Saturday, August 27, 2011

Extremists to the Left of Me, Moderates to the Right of Me!

I'm in the final fifty pages of Manning Marable's biography of Malcolm X, and I've been troubled by some of its political and social judgments. In fairness, though, many of the participants and observers of the Civil Rights Movement in the 50s and 60s came to similar conclusions; what troubles me is that forty years later, so many people are still trapped in the mistakes of the period.

Probably the main issues I'm thinking of are violence and racial separation. I've long challenged other whites who said that Malcolm and the Nation of Islam advocated and even practiced violence against whites. Even in the 1960s, while I was still a kid, I could see that Malcolm (the Nation's most visible spokesman at the time) was talking primarily about self-defense against white violence both official and freelance. True, many whites publicly and officially deplored the freelance violence by vigilantes, but most of them never did much about it. This was partly because white terrorism, especially in the South, could target dissident whites as well as uppity blacks, as shown by the murders of white civil rights workers in Mississippi and elsewhere in the 60s. That the killers were able to evade capture and conviction for decades was the result of white solidarity, though intimidation was no doubt also involved. Maybe the US government should have responded to white terrorism in the South the way it responded, say, to peasant resistance in South Vietnam: by leveling white communities, burning them to the ground and moving the survivors to "strategic hamlets" until the troublemakers had been smoked out and eliminated, or at least until southern whites, without exception, had embraced non-violence. In my bleaker moods I've sometimes thought so.

I'm not ignoring or minimizing the history of white racist terror in the north. As Marable recounts, the Nation of Islam never did much in the south; Malcolm's constituency was poor urban blacks, who faced racism in the north and knew it. (The passage I quoted from Malcolm X in a previous post came from a major section dealing with anti-racist struggle in the north during the 1930s and 1940s.) And this continued down to the present day; northern whites responded in large numbers to Richard Nixon's incitement and encouragement of their racism.

What bothers me is the notion advanced by the Nation of Islam and by Malcolm X as its spokesman, and accepted by Marable and many other self-styled moderates, that Martin Luther King Jr. and other Civil Rights leaders who rejected violence even in self-defense, were not "radicals" or "extremists." Malcolm liked to declare that "[Whites] should say thank you for Martin Luther King, because Martin Luther King has held Negroes in check until recently" (414). This was absurd on two counts. First, when Malcolm was invited to visit Selma, Alabama, in 1964,
... Malcolm could not refuse. The beauty of the Selma struggle was its brutal simplicity: hundreds of local blacks lined up at Selma's Dallas County building daily demanding the right to register to vote; white county and city police beat and harassed them. By the first week in February thirty-four hundred people had been jailed, including Dr. King. Under cover of darkness, terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan harassed civil rights workers, black families, and households. On February 4, Malcolm addressed an audience of three hundred at the Brown's Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Significantly, while the event had been arranged through SNCC, after some negotiations it was formally cosponsored by King's SCLC. Malcolm's sermon praised King's dedication to nonviolence, but he advised that should white America refuse to accept the nonviolent model of social change, his own example of armed "self-defense" was an alternative [411-412].
Notice that whites, in and outside of the South, did not see nonviolent action as 'holding Negroes in check' -- quite the opposite. Local authorities tried to check it themselves, with violence, and allowed white terrorist groups to harass, assault, and kill Civil Rights Workers. Look at this excerpt from King's "Letter from the Birmingham City Jail," addressed to white "moderate" ministers in 1963:

You spoke of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of the extremist. I started thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency made up of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, have been so completely drained of self-respect and a sense of "somebodiness" that they have adjusted to segregation, and, of a few Negroes in the middle class who, because of a degree of academic and economic security, and because at points they profit by segregation, have unconsciously become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up over the nation, the largest and best known being Elijah Muhammad's Muslim movement.... I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need not follow the "do-nothingism" of the complacent or the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. There is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest....

But as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist. Was not Jesus an extremist in love -- "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice ... Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ ... So the question is not whether we will be extremists but what kind of extremist will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or will be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice --or will we be extremists for the cause of justice? ...

I had hoped that the white moderate would see this. Maybe I was too optimistic.

Somehow I'd thought of this as a document of the 1950s; that it comes from 1963, after several years more of struggle as King and the nonviolent wing of the Civil Rights Movement had become ever more militant, is even more telling. Notice too that King began by playing the classic Golden Mean game, with himself the reasonable moderate between total quietism at one extreme, and the other extreme, represented by Elijah Muhammad, that "comes perilously close to advocating violence" -- but then he recognized (if only rhetorically, at first) that in the eyes of white America he was an extremist. If this be extremism, make the most of it!

The mistake here is the common belief that "moderation" in rhetoric equals "moderation" in policy, that black people especially are obliged to keep their voices low and evenly modulated, their rhetoric pacific and polite. That this is a mistake is shown by the fact that during his lifetime, King was always seen by whites as a dangerous radical. After all, one of his books was entitled Why We Can't Wait, with the epigraph "Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed." Wait a minute, doesn't that sound more like the demagogic rhetoric of a Malcolm X?

Malcolm's move from the Nation of Islam led him into engagement with "mainstream" civil rights groups and even a tentative alliance with whites -- but the Civil Rights movement hadn't stood still either, and as Marable admits, Malcolm and the Movement met more or less in the middle as more and more activists rejected King's supposedly conciliatory stance in favor of more militance, and less nonviolence. While King adhered to nonviolence, he too became more militant, and he'd never really been conciliatory. He became less conciliatory as time went on. It's a pity Malcolm didn't live to see it.

But the bigger irony is that if anyone was 'holding the Negro in check' it was Elijah Muhammad, who counseled blacks to refrain from political action of any kind, including voting. (In this he was like white religious leaders such as Jerry Falwell, who in the same era counseled his flock to avoid such worldly activity.) One reason Malcolm came into conflict with his mentor, on Marable's account, was that he kept straining at the leash, unable to refrain from building connections with black groups working actively against racism in the north and elsewhere. And despite the Nation's rhetorical appeal to violence, when it came down to brass tacks Muhammad had no stomach for it. (Not unreasonably, since blacks were outgunned by the white state.) When white police in Los Angeles murdered an unarmed Muslim named Ronald Stokes while raiding a mosque in 1962, Muhammad ordered his followers to "stand down" (208), to Malcolm's shock.
The time had come for action, and surely Muhammad would see the necessity in summoning the Nation's strength for the battle. But the Messenger denied him. "Brother, you don't go to war over a provocation," he told Malcolm. "They could kill a few of my followers, but I'm not going to go out and do something silly" [208].
On the other hand, Muhammad could stomach Muslim violence against his own. The Fruit of Islam (FOI), the Nation's paramilitary wing, regularly beat and terrorized members who misbehaved or dissented, culminating in the execution of Malcolm himself. The police tended to unconcern about these peccadilloes, as about black-on-black violence generally, and Marable says there is evidence that some FOI higher-ups -- including, possibly, one of the assassins -- were police informants.

In the end, Marable can't make up his own mind. On the same page, he writes first that "To Malcolm, armed self-defense was never equated with violence for its own sake" (485); two paragraphs later, that Malcolm "had also come to reject violence for its own sake, but he never abandoned the nationalists' ideal of 'self-determination" (485-6). And:
Given the election of Barack Obama, it now raises the question of whether blacks have a separate political destiny from their white fellow citizens. If legal racial segregation was permanently in America's past, Malcolm's vision today would have to radically define self-determination and the meaning of black power in a political environment that appeared to many to be "post-racial" [486].
Even in the 1960s, the existence of de facto, as opposed to de jure (that is, legal) racial segregation was recognized. The notion that the mere removal of Jim Crow laws automatically eradicated racism in America is beloved of many whites -- "You've got your rights, so what more do you want from us?" -- but most blacks know better. I don't think the current political environment is "post-racial" by any stretch of the imagination; the election of Barack Obama certainly doesn't make it so. "Many" would agree with me.