"People All over the World Are Supporting You": Malcolm X, Ideological Formations, and Black Student Activism, 1960-1972

Article excerpt

George Breitman, editor of Malcolm X Speaks, lecturing at a memorial meeting sponsored by the Militant Labor Forum in New York on 11 February 1966, almost a year after Malcolm X was assassinated, discussed that segment of U.S. society in which Malcolm's ideas were "taking root." They were budding "especially among the young people," Breitman declared, "those in their twenties and late teens, and younger even than that." (1) An unidentified faculty member at Tougaloo College, the private black college in Mississippi, informed College Press Service reporter Walter Grant in 1968 that "Malcolm X is more popular than Jesus Christ here. The students actually worship him." (2) Malcolm's young widow Betty Shabazz was quoted in Ebony magazine in 1969 saying that Malcolm's ideology had blossomed into the advancing Black Power Movement, striking "a responsive chord among black people in general, but particularly black youths." (3) In 1971 Chicago Tribune columnist Vernon Jarrett announced that Malcolm still held the mantel as "probably ... the most quoted of all modern black spokesman ... among black leaders of high school and college age." (4)

In the late 1950s and early 1960s as the national spokesman for the Nation of Islam (NOI), Malcolm X became a nationally recognized figure through his organizing activities for the NOI, and his constant and forceful ridiculing of the southern, integrationist, and nonviolent Civil Rights Movement. His rise to prominence was greatly aided by his public lambasting of whites as "devils," and the CBS television documentary, "The Hate That Hate Produced," broadcast nationally in 1959. Malcolm impressed students with his fiery speeches, quick wit, striking analogies, glorification of black people and Africa in general, and down-to-earth yet scholarly presentations. But most students were not attracted to his religious ideology since it was wrapped in the Nation of Islam's theology, which deified Elijah Muhammad, who shunned political activism, preached a strict moral code, denigrated women, denounced all whites as inherently evil, and advocated complete "separation of the races." However, over the years Malcolm's rhetoric became more secularized and matured politically, with those elements that intoxicated black and white students coming to the fore. By 1964 Malcolm had not only left the Nation of Islam after a prolonged suspension and life-changing religious experience in the holy city of Mecca, but had dropped the NOI theology, had become an orthodox Muslim, and had founded the Muslim Mosque Inc. and the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU). With these new organizations, Malcolm began developing and sharing his ideas about black national and international unity, self-determination, self defense, and cultural pride. The boldness of his rhetoric was still attractive and his logic continued to persuade. His love of black people and social justice remained and his authenticity and honesty were even more apparent. This expansive ideological perspective struck a responsive chord among African peoples and African American students throughout the United States. (5)

Over the last forty years, the scholarly literature on Malcolm X has offered similar assessments of his powerful impact on black youth in the Black Power era in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In one of the early studies on black student activism, Anthony Orum classified Malcolm as one of the originators of the movement. Frederick Harper, Jeffrey Ogbar, and Alphonse Pinckney alluded to Malcolm's widespread appeal among African Americans, especially the youth. Clayborne Carson discussed Malcolm's influence on the radicalized Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the late 1960s, while Peniel Joseph, Donald Cunnigen, Donald Alexander Downs, and Richard P. McCormick pointed to Malcolm's impact on black campus activists at Cornell, Rutgers, and other colleges and universities. Wayne Glasker described the student activists at the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1960s as the "ideological children of Malcolm X. …