Guessing how Malcolm X would respond to current events can be a slippery slope, but it’s safe to say that he would not have been surprised by Trump’s election.
For many, the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency feels like a sharp U-turn toward inequalities we’d hoped to leave behind. Others see Trump’s presidency as the manifestation of every oppression that America has systematically swept under the rug. As we celebrate what would have been Malcolm X’s 92nd birthday, we revisit the Black scholar’s words and muse on how he would advise us under a Trump presidency.
Malcolm X first entered the public eye in 1957, when he gathered a crowd of almost 4,000 at the New York Police Department to protest the beating and subsequent arrest of Hinton Johnson, a Black man and fellow member of the Nation of Islam. Police first denied that any Muslims were being held, but were forced into transparency as crowds swelled in from of the police station. In response to that incident, one officer told the New York Amsterdam News that, “No one man should have that much power.” Within a month, Malcolm X was under the surveillance of the NYPD.
Self-educated during his decade-long stint in prison, Malcolm X used his political power to advocate for the uprising of Black Americans. He was a vocal critic of nonviolent resistance and believed that Black people should liberate themselves “by any means necessary.” Prior to his assassination in 1965, Malcolm X disavowed the Nation of Islam and began promoting Pan-Africanism and a more humanist approach to activism.
Extrapolating on how historical figures like Malcolm X would respond to current events can be a slippery slope, but it’s safe to say that he would not have been surprised by Trump’s election. In fact, he might have even preferred Trump to Hillary Clinton. In a 1964 op-ed for the Sunday Evening Post the Black icon shared why he preferred Ku Klux Klan-endorsed presidential candidate Barry Goldwater over Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson, saying, “Since these are the choices, the Black man in America, I think, only needs to pick which one he chooses to be eaten by, because both will eat him,” he said. With Goldwater, he noted, “They would at least know they were fighting an honestly growling wolf, rather than a fox who could have them in his stomach and have digested them before they even knew what is happening.”
There were many people who felt similarly about the 2016 election and opted not to vote, or to support a third-party candidate instead. Few of us could have imagined just how much lesser an evil Hillary Clinton would turn out to be, but I also think it’s true that people are less apathetic and paying closer attention than they would if Clinton had been elected.
Leaving the Nation of Islam and spending more time abroad allowed Malcolm X to view civil rights in a global context. His interactions with Muslims of all ethnicities convinced him that racism could be overcome, and he no longer felt that the outcome of an election had the ability to determine his fate. In his “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech, he encouraged Black Americans to exercise their right to vote, recognizing that our voices would have the ability to sway elections. However, he cautioned his audience against relying too heavily on a broken political system and urged them to mobilize in other ways to affect greater change.
Many of us feel attacked by the Trump administration, but I think Malcolm would urge us to find empowerment where we can, to become advocates in our communities and create the services that we need instead of relying on the government. Now more than ever, he would encourage us to watch where we spend our dollars and to support businesses owned by POC.
We’ve seen the words of Malcolm X emblazoned on posters at the Women’s March and the many protests that have occurred nationwide, many of us assuming that were he alive, he’d be in the trenches with us.
One of Malcolm X’s daughters, Ilyasah Shabazz, reflected in a 2015 New York Times op-ed on what her father would think of our modern-day movements, saying that he would likely admire our use of social media as a tool for activism. The criticisms she shared pointed towards a lack of targeted efforts and solutions. Just as leaders like Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., observed the strategies of Gandhi and Marcus Garvey, so should today’s activists take note of what did and did not work in Selma, Watts and the march on Washington.
Many of us have seen what we thought to be our inalienable rights threatened under Trump, but we also enjoy advantages that Malcolm X could have hardly fathomed. We have access to infinite amounts of information, which we can use to be proactive about learning our complete histories. We can go the route of activists like Senator John Lewis, and take positions of power from within as well as outside of the system.
If there’s anything that Malcolm X can teach us, it’s commitment to our ideals. He knew what he stood for, and he pursued it relentlessly, “by any means necessary.” These days, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all of the work that must still be done. Our opponents are counting on us to lose interest or tire out. If there’s any way we can celebrate Malcolm X’s birthday and his worldwide contributions, it’s by continuing to press forward and supporting each other along the way.