Episode 14, Season 3
Historian Clarence Lang joins us for a conversation about Malcolm X. We discuss his commitment to Black pride and self-determination and his rejection of the white gaze and the myth of American exceptionalism. Learn how teaching about the life and works of Malcolm X can illuminate the universe of possibilities of the civil rights movement—and the diversity of ideology, strategy and political thought within the Black freedom struggle.
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Understanding and Teaching the Civil Rights MovementEdited by Hasan Kwame Jeffries
Own the book from the University of Wisconsin Press that inspired and informs season three of the Teaching Hard History podcast!
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Hasan Kwame Jeffries: He found his way into the world in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1925 as Malcolm Little, the son of Garveyites and a child of the Great Migration, who lost his parents to the depredations of racial terrorists and the callous disregard of the state.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: He found the streets in Boston and Harlem in the 1940s as Detroit Red, a street hustler who ran with gangsters and white women too. And led his own ring of petty thieves.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: He found religion—and himself—in a Massachusetts prison in the 1950s as Malcolm X, a convert to the Nation of Islam and a devotee of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And he found his voice in Mecca in 1963 as el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, a minister of Sunni Islam and a prophet of Black Nationalism.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: But all too often, when we introduce Brother Malcolm to our students, we do not start with his life, as rich and as textured as it was, reflective of so many of the experiences of working-class Black men and women in the Jim Crow North.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Instead, we start with his death.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: We introduce Brother Malcolm as the target of an assassination. For some, a martyr in the cause of Black Liberation. And for others, a victim of his own strident rhetoric. But to fully understand Brother Malcolm, to appreciate his contributions to the Black freedom struggle, we have to start with his life, and we have to teach his many lives, lives that made him "A prince—our own shining Black prince."
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I'm Hasan Kwame Jeffries, and this is Teaching Hard History. We're a production of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Learning for Justice project—formerly known as Teaching Tolerance. To learn more about Learning for Justice and to meet our new director, visit us at LearningForJustice.org. This season, we're offering a detailed look at how to teach the Black freedom struggle, or the US civil rights movement. In each episode, we explore a different topic, walking you through historical concepts, raising questions for discussion, suggesting useful source material, and offering practical classroom exercises.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Malcolm X is one of the most compelling figures of the Black freedom struggle, but his story is too often reduced to overplayed soundbites and oversimplified narratives. In this episode, historian Clarence Lang introduces us to the nuances of Malcolm's life and activism, showing us the diversity of ideology, strategy and political thought that was the civil rights movement. I'm glad you could join us.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: It is my absolute honor and pleasure to welcome to the podcast, Dr. Clarence Lang, because we're about to talk about Brother Malcolm. And I have been waiting to talk about Brother Malcolm with Brother Clarence since the season began. So, Clarence Lang, welcome. It's so good to have you.
Clarence Lang: It's good to be here, Hasan. Thank you for having me.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I'm excited about this, I really am. Because the chapter that you wrote in Understanding and Teaching the Civil Rights Movement on Malcolm, is just phenomenal. It's not only this wonderful way of thinking about Malcolm himself, his evolution, his experiences, but also how to teach him both accurately and effectively. And, you know, as I was reflecting, Clarence, on that piece, one of the things when I teach Malcolm, I don't just like to drop him on students, you know, in February of 1965 when he gets assassinated.
Clarence Lang: That's right.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: That's often the time when he sort of gets introduced. Like, what do we do with Malcolm in the civil rights movement? Well, he's killed. So let's talk about them then. It's like, Ah! That's not very helpful. And so I like to back up, right? And if I have the time, I'll share The Autobiography of Malcolm X, you know what I'm saying? And when I do that I'm like, we've got to start at the beginning. Like, we have to start not with Malcolm X, we have to start with Malcolm Little, with him, with his parents, with growing up in Omaha. Could I get you to share a little bit about some of the key aspects of Malcolm's life when he was a youngster, and how that kind of laid the foundation for who he would become as an adult?
Clarence Lang: He's a child of migrants. He's part of the great Black migration from South to North, from rural to urban. And he's not part of that wave that goes to Chicago or to Detroit—at least at first—or New York City. He's part of that wave that we don't talk a lot about, about those Black families that move to smaller or midsize cities in the Midwest and other regions.
Clarence Lang: Both of his parents were organizers for the Universal Negro Improvement Association, led by Marcus Garvey. And his father is a minister. So one of the earliest memories that Malcolm talks about is the burning of his home by white marauders in response to his father's activities. And the thing that strikes me the most about Malcolm's autobiography was the centrality of violence in his life.
Clarence Lang: At a certain point, Malcolm's father dies. His father might have been the victim of an assassination, given his political activities and the kind of response that that elicited from people who were not interested in hearing about ideas of Black people being able to determine their lives politically, socially and culturally, which were tenants of the Garvey Movement. And what occurs in the aftermath of that is Malcolm's mother, Louise Little, she has to attempt to raise Malcolm and his siblings by herself, and she falls victim to the predations of the surrounding white community and ultimately mental illness.
Clarence Lang: And so Malcolm and his siblings are taken by the state. They're dispersed, they're sent around. And so you have this fragmentation, you have this violence. And this is an important part of Malcolm's early formative experiences. But at the same time, he's able to excel academically. He ends up in a predominantly white community where he is one of few Black students in the class. And at one level, it appears that he does well, he's voted class president. And then he has this really jarring experience—this is in junior high where he's talking to his teacher, and his teacher is asking him, "Malcolm, what are you going to do with your life?" And Malcolm shares his aspirations to, if I recall, be a lawyer. And his instructor says that's not a realistic goal for someone who is Black. But he doesn't use that word, of course. And this is someone who was not mean to Malcolm, or malicious, who was supportive of Malcolm, but he could only see Malcolm within a very limited view of subordination, racial subordination. As has happened to so many Black children in that time and since, he absorbs the lesson, intended or otherwise, that there was no future in his academic studies.
Clarence Lang: Even though he's very bright and smart and all of that, he finds himself in Boston and Detroit and Harlem, and he slides eventually—and I'm sort of accelerating a little bit, it's not overnight—into various kinds of illicit activities. He ends up into small-time crime, which sets him on a path eventually to incarceration, which is where that transformation occurs.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Could you share a little bit more detail about those Boston years, about those New York years, the years that he becomes defined no longer as Malcolm Little, but as Detroit Red. What were those experiences that he was having?
Clarence Lang: If we think about how Malcolm narrates those years, he's exactly talking about losing his way, going into a life of crime and to drugs, what he would say depravity in terms of his own drug abuse and steering women, burglary, cons, right? He becomes a hustler. But what I find interesting about that particular period of his life is that yeah, that's true, right? Malcolm is a hustler, but in some very interesting kinds of ways, he becomes immersed in major trends of Black working-class life. I'm not trying to characterize Black working-class life as crime. Certainly, there are elements that lend in that direction. But what's very interesting, is that Malcolm ends up doing many different types of labor—both legal and illegal. Certainly he's trading in drugs and paid sex, but he also is a shoe shiner. He also works on a train, a Pullman train selling sandwiches. He does many different kinds of work that you would see Black men in that period and even later doing. He's also involved culturally in some very important dynamics of the period, in terms of jazz music, the zoot suit culture. He conks his hair, which is straightening his hair with lye. He wears the really flamboyant zoot suits with the baggy, pleated pants and a long jacket and the hat with the feather, right? Some would call it loud, others of us would call it expressive colors. He's immersed in all of this.
Clarence Lang: He learns Black working-class culture from its multiple vantage points and aspects. And it becomes really important to understanding how Malcolm, when he becomes a political activist as an organizer, is so effective. That's what occurs in Boston, that's what occurs in Harlem, that's what occurs in his different sojourns in these different urban cities. On the one hand, losing his way, but I would argue also accumulating some of the valuable, or what will prove to be later in his life invaluable life experiences.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This season of Teaching Hard History is based on the book Understanding and Teaching the Civil Rights Movement, recipient of the 2020 James Harvey Robinson prize for the most outstanding contribution to the teaching and learning of history, from the American Historical Association. And this podcast is produced in partnership with the University of Wisconsin Press, publishers of this collection of essays—which I edited. From now until the end of April, they are offering a 30 percent discount to listeners who order this collection. You'll find a link to purchase the book at LearningForJustice.org/podcasts. Just use the promotional code: CIVILRIGHTS—all one word.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Is there a way to use Malcolm's early life to teach the story of the Jim Crow North?
Clarence Lang: The short answer is yes. I mean, his life becomes a very easy way of dispelling the short-sighted notion that "The South"—and I put "The South" in quotes because it's a construction as much as anything else—is evil and bad, and "The North" again, in quotes, is good. What we see in the North is, in its own way, racial apartheid, though manifest differently in terms of segregated housing, with regard to education, with regard to employment and other matters of quality of life. Malcolm develops a strong distaste for white society, if you will. That happens in the quote unquote, "Integrated North."
Clarence Lang: He has some very traumatic experiences, not as a result of living in what we might call—and these terms are fraught—Southern Jim Crow. But in his case, in an environment in which he lives and interacts at a certain point in his life with large numbers of white people. And that becomes a very alienating experience for him. And that's not in Mississippi. That's not in Alabama. That's in the Midwest. That's in the Northeast. Racism was and is, in the context of the United States, a national phenomenon.
Clarence Lang: We talked about Malcolm Little, we talked about Detroit Red. When he was in prison, he earned the nickname Satan.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Right.
Clarence Lang: Because he was deeply alienated, angry, outraged by his experiences with Northern-style racism, apartheid if you will.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, thinking about his prison experience, you know, we often think that he's running the streets, hustling, goes to prison. Soon as he walks through the door, he picks up a book, right? And, you know, suddenly the enlightenment of Elijah Muhammad comes through. But you're right. They literally dub him Satan. He is that recalcitrant. He's angry at the world. The prison years are obviously so critical to Malcolm's evolution. Let me ask you this, Brother Clarence, who was Elijah Muhammad?
Clarence Lang: You know, this is so—that's a big—it's a simple question, but it's a big question. So the simplest way to put it is that he was the leader of one of the more important Black nationalist organizations that emerged in the early 20th century, the Lost-Found Nation of Islam. He was himself a Black migrant, in his case from Georgia, if I recall correctly.
Clarence Lang: Part of that great migration. And as Black people moved from South to North and from rural to urban, and that occurred within the South as well as between the two regions, they built various kinds of institutions: social, economic, political. In the case of the Nation of Islam, religious/political. Elijah Muhammad, born Elijah Poole, assumed the identity of Elijah Muhammad, was an important organizer of that group. That's one answer.
Clarence Lang: Another answer would be that Elijah Muhammad was the messenger of Allah, right?
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Right.
Clarence Lang: The last messenger of Allah, who had come to deliver the lost tribe of Shabazz, Black people from the wilderness.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Yeah. Yeah.
Clarence Lang: From disconnection from their true identities, and who they were and are as the original people or the original man, made in God's reflection. And who would be delivered from, the devils through the active intervention of Allah himself in North America. And that belief in some quarters still exists. Another answer is that he was a—if not the—formative father figure in Malcolm's life. And in Malcolm's own narrative, the individual who rescued him from his own personal desolation, his own depravity, from his own alienation from himself and from other Black people, and saved his soul. He was the trigger for that conversion experience from Malcolm Little/Detroit Red/Satan to Malcolm X.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: What do you think was the appeal of both Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam to Malcolm/Satan/Detroit Red?
Clarence Lang: I can imagine that someone could be so low, that they are ripe for being saved. Part of how he ends up in prison is that there were some white women with whom he and a partner in crime were involved. They're all arrested in the context of burglary, theft. And, you know, the women don't go to prison. So you have insult added to injury. If we think about all the setbacks that he had had, the violence that his family endured, the racial paternalism when he was in school, which is a form of violence. And then to experience the double standards in the criminal justice system. And then someone to say, "I can explain all of that for you. Here's why that occurs. And here's the prescription: you need to come to Allah.”
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: What's being offered in part are answers. I mean, that's what Elijah Muhammad is offering.
Clarence Lang: Certitude.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Certitude. Right. Absolutely. That's powerful. That has a powerful appeal to someone just in general, but certainly to someone, as you were saying, who is searching for answers. And knows there has to be an answer to explain life conditions, if you will.
Clarence Lang: And Hasan, can I say this? I mean, it becomes really interesting to talk about this in the classroom where you're teaching a diversity of students, Black, white and other, and the whole language about white people being devils. You know, you have to thread that conversation carefully. But one of the questions that I pose, "Well, let's think about the experiences of the migration, and the kind of encounters that Black migrants had prior to leaving the South. And someone said, ‘Well, I can explain why all of these horrible things occur. They're devils.’" Now we can judge that normatively how we want, but there are audiences for whom that message can resonate. Oh, well, that's the explanation. This idea of certitude, making sense of the world, which is at the end of the day, what all ideologies do.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: When Malcolm converts to the Nation of Islam, he goes all in, like he does in every other aspect of his life. When he's in, he's in.
Clarence Lang: That's right.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And he's a true believer in Elijah Muhammad. I mean, he gives his life over to Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. He converts while in prison. When he comes out, what does Malcolm do, and what is his role within the Nation of Islam?
Clarence Lang: There's a way in which Malcolm can be reduced to rhetoric or a potent symbol. And what I try to do when I teach Malcolm, is to try and get people to move beyond the framing of Malcolm as someone who had powerful words and then was murdered and other folks enacted those words and principles. That framing loses sight of the fact that Malcolm was not just a student, but he was also a tireless organizer.
Clarence Lang: He was not someone who just spoke to large crowds, he spent time with people, he organized, he built relationships and built bridges. I mean, he lived a spartan, aesthetic existence. He lived for the Nation of Islam. I won't say—because we always want to be careful about the heroic individual—that he built the Nation of Islam, took it from a small sect to a major organization. Those things are not done by individuals. But his role was not inconsiderable in that. It wasn't just that he was a great speaker. You go to any church in any Black community in this nation, and you're going to find people who know how to blow, if you will. He set himself the task of fishing in the various spaces of the Black community outside the churches, but in these other, if you will, less-respectable places. He was intimately involved in these different spheres of Black working-class life. And that gets left out of the narrative. We don't think about Malcolm as an organizer, we think about him as an orator. And he was, of course, but he wasn't just that.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: When we limit him to being an orator, we absolutely miss out on Malcolm as an organizer. I'm so glad you walked us through that. But I would argue that Malcolm, in a way that's different than Martin King, and in a way that speaks to his appeal beyond just the true believers in the Nation of Islam, that Malcolm was a teacher.
Clarence Lang: Yeah. I don't know if what he did was called political education sessions, but that's what occurred, right? He didn't just do the street corner oration, which he did. It wasn't that he spoke to mass audiences, which he did, but he also guided people through learning, through study, even though at a certain point, Malcolm abandoned his formal studies, Malcolm was a lifelong student. He becomes a student of whatever kind of life that he's living at that moment. His degree was earned in life and in the streets and in prison. But he read extensively. We do know this. And he shared that with people. And it wasn't just simply that I have information and knowledge that you need to have, but also there's a methodology to learning. You need to read this, right? That there are works that will reward you if you study them. You need to understand history, politics, sociology. Teachers understand that the goal is not to sit people down and to deposit knowledge into their heads, but it's also to prepare and develop people in lives of learning and study.
Clarence Lang: And that's very important to what he did formally in terms of workshops that he would lead and how he engaged people, even in debates in a Socratic method. Let me ask you this question, right? You know, answer me this, and I'm going to walk you through the answer to that, and you come with me. And from that standpoint, Malcolm was indeed a master teacher, wasn't he? Malcolm's engagement with people, even in the heat of debate, was an invitation to a back and forth, to an exchange of ideas. He really appreciated and respected debate as one of many tools of learning and teaching. And it goes against one depiction of Malcolm as someone who just simply savaged the people with whom he debated. Now let's be clear, Malcolm was a fierce debater. We know this, right? I mean, we have the footage that demonstrates that. But the goal was not just simply to smash people, if you will, but there was always a search toward a lesson to be learned.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Hey everybody! We’ve cooked up something new. Educators can earn a certificate—issued by Learning for Justice—for one hour of professional development just by listening to this episode. All you have to do is go to LearningForJustice.org/podcastPD—PD for professional development. That's "podcastpd," all one word. Then enter the special code word for this episode: "organize"—all lowercase. You'll also find a link in the show notes. Now back to my conversation with Dr. Lang.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: What were some of the lessons that he wanted Black folk to learn, not just about the past, but about the present?
Clarence Lang: So I think a big part of Malcolm's project was the idea that Black people were the best and perhaps the only ones who could save them. Black people in and of themselves had to determine what they wanted and needed. And that needed to guide how they pursued what they wanted and needed. So the idea that Black people in and of themselves, on their own, were going to have to be their own agents for change. Malcolm encouraged Black people to embrace that longstanding Black nationalist tradition, which is that Black people are a people. They share a collective identity, they share a peoplehood. And they have the right to autonomy and self-determination. And they didn't have to be apologetic, articulating what they needed to be fully-realized human beings. And there was no need to be ashamed or to speak around it, but to speak directly and unapologetically to Black people's interests as Black people themselves understood them.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Does that help to explain Malcolm's critique of integration?
Clarence Lang: Absolutely. His critique was that integrationism relied on Black people begging for recognition from the white majority. Integrationism relied on Black people being overly concerned about how they appeared in the white gaze. You know, the reality was more complicated than sometimes he, I believe, framed it. And so I'm not going to argue that Malcolm was always right on the money, that everything that came out of his mouth was spot on. He was the fallible human being like all of us. But that was his critique. And there was truth to that. And this is in part why, you know, he drew crowds, because he would say things that other people wouldn't say, and he would say them boldly, and he would say them without apology.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Malcolm X: We are oppressed, we are exploited, we are downtrodden, we are denied not only civil rights, but even human rights. So the only way we're going to get some of this oppression and exploitation away from us or aside from us, is coming together against a common enemy. Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the color of your skin to such extent that you bleach to get like the white man? Who taught you to hate the shape of your nose and the shape of your lips? Who taught you to hate yourself from the top of your head to the soles of your feet? Who taught you to hate your own kind? Who taught you to hate the race that you belong to so much so that you don't want to be around each other? No, before you come asking Mr. Muhammad, does he teach hate, you should ask yourself who taught you to hate being what God gave you? And I, for one, as a Muslim, believe that the white man is intelligent enough, if he were made to realize how Black people really feel and how fed up we are without that old compromising sweet talk, stop sweet talking it. Tell him how you feel. Tell him how or what kind of hell you've been catching, and let him know that if he's not ready to clean his house up, if he's not ready to clean his house up, he shouldn't have a house. It should catch on fire and burn down.]
Clarence Lang: You know, playing clips in class, it seems like that people really react to his identifying—like, the use of the term "The white man," this idea of white. And forget what he's saying ought to happen or what they've done, but I think just the identification itself is bracing, right? Because part of how whiteness functions is that it remains invisible. It remains uncommented on. And part of his methodology, if you will, is that he makes whiteness visible. And I think that as much as anything else is what really, I think, shocked and alarmed people. Even today, right? As someone who's in higher education, you just say "white people" or "white," and just people get uncomfortable just by that, you know what I mean?
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Right, right, right.
Clarence Lang: It's like Voldemort, for those who follow, who read or have seen the Harry Potter films. It goes unnamed. And to name it is something that really scalds people. It's the fact that he's acknowledging that that's a reality and it has a power.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Malcolm's appeal was across the board. Young people embraced Malcolm. Rosa Parks embraced Malcolm. What do you think accounts for that?
Clarence Lang: I think this is someone who had—again, who would travel many different kinds of roads. He had moved around. He was familiar with many different kinds of Black urban communities, right? Chicago and Harlem are not the same. He could speak in intimate firsthand detail or again, about the many patterns of Black life. He had been incarcerated. He had spent time in people's homes with them, in different areas of the Black public sphere. And he understood the cadences of Black working-class life.
Clarence Lang: Which is why people could laugh when he criticized it. Let me tell you about yourself and the things you do. And, you know, I'm here. We're gonna clean all that up. But, you know, I know what you do, right? And he could do that in a way that was not condescending, because he conveyed that he had come from that as well.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: He had a certain authenticity.
Clarence Lang: That's the word, isn't it? He could tell a story of self-mastery and redemption and self-development. We don't talk about that as a feature of Black working-class life, of people wanting to find ways to better themselves, to improve themselves, to develop themselves. He could tell that particular kind of story. Sometimes there's a slur against working-class and poor communities, that there's no value for education. Black working-class people do value education. So even people who may not have learned to read themselves, promoted that to their children and grandchildren. I don't want to be stereotypical here, but you go into a Black barbershop in any community, and you're going to find people who are debating the issues. Now, Hasan, sometimes poorly, right? But the ...
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Right, but they're debating. But they're serious. They’re in.
Clarence Lang: And there's the idea that ideas matter.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Right. Right. Right.
Clarence Lang: And don't you come in half stepping, because people are going to interrogate you. You know, I think about Richard Pryor and some of his routines where he talks about his father being in the barbershop with his almanac. And that's how he settled every debate. It's like, this is true because it's in the book. You know what I mean? I got it in the almanac. Don't tell me what I don't know, you know? And there is a love of learning in his many different kinds of guises. And the idea that this was someone who had been left to destroy himself, who redeemed himself, who came up, if we want to talk about that in more contemporary language, who developed himself. We can call Malcolm a scholar. He wasn't credentialed as such, but he was that. And we can't underestimate that that has an appeal, even though there's an idea that an appreciation for learning is somehow a bourgeois value. It's not, solely.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: When we come to this era in Malcolm's life, Nation of Islam is up and running, expanding. Malcolm is a voice that people are not only hearing, but they're really listening to. This is the moment where we also see the ascendancy of nonviolent direct action as a major movement strategy and tactic within the Black protest community. But we often narrowly frame the Black freedom movement, the civil rights movement at this time as being solely that.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Music was vital to the civil rights movement, and continues to be critical to global freedom struggles today. In this installment of “Movement Music,” historian Charles Hughes illustrates how music can offer context and fullness to our understanding of Malcolm X the man and his message. Here’s Charles.
Charles Hughes: Malcolm X referred to music as “The only area on the American scene where the Black man has been free to create.” Since then, many musical creations have celebrated Malcolm’s life and been inspired by his work. One of the first was by R&B legend Sam Cooke.
Charles Hughes: When Cooke recorded “A Change is Gonna Come” in 1963, he was in his own moment of politicization. He hoped to align with his friend’s Malcolm X’s push for Black ownership and self-reliance by establishing his own record company and taking control of his career. As depicted in the 2021 Regina King film One Night in Miami, Malcolm and Sam Cooke considered themselves colleagues in struggle. Their relationship was one of several factors that turned the popstar towards more explicitly Movement-connected songwriting.
Charles Hughes: The tumultuous life of the song’s protagonist echoes the broad strokes of Black history and strikes specific similarities to Malcolm X’s pivotal Autobiography. The sweeping orchestration and Cooke’s piercing vocals are both a cry of pain and a demand of protest.
Charles Hughes: This enduring anthem accompanied the final scenes of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X biopic, as if in mutual tribute to the two fallen friends. Lee’s film, scored by Terence Blanchard, also features a recording of the 1965 Eulogy by actor Ossie Davis at Malcolm X’s funeral.
Charles Hughes: Fifty years later, the saxophonist and composer Kamasi Washington remixed Davis’s words into a tribute of his own, called “Malcolm’s Theme.” The music is by Terence Blanchard, the same composer from Spike Lee’s film.
Charles Hughes: Recalling evocative jazz eulogies, like John Coltrane’s “Alabama” and Nina Simone’s “Why? (The King Of Love Is Dead),” the restless song spotlights the tender tribute of Davis’ original language.
Charles Hughes: Honoring Malcolm as “one of our brightest stars” and “our own black shining prince,” the singers’ soaring melody grounds and glorifies Davis’ praise. Washington’s saxophone and his band’s strings subtly recall Sam Cooke’s classic. “Malcolm’s Theme” is thus both primary source and analysis in one, a musical reminder of the words’ continuing resonance of Davis’s words and their subject.
Charles Hughes: From Cooke to Washington and beyond, soul, jazz and hip-hop artists have paid homage to Malcolm X, revealing the depth of his work and the breadth of his vision. The sounds and words contextualize this legendary figure, without reducing his significance or ignoring the man who had to live within the legend. Malcolm is still there for us to find. All we need to do is keep listening.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I honestly didn't realize that I have been waiting to hear Sam Cooke's “A Change Is Gonna Come,” but I have been. Because we needed to hear it. We needed to listen to it, because that's what the Black freedom struggle was all about: fighting for change, and believing, despite all evidence to the contrary, that a change is gonna come. Because there were people like Brother Malcolm X, people who didn't hesitate to die because they loved us so.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Be sure to check out our latest Spotify playlist. Dr. Hughes has curated dozens of songs that amplify even more of the ideas raised in this episode. Just follow the link in the show notes at LearningForJustice.org/podcasts. Now, let’s return to Dr. Lang.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Kenneth Clark, the Black psychologist had a public affairs TV show, Negro And the American Promise. And he interviewed Malcolm and asked him about Martin Luther King. And this is 1963. All right. Let's listen.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Kenneth Clark: Reverend Martin Luther King preaches a doctrine of nonviolent insistence upon the rights of the American Negro. What is your attitude toward this philosophy?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Malcolm X: The white man pays Reverend Martin Luther King, subsidizes Reverend Martin Luther King, so that Reverend Martin Luther King can continue to teach the Negroes to be defenseless. That's what you mean by nonviolent. Be defenseless. Be defenseless in the face of one of the most cruel beasts that has ever taken the people into captivity. That's the American white man. And they have proved it throughout the country by the police dogs and the police clubs. 100 years ago, they used to put on a white sheet and use the bloodhound against Negroes. Today, they have taken off the white sheet and put on police uniforms. They traded in the bloodhounds for police dogs, and they're still doing the same thing. And just as Uncle Tom back during slavery used to keep the Negroes from resisting the bloodhound or resisting the Ku Klux Klan by teaching them to love their enemy or pray for those who use them spitefully, today, Martin Luther King is just the 20th century or modern Uncle Tom, or a religious Uncle Tom, who is doing the same thing today to keep Negroes defenseless in the face of the fact that Uncle Tom did on the plantation to keep those Negroes defenseless in the face of the attacks of the Klan in that day.]
Clarence Lang: I still have conversations with folks who say, "Well, you know, Malcolm, endorsed violence." And you just scratch your head. He simply made the point that, I think, I would hope most of us would agree is self-evident, that people have a right to defend themselves. It's a basic human right. If somebody were to leap at you, Hasan, well, the instinct would be to protect yourself, right? To get that person off you.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Right, right.
Clarence Lang: And if you didn't, people will wonder why you hadn't. So that's one thing. If we think about the Black freedom struggle, which exists across time, as long as there have been Black people in this society, there have been multiple tactics and strategies: lobbying, petitioning, exercising the vote, and what some would call violent self-help when necessary, right? These things have all existed in the toolkit. Even in organizations, and at moments that we have very simplistically characterized as the high tide of nonviolent resistance, there are people with guns.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
Clarence Lang: Right? Protecting people who were engaged in nonviolent demonstration. So in that sense, Malcolm was speaking to something that existed already, even during the classical 1955 to 1965 period, Montgomery bus boycott at the early end, Selma march on the other end in 1965. There were people who had multiple kinds of ways of engaging that question. We know that some people were philosophically committed to nonviolence, which is to say that, under no circumstances would they engage in any act of violence, right? Who were pacifists. And then there were others who saw it as situational. It depends on the circumstances, right? If it makes better sense for us to carry picket signs and engage in nonviolent resistance, that's what we'll do. But there could be other circumstances where we wouldn't. And Aldon Morris argues that, in fact, during the classical, if you will, 1955 to 1965 framing of the civil rights movement, the ideas around nonviolent resistance actually were introduced from without, right? Through religious pacifist organizations. And in fact, he argues they were not organic to Black communities. Not that Black communities were violent, but I'm saying that there was no guiding idea that that was the way that Black people ought to pursue their interests. People had to be trained in that. This was not natural to people. People were trained. They went to workshops to learn how to resist the urge to strike back at someone who would harm them.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And that's a critical point, that it took the training, those Nashville workshops, for people to get on board. Diane Nash talks about going down in Nashville, attending those Lawson workshops. And she was like, "This don't make no sense. Are you crazy?" But it took going back to the workshops time and time again.
Clarence Lang: That's right.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Like, for months on end. And so this notion of self-defense can really be seen as kind of the default setting for Black folk. Malcolm, you know, someone lays a hand on you, you send them to the cemetery, you know? He gets standing applause. Like, that makes sense. I get that. I get that.
Clarence Lang: You know, my mom and dad taught me that, right? I mean, like, somebody put their hand on you—you don't start fights, you know what I mean? But, you know, someone put your hand on you, I better not hear about somebody beating you up and you didn't fight back.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Right. In many classrooms, if not most classrooms, when Malcolm X is introduced to students, he's introduced as a foil to Martin King. What should teachers do differently when talking about Malcolm and Martin?
Clarence Lang: So, you know, I think first and foremost, the idea has to be that Black people have historically, and up into the present, imagined "freedom rights"—your term—or freedom or liberation in many different kinds of ways. And we do violence to a rich legacy of Black politics or Black political history if we try and reduce it to soundbites and pithy quotes and comments. And so we have to understand Malcolm and Martin in that broad stream of different ideas. All of which were legitimate. So if we think, for example, over the course of the Black experience, there have been a number of impulses. There's been the impulse to fight, there's been the impulse to flee, and then there’s the impulse to try and figure your way out of a tough situation. They are all respectable, they are all legitimate, and they're all part of the Black experience. And we have to understand them all on their own terms, and not either put them on opposite sides of the room or—and this, for me, is important—suggest that they're all the same, they're going about it in a different pathway.
Clarence Lang: That's an oversimplification in it's own right. It's as much of an oversimplification, I believe, as they were diametrically opposed and mutually exclusive and different. So it's about understanding the complexity and the diversity of the ways in which Black people have exercised their agency and sought to pursue their goals. And the goals have not been identical. They've all been legitimate, whether we're talking about someone who, for example, believes that the pathway to Black people experiencing their full humanity is through the vote, versus others who would say that nothing of lasting value is going to come out of institutional politics. We have to understand that they're all part of that Black experience, and ways that Black people have imagined the way forward. And how, not only have they thought about different things over time, but they've thought about similar things in different ways over time. Black people are not simple, Black people are not monolithic.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I would add that we have to take Black people seriously as political thinkers.
Clarence Lang: Thank you. Thank you.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And ordinary, everyday Black people seriously as political thinkers.
Clarence Lang: That's right, that's right. I can't say it better than that. That has a value in and of itself. And what does that mean today, for example? You and I can, for example, talk about an item that we would agree is of importance to Black people. And we could find ourselves on opposite sides of that question. That wouldn't mean that one of us supports white supremacy and the other one supports Black liberation.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Right, right.
Clarence Lang: That doesn't mean that we have to negate each other. I mean, we might fight and we might fight furiously. But that's part of the Black experience, too. And that should occur without resort to one person negating the other. And understanding that movements for change have been multivocal in that sense. When we want to presume that movements have been very simple, "Here's our goal and here's how we're going to accomplish it," and it's never been the case. So Malcolm, in his own way, did respect civil rights activism, but he thought that the reliance on nonviolent resistance was laughable. He thought that liberal integrationism ultimately was a fool's errand, but he respected the mass direct action, and he wanted to fuse that to a Black nationalist ideology. There are many moments in Malcolm's evolving relationship with Elijah Muhammad where he wants to engage in some mass action, but Elijah Muhammad prevents him from doing so, because the Nation of Islam eschewed involvement in secular co-activity. That's really important to understanding the split between the Nation of Islam and Malcolm, which is often simply relegated to the fact that Malcolm discovered that Elijah Muhammad had fathered children with various secretaries in the Nation of Islam. Certainly, Malcolm had a strong moralist streak, but that was not the thing that split them. It was the political differences, plus the growing jealousy, resentment, distrust, of Malcolm's—of his visibility, his notoriety, one would say his fame. And the fact that, by all appearances, he was Elijah Muhammad's heir apparent. So there was those internal differences in the organization, but the political differences were determinative in terms of the split.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Could you say a word about the difference between Malcolm when he was in the Nation and Malcolm in that year, 1964, until his death in 1965 after the Nation?
Clarence Lang: If we think about the people who cohered around Malcolm, most of those individuals were not in the Nation of Islam, had no interest in joining the Nation of Islam, but were attracted to the ideas that Malcolm was putting forward, the path forward that he was setting. He accelerates that after leaving the Nation of Islam. So Malcolm is, again, very consistent with what he had been doing, trying to build bridges. And in this case, free from some of the strictures of the Nation of Islam, really trying to go headlong into building a broad, united front of forces in the movement. Trying to find a way for the different trends in the movement, to find workable ways of collaborating.
Clarence Lang: The Organization of Afro-American Unity, one of the organizations that Malcolm formed after he left the Nation of Islam, the other one being Muslim Mosque Incorporated, which was a religious organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity, or OAAU, was, or would have been the vehicle for Malcolm creating a united front of different segments of the movement, guided by a Black nationalist ideology, directed toward mass action. But that was, of course, aborted by his assassination in February of 1965.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This is Teaching Hard History, and I'm your host Hasan Kwame Jeffries. To continue making this podcast a valuable resource, we need your input. You can help us by taking a few minutes to complete our brief listener survey. Just click on the link in the show notes, or visit LearningForJustice.org/podcasts. It's only 10 questions, and your feedback will help us make each episode even more impactful for educators just like you. Now let's learn more about the history of Malcolm X with Clarence Lang.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: There's a way that Alex Haley, the author, writes the sort of end of The Autobiography of Malcolm X that can be read as Malcolm after the Nation of Islam, el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, Malcolm X, rejecting the Malcolm X of the Nation of Islam. Is that an accurate assessment of where Malcolm was in the year following his separation from the Nation?
Clarence Lang: Well, I mean, there's a conversation we can have about the fact that Malcolm's autobiography is completed after he is murdered. And so does Alex Haley have the last word? In my view, biography and autobiography impose a linearity and intentionality that you know doesn't really pertain to how we live our lives and grow and develop. Though I think the autobiography is an important document, and I assign it when I've taught about Malcolm. And I think anyone interested in Malcolm should definitely start with the autobiography. But I have a very real difficulty with how people have taken that last chapter to say that essentially Malcolm developed into a slightly more militant liberal. Malcolm was a Black nationalist when he died. And Black nationalism is rooted in the idea of collective Black identity and peoplehood, and Black political sovereignty, right? And Pan Africanism.
Clarence Lang: We have to be very clear. And so it puts Black people first in their own narratives. What relationships he might have or could have formed politically with organized groups of whites, who knows? But he was very clear to the end in terms of where his efforts and energies were to go. “I'm a Black nationalist.” Right? He says this. That means that Black people need to be able to own their politics. They need to own their economies. They need to be able to control their destinies and futures. And so in that sense, white people become very much a secondary consideration. Because the goal is for Black people to leave their own path to full human self-actualization for freedom rights.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Who killed Malcolm X?
Clarence Lang: So, that's an easy question to answer, and it's a hard question to answer. I will say that I am satisfied that the gunmen were assassins from the Nation of Islam. The interests that they served—and the agencies that very clearly created the context to make Malcolm's murder by members of the Nation of Islam possible—is a different matter. So we know that the New York Police Department and the FBI, were both involved in activities to fan the flames of internal conflict between Malcolm and former comrades of his in the Nation of Islam. So at the end of the day, I would say that the blood is immediately on the hands of those members of the Nation of Islam who assassinated him. But the blood is also on the hands of local and federal law enforcement agencies that helped to create a climate to make that assassination possible. Which, of course, we know characterized different other projects to disrupt, discredit, destroy other political, civil rights, Black nationalist organizations during that period. So it's both and not either/or.
Clarence Lang: But the Nation of Islam by itself is not responsible for that climate, and certainly the Nation of Islam, if we want to say that they benefited, they were not the only ones to benefit from his murder. Movements rise and fall based on both internal and external factors.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I like that as a point to keep in mind when we think about sort of movement evolution, the internal pressures, as well as the external pressures that can lead to the decline and demise, not only of movements, but of organizations and certainly to the death of individuals. And we'll see that play out time and time again.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: What do you want students to walk away from a lesson or lessons about Malcolm X, knowing about Malcolm X?
Clarence Lang: I'm really interested in people understanding and appreciating Malcolm's immense capacity for growth and development. And for people to see that they have the same capacity. That this is not about waiting on another Malcolm X, or even posing a question, what would Malcolm think today if he were around? Doesn't matter. He confronted the issues in his day. You exist now, and we have to figure out our situations, and what we have the will to do. And the educative power of making change in the world also changes us as the individuals who participate in that. And Malcolm is simply an example of that dynamic that can be achieved by anyone who puts their mind to study. And I'll go back to my student activist days: study and struggle. It sounds odd coming from a college dean now, but there's power to that, to that unity. Academic excellence and social responsibility, to put it in a milder form. Maybe that's more dean-ly to frame it that way. The idea of taking seriously ideas as well as action. That's what I want them to get!
Clarence Lang: As well as to, on a broader basis, appreciate Malcolm as more than just an icon, a set of slogans, an image on the poster, these very simplistic ways that he's been handed down to us.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Brother Clarence Lang, I can't thank you enough for blessing the mic on the podcast, and sharing your wisdom and knowledge and insight and expertise on Malcolm and the Black freedom struggle and African-American history during the span of his life. So thank you so much.
Clarence Lang: Hasan it is a pleasure. And may I say, if you'll permit me, thank you for inviting me to contribute a chapter to the book that you edited on Understanding and Teaching the Civil Rights Movement. And I want to congratulate you on the major award that this project won from the American Historical Association, which, of course, is one of the major professional organizations, scholarly organizations in our field. So thank you, and thank you for having me on the show, and congratulations. And brother, keep up the good work. It matters. It matters.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I appreciate it. Now under normal circumstances, I'd let you have the last word, and that's a humbling word to go out on, but what I do when I teach Malcolm and I don't have a lot of time to teach him, I give the last word to Ossie Davis, who delivered the powerful eulogy at his funeral, but then I think was immortalized wonderfully by Spike Lee in his movie Malcolm X when he had—when Spike Lee had Ossie Davis read the eulogy in the final scene. So we're going to give Ossie Davis the last word on Malcolm.
Clarence Lang: Amen. Amen.
[FILM CLIP, Ossie Davis: Here, at this final hour, in this quiet place, Harlem has come to bid farewell to one of its brightest hopes—extinguished now, and gone from us forever. For Harlem is where he worked and where he struggled and fought.]
[FILM CLIP, Ossie Davis: There are those who will consider it their duty, as friends of the Negro people, to tell us to revile him, to flee, even from the presence of his memory, to save ourselves by writing him out of the history of our turbulent times. Many will ask what Harlem finds to honor in this stormy, controversial and bold young captain—and we will smile. Many will say, "Turn away, away from this man, for he is not a man but a demon, a monster, a subverter and an enemy of the Black man," and we will smile. They will say that he is of hate, a fanatic, a racist, who can only bring evil to the cause for which you struggle! And we will answer and say unto them, "Did you ever talk to Brother Malcolm? Did you ever touch him, or have him smile at you? Did you ever really listen to him? Did he ever do a mean thing? Was he ever himself associated with violence or any public disturbance? For if you did, you would know him. And if you knew him, you would know why we must honor him.]
[FILM CLIP, Ossie Davis: Malcolm was our manhood, our living, Black manhood! This was his meaning to his people. And, in honoring him, we honor the best in ourselves. However much we differed with him or with each other about him and his value as a man, let his going from us serve only to bring us together now. Consigning these mortal remains to Earth, the common mother of all, secure in the knowledge that what we place in the ground is no more now a man but a seed, which, after the winter of our discontent, will come forth again to meet us. And we shall know him then for what he was and is: a prince—our own Black, shining prince!—who did not hesitate to die, because he loved us so.]
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Clarence Lang is the Susan Welch Dean of the College of the Liberal Arts at Penn State University, where he is also a professor of African-American Studies. He is the author of Grassroots at the Gateway: Class Politics and Black Freedom Struggle in St. Louis, 1936-75. He is the co-editor of two books, including Reframing Randolph: Labor, Black Freedom, and the Legacies of A. Philip Randolph. And is currently working on a book entitled Malcolm X: A Political Biography of Black Nationalism and the African-American Working Class.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Teaching Hard History is a podcast from Learning for Justice, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center—helping teachers and schools prepare students to be active participants in a diverse democracy. Learning for Justice provides free teaching materials about slavery and the civil rights movement that include award-winning films and classroom-ready texts. You can find these online at LearningForJustice.org.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Most students leave high school without an understanding of the civil rights movement and its continuing relevance. This podcast is part of an effort to change that. We began by talking about slavery for two seasons. And now we’re tracing the legacy of oppression—and resistance—into the present.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Thanks to Dr. Lang for sharing his insights with us. This podcast was produced by Mary Quintas and senior producer Shea Shackelford. Russell Gragg is our associate producer. “Movement Music” is produced by Barrett Golding. And Gabriel Smith provides content guidance. Amelia Gragg is our intern. Our managing producer is Miranda LaFond. And Kate Shuster is our executive producer.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Our theme song is “The Colors That You Bring” by Damon Locks Black Monument Ensemble, who graciously let us use it for this series. Additional music is from their album Where Future Unfolds. And from Wendel Patrick's JDWP Tribute,
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: If you like what you’ve heard, please share it with your friends and colleagues. And let us know what you think. You can find us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. We always appreciate your feedback.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I’m Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, associate professor of history at The Ohio State University—and your host for Teaching Hard History.
- Clarence Lang, Dean, College of the Liberal Arts, The Pennsylvania State University
- Hasan Kwame Jeffries (editor), Understanding and Teaching the Civil Rights Movement
- Malcolm X, Biography
- PBS American Experience, Malcolm X: Make it Plain
- Teacher's Guide, The Autobiography of Malcolm X
- Learning for Justice, Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association
- Smithsonian, A Brief History of the Zoot Suit
- Scholastic, The Jim Crow North
- Nation of Islam, Honorable Elijah Muhammad Biography Sketch
- Nation of Islam, Brief history on origin of the Nation of Islam
- Wikipedia, Tribe of Shabazz
- WGBH, The Negro and The American Promise (1963)
- Aldon Morris, From Civil Rights to Black Lives Matter, Scientific American
- BlackPast, Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) 1965
- Alex Haley, Biography
- American Historical Association, The Pan-African Movement
- Malcolm X, Legendary Speech: "The Ballot or the Bullet" (video)
- Washington Post, New Malcolm X assassination letter shows NYPD, FBI involvement, his family says
- The Guardian, Malcolm X: Spike Lee's biopic is still absolutely necessary
- Clarence Lang, Grassroots at the Gateway: Class Politics and Black Freedom Struggle in St. Louis, 1936-75
- Clarence Lang, Reframing Randolph: Labor, Black Freedom, and the Legacies of A. Philip Randolph