by Chris Benjamin
This Saturday, February 21 marks 50 years since Talmadge Hayer, aka Thomas Hagan, a member of the Nation of Islam, and two other men assassinated Malcolm X in front of his wife and four children, putting 21 bullet wounds in his chest, arms, shoulders, and legs.
So ended the life of a man who symbolized not only pride, strength, and dignity for many in the Black community and diaspora, but also transformation – X had been a young hoodlum before becoming an outspoken revolutionary and a radical civil rights voice, then an advocate of Pan-Africanism. That voice echoed far beyond the American heartland from where it originated. It inspired significant change here on the far east coast of Canada.
For this reason Afua Cooper, the James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies at Dalhousie University, is hosting “The Legacy Endures; The Struggle Continues!” at the Halifax North Memorial Library Saturday afternoon.
Isaac Saney, an organizer who is also speaking at the event, notes that the location is a significant and intentional choice. “The north branch library in November 1968 was the site of what was until that time the largest Black political gathering in Canadian history.”
Rocky Jones, dubbed “Rocky the Revolutionary” by the press, had just hosted a visit to Halifax from Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael, and the meeting drew more than 400 people from across the province. Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale had founded the Black Panthers two years earlier to monitor and challenge police brutality. They saw themselves as the heirs of Malcolm X.
The people at the meeting decided to form the Black United Front. That group was modelled after the Black Panthers and presented a more militant perspective to the civil rights movement than Canada had seen before, but one that “came from a justified anger at the slow pace of change,” Saney says. Like the Panthers, BUF also provided community services like creating a park for young children and providing free legal aid to the Black community.
BUF discontinued its work in the mid-nineties (outlasting the Panthers by 14 years), but Saney says Malcolm X and his legacy still resonates in Nova Scotia today. “He influenced prominent Black activists like George Elliott Clarke and Rocky Jones.”
He says there is now an increasing level of frustration among Black Nova Scotian youth. “The education system is failing them. There is a high unemployment rate and a high incarceration rate.”
Malcolm X offers them an attractive perspective and better understanding of the historical, political, and socio-economic conditions that give rise to racism and inequality. “We live in a province that is basically underdeveloped with a tremendous amount of inequality,” Saney says.
“Malcolm X held an uncompromising position on Black rights and spoke of the need to organize, to promote African American unity,” says Saney. That is why groups like the Black United Front can be considered part of his legacy.
Saturday’s event also aims to correct misinformation about a man seemingly stuck in 1964 in the minds of many. For much of his life he was known for racially combative views, referring to white people as “blue-eyed devils.”
What is forgotten is that his intellectual and political analysis of oppression evolved, that he broke with his earlier views and embraced pan-Africanism, or the solidarity of Africans worldwide. “He went to Africa, London, and his analysis of the roots of racism and oppression deepened in a very profound way,” Saney explains.
“A lot of that was based on his own study.” In Algeria he realized that armed struggle against an oppressor was engaged in reluctantly, in the face of an unrelenting, intractable colonial power.
During this period he founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity to create a cooperative human rights movement among people of African descent throughout the Americas. It was based on similar unity efforts he witnessed in Africa in the spring of 1964.
According to Saney, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. have more in common that most people realize. Traditionally, the two are seen as representing opposite views of the civil rights movement: on one end the reasonable and peaceful King and at the other the violent and hateful Malcolm X.
But in reality, X influenced King during the last year of King’s life, when he became critical of capitalism, looking more systemically at racial oppression, most notably in his July 4, 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech in New York City. “King disagreed with Malcolm X’s methods but understood the revolutionaries and also criticized US Foreign Policy and capitalism,” Saney says. “The content is very similar to what Malcolm X is saying.”
Although King never accepted violence as a tactic, he refused to condemn revolutionaries, and even acknowledged that the civil rights movement had to take a more militant stand and question the connections between capitalism, racism, poverty, and imperialism. And while Malcolm X is associated with violence, he “never advocated violence for violence sake; he advocated armed self-defence in the face of unrelenting state violence against the Black community and terrorist acts by the KKK.”
It’s never wise to assume someone will attend an event just because they clicked “join” on Facebook, but in this case 129 people have done just that – more than half of those invited. Saney is expecting a large turnout for presentations by Afua Cooper on X’s religious life, Halifax poet laureate El Jones on X’s prisoner rights activism, John Munroe on X’s international focus during his final years, and Saney comparing X with Martin Luther King. Rhonda Britton of the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church will moderate.