Sunday, February 21, 2010

Revisiting Nonviolence on the Anniversary of Malcolm X's Assassination

Bullet holes in back of stage where Malcolm X was shot.
Stanley Wolfson, New York World-Telegram & Sun staff photographer

El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, also known as Malcolm X, was assassinated today--February 21, 1965--at Manhattan's Audubon Ballroom during a meeting of the Organization of Afro-American Unity. But despite the fact that Malcolm X was one of the most important civil rights activists in American history, you probably won't hear much about him today.

If X is mentioned at all it is typically as a counter-example to Martin Luther King Jr. While King was hardly popular with the white power structure during his life (and the conservative resistance to the annual celebration of his birth reveals how deep that antipathy still runs), in death King has become the historic face of acceptable blackness. Appropriately Christian and overtly nonviolent, King's rhetoric--typified by his famous "I have a dream" speech--always gestured toward the future. This is not intended as a criticism; King's soaring discourses are beyond reproach. My point is, in retrospect this message is not especially threatening to the structure of white power and authority. King is most remembered for brilliant speeches, endlessly quoted by well-intentioned white people from high school valedictorians to professional politicians, but during his life the actions he led and inspired did the most lasting good for advancing civil rights in the United States. Minus the element of confrontation that is an essential element of effective nonviolent action, the focus has settled on the "dream" of racial equality: either long realized and therefore no longer an issue (the argument of post-racialists) or an endlessly deferred, unachievable goal (the default argument of racial cynics). Famously assassinated himself, King cannot complicate the respectful but neutered version of his rhetoric with his living presence.

Malcolm X is not as easy to recast in these terms because in life he was markedly less interested in the nation's dreams than he was in shifting it's material circumstances, now. And the threat of this message to systemic racism did not diminish with his death. If anything his assassination underscores his message, "Power never takes a step back except in the face of more power." The ambivalence, if not outright hostility toward Malcolm X, even among some African Americans, is rooted in his embrace of Islam, which represents an unforgivable otherness in the west, and subsequent critique of the role of Christianity in the civil rights struggle. He famously said, "I believe in a religion that believes in freedom. Any time I have to accept a religion that won't let me fight a battle for my people, I say to hell with that religion", a difficult sentiment for many Christians to hear. But I think the relative obscurity of the anniversary of his death compared with the official and unofficial commemorations of other civil rights leaders is also directly attributable to his overt questioning of nonviolence. While King and others embraced and practiced nonviolence as a strategy of resistance, Malcolm X said, "I am for violence if non-violence means we continue postponing a solution to the American black man's problem just to avoid violence." It is important to note here that if Malcolm X found more support for his black nationalist stance in Islam than Christianity that has more to do with politics than religious doctrine--historically Islamic doctrine has been used to advocate for peaceful coexistence and Christian doctrine to justify war. Rather, X was responding to the complex relationship between Christianity and African-descended people in the US, which has been used--successfully--to argue both for and against their enslavement. His argument, that Christianity and nonviolence were both used to justify keeping black people in their place, is not really wrong as much as it is one-sided.

I think about nonviolent resistance a lot, since anything less than that, when enacted by Arabs or Muslims is described as terrorism. Anyone who doubts it need simply compare the reportage around the massacre at Fort Hood, performed by a guy who was clearly mentally ill but a Palestinian Muslim and the white guy who recently drove his plane into the IRS building in Texas, leaving a freaking manifesto online before turning himself into a living bomb. The former was immediately described as terrorism while the latter mostly wasn't. The pressure from both the American Right and Left on Arabs and Muslims to employ nonviolent resistance is overwhelming. "Where is the Palestinian Gandhi?" they say, "Real peace will never be achieved until they embrace nonviolence."

But that argument does not take into account that the Israeli Defense Forces do not hesitate to meet nonviolent resistance with violence, as has been proved again and again. If you doubt this I invite you to go and find the guy whose job it was to hose peace activist Rachel Corrie's brains out of the treads of the IDF tank that ran her over and ask his opinion... If a white, blonde, middle class, straight, American girl can be murdered with impunity by Israeli Defense Forces while performing nonviolent resistance then what chance would actual Palestinians have if they sat down in front of Israeli tanks? Exactly.

I have been a nonviolent activist since I was a teenager. I have marched, sat down where I shouldn't have and refused to move as cops charged forward. I know first hand how terrifying it is to make yourself into an immovable object in the face of oncoming force. So I don't romanticize force as a way to address conflict. And I cannot advocate violence as a response to conflict.

But then I am living among the colonizers and not the colonized.

Malcolm X also said, "If you're not ready to die for it, put the word 'freedom' out of your vocabulary." On the anniversary of his death it is a timely question to ask: are these really our only options-- freedom or death? Or are there young activists among us whose responses to conflict are so creative, so confounding to authoritarian power that they will change the game entirely, making this question seem quaint?

Perhaps that is so. I only know that Rachel Corrie won't be among them.


  1. Amazing post, just amazing.
    It saddens me when I see history whitewashed in such a way as to ignore the what would be considered radicalism of Martin Luther King, Jr., to ignore all the tactics employed in South Africa (after the apartheid government opened fire on a peaceful protest) and to decry Malcom X as having been racist (esp. coming from friends).
    Apparently, to be respectacble and admirable, POC who resist injustice must be politically palatable to the mainstream and being shot down in the streets without fighting back with violence, anything else, as you said, is terrorism. When I here this sentiment it almost comes across as Noble Savage rhetoric.