be guilty of that again-as I know now that some white people are truly sincere, that some truly are capable of being brotherly toward a black man”. [3]

To have a dimension of the questioning of “black nationalism/racialism” that signed the last years of Malcolm X’s life, it is worth to mention some passages of the interview given in January 1965:

  • About he still seeing the non-black people as “white demons”:This is what Elijah Muhammad teaches. No, I don’t believe that. I believe as the Koran teaches, that a man should not be judged by the color of his skin but rather by his conscious behavior, by his actions, by his attitude towards others and his actions towards others”.
  • About interracial marriages and integration:I believe in recognizing every human being as a human being, neither white, black, brown nor red. When you are dealing with humanity as one family, there’s no question of integration or intermarriage. It’s just one human being marrying another human being, or one human being living around and with another human being. I may say, though, that I don’t think the burden to defend any such position should ever be put upon the black man. Because it is the white man collectively who has shown that he is hostile towards integration and towards intermarriage and towards these other strides towards oneness. So, as a black man, and especially as a black American, I don’t think that I would have to defend any stand that I formerly took. Because it’s still a reaction of the society and it’s a reaction that was produced by the white society. And I think that it is the society that produced this that should be attacked, not the reaction that develops among the people who are the victims of that negative society”.
  • About the ultimate clash in our society: “(…) I think that an objective analysis of events taking place on this earth today points towards some type of ultimate showdown. You can call it a political showdown or even a showdown between the economic systems that exist on this earth, which almost boil down along racial lines. I do believe that there will be a clash between East and West. I believe that there will ultimately be a clash between the oppressed and those that do the oppressing. I believe that there will be a clash between those who want freedom, justice, and equality for everyone, and those who want to continue the systems of exploitation. I believe that there will be that kind of clash, but I don’t think that it will be based upon the color of the skin, as Elijah Muhammad has taught it. However, I do think you’ll find that the European powers, which are the former colonial powers, if they’re not able to readjust their feeling of superiority towards the darker skinned people, whom they have been made to think are inferior, then the lines can easily be drawn. They can easily be lumped into racial groups, and it will be a racial war”.

As we will see in the next article, this analysis also influenced -a lot- the defense of an armed struggle and self-defense practices. So far it is important to say, even to understand how the Panthers appropriated of Malcolm X’s thoughts, that the abandonment of the idea of generalized confrontation with the “white demons” did not mean the abandonment of “black nationalism” completely.

Malcolm X just gave a new meaning to the idea, as he said in one of his most famous (and categoric against bourgeois democracy) speeches, “The Ballot Or The Bullet” (April 3rd, 1964): “The social philosophy of black nationalism only means that we have to get together and remove the evils, the vices, alcoholism, drug addiction, and other evils that are destroying the moral fiber of our community. We our selves have to lift the level of our community, the standard of our community to a higher level, make our own society beautiful so that we will be satisfied in our own social circles and won’t be running around here trying to knock our way into a social circle where we’re not wanted”.

It was along these debates, and signed by many contradictions and different interpretations on the theoretical and programatic bases that should orient the fight against racism and the unity with other oppressed and exploited sectors, that the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense emerged. It was through these debates that a cry of war touched the hearts of the black people: Black Power. This will be the topic of the next article.



[1] Malcolm. Message to the Grass Roots, speech pronounced on November 10th, 1963. The reference to the name has to do with the book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852), whose main character became synonym of black people with a subservient, “passive” attitude in front of the authority figures of the U.S white men, or that seek integration to the system through settling.

[2] Malcolm X. The truth about Black Muslims, pronounced in Boston University, on May 24th, 1960.

[3] Malcolm X. Autobiography of Malcolm X. p. 225.


Translation: Sofia Ballack.

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