Any Means Necessary
By Adam Pachter
"This is the age of men, not of pygmies, not of serfs and peons and dogs, but men and we who make up the membership of the Universal Negro Improvement Association reflect the new manhood of the Negro. No fear, no intimidation, nothing can daunt the Malcolm X courage of the Negro who affiliates himself with the Universal Negro Improvement Association."
— Marcus Garvey, "Last Speech Before Incarceration" (1923)
Malcolm X always demonstrated a bitter amusement when labeled a purveyor of hatred and violence. How meaningful were such charges when they came from whites who brought Malcolm's ancestors to America in chains, then beat and lynched them with impunity? Faced with such crimes, he felt black Americans were entitled to secure their rights "by any means necessary" -- up to and including the use of violence. But the violence to which Malcolm X referred was invariably defensive, and for all his harsh rhetoric, it is doubtful that at the end of his life Malcolm X really believed that bullets would solve the problems blacks faced in America, or that whites were truly "blue-eyed devils."
"This is the age of men, not of pygmies, not of serfs and peons and dogs, but men and we who make up the membership of the Universal Negro Improvement Association reflect the new manhood of the Negro. No fear, no intimidation, nothing can daunt the courage of the Negro who affiliates himself with the Universal Negro Improvement Association."
— Marcus Garvey, "Last Speech Before Incarceration" (1923)
Malcolm's first influence was his parents Earl and Louise Little, both avid followers of Marcus Garvey and members of Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association. Garvey taught Black Americans to stand up and think for themselves, and Malcolm would later say that "the image of [his father] that made me proudest was his crusading and militant campaigning with the words of Marcus Garvey," whose local U.N.I.A. meetings Malcolm would sometimes attend.
But Earl Little died when Malcolm was only six, a death that Malcolm would later attribute to white supremacists, and the strain of providing for seven children proved too much for his mother to bear. She was institutionalized, and after teenage Malcolm moved to Boston in 1941, he fell prey to the influences of the street, holding odd jobs while turning increasingly to a life of drugs and petty crime. At that point Malcolm held no prejudice against whites; in fact three white women were his partners in crime. But when their robbery ring was busted in 1946, Malcolm and a black accomplice received harsh sentences, while the white women walked away without a charge.
Nation of Islam Teachings
"The X meant you no longer was a drinker, a smoker, you no longer practiced adultery and fornication — so you were ex all those things that were negative. You were ex no more of those things that kept you down, and now you qualified to strengthen yourself as a servant of God."
— Abdul Aziz Omar (Malcolm X's brother Philbert)
Adrift in prison, Malcolm responded eagerly when introduced to the Nation of Islam (N.O.I.) and the teachings of its imprisoned leader Elijah Muhammad. According to Muhammad, blacks were "the original man," destined to rule the world, while whites were a race of devils created by a mad scientist whose time of power was fast coming to an end. Elijah Muhammad taught blacks pride in their identity, and he urged them to live by strict rules of conduct aimed at fostering self-reliance. The goal of the Black Muslim was not integration into white society, but separation from it. As Malcolm's brother Abdul Aziz Omar explained, "Just give [whites] back everything they gave you, like whiskey, wine, beer, and learn how to take care of your own homes, your own family." Malcolm responded eagerly to this approach, which had echoes of Marcus Garvey, and upon release from prison, he set out to bring as many new followers as possible into the N.O.I.
Hate and Self-Defense
"Stop sweet-talking [the white man]. Tell him how you feel.... [Let him know that] if he's not ready to clean his house up, he shouldn't have a house. It should catch on fire and burn down."
— Malcolm X
When Malcolm X joined the Nation of Islam, it was a fringe society with a few hundred members. But after several years of rapid growth, black Muslims began to catch the attention of white America. All this talk about "blue-eyed devils" meant that initial reviews were not positive; Mike Wallace's 1959 documentary The Hate That Hate Produced was the first in a series of efforts to label the Nation of Islam a hate group, a charge that Malcolm X rejected. "The white man isn't important enough for the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and his followers to spend any time hating him," Malcolm said. But even if he would deny hating his white oppressors, Malcolm certainly wasn't going to urge his followers to love them. "Don't love your enemy," Malcolm taught, "Love yourself." He had no use for the non-violence of Martin Luther King, Jr.; Malcolm believed that just encouraged whites to attack blacks with impunity. Don't mistake Black Muslims "for those Negroes who believe in non-violence," he warned one crowd that included whites; if you "put your hands on us thinking that we're going to turn the other cheek — we'll put you to death just like that."
The Limits of Violence
"They will say that he is of hate — a fanatic, a racist... and we will answer and say unto them: Did you ever talk to Brother Malcolm? Did you ever really listen to him? Did he ever do a mean thing? Was he ever himself associated with violence or any public disturbance?"
— From Ossie Davis' eulogy for Malcolm X, February 1965
For all his public refusals to denounce violence, Malcolm's advocacy operated under two significant limits. The first was Elijah Muhammad himself, who knew that starting a literal war with white America would be suicidal and who also believed that Allah would bring retribution on the oppressors, sparing Muslims the need to engage in any themselves. The second was Malcolm X's own personality. For all his tough talk, in private Malcolm was invariably polite to those "devils" he would excoriate in public. And the violence he claimed as a right was defensive — self-defensive, to be precise. Malcolm X never advocated the initiating of violence, and several times he defused situations when a crowd threatened to get out of control. He worked groups up with his fiery speeches, and then worked them back down before anyone got hurt. Tellingly, when Malcolm was photographed for Ebony magazine with a gun in his hand (which made him uncomfortable), this was during a period when the violence he most expected was from fellow Black Muslims, not white racists.
Why then was a person who shied from actual violence so willing to embrace it in the abstract? The answer may lie in a speech Malcolm gave to visiting youth from Mississippi: "You get freedom by letting your enemy know that you'll do anything to get your freedom; then you'll get it. It's the only way you'll get it." Or, as Malcolm put it on another occasion, "If you have a cocked fist, you don't have to throw it."
"My whole life has been a chronology of changes." — The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965)
Towards the end of his life, Malcolm was changing. A pilgrimage to Mecca had made him re-evaluate the notion that all whites were devils. "In the past," he said, "I have made sweeping indictments of all white people. I never will be guilty of that again — as I know now that some white people are truly sincere, that some truly are capable of being brotherly toward a black man." Malcolm began to seek common cause with the civil rights movement, to declare himself for objectives — like voting rights — that as a separatist Muslim he had previously thought irrelevant. He was "not for wanton violence," Malcolm X insisted, "I'm for justice." And although his commitment to use any means necessary to reach that justice never wavered, it may be that towards the end Malcolm no longer thought that violence would be one of those necessary means.