“We want freedom by any means necessary. We want justice by any means necessary. We want equality by any means necessary.”
“I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it’s for or against. I’m a human being first and foremost, and as such I am for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.”
Malcolm X was somewhat of a radical within the Civil Rights Movement; he disagreed with the approaches taken by many civil rights leaders and activists of his time, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and he was never afraid to confront these points of contention.
Speaking of the treatment of African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement in a famous 1964 Oxford Union debate, Malcolm said,
When a black man strikes back, he is an extremist. He is supposed to sit passively, have no feelings, be nonviolent, and love his enemy, no matter what kind of attack, be it verbal or otherwise, he is supposed to take it.
But if he stands up and in any way tries to defend himself, then he’s an extremist.
The topic of this now-famous Oxford Union debate centered around a quote which is often attributed to Barry Goldwater, but which is generally accepted to be the words of Roman politician and philosopher Cicero. It states:
Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.
Malcolm’s position was to affirm this motion, and to claim that extremism, in the right circumstances, is the only rational and effective response to extreme oppression.
My reason for believing in extremism, intelligently directed extremism, extremism in defense of liberty, extremism in quest of justice, is because I firmly believe in my heart that the day that the black man takes an uncompromising step and realizes that he is within his rights, when his own freedom is being jeopardized, to use any means necessary to bring about his freedom and put a halt to that injustice; I don’t think he’ll be by himself.
Malcolm, in this debate, and as he often did, berated the “wishy-washy, love-thy-enemy-approach” taken by many factions of the civil rights movement.
Over and over again he affirmed the need for “intelligently directed extremism” over passivity.
Malcolm X was not pro-violence; but he was not a pacifist, either. He did not see as virtuous sitting back and doing nothing, thereby allowing others to strip away human liberties and freedoms without resistance.
We are not human beings unless we ourselves ban together and do whatever, however, whenever is necessary and I doubt that any person in here would refuse to do the same thing, were he in the same position, or I should say were he in the same condition.
The word ‘extremism,’ in today’s context, is associated with individuals and groups committing horrible atrocities, or those who are so far out that they should not be taken seriously; those who carried out the tragic events of September 11th, for example, are labeled ‘extremists.’ As are those who believe that the earth is 6,000 years old, those who murder abortion doctors and bomb strip clubs, and those who are generally motivated by their ideas to commit acts of wanton violence and destruction.
But this is not the kind of extremism Malcolm X was advocating, of course.
They call me ‘a teacher, a fomenter of violence.’ I would say point blank, ‘That is a lie. I’m not for wanton violence, I’m for justice.’
Labeling someone an extremist has become an effective way to marginalize a group or an individual, to place them on the fringe, and to discredit their ideas. Sometimes this tactic is necessary, given the examples mentioned above.
In other cases, however, like in the case of the Civil Rights Movement, a form of what Malcolm called “intelligently directed extremism” may be necessary if one’s ideas are being marginalized without justification, if a peoples’ rights are being stomped upon, if progress is being hindered in favor of oppression.
The Wikipedia definition of extremism is quite interesting. It defines extremism as,
…an ideology (particularly in politics or religion), considered to be far outside the mainstream attitudes of a society or to violate common moral standards.
It is often the case, as anyone who dares to look behind the curtains of the so-called “mainstream” knows all too well, that the “mainstream” view on any given issue is often incorrect, immoral, regressive, incredibly harmful, and so on.
On this definition of extremism, everyone involved in the Civil Rights Movement could have been labeled an extremist, as they were taking a stand and calling for all to step beyond the inhuman racial oppression that was “mainstream,” and fight against popular opinion, for liberty and justice.
But if we look upon it, if we look upon ourselves as human beings, I doubt that anyone will deny that extremism, in defense of liberty, the liberty of any human being, is a value.
Anytime anyone is enslaved, or in any way deprived of his liberty, if that person is a human being, as far as I am concerned he is justified to resort to whatever methods necessary to bring about his liberty again.
Given the racial tensions that still play a significant role today, the voice of Malcolm X can be one of clarity and motivation.
Malcolm’s message was simple: action over passivity. Fighting for solutions rather than standing back and waiting for them to come.
Systems of oppression in this country still run strong, and as Michele Alexander argues in her fantastic book The New Jim Crow, these systems of oppression are often just as harmful as they were under the Jim Crow Laws of old.
Anytime you live in a society supposedly based upon law and it doesn’t enforce its own laws because the color of a man’s skin happens to be wrong, then I say those people are justified to resort to any means necessary to bring about justice when the government can’t give them justice.
I am against every form of racism and segregation, every form of discrimination. I believe in human beings, and that all human beings should be respected as such, regardless of their color.
Malcolm X had his flaws, of course, which cannot be overlooked here.
His extreme approach to justice for and liberation of the African American people often led him too far in the other direction, by his own admission.
Prior to his speeches and writings advocating equality for all human beings, Malcolm made, in his words, “sweeping indictments of all white people.” Thereafter he vowed to “never be guilty of that again.” Martin Luther King Jr. claimed that he talked too much of violence, and that the ends they were both fighting for would never be won through violent means.
Malcolm certainly recognized the flaws in some of his ideas and approaches, particularly as he became disillusioned with a particular faction of his religion.
The reality is that “extremism” is a dangerous tool, and, in the wrong hands, it can be devastating. Ideas have consequences.
Thankfully, the “intelligently directed extremism” was used by Malcolm X to inspire constant vigilance and a movement which still resonates.
As with all historical figures, though, we have to be careful about telling their story too perfectly or vilifying them too harshly.
With that said, Malcolm X’s message about action over passivity is one which can be applied to all facets of our society today, whether it is helping to stop the oppression of a people or speaking out against unjust wars and human rights violations.
Once you change your philosophy, you change your thought pattern. Once you change your thought pattern, you change your — your attitude. Once you change your attitude, it changes your behavior pattern and then you go on into some action. As long as you gotta sit-down philosophy, you’ll have a sit-down thought pattern, and as long as you think that old sit-down thought you’ll be in some kind of sit-down action.