Influence of Malcolm X on SNCC
By Kwame Ture, Organizer for the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party
[Note: This presentation was made on May 22-25, 1990, at the Malcolm X in the 90’s Symposium in Havana, Cuba.]
We want to greet everyone and certainly we, on behalf of the All African Peoples Revolutionary Party, would like to thank the House of the Americas and the Center for Studies of the Americas for giving us the honor of being invited here today. Of course the biggest crime a human being can commit is the crime of being ungrateful. And it certainly would be criminal of me to not take this time out to thank the Cuban People and to thank the incarnation of Cuba, Fidel Castro.
In 1967 when I visited Cuba, it was at a point of my lowest political strength. Fidel Castro, before the OLAS conference, which contained revolutionaries throughout the world, instructed them that it was their responsibilities to protect me; and that when I returned to the U.S. they should keep in contact with me and they should follow me. Fidel told them that if in fact America would touch one grain of my hair, there should be retaliations against American imperialism from everywhere. Certainly it was simply a slight act I am sure, in one of the many that Fidel Castro has performed for the Cuban Revolution. But I am certain that since at that time imperialism was trying to kill me, as it is trying today, since I am determined to kill it. I am sure that the reason why I’m here today is because of this act of Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution. They were able to save my life. I promise the Cuban revolution and all Cuban revolutionaries that I shall never be ungrateful for the act. As long as there is breath in my body, I shall intensify my fight against imperialism without pity and without mercy.
We Must Understand Malcolm X
Comrades, we are here today and we must know that the struggle against imperialism is a struggle that is global and multi-formed. The form of struggle which we have before us here is a serious struggle. We are here struggling in the arena of ideas. Dogmatic socialists, I am just using the word to describe the phenomena as I see it, dogmatic socialists try to straight jacket Malcolm X ’s ideas into their own thinking and of course bourgeois historians try to distort it so that it will not be the revolutionary force that it is. Thus in beginning this struggle we must of course remember that the propagators of dialectical materialism Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels told us the one law of dialectics that we should never forget. Everything is both positive and negative. And that everything is constantly changing. Thus, what is positive today, what is revolutionary today can be reactionary tomorrow.
On the issue of nationalism, it is clear that we must make some pointed remarks here. In the United States of America most leftist organizations, and we speak of white left organizations, have always condemned nationalism as basically negative. We know that this is un-dialectical and thus counter-revolutionary. Everything is both positive and negative. Sekou Toure, that revolutionary fighter of Africa, showed us that when a country goes from a nation to a state and uses nationalism it is reactionary. But when one goes from a state to a nation, nationalism has a positive effect here and is in fact revolutionary. Of course most people and most writers in making analysis of historical figures understand today the necessity of judging these figures with their historical time.
Little attention however is paid to the fact of the cultural space these historical figures occupy. In the case of Malcolm X this is crucial. The culture of the Africans in America is not the same as that of the culture of American imperialism. Not only is it not the same, the culture of the Africans in America is in perpetual struggle with that of American imperialism. Thus when we come to compare Malcolm X, we cannot take statements and symbols and judge them as we would any general concept of American imperialism.
Many bourgeois historians and some dogmatic socialists when speaking of Malcolm X try to make it appear as if he only lived for eleven months, after he left the Nation of Islam. This is most un-dialectical. We must come to understand the role Malcolm X played in the growth and development of the Nation of Islam and the impact it had upon him. We want to go back clearly to this point of culture. One of the reasons why many dogmatic socialists don’t want to deal with Malcolm X during the period of the Nation of Islam is because of his use of the words white devil. Again this use is not a proper understanding of culture. When American imperialism makes the statement that all Africans are animals, they mean just that, all Africans are animals. Even liberals carry this conception with them. But when Africans say that all whites are devils, they do not mean that all whites are devils. They understand precisely that there are some who are fighting against racism who do not fit in this category.
Certainly, all Africans in America know about John Brown to whom Malcolm X always referred. We point out to everyone that in 1960, when Fidel Castro came to America, Malcolm X was in the Nation of Islam, and he was using the term white devil, and there was no contradiction for anyone in the African masses. Malcolm X came to support Fidel Castro, and the nationalist community in Harlem themselves came out and protected Fidel Castro when he was at the Hotel Teresa, and all of them were using the word white devil. Thus, it is this cultural aspect that must be properly understood. When Malcolm X used the word white devil, he meant those whites who were not actively fighting against racism. When he used the word white devil collectively he certainly meant racist capitalism. These points must be properly understood. We say that unless this is done, we will try to cut off Malcolm’s life in the Nation of Islam and make it appear as if it’s only during the last eleven months of his life that he made a contribution to the struggle. This is not true.
Of course, we have said, and we continue to say, that in the Nation of Islam, where Malcolm X had his formation, it had two philosophical streams. One was religion, Islam, which according to the Honorable Elijah Muhammad was adapted to the particular situation of the Africans in America and thus did not conform to Orthodox Islam and the second philosophical stream in the Nation of Islam was nationalism, which according to some was almost taken to black superiority with the theory of Yaccub. Malcolm X had his formation under these two philosophical streams. When he left the Nation of Islam he transformed both of them. The religious practices of the NOI were taken to Orthodox Islam when Malcolm X came to found the Muslim Mosque Inc. It must be clear here. In this organization, this religious organization, any race could belong. Malcolm X made it clear. His understanding of Islam meant that anyone could participate in it. Thus, whites could go into the Muslim Mosque Inc. and be accepted and welcomed.
The second philosophical stream, that of nationalism, Malcolm X transformed and took it directly to Pan-Africanism. Here Malcolm’s organization was the Organization of African American Unity. In this organization only Africans could be members. Many people make great confusion here about Malcolm’s last eleven months, trying to make it appear as if he changed, and he did this and he did that. Malcolm X was always moving to higher levels of qualitative transformation; and his break with the Nation of Islam only meant a qualitative leap in this aspect. Thus the two philosophical streams were still to be found in Malcolm’s life. He died a religious Muslim and he died a member of the Organization of African American Unity, an organization that was patterned after the Organization of African Unity, leading directly to Pan-Africanism.
We must of course define Pan-Africanism. It is nothing other than the total liberation and unification of Africa under scientific socialism, as Osagefyo Kwame Nkrumah correctly said. Certainly this was Malcolm’s understanding of it. Of course Malcolm X as we have said would fight for the Organization of African Unity, and the central task which Malcolm X set for himself was that of transforming our thinking. King. Over and over again Malcolm X would say, if the white man sent you to Korea, you would bleed; if the white man sent you to Viet Nam, you would bleed. The white man will send you everywhere, you will bleed. But if the white man kills your mother you will do nothing. You must not let anyone think for you, you must think for yourself, and know precisely who your enemies are. Thus Malcolm’s attack was clearly in the ideological arena. As a matter of fact Malcolm X made the ideological struggle total.
The culture of Africans must be properly understood, especially those in America. Here, this understanding of the struggle must be crucial. The African Revolution everywhere in the world has always advanced the Cultural Revolution as the first step towards revolution. All great African Revolutionaries, Kwame Nkrumah, Sekou Toure, Amilcar Cabral, Frantz Fanon, etc. etc., always point out the necessity of the Cultural Revolution preceding every other aspect of the Revolution. This is because of the distinctive relationship that Africa has had with imperialism. In relationship to Africa, imperialism has done everything possible to make the Africans feel inferior. We can see it everywhere. Malcolm X himself was able to point out that many Africans in America, indeed throughout the Caribbean, hated Africa. For no reason at all, other than the indoctrination and oppression of American imperialism.
Throughout the Caribbean here, we can see that while the Caribbean is today inhabited with many people from different areas, it is only the Africans who do not hold to their culture in their daily manifestations. In this regard, we certainly must once again, salute Cuba for its task of encouraging African culture. It must be encouraged, and affirmative action must be used here since our culture has been so thoroughly oppressed and repressed by American imperialism. Since our culture must be picked up, ideology becomes the crucial aspect. Sekou Toure reminds us that culture is the container of ideology. thus showing us that every people have their own ideology. He, along with Cabral would go so far as to make the affirmative statement that liberation itself is a conscious act of culture. Thus, for the African revolution, culture is vital. Without a proper understanding of culture, one can come to no understanding of the African Revolution at all.
Malcolm X and Dr. King
We must talk about Dr. King in relationship to Malcolm. Our paper after all is the effect of Malcolm X on SNCC. Dr. Dr. King and Malcolm X are two major figures that had an effect upon the members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. We must point out that the bourgeois press has also been busy maligning and distorting Dr. Dr. King, and here too, proper attacks must be made against the bourgeois press, and clear analysis and the truth must be presented. The capitalist press would have us believe that the greatest contribution that Dr. Dr. King made to the masses of Africans in America was to bring them nonviolence. This was not true. Dr. Dr. King’s greatest contribution was he taught our people how to confront the enemy without fear. It is this that would make us understand the dialectical relationship between Dr. Dr. King and Malcolm.
Dr. Dr. King taught us how to confront the enemy without fear through nonviolence, that is to say, he would take young children, 16 years old, old women, 92 years old, and they would go out and face police dogs, police hoses, police bullets, without any arms. Thanks to Dr. Dr. King’s teaching and example, it was easy for them to face the enemy with arms. Thus, Malcolm X just logically extended Dr. Dr. King’s work. Where Dr. Dr. King taught us not to be afraid to confront the enemy without arms, Malcolm X said, since you can confront them without arms, you can also confront them with arms. This struggle between Malcolm X and Dr. Dr. King must be properly understood. They are not in diametrical opposition at all. Dr. King used nonviolence as a principle. Here, he made an error. Malcolm X was correct. Nonviolence was a tactic. Malcolm X said over and over again, nonviolence can only be a principle in a nonviolent world. But, as long as there are violent people in the world, one has a responsibility to defend ones self. Thus nonviolence, for Malcolm X was nothing but a tactic. Of course, Malcolm X we know was a Revolutionary, anti-capitalist. As a matter of fact, we can say that Malcolm X was in perfect harmony with the Africans in America, in that he was, even in his unconscious state, anti-capitalist.
One would look at the United States of America and without doubt, one would see that the Africans are the most revolutionary, instinctive mass inside the country. Thus, Malcolm X was in total harmony. Dr. King of course was a reformist. And, Dr. King would think that Africans could be accommodated into the capitalist system of America. This manifestation of their ideological streams can be demonstrated in their attitude towards the federal government of the United States. In the early days, Dr. King believed that the federal government was an ally of the Africans in America. Malcolm X never believed this. As a matter of fact he used their irresponsibility to justify us taking up arms and dealing with racist groups ourselves.
Of course we do not mean to linger on the point that Dr. King was a reformist. Dr. King himself was qualitatively transforming himself. He was assassinated by the FBI in America because he was moving towards a revolutionary path. Dr. King, after having tried reform and seeing its utter failure, was ready to go towards revolution. We can point this out by showing that his last campaign, the Poor Peoples’ March, was directed directly against the Federal government, whom prior to that time, he had considered to be an ally of the struggle. We just wanted to try and clear up some of theses things because we said, obviously, we get confused by the interpretations given to us by bourgeoisie historians.
Malcolm X and SNCC
There is one other of the aspect of it we must talk about, the Nation of Islam and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Bourgeoisie historians everywhere tried to make a division between them, and a geographical division at that. Most of the work of the Nation of Islam was in the North. Most of the work of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was in the south. But the Nation of Islam itself had no contradictions here. I am sure that at least 80% of its membership was southern born. Certainly, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad was born in the south and the Nation of Islam had a proper understanding of the conditions of the south. We will now show some of the direct contributions of Malcolm X on SNCC.
Perhaps the first and most important effect that Malcolm X had upon the SNCC was on the need for revolutionaries to study. We have said, and it was a fact, the movement of the 60s was a spontaneous movement and anyone who tries to make it anything else other than that is talking bourgeoisie nonsense. A spontaneous movement can bring down an unjust system. We’ve seen it. Examples of history exist, but it cannot construct. In order to construct you must have an organized force. Consequently, when we speak of the 60s we are speaking here of a spontaneous movement, where others were trying to give direction to it and some trying always to organize it.
We said that the most important aspect that Malcolm X had on SNCC was study. Everyone in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, called SNICK, had to respect Malcolm. After all, he was a criminal, one who could not read and write. He went to jail and transformed himself and came out as a revolutionary, a sterling revolutionary who understood the necessity to study. It was through Malcolm, even with his early contacts with Fidel Castro, that the works of Che Guevara began to find its way into the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. We will trace Malcolm’s influence on SNCC through individual SNICK people who bore his ideas and the internal contradictions SNICK was undergoing which resulted in positions that were in harmony with the positions that Malcolm X was propagating.
The terms that we use will be general terms, but only because we do not have time to be specific and allow for definitions of all terms. The first aspect we can really show is one of nationalism vs. integration. We say the terms are loose but we are sure that most people who have studied Malcolm X and who are aware of what we are saying will have some general idea of these terms. The Nonviolent Action Group (NAG), which was a chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee which based itself in Washington DC, played an important role in SNCC, in bringing Malcolm’s ideas into the organization. This branch of SNCC, the Nonviolent Action Group of Washington DC, since 1961, had serious internal struggles over the question nationalism and integration.
While students at Howard University, in 1962, we organized a debate at Howard University for Malcolm X and Bayard Rustin. Bayard represented the forces of integration. He was a worker, one who helped build Dr. King. He had a long, distinguished history of nonviolent action, including refusal to fight in World War II on the grounds of being a pacifist. Malcolm, at the debate at Howard University in 1962, demolished Bayard Rustin, totally. From this point onward, nationalism would become the dominant aspect of the Nonviolent Action Group. This group would have a strong influence on SNCC, and the tapes of the debate between Malcolm X and Bayard would be circulated to all SNCC members, heightening the contradictions inside of SNCC around the question of nationalism vs. integration. So, we said, as early as 1962, while Malcolm X was still a member of the Nation of Islam, he had a powerful effect upon the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in making nationalism the dominant aspect of it in the Nonviolent Action Group.
Of course, many of these people of the Nonviolent Action Group worked in the Mississippi Delta during the Mississippi Summer Project of SNCC in 1964. Here, we had two objectives. First, to make sure that all of those from the south who were going to the north would meet with Malcolm. We ensured this. All delegations, youth, Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, everyone, we ensured that they went and had meetings with Malcolm. Our intent was to begin to have, by having direct contact with Malcolm X having, his ideas spread throughout the South, throughout the areas where we were working, making it easier for us to do the work we saw necessary, because we understood the necessity of implementing Malcolm’s program. Of course, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee militants who wanted the ideas of Malcolm X to flow, understood just as did the Revolutionary Action Movement here, that Malcolm X would have to sooner or later have a break with the Nation of Islam. This was apparent from those who were studying the situation closely.
Malcolm X wanted confrontation. The Honorable Elijah Muhammad felt that the Nation of Islam was not ready for political confrontation. But Malcolm X could see the effect of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Dr. Kings organization, and the Revolutionary Action Movement, which our brother Muhammad Ahmed will speak of, the impact they were having, and Malcolm X understood that the only way they could have the proper contact was when they came into active struggle against the state repressive machineries. Thus, even though Malcolm X would be condemning the civil rights movement for its nonviolent tactic, he had to respect the students who were facing the police, who were confronting the police, the old women who were confronting the police, since the Nation of Islam was not involved in this activity. Certainly we recognize this split.
Both the Revolutionary Action Movement and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee were doing everything possible, so that when the split came, they would be able to take Malcolm X and bring him into their own organizations. On this program, the militants inside the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee became very serious. Here they wanted to do everything possible to ensure that Malcolm X could be able to come into the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee when he finally left the Nation of Islam. Thus the work of political education was heightened inside the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee around the points that Malcolm X was pushing which was still not dominant inside of SNCC.
Of course, the question of violence as a principle and as a tactic was the first one that came to confrontation with SNCC. By 1964, most of SNCC people working in the Deep South were armed 24 hours a day, even though their organization carried a public attitude, a public posture of nonviolence. I remember that in 1964 when our Central Committee had a meeting in Mississippi our chairperson, John Lewis, who followed Dr. King, and still does, in his reform politics, chairperson John Lewis was shocked when he found out that members of his organization, especially female members, were carrying guns 24 hours a day. This was a reality, and no preaching from anyone could change it. Those of us working in the Deep South had to face naked, raw, racist terrorism daily; and we were not about to sacrifice our lives on the alters of the Klu Klux Klan or any other racist organization. So consequently, the fact of carrying arms was only a natural aspect. By 1964, the position became dominant in SNCC.
While there was no discussion on it, it was clearly understood that most people in SNCC carried guns, were prepared to use them, did use them, and were involved in activities against the state, against the racist regimes. By late 1964, there were direct moves made by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to come into Selma Alabama where SNCC had been working for years facing terrorism. Before this, in January of 1965, SNCC people invited Malcolm X to come to Selma, Alabama to counteract Dr. King. Malcolm X came to Selma for SNCC, made a powerful speech there, and had a powerful effect. The SNCC militants were happy. We were prepared now to move deeper, to pull a strong relationship with Malcolm X and to try as quickly as possible to make a coalition between SNCC and the Organization of African American Unity.
By 1965, in February, Malcolm X, was assassinated, thus all these hopes had to be dashed. Even Dr. King himself would say “you can kill a revolutionary but you can never kill the revolution, and certainly not revolutionary ideas.” Malcolm X had done his job. He had laid the basis for the ideological conversion and transformation of the African community in America and indeed around the world. Thus, those of us who were serious only had to implement Malcolm’s programs. It is here now that we will try to show some of the direct effects that Malcolm X had upon the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. We must point out this march in Selma. It is known as the Selma March, and was the last march where integration was dominant. It was the last march where nonviolence was the only position advocated. It was the last march where the American flag was dominant in any civil rights demonstration. From this point on non-violence would compete with violence. From this point on the American flag would not be carried in any demonstration. It would be burnt on the spot. From this point on there was no question that there was no talk of integration, but clear nationalism.
Malcolm, in order to give us a clear and proper understanding of our thinking, imposed upon us the necessity to have our own organization. We see no contradiction here. Certainly it would be stupid of a peasant organization to put a landlord as the chief of the organization, just as stupid as it would be for an African organization to put a white liberal at the head of the organization. These organizations had to have their own base and their own leadership, thus the organizations had to be all-African. This position was arrived at in SNCC in late 1965, although it was not publically advocated until 1966. But this was the work of Malcolm X, and the struggle here around Malcolm X continued seriously, without the slightest contradictions towards pushing it.
Malcolm X always advocated the need for us to have a third party, a party outside the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. Dr. King, while not involving himself in electoral politics, was against a third party, and even though he never publicly advocated it, certainly supported the Democratic Party, and pushed Africans to become members of the Democratic Party. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1965 started the first third Party, not the first, one of the first third Party movements at that time, in the sixties, in the Deep South. Here the Revolutionary Action Movement had already tried this attempt with the Freedom Now Party in Detroit where Malcolm X himself played a crucial role. Thus by 1965 SNCC formed a third Party in the Deep South in Lowndes County Alabama. This is where the Black Panther Party was first found.
We just say in passing that this was an armed party. Everyone in the party understood the necessity to defend themselves and the peasants did. Lowndes County was a terroristic county. When I went there to organize the SNCC in1965, there was not one African registered to vote. Any African who attempted to register vote was automatically killed by racist groups. Their houses were burnt down; they were driven from the land; thus we came into an area of complete terrorism to begin our struggle for this beginning of a third party. This again was a task of Malcolm X where we came once again to rise on top of it.
Malcolm X was an organizer. Dr. King was a mobilizer. Of course, in order to be an organizer one must be a mobilizer. But being a mobilizer does not make you an organizer. Dr. King was probably one of the greatest mobilizers that America has seen in the twentieth century. But he was very short on organizing. Malcolm X was both a mobilizer and an organizer, and he understood the necessity of organization. This was certainly imposed upon the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; not only an organization, but an organization in which ideological training was constant. Of course many people felt that Malcolm X was criticizing the Nation of Islam saying that it did not give political education but rather political catechism. This may be the case, but any way, Malcolm X was clear on the need for constant study and constant study of the cadre of any organization, and that they have a unified understanding of the program and the ideology of the organization in which they are involved. This too we can see being carried on everywhere today.
"If you attack Cuba, you attack Malcolm X!"
Malcolm X of course pushed the point forward of self-determination rather than that of accommodation to the capitalist system. Here again, as you would see everywhere in the United States of America among the Africans, this talk of self-determination, not the talk of accommodation into a capitalist system. The need for constant revolutionary education must be properly understood here. Of course my time is up. We’re in a revolutionary country, in Cuba, and when one is in a revolutionary country, everything one does must be revolutionary. When we say it must be revolutionary, it means that everything we do must be used as a struggle against imperialism and a struggle to advance humanity. It would not be serious if in fact we were to come here and after this Conference just go and leave it alone.
Everyone knows that the support for Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution in America is deep within the African community. Africans in America love, respect, and have a great deal of admiration for Fidel Castro. This is instinctive. American imperialism has been now doing everything possible to begin to destabilize this base of support that Fidel Castro has among the Africans in America. It is our responsibility to give no quarter to imperialism. It is our responsibility to back up not one millimeter in the struggle. Thus, we must come here clearly and begin to advocate programs which will begin from this Conference to carry out a direct program for the Africans in America to increase and to intensify and to organize the support for the Cuban Revolution by dealing heavier blows against imperialism. While we end, we certainly think that one of the best slogans we can have in this area is the slogan that “If you attack Cuba, you attack Malcolm, and for the sake of Malcolm, we must break US imperialism’s “Hands Off of Cuba!”
Ready for the Revolution!
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