The Critical Thought of Malcolm X
African American Breakthrough Series
The month of May marks the birthday of Malcolm X, one of the most influential voices and leaders of the twentieth-century. The African American Breakthrough Series is proud to celebrate the life and achievements of Malcolm X.
Malcolm X’s legacy is expansive and profoundly insightful and instructive. To ignore his body of work would be to leave us intellectually impoverished, socially stagnated, and politically immature.
Wake Them Up, Clean Them Up, Stand Them Up
Unquestionably, Malcolm X was the most radical voice of the second half of the twentieth-century, speaking truth to the white power structure in America and to the black people. His trenchant analysis of America, grounded in race, was informed and undergirded by a social morality in contradistinction to American Christianity and the prevailing norms of white society.
Malcolm reasoned and spoke on behalf of the oppressed, the victims of the American system. “You understand,” he said, what I’m saying if you realize it’s being said through the mouth of a victim; the mouth of one of the oppressed, not through the mouth and eyes of the oppressor.” And further, in speaking to the same white audience at Harvard, he declared, “If you think we’re sitting in the same chair or standing on the same platform, then you won’t understand what I’m talking about. You’d expect me to stand up here and say what you would say if you were standing here.”
Hence, Malcolm sought to redefine morality, reasoning that the morality of the oppressor could not be the morality of the oppressed. He observed, for example, that the “American press made the murders look like saints and the victims like criminals.” In brief, his social morality can be summed up in the expression: Wake Them Up, Clean Them Up, and Stand Them Up.
Central to his social morality was the moral imperative of duty. That is to say, African Americans had a moral obligation to know their history, to work in unity to improve their lives and community, to defend themselves against unwarranted violence, and to liberate themselves from white oppression.
Wake Them Up
Malcolm X believed that African Americans had a moral duty to know their history. He argued that slavery had stripped blacks of their identity and culture, and identity. He declared, “We must recapture our heritage and our identity if we are ever to liberate ourselves from the bonds of white supremacy… When you let the black man in America know where he once was and what he once had, why, he only needs to look at himself now to realize something criminal was done to him to bring him down to the low condition that he’s in today.”
For Malcolm, the African Americans needed to rediscover their culture, and in recovering their cultural they would recover their true identity. Accordingly, he called for a cultural revolution which he believed would serve as a moral and social cleansing force for blacks. “This cultural revolution,” he asserted, “will be the journey to our rediscovery of ourselves. History is a people’s memory, and without a memory man is demoted to the level of the lower animals.” When you have no knowledge of your history, you’re just another animal; in fact, you’re a Negro; something that’s nothing.”
Clean Them Up
As mentioned elsewhere, Malcolm X believed that it was imperative for blacks to address and overturn their moral weaknesses. This he argued was a prerequisite and condition of political and social development. “The white man”, he advanced, “wants black men to stay immoral, unclean, and ignorant. As long as we stay in these conditions we will keep on begging him and he will control us. We can never win freedom and justice and equality until we are doing something for ourselves.”
Thus, inasmuch as American society had “become overrun with immorality…the only way for black people caught us in society can be saved”, Malcolm stated, [was] “not to integrate into this corrupt society, but to separate from it, to a land of our own, where we [could] reform ourselves, lift up our moral standards, and try to be godly.”
Further, Malcolm advanced the proposition that “the community must reinforce its moral responsibility to rid itself of the effects of years of exploitation, neglect, and apathy, and wage an unrelenting struggle against police brutality.” Note that channeling Frederick Douglass, he argues that blacks had a moral responsibility, a duty, to struggle against their oppression and exploitation.
Still further, Malcolm asserted, “The Afro-American community must accept the responsibility for regaining our people who have lost their place in society. We must declare an all out war on organized crime in our community; a vice that is controlled by policemen who accept bribes and graft must be exposed. We must establish a clinic, whereby one can get aid and cure for drug addiction.” Put differently, he sees blacks as complicit in their oppression and criminogenic condition if they refuse to act or accept primary responsibility for cleansing their communities of crime and vice.
And finally, Malcolm X advocated for strong and moral adult modeling for black children. “We must”, he asserted “set a good example for our children and must teach them to always be ready to accept the responsibilities that are necessary for building good communities and nations. We must teach them that their greatest responsibilities are to themselves, to their families and to their communities.”
Stand Them Up
In Malcolm’s view, African Americans morally duty to provide and protect their families and communities. First and foremost he maintained that blacks had to defend themselves against unwarranted violence by meeting this type of violence with violence. He argued:
If violence is wrong in America, violence is wrong abroad. If it is wrong to be violent in defending black women and black children and black babies and black men, then it is wrong for America to draft us, and make us violent abroad in defense of her. And if it is right for America to draft us, and teach us how to b violent in defense of her, then it is right for you and me to do whatever is necessary to defend our own people right here in this country.
Still further, Malcolm saw nonviolence in the face of violence as ineffective and immoral. He opined:
Any Negro who teaches other Negroes to turn the other cheek is disarming that Negro. Any Negro who teaches Negroes to turn the other cheek in the face of attack is disarming that Negro of his God-given right, od his moral right, of his natural right, of his intelligence right to defend himself.
Moreover, the use and advocacy of violence by African Americans, as a means of defending themselves against violent attacks, was consistent with Malcolm’ view of blacks asserting their manhood and affirming their human dignity. He believed that it [was] “criminal to teach a man not to defend himself when he [was] the constant victim of brutal attacks.” Hence, by employing violence in defense of themselves, blacks were doing what other races, namely the white race, had done in to defend their lives and their humanity.
In summary, the social morality of Malcolm X expands and challenges our prevailing notion of morality with respect to violence, collective responsibility, knowledge of history and culture, and self-defense. This relational view of morality places a greater obligation on African Americans to protect and defend their collective interest and each other.
To be sure, Malcolm railed against the personal vices and corruptive elements in the black community. However, even the personal vices required a collective effort. Hence, he argued the black community had to “reinforce its moral responsibility to rid itself of the effects of years of exploitation, neglect, and apathy.” This is just one of the salient lessons we must takeaway from Malcolm X’s social morality.
In light of the condition and predicament of African Americans at this moment in history, Malcolm X’s social morality is much needed.