The black nationalist leader’s influence extended north of the border and continues to this day.
“…And the problems of the Black man here in this country today have ceased to be a problem of just the American Negro or an American problem … Anybody of African ancestry in South America is an Afro-American. Anybody in Central America of African blood is an Afro-American. Anybody here in North America, including Canada, is an Afro-American …”
– Malcolm X
The third Sunday in May is Malcolm X Day. In the 1960s, Malcolm X was one of the most candid and admired leaders of the black nationalist movement, whose philosophy was racial separation and self-determination that rejected Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent, integrationist approach to civil rights. Malcolm X was sharply critical of civil rights leaders who advocated black integration into white society as a substitute for building strong black institutions and defending themselves against racist violence. He was an internationally known political leader, whose philosophy can be summed up in his own words: “It is not integration that Negros in America want, it is human dignity.”
Malcolm X Day is celebrated in most major American cities, but what does it have to do with Canada? What impact, if any, did the philosophies of Malcolm X have on black Canadian consciousness and politics?
To answer this question, we must first understand not only the original militant philosophy expounded by Malcolm X and its influence in Canada at the time, but also the ongoing impact of Malcolm X’s transformative philosophy, which moved beyond civil rights to human rights developed shortly after his resignation from the Nation of Islam and just prior to his assassination at the Audubon Ballroom in New York on Feb. 21, 1965. That year, just before his death, he founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity as a non-religious medium to draw attention to the common cause of human dignity and human rights for all people of African descent in the world. On only one occasion did he visit Canada, where he did an interview with the CBC and visited the home of the well-known Canadian author Austin Clarke. However, his influence on black Canadians was significant.
In the early years, Malcolm X’s black nationalism influenced the development of the Black Panther Party, founded in 1966 (after Malcolm X’s death) in Oakland, California by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. The party practised militant self-defence against the U.S. government and “fought to establish revolutionary socialism through mass organizing and community-based programs.” The Black Panther movement drew heavily on the ideas, philosophy, and speeches of Malcolm X. It has been noted that the Black Panthers “saw themselves as heirs of Malcolm X, who saw African American struggles linked to wider issues of self-determination and justice.”
And this influence was felt in Canada. Across the country, black Canadians were developing their own version of black nationalism. From a group of fewer than a hundred in Oakland, the Black Panther Party grew to chapters in about 35 cities in 19 states and the District of Columbia – as well as England, France, Israel, and Halifax, Nova Scotia – by late the 1970s.
Canadian black militants like Burnley “Rocky” Jones, who was a “pioneer” of the civil rights movement in Canada in the 1960s and 1970s in Halifax, were influenced by Malcolm X, and he was the person they followed on philosophical grounds. Black Canadians who were more moderate followed the non-violent, integrationist philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr. Jones estimates that the percentages of those who followed King and those who followed Malcolm X in Canada were proportional to those who followed either leader in the U.S. Canadian blacks talking black power were under the influence of Stokely Carmichael, who was a follower of Malcolm X.
Jones, as dalgazette reporter Tim Mitchell noted in 2009, “shook up whites in Canada in 1968 when he brought Carmichael and the Black Panthers to Halifax to jumpstart progressive change and draw international attention to the city’s racial tensions … [T]he media began to refer to him as Rocky the Revolutionary, and he was often considered to be Canada’s Stokely Carmichael. He was [like Carmichael] a leader with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).” While the Black Panther movement did not endure in either the U.S. or Canada, the Black Panthers’ visits to Halifax led to the creation of the Black United Front of Nova Scotia as a compromise alternative to the Panthers that same year.
Malcolm X’s influence on Canadian blacks did not end with the death of the Black Panther movement. He believed that the civil rights gains made in America were only tokenism, and this belief has been a cornerstone of the critical race theory movement in both Canada and the U.S. Additionally, his move from “civil” rights – that is, a focus on the plight of African American oppression – to “human” rights, a focus on the international nature of the oppression of peoples of African descent, continues today and is reflected in the contemporary reparations movement across the world – including in Canada – and in the continued worldwide development of human rights norms.