By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
In the context of prevailing media images and public racial struggle, this was all new. Here were Negroes who considered themselves the chosen people. They proclaimed that the black man was the original man, the angel, and that since the first devils to roll off Yacub's assembly line were the Jews, the idea of their being the chosen was a lot of baloney. By embracing Muhammad's version of Islam, his followers stepped outside of Judeo-Christian civilization, asserting their African roots at exactly the same time Africans were coming out from under colonialism and remarkable shifts in world power were in the offing. They declared the white man a thief and a murderer; he had ripped off the secrets of science from Africa. (Muhammad's ministers taught that Egypt was an acronym for "he gypped you.") Using the Africans' information, the blue-eyed devil went on to steal land all over the world, including America from the Indian. The Muslims "exposed" Christianity as no more than a tool to enslave black people, a way of getting them to deny their origins and worship a "white Jesus" (when the Savior was described in Revelations as having skin the color of burnished brass and hair akin to pure lamb's wool). They spoke of dark skin and thick lips as beautiful, charging that the mulatto look of light skin, thin lips, and "good" hair was the mark of shame, of rape on the plantation. In attacking the Caucasian standard of beauty, the Muslims foreshadowed the "black is beautiful" buttons and revisionist images of race and gender we would soon hear from all quarters.
Though most of what they said was no further out than the mythological tales of biblical heroes, their explanations lacked poetic grandeur. But their exotic integrity made that irrelevant. Just as there is a beauty in a well-made club or knife or rifle, there is a beauty in those who yield to nothing but their own ideals and the discipline necessary to achieve them. The Muslims had that kind of attraction, particularly for those who had known the chaos of drug addiction, prostitution, loneliness, abject poverty. Suddenly here were all these clean-cut, well-dressed young men and womenmen, mostly. You recognized them from the neighborhood. They had been pests or vandals, thieves or gangsters. Now they were back from jail or prison and their hair was cut close, their skin was smooth, they no longer cursed blue streaks, and the intensity in their eyes remade their faces. They were "in the Nation" and that meant that new men were in front of you, men who greeted each other in Arabic, who were aloof, confident, and intent on living differently than they had. Now the mention of a cool slice of ham on break with mayonnaise and lettuce disgusted them. Consuming the pig was forbidden and food was eaten once a day because a single through of digestion "preserved the intestines." Members didn't smoke, drink, use drugs, dance, go to movies or sports events.
The Muslims' vision of black unity, economic independence, and "a true knowledge of self" influenced the spirit of black organization as the civil rights movement waned. Few took notice that it was much easier to call white people names and sneer at voter registration drives from podiums in the North than to face the cattle prods, the bombings, and the murders in the South. Since the destruction of America was preordained, the Muslims scorned efforts to change the system. Theirs was the world of what the French call "the total no."
Though they were well mannered and reliable, the Muslims were too provincial and conservative to attract the kind of mass following that would pose a real political threat. Yet as chief black heckler of the civil rights movement, Malcolm X began to penetrate the consciousness of young black people, mostly in the North. While his platform was impossible, a cockeyed racial vision of history that precluded any insights into human nature, young Negroes loved to watch him upset white people, shocking them no end with his attacks on their religion, their history, their morality, their political system, and their sense of superiority. He described nonviolence as nonsense. And he said it all with an aggressive, contemptuous tone that had never been heard from a black man on the air. What we witnessed was the birth of black saber rattling.
Malcolm quickly became what is now called a cult hero. But for all the heated, revisionist allusions to history and exploitation, Malcolm X's vision was far more conventional than King's. Where the Southern Christian Leadership Council and the Student non-Violent Coordinated Committee were making use of the most modern forms of boycott, media pressure, and psychological combat, revealing the werewolf of segregation under a full moon, Malcolm X brought the philosophy of the cowboy movie into Negro politics: characters who turned the other cheek with either na or cowardly. The Civil War had costs 622,500 lives; the civil rights movement had brought about enormous change against violent opposition without losing 100 troops. But you could never have told that listening to Malcolm X, who made each casualty sound like 100,000. He talked like one of those gunfighters determined to organize the farmers against the violent, vicious cattlemen. One of his last speeches was even called "The Bullet or the Ballot." Hollywood had been there first.