|How The New York
Malcolm X's Views on Self-Defense
by Walter Lippmann
"The press is so powerful in its image-making role,
it can make a criminal look like he's the victim and
make the victim look like he's the criminal."
-- Malcolm X (1964)
Malcolm X was one of the best known and least understood public figures of modern times. Years of public speaking and debating on behalf of the Nation of Islam (popularly known at the time as the Black Muslims) made him an outstanding advocate for the rights of Black people in the United States .
Malcolm's views were carefully thought out and painstakingly presented. He was always conscious of the need to win over and educate his audiences. In Malcolm X: The Man and his Ideas, George Breitman explained that even as a member of the Nation of Islam, and its leading public representative, the appeal to reason made Malcolm's approach quite different from that of the Nation's leader, Elijah Muhammad, whose appeals were made to faith and authority.
This was especially true on the issue of self-defense, or as it was called in the press, the issue of "violence." Malcolm and the Nation of Islam were constantly accused of preaching violence, of advocating violence or "race war". Was this true? Was this what Malcolm spoke out for? What were his real views?
Throughout his life, Malcolm was confronted with violence, beginning with the murder of his father by white racists. Violence would stalk him through his years in the criminal underworld of Harlem , and later, during his years as a minister of the Nation of Islam, when he witnessed repeated attacks on Black people.
When the local Muslim mosque was attacked by the Los Angeles Police Department in 1962, Malcolm was assigned to organize the Nation's public response. His life ended in violence when an assassin's bullet struck him down as he began to address an indoor political meeting. From the need to simply survive as an individual, through his developing consciousness of the need for a full program to solve the problems of Black people, Malcolm prepared himself to meet and to stop violence through self-defense.
This concern for self-defense against socially-originated violence is clearly shown in the Autobiography where we find Malcolm preparing to defend end himself on a number of different occasions and in a number of different circumstances.
After joining the Nation of Islam, when Malcolm became a public figure, he learned to spell out the need for self-defense explicitly, as in this 1960 statement:
We are never aggressors. We will not attack anyone. We strive for peaceful relationships with everyone. BUT--[we teach our people that] if anyone attacks you, lay down your life! ' Every Muslim is taught never to (initiate a] fight. Respect another man's life rights whether he is white, black, brown, yellow or what-.--not! Respect him as a - man. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you!" Never be the aggressor, never look for trouble. But if any man molests you, may Allah bless you!
The above quotation, crystal clear, was available to anyone looking for the truth in the widely circulated book The Black Muslims in America by C. Eric Lincoln, published in 1961. It was reviewed in the New York Times book review section on April 23, 1962 .
If the record was not clear from the above quotation, another appeared in Louis E. Lomax's book, When the Word is Given.... a study of the Nation of Islam was written in 1963 and that appeared early in 1964:
LOMAX: It is suggested also that your movement preaches violence.
MALCOLM X: No, sir. The black people of this country have been victims of violence at the hands of the white men f or four hundred years, and following the ignorant Negro preachers we have thought that it was god-like to turn the other cheek to the brute that was brutalizing us. The Honorable Elijah Muhammad is teaching black people in this country that, just as the white man and every other person on this earth has Godgiven rights, natural rights, civil rights, any kind of rights that you can think of, when it comes to defending himself, black people--we should have the right to defend ourselves also. And, because the Honorable Elijah Muhammad makes black people brave enough, men to defend ourselves no matter what the odds are, the white man runs around here with a doctrine that Mr. Muhammad is advocating violence when he is actually telling negroes to defend themselves against violent people.
Prior to 1963, coverage of the Nation of Islam in the New York Times was sporadic at best. Its attitude toward self-defense or toward "violence" was not discussed.
1963 was a turning point in the liberation struggle of Black people in the United States . Marked by an increasing militancy, a rejection of tokenism and gradualism, the year saw the explosion of the Birmingham , Alabama ghetto in May. In June there was a massive protest march of over 200,000 in Detroit , Michigan initiated by
Black radicals. Finally, in August, there was the better known and more politically moderate March on Washington.
The growing militancy of the freedom struggle was in part due to the pressure put on the mainstream civil rights organizations by the Nation of Islam and Malcolm, who sharply criticized their weaknesses and hesitations, and their inability to prevent racist attacks against Black people. The Nation of Islam grew considerably at that time. Its criticism of the mainstream civil rights organizations was widely felt in the ghetto to reflect reality. In good' measure this was due to Malcolm's ability to translate his political concepts into the language of the Black masses.
For all these reasons, the New York Times began, in 1963, to increase its coverage of the Nation of Islam. The coverage varied widely in quality. One excellent series by M.S. Handler appeared in which Malcolm's views on political developments of the day were faithfully recorded. Handler accurately reported Malcolm's remarks on self-defense:
We don't preach hatred and violence. But we believe that if a four-legged or a two-legged, dog attacks a Negro, he should be killed. We only believe in defending ourselves against attack. (May 10, 1963)
The lesson of Birmingham is that the Negroes have lost their fear of the white man's reprisals, and will react today with violence, if provoked. This could happen anywhere in the country today. (May 11, 1963)
M.S. Handler's articles won Malcolm's praise for their accuracy, and Handler was asked to write the preface to the Autobiography.
Handler's superiors at the New York Times were, however, less interested in an accurate presentation of Malcolm's views. On May 29, 1963 just three weeks after the above quotations appeared in the Times, C.L. Sulzberger, in his Foreign Affairs column, wrote:
A nasty phenomenon of this century has for the first time extended its shadow, if faintly, across the North American continent. This is the phenomenon of violence expressed or threatened by extreme activists in dissatisfied minority groups.
Sulzberger went on to try to link the very cautious Nation of Islam with such diverse groups as the left nationalist Quebec Liberation Front in Canada and the fascist Secret Army Organization in France . Note carefully the lie about violence "threatened" by "extreme activists. 11 Malcolm was always clear to avoid precisely such advocacy, as his actual words demonstrate.
While Malcolm was still under the discipline of the Nation of Islam, the Times only once saw f it to editorially attack the growing nationalist movement, although it gave coverage to attacks on the Nation by other groups and individuals. The news stories about the Nation were more-or-less accurate, with Handler's articles being the most accurate.
The basic orientation of the Nation of Islam (NOI), as determined by Elijah Muhammad, combined a verbal intransigence and rejection of modern United States society with a refusal to get actively involved in the daily struggle to change it. Malcolm's role as chief public representative and troubleshooter for the Nation brought him into more contact with militants actually involved in the struggle than any other NOI official, including Elijah Muhammad himself.
Malcolm was under pressure by these militants, as well as by rank-and-file members of the Nation of Islam members to translate some of the verbal intransigence into practical action for Black freedom. They wanted Malcolm to join the struggle and give it a more militant direction. Malcolm stated this openly in an interview with journalist Louis Lomax for his book When The Word Is Given... given shortly before his split from the Nation of Islam:
But I will tell you this: The Messenger has seen God. He was with Allah and was given divine patience with the devil. He is willing to wait for Allah to deal with this devil. Well, sir, the rest of us Black Muslims have not seen God, we don't have this gift of divine patience with the devil. The younger Black Muslims want to see some action.
In the year after his split with the Nation of Islam, Malcolm's ideas developed very rapidly. They developed in a revolutionary, anti-capitalist and pro-socialist direction, as George Breitman demonstrated in The Last Year of Malcolm X: The Evolution of a Revolutionary. Because of this new orientation, the editors of the Times began a 'campaign of distortion and vilification against Malcolm and his ideas. This came as no surprise in view of his expressed desire to get off the sidelines and into the struggle.
Malcolm felt the need to give the struggle a revolutionary orientation. He saw the need for political education against the whole white-dominated socio-economic system of the United States , which he saw as completely racist in character. The New York Times, as the most authoritative defender of the capitalist social system of the United States , thus had a vital interest in preventing the broad circulation and acceptance of Malcolm's ideas.
To accomplish this, it was necessary to misrepresent the views he actually held, thus making him appear ridiculous, crazy and/or socially dangerous, as George Breitman explained in Malcolm X: The Man and His Ideas. ' In this respect, the Times set the tone, editorially, for a general nationwide campaign of press distortions of Malcolm's actual views.
A final, and not unimportant aim, was to prepare the public for the murder of Malcolm X. That is why, as we shall see, one of the key points the Times editors hammered away at, was the lie that Malcolm favored violence.
Let us see how the New York Times covered the story of Malcolm X during the last year of his life, bearing in mind the claim of the Times that it publishes "All the News That's Fit to Print."
Malcolm's split from the Nation of Islam was announced at a press conference in New York on March 12, 1964 . He issued a statement outlining his views at that time, which included the following passage:
Concerning non-violence: it is criminal to teach a man not to defend himself when he is the constant victim of brutal attacks. It is legal and lawful to own a shotgun or a rifle. We believe in obeying the law.
In areas where our people are the constant victims of brutality, and the government seems unwilling or unable to protect them, we should form rifle clubs that can be used to defend our lives and property in times of emergency, such as happened last year in Birmingham, Plaquemines, La, Cambridge, MD and Danville, Va. When our people are being bitten by dogs, they are within their rights to kill those dogs.
We should also be peaceful, law-abiding--but the time has come for the American Negro to fight back in self-defense whenever he is being unjustly and unlawfully attacked.
M.S. Handler, in an article printed in the March 13 Times, reported the essence of the press conference and the statement issued, including a direct quotation of the first paragraph given above. (The complete text may be found in The Militant of March 24, 1964 . It was the only publication which printed Malcolm's statement in full.)
Reporter Harry Ring, writing in the same issue of The Militant noted that Malcolm, perhaps aware in advance of what the press reaction to his declaration would be, commented to the assembled reporters:
I am not dumb enough to advocate the violent overthrow of the government, but it is within the Negro's right to do whatever is necessary to win freedom, justice, and equality.
It is our moral, legal, and religious right to defend ourselves, just as whites do.
The New York Times editors expressed sharp political hostility toward Malcolm. On Saturday, March 14, an editorial was printed with the title, "To Arms with Malcolm X, 11 which includes the following paragraphs:
Malcolm X, the embittered racist recently ousted from the Black Muslim movement, has struck back in anger. He has called upon Negroes to form rifle clubs, ostensibly to defend lives and property in time of emergency. "It is legal and lawful to own a shotgun or rifle," he says, adding with a straight face, "We believe in obeying the law."
His is a call to break the law; to take the law into one group's hands; to erect a private militia. His is a call to arms against duly constituted police forces. When he mocked the assassination of President Kennedy, he exposed himself to Negroes and whites as the irresponsible demagogue he is.
The Negro civil rights movement has accomplished more in the past few years by non-violence--by what its real leaders call active passive resistance--than by appeals to armed mobs.
The above passage from the Times gives a very vivid example of its political and editorial methods. Note the tone of the comments, including such loaded descriptions as "embittered racist," "struck back in anger" [against whom?], "with a straight face," "armed mobs."
How else but "with a straight face" is one supposed to issue a call for self-defense, a matter of the utmost seriousness for anyone who advocates or practices it? What about those "armed mobs"? That was just the opposite of what Malcolm called for. When he said he wanted rifle clubs formed, he meant precisely that the defense of the Black community should be carried on in an organized, disciplined, planned way, so that the minimum amount of force would be needed. He expressed concern that innocent bystanders not get hurt. That would surely happen if people were just to pick up guns and begin firing whenever they were attacked.
When the Times refers to a call to break the law, when it refers to a "call to arms against duly constituted police forces," it twists the truth completely. Malcolm said, "In areas our people are the constant victims of brutality, and the government seems unable or unwilling to protect them, we should form rifle clubs.... 11 (emphasis added]. This is was not a call to attack anyone. In fact, it is a clear and open call upon the government to defend the democratic rights of the Black citizens of this country. This was not a call to take action against the duly constituted authorities, unless calling upon them to do their duty is an attack on them. The Times editorial aimed to convey the impression that Malcolm was somehow responsible for the explosions of discontent by the ghetto dwellers of this country, thus absolving the "duly constituted police forces" and government representatives of their responsibilities in these areas.
The next important occasion in which the Times chose to attack Malcolm was in May 1964 in a series of horror stories about an alleged gang of Black youth in Harlem , supposedly calling themselves "Blood Brothers" and whose purpose, the paper suggested, was training black youths in techniques for killing white people.
On May 29, 1964 , a front-page story appeared, with the headline, " Harlem : the Tension Underneath." Its author was Junius Griffin, a staff writer for the paper. Under the headline, a picture of two figures practicing judo appeared. The faces were darkened so that identification was not possible. The article reported a small fight, which was supposed to have taken place over a Harlem fruit stand. Out of this fight, it was suggested, the murder of its owner came about. The following selections suggest what was being attempted:
The trouble, now known in Harlem as the Fruit Riot, set the stage for the expansion of anti-white youth gangs, some of whose members call themselves Blood Brothers. The police say that three Harlem youths under indictment for the recent murders of two white women are members of the Blood Brothers and participated in the Fruit Riot.
In the six weeks since the riot, the Blood Brothers have intensified their training in Judo and Karate fighting methods, peaceful Harlem residents have become worried, and the Police Department has detailed some of its best men to concentrate on the central Harlem area.
Social workers and community leaders trace the anti-white philosophy of Harlem youth gangs to 1959, the year when the Black Muslim and Black Nationalist movements began to spread. Malcolm X, who formerly headed the Black Muslim Harlem Mosque, and who was noted for his speeches denouncing the white man, became the idol of many of Harlem's youth.
Malcolm broke away from the parent Black Muslim group last March and formed Muslim Mosque, a Black Nationalist group.
His Black Nationalist organization is one of nine in Harlem advocating Black control and unity in economics, politics, and social activities of the Negro, patterned on the emerging new nations of Africa.
Black-against-black activities have disappeared and many of Harlem's youths have found new interest in Africa and its leaders.
Within three years, about 5000 apostate Black Muslims fanned out in the Harlem community. They adopted Malcolm's anti-white philosophy.
It was the philosophy of this group that encouraged the formation of the Blood Brothers and three or four similar gangs. While there is no known connection between Malcolm X and the Blood Brothers, dissident Black Muslims have trained senior members of the gang.
Interspersed throughout the article are several more fuzzy pictures of alleged "Blood Brothers" practicing judo techniques. The author claims to have interviewed several members, and provides quotations from them. Proceeding from the front page, the article takes up almost a full inside page, illustrating the importance which the Times' editors attached to the story.
This was only one of several articles by the same author which were given prominent placement by the Times. All of the articles dealt with the alleged hate gang. The Times also ran an editorial on the story, calling for police repression of the group.
These articles, and especially the one excerpted above, contain an amazing assortment of contradictory and unsubstantiated statements. The last paragraph, cited above, is an example. Referring to a group of dissident ("apostate") Black Muslims, it asserted that the philosophy of this group encouraged the formation of hate gangs.
Completely left out of these stories was any indication of the actual conditions in which most Black residents of Harlem were forced to live, and why their anger was growing over time.
Another example: "While there is no known connection between Malcolm X and the Blood Brothers, dissident Black Muslims have trained senior members of the gang." Malcolm was known to be a "dissident" Black Muslim, so that despite the apparent statement to the contrary, the implication is made from the juxtaposition of the different phrases, that Malcolm was responsible for the growth of the group.
The most important social welfare agency operating in Harlem at the time was Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited (HARYOU) . It was headed by the distinguished sociologist Dr. Kenneth Clark. The agency had numerous contacts with ghetto militants, and was certainly in a position to know of the existence of such a "hate gang" as the Times alleged to have existed. Dr. Clark issued a statement on May 7 stating that:
The story reported in the New York Times of May 6, 1964 attributing to a researcher of Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited information indicating the existence of a Harlem gang or gangs indoctrinated or trained by dissident Black Muslims and dedicated to organizing anti-white activity has no basis in fact.
The New York Times, which had tried to give the impression that it wanted to bring out the facts on this case, was only able to find space in the middle of an article that appeared on page 67 of its May 8 issue to print Dr. Clark's statement! It is clear from the prominence given the stories about the alleged "hate gang" on the front page, and their burial of the replies, that the Times was intent upon creating an impression that the Harlem community was preparing for massive armed slaughter of white people.
Another series of events occurred that lent great weight to the idea that the origins of the Times' story was in its editorial department, rather than in Harlem itself. Junius Griffin, author of the Times article, was invited, along with a number of Black freedom fighters, to participate in a panel on the "hate gang" story. The participants included Malcolm X, just returned from Africa, Quentin Hand of the Harlem Action Group, William Reed of Harlem Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and Clifton DeBerry, 1964 Presidential candidate of the Socialist Workers Party.
Griffin initially accepted the invitation to speak at the Militant Labor Forum in New York. (The Militant, a weekly newspaper reflecting the views of the Socialist Workers Party, had received Malcolm's praise because of its accurate reporting of his statements and activities.) In its June 8, 1964 issue, The Militant reported that on the day of the scheduled panel, Griffin pulled out, sending a telegram which included the following, "Regret that cannot participate in your symposium. Professional ethics restrain me from such participation". one can only wonder what "professional ethics" prevent a reporter from appearing on a panel with leaders of Harlem's Black community to defend a front page news article he had written for the newspaper that employed him.
The summer of 1964 saw a series of explosions in the nation's Black ghettoes, including Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Rochester, Chicago, and others. In these areas, Black residents responded to police attacks, by attacking the police and other symbols of domination of the ghettoes by outside forces.
During this time, Malcolm was traveling in Africa. He met with leaders of the newly- independent states of Africa, who aspired to free their homelands from colonialism. He made the hadii, the holy pilgrimage to Mecca, which Muslims are required to make at least once during their lives. It would seem obvious, therefore that Malcolm, out of the country for the whole period of these ghetto outbreaks, was in no position to have started or been responsible for them.
Nevertheless, in September 1964 the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) released a report on the summer outbreaks, which tried to give that impression. The report was cited in the Times of September 27, stating: The evidence indicates that aside from the actions of minor organizations or irresponsible individuals, there was no systematic planning or organizations in any of the city riots.
The report then listed and described, without directly naming, three individual "troublemakers" whose activities were alleged to have been instrumental in bring about the "riots". First on the FBI list was Malcolm X: "In March of this year an widely publicized ex-convict announced a broadly based nationalist movement for Negroes only. In this announcement, which was frequently repeated and widely noticed, Negroes were urged to abandon the doctrine of non-violence and to organize rifle clubs "to protect their lives and property."
By these same methods, other Harlem activists such as Bill Epton and Jesse Gray were put on trial by the FBI and the newspapers. once again, this story was front-page news in the New York Times.
The last major blast by the Times against Malcolm X came in the editorial it published after his assassination:
The life and death of Malcolm X provides a discordant but typical theme for the times in which we live. He was a case history, as well as an extraordinary and twisted man, turning many true gifts to evil purpose.
Malcolm X had the ingredients for leadership, but his ruthless and fanatical belief in violence not only set him apart from the responsible leaders of the civil rights movement and the overwhelming majority of Negroes. It also marked him for notoriety, and for a violent end.
Malcolm X's life was strangely and pitifully wasted. But this was because he did not seek to fit into society or into the life of his own people. He could not even come to terms with his fellow black extremists. The world he saw through those horn-rimmed glasses of his was distorted and dark. But he made it darker still through his exaltation of fanaticism.
Yesterday someone came out of the darkness he spawned and killed him. The murder of Malcolm X demands an investigation, even if it was a fanatic I s act, and the fringe of fanatics has no trouble acquiring weapons for violence. But this murder could easily touch of a war of vengeance of the kind he himself fomented. It will take alertness and vigilance on the part of the police, especially in view of the ease with which lethal weapons are available, to make sure that violence is avoided.
Here the Times repeats once again the lie that Malcolm advocated violence. This essay has shown that Malcolm X never advocated violence or aggression, but always counselled Black people to defend themselves when attacked. This Times editorial fulfilled Malcolm's description of the role of the press perfectly, trying to make the victim look like the criminal, and the criminal appear to be the victim.
It twists and distorts reality and displays a venom rarely seen in the pages of the sophisticated New York Times. For example, consider the reference to his killer being someone who "came out of the darkness that he spawned and (who) killed him. 11 Everything is turned upside down here! The Black victims of discrimination, segregation, exploitation, and brutality are held to be the causes of violence and "darkness" when they act to end the conditions in which they are forced to live. Such editorial distortions of the exact content of Malcolm's views were not the only ways in which the New York Times conveyed, or attempted to convey, a false impression as to the nature of his views. The location of articles in the paper was also significant.
Stories dealing with supposedly "inflammatory" statements by Malcolm, the series on the "Blood Brothers, 11 and others, such as the March 1964 attack on Malcolm and other black radicals by New York City Police Commissioner Michael Murphy were all given prominent space on the front pages of the paper, or in the editorial section.
The accurate accounts by M. S. Handler, as well as the more factual articles such as Dr. Clark's repudiation of the "Blood Brothers" hoax, were buried on the back inside pages of the paper. The reader just glancing over the front pages would get a different impression than the reader who carefully scrutinized every inch of the paper.
The printing of certain articles and documents, such as the FBI report on the 1964 ghetto explosions, without any editorial comment dissociating the Times from the conclusions presented, leaves a clear implication that the Times agrees with the material.
Malcolm X was the most outstanding revolutionary leader to have developed out of the Black people's struggle for freedom, justice and liberation in the United States. During Malcolm's lifetime, the New York Times was the leading daily newspaper in the country. As the preeminent defender of the existing capitalist social system, the Times set the tone and line for the rest of the news media. Reviewing its coverage of the life and legacy of Malcolm X reveals a clear pattern of distortion and misrepresentation.
When the reader has occasion in the future to consult the New York Times regarding important issues of the day, please bear in mind that "All the News That I s Fit to Print" does not mean the same thing as "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth"
A note on sources.
The best way to understand Malcolm X's ideas about violence or anything else is to hear the speeches he gave which were recorded, or read them in Malcolm X Speaks (George Breitman, editor, New York: Merit Publishers, 1965). Existing tapes and lecture notes are listed in an appendix to The Last Year of Malcolm X: The Evolution of a Revolutionary by George Breitman (New York: Merit Publishers, 1967), which also contains an extensive listing books, pamphlets, and magazine articles on or by Malcolm through 1967.
In this bibliography only those sources used directly in the body of the essay are listed. Additional material is available in the New York Times and The Militant over the years 1960-65. 1 have read over all these sources in collecting the materials for this paper. The Militant consistently presented an accurate account of what Malcolm had to say, and occasionally ran stories correcting the false impressions given out by the New York Times.
Pathfinder Press in New York is the primary source for printed speeches and writings of Malcolm X beyond the Autobiography. it also publishes important books about Malcolm. Every serious student of Malcolm X must rely on and be grateful f or the work Pathfinder does in preserving Malcolm's legacy.
Breitman, George, "The Impact of Malcolm X, 11 Young Socialist, March-April 1966.
Breitman, George, The Last Year of Malcolm X: The Evolution of a Revolutionary, New York: Merit Publishers, 1967.
Breitman, George, Malcolm X: The Man and His Ideas, New York, Merit Publishers, 1965.
Griffin, Junius, "Harlem: The Tension Underneath," The New York Times, May 29, 1964.
Handler, M.S., "Malcolm X Moves to D.C., Predicts Bloodshed if Rights not Given Soon," New York Times, May 10, 1964.
Handler, M.S., "Malcolm X Terms Dr. King's Tactics Futile," The New York Times, May 11, 1963.
Lincoln, C. Eric, The Black Muslims in America, Boston: Beacon Press, 1961. Lomax, Louis, When the Word is Given.... New York: Signet Books, 1964.
Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, with the assistance of Alex Haley, New York: Grove Press, 1965.
Malcolm X, Malcolm X Speaks, (edited by George Breitman) New York: Merit Publishers, 1965.
The New York Times, "To Arms with Malcolm X, 11 March 14, 1964.
The New York Times, "Malcolm X, 11 February 22, 1965.
Ring, Harry, "Malcolm X Starts Movement in Harlem for All Negroes," The Militant, March 23, 1964.
Socialist Workers Party, "Freedom Now: New Stage in the Struggle for Negro Emancipation," International Socialist Review, Summer 1963.
Sulzberger, C. L. , "American Extremist Shadows, 11 The New York Times, May 29, 1964.
Walter Lippmann has participated in the struggle for a better world since 1961 as a writer, photographer and activist. He resides in Los Angeles, California and is the editor-in-chief of CubaNews a Yahoo news group: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/CubaNews/ .
This essay first published in Bulletin In Defense of Marxism, 1993 under a slightly different title.