This post was written by Tavia Wager, Research Services Assistant.
Malcolm X remains a well-known and controversial leader of the American Civil Rights Movement. Assassinated in 1965, he is remembered for his leadership in the Nation of Islam (NOI), his views on Black Nationalism, and his identity as a Muslim. Although the study of Muslim communities in the West is young, it is enlightening to look back on the interconnections between the movement for Civil Rights and the development of American Islam. George Mason University’s (GMU) Special Collections Research Center (SCRC) houses the papers of James H. Laue, a Civil Rights activist in the 1960s and later the first Lynch Professor of Conflict Resolution at GMU. This paper will discuss articles written by Laue, as well as a speech by Malcolm X entitled “I don’t mean bananas,” published in The New Left Reader in 1969 and also kept in the GMU Special Collections Research Center.
Islam in American History
Although much of the history of American Islam remains to be studied, Islam has had a long presence in the United States. In fact, approximately eight percent of the first African slaves brought to America were Muslim, and some intellectuals later believed that Islam proved that blacks could be “civilized.” These intellectuals likewise believed that Islam could lead to a peaceful end to slavery, but the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 ended those hopes. Some turned to the idea of relocating to West Africa, where Edward Wilmot Blyden became particularly influential, shaping narratives of later Black Nationalism. Using West African Islam as a model of black cultural
nationalism, he argued that Christianity had thwarted the progress of Africans, and his notions of separatism and racial purity came to have a profound impact on later movements. Malcolm X encountered and converted to Islam while in prison in the 1940s through the Nation of Islam (NOI), one of the early movements for Black Nationalism influenced by nineteenth-century notions and intellectuals like Blyden. The white, Christian historical narrative of the American history did not satisfy people like Malcolm X, searching for their own history, a history of slavery and oppression.
Malcolm X and the Black Civil Rights Movement
Following his conversion to Islam, Malcolm X became a well-known leader in the Black Civil Rights Movement. James H. Laue, a Ph.D. candidate in the early 1960s at Harvard University specializing in race relations, refers to Malcolm as NOI leader Elijah Muhammad’s chief spokesman, arguing that Muslims are one among many groups of black Americans, and becoming increasingly powerful in the fight for civil rights. Laue emphasizes the variances amongst Black Civil Rights and Black Nationalist groups, acknowledging that they are far from a unified bloc. “That such varying views exist within the Negro community destroys the myth of an all-out, unified push against whites….it shows that Negroes from all parts of society….are increasingly discontented with the denial of moral rights in a country founded on the principles of Christianity and political democracy.” He argues that groups of Muslims may resort to more “Klan-type violence” to achieve their goals, and suggests that if violence breaks out, average white citizens are just as much to blame. He suggests that blacks are not seeking to perpetuate violence or advocate black supremacy, but rather to achieve economic independence. Laue does not present a wholly negative view of Black Muslim organizations, arguing that Muslim organizations have contributed to the betterment of blacks, particularly in inner-cities. Considering this article, it appears that the notion of Black Nationalism and Islam produced an array of opinions amongst the American public, but the NOI and Malcolm X were generally considered more extreme, and capable of violence. Laue argues that interest in Muslims was growing in the early 1960s amongst non-Muslims, perhaps in conjunction with the popularization of Black Nationalist movements, though he acknowledges the difficulty of conducting research into these groups, as he himself is not allowed into meetings because he is not “pure black.”
Malcolm X became the driving organizational force of the NOI, preaching their message of racial
separatism, armed self-defense, and racism as a fundamental source of oppression. His magnetism and way of speaking brought many new members to the NOI, as Laue estimated their membership reaching at least 100,000 in the early 1960s. Though Malcolm X initially believed in their philosophy, he gradually came to develop opposing views, moving away from their more radical notions. His disagreements with their religious and political policies led to their separation in 1964, but Laue points out that even before he had left the NOI, Malcolm had agreed to speak at several NAACP events, indicating his desire to cooperate with other organizations and tone down the NOI’s radical rhetoric. “While Muhammad continues to make crude anti-white statements…Minister Malcolm spends much of his time with Negro and white intellectuals trying to take Muhammad’s foot out of the movement’s mouth.” Their separation in 1964 allowed him to focus on his own political and ideological aims, leading him to form the Organization of Afro-American Unity in 1964, designed to advance the cause of black self-determination at home and abroad. He viewed the Civil Rights Movement as too narrow in scope, arguing that it ought to be focused on the global race problem, human rights, and oppression of lower classes. He chose to travel to Africa and the Middle East, which he saw as opportunities for spiritual, intellectual and political growth. He came to rethink his previous views on Black Nationalism and the role of violence in the Movement, appreciate the “color-blindness” of Islam, and shift his position on hostility toward white people. He believed that Islam offered salvation for all people, of all races, after he had the opportunity to learn and interact with individuals of all races and ethnicities. He became more liberal, pluralist, and internationalist than the conservative, domestic aims the NOI had allowed him to be.
In 1964, a year before his assassination, Malcolm gave a speech at the Audubon Ballroom in New York which demonstrated the transformation in his political philosophy. He encouraged black participation in the political system, the remembrance of black heritage, and the desire to join together with blacks around the world in a common struggle. “Always bear in mind that our being in the Western hemisphere differs from anyone else, because everyone else here came voluntarily…. We were brought here forcibly, against our will, and in chains.” He encouraged all black Americans to take charge of their political destiny, to think of themselves not as a minority, but as part of a larger movement for oppressed peoples around the globe. He believed that African nations formed the largest representative body of people at the international level, with the power to shape the entire world. “We would be out of our minds, we would actually be traitors to ourselves, to be reluctant or fearful to identify with people with whom we have so much in common.” It was time for black Americans to remember their common heritage with people around the world, to see themselves as more than African Americans. The fight for their rights could not be constrained by domestic politics in the United States, as it would always leave them trying to prove that they are worthy of being Americans. By joining an international fight, they would achieve much more than civil rights in the United States.
Malcolm X embodies both Islam and Black Nationalism, though in the last few years of his life he moved away from the Movement for Civil Rights alone, looking to human rights as a lens for the struggle of all oppressed peoples. As he believed in a Pan-African struggle, as a struggle for the rights of all black people, he also believed that Islam could provide salvation for all races. America had come to be characterized as white and Christian, and therefore contrary to both aspects of his character. In his words, “[M]y fight is two-fold, my burden is double, my responsibilities multiple….material as well as spiritual, political as well as religious, racial as well as non-racial.” It is impossible to know if, had he not been assassinated in 1964, he would have continued with his radical views, but it seems likely. He stated in his 1964 speech that his objective was “complete freedom, complete justice, complete equality, by any means necessary. That never changes.” By arguing that the fight for black rights was a fight for human rights, he was taking part in an international discourse regarding Black Nationalism that moved beyond the domestic concerns of groups like the Nation of Islam. Laue argues that Malcolm was even considering allowing or seeking out non-black participation in the movement as of 1964. “When I half-jokingly asked Malcolm X, ‘When are you going to let me into a temple meeting?’ he half-seriously replied, “‘Pretty soon, man.’” It seems evident that Malcolm X had become increasingly inclusive and flexible in his messaging, and would have continued on this path, if not for his assassination in 1965.
Malcolm X remains an important and controversial figure in the Civil Rights Movement. Although the last few years of his life engendered many changes in his religious and political ideology, he remains for many Americans an icon of militancy and rebellion. He also remains an integral part of the historical process that has fostered contemporary African-American and American Muslim identity. Nineteenth century Muslim and black intellectuals built the foundation of twentieth century organizations like the NOI, which came to be a crucial part of the Civil Rights Movement. Islam became an important method for the Black Nationalist movement to inspire community between disparate groups both in the United States and around the world, attracting people like Malcolm X to join their ranks. Malcolm X, however, came to fight for far more than the rights of blacks in the United States, and through his political and religious philosophy, came to see that his fight had to take on more than the domestic politics of the United States, and instead work for the human rights of oppressed peoples around the world.
Curtis IV, Edward E. Islam in Black America: Identity, Liberation, and Difference in African-American Islamic Thought. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002.
Knadler, Stephen. “Back to “Oriental” Africa: Islamicism and Becoming African in the Early Black Atlantic.” Modern Language Quarterly 71:1 (March 2011): pp. 49-73.
Laue, James H. “A Contemporary Revitalization Movement in American Race Relations: The ‘Black Muslims.’” Social Forces 42 (3) (March 1964): 315-24. C0055, Box 53, Folder 12. Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries.
——-. “Muslims: for Black Supremacy.” Guest Editorial, The Cheraw Chronicle. C0055, Box 58, Folder 9. Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries.
Marzouki, Nadia. “Muslim Americans: A Religious Minority like any Other?” In Islam: An American Religion. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.
Turner, Richard Brent. “Edward Wilmot Blyden and Pan-Africanism: The Ideological Roots of Islam and Black Nationalism in the United States.” The Muslim World Vol. LXXXVII, No. 2, April 1997.
X, Malcolm. “I don’t mean bananas.” In The New Left Reader. Edited by Carl Oglesby. New York: Grove Press Inc., 1969. HN 18.O5 N4. Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries.
 Stephen Knadler, “Back to “Oriental” Africa: Islamicism and Becoming African in the Early Black Atlantic,” Modern Language Quarterly 71 (1) (March 2011): 56.
 Nadia Marzouki, “Muslim Americans: A Religious Minority Like Any Other?” in Islam: An American Religion. (Columbia University Press, 2013), 45-46.
 Richard Brent Turner, “Edward Wilmot Blyden and Pan-Africanism: The Ideological Roots of Islam and Black Nationalism in the United States,” The Muslim World LXXXVII, no. 2 (April 1997): 169-172.
 James H. Laue, “Muslims: For Black Supremacy,” The Cheraw Chronicle. C0055, Box 58, Folder 9. Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries.
 James H. Laue, “A Contemporary Revitalization Movement in American Race Relations: The ‘Black Muslims,’” Social Forces 42 (3) (March 1964): 315. C0055, Box 53, Folder 12. Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries.
 Ibid, 321.
 X, Malcolm, “I Don’t Mean Bananas,” in The New Left Reader, edited by Carl Oglesby (New York: Grove Press Inc., 1969), 211. HN 18.O5 N4. Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries.
 Ibid, 218.
 Edward E. Curtis IV, Islam in Black America: Identity, Liberation, and Difference in African-American Islamic Thought (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002), 85.
 X, “I Don’t Mean Bananas,” 208.
 Laue, “A Contemporary Revitalization Movement in American Race Relations,” 323.