By Chris Stewart
On 21st February 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated while giving a speech in Harlem. He was killed by members of the Nation of Islam, just a year after he left the group. This came as he was setting out on a new course for united struggle against the racist capitalist system, in rejection of the separatist ideas of the Nation.
It was in this final year of his life that the FBI put Malcolm X under total surveillance, as they feared a “messiah” who could “unify and electrify the militant Black Nationalist movement”. The US state was terrified of the revolutionary potential that a mass movement of oppressed people held, and saw it as a threat to the very structure of the capitalist system.
Civil rights struggle erupts
Throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s, struggles for liberation against capitalist oppression were taking place on every continent. Revolutionary movements in Africa and the Caribbean had a particular effect on many black people in the US, who were being imbued with a new confidence to fight back against the degrading, segregated “Jim Crow” system that condemned black people to impoverished conditions, discrimination and racist violence.
Malcolm X was no exception. When he was just six years old, his father was murdered by white supremacists. At a young age, Malcolm had come to despise the depravity of the American system. In 1952, he joined the Nation of Islam, a radical black Muslim group.
Nation of Islam
The attraction of the Nation of Islam was in its ability to voice the anger and discontent that existed in every black community. While the leadership of the civil rights movement sought to reform the system, the Nation denounced it as rotten to the core. This chimed with many young black people who were frustrated with the Christian pacifism and reformism that dominated the civil rights movement.
But the Nation’s aim was not for political struggle. Their main aim was to create a class of black capitalists within their communities. Under the leadership of Elijah Muhammad, the Nation boycotted the civil rights movement entirely and declared that Muslims could not engage in political struggle with the 22 million non-Muslim African-Americans. When Los Angeles police gunned down 7 black Muslims, Malcolm X’s efforts to build a broad campaign against police brutality were vetoed by Muhammad.
Malcolm seeks to “overturn the system”
Malcolm represented the militant tendency within the Nation. He did not want to be left on the sidelines of the great revolutionary struggle that was sweeping the US. In 1964, he left the Nation to set up the Organization of Afro-American Unity in a conscious move away from separatism and towards what he called “true revolutionary” ideas to “overturn the system of exploitation that exists on this Earth”.
From then until his death, Malcolm sought to organise and mobilise all African-American people in political struggle against the racist capitalist power structure. Even his murder couldn’t stop the electrifying effect of his ideas. A year after his shooting, the Black Panther Party would be formed, basing themselves on his ideas of militant action and self-defense against racists. They represented the logical development of the struggle onto a higher level, and a vindication of the direction in which Malcolm was moving.
To this day, despite the formal abolition of Jim Crow, the social conditions that Malcolm raged against still stand. Abject poverty, racist violence, police brutality and mass incarceration are still the reality for most black people in America today. For a new generation of activists enthused by the Black Lives Matter movement, Malcolm X’s legacy is a road map for a united struggle against this system “by any means necessary.”