There is an apocryphal story about Malcolm X and the March on Washington. Standing to the side of the March under the shade of a tree, forbidden from participating by the Nation of Islam’s leader, Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm derided the event as a “circus.” Bayard Rustin, one of the March’s key organizers, saw Malcolm in a crowd and shouted “Why don’t you tell them this is just a picnic?” The Nation of Islam’s national spokesperson responded: “You know, this dream of King’s is going to be a nightmare before it’s over.” Later that summer, Malcolm would deliver a searing critique of the March on Washington in what remains his most remembered speech, “A Message from the Grassroots.”
The story of a towering figure standing in the literal shadows of what is framed as the apex of the civil rights movement does a lot of ideological work. It characterizes Malcolm as embittered by the apolitical posture of an authoritarian leader, and positions the Nation of Islam at the margins of a revered movement. But what if we reframed Malcolm’s critical position of the March at the center of the story? What if we understood him not to be casting stones from the sidelines, but as a key figure who had worked in coalition alongside many of the March’s key organizers such as Rustin, Anna Arnold Hedgeman, and A. Philip Randolph, just a few years earlier? And what if we saw Malcolm as a representative of the Nation of Islam, rather than somehow outside it?
This is not to argue for the Nation of Islam’s inclusion into a liberal framework of the movement, but rather, to suggest that shifting away from that liberal center—to explore local organizing against police violence or the struggle for against solitary confinement by incarcerated Muslims, for example—is crucial to understanding the Black freedom struggle then and now.
I wrote a book about margins and dialectics, and why both are important to understanding historical freedom struggles and their current implications and applications. Struggles for radical change are dialectical. Thus, our histories of such movements must also be. Although this was not where I began when writing this book, it was certainly where I ended.
The title of the book itself is its own sort of dialectic of thesis/antithesis, one that Muslims in the Nation of Islam themselves articulated. When asked about political engagement, they responded: “Those who say don’t know, and those who know don’t say.” By saying, essentially—don’t believe what you hear, but don’t think you’re going to hear it from us—Muslims articulated how repressive knowledge is formed and deployed, as well as how self- and community-knowledge can be made, spoken, and kept.
Those Who Know Don’t Say opens with two scenes of state surveillance and violence, with Muslims responding through protest in the form of prayer. These events captured the two primary questions of the book: what is the interrelationship between such acts of resistance and repression, and what is their place in our understandings of the midcentury Black freedom struggle? The former is a question of dialectics, the latter of margins.
The Nation of Islam operated at the margins of multiple discourses: religious and political. The phrase through which Muslims in the NOI became popularly known—“Black Muslims”—entrenched a dual marginalization. Racial particularism indicated religious illegitimacy; faith signified apoliticism. But, as anthropologist Mary Douglas once noted, “[a]ll margins are dangerous. If they are pulled this way or that the shape of fundamental experience is altered. Any structure of ideas is vulnerable at its margins.”
I wanted to document a political history of the Nation of Islam (NOI) which was at odds with most popular and academic narratives of the organization, even ones it often tells about itself. This meant grappling with archival silences and nuanced half-registers. Sometimes it meant interrogating the explicit. What were the motivations for people saying the things they did, to the audiences they said them to? Why say one thing and do another? Why say conflicting things to different audiences? This is not about disbelieving historical subjects, but rather believing that they understood their own context and motivations. As Joshua Davis rightly points out, the book is “as much an intellectual history as a political one.”
Marginalization, like centering, is an act of framing. Shifting from margin to center is not simply about exploring edges, but fundamentally shifting the frame to lay bare the sources of that marginalization. In the case of the Nation of Islam, this meant accounting for interlocking forms of anti-Blackness and Islamophobia by the state and from within the movement.
This returns us to the story of Malcolm at the March on Washington. The March still serves as the anchor of the midcentury Black freedom movement in most popular histories. Malcolm’s critique of it has been used to argue either for his frustration in attempting to bring the Nation of Islam into that struggle or to foreshadow his departure from it. Instead, the story I tell centers around a Harlem coalition that lasted little more than a handful of meetings and a few public rallies over the course of six months in late 1961: the Emergency Committee on Unity for Social and Economic Problems.
The Emergency Committee was a broad-based, politically heterogeneous, local coalition that arose out of the immediate conditions of police violence in Harlem during the summer of 1961. Spearheaded by A. Philip Randolph, the Committee always had an uneasy relationship with Muslims and Black nationalists, but understood it could not effectively organize without them. In the subsequent months, the issues of housing, employment, and education took precedence over police brutality, a subcommittee on which Malcolm and other Black nationalists such as Lewis Michaux and Ed “Pork Chop” Davis served. It was even reframed as a “law and order” committee. The subcommittee eventually disbanded itself and Malcolm X was soon flung into full-time organizing in Los Angeles following the murder of Ronald Stokes by LAPD in April 1962.
As Robin Kelley teaches us, the central story is not always the most obvious one. In this case, understanding the possibilities and shortcomings of a fleeting attempt at local coalitional politics is important to understanding the role of the Nation of Islam in addressing police violence, anti-Blackness, and Islamophobia in the civil rights era. It offers a significant reframe to the opening anecdote of Malcolm on the Washington Mall. Here we see Malcolm X engaged in local organizing alongside Randolph, Rustin, and Hedgeman, all of whom shifted from their work with the Emergency Committee into planning the March on Washington as Malcolm moved deeper into anti-police violence and legal defense work in the aftermath of Stokes’ killing. Thus, as I wrote in the book, “the preeminent and lasting critique of the March on Washington did not come from the Nation of Islam’s marginal position outside the movement but from its central experiences of grassroots organizing within it.”
Alaina Morgan is right that this is a recuperative and redemptive story. There are profound lessons to be learned from the shortcomings of the Nation of Islam’s organizing, many of them not simply strategic, but ideological. By pointing out the limitations of Muhammad Speaks as a historical source and the absence of oral histories, incarcerated women’s experiences, and the transnational experiences (not simply rhetoric) of Muslims of African descent, Morgan points to just a few important new margins that her work and others participating in this forum are soon to illuminate. As Davis adds, there is a much-needed story on the Nation of Islam during the Black Power era. How do we explain that an organization which often recedes in historical narratives after Malcolm’s departure, actually grows exponentially during the Black Power Movement? Following Ula Taylor’s transformative book on women in the Nation of Islam, the work of those in this forum as well as May Alhassen, Zaheer Ali, Maryam Aziz, Jimmy Butts, and Toussaint Losier (to name just a few), promises to seismically shift our understandings of the Nation of Islam over the next several years.
My hope is that this book, as Brittany Friedman beautifully puts it, “presents a history that can be read as the Nation of Islam building cross-political coalitions for an ultimate abolitionist solution to Black freedom.” Histories are not one-stop shops for solutions to our current crises. “History is instructive,” Mariame Kaba writes, “not because it offers us a blueprint for how to act in the present but because it can help us ask better questions for the future.” Writing this book, learning from comrades past and present, has helped me move from searching for answers to looking for new questions. I am deeply grateful and moved by all those who shared with me in that process. Thank you to Joshua Davis, Brittany Friedman, Mohammad Jarada, and Alaina Morgan for their generous and thoughtful readings, as well as Black Perspectives and the Journal of Civil and Human Rights for providing the venue for our discussion.