Malcolm X Reconsidered

2010 November 16

Ferruccio Gambino provides another way of thinking about the emergence and importance of a figure like Malcolm X.

The man then called Malcom Little entered the place then called the Norfolk Prison Colony in 1948.

The transgression of a laborer:  Malcolm X in the wilderness of America

by Ferruccio Gambino

What led a group of young black convicts in the late 1940s and early 1950s and particularly one of them, Malcolm X, to see the U.S. as an imperial power? In a time of lonely crowds, retreat into domesticity, and feverish patriotism, the emergence of a group of young blacks debating in the corner of a Massachusetts penitentiary courtyard the issue of a world out of joint must have appeared to authorities as a curious aberration. In retrospect, it was the birth of a movement that would shift from a chiliastic condemnation of the white world to a more pointed withdrawal from specific aspects of European and American civilizations.

How the generation of African Americans who came of age in the 1940s shaped its cultural identity is now beginning to become a subject of inquiry. (1) This essay looks at some events in the development of one young man– Malcolm X-who shaped that identity as much as any single individual. It suggests how Malcolm X came to occupy the double political space of “the immigrant” transgressively and how that self-location in relation to the American state violated the written and unwritten codes of legitimate political behavior. It also suggests how Malcolm X’s transgression increasingly became a source of radicalization from the early 1950s on.

By “double political space” I mean the creation of a new allegiance to the country in which immigrants have settled, in conjunction with the often more tenuous devotion to the links with the country of origin. In general, the modern state tolerates immigrants’ attempts to keep their double political space, its attitude being one of cautious patience, swinging towards intolerance during periods of international tension or war. The maintenance of immigrants’ links to both their country of origin and country of resettlement has provided the state with informal means of influencing the political course of both. But sometimes the state demands a more exclusive allegiance and reduces the immigrant’s choice to leaving or breaking ties to a “foreign” symbolic and material universe.

For those who were not voluntary immigrants–slaves and descendants of slaves in the New World–the bonds linking them to Africa had to be established and reestablished in each generation. For long periods of time the memory of a link could be transmitted in no more than a whisper. African people in the New World had opinions on the conduct of African affairs and on U.S. foreign policy in general. These were part of their attempt to escape from the ghetto of political debate where the issue of emancipation versus slavery was supposed to keep them. Runaway slaves could take a public stand against the occupation of Mexican territories, black newspapers could welcome the Ethiopian victory against Italian troops at Aduwa, and nurses in Harlem could send medicines to Ethiopians during the fascist invasion of Ethiopia in 1935-36. However, in the first part of the twentieth century, Pan-Africanism remained on the edge of the U.S. political arena. (2)

Thus African-American leadership, like much of U.S. ethnic leadership, has sometimes asserted itself in a context of dissent from the empire. When it has done so while showing sympathy for international movements, it found itself on the same wavelength as the anticolonial forces that challenged imperial rule.

To comprehend the nature and significance of Malcolm X’s and his fellow inmates’ transgressions is to understand the ideological discipline of the state. The modern state constitutes itself upon the separation between friends and enemies. It owns a monopoly of legitimate power, the absolute power necessary to draw a line between national interest and treason, to obtain allegiance at home. It cannot tolerate the possibility that its foundations may be shaken by an absolute hostility generated from within. Conflict is tolerable as long as it is projected outward. In such a context external alliances and rivalries, friendship and enmity–in short, foreign policy–fall within the confines of the power of the modern state, and can only be modified by the parties forming the backbone of the state and holding the monopoly of politics. War can only take place between territories endowed with sovereignty. At home, whoever does not conform is bound to be defined as a special kind of enemy, an internal enemy, and to be identified as a conspirator with a foreign power. In the twentieth century the working-class movement at its best had to walk the tightrope separating “treason” from subservience to the state. Thus I will present a case of absolute proletarian hostility at home that leaned on what the state apparatus itself called “a fictitious country,” later to become a dawning anticolonial uprising “in the East.” Yet the vigilant eye of the state perceived that such a movement represented enough of a danger to track and follow its members closely.

The state’s late discovery of a collective symbolic reality one shade removed from its official gods has often ended in a redefinition of the state and its pantheon, or in the demise of both. When religious and civil aspirations are oriented to a geographically distant universe, they assume an overtone of political transgression. Although obsolete gods belonging to the state’s official past are often tolerated, foreign divinities become easily suspect, particularly when the line between religious dissent and political agitation becomes blurred. Obviously, suspicion grows together with surveillance when the urge for “national security” becomes feverish. Thus, in post-World War n America, surveillance against “the internal enemy” became particularly intense around the Korean War. It was at that time that the FBI developed an interest in Malcolm Little, a young ex-con who worked as a grinder in a Detroit truck factory, and was an advocate of a “cult,” the Nation of Islam (NOI) in his free time. Nation members, according to an FBI statement, considered themselves to be “citizens of Islam … a fictitious country the Muslims claim is Egypt” (3) The FBI surveillance file begun in February 1953 is an excellent way to trace Malcolm’s journey through and refusals of the key American institutions of army, prison, and factory. (4)

The Army: “Like a Huge Tidal Wave”

Commenting on his impending risk of being drafted in 1943, Malcolm X remarked in his Autobiography: “In those days only three things in the world scared me: jail, a job and the Army.” (5) In one of its briefings on the “Nation of Islam Cult,” the FBI stated that “members disavow their allegiance to the United States … and do not consider it their duty to register for Selective Service or to serve in the United States Armed Forces as they cannot serve two masters.” (6) The question should then have been why a “subject” such as Malcolm X had refused the draft when he had literally no masters (7) and had spread the rumor that he was willing to join the Japanese army. (8) Pro-Japanese sympathies were developing in the colonized world after Pearl Harbor, and the streets of Harlem were not immune to them. (9) In December 1942, Nation of Islam leaders went on trial in Chicago for what the police viewed as a pro-Japanese demonstration, a story that made waves in the northeastern ghettoes. It was from the most peripheral of these waves in the Harlem underground that Malcolm X picked up the idea of threatening the draft board with his intention of serving in the Japanese army, an idea, as Malcolm had rightly; assumed, the draft board was not able to dismiss as a bluff. (10) For the draft board in Harlem, Malcolm X belonged not to the Japanese empire, but to the realm of madness. However, when he was alone with the army psychiatrist his feigned paranoid behavior came closer to home:

“Suddenly I sprang up and peeped under both doors, the one I’d entered and another that probably was a closet. And then I bent and whispered fast in his ear. ‘Daddy-o, now you and me, we’re from up North here, so don’t you tell nobody… I want to get sent down South. Organize them nigger soldiers, you dig? Steal us some guns, and kill us crackers!” (11)

This made Malcolm just a psychiatric case: “On 25 October 1943 the subject was found mentally disqualified for military service for the following reason: psychotic personality, inadequate, sexual perversion, psychiatric rejection,” and dismissed with a 4-F rating. (l2) At about the same time that the U.S. army discovered that the Japanese empire was not trying to recruit Malcolm X, the U.S. army was actually trying to recruit Japanese citizens detained in U.S. concentration camps, an attempt contrary to the Geneva Convention (13)

Malcolm X’s fight against the armed forces seemed to be over by late 1943. There was no ideological posture to his draft dodging, and the only price he had to pay was a reputation as the “Detroit Red, a little crazy.” Malcolm’s confrontation with the state was still indirect, a proof of how difficult it was for a young black man in the early 1940s to build an identity that would oppose institutional authority.

In prison from 1946, his fight against the draft became dormant for a few years, as he was confronted with another facet of state power. His fears of the draft arose again when rumors about the Korean War were spreading in mid-1950, during his forty-second month in jail. He knew that the state apparatus would continue to invest a large amount of paranoia in its chosen enemies. Now that the Japanese had become friends, communists were the targets. At a time when many leftists and ex-leftists denied ever having had connections with communists, Malcolm the Muslim and an old connoisseur of paranoia, spread the word that he was a communist.

As rumors of war in Korea intensified, Malcolm X no longer doubted that he had to side with the enemy to avoid the draft. Clearly, it was “better to be jailed by the devil” than to have to serve in his armed forces. It was better to hit the bottom rather than “trying to walk up the side of a hill of feathers.” (14)

On 29 June 1950, the day that Congress passed legislation to extend the draft for one year, and five days before the beginning of the Korean War, “the Subject mailed a letter from which [name deleted] copied the following information: “Tell … to get in shape. It looks like another war. I have always been a Communist. I have tried to enlist in the Japanese Army last war, now they will never draft or accept me in the U.S. Army. Everyone had always said Malcolm is crazy so it isn’t hard to convince people that I am.”‘ In afit of honesty, the informer added under the heading “Connections with the Communist Party … excerpts from letters written by subject”: “These excerpts were not quotes, but rather notes jotted down. (15)

Malcolm X’s fears of being drafted were justified because he knew that belonging to the Nation of Islam was not going to exempt him from military service. He needed the additional shields of communism and craziness to protect him from Uncle Sam. But these were also obstacles to obtaining the parole for which he was going to become eligible in February 1951, after five years in jail. That the Nation of Islam was not immune from the draft was made clear by the arrests of four of its members in San Diego, California, in September 1950–the first such case since World War II–on charges of conspiracy and failure to register. When the charges were brought on 7 November 1950, the San Diego Union reported: “All four gave their surnames as “X” but the government listed them differently … E. C. Richardson, agent in charge of the FB.I. office here, said the suspects informed him they are not required to register with the United States to go into the army where they would be ‘required to kill our Asiatic brother in Korea.’ He said there was no bona fide religious rejection [sic] to killing, but only to killing Asiatics. They had no scruples, apparently, against an enemy composed of ‘white devils.’ (l6)

Three days later the Army Surgeon General’s Office issued a recommendation to end the 4-F status, the status that Malcolm had been given in 1943, and now favored “deferment and limited service for the unfit.” (17) An article that appeared in the Colony in January I951 which reflected the views of inmates hoping to be paroled in exchange for military Service, sounded even more menacing to Malcolm: “Round-the-clock work shifts, blood donations, war bond contributions, dangerous but vital medical experiments performed on convict volunteers were but a few of the offerings made by the cast-offs of society. Many men were released to the armed services and proved themselves dependable soldiers…. Today the problem of convict participation in American defense is again being broached.” (18)

Although the Colony was unaware of MacArthur’s unsuccessful attempt to dispose of some fifty atomic bombs by throwing them on the Chinese people on 30 December 1950, the Norfolk Prison Colony monthly had, nevertheless, a sense of the new decisions being made in Washington, D.C., at that time. After losing the atomic monopoly, the U.S. doubled its armed forces from 1.5 million to 3 million soldiers. There would be room for almost any fit young man. Luckily for Malcolm, there was no place for troublemakers. His triple-shield tactics of proclaiming himself a Muslim, a communist, and a crazy had worked. He was denied parole early in 1951, and had to stay in jail some eighteen months more, but the risk of being drafted was over, or a least until he went to work for Gar Wood in late January or early February 1953.

Now dangerous as an advocate of the Nation of Islam in the Detroit ghettoes, Malcolm the grinder was tracked down by the FBI at the Car Wood factory on 17 February 1953, while he was wearing his overalls and goggles and moving around truck frames “cleaning after” better paid welders. It is possible, but not certain, that the FBI’s order to Malcolm to register at once was an implicit warning against his public activism for the Nation of Islam. It is certain that after 17 February 1953, Malcolm increasingly became a “subject” of surveillance. Although Malcolm pretended he did not know that ex-convicts should register, and though the FBI believed in his ignorance, the Plymouth, Michigan, draft board denied him the status of conscientious objector, thus conforming to a general policy towards Nation of Islam inductees. Malcolm would never know that the Plymouth draft board verdict was heavy: “The subject mentally disqualified for military service … because of asocial personality with paranoid trends (Pre-psychotic schizophrenia).” (19)

For the draft board, Malcolm Little was crazy but useful as a grinder at the car Wood factory. Contrary to the Harlem draft board, the Michigan bureaucrats found him free of “sexual perversion,” apparently a disease contracted by people who do not sell themselves on the legal labor market. Yet, although Malcolm could not belong to any other nation–and least of all to the Nation of Islam–he still belonged to the realm of another madness.

Jail: “Not Even the White Man Himself”

By V-J Day, Malcolm could claim that he had been able to “flunk” military service, withdraw from laboring in menial jobs, move into “the jungle,” and set up his own gang in Boston. Now he was no longer his fellow Pullman porters’ “Sandwich Red.” His new names came from “the hustle”: Detroit Red, Rhythm Red, Jack Carlton. (20) They were not names of his choosing, they were jungle names. None of them could or should unveil his real story; all of them were supposed to hide it. The gang that Malcolm put together and headed in Boston could not last long. The forces of conformity struck back in full force with the return of the soldiers, postwar industrial reconversion, isolated family life for women, and retreat to the ghettoes for black men. (21)

In January 1946, his tightrope walking in the social limbo of juvenile burglars came to an end. A hole was shot through his life when he was sentenced to ten years for breaking and entering. After his conversion to the Nation of Islam in the late 1940s while behind bars, Malcolm’s view of work changed, but not his view of prison or military service. He was now willing to “work hard” in industry rather than taking a “soft job” in the _low-paying service sector where he had worked in the early 1940s.” (22) As for prison, he continued to maintain that “it is better to be jailed by the devil for serving Allah than it is to be allowed by the devil to walk free. The time is coming for the devils to be destroyed.” (23)

Regarding military service, his consistent opposition to it epitomizes his lifelong hostility to the state’s power “to impress” young blacks.

After months of nihilistic despair, and thanks to the esteem accorded him by his fellow inmate and workmate, “Bimbi,” at the Charlestown State Prison, Malcolm–now convict No. 22843–was able to gain enough self-respect to pause and reflect on his life. Very little is known about “Bimbi,” “a light, kind of red-complexioned Negro, as I was.” (24) And although it is almost certain that either his first name or his family name was Alexander, it has been impossible so far to find any written record of his presence in the Massachusetts prisons in the late 1940s. According to a fellow inmate, “Bimbi” emerges from the world of shadows as widely traveled, fluent in Arabic, possibly an old sympathizer of Garveyism, encouraging Malcolm X and his friends on their way to Islam, but keeping a distance from them. In those prisons, as early as 1947, there was already a group of young blacks among whom “the name of Garvey,” who had died in London exile seven years before, “came up quite often.” (25) As the son of the Garveyite preacher was finding his way to the Nation of Islam and the teachings of its leader, Elijah Muhammad, he discovered how to “stick together.” (26) “I have to admit a sad, shameful fact,” he recalled in his autobiography. “I had so loved being around the white man that in prison I really disliked how Negro convicts stuck together so much. But when Mr. Muhammad’s teachings reversed my attitude towards my black brothers, in my guilt and shame I began to catch every chance I could to recruit for Mr. Muhammad.” (27)

After his transfer from Charlestown to the Concord State Reformatory in January 1947, and then to the milder Norfolk Prison Colony “in late 1948,” Malcolm’s early endeavors to proselytize among his fellow inmates bore fruits that even the sleepy surroundings of the Norfolk Prison Colony came to notice.28 On 21 April 1950, the front page of the Springfield Morning News carried a curious two-column title: “Local Criminals, in Prison, Claim Moslem Faith New: Grow Beards, Won’t Eat Pork; Demand East-Facing Cells to Facilitate ‘Prayers to Allah’.” (29) One of the four names revealed by the Springfield newspaper was Malcolm Little. (30) While the guards were keeping “the four under close surveillance,” the prison colony warden said “he had absolutely no idea who or what converted the quartet, pointing out that they first announced their decision to pray to Allah at the Norfolk Prison Colony.” (31) On denying that “the four … have been granted any special privileges by him,” Warden O’Brien “admitted they do have cells that face eastward, but declared that they are just ‘regular cells’.” (32)

Malcolm X had bargained for this as well as other “privileges” with the Norfolk prison authorities. (33) As much as the future orator ]earned from the Norfolk debating teams and from the Norfolk library for the inmates, at the bargaining table he discovered new uses for the old gambler’s cool, a skill that he later also needed with police in Harlem and elsewhere. (34)

From the iceberg of Malcolm X’s activities on the Norfolk debating teams, a tip emerges in The Colony, the Norfolk prisoners’ monthly newspaper. It is an article signed Malcolm Little, the third in a series summarizing the inmates’ debate for or against capital punishment. Malcolm opened his article with an implicit atomic era attack on the aggressive principle of deterrence, a taboo topic in the early Cold War years. “The whole history of penology,” he wrote, “is a refutation of the deterrence theory, yet this theory, that murder by the state can repress murder by individuals, is the eternal cry for the retention of Capital Punishment” (35)

On the basis of an inquiry among murderers at Sing Sing, and of criminal behavior during public executions in England, Malcolm refuted the idea that the death penalty is dreaded more than life imprisonment

“If the professional or architect of the so-called “perfect” murder knew that he would almost certainly be executed we would have fewer murders of a certain type. But such actual deterrence can only result from mandatory death penalties, almost perfect detective forces, incorruptible police and judiciary, juries unswayed by human emotions and a stern pardoning power. These unobtainable would result in such a large number of executions that the defenders of the death penalty would stand aghast.” (36)

In his long quarrel with the authority of the state, Malcolm X wanted to make clear that there was an invulnerable sphere of personal independence that no appeal to self-interest, and not even the ultimate power of the state t, commit murder, could violate.

Yet, at the same time he could bargain effectively with representatives of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Department of Corrections. For his style of bargaining, he was learning fast from the history books at the Norfolk library. One of his readings was Pierre Van Paassen’s Days of Our Years, in which the author vividly presented the awakening of the working class in the provincial city of Gorcum, in his native Holland, on the eve of World War I:

“What was the world coming to? Klaas Verhey, a brewery worker,who had never paid a cent of taxes in his life, sitting in with the honored city fathers…. A new spirit invaded the community for one thing, the shipyard workers no longer drifted home at nights in small groups or singles. They came marching home in a body, like a battalion of soldiers, stamping their clogs in rhythmic cadence, ten, twelve abreast…. Next they were planning to open a night school, a popular university they called it. That was another of Klaas Verheys ideas. There were to be classes in literature, history, social science, and in economics, of course· Now what in the name of heaven was the good of that.? Evening classes, but no church attendance . . . (37)

The process by which Malcolm reshaped his identity in prison was a recuperation of a past buried under his hustling experience. On turning inward, this son of a Baptist preacher who was an advocate of Garveyism and of an articulate and perceptive West Indian immigrant woman never really yielded to white society, although he had desired to be accepted by it. In the months of his conversion to Islam he wanted to be himself. “I was going through the hardest thing,” he recalled, “also the greatest thing, for any human being to do; to accept that which is already within you, and around you.” (38)

While his spiritual exercise consisted of experiencing the polarities of hatred and love, pride and humility–an exploration of his human potential -he was also looking for his forgotten self, and for his ability to dominate outside forces: “I was guided by hate, envy and the craving for revenge … deluded by my own vanity and self-esteem; I was blinded with my own ignorance and false sense of reasoning. In my effort to justify my many self-inflicted wrongs, I placed the blame upon everyone except the one who was mainly responsible for all of my troubles … myself.” (39) On turning outward, Malcolm’s conversion to the Nation of Islam was also his way of discovering a nonwhite, non-European world with a wider reach than Pan-Africanism. (40) Acquiring a world dimension in a prison cell through a non-Christian theology might have been a sign of Malcolm’s early disquiet with Elijah Muhammad’s teachings.

In his later years in jail, Malcolm had to let his religious and political discourse on the rising “darker races” coexist with his teacher’s apocalyptic prophecies of the coming Doomsday for the white man and for all the blacks who did not break away from him. “My brother,” he wrote in a letter, “never stop feeling in Allah, for we are so near the Day of Total Destruction there is no time to take a chance of putting the time to stop sinning off. By sinning I mean trying to be white instead of trying being ourselves.” In another of Malcolm’s letters, Elijah Muhammad’s static vision of Hell clashed with his own dynamic earthly vision of salvation by “the Dark People:” “Allah stands in the midst of hell, teaching against the very boss of Hell (satan) and the devil can’t stop Him proves [sic] that the devil’s time is up and they have no more power…. All over the World the Dark Peoples know that the devil’s time is up, and these Dark Peoples want to sweep down like a huge Tidal Wave and wash the devils from this planet.” (41)

Without disputing that the doom prophesied by Elijah Muhammad was Allah’s own doing, after his release from jail Malcolm perceived salvation as coming at first from the anticolonial East, and later increasingly from within the U.S. In the Autobiography, Malcolm seemed to claim the independence of his own pursuit of truth while he was in prison: “Ten guards and the warden couldn’t have torn me out of those books. Not even Elijah Muhammad could have been more eloquent than those books were in providing indisputable proof that the collective white man had acted like a devil in virtually every contact he had with the world’s collective non-white man.” (42) Malcolm’s absolute faith in and reliance power of communication comes through in a letter he wrote in prison, at what appeared to be the height of his antiwhite feelings: “This truth is so strong and clear that not even the white man himself will deny it once he knows we know. (43)

During his years in prison he had seen that with proper tactics it was difficult but not impossible for a black debating team to beat a white team. Even guards would wander over to hear Bimbi’s eloquence. The question became how to psychologically shock whites so that they would be forced to reconsider their stereotypes. Striking a responsive chord in the white man was not unthinkable, but the secret was a black collective endeavor: “we know” had necessarily to come before his knowing.

A Job: From “The Colonial” to the Colony

Did Malcolm become a member of “the industrial proletariat” only when he started working on a “hard” blue-collar job in Detroit, months after his release from prison in August 1952? Or can one trace a work trajectory that places his entry into “the industrial proletariat” at a much earlier date? The answer can flow only from the preliminary consideration that soft pay went along with speed-ups in the restaurants and trains where he had worked during World War II. It was only during the Korean War that he could get an almost “white” wage at Ford and at Gar Wood in Detroit.

The first wage-earning job Malcolm X held was as a dishwasher at a Mason, Michigan, restaurant when he was fourteen and residing at the Ingham County Juvenile Home. (44) Malcolm’s individual fight—at least until he went to jail in 194~-took the form of avoiding dishwashing while staying alive. On leaving Mason in 1941, he went to live in Boston, where he was first employed as a shoeshine boy at the Roseland State Ballroom, then as a soda fountain clerk at the Townsend Drug Store in Roxbury, and afterwards as a busboy at the Parker House. (45) Thanks to the mobilization following Pearl Harbor, seventeen-year-old Malcolm (who pretended to be twenty) got a job as a Pullman porter, at first “helping to load food requisitions onto the trains,” then as a “fourth cook” on “The Colonial” that still runs to Washington, D.C. (46) He later decided to work this way: “Fourth cook, I knew, Was just a glorified name for dishwasher…. The kitchen crew… worked with almost unbelievable efficiency in the cramped quarters. Against the sound of the train clacking along, the waiters were jabbering the customers’ orders, the cooks operated like machines, and five hundred miles of dirty pots and dishes and silverware rattled back to me.” (47)

All the porters were under pressure from increased traffic during the war. Yet, noted the Black Worker, the journal of the Brother. hood of Sleeping Car porters, “the Pullman porter continues to smile and pays his union dues.” (48) The lack of upward mobility for porters was stifling, and it insured the enforcement of discipline before Pearl Harbor. A. Philip Randolph noted, “These Pullman porter instructors and the Pullman superintendents had one of the most successful psychological programs that could be devised, built upon the concept of the inferiority of the Negro as a race, and that certain jobs you can’t get you can’t do, and therefore you’ve got to make good on the job you have.” (49)

After isolation at the sink, Malcolm X was able to snatch a job as Sandwich man, come in contact with the passengers, and prove to himself and his workmates that he could match “their uncle Tomming to get bigger tips.”50 However, he eventually began to withdraw, and set his own terms for relating to passengers. It was pattern of transformation similar to the one he went through in the eighth grade at Mason High School. His waywardness as a sandwich man was the beginning of a change that was a general social phenomenon, the longest “smile” strike by young black people in U.S. history, a strike that would haunt acquisitive optimism in the U.S. and would send tremors of guilt and fear through affluent society. Now that the psychology of “Uncle Tomming” was working in reverse, Malcolm was provoking the Pullman company to fire him at the time the process of collective embitterment of black Americans was intensifying. As James Baldwin later wrote, “The treatment accorded the Negro during the Second World War marks, for me, a turning point in the Negro’s relation to America. Put somewhat too simply a certain hope died, a certain respect for white Americans faded.” (51)

Walter Benjamin wrote that while the bourgeoisie has looked at Its children as future heirs, the disinherited have looked at their children as relievers, avengers, liberators.” (52) In their ambivalence to Malcolm X’s waywardness, the old porters who had silently suffered their toll of indignities could probably sense that young blacks’ waywardness was tolerable as long as it was cracking fixed occupational roles, and as long as it was a promise that old wrongs would be redressed. After being fired by the Pullman Company, Malcolm X became a waiter in Harlem, but shortly thereafter–except for a brief period as a dishwasher at a speakeasy in Harlem– his descent into numbers, drug peddling, “steering,” and burglary went unchecked.

After Malcolm was imprisoned in 1946, a wageless assembly line in the Charlestown “bastille” was waiting for him. Malcolm X-No. 22843–had shifted from preprison “soft” jobs in the service sector to “hard” blue-collar work”‘ “Bimbi,” his mentor at Charlestown and later at the Concord State Reformatory, worked with him in the license plate shop. Bimbi “operated the machine that stamped out the numbers” while Malcolm was positioned along the conveyor belt where the numbers were painted. (55) Although we lack a description of the working conditions at the Charlestown license plate shop in 1947, we can safely assume that a complaint by a captured escapee about conditions there in 1946 did not precipitate any changes. On 27 February 1946, the same day Malcolm and the four members of his gang were sentenced in Boston, a Charlestown convict was recaptured after thirty-three hours of freedom, “one of the most daring escapes in recent years from the 140-year-old Charlestown bastille.” (56)

Asked by a Boston Daily Globe journalist why he had wanted to escape, he had this to say: “I was working in the auto number-plate shop at the prison. The noise there, the hammering of the machines, and the smell of paint, I just couldn’t stand it any longer.” (57)

In 1947, Malcolm X (now No. 33428) was moved from the autonumber-plate shop at Charlestown to another “cave” at the Concord State Reformatory. This time Malcolm’s workplace was probably a coal warehouse, where he could work alone, at his own pace. At the Norfolk Prison Colony he probably worked at the woodworking shop, that is, “inside, as against the “farm.” (59) We know that regardless of his job, Malcolm must have been among the inmates who, being part of the debating team, argued publicly and privately about the issue of the Massachusetts prisoners’ totally wageless labor. During Malcolm X’s years in prison, Massachusetts was one of twenty-five states that denied monetary compensation to prisoners. The State also ranked third lowest, in a tie with North Carolina, in deducting prison time for good conduct. (60)

In 1946, Massachusetts had enacted legislation “relative to the system of compensation for inmates of certain penal institutions in connection with prison industries.” (61) But there was still no money. In the next few years the Massachusetts prisoners’ papers stirred up controversy between inmates and the state officials, and the prison press published many articles “concerning the industrial wage law for prisoners.” (62) The state’s response continued to be negative.

The contested terrain was whether to pay ten or thirty cents a day. Yet the legislators had granted payment on one condition, that the prison industries–in the estimation of the state’s comptroller show a sufficient profit to warrant wages. “So far, his opinion has been that the profits have not been sufficient.” (63) However, shortly before June 1950, the commissioner of corrections announced “the State Prison Colony at Norfolk is beginning to show a sufficient profit to warrant payment of wages to all inmates of that institution. A few months later, Malcolm X was transferred back to the old Charlestown bastille where conditions remained so bad that two weeks before Malcolm was released the third revolt in seven years exploded there. (65) Malcolm remained aloof. In prison he had learned the patient skill of knitting. (66)

A Job: “Until All of the Wrinkles Are Ironed Out”

When he was released from jail in August 1952, Malcolm went to live with his eldest brother Wilfred and his family in the suburban Detroit ghetto of Inkster. Malcolm became a salesman at a furniture store in the black ghetto of Detroit between August 1952 and the beginning of 1953. “In early 1953, he recalled in his autobiography, “I left the furniture store. I earned a little better weekly paycheck working in the Gar Wood factory in Detroit. Where big garbage truck bodies were made I cleaned up behind the welders each time they finished another truck body:” (67) Malcolm did not mention that before being hired by Gar Wood he had spent a week as a final assembler at the brand-new Ford Wayne Assembly Plant in January 1953· thus automatically joining United Auto Workers Local 900. (68) The boom associated with the Korean War was speeding up the Detroit assembly lines. At the Ford Wayne Assembly Plant the Lincoln-Mercury final assemblers could see and feel prosperity come all the way down the line in an hourly rhythm. Walter Reuther’s UAW was taking precautions to get a smooth operation out of its members. The following announcements were issued by Local 900 three months after Malcolm had left, but they convey an idea of the atmosphere in the plant before the end of the Korean War: “An afternoon shift will soon be established. Line speeds will be proportionately reduced to a minimum, as bottlenecks are worked out, and manpower reallocated. The expected production will be 15 per hour then a gradual increase following a breakdown period.” (69) Poststrike “reconversion” was especially hard after a wildcat. The announcement continues, “Usually after a strike many problems arise. Just like a post war period a readjustment is necessary. The first week following a strike, for example, 600 people didn’t show for work. Lines were undermanned and it was necessary to police each operation until all of the wrinkles are ironed out.” (70)

The UAW was doing a bit of shop-floor labor statesmanship in favor of the manning of the afternoon shift: “Although, [sic] the afternoon shift hours are disagreeable to a lot of people there are many compensating factors for those employees taking the afternoon shift. Those working on the afternoon shift received a five percent increase tacked on to their hourly wage. In addition to that, while contract calls for equalization of overtime between shifts, it is more likely that the afternoon shift workers for emergency reasons would get more overtime. For those who desire more than eight hours of work a day, it would be advisable to take the afternoon shift. It is reasonably assumed that it is possible for the day shift workers to work overtime because of overlapping of shifts. However, your Local Union will make every attempt to equalize overtime regardless of shifts.” (71)

As for the working conditions on the final assembly line, UAW shop steward Peanuts Antaya, apparently a man in the middle, had this to say in the UAW Local 900 Bulletin: “That London fog you see at the end of the Final Line is not London fog–it’s smoke, brother -smoke from the exhausts of driven cars…. If your operation is too tight–I want to know–maybe it’s because you are not doing the job in accordance with time study or maybe you are getting a snow job from your foreman.” (72)

In the tightness of the operation at Ford and later at Gar Wood, Malcolm X was a pioneer in experiencing how to quickly turn to the east for his ritual prayer on the assembly line. On the other side of the Atlantic twenty years later, times had changed: even “before the strike, workers knelt on a cardboard to pray next to the assembly line,” a gain Malcolm did not stay around long enough to bargain for in the U.S. (74) Neither did he stay to hear about the Fair Employment Practices Commission meetings at the Local 900 Union Hall: “Now that our new hall is available (it has been painted and decorated) a meeting of the FEPC Committee will be called in accordance with our constitution. The FEPC Committee, in conjunction with the NAACP will work harmoniously during the months of April, May and June of this year.

At Ford and then Gar Wood, Malcolm plunged into “hard work” again, but this time it was waged. Officially he remained a “laborer, as he had always been defined, and at Gar Wood he was classified as a “grinder, “general term applied to a worker who pulverizes material or grinds surfaces of objects … in the auto industry, a grinder operates a portable electric machine into which a variety of tools can be inserted.” (76) Leveling bulges on metal surfaces as a less-skilled assistant to welders at Gar Wood made Malcolm automatically a member of the United Auto Workers Detroit Local 250. What was the distance between Malcolm’s inner life and the reality of factory work in and around him? The UAW was on a different planet. The difference can be felt in the tone of a union news bulletin. “There are many problems,” wrote Local 250′s vice-president at the time when Malcolm joined Gar Wood, “that we are faced with here at the Gar Wood plant and here are a few of these issues that we have met with in the past and I think we will be faced with these same problems every now and then in the future.” (77) Malcolm’s aspirations and what factory work offered were galaxies apart. During the hours of his factory work “he felt caged.” It was from this time and for a few years following that Malcolm often repeated the expression “in the wilderness of America.” (78) There seemed no possibility of change in these factories. The feeling of estrangement was made all the stronger by the fact that Malcolm now had only the factory wage on which to survive.

After leaving Gar Wood, and probably working for another auto manufacturer in Detroit, Malcolm moved to the east coast in late 1953 as a preacher for the Nation of Islam. (79) From an informer reporting on one of Malcolm’s speeches in Philadelphia we know that he said, “We worked on the waterfront when we first opened the temple here, and that was hard work.” (80) Although it was casual labor, no worker on the Philadelphia docks had to go through the shape-up system, and black longshoremen were represented more fairly than at most other ports in the governing board of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) Local 1291. But black workers could just work “up the hook,” below the positions checkers and clerks. (81)

Malcolm X was still a laborer. While he was helping to open the Nation of Islam temple in Philadelphia and working on the Philadelphia docks, he delivered a speech, sometime between November 1953 and May 1954, the months of the siege of Dien Bien Phu by the Vietminh (82) He mentioned both the Mau Mau “pushing the English devils out of Africa” and “the French devils being run out of the country [Indochina] by the Asiatic race. It was still the “pre-Vietnam” era when an elite dominated by Wall Street lawyers and bankers, and coached by a handful of university professors, grappled with the issues of life and death on behalf of much of the rest of mankind, and offered the French government a few atomic bombs to be dropped on Indochina. Yet those black laborers who were allowed to work “up the hook” and not beyond it were developing their own views of friendship and enmity, at least a decade in advance of the ‘Vietnam era” in the U.S.

It was the beginning of Malcolm’s increasingly independent course that would later lead him to collide with Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm was making the black uprising in the 1950s perceivable as part of the anticolonial ‘Tidal Wave.” He was “returning” from the depths of what he had experienced as institutions of incarceration to take his place as a transgressive citizen in revolt against the U.S., but his “return” did not take place within the categories permissible under the ideological discipline imposed by the Cold War. He would not go by the script, he would not “get out of town by sundown.” (84)

As he was shaking off the vision of the “Darker Races” as both victims and inferiors, Malcolm’s new strategy was to recuperate the relative international strength of black people in the U.S. This change came to the FBI’s attention in 1956. As a worried informer had told the FBI at that time, “Little has become less dependent on Muhammad.” He also reported that Malcolm had said, “The main issue … is not the foreign policy, but the domestic policy: The Civil Rights issue, in which over 17 million Black people in America whom the slave masters classified as ‘negroes’ play the major role…. We affect both foreign and domestic policy. The majority of earth’s people are nonwhite…. Today they are beginning to realize that this white man cannot love or treat them and [sic] better than he (in sincerity) can love and treat us. Thus we become the yardstick by which all Dark Nations of earth can measure the real attitude of the white public here in America.” (85)

After his long voyage to establish his connections with “the Dark Nations” of the earth that had started in a prison cell and had continued in the northeastern urban ghettoes, Malcolm X was now preaching from the housetops what the U.S. government had heard in secret from informers: “It was right there in prison that I made up my mind to devote the rest of my life to telling the white man about himself–or die.” (86)

“Every Square Inch of It”

Scholars are still waiting for some crucial archival evidence on Malcolm X’s development during his years as a “laborer” to become available. Nevertheless, it is possible to draw some general conclusions from the material we do have. Malcolm’s development in his formative years shows how his individual resistance to a surrounding culture necessarily became organized as a collective endeavor. The Nation of Islam provided him with communal solidarity during and after his time in prison. It was from that base that Malcolm tried to build a bridge to those who, from his prison years, he had called “the Asiatic people.” “Every square inch [of the world],” an informer quotes him as saying, “belongs to us.” (87) In this attempt he claimed his right to belong to two political spaces, to the U.S. political arena and to the international political system being shaped by anticolonialism. As much as his father, the advocate of Garveyism, had transgressed Lansing’s unwritten municipal laws by deciding to live “outside the Lansing Negro district,” so his seventh son stepped beyond the political limits he was supposed to respect in the U.S. and elsewhere. (88)

The attitudes of ethnic leadership towards the state are shaped over a long period of time, often being the result of continuous readjustments over many generations. The state, nonetheless, often believes it can redress past wrongs with reforms that are supposed to have the effect of “cooling off” both ethnic leadership and the people as a whole. But Malcolm X-the laborer, the convict, and the minister of the Nation of Islam had seen too many and too well the least-lit corridors of the state to avoid a collision with it. In this respect, his path was similar to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s. The young desegregationist minister of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had seen so many black people suffer indignities during his early campaign in the South that he could only relate these to the cheapness of living labor there. Indeed, as early as 1957 he had said, “I realize that the law cannot make an employer love me or have compassion for me.” (89) As King too began to walk away from the role the state had expected of him, he headed toward assassination while supporting a strike by black laborers in Memphis, Tennessee. Like the Colonial’s “quarters” where Malcolm had worked at the sink, the space allowed him was so “cramped” that his transgression of prescribed corridors had long been inevitable. (90)



1. See, for example, Stuart Cosgrove· The Zoot-Suit and Style Warfare History Workshop Journal 18 (Autumn 1984): 78-81; Bruce M. Tyler, “Black Jive and White Repression,” Journal of Ethnic Studies 16, 4 (1989): 32-38; Steve Chjbnall “Whistle and Zoot: The Changing Meaning Of a Suit of Clothes,” History Workshop, 20 (Autumn 1985): 5~81; and for recent works on World War II as a critical moment in black working-class radicalization, see Robert Korstad and Nelson Lichtenstein,

“Opportunities Found and Lost: Labor, Radicals, and the Early Civil Rights Movement,” loumal ofAmericnn History 75 (December 1988): 786-811;Iohn Modell. Mare Goulden, and Magnusson Sigurdur, “World War II in the Lives of Black Americans: Some Findings and an Interpretation,” Journal of American History 76 (December 1989): 83~48; Herbert Shapiro, White Violence and Black Response: From Reconstruction to Montgomery (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press 1988), 301~8.

2. Imanuel Geiss, The Pan-African Movement: A History of Pan-Africanism in America (New York: Africana, 1974). “F.B.I. Nabs 2 Leaders of Muslims,” San Diego Evening Tribune (7 November 1950), A-8

4. The FBI opened a Surveillance File on Malcolm X (hereafter SFMX) on the day of its visit to Malcolm X’s workplace at the Gar Wood factory in Wayne, Michigan, on 17 February 1953. This SFMX has been obtained under the Freedom Of Information Act by Scholarly Resources, Inc. (Wilmington, Delaware). and was made available by them in microfilm in 1978. My quotations from SFMX will refer to this reprint in microfilm. The erasures of classified dates and names often makes it extremely difficult to place events and information in their historical context. I have tried to use circumstantial evidence to check the reliability of informers’ reports, and to construct a rough chronological sequence out of the chaotic assembling of typed pages in SFMX. [Since this essay was written, Clayborne Carson edited Malcolm X: The FBI File (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1991)--Eds.] See also Malcolm X with Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Grove Press, 1966).

Although very few scholars have seriously examined Malcolm’s pre-Islamic and prison years (exceptions include Bruce Ferry, Robin D. G. Kelley, and Victor Wolfensteinj, the literature on Malcolm X is voluminous, and seems to be growing rapidly as Malcolm’s image increasingly pervades popular culture. Works on his life and thought include George Breitman, The Last Year of Malcolm X: The Evolution Of A Revolutionary (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1967); idem, Malcolm X: The Man

and His Ideas (New York: Pathfinder Press 1965); John Henrik Clarke, ed., Malcolm X· The Man and His Times (New York: MacMillan, 1969); James Cone, Martin and Malcolm and America: A Dream or Nightmare (Maryknoll Ny, Orbis Books. 1991); Robert Franklin Liberafing Visions: Human Fulfillment and Social Justice in African-American Thought (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990); David Gallen, Malcolm X: As

They Knww Him (New York: Carroll and Graf, 1992); Peter Goldman, The Death and Life of Malcolm X (New York: Harper and Row, 1973); Robin D. G. Kelley, “The Riddle of the Zoot. Malcolm Little and Black Cultural Politics During World War II,” in In Our Own Image: Critical Essays on Malcolm X, ed. Joe Wood (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993, forthcoming); Yussuf Naim Kly, The Black Book: The True Political Philosophy of Malcolm X (Atlanta: Clarity Press, 1986); William Moore, “On Identity and Consciousness of El Hajj Malik El Shabazz (Malcolm X)” (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Santa Cruz, 1974); Bruce Ferry, Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America (Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Press, 1991); and Perry’s three articles, “Malcolm X in Brief: A Psychological Perspective,” lournal of Psychohistory 11, 4 (Spring 19&1): 491-500; “Malcolm X and the Politics of Masculinity,” Psychohistory Review 13, 2 and 3 (Winter 1985): 18-25; “Escape from Freedom,

Criminal Style: The Hidden Advantages of Being in Jail,” Journal of Psychiatry and Law 12, 2 (Summer 1984): 215-30; Lawrence B. Goodheart, “The Odyssey of Malcolm X: An Eriksonian Interpretation,” The Historian 53 (Autumn 1990): 47-62; Cedric J. Robinson, “Malcolm Little as a Charismatic Leader,” Afro-American Studies 3 (1972): 81-96; Eugene Victor Wolfenstein, The Victims of Democracy Malcolm X and the Black Revolution (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1981). On Malcolm X as a rhetorician, see Thomas Benson, “Rhetoric and Autobiography: The Case of Malcolm X,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 60 (February 1974): 1-13; Nancy Clasby, “Autobiography of Malcolm X: A Mythic Paradigm,” Journal of Black Studies 5, 1 (September 1974): 18-34; David Demarest,’The Autobiography of Malcolm X:Beyond Didacticism,” CLA Journal 16, 2 (December 1972): 179-87; Carol Ohmann, ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X: A Revolutionary Use of the Franklin Tradition,” American Quarterly 22, 2 (1970): 131-49; John Hedges, “The Quest for Selfhood in the Autobiographies of W E. B. Du Bois, Richard Wright, and Malcolm X” (Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1980). Two fairly recent bibliographies of works by and on Malcolm X are Timothy V. Johnson, Malcolm X: A Comprehensive Annotated Bibliography (New York: Garland Publishers, 1986); Lenwood G. Davis with Martha L. Moore, MaIcolm X: A Selected Bibliography (Westport, Greenwood Press, 1984).

5. Malcolm X, Autobiography, 104.

6. SFMX, 17 February 1953.

7. Malcolm X, Autobiography, 99: “A roll of money was in my pocket. everyday, I cleared at least fifty or sixty dollars. In those days (or for that matter these days), this was a fortune to a seventeen-year-old Negro. I felt, for the first time in my life, that great feeling of free! Suddenly, now, I was the peer of the other young hustlers I had admired.”

8. Ibid., 105.

9. Jon Halliday, A Political History of Japanese Capitalism (New York and London: Monthly Review Press, 1975), 141-59.

10. Malcolm X, Autobiography, 104-7, and SFMX, 30 November 1954. On the Chicago arrests and trial, see New York Times (22 September 1942), 22; ibid. (23 September 1942), 27; ibid. (6 October 1942), 16; ibid. (24 October 1942), 8. Malcolm X might have heard discussions of pro-Japanese sympathies among his workmates on the Pullman trains. The official newspaper of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the Black Worker, had devoted several articles to the issue. See esp. A. Philip

Randolph, “The Negro in Japan,” Black Worker, 7, 20 (September 1942): 4.

11. Malcolm X, Autobiography, 106.

12. SFMX, 30 November 1954.

13. Roger Daniels, “The Japanese,” in Ethnic Leadership in America, ed. John Higham (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), 36~63, and esp. 57. The crucial question (No. 27) read: “Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty wherever ordered?”

14. In Autobiography (21), the imagery of bottomless yielding is associated with the panic he felt when he saw his mother becoming increasingly sick in his childhood.

15. SFMX, 17 February 1953. Malcolm had selected the right informer for his one-man campaign against the draft. The informer had a good memory because the circumstance of Malcolm’s spreading the word in Harlem that he wanted to join the Japanese army is confirmed by the Autobiography, 105-7.

16. “Four Cultists Accused as Draft Foes,” San Diego Union (8 November 1950), A-12. See also “EB.I. Nabs 2 leaders of Muslims,” San Diego Evening Tribune (7 November 19~0). On the day of the San Diego arrests MacArthur made the proposal to President Truman to bomb all the bridges on the Yalou River.

17. New York Times (11 November 1950), 5.

18. William Roach, ‘The National Emergency and the Convict,” The Colony, 22, 1 (15 January 1951), 11.

19. SFMX, 25 May 1955.

20. The FBI reported three aliases of Malcolm Little for the period before

incarceration (Detroit Red, Detroit Rhythm, Jack Carlton) and two aliases after incarceration (Malachi Shabazz and Malcolm X). In Autobiography (77, 84-107) he is referred to as “Sandwich Red” and “Detroit Red.”

21. New York Times (17 October 1947), 43: “Prison Population Rises: De-

mobilization Brought First Increase in Years, Bureau Says.” By the end of 1946 Malcolm was one of 141,404 men and women behind bars, 5 percent more than at the beginning of 1946.

22. S~MX, 31 January 1956, informing on a speech delivered by Malcolm X at the Muslim Temple in Philadelphia in December 1955 in which Malcolm said that it was better that they [Muslims] work on construction jobs where they make $80 or $90 a week and work hard, than for a soft job and make only $25 or $30 a week.

23. SFMX, 17 February 1953, quotation from Malcolm X’s letter dated 29

January 1950.

24. SFMX, 2 February 1965. According to this information, Malcolm Little was arrested on 31 January 1946 in Boston, and was detained at the Norfolk County House of Correction in Dedham, Massachusetts, until he was transferred on 27 February 194~the same day of his sentence–to the Charlestown State Prison as No. 22843. He was transferred to the Concord State Reformatory, where he was with Bimbi again, on 10 January 1947. In Autobiography, Malcolm stated: “Your number

in prison became part of you. You never heard your name, only your number. On all of your clothing, every item, was your number, stenciled. It grew stenciled in your brain” (152). For a brief portrait of “Bimbi,” see ibid., 15~55.

25. From my interview with B. X., an inmate with Malcolm at Charlestown, Concord, and Norfolk. This interview took place in Massachusetts on 27 September 1981. For personal masons B. X. released his interview under the condition that his real name not be revealed.

26. SFMX, 17 February 1953, undated letter (possibly around 1952): “Stick close to the Muslims and tell the brothers to stick close to each other.”

27. Malcolm X, Autobiography, 182.

28. Ibid., 157.

29. Springfield Morning Union (21 April 1950), 1, 7.

30. All the evidence in Autobiography seems to suggest that Malcolm X ignored the publication of this article. He ascribed his transfer hem the Norfolk Prison Colony back to the Charlestown prison only to leaks from black inmates and to statements authorities learned of through the censorship of his correspondence (Autobiography, 189). As long as the Massachusetts Department of Correction refuses access of its file on Malcolm X to scholars, it will be impossible to determine an exact chronology of his transfers from Concord to Norfolk and from Norfolk back to Charlestown. Malcolm’s Autobiography seems to indicate that his transfer hem Norfolk to Charlestown for “my last year in prison” took place in the early summer of 1951 (189).

31. Springfield Morning Union (21 April 1950), 1.

32. The warden’s vacillation between the terms “the quartet” and “the four” resonates with the fact that one of the four converts was a musician.

33. Author’s interview with B. X., 27 September 1981.

31. See, for instance, Malcolm X, Autobiography, 233-35, on the Johnson Hinton case in Harlem.

35. Malcolm Little, “Abolishmentof Capital Punishment: The Death Penalty is Ineffective as a Deterrent,” The Colony 21, 1 (1 January 1950): 9. The Colony reported regularly on debating teams. Rev. John Arthur Samuelson, the Protestant Chaplain at Norfolk from October 1948 to the end of 1951, was also responsible for the inmates’ debating teams. However, he said, “During the time I was the Protestant Chaplain at Norfolk the blacks seemed to me to be a minority who had little or no

contact with my activities” (letter to author, 27 October 1981).

36. Malcolm Little, “Abolishment of Capital Punishment,” 9. An unsigned

article in The Colony lists the groups that presumably make up society. Of these groups, “some [are] righteous, the remainder and the greater part to all outward appearance are zealous but inwardly are as bad, in many cases worse than the scorned victim. Let us look behind the scenes at some of these groups….” (Society Is…,” The Colony 20, 10 [November 1949]: 6).

37. Pierre Van Paassen, Days of Our Years (New York: Hillman-Curl, 1940), 43-46. Autobiography (184~5) mentions this book that Malcolm cited to prove the connection between the Vatican and the Italian fascist regime in the Ethiopian War during a debate at Norfolk. There is no list of books, and particularly of the Parkhurst collection, at the Norfolk Prison Colony Library, which would be indispensable to trace Malcolm’s intellectual development in prison.

38. Malcolm X, Autobiography, 164. Malcolm’s account of his prison years in the Autobiography has drawn acclaim as literature. Prison seems to bring a fast-moving narrative to a standstill, like Julien Sorel’s suspended time at the seminary in Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir, or Isabel Archer sitting in “the soundless Salon long after the fire had gone out” in Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady. But Stendhal’s Julien Sorel suffers from relentless ambition, and James’s Isabel Archer at one point envies “the happier lot of men, who are always free to plunge into the healthy waters of action.” A closer parallel can be found in Dickens’s Great Expectations. While Pip pursues upward mobility, Joe Gargery does not even have to decide he wants to stay where he is. If others want to go their way, they are free to go, but Joe Gargery will go on with his life and improve circumstances there. His reward is pride in accepting “that which is already within you, and around you.”

39. SFMX, February 1953, excerpts from a letter almost certainly addressed to Elijah Muhammad on 9 January 1951. For more than three years Malcolm sent a letter a day to Elijah Muhammad from prison. There is some hope of finding this essential material in Chicago.

40. The first Islamic mission in the U.S. was an Ahmadiyah mission from India to Detroit, where forty Garveyites were converted to Islam between 1920 and 1923. There is no doubt that Garvey’s Liberty Halls in Detroit and Chicago were crucibles of conversion to Islam in the 1920s. Elijah Muhammad, a Chevrolet worker laid off during the Depression and later the founder of the Nation of Islam, was certainly associated with Garveyism and probably with Muslim Garveyites in Detroit and

Chicago in the late 1920s, as suggested by Tony Martin, Race First: The Ideological and Organizational Struggles of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1976), 74-77. The Ahmadiyah claim to modernism,and their willingness to adapt to local peculiarities-even to the point of inconsistency to gain credence for their doctrine–was well suited to Elijah Muhammad’s intention of going beyond Garvey’s Pan-Africanism so as to be able to encompass all “Asiatic people” in the same religion. Also see Humphrey J. Fisher, Ahmadiyyah (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963). On the Nation of Islam between the 1930s and 1960s and its evolution, E. U. Essien-Udom, Black Nationalism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962), and C. Eric Lincoln, Black Muslims in America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961).

41. SFMX, 16 March 1954. As late as January of 1956, the FBI quoted Malcolm from his previous undated speech in Philadelphia: “Little stated that there cannot be any peace as long as the white man is allowed to live and if they [black people] feel sorry for him they will be destroyed also” (SFMX, 31 January, 1956).

42. Malcolm X, Autobiography 177.

43. SFMX, 16 March 1954, letter undated, from prison.

44. Malcolm X, Autobiography 29. On Malcolm as a member of the industrial proletariat, my view differs from Eugene Victor Wolfenstein’s outstanding interpretation of Malcolm’s narrative, The Victims of Democmcy: Malcolm X and the Black Revolution (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1981). For Wolfenstein’s views, see esp. 232.

45. Malcolm X, Autobiography, 4~69.

46. Ibid., 71.

47. Ibid., 71-72.

48. A. Sagittarius, “Behind a Porter’s Smile,” Black Worker 9, 3 (March 1943): 1, 4.

49. Columbia University Oral History Project, The Reminiscences of A. Philip Randolph (1973), 2:255.

50. Malcolm X, Autobiography, 75.

51. James Baldwin, “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind,” in The Fire Next Time (New York: Deli, 1970), 76. On World War II as a “stimulant” to black protest, see for example, Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modem Democracy (New York: McGraw Hill, 1944), 756, 997; Harvard Sitkoff, A New Deal for Blacks: The Emergence of Civil Rights as a National Issue (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 298-325; Korstad and Lichtenstein, “Opportunities Found and Lost,” 786-811; Shapiro, White Violence and Black Response, 301-48; Richard Dalfiume, ‘The Forgotten Years’ of the Negro Revolution,” lournal of American History 55 ( June 1968): 90-106; Herbert Garfinkel, When Negroes March: The March on Washington Movement in the Organizational Policies for FEPC (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1959); Peter J. Kellog& “Civil Rights Consciousness in the 1940′s,” The Historian 42 (November, 1979): 18-41; Neil A. Wynn, The Afro-American and the Second World War (New York: Holmes and Meier Publishers, 1975).

52. Waiter Benjamin, “fine kommunistische Padagogik,” in Gesammelte Schriften hg. von Rolf Tiedemann und Hermann Schweppenhauser (Frankfurt A.M., surkamp, [1929] 1972-76), 3:207.

53. Malcolm X, Autobiography, 96, 112. On the limits of unionization in the New York hotel industry, see Morris Aaron Horowitz, The New York Hotel Industry: A Labor Relations Study (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962).

54. SFMX, 17 February 1953.

55. Malcolm X, Autobiography, 153. These are the only two lines in Malcolm’s narrative about his work in prison.

56. SFMX, 17 February 1953.

57. Boston Daily Globe (27 February 1946), 19.

58. On his work at Concord, B. X. interview with author, 27 September 1981. According to SFMX, 17 February 1953, he was transferred from Charlestown to Concord on 10 January 1947. Malcolm had heard his father preach to Michigan audiences about how “Adam [was] driven out of the garden into the caves of Europe,” and he had read Milton’s Paradise Lost while at the Norfolk Prison Colony. See Malcolm X, Autobiography, 6, 186.

59. An article against Malcolm in Muhnmmad Speaks, 3, 26 (11 September 1964) brought out that he “shipped a cedar chest he had handcrafted in the prison shop and asked us to sell it for him so that he would have a little money when he was finally released” (8). This prison shop might be the Norfolk Prison Woodworking Shop, a short description of which was given in The Colony, 20,2 (1 February 1949):11. It is ironic that Malcolm, who had been alienated from school by a teacher who told him to get the “Negro job” of carpenter rather than become a lawyer, had to read the following lines on the same page of The Colony: “The Wood Shop is indeed a place where men can learn a useful trade, as good wood workers are needed every day. Skilled workers are always in demand with outside industries, and we hope that the men who are employed in this shop, upon their release, don’t overlook any opportunities in this line of work.” The distinction between “inside” and “farm” belonged to the inmates’ football teams (The Colony 21, 14 [15 July 1950]: 6). Did Malcolm see a distinction between “house slave” and “field slave” in the filigree separating “inside” and “farm”? On this distinction, see Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements Edited With Prefatory Notes by George Breitman, ed. George Breitman (New York: Grove Press, 1966), 11-12.

60. Mentor 51, 1-2 (January-February 1948): 23-46.

61. Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Acts and Resolves Passed by the General Court of Massachusetts in the Year 1946 (Boston: Wright and Potter, 1946), 461, 476-78.

62. “Prison Labor and Post-War Progress,” The Colony 19, 23 (1 December 1948): 12; “Editorial,” The Colony 20, 1 (1 January 1949): 2-4;’The Unanswered Question of Wages,” The Colony 20, 20 (15 October 1949): 4, 13. The Commissioner of the Department of Correction’s reply in The Colony appeared in vol. 21, 19 (1 October 1950): 3, 4, and 9. George Roxborough, ‘The Incentive is Lacking” The Mentor (March 1953), lamented that no wage was in sight for prisoners so many years after enactment of legislation.

63. Edwin Power, ‘Why State doesn’t Pay Prisoners,” The Colony 21, ~1 (1 June 1950): 4, 11-12. Power’s article was reprinted from the Boston Sunday Globe (30 April 1950).

64. Ibid.

65. See Boston Post (2 July 1952), 15, on previous Massachusetts prison outbreaks. On the July 1952 revolt, see the Boston Daily Globe (23 July 1952), 1, 8; ibid., 24 July 1952, 1, 9. This was not the first revolt Malcolm X had seen at Charlestown. Shortly after being sentenced in 1946, Malcolm witnessed an outbreak of white inmates at Charlestown (B. X. interview with author, 27 September 1981).

66. Author interview with Wilfred Little, Detroit, 4 June 1981.

67. Malcolm X, Autobiography, 200. The Gar Wood plant was in Warren, Michigan. All Gar Wood industries, Inc., personnel records have been destroyed (letter from Gar Wood Truck equipment, Inc., to author, 5 June 1981). According to SFMX, 4 May 1953, by that time Malcolm must have left Gar Wood because he was described as “unemployed.”

68. Ford Motor Company communication to author, 20 May 1981. Malcolm Little’s job was described as “Wayne Assembly Plant–Assembly Major.”

69. “Plan Afternoon Shift,” L. M. let Bulletin–Local 900, Bulletin No. 15 (week ending 13 March 1953): 1.

70. Ibid.

71. L.M. Jet Bulletin–Local 900,Bulletin No. 17, (week ending 13 March 1953): 3.

72. Peanuts Antaya, “Final Line,” L.M. Jet Bulletin-Local 900, Bulletin No. 15 (week ending 13 March 1953): 2.

73. Wilfred Little interview with author, 4 June 1981.

74. Driss E. Yazami Khammar, “Les Syndicalistes Immigres de Citroen,” Sans Frontiere (March 1983): 7.

75. L.M. let Bulletin–Local 900, Bulletin No. 17(week ending 13 March 1953): 3.

76. The definition of “grinder” in Federal Security Agency, Division of Occupational Analysis, Dictionary of Occupational Titles, vol. I: Definitions of Tifles (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office: 1949, 2d ed.), 624. The FBI files give “laborer” as Malcolm Little’s profession well into the 1950s, before he becomes a Nation of Islam minister.

77. Hank Ruper, ‘Vice-President News and Views,” The Hoister 15, 1 Oanuary 1953): 1. The Hoister was “an educational and News Bulletin issued by Local 250, UAW.” Plank Rupert’s article includes a discussion of orders lost because of underbidding by firms in Oklahoma and Ohio, and of the open clothes racks that cause inconveniences and thefts: “each day there is some complaint.”

78. Wilfred Little interview with author, 4 June 1981, for Malcolm’s feelings while working in a factory. On Malcolm’s speeches, see reports on Malcolm’s public speeches before 1957 in SFMX.

79. Malcolm X, Autobiography, 201: “Somewhere about this time I left the Gar Wood factory and I went to work for the Ford Motor Company, one of the Lincoln-Mercury Division assembly lines.” But the Ford Motor Company has no records of Malcolm Little being employed anywhere in its plants apart from the week between 14 January and 21 January 1953. See n. 68.

80. SFMX, 31 January 1956, from an informer reporting on one of Malcolm’s speeches in Philadelphia in 1955.

81. Lester Rubin, The Negro in the Longshore Industry (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1974), 72-76.

82. The siege of Dien Bien Phu began on 20 November 1953 and ended on 7 May 1951.

83. Quotation is from an undated speech in SFMX, 28 January 1955.

84. In his comments on the 1963 march on Washington, Malcolm X said: “When James Baldwin came in from Paris, they wouldn’t let him talk, because they couldn’t make him go by the script … and then [the white clique that put Kennedy in power] told them [Negroes] to get out of town by sundown….” This quotation is from Malcolm X, “Message to the Grassroots,” Malcolm X Speaks, 1-17.

85. SFMX, 31 January 1956.

86. Malcolm X, Autobiography, 184-85.

87. SFMX, 31 January 1956.

88. Malcolm X, Autobiography, 3.

89. Martin Luther King, “New York Speech to the National Committee for Rural Schools,” quoted by Nat Hentoff in “I Realize the Law Can’t Make an Employer Love Me,” Village Voice, 27 January-2 February 1981, 8.

90. Malcolm X, Autobiography, 81.1

  • Will

    Hi all

    I think Gambino main reason for writing this essay is showing that Malcolm was working class and not just an unemployed hustler. Most folks think of Malcolm as a hustler and part of the lumpen before he joined the Nation of Islam. Gambino’s point is really important, although it is not clear from this essay how Malcolm actually saw himself. He worked a bunch of working class jobs, but it seems he rejected them. The only exception is the Philadelphia docks. As a worker, Malcolm could not wait around for unions to win equal pay, fair hiring, etc. so he looked toward anti-colonial struggles/ national liberation movement. Again Gambino points to the social origins and experiences which led Malcolm as part of the working class to support these movements. Working class people do pay attention to such things.

    The broader theme Gambino paints is the desire for autonomy on Malcolm’s part. Meaning he wanted to be free from the U.S. military. Malcolm’s time in prison show Malcolm’s attempt at minimal dignity/ freedom via prayer space for example. And of course his experiences at work per the “smiles strike” show how humiliating work was for Black workers and how he would shuck and jive to keep white people happy. So where could Malcolm find some autonomy and freedom… these events steer him in the direction of the Nation of Islam. (At the same time, Gambino points out that Malcolm was an independent reader/ thinker long before his break with the NOI.) For a period of time, the NOI gave him more freedom/ autonomy then any army, job, or prison would ever be able to.

    Some questions which came to mind from this article:

    What international struggles do Black youth look to today?
    Can Black youth today jump from job to job the say way Malcolm was able to in the 1940s and 1950s?
    Key anti-colonial movements happening are Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan. What symbols and words have become inspirations for Black struggles in this country?
    What is the relationship of Malcolm’s social origins and the political content of Black Nationalism?

  • jubayr

    from what i know, Gambino is an autonomist Marxist, so the “rejection of work” as a theme in this essay makes sense.

    but i also think there is something more going on here.

    one of the ways i think about this essay is that it is saying that becoming Malcolm X was not simply a negation of who he was, but it was also a continuity of those earlier experiences as well.

    each of those experiences of “work” was at the same time a dialectic of both the national Black experience and the international struggles against imperialism.

    Gambino’s “rejection of work” is then the formation of racial consciousness on both an international and national scale.

    what i like about the essay is that it is trying to take Malcolm’s experience in the whole world in which he grew up as a totality: prison, work, the army, national liberation, race, religion, spirituality, the state.

    every single one of these is put into relation with the other. what i think Gambino is doing is demonstrating how Malcolm’s racial rebelliousness was a rejection of capitalist discipline.

    Malcolm’s experience as a Sandwich man, is a good example of this.

    A. Philip Randolph noted, “These Pullman porter instructors and the Pullman superintendents had one of the most successful psychological programs that could be devised, built upon the concept of the inferiority of the Negro as a race, and that certain jobs you can’t get you can’t do, and therefore you’ve got to make good on the job you have.”

    Not only is there a racial discipline on the job, but the job itself is uniquely racialized, hence the “smile strike.” Being a Sandwich man was not simply about serving sandwiches, it was a whole performance; in effect a minstrel show that was meant to discipline workers as Black, not just Black folks as workers.

    the importance of the smile strike went beyond a rejection of workplace discipline:

    “His waywardness as a sandwich man was the beginning of a change that was a general social phenomenon, the longest “smile” strike by young black people in U.S. history, a strike that would haunt acquisitive optimism in the U.S. and would send tremors of guilt and fear through affluent society. Now that the psychology of “Uncle Tomming” was working in reverse, Malcolm was provoking the Pullman company to fire him at the time the process of collective embitterment of black Americans was intensifying. As James Baldwin later wrote, ‘The treatment accorded the Negro during the Second World War marks, for me, a turning point in the Negro’s relation to America. Put somewhat too simply a certain hope died, a certain respect for white Americans faded.’”

  • Mamos

    Fascinating article. I know Malcolm’s life as Detroit Red has often been cited as an example of the revolutionary potential of the lumpen-proletariat (gang members, permanently unemployed folks, etc.). And that it is. But the article shows just how blurred the lines between proletariat and lumpen-proletariat are. Malcolm developed his revolutionary consciousness not only through his life on the street but through his life at work. There is not a clear boundary between the two. Folks are thrown into the lumpen proletariat not only by material discrimination such as the disproportionately high Black unemployment rate but also because folks revolt against the racist conditions of the division of labor in which people of color are expected to do the most degrading jobs, like Malcolm’s experiences as a Pullman Porter. This rebellion can make it difficult to find jobs later on. But that rejection of work discipline doesn’t separate someone from the proletarian class struggle – in fact it is part of it.

    The piece lays out how Malcolm revolted against capitalist discipline imposed by the three institutions that control the proletariat – army, prison, and workplace. I think you could add a fourth: school. Malcolm was a good student at first but he rebelled against the discipline of his school when he saw that it’s entire social function was to maintain the racist division of labor under capitalism. He wanted to be a lawyer but his teacher said he could only be a carpenter. His teacher presented this as “care” for Malcolm, just like so many job training programs and inner city public schools do today. The message the school sent was: no matter how smart you are you need to be realistic about what jobs you can get as a person of color, a carpenter is a good job for Black people….. today how many teachers have said “you know, you should be realistic, just apply for community college or vocational school so you can become a CNA.” This shit is held up as anti-racism and serving the people when all it really is is an attempt to reinforce the division of labor and to reproduce docile workers at every level of it.

    All of this is presented as “achievement”, “self-development”, etc. You are supposed to go through school smiling, preapring for work in the service industry where you will smile and say “do you want fries with that?”.

    At times teachers will discipline students simply for having a stern, hostile expression even if they are not disrupting class. As Malcolm said about prison, they know when you only pretend to submit. It’s the same for school. School tries to mold not only your behavior but your psyche – it not only teaches you to follow directions, it teaches you to impose those directions on yourself so the manger won’t have to be on you the whole time to get you to work. Schools try to mold people of color into happy servant -workers like the Sandwich Men on the trains in Malcolm’s era.

    Needless to say, students go on “smile strikes” all the time, refusing to accept this discipline and calling it for what it is. Rebellion in the classroom is a form of rebellion against the capitalist discipline over the proletariat.

    One student in class yesterday made an angry speech against schools where he basically pointed out that diplomas don’t judge how smart you are they only judge your apparent “readiness” for a job, “readiness” which rich people are able to buy if they can pay for college tuition even if they’re not smart. He wasn’t advocating dropping out, he was advocating getting that diploma but he saw it as only a piece of paper to sell his wages at a higher price and basically said he never wanted to hear anything else about the value of education or personal achievement because it’s all bullshit. He summed it up by saying “school is ass. We shouldn’t even have school. You learn more by life itself.”

    He’s right. However, the key thing is this rebellion needs to become collective over time or it will be crushed. This is what Malcolm realized – he couldn’t just rage against the machine, he needed to build a new identity for himself and he could only do this with other Black people. In response to that first student, another student in class argued that we should take whatever knowledge we can extract from school and use it to become organic intellectuals outside of school – to read and study history so that we can make sense of our experiences and can develop a strategy for overthrowing the system. She said if we really want to reject the discipline of school we need to prepare and educate and organize ourselves to do so. Other students who agreed with her referenced Malcolm’s education in prison as an example of this.

    I agree with that second student. I understand why people revolt against school, work, prison, and the army. Individual revolt is a start – it opens up cracks in the hegemony of state power that pervades all our lives like an all-seeing invisible security camera whose presence prompts us to police ourselves. By acting “crazy” like Malcolm did to avoid the draft we can start to break this down. But this only goes so far, and individual rebellion of this sort can easily be crushed. What was so powerful about Malcolm is he systematically reflected on his experiences of individual rebellion and developed them into a new identity which allowed him to connect with millions of other Black people – and other proletarians for that matter- who had gone through the experiences he went through.

    What would happen if folks rebelling against school, work, prison, and the military today went through the same process and developed a new identity relevant for 2010?

  • Mamos

    Incidentally, to get at one of Will’s question, for the two Black youth who made the points I referenced above, they also linked the problems with school to the problems with the government. In fact there was a widespread sentiment among the class that the government uses school to hide the reality about what it’s doing , especially in the Middle East. The discussion about school naturally flowed into a discussion about how the Obama administration has betrayed people of color because it has continued the war. The insights that Malcolm came to – that Black people should not have to fight for a white supremacist government – still run deep and are relatively generalized. Ironically though, this coexists with a lot of ignorance about Middle East politics and sometimes straight up anti-Muslim and anti-Arab racism.