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Interview With Dr.

Yohuru Williams
Question 1: How did Malcolm Xs view on black empowerment inspire organizations such as the
black panthers?
What Malcolm really offered was an alternative vision of what organizing meant and
what the end result of organizing was. So you have the NAACP and the Congress of Racial
Equality and Martin Luther Kings Southern Christian Leadership Conference and theyre all
integrationists, their basic idea is that we want to claim full access to American society and full
participation to the political process, full rights to economic justice, the whole nine. Heres the
Nation of Islam, and Malcolm X saying If we do that with our model of inclusiveness, how can
we be sure that that can eradicate white racism and if it wont, African Americans, blacks will
always find themselves in the lower social rung. So what we need to do is to create our own.
What you have Malcolm saying very deliberately through the Nation of Islam is We should
create parallel structures. That there should be, you know, black businesses. In his mind, even a
separate homeland for African Americans. What the Panthers take from Malcolm is the political
organization and the fact that you need a black political party, but not necessarily that it has to be
separate entirely from violence. So they would not have agreed with the idea that you needed a
separate homeland. They would have bought the idea that blacks need to organize blacks and that
you needed an all black political party in order to reflect the interest of the black community
exclusively because the fear was once start making alliances and collisions of the groups, that
would dilute the strength of the message that you wanted to get out about how to correct
problems in the black community.
Question 2: How did Malcolm X especially contribute to the Civil Rights Movement?
Traditionally, people talk about Malcolm as the counterbalance to the Reverend Martin
Luther King, its what you hear all the time. Well, Martin Luther King was talking about
integration and Malcolm was talking about separation, and that scared the establishment so
therefore they were more willing to act out of the fear of Malcolm. Thats somewhat problematic.
Its true if youre talking about mainstream politics. Its problematic if youre talking about
Malcolms impact on grassroots organizing. There were people like Robert F. Williams in
Monroe, North Carolina who were drawn to Malcolm because they believed in his political

message, because Malcolm was speaking about black empowerment in a way that was very
different from any other group. And Malcolm came from a long trajectory of what Peniel
Joseph, he wrote a book called Waiting Til the Midnight Hour. So he talks about this long
power movement and it goes back to the turn of the century, like Marcus Garvey. The idea that
you could build black pride, black identity, black culture and this ultimately would help
transform the African American community. That appealed to people as well, it wasnt just folks
who were saying Oh, heres a convenient foil that we can use to make the case for integration.
It were people who actually like Queen Mudemore, Robert F. Williams, like Maulana Karenga,
saying This guy, this is what we want, and this is the identity we want and they were the ones
who became the sons of Malcolm so to speak.
Question 3: Can we see the effects of Malcolm X in todays society? If so, how?
You could see Malcolms legacy in three substantive ways. The first is culturally. The
Nation of Islam is still around obviously and if you think about the movie Malcolm X that Spike
Lee made in the early nineties. If you think of Malcolms identification in the larger culture and
the fact that Nicki Minaj just did an album cover, very controversial, where she used his image.
Back in the 80s when I was your age, the Boogie Down production did an album cover that used
his famous image. He has such cultural relevance and he represents so much about the nineteen
sixties and that moment that is part of his legacy. The second is political. There are still groups
today like the new Black Panther Party that subscribe to Malcolms vision of America who
believe in separatism, who argue that AFrican Americans will never get a fair shake in the larger
society or culture and therefore they should create a separate political identity. The third ways
which his legacy is still tangible is mainstream in a sense. There is still a fundamental
misunderstanding about what Malcolm represents and so you will find in a mainstream media,
youll find in some textbooks, youll find among some educators this persistent belief that
Malcolm represented hate and he was a hate monger. The book that did the best to correct that
was a book by Manning Marable. He is a phenomenal scholar. Part of what he is saying in a life
of reinvention is that we have to look at Malcolm as somebody that recognized that it was
important to change your tactics and reinvention is a powerful tool, a powerful weapon. Any of
us in any given moment could think about where you are right now and your friends see you one

way and so forth. The power to reinvent oneself and to meet your political needs is a very
important tool and Malcolm was a master at that.
Question 4: Do you think that Malcolm X still has an influence on the African American
adolescents, like teenagers and early adults today?
A superficial one because theres a fundamental misunderstanding about what Malcolm X
represents. When, this might even be different from your generation, but in my generation
everybody read the Autobiography of Malcolm X and it was presented as a simple morality tale,
so the idea was you were learning about this guy because he hated white people then all of the
sudden has this conversion moment and he liked white people and then he got shot. But Life of
Reinvention flips that because it says Hey wait a minute, he didnt only go to Mecca once. He
went several times, that this conversion moment may not have been what it was. And what that
does is it problematizes Malcolm for us and it reaffirms his unanimity. All of us, at any given
moment look a particular way. Politically, socially, culturally, what we reflect, what we represent.
Malcolm today, to most young people, still represents this kind of iconic, if distant, civil rights
person. What he doesnt represent is an answer to many of the issues that you guys face in your
community, think about what we were talking about this morning, schools. You know, Malcolm
had an answer for that. Build your own schools. Here we are fighting for the city council of the
city of Philadelphia to end testing. Why not create community schools? Run them, hire your own
teachers. Now it takes money to do that, but then that would speak to the second thing you would
set up. Build your own businesses. Create parallel structures outside of the mainstream in order
to meet the needs of the people. Then this way you control it and that would be his response. So
most young people dont see him in that way, they see him as kind of this angry, larger than life
black man that gave great speeches and not as this political theorist who actually had real
substantive ideas.

Question 5: How did your knowledge about Malcolm X and his achievements affect the way you
think about this topic?
Molefi Asante, who is at Temple University and the founder of black studies or at least
afrocentricity. One of the things, that was ironically it was Manning Marable who cited this, said

that when you are involved in black study scholarship, its not just about scholarship, its not just
a production of knowledge, its what youre producing that knowledge for. He said it has to be
three things. Descriptive, you should be seeking to describe the problem. Prescriptive, you
should be thinking about how to address the issues that arrays. And corrective, you should be
offering solutions. The idea is not to just come and talk about the civil right movement but you
need to think about how you to use that history in order to move us forward in the present and
thats how I think about Malcolm. Thats what Malcolm was. He described the condition of
African Americans. He talked about it probably more powerfully than anyone. If you listen to
him speak, then its hard not to listen to that voice and the passion and the power but he was also
prescriptive because part of what he was saying to blacks was that your minds are colonized and
you got to move beyond that and then he was corrective in saying, now that i have told you what
the issues are, and I have prescribed how we might get through this, here are the solutions. So he
was all of those things.