Claude Lewis Interviews Malcolm X (December, 1964)

Claude Lewis: I notice you’re growing a beard. What does that mean? Is it a symbol of anything?

Malcolm X: It has no particular meaning, other than it probably reflects a change that I’ve undergone and am still undergoing.

Lewis: Then will you shave it off one day?

Malcolm X: Certainly. I might leave it on forever, or I might shave it off in the morning. I’m not dogmatic about anything. I don’t intend to get into any more straitjackets.

Lewis: What do you mean, any more straitjackets?

Malcolm X: I don’t intend to let anybody make my mind become so set on anything that I can’t change it according to the circumstances and conditions that I happen to find myself in.

Lewis: I see. You’ve been traveling a good deal recently. Can you tell me a little bit about the experiences relative to your movement? Where you’ve been and...

Malcolm X: Well I was in Cairo, in Mecca, Arabia; in Kuwait, in Beirut, Lebanon; Khartoum, Sudan; Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, Nairobi in Kenya, Zanzibar, Dar es Salaam in what is now Tanzania and Lagos, Nigeria; Accra in Ghana, Monrovia in Liberia and Conakry in Guinea, and Algiers in Algeria. And during my tour of those various cities, or countries, I spent an hour and a half with President Nasser in Egypt; I spent three hours with President Nyerere president of Tanganuika or Tanzania; I spent several days with Jomo Kenyatta and in fact I flew with Jomo Kenyatta and Prime Minister Milton Obote of Uganda from Tanganyika, from Dar es Salaam to Kenya. I saw Azikwe and I had an audience with Azikwe; also with President Nkrumah and I lived three days in Sekou Toure’s house in Conakry. And I cite this to show that everywhere I went I found people at all levels of government and out of government with open minds, open hearts, and open doors.

Lewis: I see. How long was the trip?

Malcolm X: I was away almost five months.

Lewis: And do you think you’ve learned very much?


Malcolm X: Oh yes, I’ve learned a great deal because in each country that I visited, I spoke with people at all levels. I had an open mind. I spoke with heads of state, I spoke with their ministers, I spoke with cabinet members, I spoke with kings; I was the guest of State again when I re-visited Saudi Arabia, I spoke with members of King Faisal’s family—I don’t know how many foreign ministers I spoke with in the Middle East and in Africa and all of them discussed our problems quite freely.

Lewis: The Negro problem in America?

Malcolm X
: Oh yes, yes!


Lewis: Did they seem to know much about it?

Malcolm X: Oh yes. Not only did they seem to know much about it, but they were very sympathetic with it. In fact, it’s not an accident that in the United Nations during the debate on the Congo problem in the Security Council, that almost every one of the African foreign ministers tied in what was happening in the Congo with what’s happening in Mississippi.

Lewis: Do you think this changes the minds of any of the Mississippians here in this country?

Malcolm X: Well, the Mississippian—it’s not a case of changing the mind of the Mississippian as much as it’s a case of changing the mind of the Americans. The problem is not a Mississippi problem, it’s an American problem.

Lewis: Do you think that it’s getting any better, the situation here?

Malcolm X: No! It’ll never get any better until our people in this country learn how to speak the same language that the racists speak. If a man speaks French, you can’t talk to him in German. In order to communicate, you have to use the same language he’s familiar with. And the language of the racist in the South is the language of violence. It’s the language of brutality, and power and retaliation.

Lewis: You think this is what the Negro should subscribe to?

Malcolm X: The Negro should—if he’s going to communicate—subscribe to whatever language the people use that you're trying to communicate with. And when you’re dealing with racists, they only know one language. And if you’re not capable of adopting that language or speaking that language, you don’t need to try and communicate with those racists.

Lewis: Dr. Martin Luther King, the other night, was honored in Harlem after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. And he said, if I can quote him, “If blood must flow on the streets, brothers, let it be ours.”

Malcolm X: I was sitting in the audience. I heard him say that.

Lewis: What do you think of that statement?

Malcolm X: I think that if there’s going to be a flowing of blood, that it should be reciprocal. The flow of blood should be two ways. Black people shouldn’t be willing to bleed, unless white people are willing to bleed. And black people shouldn’t be willing to be nonviolent, unless white people are going to be nonviolent.

Lewis: Well, do you think the majority of Americans are nonviolent?

Malcolm X: No. If the majority of Americans were nonviolent, America couldn’t continue to exist as a country. Is America nonviolent in the Congo, or is she nonviolent in South Vietnam? You can’t point to a place where America’s nonviolent. The only people that they want to be nonviolent are American Negroes. We’re supposed to be nonviolent. When the world becomes nonviolent, I’ll become nonviolent. When the white man becomes nonviolent, I’ll become nonviolent.

Lewis: I’ve heard talk recently about Negroes getting money together and hiring a mafia to take care of some of the murderers.

Malcolm X: You don’t need to hire a mafia but units should be trained among our people who know how to speak the language of the Klan and the Citizens Council. And at any time any Ku Klux Klan inflicts any kind of brutality against any Negro, we should be in a position to strike back. We should not go out and initiate violence against white indiscriminately, but we should absolutely be in a position to retaliate against the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council. Especially, since the government seems to be incapable or unwilling to curtail the activities of the Klan.

Lewis: Can you tell me a little bit about your new program, if you have a new program?

Malcolm X: We’re not unveiling our new program until January. But I will say this, that the Organization of Afro-American Unity, which I’m the chairman of, intends to work with any group that’s trying to bring about maximum registration of Negroes in this country. We will not encourage Negroes to become registered Democrats or Republicans. We feel that the Negro should be an independent, so that he can throw his weight either way. He should be nonaligned. His political philosophy should be the same as that of the African, absolute neutrality or nonalignment. When the African makes a move, his move is designed to benefit Africa. And when the Negro makes a move, our move should be designed to benefit us; not the Democratic party or the Republican party or some of these machines. So, our program is to make our people become involved in the mainstream of the political structure of this country but not politically naive. We think that we should be educated in the science of politics so that we understand the very workings of it, what it should produce, and who is responsible when that which we are looking for doesn’t materialize.

Lewis: Do you tell people what they want to hear, essentially?

Malcolm X: I tell them what I’ve got on my mind to tell them, whether they like it or not. And I think that most people would have to agree. I don’t think anybody could ever accuse me of telling people just what they want to hear. Because most of them don’t want to hear what I’m saying, especially white people.

Lewis: Do you think the Negro can succeed in America through the vote?

Malcolm X: Well, independence comes only by two ways; by ballots or by bullets. Historically you’ll find that everyone who gets freedom, they get it through ballots or bullets. Now naturally everyone prefers ballots, and even I prefer ballots but I don’t discount bullets. I’m not interested in either ballots or bullets, I’m interested in freedom. I’m not interested in the means, I’m interested in the objective. So I believe that black people should get free by ballot or bullets. If we can’t use ballots to get free, we should use bullets. Yes, yes, I believe that black people should be just as quick to use bullets as ballots. The white man has not given us anything. It’s not something that is his to give. He is not doing us a favor when he permits us a few liberties. So I don’t think we should approach it like that; I don’t think we should approach our battle like we’re battling a friend. We’re battling an enemy. Anybody who stands in the way of the black man being free is an enemy of the black man, and should be dealt with as an enemy.

Lewis: Would you say there are some blacks in that group?

Malcolm X: Oh, yes. A lot of black people in that group. But they are not independent, they’re puppets. You don’t worry about the puppet, you worry about the puppeteer.

Lewis: You’ve been threatened; do you take those threats lightly?

Malcolm X: I don’t take anything lightly. I don’t take life lightly. But I never worry about dying. I don’t see how a Negro can start worrying about dying at this late date. But I think that Negro organizations that talk about killing other Negroes should first go and talk to somebody about practicing some of their killing skill on the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council.

Lewis: What do you think of Dr. King?

Malcolm X: He’s a man. He’s a human being that is trying to keep Negroes from exploding, so white folk won’t have too much to worry about.

Lewis: Would you say that he’s getting in the way of Negro progress?

Malcolm X: Of Negro what?


Lewis: Progress?


Malcolm X: Well the Negro will never progress nonviolently.


Lewis: What were your thoughts when King was receiving the award last week?

Malcolm X: Well, to me it represented the fact that the struggle of the Negro in this country was being endorsed at the international level and that it was looked upon as a problem that affects the peace of the world. And it was looked upon as a human problem or a problem for humanity, rather than just a Mississippi problem or an American problem.
 To me, King getting that Nobel Peace Prize—it wasn’t King getting it—it represented the awareness on the part of the world that the race problem in America could upset the peace of the world. And this is true. If King can get—see I don’t think that King got the prize because he had solved our people’s problem, cause we still got the problem. He got the Peace Prize, and we got the problem. And so I don’t think he should have gotten the medal for that. On the other hand, if Negroes can get it nonviolently, good.

Lewis: Are you in favor of that?

Malcolm X: I’m not in favor of anything that doesn’t get the solution. But if Negroes can get freedom nonviolently, good. But that’s a dream. Even King calls it a dream. But I don’t go for no dream. And the only way that you can think Negroes can get it nonviolently, is dream. But when you get out here and start facing the reality of it, Negroes are the victims of violence every day. So I’d rather get violent, right along with the white man.

Lewis: Have you ever received an award of any kind for your work?

Malcolm X: No...Yes, I’ve received an award. Whenever I walk the street and I see people ready to get with it. That’s my reward. Whenever people come out, they know in advance what I’m going to talk about. And if they show any sign of interest in it or agreement with it, that’s my reward. And when they show that they’re fed up with this slow pace, you know, that’s my reward.

Lewis: When King received his medal, did you sort of wish that it was yours?

Malcolm X: I don’t want the white man giving me medals, If I’m following a general, and he’s leading me into battle, and the enemy begins to give him awards, I get suspicious of him. Especially if he gets the peace award before the war is over.

Lewis: You don’t propose that Negroes leave the U.S.?

Malcolm X: I propose that we have the right to do whatever is necessary to bring about an answer to our problem. And whatever is necessary, if it’s necessary to leave to get a solution then we should leave. If we can get a solution staying here, then we should stay. The main thing we want is a solution.

Lewis: Well, do you think things have changed very much since you grew up?

Malcolm X: They’ve changed in this sense. If you’re a butler for a poor white man, you’re a butler and you live but so well and you eat but so well. But if your master becomes rich, you begin to eat better and you begin to live better, but you’re still a butler. And the only change that has been made in this society—we occupied a menial position twenty years ago. Our position hasn’t changed. Our condition has changed somewhat, but our position hasn’t changed. And the change that has been brought about, has been only to the extent that this country has changed. The white man got richer, we’re living a little better. He got more power, we got a little more power, but we’re still at the same level in his system. You understand what I’m saying?

Lewis: Oh yes. Oh yes.

Malcolm X: Our position has never changed. If you sit at the back of the plane and it’s going a hundred miles an hour, and you’re on the back of the plane, well it can start going a thousand miles an hour; you’re going faster, but you’re still at the back of the plane. And that’s the same way with the Negro in this society, we started out at the rear and we’re still in the rear. Society is going faster, but we’re still in the rear. And we think we’ve made progress because they’ve made progress.

Lewis: Why do you stay in America? Wouldn’t it be easier for you to...

Malcolm X: I was offered some good positions in several countries that I went to. Good positions, that would solve my problems personally. But I feel pretty much responsible for much of the action and energy that has been stirred up among our people for rights and for freedom. And I think I’d be wrong to stir it up and then run away from it myself.

Lewis: Do you expect further riots next year?

Malcolm X: Yes. I expect that the miracle of 1964 was the degree of restraint that Negroes displayed in Harlem. The miracle of 1964 was the ability of the Negroes to restrain themselves and contain themselves. Because there is no place where Negroes are more equipped and capable of retaliation than right here in Harlem.

Lewis: Can you give me a capsule opinion of some of the following people? Adam Clayton Powell.

Malcolm X: Powell is actually the most independent black politician in America. He’s in a better position to do more for black people than any other politician...

Lewis: Is he doing it?

Malcolm X: ...and the reason that he’s in that position is because he’s in an area where people support him. They support him, whereas many other Negro politicians don’t get that type of support. People in Harlem are just independent-minded. They just vote for a black man, whether the machine likes it or not. So Powell is in a tremendous position. And with his position also goes responsibility. I think that he should see his responsibilities with the same clarity that he sees his powerful position.

Lewis: What about Roy Wilkins?

Malcolm X: Well, I heard Roy at the rally the other night that he was three-fourths or one-fourth Scandinavian. And he seemed to be lost in that Scandinavian dream somewhat, that night.

Lewis: Martin Luther King, well—we’ve talked about him.

Malcolm X: Well, every time I hear Martin he’s got a dream, And I think the Negro leaders have to come out of the clouds, and wake up, and stop dreaming and start facing reality.

Lewis: Do you ever think of Whitney Young?

Malcolm X: Whitney seems to be more down to earth, but he doesn’t spend enough time around Negroes. He seems to be down to earth; he’s a young man for one thing. But not enough Negroes know him. When I say he needs to be around Negroes, not enough Negroes know Whitney Young. Whitney Young could walk around Harlem all day long and probably no more than five people would know who he was. And he’s supposed to be one of our leaders. So he should make himself more known to those who are following him.

Lewis: Where are you headed from here? Where do you think your future lies?

Malcolm X: I think one of the most sincere of those Big Six is James Farmer. You missed asking me about him. I think James Farmer seems to...he seems sincere. And I get the impression when I watch Farmer that he could be another Mandela. Mandela, you know, was a man who advocated nonviolence in South Africa, until he saw that it wasn’t getting anywhere and then Mandela stepped up and had to resort to tactical violence. Which showed that Mandela was for the freedom of his people. He was more interested in the end than he was the means. Whereas many of the Negro leaders are more straight-jacketed by the means rather than by the end.

Lewis: Where are you headed? What do you suppose your future is from here?

Malcolm X: I have no idea.


Lewis: You have no idea?


Malcolm X: I have no idea. I’m for freedom. I can capsulize how I feel. I’m for the freedom of the twenty-two million Afro-Americans by any means necessary. By any means necessary. I’m for freedom. I’m for a society in which our people are recognized and respected as human beings and I believe that we have the right to resort to any means necessary to bring that about. So when you ask me where I’m headed, how can I say? I’m headed in any direction that will bring us some immediate results. Nothing wrong with that!

Lewis: I think it’s going to take a tremendous public relations job to change your image. And you may not be interested in changing your image, but everybody else is. I agree with a lot that you say, but I don’t see how people can sign up with you.

Malcolm X: They don’t need to sign up. The most effective part of the trees are the roots. And they’re signed up with the tree but you don’t ever see them. They’re always beneath the ground. And the reason that you never see me worry about my image is because that image puts me in a better position than anybody else. Because I’m able to walk through the street or anywhere else and really find out where people are at. In a silent sort of way, I know where they are, in a silent sort of way. I think that the sympathies are deeply rooted, many of them. Plus also it puts me in a position wherever I go, people know where I stand in advance. And doors that would normally be closed for American Negroes, I don’t find them closed for me anywhere. It doesn’t make any difference. Anywhere.

Lewis: So you’re saying because of your outspokenness, your honesty...

Malcolm X: People know where I stand. They know where I stand. And you see I’m not standing in an unjust position. This is the thing. Whatever I say I’m justified. If I say the Negroes should get out of here right tomorrow and go to war, I’m justified. Really! It may sound extreme, but you can’t say it’s not justified. If I say right now that we should go down and shoot fifteen Ku Klux Klansmen in the morning, you may say well that’s insane, but you can’t say that I’m not justified. This is what I mean. I think that the stand that I’m taking is justified. Many others might not take it.

Lewis: What I’m trying to do is find out if there is a new Malcolm X?

Malcolm X: Well, there is a new one in the sense that, perhaps in approach. My travels have broadened my scope, but it hasn’t changed me from speaking my mind. I can get along with white people who can get along with me. But you don’t see me trying to get along with any white man who doesn’t want to get along with me. I don’t believe in that. Now you got to get another religion.

Lewis: When you get old and retire...

Malcolm X: I’ll never get old.

Lewis: What does that mean?


Malcolm X: Well, I’ll tell you what it means. You’ll find very few people who feel like I feel that live long enough to get old. I’ll tell you what I mean and why I say that. When I say by any means necessary, I mean it with all my heart, and my mind and my soul. But a black man should give his life to be free, but he should also be willing to take the life of those who want to take his. It’s reciprocal. And when you really think like that, you don’t live long. And if freedom doesn’t come to your lifetime, it’ll come to your children. Another thing about being an old man, that never has come across my mind. I can’t even see myself old.

Lewis: Well, how would you like to be remembered by your black brothers and sisters around the world—twenty years from now?

Malcolm X: Sincere. In whatever I did or do, even if I make mistakes, they were made in sincerity. If I’m wrong, I’m wrong in sincerity. I think that the best a person can be—he can be wrong, but if he’s sincere you can put up with him. But you can’t put up with a person who’s right, if he’s insincere. I’d rather deal with a person’s sincerity, and respect a person for their sincerity than anything else. Especially when you’re living in a world that’s so hypocritical. This is an era of hypocrisy. The times that we live in can rightfully be labeled, the Era of Hypocrisy. When the white folks pretend that they want Negroes to be free, and Negroes pretend to white folks that they really believe that white folks want them to be free. All Era of Hypocrisy, brother. You fool me and I fool you. This is the game that the white man and the Negro play with each other. You pretend that you’re my brother and I pretend that I really believe you’re my brother.

Lewis: Do you think there are going to be more killings and more bombings in Mississippi and Alabama?

Malcolm X: In the North as well as the South. There might be even more in the North because I’ll tell you one of the dangers of Martin Luther King. King himself is probably a good man, means well and all that. But the danger is that white people use King. They use King to satisfy their own fears. They blow him up. They give him power beyond his actual influence. Because they want to believe within themselves that Negroes are nonviolent and patient, and long suffering and forgiving. White people want to believe that so bad, ‘cause they’re so guilty. But the danger is, when they blow up King and fool themselves into thinking that Negroes are really nonviolent, and patient, and long suffering, they’ve got a powder keg in their house. And instead of them trying to do something to defuse the powder keg, they’re putting a blanket over it, trying to make believe that this is no powder keg; that this is a couch that we can lay on and enjoy. So that’s it. Whatever I do, whatever I did, whatever I’ve said, was all done in sincerity. That’s the way I want to be remembered because that’s the way it is.