However, his intellectual legacy did not bridge the divide between black leaders and mobilized black masses. Despite his rhetorical support for black militancy, Malcolm himself did not lead a protest or insurgent movement. Indeed, Malcolm’s principal contribution to the black nationalist tradition was to link that tradition with the mass movements of his time. As Malcolm observed the intensifying civil rights demonstrations of 1963 and 1964, he moved from harsh criticisms of nonviolence and integrationism to a more subtle critique that distinguished between national and grassroots civil rights leaders.
Although Malcolm continued to challenge King and other established civil rights leaders, he also became increasingly critical of the Nation of Islam’s apolitical orientation: “I felt that, wherever black people committed themselves, in the Little Rocks and the Birminghams and other places, militantly disciplined Muslims should also be there for all the world to see, and respect, and discuss. It could be heard increasingly in the Negro communities: ‘Those Muslims talk tough, but they never do anything, unless somebody bothers Muslims.
By the time of the March on Washington, Malcolm combined attacks on national black leaders – “they control you, but they have never incited you or excited you” – with generous praise for “local leaders,” who had begun “to stir up our people at the grass-roots level. ”8 After leaving the Nation of Islam, Malcolm formed the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) and began reaching out to militant grassroots leaders. In October 1964, while on a tour of Africa, he met with SNCC representatives, convincing them to cooperate with his newly- establish group.
In December he hosted Fannie Lou Hamer and other MFDP leaders at a Harlem OAAU meeting and also met with a delegation of teenagers from the McComb, Mississippi movement. During February 1965 he traveled to Selma, Alabama, to address young voting rights activists. While there he attempted to meet with Martin Luther King, Jr. , but, because the civil rights leader was in jail, he assured Coretta Scott King of his desire to aid the civil rights struggle. By the time of his assassination on February 21, Malcolm’s variant of black nationalism emphasized militant political engagement rather than racial-religious separatism.
Many of Malcolm’s posthumous followers continued to quote his speeches as minister of the Nation of Islam, the group whose leaders condemned Malcolm as a traitor “worthy of death. ”«10 After his death, most followers gave more attention to Malcolm’s criticisms of civil rights leaders than to his efforts to forge ties with grassroots activists, more focus to his racial ideas than to his political thought. Malcolm’s intellectual legacy became a diverse set of ideas that had both conservative and radical implications – ideas that encouraged generalized pessimism about the future as well as revolutionary enthusiasm.
Black power advocates, such as Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, and Black Panther leaders popularized Malcolm’s brand of rhetorical militancy, but they had little success in building politically effective mass movements. Black power militancy produced lasting ideological and cultural contributions but also fomented destructive ideological and cultural conflicts within the black militant community. Intending to create a unified and revolutionary black movement, black power advocates instead competed with one another to determine which ideas should become the basis of racial unity.
In retrospect, the assassination of Malcolm X can be seen as the prototype of subsequent deadly and demoralizing black-against-black battles that made black militancy more vulnerable to external manipulation and repression. Rather than serving as “organic intellectuals”11 building on the emergent ideas of ongoing grassroots struggles, some black power advocates, assuming that ideological conversion and cultural training were necessary preconditions for effective racial struggle, arrogantly sought to “raise” the black masses to a predetermined level of consciousness.
Narrowly conceived, purist, or “blacker than thou” ideological formulations that were intended to unify African Americans instead divided them. Black ideologues unwittingly competed for the role of the black “messiah,” who, in the fantasy of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, could “unify and electrify the militant black nationalist movement. ”12