Malcolm X: Advice to the Youth of Mississippi (1964)
On December 31, 1964, a month and a half before he was assassinated, African American militant Malcolm X made the remarks from which this selection is taken to a group of thirty-seven teenagers from McComb, Mississippi. They had come to New York City on a trip sponsored by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Early in 1964 Malcolm had left the Black Muslims, with whom he had been affiliated since 1952; he started the Organization of Afro-American Unity in June 1964. SOURCE
One of the first things I think young people, especially nowadays, should learn is how to see for yourself and listen for yourself and think for yourself. Then you can come to an intelligent decision for yourself. If you form the habit of going by what you hear others say about someone, or going by what others think about someone, instead of searching that thing out for yourself and seeing for yourself, you will be walking west when you think you”re going east, and you will be walking east when you think you”re going west. This generation, especially of our people, has a burden, more so than any other time in history. The most important thing that we can learn to do today is think for ourselves.
It”s good to keep wide-open ears and listen to what everybody else has to say, but when you come to make a decision, you have to weigh all of what you”ve heard on its own, and place it where it belongs, and come to a decision for yourself; you”ll never regret it. But if you form the habit of taking what someone else says about a thing without checking it out for yourself, you”ll find that other people will have you hating your friends and loving your enemies. This is one of the things that our people are beginning to learn today–that it is very important to think out a situation for yourself. If you don”t do it, you”ll always be maneuvered into a situation where you are never fighting your actual enemies, where you will find yourself fighting your own self.
I think our people in this country are the best examples of that. Many of us want to be nonviolent and we talk very loudly, you know, about being nonviolent. Here in Harlem, where there are probably more black people concentrated than any place in the world, some talk that nonviolent talk too. But we find that they aren”t nonviolent with each other. You can go out to Harlem Hospital, where there are more black patients than any hospital in the world, and see them going in there all cut up and shot up and busted up where they got violent with each other.
My experience has been that in many instances where you find Negroes talking about nonviolence, they are not nonviolent with each other, and they”re not loving with each other or forgiving with each other. Usually when they say they”re nonviolent, they mean they”re nonviolent with somebody else. I think you understand what I mean. They are nonviolent with the enemy. A person can come to your home, and if he”s white and wants to heap some kind of brutality on you, you”re nonviolent; or he can come to take your father and put a rope around his neck, and you’re nonviolent. But if another Negro just stomps his foot, you”ll rumble with him in a minute. Which shows you that there”s an inconsistency there.
I myself would go for nonviolence if it was consistent, if everybody was going to be nonviolent all the time. I’d say, okay, let’s get with it, we”ll all be nonviolent. But I don”t go along with any kind of nonviolence unless everybody”s going to be nonviolent. If they make the Ku Klux Klan nonviolent, I”ll be nonviolent. If they make the White Citizens Council nonviolent, I”ll be nonviolent. But as long as you’ve got somebody else not being nonviolent, I don”t want anybody coming to me talking any nonviolent talk. I don”t think it is fair to tell our people to be nonviolent unless someone is out there making the Klan and the Citizens Council and these other groups also be nonviolent. . . .
I think in 1965, whether you like it, or I like it, or they like it, or not, you will see that there is a generation of black people becoming mature to the point where they feel that they have no more business being asked to take a peaceful approach than anybody else takes, unless everybody”s going to take a peaceful approach.
So we here in the Organization of Afro-American Unity are with the struggle in Mississippi 1,000 percent. We”re with the efforts to register our people in Mississippi to vote 1,000 percent. But we do not go along with anybody telling us to help nonviolently. We think that if the government says that Negroes have a right to vote, and then some Negroes come out to vote, and some kind of Ku Klux Klan is going to put them in the river, and the government doesn’t do anything about it, it”s time for us to organize and band together and equip ourselves and qualify ourselves to protect ourselves. And once you can protect yourself, you don”t have to worry about being hurt. . . .
If you don”t have enough people down there to do it, we”ll come down there and help you do it. Because we”re tired of this old runaround that our people have been given in this country. For a long time they accused me of not getting involved in politics. They should”ve been glad I didn’t get involved in politics, because anything I get in, I”m in it all the way. If they say we don”t take part in the Mississippi struggle, we will organize brothers here in New York who know how to handle these kind of affairs, and they”ll slip into Mississippi like Jesus slipped into Jerusalem. That doesn’t mean we”re against white people, but we sure are against the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Councils; and anything that looks like it”s against us, we”re against it.
Excuse me for raising my voice, but this thing, you know, gets me upset. Imagine that–a country that”s supposed to be a democracy, supposed to be for freedom and all of that kind of stuff when they want to draft you and put you in the army and send you to Saigon to fight for them–and then you’ve got to turn around and all night long discuss how you”re going to just get a right to register and vote without being murdered. Why, that”s the most hypocritical government since the world began! . . .
I hope you don”t think I”m trying to incite you. Just look here: Look at yourselves. Some of you are teen-agers, students. How do you think I feel–and I belong to a generation ahead of you–how do you think I feel to have to tell you, “We, my generation, sat around like a knot on a wall while the whole world was fighting for its human rights–and you”ve got to be born into a society where you still have the same fight.” What did we do, who preceded you? I”ll tell you what we did: Nothing. And don”t you make the same mistake we made. . . .
You get freedom by letting your enemy know that you”ll do anything to get your freedom; then you”ll get it. It”s the only way you”ll get it. When you get that kind of attitude, they”ll label you as a “crazy Negro,” or they”ll call you a “crazy nigger”–they don”t say Negro. Or they”ll call you an extremist or a subversive, or seditious, or a red, or a radical. But when you stay radical long enough, and get enough people to be like you, you”ll get your freedom. . . .
So don”t you run around here trying to make friends with somebody who”s depriving you of your rights. They”re not your friends, no, they”re your enemies. Treat them like that and fight them, and you”ll get your freedom; and after you get your freedom, your enemy will respect you. And we”ll respect you. And I say that with no hate. I don”t have hate in me. I have no hate at all. I don”t have any hate. I’ve got some sense. I”m not going to let anybody who hates me tell me to love him. I”m not that way-out. And you, young as you are, and because you start thinking, you”re not going to do it either. The only time you”re going to get in that bag is if somebody puts you there. Somebody else, who doesn’t have your welfare at heart. . . .
I want to thank all of you for taking the time to come to Harlem and especially here. I hope that you’ve gotten a better understanding about me. I put it to you just as plain as I know how to put it; there”s no interpretation necessary. And I want you to know that we”re not in any way trying to advocate any kind of indiscriminate, unintelligent action. Any kind of action that you are ever involved in that”s designed to protect the lives and property of our mistreated people in this country, we”re with you 1,000 percent. And if you don”t feel you”re qualified to do it, we have some brothers who will slip in, as I said earlier, and help train you and show you how to equip yourself and let you know how to deal with the man who deals with you.
Source: Malcolm X Speaks, George Breitman, ed., New York, 1965, pp. 137-146.