Keep Singing and Swinging

Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X in New York City, 1963. Photo by Bob Gomel.

Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X in New York City, 1963. Photo by Bob Gomel.

Inspiration from Malcolm X

by Chris Chavez

It’s April 3, 1964. Malcolm X is about to share his thoughts on Black Nationalism in front of a large audience gathered in Cleveland, Ohio, in a speech titled The Ballot or The Bullet.* He begins his remarks by referring to the crowd, addressing his friends as well as his enemies, stating that “we’d be fooling ourselves if we had an audience this large and didn’t realize that there were some enemies present.”

This February 21st, fifty-two years after Malcolm X was killed at a rally in New York City, it is my wish for all of us to break free from our echo chambers in order to amass audiences strong enough to hold our enemies as well as our friends. Now, more than ever, we need to engage openly and fiercely with everyone.

The long-standing relationships of our lives will give us the strength to do this. Those friendships or kinships, chosen or biological, from which we have come to expect great joys, great sorrows, and every emotion in between. Re-listening to The Ballot or The Bullet, I was reminded of these wholehearted relationships. I heard Malcolm X’s bold call for liberation or revolutionary upheaval. I also heard his audience’s energetic reception of this message. The interaction of the minister, his message, and his audience reminded me that our most unpleasant relations can form the basis of our richest relationships and that our richest relationships often lead to our most unpleasant relations.

Participants in the Women’s March in Washington D.C. forming a gratitude line to shake hands with members of the National Guard. Photo by author.

Participants in the Women’s March in Washington D.C. forming a gratitude line to shake hands with members of the National Guard. Photo by author.

Despite its shortcomings, this administration’s moral corrosiveness demands that we collaboratively grapple with our country’s moral failings in relationships outside of the living rooms and the college campuses where they’ve traditionally resided. It has been too long since we have fully and vitally owned our citizenship. We have together cultivated a moral debt to match our economic one and the stack of delinquent bills that has gathered around our civic institutions has finally caught fire. Here are some of the bigger preconceptions we should allow to burn up in the flames.

1. The all accepting melting pot

There’s a well documented legacy of demonizing, segregating, and scapegoating in the United States. Each new wave of immigrants goes through the same crucible of prejudice and some groups never fully exit it. To borrow words from Malcolm X, these peoples move through their American nightmare with the hope of experiencing the American dream. This is not a right of passage. It’s a pattern of ignorance.

Our indigenous brothers and sisters, our black brothers and sisters, our Japanese brothers and sisters, our migrant brothers and sisters, and the successive waves of people from Western and now Eastern Europe and the Middle East, are but a few of the groups that to varying degrees found themselves drawing the short end of our civic stick. Eventually, when we do fess up to wrongs systematically committed, the affected peoples wait for years to receive a simple apology, and their persecutors almost never experience the just comeuppance of their malevolent behaviors.

Victims of this small-hearted cowardice do not write U.S. history books. As such, their stories have always been framed as stains on our American legacy instead of making up the strands of its very fabric.

The beauty of dissent is rising. Photo by author.

The beauty of dissent is rising. Photo by author.

2. The unconditional generosity of our international relations

“We haven’t benefited from American democracy; we’ve only suffered from American hypocrisy,” Malcolm X shared in the Spring of 1964. Since World War II, the international world order has been shaped by such a duel-sided U.S. foreign policy.

On the one hand, U.S. governments promoted free trade and economic development plans to help salvage war-torn allies and strengthen the independence of strategic partners. On the other hand, U.S. governments have intervened ruthlessly in the sovereign affairs of weaker states, seemingly indifferent to the consequences these interventions had on peoples around the world.

Like my fellow citizens, I am outraged at the possibility that Russia may have directly meddled in the U.S. presidential election, or may have made a strong attempt to influence the outcome by systematically engaging in mass counterintelligence operations on U.S. soil. At the same time, I cannot look away from the tragic justice in this scenario, one that has played out in countries around the world at the hands of U.S. presidents. Though they are well-known, many of these scenarios of uninvited intervention have never been owned outright by an American government.** The festering wounds of these actions have silently spread pain and hurt in the absence of truth and reconciliation.

3. The adequacy of our civic and historical education

A lack of historical perspective narrows the view of too many U.S. citizens. So much so that when we are abroad, my fellow American citizens and I are known for our national ignorance of world affairs even though our government shaped much of what took place in 20th century world history. Many U.S. citizens are aware of our shortsighted memory, but too few actually feel its consequences, and attempt to do anything about it. This lack of historical memory doesn’t stop at our international borders. It extends into our domestic recollections as well.

For example, we have had many presidents throughout our history who have used their executive power to bully the two other branches of government. Our current president’s comments about the judicial system look childish when compared to the pugilistic remarks made by Franklin D. Roosevelt when he attempted to pack the Supreme Court in an effort to speed up New Deal reform. It was 1937 and policies of the New Deal were running up against the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Constitution. In an attempt to correct what he saw as erroneous judgments, and wrest power away from judges he disagreed with, FDR proposed the Judicial Procedures Reform Bill. If passed, the bill would have allowed FDR to appoint up to six additional justices to the Supreme Court’s bench. In our current political environment, I can’t imagine what we would do if it was revealed that our president was drafting similar legislation.

“You put them first and they put you last, because you are a chump. Because you’re a political chump.”
                                                                                                                       — Malcolm X

In the three cases above, our current administration isn’t exceptional. Our Constitution and Bill of Rights state noble aspirations, but our history clearly shows that we have always struggled to live them with integrity. Before this current administration, we have had presidents who were horrible managers. We have had presidents who were far from sterling moral examples. Presidents like Abraham Lincoln, and his historical context, have been the exception to the rule.

Posters left around Dupont Circle after the D.C. Women’s March. Photo by author.

Posters left around Dupont Circle after the D.C. Women’s March. Photo by author.

As we continue to organize in protection of those who are under threat, and express outrage at the careless statements of a man who has no respect for anything but the spectacle of power, let’s remember that our civic fore-bearers would have considered some of what we are encountering as tame in comparison to what they experienced in their contemporary political discourse. This isn’t a reason to settle down. It’s a reason to push with renewed energy. We need to toughen up and expect to leave some political teeth on the floor. To echo Malcolm X as he rallied his people to take firm grasp over their own political power, “It’s time for us to stop singing and start swinging.”

In the 1960s, Malcolm X challenged black audiences to rise into political maturity. He warned that continued, systemic injustice against his people would eventually lead to violence, much like British oppression led Patrick Henry and other revolutionary war heroes to declare give me liberty or give me death. With this in mind, we must face the unpleasantness of our current civic relationships and demand more than grief and frustration from them. We must demand a civic life liberated from simplistic historical story lines. What some consider as simmering injustices flaring up in 2016 and 2017, others have experienced as raging fires with too little relief to recover. To combat alternative facts, we need alternative histories that allow us to step closer to these flames. Only by fully confronting the cowardices of our past might we courageously change the narratives of the future.

Thank you for reading. If you would like to discuss nonviolent approaches to political transformation, practices of civic hospitality, and how to turn fear into courage, and courage into action, please email me at

*Audio of speech linked in sentence. Full text here.

**To fully realize how intervention could alter the organization of independently governed peoples, however well intentioned, think of the American Civil War, and think of what could have happened if one of the great powers of 19th century international relations decided to intervene. Chris Brown deals with this and other challenges to what seem like the simplest of international situations in Sovereignty, Rights and Justice: International Political Theory Today.