** note: this was a speech I gave at a debate event so there may be some awkward writing **
When reflecting on the civil rights movement, modern society often praises the non-violent actions of Martin Luther King and fails to do justice on civil rights leaders with different methodologies. America has become obsessed with the notion that movements must be achieved peacefully, through words and not actions, through assimilation and not individuality. Consequently, Malcolm X is often overlooked as an uncivilized radical. And thus, the we must consider if Malcolm X’s violent approach to civil rights was appropriate at the time. The way we must approach the resolution is first to define what “violent” is, how and why Malcolm X advocated for this approach, and finally if it was justified for the time period.
First and foremost, how do we define “violence?” and to what extent did Malcolm X advocate for these approaches? Violence, for social movements, would be physically attacking the oppressor purposefully. However, according to James H. Cone, a founder of black liberation theology, Malcolm X did not advocate violence, but merely self-defense. Although he did use the term “by any means necessary,” violence was only the last resort. Therefore non-violence was still the preferred option. And through this statement in a vacuum, it is not unreasonable to want the “right on this earth” to be respected as a human being.
We must engage in a critical reframing of our perspective of Malcolm X’s advocacy and stop viewing his “by any means necessary” approach as inherently bad. The good POC v. bad POC debate perpetuates racism and infighting that has been going on for centuries.
How + Why
To analyze if Malcolm X’s method was truly acceptable, we next must consider how and why he chose this method. Therefore let’s take a look at Malcolm X’s family background and his interactions with white folk:
- When he was very young, a white-supremacist organization burned down his house.
- In middle school, despite being at the top of his class, his white teacher told him that he could not become a lawyer because he was black.
- As a teenager he spent six years in jail, where he was influenced by Black Muslims, who first brought him to the idea of Black Power
MLK on the other hand, lived in a prosperous neighborhood and his main issue was facing segregation, however he had a caring family and a supportive background. Already it is evident that Malcolm X’s experience was far more brutal, and actually more realistic to the common black folk at that time.
But, why violence? This was mainly an issue as to if the white moderate could successfully cooperate in the civil rights movement. As quoted by Malcolm X himself, he said “that’s like asking the fox to help you solve the problem confronting the wolf.” When analyzing the white moderate’s actions during Black social movements, they are a group who speaks of justice and equality but is not willing to put themselves in danger for these rights. These were the people who want desegregation but did not want their OWN kids to learning with black kids, and hence caused white flight. This is respectability politics, which according to the African-American magazine The Root is what happens when minority and/or marginalized groups are told to receive better treatment from groups in power, they must behave better. In other words, It spreads the idea that the white, educated elite is the best form of human being. One whose life is already devalued must still respect the people who created the social hierarchy. In this way, the racist institution never makes up for anything, never makes repercussions for its evil, and never stops being racist.
While generally we accept that violence is bad, we must note that not all violence is bad. White folk contributed 200+ years of chattel slavery, 100+ years of segregation, lynching, the criminal justice system, bombing, riots, locking black folk into a cycle of poverty, contributed to stereotypes that still last today, put them under mental and emotional abuse, devalued their lives until they were sub-human, while America launched a revolutionary war after 20 years of taxes – this completely puts African-Americans at an appropriate platform to do “any means necessary” to achieve humanity.
Finally, let’s take a look at the specific time period. Already, there were several circling ideas such as the “black is beautiful” movement, Marcus’ Garvey’s ideas of black individuality from decades before, etc, that ultimately made black power an inevitable extension of these movements. Previously, to win civil rights, most ideas took decades because African-Americans used the method of the NAACP, which was to go to college and become lawyers and then sue the racist institution. This approach both took too long, and was also not as effective, after all, they would have to win the favor of a group of old white men. Similarly, the civil rights movement in the first few years was mainly non-violent, but even after the passage of the legislation, nothing solved the fact that the INSTITUTION of the United States was CREATED upon black subjugation
And it truly is unfathomable that MLK managed to say non-violent the whole time. The police harassed him, white supremacists bombed his house, he received volumes of hate mail and telephone threats, was in jail for several years, etc. EVEN IF it was a good thing to stay non-violent, to “love our white brothers…no matter what they do to us” is a bit ridiculous statement after King’s house was bombed. For a regular person, it is completely RATIONAL and APPROPRIATE to retaliate with violence, thus obviously it should be okay for Malcolm X to advocate for the right to BE A HUMAN. This was the reality of the civil rights movement – it certainly was not peaceful when it came to white people’s response to Black protest; it was not easy to simply accept the fact that you had to LOVE the people that wanted to wipe your population out. Thus, at this time period, it was ABSOLUTELY appropriate for Malcolm X’s approach to civil rights.