When he took his place behind the podium
at Brown Chapel AME Church and began his address to young civil
rights activists in Selma, Alabama, Malcolm X had less than three
weeks to live. Invited to speak by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating
Committee (SNCC), Malcolm traveled to Selma to address 500 people
on February 4, 1965, 17 days before his execution on a fateful
afternoon in Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom.
SNCC’s endeavor to increase Black voter registration in Selma
was thwarted by the local registrar’s relentless efforts to block
the Black vote, which included “opening” the office to Blacks
only a few hours a month, and refusing to process the voter registration
applications of the few Blacks who managed to obtain them. Nearly
a century after the 15th Amendment granted the right to vote to
Blacks, tactics like those employed by Selma’s registrar ensured
that Black political participation would not gain footing. Indeed,
in 1965, though nearly 33,000 Blacks were in Dallas County, which
encompasses Selma, a mere 335 were registered.
Unsatisfied with SNCC’s progress, local leaders asked Martin
Luther King, Jr. to help promote the voter registration effort.
Shortly after his arrival in Selma, King led a 400-person march
to the Dallas County Courthouse, but was met by Sheriff James
Clark, who said that the office was closed for the day. On February
1, 1965 King was arrested after a second attempt to register Blacks.
Fearing that they would lose momentum by King’s incarceration,
SNCC leaders invited Malcolm to speak in Selma.
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Malcolm’s arrival in Selma was met with great anticipation. In
stark contrast to King’s racial integration
and non-violent social protest philosophy, Malcolm preached a
message of Black nationalism and self-defense, a message that
terrified whites and both inspired and disturbed Blacks.
In one of his first civil rights addresses following his separation
from the Nation of Islam, Malcolm spoke about the need to defend
against the broadening class distinctions in the Black community,
and about the necessity for the Black masses to uncompromisingly
engage in the revolution occurring in Selma.
Speaking metaphorically, Malcolm explained that “there were two
kinds of Negroes” during slavery: “There was that old house Negro
and the field Negro.”
Though he recognized that house Negroes caught the same “hell”
as field Negroes, Malcolm used the house/field Negro metaphor
to explain that he would stay outside of the American “house,”
and would pray for fire – and wind – to destroy it if whites refused
to respect Blacks as human beings in it.
Identifying himself as a “field Negro,” Malcolm, to a roaring
applause, said: “If I can’t live in the house as a human being,
I’m praying for that house to blow down, I’m praying for a strong
wind to come along.” “But,” Malcolm concluded, “if we are all
going to live as human beings, as brothers, then I am for a society
of human beings that can practice brotherhood.”
After his speech, Andrew Young
asked King’s wife, Mrs. Coretta Scott King, to re-emphasize the
importance of a non-violent approach. Malcolm explained to Mrs.
King that his intentions were not to complicate matters, but rather
to show resistant whites in Selma that an alternative philosophy
awaited them if they did not negotiate with her husband.
Indeed, in his "Ballot
or the Bullet" speech in 1964, Malcolm shared his political
philosophy of Black nationalism, which urged Blacks to recognize
that their "ballots are like bullets," which should
not be thrown away on politicians who were non-responsive to their
specific needs. "You don't [cast] your ballots until you
see a target," he asserted, “and if that target is not within
your reach, you keep your ballot in your pocket."
Notably, shortly after Malcolm’s visit to Selma, a federal judge,
responding to a suit brought by the Department of Justice, required
Dallas County registrars to process at least 100 Black applications
each day their offices were open.
On February 21, 1965, 17 days after
his speech in Selma, Malcolm’s remarkable life was cut short by
the gunfire of three assassins in New York City. He did not live
to see the Selma-to-Montgomery march the following month that
focused the attention of the nation and the world on the issue
of Black voting rights. He did not live to see the many fruits
of his tireless labor, including the passage of the Voting Rights
Act of 1965, perhaps the greatest piece of civil rights legislation
in history. The Voting Rights Act provided the foundation for
today’s Selma in which Blacks represent the majority of
the city council and school board, and in which James Perkins
recently took office as the city’s first Black
mayor. Malcolm did not live to see these strides either.
Forty years after his assassination, the impact of Malcolm’s
life and legacy on American culture generally, and on Black people
in particular, cannot be overstated. Malcolm’s unwavering commitment
to Black nationalism helped to produce the great winds that the
he prayed for forty years ago, winds that sought to dismantle
a society in which Blacks existed as second-class citizens, and
winds that set a new course for Black identity and empowerment.
Ryan Paul Haygood is an attorney in New York City.