Remembering Malcolm X As We Release His Murderer

i-5556d39c0bec54ec2702b99556c3784b-Malcolm X.jpgRaceWire is reporting that Thomas Hagan, one of three men convicted for the assassination of Malcolm X (and the only to plead guilty), was released after his 17th attempt at parole yesterday. Hagan, at the time of the murder, was known as Talmadge X and was a militant member of the Nation of Islam.

According to The New York Times:

Mr. Hagan said in a 1977 affidavit that he and several accomplices . . . decided to kill Malcolm X because he was a "hypocrite" who had "gone against the leader of the Nation of Islam," Elijah Muhammad. Mr. Hagan said that after one man shot Malcolm X in the chest with a shotgun, he and another man fired several more rounds at him.

I was first introduced to the work of Malcolm X through Spike Lee's 1992 Oscar-nominated film of the same title. Like many people I know who saw the film, I immediately read his powerful autobiography as told to Alex Haley. This was just one year after the brutal beating of Rodney King, and the subsequent acquittal of the officers involved, that sparked the Los Angeles riot which bears his name. I was still in high school at the time, but I knew that the struggle Malcolm X was involved in had direct bearing on both King's treatment and the response by black citizens of downtown Los Angeles.

On February 11, 1965 Malcolm X gave a speech at the London School of Economics that, with only minor alterations, could have been transplanted twenty-seven years into the future:

Last summer, when the Blacks were rioting--the riots, actually they weren't riots in the first place; they were reactions against police brutality. And when the Afro-Americans reacted against the brutal measures that were executed against them by the police, the press all over the world projected them as rioters. When the store windows were broken in the Black community, immediately it was made to appear that this was being done not by people who were reacting over civil rights violations, but they gave the impression that these were hoodlums, vagrants, criminals....

But this is wrong. In America the Black community in which we live is not owned by us. The landlord is white. The merchant is white. In fact, the entire economy of the Black community in the States is controlled by someone who doesn't even live there. The property that we live in is owned by someone else. The store that we trade with is operated by someone else. And these are the people who suck the economic blood of our community.

I've struggled with this for many years. On one hand it would appear that Malcolm X was excusing the violence and vandalism in the black community. But it is also the case that the riot occurred in response to racist violence directed against members of their community. Given this, can the violence be understood as a sociological question without condoning that same violence? In an analysis of the racial controversies in the four years leading up to the 1964 riot sociologist Daniel J. Monti concluded that the violence can best be understood as a reaction that grew out of intense frustration:

This pattern of conflicts conforms to the general idea that mass violence by aggrieved groups or classes is more likely to occur when: (1) conventional channels for solving problems fail to resolve differences between groups; (2) nonviolent strategies fail to evoke positive responses from the targets of grievances; and/or (3) they have few strategies to choose among in order to make their case before the public.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (who would be assassinated four years later, setting off another wave of riots) said much the same thing to his congregation at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia:

You must be told, America, that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? Failed to hear that the economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened! Failed to hear that the promises of freedom and equality have not been met! Failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity!

I vividly remember the television images of boarded-up buildings in 1992 with the words "Black Owned" spray-painted on the front: a plea for the rioters not to target their property. That this was largely successful suggests that those in the streets were not simply "hoodlums, vagrants, criminals" as we would normally classify them, but were people whose anger could no longer be contained. The Rodney King riot is complicated in that many of the businesses targeted were not those of whites, but of Koreans. This may have had unique social factors, but the sense of economic segregation was still very much the same. The violence that took place should not be condoned, but perhaps it can be understood.

Malcolm X concluded his speech in 1965 saying this very thing:

The property is the only thing that's there. And they destroy it. And you get the impression over here that because they are destroying the property where they live, that they are destroying their own property. No. They can't get to the man, so they get at what he owns. This doesn't say it's intelligent. But whoever heard of a sociological explosion that was done intelligently and politely?

Malcolm X has been a powerful influence on my life and work. As you might imagine, the news that his murderer has been released brings with it a great many conflicting emotions. Thomas Hagan just turned 69 years old. He's served his time and poses no threat to society. But if he hadn't been murdered, Malcolm X would've been 85 this May. What would he have had to say about events that are taking place now? Katrina, Darfur, Afghanistan, Iraq. I think of what could have been and what has been stolen from us. But I can imagine no better response than to simply remember what he stood for and what he meant to so many.

Ossie Davis reading the eulogy he gave at the funeral of Malcolm X.
From the film Malcolm X directed by Spike Lee.


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Thank you for this fantastic article. The story of Malcolm X fascinates me because of his evolution to becoming a better man. After his Hajj to Mecca, his views on race were even changing. Malcolm X continues to be a strong influence on my life.

Malcolm X is a fascinating person in US History. The comparison with MLK Jr. put forth by the mass media does a disservice to both men & what they were advocating for. Both towards the end of their lives were becoming more and more critical of class divisions in the US. My guess, if both had lived they would have been written off as socialists by the mass media.

By ponderingfool (not verified) on 23 Mar 2010 #permalink

With the appalling March 4, 2010 announcement that Malcolm X assassin Talmadge Hayer/Thomas Hagan is due to be granted parole and released on or around April 28th, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Al Sharpton and, above all, Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam should issue a joint statement calling on President Barack Obama to sign an executive order declassifying all federal files relating to this vicious (and as-yet-unsolved) crime, re-opening a full investigation aimed at identifying the real perpetrators and tasking Attorney General Eric Holder with bringing the full force of the Justice Department to bear against anyone and everyone who had any involvement whatsoever in the 21 February 1965 assassination of Malcolm X.

What you said made me wonder if you've ever read the Kerner Commission Report on the riots of the 1960s. I did at the time, and wrote a paper that won a sociology prize at Fordham. Although I don't think I have the paper anywhere, I still recall the Report as presenting an elaborate and persuasive analysis of the causes of the riots. It may be that the quotes you provide give the essentials and the Report simply fleshes out detail, but given when you say, the detail may interest you. For example, the Report discussed how historically other ethnic groups were able to advance (and integrate?) themselves in ways (e.g., unionization) that were unavailable to Afro-Americans. I believe my conclusion at the time was that if things didn't change for the better for the Black community, that we could expect more riots. That doesn't sound like much as I write it, but it's the Report itself I'm suggesting to your attention. I've admired Malcolm myself for many years, in substantial part because of his sincerity and the way his views evolved. Despite the understandable anger and the rest, he remained open to new experiences, and they changed his views. Thanks for the post.