Nation of Islam counter-demonstration at NAACP rally in Harlem, 1961 / Photograph: NAACP collection, Library of Congress
In a world where Donald Trump’s presidential nomination speech has been endorsed by a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan—yet Black Lives Matter activists are accused of reverse racism for asking to not be murdered by police—what constitutes hate speech has become increasingly convoluted. In the aftermath of police killings in Dallas and Baton Rouge, gunmen Micah Johnson and Gavin Long were immediately linked by media outlets to black nationalist groups such as the Nation of Islam (NOI), New Black Panther Party, Black Riders Liberation Party, and Washitaw Nation, despite their professions to have been acting alone. Not only did these depictions draw misleading lines to organizations that do not prescribe such acts of violence, they also overshadowed both mens’ backgrounds in cultures of military violence (Johnson joined the Army Reserves immediately after high school and Long was a former Marine sergeant).
In a desperate attempt to drive home a link to black nationalism and direct attention away from these other troubling vectors, some news outlets began referring to Johnson as “Micah X” (NOI members use “X” to replace their “slave names”). In fact his middle name was simply Xavier. Even progressive groups, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, play a legitimating role by identifying black nationalist groups as “black separatist hate groups,” leaving little room for meaningful distinctions between white supremacy and black nationalism. While groups such as the Nation of Islam have historically advocated for the separation of black communities, to assert that this position is simply the obverse of white supremacy—that is, black supremacy—overlooks the nuance of black nationalism. More importantly, it fails to account for the dramatically different relationships to power that black nationalist and white supremacist groups possess. White nationalism reinscribes and exalts the privileges of whiteness. Black nationalists council separation as an anti-racist practice and a method of empowerment in the absence of alternative avenues of power. To many black nationalists, this is the difference between life and death: the black community must either do for itself or perish.
The conflation of black and white nationalism is not new. In 1963 the New York Herald Tribune satirized what it perceived as the ironic similarities between white supremacists and black nationalists in a story entitled “Integrated Segregation.” Things “seem a trifle confused on the racial front these days. The segregationists are getting integrated and the integrationists are getting segregated,” the Tribune remarked. The article imagined a scene in which staunch segregationist George Wallace was explaining why racial segregation benefitted black Americans when “a Black Muslim popped up from behind, tapped him on the back and agreed with him.” Soon, the article predicted, the Congress for Racial Equality would “start picketing the N.A.A.C.P., while the Black Muslims set up an all-Negro chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.”
To many black nationalists, separation from whites is the difference between life and death: the black community must either do for itself or perish.
Understanding black nationalism as simply the mirror image of white supremacy, rather than an anti-racist practice, has deep roots in American political discourse. And in our current moment of colorblind “post-racialism,” when race-specific remedies such as affirmative action or reparations are derided as reverse racism—and even modest demands from Black Lives Matter for criminal justice reform are decried as anti-white—black nationalism has been once again mischaracterized using a host of long-stale tropes. We would be better served, not by simply dismissing black nationalism as the underbelly of white supremacy, but by understanding it as a tradition that is both liberative and anti-racist; one that does not mirror white supremacy, but repudiates it.
W. D. Fard, the founder of the Nation of Islam, arrived in Detroit in 1930 and told black Detroiters that they “were not Americans but Asiatics.” This was part of a holistic alternative creation story that rejected the racist underpinnings of white American nationalism. Many of Fard’s followers were former followers of Marcus Garvey, left without an organization after the decline of his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in the late 1920s due to financial mismanagement and government infiltration. Garvey and the UNIA epitomized the goals of black nationalism, launching the most ambitious and successful Pan-Africanist vision in history. At its height, the UNIA had over 700 branches in 38 states, and its newspaper, Negro World, circulated throughout the African diaspora. Millions of black people were moved by Garvey’s message of racial pride embodied through the UNIA motto “One God! One Aim! One Destiny!” The NOI borrowed many of its black nationalist tenets from the UNIA, combining them with religious symbols, practices, and theologies drawn from the plethora of new northern, black, urban religious and racial-pride movements spawned by the Great Migration. This blending spoke to the diverse backgrounds of many early NOI members: in 1951 nineteen out of twenty-eight Muslims interviewed reported having previously been members in other movements such as black Masonry, the Israelite Movement, God’s Government on the Earth (dedicated to Liberian emigration), the Peace Movement of Ethiopia, Repatriation Movement to Liberia, and the Black Jews.
As historian Robin D. G. Kelley notes, many of these movements were influenced by a Black Zionist tradition that drew upon the narrative of the book of Exodus to imagine liberation and deliverance for black people around the world. These freedom dreams not only provided what he calls a “narrative of slavery, emancipation, and renewal,” but also a “language to critique America’s racist state since the biblical Israel represented a new beginning.” Beyond providing a framework for denouncing American racism, black nationalists addressed the racist power structures that governed their communities by creating jobs, businesses, schools, and places of worship. Racial separation was not simply about black communities’ physical relationship to white people; it was about changing the structures of power that governed those relationships through self-determination, community control, and new relationships to self and one another.
By 1959 the Nation of Islam was a burgeoning movement well known within urban black communities in the North but still largely unknown to white America. That summer, as Malcolm X traveled to Africa as a guest of Egypt’s president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Mike Wallace (later of 60 Minutes fame) and black journalist Louis Lomax presented the NOI to white audiences for the first time. In their sensationalist documentary, The Hate That Hate Produced, NOI was compared to the American Nazi Party and the Ku Klux Klan. Members of the Nation were referred to as “black racists” and “black supremacists.” Its cautionary message to a largely white audience was that white racism would inevitably produce its black variant. As Malcolm X later recalled in his Autobiography, the show was meant to shock viewers, like when “Orson Welles frightened America with a radio program describing . . . an invasion by ‘men from Mars.’”
The Hate That Hate Produced was critical in launching the Nation of Islam into the public eye. But it also offered white viewers a language for understanding black nationalism that both intensified and allayed their fears. While racism was a plague that undermined American democracy, it was not a distinctly white characteristic. As Charlie Keil, a young white civil rights organizer at Yale during the early 1960s explained to me recently: “The Hate that Hate Produced allowed [whites] to sort of categorize the Muslims—the Nation of Islam—and treat them a certain way. . . . [It was] some way of saying that this was not an autonomous self-starting movement, but a reaction, an overreaction to a history of oppression.”
Throughout the 1960s black nationalists were castigated as “supremacists” who promoted the very racism and racial segregation that liberals were fighting against. This was stoked by white nationalists who saw calls for black racial separation as consistent with their belief in the benefits of racial segregation. As George Lincoln Rockwell, head of the American Nazi Party, told Alex Haley in a 1966 interview: “Malcolm X said the same thing I’m saying.”
Rockwell was not the only one confused about the difference between racial segregationand racial separation. In a highly-publicized Los Angeles trial in 1962 after police killed an unarmed member of the Los Angeles NOI mosque, the Los Angeles Times reported the “unusual problem in seating of spectators . . . when women members of the sect refused to accept seats alongside white persons.” The court eventually overturned this seating arrangement, and the press described this as “desegregation.” Los Angeles NAACP president Christopher Taylor joined the chorus of the aggrieved by arguing that he would be against any type of segregation, regardless of who initiated it. This decontextualized, colorblind insistence that any race demanding separation was calling for racial segregation was central to mischaracterizations of black nationalism during this period.
Malcolm X set about clarifying the Nation of Islam’s advocacy for racial separatism through dozens of debates with prominent civil rights figures on college campuses across the country in the early 1960s. He debated James Farmer at Cornell, Bayard Rustin at Howard, Louis Lomax at Yale, and the NAACP’s Walter Carrington at Harvard. Almost every debate was themed around the question: “Integration or Separation?” As Malcolm explained at Wesleyan University: “We are just as much against segregation as the most staunch integrationist.” But he added that black people did not “want to be free any more; they want integration. . . . They have confused their method with their objective.” In other words, black nationalists were not opposed to racial integration as an outcome of freedom struggles, or even as an organizing strategy, but they saw it as deeply flawed as the movement’s principal objective. More importantly, they pointed out the racist presumption of integration, which took for granted that white society and its values were more desirable. As Malcolm once sardonically asked, Who is the white man to be equal to?
More than simply critiquing integration, the Nation of Islam emphasized the importance of community control, an idea that flourished in upcoming years with the emergence of the Black Power movement. As Malcolm explained: “segregation means to regulate or control. . . . A segregated community is that forced upon inferiors by superiors. A separate community is done voluntarily by two equals.” Recognizing the pervasiveness of racial segregation, nationalists sought control over the businesses, healthcare, education, housing, and policing in their communities. Indeed, the Kerner Commission’s grim 1968 assessment that the nation was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal” was something understood within black communities for decades. Amidst this backdrop, nationalists called for greater autonomy. The distinction between segregation and separation was not a semantic pivot. It was a deeper analysis of power, and an assertion of self-determination.
Over sixty years since the Supreme Court struck down the constitutionality of “separate but equal” in Brown v. Board, it would seem that calls for racial separatism are a relic of the past. But that might be too hopeful. A 2014 UCLA study revealed higher levels of school segregation in many regions than in 1968, the year the Supreme Court decreed a more proactive approach to desegregation. Schools with less than 1 percent white students are now being referred to as “apartheid schools.” And while the South is no longer governed by Jim Crow laws, cities outside the South such as Chicago and Baltimore continue to be described by demographers as “hypersegregated.”
The denial of race is a fixture of racism. Black nationalists have often exposed the “colorblind,” coded racism of liberals.
Black critiques of school integration during the 1950s and 1960s were often decried. In the words of scholar Andrew Delbanco, novelist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston “consigned herself to oblivion” when she responded to the Brown v. Board decision by saying that she could “see no tragedy in being too dark to be invited to a white school affair.” After James Meredith enrolled as the first black student in the University of Mississippi’s history, Malcolm X told a courtroom that anytime a man “needs [an] escort of 15,000 troops to go to a college where he will be among people whose viciousness toward him is so deadly that he needs the Army there to protect him . . . that Negro is foolish if he thinks that he is going to get an education.” Education, not integration, should be the goal, both Hurston and Malcolm agreed. As Malcolm explained, “token integration” was pointless as long as there were “a couple million Negroes in Mississippi who haven’t been allowed to go to the Kindergarten in a decent school.”
Meanwhile, integration today is often illustrated through the exceptional accomplishments of a handful of black elites, most notably President Barack Obama, rather than evidenced by a substantial redistribution of wealth or educational and housing opportunities. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor demonstrates, the role of “black faces in high places” is often to obscure the common conditions facing many African Americans. Instead, black elected officials serve as interlocutors speaking to—and on behalf of—black communities. Taylor writes poignantly of the 2015 Baltimore uprising after the death of Freddie Gray: “When a Black mayor, governing a largely Black city, aids in the mobilization of a military unit led by a Black woman to suppress a Black rebellion, we are in a new period of the Black freedom struggle.” But this new period has unfortunately produced all-too-familiar outcomes for poor and working-class black people.
The long history of black nationalist leaders having official meetings with white supremacist leaders is another narrative often mobilized as proof of the essential symmetry of the two movements. In 1922 Marcus Garvey met with the Imperial Wizard of the Klan, Edward Clarke, earning him swift denunciation by the NAACP. In 1961 Malcolm X and other NOI officials secretly met with the KKK in Atlanta to negotiate a non-aggression pact surrounding the NOI’s purchase of southern farmland. The following year American Nazi leader George Lincoln Rockwell even appeared as an invited guest at the NOI’s Saviour’s Day convention in Chicago. When police in Monroe, Louisiana, illegally targeted and raided the city’s mosque with tear gas, rifles, and riot sticks, the Nation of Islam secured an interracial defense team: local black attorney James Sharpe, Jr., and Imperial Wizard of the National Knights of the Klan, James Venable. As Venable explained when taking the case, “I hate to say it but a colored man doesn’t have a chance in a courtroom in the South.”
The decision by black nationalists to meet or coordinate with white supremacists was often driven by a combination of pragmatism and a deep cynicism about the authenticity of liberals. In the case of the UNIA, Garvey negotiated an agreement with Clarke to sell stock in black businesses such as newspapers, factories, and his Black Star shipping line, which ambitiously hoped to link a global black economy in Africa, the Caribbean, and the Americas before failing due to poor business management. And although Malcolm X would later denounce the Nation of Islam’s détente with the Klan, the organization’s motivation for doing so was plainly and only to secure the right to farm in the South without danger of violent reprisal. And in the case against eight members of the NOI in Monroe, Venable successfully won an appeal for several of those convicted.
Black nationalists were also not uncritical of the white supremacists with whom they interacted, a fact often downplayed or forgotten. After his meeting with the Klan, Garvey told a crowd: “Mr. Clark [sic] did not tell me anything new; he told me what I discovered seven years ago. He told me the thing that caused me to have organized the Universal Negro Improvement Association four and a half years ago.” When Rockwell, wearing full Nazi regalia, donated twenty dollars to a collection plate at Saviour’s Day, there was a smattering of reluctant applause. Malcolm X belittled him by adding: “You got the biggest hand you ever got.” Equally, black nationalists used white supremacists to draw attention to the hypocrisy of liberals. Following his 1922 meeting, Garvey claimed that Klan members were “better friends to my race, for telling us who they are, and what they mean.” Malcolm used a similar device in his folk metaphor of the liberal “fox” and the conservative “wolf.” When comparing John F. Kennedy to George Wallace, Malcolm said: “Neither one loves you. The only difference is that the fox will eat you with a smile instead of a scowl.” He even penned a 1964 editorial entitled “Why I Am for Goldwater” in which he drew upon the same fox/wolf metaphor and cynically suggested that with Goldwater, “black people at least know what they are dealing with.”
Critics on the left who see these as misguided political strategies have marginalized black nationalists by painting them as racial conservatives, and thereby emptied black nationalists’ critiques of their incisiveness. For example, Paul Gilroy accuses Garvey of “black fascism” and C. L. R. James even compared him to Hitler. Others have taken Malcolm’s cynical support for Goldwater at face value, rather than understanding his rhetorical move to draw parallels between openly racist politicians and ostensibly liberal ones whose policies nonetheless gut the black community.
Black nationalist groups such as the UNIA and the NOI have rightly been critiqued for their deep patriarchy, homophobia, and tendency to reproduce the other trappings of empire. As historian Michelle Ann Stephens notes of Garvey, his “vision of the sovereign state figured in the black male sovereign; the desire for home at a more affective level figured in the woman of color.” Likewise, anti-Semitic comments by Nation of Islam leaders such as Louis Farrakhan have certainly buttressed comparisons between white and black nationalists. Most recently, Farrakhan stoked this fire by praising Donald Trump’s refusal to take money from Jewish donors.
But although charismatic leaders are often the voices we hear most prominently, for many rank-and-file members of the Nation of Islam and other black nationalist groups, the lived experience of racial pride, religious rebirth, and doing for oneself is a redemptive, affirming, and even lifesaving practice. Many members joined the NOI after feeling alienated in integrated, more middle-class organizations such as the NAACP. As Lindsey X told an interviewer, what the NAACP “wanted never seemed real to me. I think Negroes should create jobs for themselves rather than going begging for them.” Malcolm X’s autobiography is only the best-known narrative of religious and political redemption. In a long-running feature in the NOI’s newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, entitled “What Islam Has Done For Me,” members offered their conversion narratives and testified to the transformative practice of Islam. Robert 24X of Paterson, New Jersey, contributed: “I was a young drug addict who had spent too much time in the hells of Harlem’s East Side . . . [before] everything came into focus for me. . . . I stopped smoking, using profanity, and eating improper foods. And I’ve passed my biggest acid test—no more needles in the arm.”
Instead of positioning black nationalism as a reactionary, conservative ideology that simply apes the violence and hate of white supremacy, we might learn from its lessons today. If asked about the xenophobia and dangerous comments of conservative firebrand Donald Trump in our current election, Malcolm X might well have pivoted us back to Hillary Clinton’s questionable record on race, one which Black Lives Matter activists have pointed out includes racist dog whistles such as her comments about “super-predators” lacking empathy, her steadfast support for the devastating 1994 Crime Bill, and campaign money taken from private prison corporations. And beyond the hollow political discourse of election cycles, we must avoid the pitfalls of incessant claims of post-racialism that insist that to see race is to participate in racism. As we have witnessed with the familiar “All Lives Matter” rejoinder to “Black Lives Matter,” we are living in a time when people’s humanity is so denigrated that the mere valuation of life is taken by some whites to be a zero-sum game. The denial of race is a central fixture in the perpetuation of racism, and black nationalists have routinely called attention to the importance of racial pride while exposing the coded racism of liberals. Rather than draw facile lines between black nationalism and white supremacy, we are better served by understanding black nationalism as an anti-racist political tradition seeking to envision black American freedom and citizenship in a nation that has rarely devoted much effort toward either end.