Malcolm X: The Last Speeches by Malcolm X, Bruce Perry (ed.) *****

malcolmxlastspeechesIf you read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the most widely-read of the books about Malcolm, you will get an idea of the general development of his self-education in prison, and of his attraction to, and eventual prominence in, the Nation of Islam. This volume, in contrast, shows the speeches he made when he broke with the Nation of Islam and decided that the struggle for racial equality was tied to class struggles, and that this meant that people who were not Black could still be part of the fight that he believed was necessary. It shows his attraction to socialist ideas, and these are speeches that were not published until recently, when his widow found them buried amongst a lot of other things in storage, and called the publisher she wanted to distribute these ideas.

For example, for awhile there were posters and tee shirts available for sale showing Malcolm X and Dr. King standing together. The implication inherent in overemphasizing this photograph is that the two were comrades and brothers in struggle. I can’t believe the number of young people I taught believed that Malcolm “wanted peace”. Whereas this is true in the long run, it isn’t what he talked about. When middle class Caucasians were interviewed on TV and they pontificated that it was important for those Black demonstrators walking across the South, being confronted with tear gas, firehoses, police dogs, and arrest, to remain nonviolent, Malcolm responded, “I will be nonviolent when the White man is nonviolent.” In contrast to the ideas of Dr. King, Malcolm was ready to fight for his rights. It was in the last year of his life that he realized that the material interests of the entire working class dovetailed, and he targeted the ruling rich as his oppressors, (correctly so in my view), rather than blaming all members of any ethnicity or race. This was an enormous change from the belief system he had espoused while he was with the Nation of Islam. These speeches serve as the clearest documentation of this change.

These speeches are important, though their context was quite different from today’s, because they break up the myth that mainstream media and US government sources have built up surrounding Malcolm X.  If you can’t stamp out someone’s speeches and memory, what do you do instead? You co-opt them, sanitize them, find a way to make more in tune with what you wish they’d been. And that’s what has been done to Malcolm X’s legacy, by and large.

For those who are seeing a big difference between his earlier speeches and the ones published here, it is not hypocrisy, it is development. It takes a lot of integrity for someone who is famous and controversial to admit he has been in error, and explain what his new viewpoint is, and why he has changed his way of thinking. If you don’t read this book, you will not know the whole evolution of the ideas and political program embraced by Malcolm X over the span of his life.

All of this has more relevance than ever now that we are in the midst of a second, perhaps even more vital civil rights movement. Malcolm’s philosophy and political perspective should be widely read. He’s been gone for a long time, but nothing can kill his ideas, and we need them now.

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