400 Years Blog #51  – Harriet and Malcolm: Any Means Necessary

Posted in: Leader's Blog

Few heroes of the liberation struggle inspired Black Americans as much as Harriet Tubman and Malcolm X. While watching the new film Harriet, I recognized parallels between their willingness to use, as Malcolm X famously said, “any means necessary.” Tubman would do anything to save her passengers, even threatening to shoot any of them who wanted to give up, which would jeopardize the chance for escape for the rest. During the Civil War, she was a Union spy, and in the Combahee Ferry raid, she led Union soldiers in freeing 700 enslaved people. She is a national heroine.

But a century later, when Malcolm X endorsed using “any means necessary” to end racism, he was excoriated by mainstream America. Time magazine said he was “an unashamed demagogue” whose “creed was violence.” He has “turn[ed] many true gifts to evil purpose,” concluded the New York Times.

But to those they sought to liberate, Harriet and Malcolm were both heroes because they were able to channel their anger and were strengthened by faith, courage and love. They both had plenty of reasons to be angry. Slavery ravaged Harriet’s life and white supremacists harassed and killed Malcolm’s relatives. Without parents in his life, X fell into petty crime and was incarcerated at Massachusetts State Prison at Charlestown at age 20 for seven years. There he joined the Nation of Islam (NOI).

Regardless of accusations of intolerance and antisemitism of the NOI, the organization probably saved Malcolm X’s life and thousands of others by cultivating discipline.  For Harriet, God “set the North Star in the heavens; He gave me the strength in my limbs; He meant I should be free.” Faith fueled Harriet’s courage as she ran 90 miles, alone and mainly at night, to freedom. Her love for enslaved people and for God motivated her to return south 19 times to save 300 people.

Malcolm X’s courage made him a marked man, harassed by the FBI lists and assassinated by some unwilling to accept his growing advocacy for inclusion and love. Those who knew Malcolm well understood the depth of his love for his people. Actor Ossie Davis eulogized X as “our shining black prince … who didn’t hesitate to die, because he loved us so.”

Two Black Americans insisted on freedom by any means necessary – one a “runaway” hunted like prey, the other called evil. These criticisms seem shallow compared to how well both Harriet and Malcom channelled their anger and responded with faith, courage and love.

    • Lesson #268: The film Harriet resulted from the hard work of many including a Black female producer, a Black woman writer, a Black woman director, and an overwhelmingly Black cast. Philadelphian journalist Solomon Jones says it’s ironic that “there are Black folks out here saying the film’s not Black enough.”  He cites criticism about: the film’s star, Cynthia Ervio, mocking of a so-called ghetto accent on Twitter six years ago; the fictional character of Bigger Long, a Black tracker of enslaved people, enriching himself at the expense of escaping enslaved people; and, the fact that Comcast helped produce it while currently being sued for racism. Despite these issues, Jones is encouraging people to see Harriet.  He explains, “I have a simple rule of thumb. If Black folks are the creators, if Black folks are getting paid, if the message about us is positive, I’m willing to support the film.” Read the whole article on the website of WHYY.
    • Lesson #269: While incarcerated, Malcolm X changed his name from “Malcolm Little” when he converted to the Nation of Islam. He said he no longer wanted the last name “the white slavemaster… had imposed upon [his] paternal forebears.”
    • Lesson #270: Nelson Mandela knew the revolutionary and anti-oppression power of the phrase, “by any means necessary.”  He refused to say it, as called for in the script of the final scene of the movie, Malcolm X (1992). Having just completed 27 years of imprisonment, Mandela told director Spike Lee that he didn’t want to be reincarcerated by his racist apartheid government.
    • Lesson #271: Malcolm X’s courage helped him continue his public advocacy of the rights of Black people and his newfound rejection of the Nation of Islam.  When working on his autobiography, Malcolm X told Alex Haley, “If I’m alive when this book comes out, it will be a miracle.” No miracle occurred – it was published months after his assassination. In 1998 Time magazine called The Autobiography of Malcolm X one of the ten most influential nonfiction books of the 20th century.
    • Lesson #272: Actor and activist Ossie Davis emphasized the importance of knowing controversial figures personally, and not judging them only based on how they are portrayed in the media. Davis explained to those assembled at the memorial for Malcolm X: “Did you ever talk to Brother Malcolm? Did you ever touch him, or have him smile at you? Did you ever really listen to him? Did he ever do a mean thing? Was he ever himself associated with violence or any public disturbance? For if you did you would know him. And if you knew him you would know why we must honor him … And, in honoring him, we honor the best in ourselves.”
    • Lesson #273: The “Raid on Combahee Ferry” in South Carolina in 1863 may have been the first American military engagement ever to be led by a woman. After the raid, the Commonwealth, a paper published in Massachusetts, reported that a “gallant band of 300 black soldiers under the guidance of a black woman, dashed into the enemy’s country, struck a bold and effective blow, destroying millions of dollars worth of commissary stores, cotton and lordly dwellings, and striking terror into the heart of rebeldom, brought off nearly 800 slaves and thousands of dollars worth of property, without losing a man or receiving a scratch.”
    • Lesson #274: Harriet Tubman’s anger, faith, courage and love, along with the popularity of anti-racism work today, will lead inevitably to more explorations of her remarkable life.  For example, one is a new theatrical production, My General Tubman, by acclaimed Philadelphia author Lorene Cary, opening its world premier at Arden Theater next month in Philadelphia. I will attend it and bring others.


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