“When a long train of abuses and usurpations” continues to oppress the People, “it is their right, it is their duty to throw off” such oppressive forces. -Inspired by The U.S. Declaration of Independence
Despite significant gains in U.S. Civil Rights laws, racial equality at the mass level is far from realized. As such, America is in dire need of revolutionary change. In our globalized and pluralistic context, the revolution will be diverse. But it is no question that the Black experience in the United States provides the most examples of oppressed people struggling against systems of oppression here in our context. Thus, two revolutionaries from who we can learn are Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. In this post, I will argue that both King and X signify several, though not all, of the revolutionary changes needed in theology, the church, America, and the world today. As such, I believe we must adopt the grassroots economic tenets of Black Nationalism expanded to include low-income and working class people of color, as well as whites who are truly committed to these same values. Additionally, the spirit behind Malcolm’s cultural revolution, King’s Beloved Community, and nonviolent direct action with the right to self-defense are all aspects of the neo-separatism that I am working towards here. As both men were qualitatively ministers before they were activists, their political philosophies were rooted in their theological beliefs. After elucidating their political philosophies, I will interpret the meaning of Martin and Malcolm for the revolution today, along with my argument for neo-separatism.
INTEGRATIONISM VS NATIONALISM
In addition to de jure sociopolitical and economic oppression, Black people have faced existential oppression in a society that has dehumanized their cultural and individual identities. “The Negro,” wrote W.E.B. Du Bois, “is born with a…peculiar sensation,” a “double-consciousness,” resulting in “two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” Out of this Black existential dilemma—“Am I an American or am I a Negro?” writes Cone—two major schools of Black political thought emerged—Integrationism and Nationalism.
The ideal type of Integrationism was characterized by optimism based upon America’s purported democratic ideals and alleged Judeo-Christian roots. It answered the Black existential dilemma by affirming that one can be both Black and American, fully integrated into America’s core sociopolitical and economic institutions. Conversely, the ideal type of Nationalism was more skeptical, or arguably more realistic, about American democracy. For nationalists, Black folks would never be recognized as full citizens, and thus, should “separate from America.” It would be exceedingly reductionistic to label Martin a strict integrationist and Malcolm a staunch nationalist. While each man ascribed more to one school or the other, both embodied these political philosophies to varying degrees, at different times in their lives.
THEOLOGY AND POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY: KING
Liberal Protestantism, along with his college, seminary, and doctoral studies helped King become an eloquent public intellectual, philosopher, and social critic; yet, it was “the prophetic black church tradition”—the primary source of King’s faith and theology—that transformed him into a spiritual leader, Black preacher, and martyr for the People. Dr. Cone taught that three major “faith affirmations of the Black Christian tradition as a whole, from slavery to the present” are “justice, love, and hope.” Justice is affirmed by the belief that “the biblical God is the one who establishes justice on behalf of the weak and helpless in the land.” Love is rooted in the belief that “we are all sisters and brothers because ‘God made of one blood all nations of people to dwell on the face of the earth.” While hope has sometimes been misconstrued as “religious escapism,” at its best, it has been a wellspring for the belief that “God is able…to make a way out of no way.” Additionally, the resurrection of Christ imbued Black Christians with divine hope, because it signified “a victory that had occurred,” writes Dr. Cornel West, “but was not yet consummated, with evil conquered, but not yet abolished.”12 It was this Black faith and spirituality that empowered King, and others, during the most difficult times of the Movement.13
It is true that “the Gandhian method of…nonviolent resistance provided King” with a model for social change.14 However, the source of King’s “absolute commitment to nonviolence,” writes Cone, was that Jesus was “willing to suffer for the cause of freedom;” thus, Christians must be willing to suffer for freedom as well.15 Furthermore, since King believed in a God of love and justice, then physical violence as a means for social transformation was irreconcilable with participation in God’s beloved community.
For King, love expressed through nonviolence meant two things. As a method of direct action, love had a “way of disarming the opponent,” “[exposing] his moral defenses,” and “[working] on his conscience.” As a way of life, the love-ethic resisted “many of the inner conflicts [that] are rooted in hate,” because “hate is injurious to the hater as well as the hated.” Malcolm criticized King for “disarming [the] Negro of his God-given right, of his moral right… to defend himself.”16 Yet, we must recognize that King’s conception of love was not “emotional bosh”—it was not a passive, “weak force;” rather, it was “something strong that organizes itself into powerful direct action.”17 In sum, King’s nonviolence and Integrationism were informed by his theological affirmation of hope in God’s universal love which required justice and reconciliation made manifest in the Beloved Community on this earth as well as in life eternal.
King also affirmed integration because he was optimistic about American democracy.18 Indeed, nonviolence and Integrationism, motivated by King’s theology of the Beloved Community, were essential in gaining many legislative victories such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the abolition of official Jim Crow laws. Since racism in the South was mostly blatant and laws were explicitly racist, eliminating de jure racism had a substantial impact in the South, especially among the Black middle-class. However, King’s optimism in America would wane after witnessing the “depths of despair” in the ghetto and the duplicitous racism of northern “liberal” whites.19 “The nonviolent movement of the South,” lamented King, “meant little to [ghetto-imprisoned Negroes] since we had been fighting for rights which theoretically were already theirs.”20
King was further disheartened by America’s crimes in the Vietnam War, and he became increasingly concerned with “the triple evils of racism, extreme materialism and militarism.” Subsequently, he called for “a radical restructuring of the architecture of American society,” to something akin to democratic socialism, and he espoused an extremely unpopular internationalist perspective concerned with world peace and global disarmament.
THEOLOGY AND POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY: X
What Martin realized toward the end of his life—Civil Rights legislation had done little for the plight of the urban poor—Malcolm understood since before 1960. While the Great Migration to the North allowed Blacks to escape vigilantism, Jim Crow and lynching, it forced them to encounter the pernicious and convoluted racism of white Northern liberals.22 Thus, Malcolm’s personal and broader context was de facto segregation through concentrated poverty and political disenfranchisement including: “segregated urban schools, substandard housing, high infant mortality rates, drugs, and crime.”23
Like Martin, Malcolm’s politics were greatly influenced by his faith—the Nation of Islam (NOI).24 Prior to joining the NOI, Malcolm experienced numerous negative encounters with whites.25 The NOI rescued Malcolm from an insufferable existence of drug addiction and crime, and motivated him to become an “organic intellectual,” transforming him “into a trenchant critic of white Western values and institutions.”26 These experiences all influenced Malcolm to embrace the NOI’s theology that all whites were inherently devils and that Elijah Muhammad was Allah’s Messenger.27 Since whites were “devils,” then they could never have authentic goodwill toward Blacks. Additionally, since America was controlled by white “devils,” then Allah would enact justice by destroying it. Thus, separation from America was the only theologically rational choice for Black Freedom, according to the NOI (in Malcolm’s day).28
According to Manning Marable’s seminal biography of Malcolm X, it is important to understand that the NOI had little tolerance for members who deviated from its dogmas. Yet, Malcolm’s intellectual prowess, exposure to Orthodox Islam’s universal brotherhood, and his commitment to truth and justice were too great to keep him bounded by the NOI’s apolitical program and heterodox theology. He eventually deviated from Elijah’s apolitical program, culminating in his expulsion from the sect. Malcolm also renounced the view that all whites were inherently devils, though he maintained a healthy skepticism of American whites, the bourgeoisie, and politicians, and remained committed to Black Nationalism.
Considering Malcolm’s context, Black Nationalism seems rational. While Black people in the North could technically vote and even “provided the balance of power that elected President Kennedy in 1960,” the American political establishment in 1964 “was literally, almost completely, as white as the Apartheid system that existed in South Africa at the same time.”29 Additionally, by 1963, the 1954 Supreme Court desegregation decision had only been nominally implemented. Thus, the belief that legislative victories would do little to affirm the full citizenship of Blacks reflected the material reality of Black life in most urban centers.
Still, while Malcolm never espoused Martin’s optimism of America, he “understood the potential power of Black bloc voting,” and began calling for political reeducation of Blacks at the grassroots level.31 For Malcolm, Black Nationalism or Separatism was “when you control your own economy…politics [and] society.”32 This merely meant that Black people, in America, would develop Black solidarity, support Black-owned businesses, pay local taxes to support the schools where Black children primarily studied, and establish their own political party with sincere interests in the Black community. Malcolm also became interested in establishing political alliances with oppressed people throughout the world.33
One of Malcolm’s greatest contributions was his role as a “cultural revolutionary.” Malcolm, arguably more than any one person, “transformed the way black people thought about themselves.”34 He answered the Black existential dilemma—“Am I an American or am I a Negro”—by proclaiming that the so-called Negro was black before he was anything else.35 He praised Black features, Black skin, and educated the Black masses about the pride of their African ancestors. In doing so, he illuminated the ways in which Black consciousness had been inculcated with self-hate. By empowering the grassroots, Malcolm and the NOI imbued ghetto-imprisoned Blacks with self-pride, self-determination, and Black collective consciousness. Moreover, they rehabilitated those who had been beguiled by ghettoizing forces into unwitting instruments of their own oppression, such as former drug addicts and prisoners. “While cultural affirmation is not the only step which African-Americans must take,” states Cone, “it is the first and most important one,” because it cultivates pride and solidarity, which are prerequisites for gaining freedom.
Malcolm’s cultural revolution sparked the Black Power Movement and fortified what West called the Black “cultural armor,” consisting of “cultural structures of meaning and feeling that created and sustained [Black] communities” amidst “the nihilistic threat” of being Black in a white racist society.37 Regrettably, to this day racist structural disadvantages have persisted and attacked the Black cultural armor. Today, the sources of black oppression are multivalent and pernicious, but Martin and Malcolm, together, can still further the cause of Black Freedom.
MARTIN AND MALCOLM IN THE 21ST CENTURY
To be loyal to both Martin and Malcolm, I will begin this conclusion where they left off—concerned with the bottom of the socioeconomic and political ladder—beginning with the Black ghetto. De jure (official/legal) racism is effectively eliminated; all citizens theoretically have the right to vote, and we have even elected a Black President. Yet, today, Blacks are significantly more likely than whites to be confined to high-poverty neighborhoods.38 Sixty years after the Supreme Court desegregation decision, over 60% of Black and Latino students attend “high-poverty schools.”39 Michelle Alexander enlightened the masses on how even the right to vote is still being suppressed via the New Jim Crow today. Mass incarceration has operated as an oppressive structural force in Black and, to a lesser yet still significant extent, Latino communities.40 The tragic reality that Blacks are disproportionately afflicted by high rates of homicide and other forms of violence exposes America’s apathy, and even, its disdain for Black life. Despite the technical successes of the integrationist-driven Civil Rights Movement, America continues to perpetuate the Black existential dilemma.
While the goal of integration may be noble in principle, and even theologically sound for Christians and Muslims who believe in God’s universal love, I believe it is counterproductive for excluded groups to pursue. That is, to be on the outside asking to get in, invariably subordinates the asker. Additionally, decades of white flight and school redistricting demonstrate that the white population, in general, whether consciously or not, does not want to authentically integrate with its nonwhite counterparts. Malcolm was right in arguing that legislation will not solve the problems of poor urban Blacks. Martin eventually affirmed that America needed more than mere legislation, but radical economic restructuring as well. However, before meaningful structural changes are made, marginalized groups must become citizens themselves—not technically, but existentially. Not just “on paper,” but experientially, in the day to day life and interactions of all people. That is, without genuine social, economic, and cultural Power, then no laws passed will ever be meaningful enough to truly protect the full rights of Black people as citizens. In fact, without social, economic, and cultural Power, no group will ever have the political power it needs to have meaningful laws that represent and protect them.
Thus, Martin and Malcolm together, mean to me that a neo-separatist revolution is necessary. I affirm the grassroots tenets of Malcolm’s Separatism as the viable alternative to Integrationism. However, in our pluralistic context the revolution calls for a sort of neo-separatism with the theological underpinnings of King’s Beloved Community and his concern for the triple evils of racism, extreme materialism and militarism. As such, neo-separatism would be based on forming communities of economically and racially marginalized people, meaning they would begin with low-income and working class people of color (namely, Black, Brown, and Indigenous); but, they could also include those whites who are genuinely committed to freedom, equality, and justice for all. Since political and even social power are directly related to economic power, then the primary goal of the neo-separatists would be to control their own economic and social institutions, by creating a federation of worker cooperatives and housing cooperatives, which fund the social institutions such as schools and houses of worship.
Controlling social institutions includes religious institutions as well. Both Martin and Malcolm provided scathing critiques of Christianity and religion in general. As such, Houses of Worship whose congregants are primarily from marginalized demographics should be committed to the empowerment of their People. Those Houses of Worship that only take from their marginalized communities should be boycotted.
With a population of 300 million people and the most powerful military in the world, violent insurrection is almost assuredly a suicide mission at worst, and a splintered revolution of countless sects at best. However, whenever oppressors are relentlessly engaging in direct systematic annihilation of any People, then I believe that those People have the right, indeed, the duty, to resist by any means necessary. Analogously, the psyche of an oppressive government is not unlike the psyche of a schoolyard bully—too immature or too ignorant of morals to care or understand the pain they are causing. The only thing a bully knows is force. That is, a bully will not stop picking on a kid because of threats of getting in trouble. Rather, the bully only ceases from bullying when they believe that the kids they are bullying will fight back. Conversely, when the bully knows a kid will not fight back, they have no reason to stop bullying. Likewise, if active or passive oppressors believe that equal and opposite consequences to their actions are never a possibility, then they would have fewer incentives to make meaningful changes. Thus, a staunch commitment to nonviolence, “no matter what,” stymies liberation. Therefore, while I do adopt Martin’s method of nonviolent direct action as a primary strategy for social change, neo-separatism would support armed self defense when violently provoked in the moment. Moreover, by focusing on an economic revolution, then it is my hope and my belief that this need not be a violently bloody revolution. Like Scarface said, “In this country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power…” you get real freedom, lasting freedom.
In sum, by examining the methods and results of Martin and Malcolm’s political philosophies, I have identified several, though not all, of the changes needed for the revolution today. First, the past forty years have demonstrated that change will not come from the top down, and thus the focus should be on the grassroots—on those People groups who experience the brunt of systemic oppression on a regular basis. However, in order not to be counterproductively sectarian, we need Martin to balance out the revolution with affirmations of the Beloved Community based on Sacred Universal Love and Justice for All (beginning with the most oppressed). This revolution shifts the focus away from seeking acceptance or the goodwill of those in power, and places it firmly on the inherent sociopolitical and economic power of marginalized communities, if and only if, they become a collective. I am not talking about the failed utopian dreams that collapsed in the USSR, communist China, and other countries where collective ownership was forced by the State. But rather, I am talking about true collective ownership, where the People choose freely to join worker and housing cooperatives that become economic powerhouses that fuel and fund our social, cultural, and political institutions. In other words, the poor are poor, but we are many, and together, we are strong.