If Malcolm X No Longer Scares Us, Does That Also Mean His Mission Has Been Neutralized?
It would be fascinating to know what Malcolm X would have thought about his Lost Tapes documentary that premieres Monday at 8 p.m. ET on the Smithsonian channel.
Like previous programs in this Smithsonian series, The Lost Tapes: Malcolm X dusts off vintage video footage that often hasn’t been shown for a half century. In this case, that includes a good number of his speeches and his appearances on TV news shows.
He was never reluctant to go face-to-face with TV hosts and journalists he had to know were always wary, usually suspicious and sometimes flat-out hostile.
The Lost Tapes provides a good highlight reel of his views, showing the ways they did and did not change while he moved from Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam to a more independent position.
What did not change was this: He urged black people to seize the rights America had long denied them, famously and emphatically adding “by any means necessary.”
With those four words, we should not forget, Malcolm X scared the bejesus out of much of white America. Where Dr. Martin Luther King, James Farmer, Roy Innes and other civil rights leaders were controversial in different ways, Malcolm X was widely viewed as downright frightening.
Today, slightly more than 53 years after he was shot to death by men from the Nation of Islam during a speech at Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom, Malcolm X is the subject of studious TV documentaries. He was the subject of an acclaimed film biography. He’s on a postage stamp.
What would he think of that? Would he see it as progress or a sign that after his death, his message was gradually neutered and rendered harmless?
The Lost Tapes traces Malcolm X’s path from small-time thief and drug dealer to the voice for many black folks who felt the civil rights movement needed to be more aggressive. Almost 350 years after the first slave ships landed on this soil, they argued, we shouldn’t be asking for equal treatment and opportunity. We should be demanding.
The Nation of Islam that Malcolm X initially embraced had long dismissed integration as an illusion in a white supremacist society. Self-sufficiency was seen as a more feasible and fulfilling path, with the white man cast as a devil so wicked that he would eventually self-destruct.
Footage here shows Malcolm X chastising listeners he considered too complaint with a racist system. It was a level of militance that inevitably put him at odds with, among others, Dr. King, whom he once called “Dr. Chicken Wing.”
The 1963 March on Washington, perhaps the most remembered moment of King’s career, was denounced by Malcolm X as a charade stage-managed and controlled by white liberals. Malcolm X attended and did not speak.
The Lost Tapes includes King’s tacit response, a defense of nonviolence as the best way to bring about lasting change, which to King meant integration.
The Lost Tapes also revisits the sharp and public split between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, which many including Malcolm X felt was what led to his death.
The split had been building for a time and made headlines after Malcolm X referred to President John F. Kennedy’s assassination as “chickens coming home to roost.”
Elijah Muhammad felt that was excessive and ordered Malcolm X to be silent for three months. Malcolm X defended the comment, saying he only meant a violent nation was continually sowing the seeds of violence.
After the split was official, both sides went hard at the other, and we see that here.
What we don’t see very much, interestingly, is the other big development from the final months of Malcolm X’s life.
The Lost Tapes notes his well-publicized 1964 Hajj to Mecca, but doesn’t delve very deeply into how it changed his perspective, which has been a major point of discussion among his biographers.
Where before he had urged blacks to fight alone, he now seemed to take a more inclusive view. After observing human relationships in other countries, it has been widely suggested, he saw more common cause among oppressed people of all colors and creeds.
Numerous historians feel that Malcolm X and Dr. King, once regarded as an alpha and omega of civil rights philosophies, moved much closer together — from both sides — in the months before Malcolm X was killed.
We’ll never know how that could have played out, of course, because violence would soon take both of them.
In any case, The Lost Tapes: Malcolm X reminds us why Malcolm X’s words resonated more than a half century ago and why they still resonate now.