A Change of Perspective on Women: Malcolm X

One thing that I became aware of in my traveling recently through Africa and the Middle East in every country you go to, usually the degree of progress can never be separated from the woman. If you’re in a country that is progressive, then woman is progressive. If you’re in a country that reflects the consciousness toward the importance of education, it’s because the woman is aware of the importance of education. But in every backward country you’ll find the women are backward, and in every country where education is not stressed it’s because the women don’t have education.

So one of the things I became thoroughly convinced of in my recent travels is the importance of giving freedom to the woman, giving her education, and giving her the incentive to get out there and put that same spirit and understanding in her children. And frankly I am proud of the contributions women have made in the struggle for freedom and I’m one person who’s for giving them all the leeway possible because they’ve made a greater contribution than many of us men. – Malcolm X

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By the mid-1950s Vicki Garvin flowered into a prominent black radical intellectual with an extraordinary background as a political activist, community organizer, trade union leader, journalist, and world traveler. They were both flowering as successful organizers in the Jim Crow North; Garvin was at the helm of the National Negro Labor Council and Malcolm was a rising minister in the Nation of Islam (NOI). Ultimately, Malcolm’s study of comparative revolution and socialism led him in his last years to try to recruit Vicki Garvin and her roommate Maya Angelou into his revolutionary circle. He was searching for answers to black liberation beyond the orbit of the Nation of Islam program, and that put him on the same path as Vicki Garvin and other radical women.

Malcolm’s collaborations with these women demonstrate their importance to shaping his radical political trajectory. Women such as Vicki Garvin; his mother, Louise Little; his wife, Betty Shabazz; and Queen Mother Audley Moore, a preeminent figure in twentieth century black nationalism, Pan-Africanism, and Communism, played a crucial role in helping Malcolm develop a theory of black self-determination, Pan-Africanism, and internationalism. These women served as his teachers and collaborators. They were also critical in keeping his legacy alive following his assassination in February 1965.

Throughout his tenure in the Nation of Islam, and following his break from it in early 1964, Malcolm sought to forge a black radical protest movement organically connected to African American urban communities and linked with Third World revolutionary states across Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Near the end of his life, Malcolm’s position on internationalism, particularly on the importance of women of color as a barometer for measuring global black freedom, increasingly mirrored those of radical women of color like Garvin and Moore. Moreover, his conversations with Garvin and Moore helped Malcolm explore the strategic relationship between reform and revolution that he termed the choice between the “Ballot or the Bullet” in his famed 1964 speech.

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Sonia Sanchez and Queen Mother Moore

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, published posthumously in 1965 provides no discussion of the importance of black women radicals such as Louise Little, Vicki Garvin, and Queen Mother Moore in cultivating Malcolm’s politics from his childhood through his tenure in the Nation of Islam.  The erasure and marginality of women in the Autobiography can be explained in part by the patriarchal gender politics embraced by Malcolm X and Alex Haley, the writer of the memoir, at the time they conducted the interviews that served as the basis for the text. Malcolm was still in the staunchly patriarchal Nation of Islam, and he had not begun to forge a more progressive position on gender, as he would after his break from the NOI. And Haley was a conservative black Republican who had little interest in black nationalism and Pan-Africanism, and who subscribed to traditional gender politics.

Malcolm X’s third daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz, counters the prevailing myths about Louise Little and the erasure of black women radicals from his life story. In her memoir, Ilyasah Shabazz emphasizes the importance of Louise Little to nurturing Malcolm’s political consciousness. Ilyasah Shabazz emphasizes her paternal grandmother’s importance in laying the groundwork for her father’s black radicalism. “It was Grandmother Louise and Reverend Little,” she writes, “who sowed the seeds of insight, discipline, educational values, and organizational skills in my father, not Elijah Muhammad. Mr. Muhammad cleared away the weeds and allowed those seeds to flourish and grow.”

“Louise Little was a brilliant and dynamic woman, not some “crazy” or apolitical figure as she is often portrayed in the scholarship about Malcolm X. She was a committed Garveyite grassroots activist. She spoke multiple languages—English French, Patois. She taught her children the French alphabet. She insisted that her children read newspapers such as the Negro World, the official periodical of the UNIA, and newspapers from Grenada. What most intrigued me was her resilience. She was institutionalized at the Kalamazoo Mental Hospital from 1939 through 1963. But, she lived almost 30 more years after her family got her out of that hospital. Her time in that hospital can be viewed as a form of incarceration because the state targeted her because she was proud, she was independent, she owned her own land, and she refused to bow down to white supremacy and patriarchy. For these reasons, she was placed in that hospital, her land was taken away from her, and her children were put in foster homes. Despite being hospitalized for 25 years, she survived. She came out and, in her final years, she reconnected with family. She never forgot who she was and she remained strong.” – Erik S. McDuffie, On Louise Little, the Mother of Malcolm X, AAIHS

From the very beginning of his life, black women were vital to nurturing Malcolm’s global vision. As discussed, Louise Little stoked her son’s initial interest in Africa and the Diaspora. By the 1950s and early 1960s, black women radicals such as Queen Mother Moore and others played an important role in shaping Malcolm’s interest in Africa. This influence is evident in the remembrances of Queen Mother Moore. During the 1970s, looking back on her life, Queen Mother Moore claimed that she and her younger sister, Eloise Moore, schooled Malcolm in the importance of Africa to the African American struggle for self-determination:

  • Eloise trained Malcolm. It wasn’t Elijah [Muhammad]. Malcolm didn’t know nothing about Africa. Eloise taught Malcolm about Africa, and I can tell you that when I wanted to talk to Malcolm about Africa, he couldn’t mention the word. He told me before he could even say the word, it would have to come from Elijah [Muhammad]. So I told him make the appointment for me for Elijah, and he made it and I went to Chicago…. I talked to Elijah, I spent three days in his home. Across the breakfast table, him and I, arguing about Africa. He didn’t want to hear nothing about Africa. We had to teach Malcolm, you hear, and that’s how he was able to get a new insight, put that to work.

 

Malcolm’s tremendous capacity for self-reflection, growth, and revision can serve as an example for us. A serious and critical engagement with his words and thought leads us to the understanding that we must respect and acknowledge his continuing importance and significance while moving beyond the limitations of his vision. – Betty Collier-Thomas and V.P. Franklin (2001)

Malcolm’s encounters with Grace Lee Boggs, a Chinese American radical activist-intellectual based in Detroit, and her African American husband James Boggs, an autoworker, journalist, and radical activist, were important in transforming Malcolm’s global vision. The Boggs and their left-wing associates recognized African Americans, colonized people, and newly independent nations across the “Bandung World” as the revolutionary vanguard. The Boggses befriended Malcolm. Recognizing his brilliance and growing militancy, Grace Lee Boggs invited him to speak at the Northern Negro Grass Roots Leadership Conference on November 10, 1963, in the Motor City.  His trip to Ghana arguably was the most important event in cultivating his Third World revolutionary politics. In short, Malcolm identified with Africa and the Third World like never before due to his encounters in Ghana. Once there, Malcolm encountered a dynamic group of mature as well as youthful African American women expatriates who were ahead of their times on political and social matters and who broadened his internationalism.

Malcolm’s unsuccessful efforts to meet with Claudia Jones during his visit to London in early 1965 provides another example of him seeking out black women radicals and his burgeoning identification with the Third World. Born in Trinidad and coming of age in Depression-era Harlem, Jones emerged as a ranking official and a leading black left feminist theorist on racial and gender oppression in the post-World War II US Communist Party. Her affiliations with the Harlem Communist Left placed her in similar political circles to Vicki Garvin and Queen Mother Moore. In 1955, US authorities jailed Jones for her Communist Party membership and then deported her to the United Kingdom. Once there, Jones remained committed to socialism, peace, decolonization, black liberation, human rights, and internationalism, and emerged as an important leader within London’s growing African, Caribbean, and Asian communities.

Malcolm’s gender politics were still evolving. But they had come a long ways in a short period of time due in no small part to his encounters with African and Middle Eastern women, and exchanges with US black women radicals such as Vicki Garvin, Queen Mother Moore, Maya Angelou, Alice Windom, and Shirley Graham Du Bois.

Excerpt from a letter Malcolm wrote to his cousin-in-law in 1965:

I taught brothers not only to deal unintelligently with the devil or the white woman, but I also taught many brothers to spit acid at the sisters. They were kept in their places— you probably didn’t notice this in action, but it is a fact. I taught these brothers to spit acid at the sisters. If the sisters decided a thing was wrong, they had to suffer it out. If the sister wanted to have her husband at home with her in the evening, I taught the brothers that the sisters were standing in their way; in the way of the Messenger, in the way of progress, in the way of God himself. I did these things brother. I must undo them. – Malcolm X

Black women radicals informed Malcolm’s decision in his final years to frame the African American freedom struggle as a campaign for human rights, not civil rights, to appreciate Jim Crow and white racial terror as forms of genocide as defined by United Nations human rights declarations, and to petition the UN for redress. This is evident in the “Outline for Petition to the United Nations Charging Genocide Against 22 Million Black Americans” drafted in July 1964 under the auspices of the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU).

Malcolm intended to take the petition before the UN and charge the United States with violating human rights. Given his success in forging political relations with militant Third World leaders, he surely believed the petition would receive support in the UN and improve the status of black Americans. Black women radicals were in part responsible for this undertaking. Queen Mother Moore shared with Malcolm the history of initiatives by W. E. B. Du Bois and the black Communist leader William L. Patterson during the early Cold War years to bring the United States before the United Nations. Moore strongly supported this work and repeatedly approached the UN for redress of African American oppression from the 1950s onward. Similarly, the political writings of Claudia Jones framed Jim Crow as a form of genocide, while Vicki Garvin participated in organizations such as the Council on African Affairs that supported petitioning the UN for redress.

If women of color are mostly absent in prevailing biographical narratives of Malcolm X’s life, they also remain largely invisible in studies that seek to explore the making of his legacy following his tragic assassination at Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom on February 21, 1965. Black women radicals were not only key to Malcolm’s political education and transformations but also equally important to him after his death. Vicki Garvin, Queen Mother Moore, Malcolm’s widow Betty Shabazz, and others were devastated by his death, but in the following years, these women were critical to keeping Malcolm’s legacy alive and to carrying out the work that his female associates had helped to inspire.

Radical women of color were visible in continuing his work and promoting his memory amongst a new generation of black militants and young people. Yuri Kochiyama, a Japanese-American radical who had befriended Malcolm years earlier, jumped out of her seat and rushed toward him on the stage of the Audubon Ballroom as bullets struck him and his body guards ran for cover. His sister, Ella Collins, who had supported her sibling for years, stepped in to head the Organization of Afro-American Unity soon after his passing. Under her leadership, the OAAU organized the first pilgrimage to Malcolm’s grave on May 19, 1965, his birthday.

 

Ilyasha-Shabaz

Ilyasah-Shabazz

 

No woman was more important in keeping Malcolm’s legacy alive and in raising his children than Betty Shabazz. Widowed, Shabazz raised the couple’s six children, including twins who were born after their father’s assassination. This was no easy task. Shabazz feared for her family’s safety, but she met these challenges. In her memoir, Ilyasah Shabazz, the couple’s third child, lauds her mother: “Mommy did a heroic job of attending not only to our physical and material needs, but to our psychological ones as well” (38). She successfully balanced raising six children with earning a living and speaking about her late husband. In 1975, she earned her doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She wrote her dissertation on the education policy of the Organization of Afro-American Unity. She commuted between New York and western Massachusetts, while she worked as a nurse, volunteered for UNICEF, and raised her children. Sadly, Shabazz died in 1997 as a result of suffering serious burns due to a fire in her apartment sparked accidently by her grandson, who bore his grandfather’s name

From his mother Louise Little to his widow Betty Shabazz, female radicals of color played a significant role in cultivating his radicalism, informing his approach to community organizing, nurturing his internationalism, and keeping his memory alive following his assassination. Their exchanges with him, as well as his successful overseas travels, which these women helped to arrange, began to transform his gender politics. These women, together with domestic and global events, were crucial in prompting him to reject the parochial black nationalism embraced by the Nation of Islam for a more revolutionary variant of Pan-Africanism and Third Worldism.

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Vicki Garvin

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