Knowing Malcolm, Knowing Ourselves

By Free My People*

*[Editor’s note: This profile was originally published November 17, 1992. Free My People was an organization of revolutionaries based in Boston’s African America, providing serve-the-people programs, particularly focused on the development of youth leadership. Because of the stature and success of this work, the organization was invited to an advanced showing of Spike Lee’s “X,” touted as an epic cinematic tour-de-force on the life and times of Malcolm X. The Hip-Hop generation had been reclaiming Malcolm, specifically through rap and spoken word, and also in clothing styles — it became popular to mark the back of shirts and jackets with large X’s in commemoration. Spike Lee was responding to this resurgence of interest in Malcolm X by producing this film.

The organization was not happy with the movie and within the week following the preview and preceding its release, they produced the following historical profile of Malcolm. We are reproducing this essay in light of the firestorm surrounding Spike Lee’s latest fantasy about the FBI’s COINTELpro being a friend to the Black Liberation Movement. Indeed, a student activist organization in Charlottesville was in like manner invited to the preview of “BlackkKlansman,” and, in reaction to what they saw, they published a protest letter to Spike Lee (this letter is included here as an appendix).

We would like the reader to note the spiritual disposition of this revolutionary youth organization of the 1990’s, evidenced by the fact that they made no mention of Spike Lee, nor his liberal white-washing of the countenance of one of the greatest sons of African America. The organization had a higher purpose — and that was to meet the demand of this generation for truth about this great past leader and the movement he led. We note the different times we live in today, and honor the protest letter of the Charlottesville students.

Finally, this republishing is without any changes. The text is word-for-word the original narrative exactly as it appeared in 1992.]

“The young generation of whites, blacks, browns — you’re living in a time of revolution, a time when there’s got to be a change. People in power have mis-used it, and now there has to be a change and a better world has to be built.” Malcolm X [i]

The Historical Malcolm

The accomplishments of leaders belong to the people whom they serve. George Washington was a leader of propertied White men. So today rich White men write history books about him, and use our tax dollars to put these history books in our schools to teach us about their leader, George Washington.

Great leaders do not drop from the sky, nor are they born great. Leaders are born of the people’s struggle, and if the people are waging a great struggle this struggle must give rise to great leaders.

Malcolm X became a great leader at a time when African-Americans were rising up, at a time when Black people were taking our future into our own hands.

The accomplishments of revolutionary leaders like Malcolm are not private property — no one group, organization or individual can claim the rights to these accomplishments. The contributions of Malcolm X belong to the people, and especially to all of the oppressed who are rising up to create a bright future for our people.

Revolution and National Liberation

African Americans were not the only peoples rising up at that time. In fact, we took our examples from our Brothers and Sisters in Africa who were waging wars of national liberation against European colonialism. Latin American peoples, led by the successful revolution in Cuba, were also rising up. The peoples of Asia, the foremost being the 700 million Chinese people who had successfully kicked U.S., British and Japanese imperialism off of their national territory, were an example from which our people were gaining hope.

Malcolm advised us to look very closely at these revolutions, and to see the similarity between the way we were being treated and the way the U.S. government was treating other oppressed peoples: “Just as guerrilla warfare is prevailing in Asia and in parts of Africa and in parts of Latin America, you’ve got to be mighty naive, or you’ve got to play Black [people]** cheap if you don’t think someday [we are] going to wake up and find that it’s got to be the ballot or the bullet.”[ii]“Any occupied territory is a police state; their [the troops] presence is like occupying forces, like an occupying army… They [the police and National Guard] are in Harlem to protect the interests of the businessmen who don’t even live there.”[iii]

Ramarley Graham was unarmed when New York City police officer Richard Haste — who chased Graham into his Bronx home during an alleged drug bust gone awry — shot and killed him in front of his grandmother and little brother in his bathroom on Feb. 2, 2012.

What is a Revolution, and What is a Revolutionary?

Malcolm taught us: “…a revolutionary in the true sense of the word [is someone who has] carried on a successful revolution against oppression in his country.”[iv]Therefore, his definition of a revolutionary was not based on what someone said but on what they did.

Although certain leaders of the civil rights movement advocated that we, as a people, should ask our oppressors to stop oppressing us, some of our people began to follow the examples of the revolutions in other countries. Beginning in the early 1960’s, the Deacons for Defense and Justice sprang up in Alabama, and then chapters of this organization spread throughout the South. This organization was dedicated to armed self-defense of the civil rights movement.

Although some civil rights leaders did not want this service, the Deacons successfully prevented many civil rights workers from suffering physical harm, and saved many lives through this method of armed self-defense.

Also during the time of Malcolm’s political education, the Monroe chapter of the NAACP, led by the chapter’s President, Robert Williams, organized a rifle club to defend the Black community from the Ku Klux Klan which was conducting night rides (raids) through the neighborhood. In September, 1959 the Klan attempted to attack this community and was summarily defeated in battle by this determined and well trained group.

In 1964, the people launched the Great Harlem Rebellion. While Mayor Wagner placed the National Guard in the basements of the tenements throughout Harlem, the people rose up against this occupation as well as against: police brutality, White exploiters, businesses that were sucking the community dry, and slum landlords.

The savage response of the New York City police and the army — killing dozens of African American men, women and children, maiming many hundreds more, and jailing thousands — was a great educator for Malcolm. At this time, he became even more convinced of the necessity for extensive and thorough organization along the lines of that exhibited by successful revolutions in other countries.

With regard to the successful fight for independence against the British occupation forces in Kenya, which was led by the guerrilla army known as the Mau Mau, Malcolm urged us to learn this lesson: “…you and I can best learn how to get real freedom by studying how Kenyatta brought it to his people in Kenya,… and the excellent job that was done by the Mau Mau freedom fighters. In Mississippi we need a Mau Mau. In Alabama we need a Mau Mau. In Georgia we need a Mau Mau. Right here in Harlem, in New York City, we need a Mau Mau. I say it with no anger. I say it with careful forethought. We need a Mau Mau.”[v]

Black Power and the Black Panther Party

So what is a Revolution? According to Malcolm, in a country which oppresses its people the entire political and economic system must be taken down by the people through a popular uprising. “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 that want freedom, and those who want to continue the system of exploitation.”[vi]

What will this American system of exploitation be replaced with? When we study our history we look for the interconnection of events and movements of our people. To understand what Malcolm’s goal for our revolution was, we have to look at what our people were doing during the time he developed as a leader and after he died.

Why look at the Black Panther Party? Because they were founded one year after Malcolm was assassinated. Because they were thousands of Brothers and Sisters committed to acting on the ideas of Malcolm X. Because the Black Panther Party was born of the same Black Liberation Movement that gave birth to the leadership of Malcolm X.

The Panthers gave our children the free breakfast program before the U.S. government came to understand that our children need to eat before they go to school. The Panthers gave us free medical care before Medicaid. They gave us free day care and free literacy training. And they did all these things by wresting the resources from those who have exploited our community. They led boycotts and other campaigns to force businesses and the government to give up the resources the Panthers needed to run these programs.

Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman on February 26, 2012 in Sanford, Florida, sparking a movement against excessive force and police violence.

Central to all the programs that the Panthers ran was political education. They taught the people in the spirit of Malcolm’s teachings that the system under which we are ruled must go: “The present American ‘system’ can never produce freedom for Black [people]. A chicken cannot lay a duck egg because the chicken’s ‘system’ is not designed or equipped to produce a duck egg…. The American ‘system’ (political, economic and social) was produced from the enslavement of Black [people], and this present ‘system’ is capable only of perpetuating that enslavement. In order for a chicken to produce a duck egg its system would have to undergo a drastic and painful revolutionary change… or revolution. So be it with America’s enslaving system.”[vii]

A revolutionary change is a change made by the people, in their millions.

Malcolm X and Tanzanian guerrilla leader Sheik Abdul Rahman Muhammad Babu, 1965

Revolution Begins with the Self, In the Self

When we study Malcolm we are studying ourselves. We must listen for Malcolm’s voice inside the heartbeat of our people. When he spoke of revolution, he did not mean merely a fight against an external enemy. We listen to hear of the harmony we must find inside ourselves, with each other.

As Free My People has stated in the past, “Revolution is very simple: It’s about taking care of myself and my people. In a society which is fundamentally destructive and self-destructive, taking care of my needs and the needs of my people is by definition revolutionary.” Malcolm left the Nation of Islam principally because this moral and spiritual commitment was absent. Elijah Mohammed was engaging in sexual relations with many teenage Sisters who were employed in his office, and he had made six of them pregnant. This is the opposite of loving and caring for ourselves and our people.

Revolution means we connect our inner voice — that which ties us to the struggle of all our people — with our day-to-day efforts to organize our liberation movement.

In 1970, Toni Cade Bambara, an outstanding leader of the Black Liberation Movement, pointed out: “Revolution begins with the self, in the self… If your house aint in order, you aint in order. It’s easier to be out there than home. But revolution aint out there. Yet. But it is in here now.

Unarmed former Florida A&M University football player Jonathan Ferrell was fatally struck by 10 of 12 shots fired by Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer Randall “Wes” Kerrick after the cop responded to a home — where Ferrell had supposedly gone for help after a car wreck just outside of Charlotte — on Sept. 14, 2013.

Knowing Malcolm, Knowing Ourselves

As one of the pressing tasks facing us as a people, understanding Malcolm X is, in the final analysis, an inward looking meditation. Malcolm cannot be understood by watching a movie. We come to know Malcolm as we come to know ourselves. Malcolm’s spirit flows in the River Niger of our people’s love and care for us. This River has had no dam since the first European ship landed on African soil, since the first slave uprising. This same River carries Malcolm to us today.

As we look to know Malcolm X we are looking to know ourselves. Self-knowledge is an inward looking exercise, and it must be practiced daily like eating and sleeping. We must do it together.

We cannot find Malcolm in a movie, just as we cannot find ourselves in a movie. We might be able to get a piece of Malcolm by listening to this religious group’s claim to him, or by hearing that White radical group’s attempt to appropriate him. Malcolm cannot be appropriated accept in so far as we, the people, claim ourselves.

As we seek to claim all that is positive and forward-looking about ourselves, including Malcolm, let us look inward, inside our circle, inside our community, inside our people. This is where Malcolm can be found. This is where Harriet Tubman can be found. This is where the Deacons for Defense and Justice can be found. This is where Fanny Lou Hamer can be found. This is where the Black Panthers can be found. This is where all of our accomplishments as a people can be found: in our circle, in the community-building that we do with each other. Malcolm lives inside all of us to the extent that we are willing and able to accept our own power, to the extent that we allow our community inside of ourselves, to the extent that we build community from the inside out.


** In accordance with the principle with which this article begins, we are speaking of Malcolm as an historical presence, not as a personality. We believe his contributions belong to the people. In this spirit we have changed Malcolm’s use of the term “the Black man,” to “Black [people]” to coincide with the revolutionary direction in which he was moving. Our people have moved to fight for equality between men and women and for women’s liberation. Therefore, where the word “people” appears in brackets it has replaced the term “the Black man.”

[i] Clark, Steve. Malcolm X Talks to the People. p25.

[ii] Clarke, John Henrick. Malcolm X, the Man and his Times. p242.

[iii]Breitman, George. The Last Year of Malcolm X. p66.

[iv] Perry, Bruce. Malcolm X, the Last Speeches.p88

[v]Clarke, p262.

[vi]Breitman, p262.

[vi]The Man and His Times, Clark (p253).


An Open Letter to Spike Lee

From the Young People of the Charlottesville Attack

Dear Spike Lee,

On Sunday, August 12th, we sat at the corner where, one year ago, a white supremacist named James Field committed murder and hurt many of our friends. We held each other and shed tears remembering the power and pain of that day. Riot police who laced the streets looked on.

Two days later, some of us sat in a theater watching your latest film recount that attack. We saw some of our own faces. We couldn’t really watch.

You cast us in your film, Spike Lee. So we thought you might want to know what we think of it.

We can’t speak with certainty about your intent in making Blackkklansmen. But it seems you hoped to speak to our political climate in which an awareness of white supremacist organizations in Amerika has been made unavoidable. Maybe you intended to revitalize or contribute to this awareness with your film. Maybe you just saw dollar signs. Regardless, its clear to us that you chose the wrong story. Your story (as explained well by Boots Riley) was about a group of police who tried to fight racism through infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan. Here’s a story we’d like to tell you:

The same weekend that your film grossed $10.8 million parading oh-so-relatable cops as protagonists against racism, many of us who were in the streets fighting white supremacy last year, were back in those streets of Charlottesville again.

Both this year and last, we were met by a force who sought to control, suppress and attack us. And it wasn’t just the ones who showed up with hoods and torches. Most of them wore badges.

Let’s break it down even more clearly:

In the lead up to the Unite the Right Rally of 2017, the Charlottesville community responded to a permitted demonstration organized by the Ku Klux Klan. The police were there too. Armed with shields, bullets and batons, they escorted the Klan to the rally that took place in the shadow of Stonewall Jackson. They created walls to ensure the Klan would not be disrupted. They senselessly arrested any counter protester they perceived to be out of line. Finally they deployed an orange gas that made skin feel like fire to disperse the demonstration of nonviolent counter-protestors. The crowd chanted “Cops and the Klan Go Hand In Hand” until the air was too thick with gas to breathe. No one from the Klan or their supporters, even ones who threatened and instigated violence, were targeted by the cops. Did you know that, Spike Lee?

Even if you did, it doesn’t seem you were interested in showing this face of the police. Instead you fabricated a fiction where black peoples’ aims for liberation, safety and self determination from the forces of white supremacy are shared with the police.

We are the ones whose faces and actions you displayed to end your film with a bang. Something critics would rave about. So you should know that behind those images are the days spent trying to organize for a different world; behind those images are countless nervous breaths while waiting in hospital rooms, hurting in relationships, and struggling to survive in Charlottesville, Virginia. Behind those images is an abundant determination to free ourselves from the terror of police suppression, control, and violence in our communities.

You asked some of us whether you could use those images. We said no. You used it anyways.

We do not want to cast ourselves as victims in your story. We want you to know our truth. We want you to recognize the extent of resources we’ve put into our efforts to fight white supremacy and into our own healing — a process that continues to this day.

So, Spike Lee, we are asking that you contribute a portion of the profit that you have made from Blackkklansmen in order to fund the longevity and continuation of our work — work that has enhanced the relevancy (and profitability) of this misguided film. We recommend $219,113 — the amount that the NYPD is paying you to collaborate in their ad campaign.

Peaking awareness ain’t enough. We must organize.

We ain’t mad at you Spike Lee. We just want you to do the right thing.

With Sincere Respect,
The Uncredited of Blackkklansmen

An Ask For Folks Who Saw This Joint Or Are Thinking About Seeing This Joint
Consider donating to us instead, or in addition to, your movie ticket price ($8–15).

Where The Money Goes
To students and young people organizing against white supremacy and for a better world in Charlottesville, Virginia through the organizations: Virginia Student Environmental Coalition and Virginia Student Power Network. We are some of those who were injured on both the 11th and 12th and we are connected with more folks directly impacted. Our intention is that this money will go to support victims of the attack. We are fiscally sponsored by the Power Shift Network which is why the fundraiser money “goes” there. Thank you.