Why Moderation In Defense of Liberty Is No Virtue—Malcolm X

They’ll take a person whose a victim of the crime, and make it appear he’s the criminal,

Malcolm X. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Herman Hiller

[From The Archives]

The following essay is excerpted from Malcolm X’s presentation at the Oxford Union Debate on December 3, 1964. Malcolm’s presentation presentation appears here–and here is the entire debate.

I think the only way one can really determine whether extremism in the defense of liberty is justified, is not to approach it as an American or a European or an African or an Asian, but as a human being. If we look upon it as different types immediately we begin to think in terms of extremism being good for one and bad for another, or bad for one and good for another. But if we look upon it, if we look upon ourselves as human beings, I doubt that anyone will deny that extremism, in defense of liberty, the liberty of any human being, is a value. Anytime anyone is enslaved, or in any way deprived of his liberty, if that person is a human being, as far as I am concerned he is justified to resort to whatever methods necessary to bring about his liberty again.

But most people usually think, in terms of extremism, as something that is relative, related to someone they know or something that they’ve heard of, I don’t think they look upon extremism by itself, or all alone. They apply it to something. A good example—and one of the reasons that this can’t be too well understood today—many people who have been in positions of power in the past don’t realize that the power, the centers of power, are changing. When you’re in a position of power for a long time you get used to using your yardstick, and you take it for granted that because you’ve forced your yardstick on others, that everyone is still using the same yardstick. So that your definition of extremism usually applies to everyone, but nowadays times are changing, and the center of power is changing. People in the past who weren’t in a position to have a yardstick or use a yardstick of their own are using their own yardstick now. You use one and they use another. In the past when the oppressor had one stick and the oppressed used that same stick, today the oppressed are sort of shaking the shackles and getting yardsticks of their own, so when they say extremism they don’t mean what you do, and when you say extremism you don’t mean what they do. There are entirely two different meanings. And when this is understood I think you can better understand why those who are using methods of extremism are being driven to them.

A good example is the Congo. When the people who are in power want to, again, create an image to justify something that’s bad, they use the press. And they’ll use the press to create a humanitarian image, for a devil, or a devil image for a humanitarian. They’ll take a person whose a victim of the crime, and make it appear he’s the criminal, and they’ll take the criminal and make it appear that he’s the victim of the crime. And the Congo situation is one of the best examples that I can cite right now to point this out. The Congo situation is a nasty example of how a country because it is in power, can take it’s press and make the world accept something that’s absolutely criminal. They take pilots that they say are American trained, and this automatically lends respectability to them, and then they will call them anti-Castro Cubans, and that’s supposed to add to their respectability, and eliminate that fact that they’re dropping bombs on villages where they have no defense whatsoever against such planes, blowing to bits black women, Congolese women, Congolese children, Congolese babies, this is extremism, but it is never referred to as extremism because it is endorsed by the west, it is financed by America, it’s made respectable by America, and that kind of extremism is never labeled as extremism. Because it’s not extremism in defense of liberty, and if it is extremism in defense of liberty as this type just pointed out, it is extremism in defense of liberty for the wrong type of people.

I am not advocating that kind of extremism, that’s cold blooded murder. But the press is used to make that cold blooded murder appear as an act of humanitarianism. They take it one step farther and get a man named Tshombe, who is a murderer, they refer to him as the premier, or prime minister of the Congo, to lend respectability to him, he’s actually the murderer of the rightful Prime Minister of the Congo, they never mention this.

I’m not for extremism in defense of that kind of liberty, or that kind of activity. They take this man, who’s a murderer, and the world recognizes his as a murderer, but they make him the prime minister, he becomes a paid murderer, a paid killer, who is propped up by American dollars. And to show the degree to which he is a paid killer the first thing he does is go to South Africa and hire more killers and bring them into the Congo. They give them the glorious name of mercenary, which means a hired killer, not someone that is killing for some kind of patriotism or some kind of ideal, but a man who is a paid killer, a hired killer. And one of the leaders of them is right from this country here, and he’s glorified as a soldier of fortune when he’s shooting down little black women, and black babies, and black children. I’m not for that kind of extremism, I’m for the kind of extremism that those who are being destroyed by those bombs and destroyed by those hired killers, are able to put forth to thwart it. They will risk their lives at any cost, they will sacrifice their lives at any cost, against that kind of criminal activity. I am for the kind of extremism that the freedom fighters in the Stanleyville regime are able to display against these hired killers, who are actually using some of my tax dollars which I have to pay up in the united states, to finance that operation over there. We’re not for that kind of extremism.

Now again I think you must point out that one of those who are very much involved as accessories to the crime is the press. Not so much your press, but the American press which has tricked your press into repeating what they have invented. But I was reading in one of the English papers this morning, I think it’s a paper called The Express, and it gave a very clear account of the type of criminal activity that has been carried on by the mercenaries that are being paid by United States tax dollars. And it showed where they were killing Congolese, whether they were from the central government or the Stanleyville government, it didn’t make any difference to them, they just killed them. And they had it fixed where those who had been processed had to wear a white bandage around their head, and any Congolese that they saw without their white bandage, they killed them. And this is clearly pointed out and at the beginning of last week there would have been an outcry and no one would have allowed Belgium and the united states and the others who are in cahoots with each other, to carry on the criminal activity that they did in the Congo, which I doubt anyone in the world, even here at Oxford, will accept, not even my friend.


The system of government that America has consists of committees, there are sixteen senatorial committees that govern the country and twenty congressional committees. Ten of the sixteen senatorial committees are in the hands of southern racialists, senators who are racialists. Thirteen of the twenty, this is before the last election I think it is even more so now, ten of the sixteen senatorial committees are in the hands of senators who are southern racialists, thirteen of the twenty congressional committees were in the hands of southern congressmen who are racialists. Which means out of the thirty-six committees that govern the foreign and domestic direction of that government, twenty-three are in the hands of southern racialists. Men who in no way believe in the equality of man. And men who do anything within their power to see that the black man never gets to the same seat, or to the same level that they’re on. The reason that these men, from that area, have that type of power is because America has a seniority system, and these who have this seniority have been there longer than anyone else because the black people in the areas where they live, can’t vote. And it is only because the black man is deprived of his vote that puts these men in positions of power that gives them such influence in the government beyond their actual intellectual or political ability, or even beyond the number of people from the areas that they represent.

So we can see, in that country, that no matter what the federal government professes to be doing, the power of the federal government lies in these committees and any time a black man or any type of legislation is proposed to benefit the black man, or give the black man his just due, we find that it is locked up in these committees right here. And when they let something through these committees, usually it is so chopped up and fixed up that by the time it becomes law, it is a law that can’t be enforced.

Another example is the Supreme Court’s desegregation decision that was handed down in 1954. This is a law, and they have not been able to implement this law in New York City or in Boston or in Cleveland or Chicago or the northern cities. And my contention is that any time you have a country, supposedly a democracy, supposedly the “land of the free and the home of the brave,” and it can’t enforce laws, even in the northern most cosmopolitan and progressive part of it, that will benefit a black man, if those laws can’t be enforced, how much heart do you think we will get when they pass some civil rights legislation which only involves more laws. If they can’t enforce this law, they’ll never enforce those laws.

So my contention is, we are faced with a racialistic society, a society in which they are deceitful, deceptive, and the only way we can bring about a change is speak the language that they understand. The racialists never understands a peaceful language, the racialists never understands the nonviolent language, the racialist has spoken his type of language to us for over four hundred years. We have been the victim of his brutality, we are the ones who face his dogs, who tear the flesh from our limbs, only because we want to enforce the Supreme Court decision. We are the ones who have our skulls crushed, not by the Ku Klux Klan, but by policeman, all because we want to enforce what they call the Supreme Court decision. We are the ones upon whom waterhoses are turned on, practically so hard that it rips the clothes from our back, not men, but the clothes from the backs of women and children, you’ve seen it yourself. All because we want to enforce what they call the law. Well any time you live in a society supposedly and it doesn’t enforce it’s own laws, because the color of a man’s skin happens to be wrong, then I say those people are justified to resort to any means necessary to bring about justice where the government can’t give them justice.

I don’t believe in any form of unjustified extremism. But I believe that when a man is exercising extremism, a human being is exercising extremism, in defense of liberty for human beings, it’s no vice. And when one is moderate in the pursuit of justice for human beings, I say he’s a sinner.

And I might add in my conclusion, in fact, America is one of the best examples, when you read its history, about extremism. Ol’ Patrick Henry said “liberty of death”—that’s extremism.

I read once, passingly, about a man named Shakespeare. I only read about him passingly, but I remember one thing he wrote, that kind of moved me. He put it in the mouth of Hamlet, I think it was, who said “to be or not to be”. He was in doubt about something. Whether it was nobler, in the mind of man, to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune— moderation—or to take up arms against the sea of troubles and, by opposing, end them. And I go for that; if you take up arms you’ll end it, but if you sit around and wait for the one who is in power to make up his mind that he should end it, you’ll be waiting a long time. And in my opinion, the young generation of whites, blacks, browns, whatever else there is, you’re living at a time of extremism, a time of revolution, a time when there’s got to be a change, people in power have misused it, and now there has to be a change. And a better world has to be built and the only way it’s going to be built is with extreme methods. And I, for one, will joint in with anyone—don’t care what color you are—as long as you want to change this miserable condition that exists on this earth. Thank you.

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