By Christina Evelyn
[Editor’s Note: The preface/letter to “Professor Jon” was written by student Christina Evelyn in protest of the Instructions for the assignment which required African American students to choose between the leadership, 55 years ago, of Malcolm X or Martin Luther King. When the student explained to the White American Professor that no African American today regards this as a legitimate requirement, the Professor stood his ground, and ordered the student, in order to receive a grade, to choose between either Malcolm or Martin. This is “education” in the US today.]
Dear Professor Jon:
I want to express my frustration at the limits that our study and writing assignments place on our entrance into this history. By delimiting from above which parts of Dubois or which parts of Malcolm or Martin we are allowed to study, by banning citations from anything but what has been assigned, we are prescribed into the “choose between Malcolm and Martin” scenario — typical White liberal historicity. If African Americans were to continue our freedom struggle under such guidelines we would be depriving ourselves of all the powerful lessons that the 360 degrees of our liberation struggle have to offer us.
Malcolm X’s leadership had a meteoric arc. What he believed when Elijah Muhammad got to him was quite different from what he believed when he spoke “Message to the Grassroots.” But African American revolutionaries, and indeed revolutionaries of all nationalities in this country agree on the last year of Malcolm X, after he went to Africa and Mecca. Spike Lee focused only on Mecca and that is what distinguishes Lee from revolutionaries. You have limited our study to his Black nationalist phase.
Malcolm met with the guerrilla army leaders of every national revolutionary war being waged in1964–65 on the continent of Africa. He was drastically transformed by this. It totally remade his leadership and his perspective. He became a socialist revolutionary, and he was 9 months pregnant with the Black Panther Party when he was gunned down (he was gunned down for that reason). The Panthers came out live and in Color as the most socialist revolutionary group of the 1960’s-70’s revolutionary moment.
How do we learn this from this proscribed curriculum?
Each of the below titles focuses on his writings and speeches of the last year of his life, after he came back from Africa (and Mecca):
Leader, Edward. (1993). Understanding Malcolm X: the controversial changes in his political philosophy
Brietman, George. (1970). Last Year of Malcolm X: The Evolution of a Revolutionary.
Free My People. (1992). Knowing Malcolm, Knowing Ourselves. Social Justice Education Publishers
Wainstock, Dennis. (2009). Malcolm X, African American Revolutionary
Malcolm and Martin
Any African American today who is seriously invested in our ongoing freedom movement, indeed anyone from any nationality who believes in freedom and justice for Black people in this country, does not fall for what is today a false dichotomy: “Choose between Malcolm or Martin.” In accordance with the principal of using the lessons of history to make a better world today, this essay will focus on what endures in common between Malcolm and Martin.
The 1950’s and 60’s, when the leadership of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X emerged, was a time of world historic transformation. In particular, the wars for national liberation being waged all over Asia, Africa and Latin America were teaching Black people in the United States. In 1949 one-quarter of the world’s people freed themselves from the colonial rule of Japan, Great Britain and the United States, and declared the independent state of the People’s Republic of China. All over Africa and Latin America countries, nations and peoples were winning their liberation and independence from colonial rule. African Americans in the United States, in our turn, began waging our freedom struggle in the light of these world historic events.
Human Rights and Revolution
The conditions of segregation and outright military dictatorship ruling the lives of Black people in the South, on one hand, and those of the urban ghetto North, on the other, confuse some students of history and others who insist on remaining on the surface of historical events in their analyses. De facto slavery, tantamount to fascism, existing in the South conditioned the tactics and forms of struggle and even the presentations of leaders like Martin Luther King. Nevertheless, his program of action in Birmingham was based in collaboration of his SCLC with the local Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (King, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” 1963). Together they prosecuted what King termed “The whirlwinds of revolt [which] will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright days of justice emerge” (King, “I have a Dream.” 1963).
In his turn, Malcolm X’s speech, “the Ballot or the Bullet” seeks to answer the question: “The Negro Revolt, and Where Do We Go From Here?” (1964) We have been limited in our sources to study Malcolm only in his Black nationalist phase, but we can read between the lines: just as MLK saw that the struggle was one of human rights, not merely civil rights, Malcolm, in his “the Ballot or the Bullet” speech approaches this understanding in the following language: “Whenever you’re going after something that belongs to you, anyone who’s depriving you of the right to have it is a criminal” (1964). When Malcolm says that freedom is “something that belongs to you,” he is saying this before the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and before the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. So, since we as African Americans were not yet afforded these civil rights, what Malcolm is referring to is human rights, rights that are afforded upon birth to all human beings regardless of juridical pronouncements of racist governments like the United States.
As we citizens of the United States either watch or participate in the uprisings against the outright murder of innocent, unarmed, Black people by the police all across this country, we draw from what united the spirit of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X in the body of the Black Liberation Movement (BLM) of the past, to guide us in today’s BLM which is being led by organizations such s Black Lives Matter. Malcolm taught us in 1963, “What you and I need to do is learn to forget our differences. When we come together, we don’t come together as Baptists or Methodists. You don’t catch hell because you’re a Baptist, and you don’t catch hell because you’re a Methodist. You don’t catch hell because you’re a Democrat or Republican… You catch hell because you’re a black man. You catch hell, all of us catch hell, for the same reason” (1963). It is in light of this perspective, one which MLK shared with Malcolm X, that I call on all of us to come out and join the uprising that is right now taking place across this country to bring down the white supremacist system known as the United States of America, and bring into being a loving and caring system in the image of what MLK and Malcolm X fought for.
King, ML. (1963). “I Have a Dream.” https://www.archives.gov/files/press/exhibits/dream-speech.pdf
King, ML. (1963). “Letter from Birminham Jail.” https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html
X, Malcolm. (1963). “Message to the Grassroots.” https://www.csun.edu/~hcpas003/grassroots.html
X, Malcolm. (1964). “The Ballot or the Bullet.” Social Justice Speeches. http://www.edchange.org/multicultural/speeches/malcolm_x_ballot.html.