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.
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.