Malcolm X, 50 Years On.

By Franco Folini (Flickr, CC 2.0)

By Franco Folini (Flickr, CC 2.0)

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of his assassination, Malcolm’s daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz, wags her fingers at today’s young protesters in the pages of the New York Times:

My father was never one to criticize without also offering a solution. First, he would challenge today’s young protesters to draw upon the nation’s rich history of activism and to appreciate better the contributions of those who have gone before them. What worked in Selma, in Chicago, in Watts — and what didn’t? As it is, today’s protesters often act like they are starting from square one. This disconnect cannot be dismissed as the hubris of youth; it is a symptom of our failure to teach this generation about black history and the way our economic and social systems actually function.

It’s always fascinating to watch descendants of the revered use their forebears as a cudgel for their politics; remember MLK’s daughter and niece saying that he didn’t “take a bullet for same-sex marriage”? But it’s also worth remembering that history tends to flatten: the civil rights movement and the black power movements also began as inchoate, often-ineffective endeavors that eventually evolved into something more galvanized. The SCLC had to figure what worked for them. SNCC had to do the same.  Hell, Malcolm’s entire life was marked by his reorientation/recalibration of his priorities and approach. All along the way, they were tinkering, infighting, and getting better at organizing/messaging. I doubt that the kids out there protesting and organizing are done, that this is the ceiling of their movement. But it can’t seriously be argued that the #BlackLivesMatter folks has not already changed the national political conversation. Give Phil Agnew an’em some time.

But we’ve heard versions of Shabazz’s argument before, and whether you find it convincing probably rests a lot on how much you share her particular kids-today-don’t-respect-the-history fogeyism. (Suffice it to say that a lot of folks do.) There’s some other strawmanning and convenient elisions in this piece: She derides today’s protesters as not focused on policy like her father — but her father’s huge legacy rests mainly in its implications for black self-esteem and the orientation of the movement broadly and much less directly to discrete, tangible policy outcomes. There are a lot of ways to matter, to change the world.


There’s some really egregious point-missing in the shade thrown at the hashtag/social media component of contemporary social justice activism. They forget that the organizers of civil rights-era protests were always deeply concerned with using the news media to magnify the movement, and that they saw getting their message in front of faraway, sympathetic eyes as crucial to their successes.

That’s why organizers put so concerned with having the “right” faces for their campaigns, why the protesters being attacked by dogs and blasted by water cannons were invariably so nattily dressed. “There was a sense of righteous indignation on the part of the American people because of the message that the media was ale translate and and around the country and around the world,” John Lewis said of the reaction after Selma in The Race Beat . “If it hadn’t been for the media — the print media and television —the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings, a choir without a song.”

But the media strategies that folks might have used in the era of three television networks  and a few national papers of record aren’t the same ones you would use in the era of a thousand channels and a million online news outlets. Today, when a broadcast network or local station covers a major rally/demonstration, they might dedicate about 45 seconds or so to some B-roll and a soundbite of a main talking point. (And of course, the core audiences for the big nightly news shows are eligible for AARP membership.) If you were trying to get your message out to a lot of people and mobilize them around your cause, traditional media would be a pretty ineffective way to do it.

Twitter, on the other hand, has a ton of advantages: its user base is disproportionately brown, they skew younger, and as such, have a  whole different set of priorities. And while Shabazz writes that her father “would be the first to say that slogans aren’t action,” it’s worth remembering that sloganeering isn’t nothing, either — expressions of solidarity are critical to the sustenance and spread of any movement. It’s not hard to imagine a different world in which “We Shall Overcome,” the mantra of the civil rights revolution that eventually found its way into the mouth of the President of the United States, or her father’s own iconic “…by any means necessary” beginning their lives with pound signs in front of them. /EDIT]

Also, there’s this from Twitter fam Jonathan Blanks, who considers why Malcolm is a lefty icon despite not being all that much of a lefty in his politics. (If it matters, Blanks is a libertarian and a black dude.)

But seriously, there’s nothing I’ve ever read or seen attributed to Malcolm that would put him anywhere near the Progressive Left, who tend to embrace him. The late author of his most recent major biography, professor Manning Marable, attempted to rationalize his placement in the Progressive pantheon. But there was no real link in his well-researched and well-written biography. At best, he mentioned some “anti-capitalist” rhetoric  in speeches to colleges…

I write this not to claim Malcolm for libertarians or, least of all, the American Right. His legacy belongs to black people and America writ large, if they bother to embrace it.

People should remember Malcolm for what he was and what he stood for, not just as a symbol of scaring white people. He believed in the absolute right to self-defense and personal responsibility. He believed in small business and black empowerment.  He wanted jobs and dignity for black people, and he didn’t believe the government as instituted in the United States could provide it.

I think this is broadly true of Black Nationalism — nationalisms are necessarily conservative ideologies— but also of small-c conservatives like your aunties  or the folks in your church or barbershop. It’s the kind of conservatism that can sit comfortably next to, say, a deep distrust of the police and broad support of Barack Obama. But JB is right: It’s definitely not the left.



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • basik

    After reading Ilyasah Shabazz piece I was deeply disappointed. It reminds the fairly similarly finger wagging that Oprah has done . Its incredible we have these “leaders” that criticize from afar saying, telling us we are not doing it right while they promote their new books and movies, while offering no real solutions.

  • “He wanted jobs and dignity for black people, and he didn’t believe the government as instituted in the United States could provide it.”

    This rubs me the wrong way. He seems to be implying, in typical libertarian fashion I’d add, that the the left doesn’t want jobs & dignity for Black folks.

    And if anything, I think the left that has embraced Malcolm is the Black left. Not white liberals & white lefiststs. Which I think we’re all aware are very different factions.

    • Gene Demby

      I don’t think that’s what he’s implying at all. I think he’s arguing that Malcolm was skeptical that a racist American government would provide those jobs.

      I think the rest of his point is seriously worth engaging. After I wrote this, I started thinking of all the ways the #BlackLivesMatters folks really do have substantive differences with Malcolm X, both in terms of the way their movement is focused (like direct actions) but also in terms of things like the way the movement is structured (like their deep suspicions of the “charismatic male leader” model of leadership that Malcolm embodied).

      • “But seriously, there’s nothing I’ve ever read or seen attributed to Malcolm that would put him anywhere near the Progressive Left”

        That’s the 1st line you quote.

        Later Blanks goes on to list what he thinks Malcolm stood for. Those 2 things together to me strongly suggests someone who doesn’t believe “the Progressive Left” also shares those values.

        Furthermore, I don’t think Malcolm believed that *any* govt, racist or not SHOULD provide those things. Not for Black folks in their place in America at the time.

        I don’t disagree that much if not most of what Malcolm stood for is far from “leftist.”
        I agree completely with your 2nd paragraph. But I think what we see with Malcolm’s legacy is a lot of folks are aware that this was a man whose was rapidly evolving in his outlook. And unfortunately we get a lot of people ascribing to him things that represent where they think he was headed.

  • That edit was pretty crucial. Nice.

    It’s kind of weird that that few people see the continuity between hashtags and the tactical spectacles of the 60s. Part of me thinks that failing to see it is a willed effort, which is how I interpret Shabazz’s comments. But if I’m more generous, and assume that people just don’t get it, I’m not really sure how to get more people to see social media as a critical platform.

    I once tried a technical explanation, saying that hashtags are an “index of frequency,” since they collect, organize and illustrate how topics are being talked about (and who is talking about them), but it didn’t fly. Is this widespread misunderstanding of hashtags/social media just one of those chasms that can’t be crossed?

    • Gene Demby

      Could you say more about this?

      • Sure! So I think that it’s pretty common for people to conflate how hashtags are used – recreationally, socially, politically, entreprenurially – with how they work. The basic feature of hashtags is that they group together messages across a social medium. These groupings cut across and through social networks, subsequently forming a public index that is visible and searchable in terms of who is participating, what they are saying, and when they said it.

        This kind of visibility and searchability is unique because traditionally the connections that are made (or strengthened) through public acts, aren’t directly traceable unless you own the medium. For instance, members of the SCLC had to infer the impact of their marches based on how many newspapers and radio stations mentioned the marches the next day. Because socializing is built into their fabric, Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc. work a lot differently. They make quantified data explicit.

        The caveat is that a lot of data is left out because it is proprietary – i.e. made for advertisers – so for the public it isn’t clear who is reading things (we only see who is saying things); the indexes are temporary because there are so many; and what the indexes contain can be highly misleading because of joke accounts, ambiguous cover photos and a lack of verifiable data about who users truly are. So hashtag worshipers should probably simmer down a bit.

        But still, for all their problems, hashtags really do enable and aggregate connections across and within groups, which is totally what organizers in the 60s were doing.

        • Gene Demby

          Woooo. These are all fantastic points.