Randall Kennedy has an interesting long book review of new biographies of Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and Huey Newton. I haven’t read any of them, not even Manning Marable’s acclaimed Malcolm book, but there are a couple of points worth discussing here anyway. First, Kennedy accuses each author of engaging in hagiography over proper historical analysis. I can’t judge the claim, but that does seem to be the case with the Newton book, which just seems bad from multiple reviews. As for the other two, both Marable and Peniel Joseph (who is speaking at URI next week so come out if you are around) are both outstanding historians, but it is often a problem with biography that authors start apologizing for their subject. And as Kennedy points out, there is plenty that is distasteful about both. I find that more convincing with Carmichael, whose leadership of SNCC was disastrous and who seemed somewhat less serious about what he was doing after he achieved fame (although he did largely avoid the spotlight after he went to Africa). But with Malcolm, Kennedy’s problem is the Nation of Islam. I don’t think too many people are really going to defend NOI at this point. Its murders of its own members and the rank hypocrisy of Elijah Muhammad are well known now. But while Kennedy admits that Malcolm shows significant room for personal growth, he also wants to make sure that he is held accountable for his actions before his expulsion from the organization in 1964.
Well, OK, but this gets to my second point, which is about context and the passage of time. In other words, it is very easy to write in 2015 about how the Nation of Islam was horrible, how the Black Panthers were violent and cruel, and how Carmichael ran SNCC into the ground. It’s not that Kennedy forgets the context in which these people were working, but it’s also worth reiterating it. Malcolm and Newton were operating in urban centers where African-Americans had moved for the promise of a better life, but that promise had been a lie. In 1960s Oakland, Los Angeles, Newark, Chicago, Detroit, etc., police brutality was a way of life. There were no jobs. Most people could not afford a car. Public transportation was almost nonexistent. The only economic outlet for many was drugs. The Civil Rights Movement could win concrete victories in the South because it battled legal segregation, but the de facto segregation of northern and western cities made victories much, much harder to win, as Martin Luther King and the SCLC found out in the failed Chicago housing campaign of 1966. It’s hardly surprising that black pride and black power organizations, whether Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association, the Nation of Islam, or the Black Panthers, would rise out of this. It’s equally unsurprising that those organizations would be problematic and violent, as violence ruled the communities from which they arose and organized.
As for Carmichael, while his leadership of SNCC didn’t work out, the overall move away from racial inclusion to black power within the student led side of the Civil Rights Movement also makes sense in context, even if it was a bad idea strategically and organizationally. Let’s not underestimate the bitterness that led SNCC to design Freedom Summer because its organizers knew that only when white kids were killed would the media pay attention to anything happening in rural Mississippi. This analysis was of course exactly right when the three SNCC workers, two white, were murdered by the KKK. Ten years of struggle, suffering, and death in the face of overwhelming violence is a bravery I can barely imagine. If people burn out and snap or turn to black power and racial exclusion, it’s not surprising at all. It says much for John Lewis’ character that he never went down this road, but it is an understandable response to the horrifying experiences of these people’s lives.
Finally, I thought this was unfair to Malcolm X:
While Malcolm X and other followers of Elijah Muhammed put on cathartic performances in safe surroundings, however, King, Carmichael, Medgar Evers, John Lewis, Fannie Lou Hamer, James Farmer, Julian Bond, Bob Moses, Diane Nash, James Lawson, and others risked their lives repeatedly in face-to-face confrontations with heavily armed, trigger-happy white supremacists. While Malcolm X was taunting King and company for rejecting violence, the tribunes of the Civil Rights movement were successfully pressuring the federal government to bring its immense weight to bear against the segregationists through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. While Malcolm X talked tough—“if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery”—he and the NOI refrained seeking revenge when racist police brutalized Black Muslims. While Malcolm X spoke with apparent knowingness about racial uplift, at no point did he communicate a cogent, realistic strategy for elevating black America.
But Marable is not denigrating any of those other civil rights activists. No one is saying those people did not do amazing things or put their lives at risk. They were also, outside of Hamer, college-educated. This movement Kennedy lauds in comparison to Malcolm was a decidedly middle-class movement. They came out of a different African-American tradition than Malcolm. Second, one could basically say the same thing about the relationship between W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington, with the former safely ensconced in Cambridge and the latter risking his life in rural Alabama. Yet in this case, even most historians today sympathize with DuBois instead of Washington (in part because the Civil Rights Movement proved DuBois’ “talented tenth” idea correct and Washington’s rejection of political gains wrong). But mostly I don’t think this is a useful comparison to make at either time. There were many paths to African-American freedom. Some were more effective and some more problematic, but I don’t think basically calling Malcolm a poseur compared to SNCC activists is useful.
It’s an interesting and challenging review, but I think if anything Kennedy is moving toward hagiography toward the mainstream CRM (after all, he might well call Malcolm sexist and socially conservative, but MLK could certainly be accused of the same) and therefore overcompensates in his analysis of these people. He occasionally makes pretty easy judgements about which group was right or wrong in 1965 when in reality everyone working for black freedom in the 1960s faced overwhelming white violence and police brutality. That certainly doesn’t mean that we should take Huey Newton at his word or not question the self-mythologizing all three of these men could engage in, but, as always, everything should be contextualized and our own positions questioned.