Untold numbers of people made the civil rights movement happen, but most people associate the movement with three of its iconic figures: Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. The problem with reducing the movement to these three is only partially that it ignores the masses of citizens involved in the fight for change. The larger issue is that even as Parks, King, and Malcolm are posited as stand-ins for the movement as a whole, they tend to be grossly mischaracterized, misunderstood, and framed in ways that advance narrow and politically simple readings of the movement and its goals. A proper appraisal of Malcolm in particular would upend the ways most Americans think of the battle for civil rights in the United States and offer a richer and more useful set of lessons from it.
Rosa Parks is typically celebrated as the “mother of the movement.” Her bold act of defiance in refusing to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 did indeed spark the bus boycott in that city. Her two decades of spirited activism in the Cradle of the Confederacy prior to the boycott, however, are largely ignored, and her nearly five decades of movement work in Detroit after the boycott are rarely if ever acknowledged. The roots of Jim Crow and its northern reach disappear when Parks is understood as a tired seamstress rather than a lifelong activist.
Dr. King, meanwhile, is usually hailed as the de facto leader of the civil rights movement, a nonviolent pied piper who marched so that his children would be judged one day by the content of their character rather than by the color of their skin. But his advocacy of a minimum income, opposition to American militarism, and dedication to eradicating poverty are frequently overlooked. The King who sits at the head of the entire movement rather than on a continuum of black leadership enables the misconception that nonviolence was the movement’s principle strategy, and the King who stands only on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial furthers the belief that the movement’s sole goal was integration.
And then there is Malcolm X, the putative rapscallion of the movement. Malcolm is regularly cast as King’s foil, a full-throated advocate of violence and so-called reverse racism. Until, of course, he separated from the Nation of Islam, which is read as the moment that he rejected black nationalism and racial separation in favor of integration. Missing entirely is any sense of Malcolm’s evolution as an activist and organizer, of his developing understanding of racism as structural and national rather than individual and regional, and of the ways even his earlier beliefs situated him comfortably in traditional forms of black protest and ideology.
Contrary to conventional thinking, Malcolm’s unabashed promotion of black self-determination reflected a common and arguably mainstream strand of thinking among African Americans. Grounded in black nationalist traditions stretching back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it was seen in the impulse of rural black southerners to seek their own land in their own communities west of the Mississippi, and by the willingness of urban black northerners to embrace Garveyism, with its twin ideological pillars of “Race First” and “Africa for Africans.” The resonance of Malcolm’s fiery exhortations decrying integration takes on new meaning and import when framed as an extension of longstanding African American interests in all-black communities.
The same can be said for Malcolm’s advocacy of black self-defense, which he famously and quite simply called “intelligence.” Malcolm was well aware of African Americans’ rich tradition of self-defense, which extended long before and well after anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells declared that the Winchester rifle deserved a place of honor in every black home. Indeed, advocating self-defense during the height of the civil rights era, as Malcolm did, was completely in line with the thinking of many black people. Rural black southerners who joined the movement embraced self-defense fully, praising the Lord during Sunday morning services and passing the ammunition during Sunday evening mass meetings. Urban black northerners felt the same way. Drawing on their rural southern roots, they believed they were well within their rights to defend themselves against raging white mobs and brutal police.
Placing the icons of the civil rights movement in their appropriate historical contexts is essential for understanding the full complexity of the movement. But getting Malcolm right holds the greatest potential for getting the broader history right because it asks Americans to rethink their most pronounced misconceptions about what black people believed and desired in their battles against Jim Crow.
Making Malcolm X into a dangerous bogeyman rather than a deep and determined political thinker sanctions the notions that black nationalist approaches to change were unreasonable and the advocacy of black self-defense irrational. But integration was not necessarily the primary goal for many involved in the civil rights movement, and neither was nonviolence their only guiding principle.
The history of civil rights is a complex one, made only more so by our tendency toward historical amnesia, by the strains of contemporary race relations, and by the conscious and unconscious investment many white Americans in particular have in the notion of a peaceful and integrationist civil rights movement. But the complexities of the movement must be made clear. Properly understood, they have much to teach us about generating social change and practicing democratic governance. Toward this end, the work of demythologizing civil rights icons must continue. And that work ought to begin with Malcolm, because if we get Malcolm right, we will get our civil rights history right.