Harvard Law School Forum (December 16, 1964)

I first want to thank the Harvard Law School Forum for the invitation to speak here this evening, more especially to speak on a very timely topic—“The African Revolution and Its Impact on the American Negro.” I probably won’t use the word “American Negro,” but substitute “Afro-American.” And when I say Afro-American, I mean it in the same context in which you usually use the word Negro. Our people today are increasingly shying away from use of that word. They find that when you’re identified as Negro, it tends to make you “catch a whole lot of hell” that people who don’t use it don’t catch.

In the present debate over the Congo, you are probably aware that a new tone and a new tempo, almost a new temper, are being reflected among African statesmen toward the United States. And I think we should be interested in and concerned with what impact this will have upon Afro-Americans and how it will affect America’s international race relations. We know that it will have an effect at the international level. It’s already having such an effect. But I am primarily concerned with what effect it will have on the internal race relations of this country—that is to say, between the Afro-American and the white American.

When you let yourself be influenced by images created by others, you’ll find that oftentimes the one who creates those images can use them to mislead you and misuse you. A good example: A couple of weeks ago I was on a plane with a couple of Americans, a male and a female sitting to my right. We were in the same row and had a nice conversation for about thirty-five to forty minutes. Finally the lady looked at my briefcase and said, “I would like to ask you a personal question,” and I knew what was coming. She said, “What kind of last name could you have that begins with X?” I said, “Malcolm.” Ten minutes went by, and she turned to me and said, “You’re not Malcolm X?” You see, we had a nice conversation going, just three human beings, but she was soon looking at the image created by the press. She said so: “I just wouldn’t believe that you were that man,” she said. I had a similar experience last week at Oxford. The Oxford Union had arranged a debate. Before the debate I had dinner with four students. A girl student looked kind of crosseyed, goggle-eyed and otherwise, and finally just told me she wanted to ask me a question. (I found out she was a conservative, by the way, whatever that is.) She said, “I just can’t get over your not being as I had expected.” I told her it was a case of the press carefully creating images.

Again I had a similar experience last night. At the United Nations a friend from Africa came in with a white woman who is involved with a philanthropic foundation over there. He and I were engaged in conversation for several minutes, and she was in and out of the conversation. Finally I heard her whisper to someone off to the side. She didn’t think I was listening. She said-she actually said this—”He doesn’t look so wild, you know.” Now this is a full-grown, so-called “mature” woman. It shows the extent to which the press can create images. People looking for one thing actually miss the boat because they’re looking for the wrong thing. They are looking for someone with horns, someone who is a rabble-rouser, an irrational, antisocial extremist. They expect to hear me say that Negroes should kill all the white people—as if you could kill all the white people! In fact, if I had believed what they said about the people in Britain, I never would have gone to Oxford. I would have let it slide. When I got there I didn’t go by what I had read about them. I found out they were quite human and likable. Some weren’t what I had expected.

Now I have taken time to discuss images because one of the sciences used and misused today is this science of image making. The power structure uses it at the local level, at the national level, at the international level. And oftentimes when you and I feel we’ve come to a conclusion on our own, the conclusion is something that someone has invented for us through the images he has created.

I’m a Muslim. Now if something is wrong with being Muslim, we can argue, we can “get with it.” I’m a Muslim, which means that I believe in the religion of Islam. I believe in Allah, the same God that many of you would probably believe in if you knew more about Him. I believe in all of the prophets: Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad. Most of you are Jewish, and you believe in Moses; you might not pick Jesus. If you’re Christians, you believe in Moses and Jesus. Well, I’m Muslim, and I believe in Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. I believe in all of them. So I think I’m “way up on you.”

In Islam we practice prayer, charity, fasting. These should be practiced in all religions. The Muslim religion also requires one to make the pilgrimage to the Holy City of Mecca. I was fortunate enough to make it in April, and I went back again in September. Insofar as being a Muslim is concerned, I have done what one is supposed to do to be a Muslim. Despite being a Muslim, I can’t overlook the fact that I’m an Afro-American in a country which practices racism against black people. There is no religion under the sun that would make me forget the suffering that Negro people have undergone in this country. Negroes have suffered for no reason other than that their skins happen to be black. So whether I’m Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist or agnostic, I would still be in the front lines with Negro people fighting against the racism, segregation, and discrimination practiced in this country at all levels in the North, South, East, and West. I believe in the brotherhood of all men, but I don’t believe in wasting brotherhood on anyone who doesn’t want to, practice it with me. Brotherhood is a two-way street. I don’t think brotherhood should be practiced with a man just because his skin is white. Brotherhood should hinge upon the deeds and attitudes of a man. I couldn’t practice brotherhood, for example, with some of those Eastlands or crackers in the South who are responsible for the condition of our people.

I don’t think anyone would deny either that if you send chickens out of your barnyard in the morning, at nightfall those chickens will come home to roost in your barnyard. Chickens that you send out always come back home. It is a law of nature. I was an old farm boy myself, and I got in trouble saying this once, but it didn’t stop me from being a farm boy. Other people’s chickens don’t come to roost on your doorstep, and yours don’t go to roost on theirs. The chickens that this country is responsible for sending out, whether the country likes it or not (and if you’re mature, you look at it “like it is”), someday, and someday soon, have got to come back home to roost.

Victims of racism are created in the image of racists. When the victims struggle vigorously to protect themselves from violence of others, they are made to appear in the image of criminals; as the criminal image is projected onto the victim. The recent situation in the Congo is one of the best examples of this. The headlines were used to mislead the public, to create wrong images. In the Congo, planes were bombing Congolese villages, yet Americans read that American-trained anti-Castro Cuban pilots were bombing rebel strongholds. These pilots were actually dropping bombs on villages with women and children. But because the tags “American-trained” and “anti-Castro Cubans” were applied, the bombing was legal. Anyone against Castro is all right. The press gave them a “holier than thou” image. And you let them get away with it because of the labels. The victim is made the criminal. It is really mass murder, murder of women, children, and babies. And mass murder is disguised as a humanitarian project. They fool nobody but the people of America. They don’t fool the people of the world, who see beyond the images.

Their man in the Congo is Tshombe, the murderer of the rightful Prime Minister of the Congo. No matter what kind of language you use, he’s purely and simply a murderer. The real Prime Minister of the Congo was Patrice Lumumba. The American government-your and my government-took this murderer and hired him to run the Congo. He became their hired killer. And to show what a hired killer he is, his first act was to go to South Africa and to hire more killers, paying them with American dollars. But he is glorified because he is given the image of the only one who could bring stability to the Congo. Whether he can bring stability or not, he’s still a murderer. The headlines spoke of white hostages, not simply hostages, but white hostages, and of white nuns and priests, not simply nuns and priests, but white nuns and priests. Why? To gain the sympathy of the white public of America. The press had to shake up your mind in order to get your sympathy and support for criminal actions. They tricked you. Americans consider forty white lives more valuable than four thousand black lives. Thousands of Congolese were losing their lives. Mercenaries were paid with American dollars. The American press made the murderers look like saints and the victims like criminals. They made criminals look like victims and indeed the devil look like an angel and angels like the devil.
 A friend of mine from Africa, who is in a good position to know, said he believed the United States government is being advised by her worst enemy in the Congo, because an American citizen could not suggest such insane action—especially identifying with Tshombe, who is the worst African on earth.

You cannot find an African on earth who is more hated than Tshombe. It’s a justifiable hatred they have toward him. He has won no victory himself. His Congolese troops have never won a victory for him. Every victory has been won by white mercenaries, who are hired to kill for him. The African soldiers in the Congo are fighting for the Stanleyville government. Here Tshombe is a curse. He’s an insult to anyone who means to do right, black or white. When Tshombe visited Cairo, he caused trouble. When he visited Rome last week, he caused trouble, and the same happened in Germany. Wherever Tshombe goes, trouble erupts. And if Tshombe comes to America, you’ll see the worst rioting, bloodshed, and violence this country has ever seen. Nobody wants this kind of man in his country.

What effect does all this have on Afro-Americans? What effect will it have on race relations in this country? In the U.N. at this moment, Africans are using more uncompromising language and are heaping hot fire upon America as the racist and neocolonial power par excellence. African statesmen have never used this language before. These statesmen are beginning to connect the criminal, racist acts practiced in the Congo with similar acts in Mississippi and Alabama. The Africans are pointing out that the white American government—not all white people—has shown just as much disregard for lives wrapped in black skin in the Congo as it shows for lives wrapped in black skin in Mississippi and in Alabama. When Africans, therefore, as well as we begin to think of Negro problems as interrelated, what will be the effect of such thinking on programs for improved race relations in this country? Many people will tell you that the black man in this country doesn’t identify with Africa. Before 1959, many Negroes didn’t. But before 1959, the image of Africa was created by an enemy of Africa, because Africans weren’t in a position to create and project their own images. The image was created by the imperial powers of Europe.

Europeans created and popularized the image of Africa as a jungle, a wild place where people were cannibals, naked and savage in a countryside overrun with dangerous animals. Such an image of the Africans was so hateful to Afro-Americans that they refused to identify with Africa. We did not realize that in hating Africa and the Africans we were hating ourselves. You cannot hate the roots of a tree and not hate the tree itself. Negroes certainly cannot at the same time hate Africa and love themselves. We Negroes hated the American features: the African nose, the shape of our lips, the color of our skin, the texture of our hair. We could only end up hating ourselves. Our skin became a trap, a prison; we felt inferior, inadequate, helpless. It was not an image created by Africans or by Afro-Americans, but by an enemy.

Since 1959 the image has changed. The African states have emerged and achieved independence. Black people in this country are crying out for their independence and show a desire to make a fighting stand for it. The attitude of the Afro-American cannot be disconnected from the attitude of the African. The pulse beat, the voice, the very life-drive that is reflected in the African is reflected today here among the Afro-Americans. The only way you can really understand the black man in America and the changes in his heart and mind is to fully understand the heart and mind of the black man on the African continent; because it is the same heart and the same mind, although separated by four hundred years and by the Atlantic Ocean. There are those who wouldn’t like us to have the same heart and the same mind for fear that that heart and mind might get together. Because when our people in this country received a new image of Africa, they automatically united through the new image of themselves. Fear left them completely. There was fear, however, among the racist elements and the State Department. Their fear was of our sympathy for Africa and for its hopes and aspirations and of this sympathy developing into a form of alliance. It is only natural to expect us today to turn and look in the direction of our homeland and of our motherland and to wonder whether we can make any contact with her.

I grew up in Lansing, Michigan, a typical American city. In those days, a black man could have a job shining shoes or waiting tables. The best job was waiting tables at the country club, as is still the case in most cities. In those days, if a fellow worked at the State House shining shoes, he was considered a big shot in the town. Only when Hitler went on the rampage in 1939, and this country suffered a manpower shortage, did the black man get a shot at better jobs. He was permitted a step forward only when Uncle Sam had his back to the wall and needed him. In 1939, ‘40, and ‘41, a black man couldn’t even join the Army or Navy, and when they began drafting, they weren’t drafting black soldiers but only white. I think it was well agreed upon and understood: if you let the black man get in the Army, get hold of a gun, and learn to shoot it, you wouldn’t have to tell him what the target was. It was not until the Negro leaders (and in this sense I use the word Negro purposely) began to cry out and complain—”If white boys are gonna die on the battlefields, our black boys must die on the battlefields tool”—that they started drafting us. If it hadn’t been for that type of leadership, we never would have been drafted. The Negro leaders just wanted to show that we were good enough to die too, although we hadn’t been good enough to join the Army or Navy prior to that time.

During the time that Hitler and Tojo were on the rampage, the black man was needed in the plants, and for the first time in the history of America, we were given an opportunity on a large scale to get skills in areas that were closed previously to us. When we got these skills, we were put in a position to get more money. We made more money. We moved to a better neighborhood. When we moved to a better neighborhood, we were able to go to a better school and to get a better education, and this put us into a position to know what we hadn’t been receiving up to that time. Then we began to cry a little louder than we had ever cried before. But this advancement never was out of Uncle Sam’s goodwill. We never made one step forward until world pressure put Uncle Sam on the spot. And it was when he was on the spot that he allowed us to take a couple of steps forward. It has never been out of any internal sense of morality or legality or humanism that we were allowed to advance. You have been as cold as an icicle whenever it came to the rights of the black man in this country. Excuse me for raising my voice, but I think it’s time. As long as my voice is the only thing I raise, I don’t think you should become upset!

Because we began to cry a little louder, a new strategy was used to handle us. The strategy evolved with the Supreme Court desegregation decision, which was written in such tricky language that every crook in the country could sidestep it. The Supreme Court desegregation decision was handed down over ten years ago. It has been implemented less than ten percent in those ten years. It was a token advancement, even as we’ve been the recipients of “tokenism” in education, housing, employment, everything. But nowhere in the country during the past ten years has the black man been treated as a human being in the same context as other human beings. He’s always being patronized in a very paternalistic way, but never has he been given an opportunity to function as a human being. Actually, in one sense, it’s our own fault, but I’ll get to that later on. We have never gotten the real thing.

Heck, I’ll get to it right now. The reason we never received the real thing is that we have not displayed any tendency to do the same for ourselves which other human beings do: to protect our humanity and project our humanity. I’ll clarify what I mean. Not a single white person in America would sit idly by and let someone do to him what we black men have been letting others do to us. The white person would not remain passive, peaceful, and nonviolent. The day the black man in this country shows others that we are just as human as they in reaction to injustice, that we are willing to die just as quickly to protect our lives and property as whites have shown, only then will our people be recognized as human beings. It is inhuman, absolutely subhuman, for a man to let a dog bite him and not fight back. Let someone club him and let him not fight back, or let someone put water hoses on his women, his mother and daughter and babies and let him not fight back then he’s subhuman. The day he becomes a human being he will react as other human beings have reacted, and nobody will hold it against him.

In 1959, we saw the emergence of the Negro revolt and the collapse of European colonialism on the African continent. Our struggle, our initiative, and our militancy were in tune with the struggle and initiative and militancy of our brothers in Africa. When the colonial powers saw they couldn’t remain in Africa, they behaved as somebody playing basketball. He gets the basketball and must pass it to a teammate in the clear. The colonial powers were boxed in on the African continent. They didn’t intend to give up the ball. They just passed it to the one that was in the clear, and the one that was in the clear was the United States. The ball was passed to her, and she picked it up and has been running like mad ever since. Her presence on the African continent has replaced the imperialism and the colonialism of Europeans. But it’s still imperialism and colonialism. Americans fooled many of the Africans into thinking that they weren’t an imperialist power or colonial power until their intentions  were revealed, until they hired Tshombe and put him back to kill in the Congo. Nothing America could have done would have ever awakened the Africans to her true intentions as did her dealings with this murderer named Tshombe.

America knew that Africa was waking up in ‘59. Africa was developing a higher degree of intelligence than she reflected in the past. America, for her part, knew she had to use a more intelligent approach. She used the friendly approach: the Peace Corps, Crossroads. Such philanthropic acts disguised American imperialism and colonialism with dollar-ism. America was not honest with what she was doing. I don’t mean that those in the Peace Corps weren’t honest. But the Corps was being used more for political purposes than for moral purposes. I met many white Peace Corps workers while on the African continent. Many of them were properly motivated and were making a great contribution. But the Peace Corps will never work over there until the idea has been applied over here.

Of course the Civil Rights Bill was designed supposedly to solve our problem. As soon as it was passed, however, three civil rights workers were murdered. Nothing has been done about it, and I think nothing will be done about it until the people themselves do something about it. I, for one, think the best way to stop the Ku Klux Klan is to talk to the Ku Klux Klan in the only language it understands, for you can’t talk French to someone who speaks German and communicate. Find out what language a person speaks, speak their language, and you’ll get your point across. Racists know only one language, and it is doing the black man in this country an injustice to expect him to talk the language of peace to people who don’t know peaceful language. In order to get any kind of point across our people must speak whatever language the racist speaks.

The government can’t protect us. The government has not protected us. It is time for us to do whatever is necessary by any means necessary to protect ourselves. If the government doesn’t want us running around here wild like that, then I say let the government get up off its whatever it’s on, and take care of it itself. After the passage of the Civil Rights Bill, they killed the Negro educator Pitt in Georgia. The killers were brought to court and then set free. This is the pattern in this country, and I think that white people (I use the word white people because it’s cut short; it gets right to the point) are doing us an injustice. If you expect us to be nonviolent, you yourselves aren’t. If someone came knocking on your door with a rifle, you’d walk out of the door with your rifle. Now the black man in this country is getting ready to do the same thing.

I say in conclusion that the Negro problem has ceased to be a Negro problem. It has ceased to be an American problem and has now become a world problem, a problem for all humanity. Negroes waste their time confining their struggle to civil rights: In that context the problem remains only within the jurisdiction of the United States. No allies can help Negroes without violating United States protocol.

But today the black man in America has seen his mistake and is correcting it by lifting his struggle from the level of civil rights to the level of human rights. No longer does the United States government sit in an ivory tower where it can point at South Africa, point at the Portuguese, British, French, and other European colonial powers. No longer can the United States hold twenty million black people in second-class citizenship and think that the world will keep a silent mouth. No matter what the independent African states are doing in the United Nations, it is only a flicker, a glimpse, a ripple of what this country is in for in the future, unless a halt is brought to the illegal injustices which our people continue to suffer every day.

The Organization of Afro-American Unity, to which I belong, is a peaceful organization based on brotherhood. Oh yes, it is peaceful. But I believe you can’t have peace until you’re ready to protect it. As you will die protecting yours, I will die protecting mine. The OAAU is trying to get our problem before the United Nations. This is one of its immediate projects on the domestic front. We will work with all existing civil rights organizations. Since there has been talk of minimizing demonstrations and of becoming involved in political action, we want to see if civil rights organizations mean it.

The OAAU will become involved in every move to secure maximum opportunity for black people to register peacefully as voters. We believe that along with voter registration, Afro-Americans need voter education. Our people should receive education in the science of politics so that the crooked politician cannot exploit us. We must put ourselves in a position to become active politically. We believe that the OAAU should provide defense units in every area of this country where workers are registering or are seeking voting rights, in every area where young students go out on the battlefront, which it actually is. Such self-defense units should have brothers who will not go out and initiate aggression, but brothers who are qualified, equipped to retaliate when anyone imposes brutally on us, whether it be in Mississippi, Massachusetts, California, or New York City. The OAAU doesn’t believe it should permit civil rights workers to be murdered.

When a government can’t protect civil rights workers, we believe we should do it. Even in the Christian Bible it says that he who kills with the sword shall be killed by the sword, and I’m not against it. I’m for peace, yet I believe that any man facing death should be able to go to any length to assure that whoever is trying to kill him doesn’t have a chance. The OAAU supports the plan of every civil rights group for political action, as long as it doesn’t involve compromise. We don’t believe Afro-Americans should be victims any longer. We believe we should let the world know, the Ku Klux Klan know, that bloodshed is a twoway street, that dying is a two-way street, that killing is a two-way street. Now I say all this in as peaceful a language as I know.

There was another man back in history whom I read about once, an old friend of mine whose name was Hamlet, who confronted, in a sense, the same thing our people are confronting here in America. Hamlet was debating whether “To be or not to be”—that was the question. He was trying to decide whether it was “nobler in the mind to suffer, peacefully, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” or whether it was nobler “to take up arms” and oppose them. I think his little soliloquy answers itself. As long as you sit around suffering the slings and arrows and are afraid to use some slings and arrows yourself, you’ll continue to suffer. The OAAU has come to the conclusion that it is time to take up whatever means necessary to bring these sufferings to a halt.

* * *

Alan Dershowitz: The floor will be open for questions.

Question: Mr. X, do you feel that the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Dr. Martin Luther King has in any way helped the Negro cause in the United States?

Malcolm X: Black people in this country have no peace and have not made the strides forward that would in any way justify receiving a reward by any of us. The war is not won nor has any battle been won. But I have no comment to make about my good friend, Dr. King.

Question: Sir, I would like to know the difference between a white racist and a black racist, besides the fact that they are white and black.

Malcolm X: Usually the black racist has been produced by the white racist. And in most cases, black racism is in reaction to white racism. If you analyze it very closely, you will find that it is not black racism. Black people have shown fewer tendencies toward racism than any people since the beginning of history. I cannot agree with my brother here who says that Negroes are immoral; that’s what I get out of what he said. It is the whites who have committed violence against us.

Question: I am one of the whites who agrees with you one hundred percent. You pointed out that the majority of Negro people voted for Johnson, and then he invaded the Congo, something which Goldwater did not even advocate. What do you propose that black people should do in future elections?

Malcolm X: First our people should become registered voters. But they should not become actively involved in politics until we have also gotten a much better understanding of the game of politics in this country. We go into politics in a sort of gullible way, where politics in this country is cold-blooded and heartless. We need a better understanding of the science of politics as well as becoming registered voters. And then we should not take sides either way. We should reserve political action for the situation at hand, in no way identifying with either political party (the Democrats or the Republicans) or selling ourselves to either party. We should take political action for the good of human beings; that will eliminate the injustices. I for one do not think that the man presently in the White House is morally capable of taking the kind of action necessary to eliminate these things.

Question: Mr. X, your idea of an Afro-American is a very hard lump to swallow. James Baldwin, in describing a conference of African writers and politicians which took place in Paris in 1956, reported that the conference had difficulty in defining an African personality common to all countries in Africa and to the American Negroes. The members of the conference, including James Baldwin, began to realize that there was a big rift between American Negroes and the people from Africa. The American Negro has a totally different set of values and ideas from that of the African. Therefore, if you still talk about the Afro-American in which the only connection is the color of the skin, this is a racist concept. Why emphasize Afro-American, which is a racist concept and a reactionary concept, instead of something more positive?

Malcolm X: I do not think that anything is more positive than accepting what you are. The Negro in America tries to be more American than anyone else. The attempt has created a person who is actually negative in almost everything he reflects. We are just as much African today as we were in Africa four hundred years ago, only we are a modern counterpart of it. When you hear a black man playing music, whether it is jazz or Bach, you still hear African music. The soul of Africa is still reflected in the music played by black men. In everything else we do we still are African in color, feeling, everything. And we will always be that whether we like it or not.