"If you're in a country that's progressive, the woman is progressive": black women radicals and the making of the politics and legacy of Malcolm X

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Date: Summer 2013
From: Biography(Vol. 36, Issue 3)
Publisher: University of Hawaii Press
Document Type: Essay
Length: 14,319 words

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This article examines the crucial but understudied role black women radicals such as Vicki Garvin, Louise Little, Betty Shabazz, and Queen Mother Audley Moore played in shaping the black revolutionary politics and legacy of Malcolm X. Dynamic activist-intellectuals, these women's collaborations with Malcolm X speak to the importance of black women in the making of the black radical tradition.

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Vicki Garvin often talked about the days when she tried to recruit Malcolm X, then known as Detroit Red, into the 1940s Harlem Black Left. Garvin first met young Malcolm in Harlem when he worked as a popular bartender at Small's Paradise. From that beginning Garvin and Malcolm developed ongoing conversations about revolution and political economy that lasted from the 1940s to December 1964, when they had their last conversation at the Organization of African Unity (OAU) summit in Cairo, Egypt. From the outset Garvin saw Malcolm's political promise and leadership potential; Malcolm and his buddy Redd Foxx, the comedian, were down and out but already attending meetings on the Left and reading communist literature (Starr 23-24). Taking the next step in his recruitment, Vicki Garvin took Malcolm to more meetings and lectures, and he listened respectfully. However, at one lecture when Garvin thought the time was ripe for his enlistment in the revolutionary cause, Malcolm stood up after the talk, put his hat and coat on, and headed for the door. Garvin implored him, "Malcolm, why don't you stay and join the [Communist] party?" Nodding toward the speaker, he responded, "Well, if he can't speak any better than that!" (1) The young Malcolm apparently did not wish to join the Communist Party. Nonetheless, their conversations continued through the years, as by the mid-1950s Vicki Garvin flowered into a prominent black radical intellectual with an extraordinary background as a political activist, community organizer, trade union leader, journalist, and world traveler. They were both flowering as successful organizers in the Jim Crow North; Garvin was at the helm of the National Negro Labor Council and Malcolm was a rising minister in the Nation of Islam (NOI). Ultimately, Malcolm's study of comparative revolution and socialism led him in his last years to try to recruit Vicki Garvin and her roommate Maya Angelou into his revolutionary circle. He was searching for answers to black liberation beyond the orbit of the Nation of Islam program, and that put him on the same path as Vicki Garvin and other radical women. (2)

Malcolm's collaborations with these women demonstrate their importance to shaping his radical political trajectory. Women such as Vicki Garvin; his mother, Louise Little; his wife, Betty Shabazz; and Queen Mother Audley Moore, a preeminent figure in twentieth century black nationalism, Pan-Africanism, and Communism, played a crucial role in helping Malcolm develop a theory of black self-determination, Pan-Africanism, and internationalism. These women served as his teachers and collaborators. They were also critical in keeping his legacy alive following his assassination in February 1965. Embracing an idiosyncratic black radical politics that drew from black nationalism, black feminism, Marxism, Third Worldism, and their own lived experiences, they forged an antiracist, antisexist, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist position. These women were at the cutting edge of developing a blueprint for black liberation in the anticolonial age of the Bandung Conference of 1955, Third World politics, and radical Pan-Africanism. (3) Garvin and Moore understood that women of color would play a key role in forging a new world. Malcolm's Garveyite upbringing, exchanges with black women radicals, and travels overseas, as well as developments across the "Bandung World," nurtured his own internationalist perspective. Throughout his tenure in the Nation of Islam, and following his break from it in early 1964, Malcolm sought to forge a black radical protest movement organically connected to African American urban communities and linked with Third World revolutionary states across Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Near the end of his life, Malcolm's position on internationalism, particularly on the importance of women of color as a barometer for measuring global black freedom, increasingly mirrored those of radical women of color like Garvin and Moore. Moreover, his conversations with Garvin and Moore helped Malcolm explore the strategic relationship between reform and revolution that he termed the choice between the "Ballot or the Bullet" in his famed 1964 speech. These stories remain largely unknown. (4)

The impact of black women radicals in shaping the life and legacy of Malcolm X constitutes one of the most significant gaps in the study of this key figure of the post-World War II Black Freedom Movement. For the most part, the biographies of Malcolm X have either neglected or marginalized--and even plagiarized--the voices of revolutionary women who were formative in the radicalization of Malcolm X and critical in keeping his legacy alive. Part of this neglect can be explained by the cursory treatment of women in the now classic The Autobiography of Malcolm X, published posthumously in 1965. The memoir provides no discussion of the importance of black women radicals such as Louise Little, Vicki Garvin, and Queen Mother Moore in cultivating Malcolm's politics from his childhood through his tenure in the Nation of Islam (1, 2, 7-14). The erasure and marginality of women in the Autobiography can be explained in part by the patriarchal gender politics embraced by Malcolm X and Alex Haley, the writer of the memoir, at the time they conducted the interviews that served as the basis for the text. Malcolm was still in the staunchly patriarchal Nation of Islam, and he had not begun to forge a more progressive position on gender, as he would after his break from the NOI. And Haley was a conservative black Republican who had little interest in black nationalism and Pan-Africanism, and who subscribed to traditional gender politics (Fletcher 122).

Similarly, an examination of women, gender, and sexuality in shaping Malcolm's life remains largely absent in prevailing biographical portraits of him. This is most evident in the publication and controversy around historian Manning Marable's recent biography Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. This work provides more attention to women than the Autobiography and other biographies, (5) but women still remain marginal to the story, with Vicki Garvin and Queen Mother Moore rendered completely absent. Given Marable's long-standing commitment to black feminism, the absence of women's voices and a sophisticated gender analysis in Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention is curious. The tragic and untimely death of Marable only days before the biography's release will prevent us from ever knowing fully the answer to this matter. (6)

At the same time, the publication of Marable's long-awaited biography has rekindled interest in and controversy around the representation of and popularly held beliefs about the life story of Malcolm X. (7) This is most apparent in the firestorm generated by Marable's brief discussion of an alleged homosexual relationship between the young Malcolm and a white male benefactor during the 1940s, as well as Marable's allegations of emotional and sexual discord between Malcolm X and Betty Shabbazz (66, 78, 222). Several thinkers, mostly men, took issue with Marable's discussions of these matters. Bill Fletcher, Jr., an activist and defender of Marable's biography, charges that homophobia and sexism deeply embedded in segments of the black community explain the uproar around Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. He convincingly argues: "Marable dared to touch on a piece of Malcolm [his sexuality] that has largely been ignored by biographers, both friend and foe." Fletcher calls on scholars and black communities to think more openly and critically about Malcolm X, gender, and black freedom (125).

Some of this work has been done. Black feminist scholars such as Patricia Hill Collins and Ula Y. Taylor have provided important insight into Malcolm X's gender and sexual politics, as well as those of the Nation of Islam. Focusing close attention on the Autobiography, Collins both explores the ways Malcolm's gender politics "reflected dominant views of white manhood and womanhood applied uncritically to the situation of African Americans" and discusses the ways his gender politics evolved following his split from the NOI (74). However, Collins does not discuss the importance of black women radicals in helping Malcolm X to rethink his views on women and gender.

Our primary intention here is neither to defend Marable's biography nor to speculate about the political and ideological motivations driving the uproar around Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. Rather, we are interested in tracing the rich but largely unexplored interwoven histories of black women radicals and Malcolm X. Exploring these histories provides an opportunity to rethink several dimensions of Malcolm's revolutionary trajectory and his biographical portrait, as well as the dynamic life stories of black women radicals.

This article makes several interventions into the study of the "life writing" of Malcolm X, the history of black women and black radicalism, and the genre of biography. First, the study of the collaborations between black women radicals and Malcolm X challenges popularly held assumed truths about his life story. Literary scholars Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson provide important insight into this matter. "While autobiographical narratives may contain information regarded as 'facts,'" they emphasize that these texts "are not factual history about a particular time, person, or event. Rather, they incorporate usable facts into 'subjective truth.'" Appreciating the autobiographical narrative form as a set of rhetorical culturally and historically situated strategies for shaping information and in turn shaping readers' receptions of it, Smith and Watson argue that "life writing requires an audience to both confirm the writer's existence in time and mark his or her lived specificity, distinctiveness, and location" (13, 16). These conclusions affirm those drawn about the controversy surrounding Marable's biography by Bill Fletcher. He persuasively argues: "Unfortunately, for too many followers of Malcolm--myself included--the Autobiography has been treated as the word of God. Rather than appreciating the politics that accompany all autobiographies, many of us have treated this book, along with Malcolm's speeches, as the final or near final word on Malcolm-the-person" (127). Arguably, this last word includes scarcely any mention of black women in the life story of Malcolm X.

Second, reading Malcolm's autobiographical narrative and speeches, as well as prevailing biographical accounts of him, as truth instead of "subjective truth," through the accounts of black women, moves black women from the margins to the center in the study of Malcolm's life story. This approach challenges masculinist framings of his biographic portrait that have largely rendered black women radicals invisible. This effort requires that scholars recover black women radicals' voices by reviewing their archival records and personal papers, conducting oral histories with them, and using lesser-known primary and secondary sources to interpret his life. These different accounts allow for an interrogation of the gender and sexual politics embedded in dominant myths about Malcolm X, and provide new insight into the nuances and complexities of his life.

Next, a study of Malcolm X and black women radicals demonstrates the centrality of black women in the making of the black radical tradition with which Malcolm X is so readily identified. (8) As literary scholar Carole Boyce Davies points out: "Black women have become sisters outside of the black radical intellectual tradition" ("Sisters" 218). These conclusions, we argue, apply to the masculinist biographical portraits of Malcolm X. For example, Marable's Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention overlooks the crucial role of black women radicals in the making of Malcolm's critical engagement with the "national question." This position defined African Americans both as a racially and nationally oppressed community entitled to self-determination and as a part of an imagined global community of people of color fighting against white supremacy and colonialism. The book suggests that nationalism and Communism are mutually exclusive political categories amongst black radicals. However, by the 1930s there was no "Chinese Wall" between Black Nationalism and Communism in the United States. (9) The political careers of women such as Vicki Garvin and Queen Mother Moore reveal that this was not the case. Similarly, while Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention discusses Malcolm's interest in global affairs and his international travels, Marable portrays Malcolm near the end of his life moving towards a political position that had forsaken the national question and demands for revolutionary change at home and abroad for electoral politics and liberal civil rights integrationism. This perspective does not capture the complexities of Malcolm's politics and the contours of twentieth century black radicalism. In contrast to Marable's portrayal of Malcolm's political trajectory, we argue that he remained committed to a black radical agenda, and that women of color radicals such as Vicki Garvin, Queen Mother Moore, and others were central to helping him rethink and develop an even more expansive position on black liberation in the United States and globally. (10)

Fourth, exploring the collaborations between Malcolm X and black women militants provides insight into the dynamic history of twentieth-century US black women's radicalism. Vicki Garvin, Queen Mother Moore, and others were brilliant thinkers and activists who stood at the forefront in building social movements committed to the full freedom of black people. Their work with Malcolm X was but one example of this contribution. (11) In sum, this article offers fresh insight into rethinking Malcolm X Studies, Black Women's Studies, and Black Power Studies by highlighting the critical importance of black women radicals in cultivating Malcolm's thought and forging Black Power of the 1960s.


Rethinking accepted truths about Malcolm X's biographical portrait begins with appreciating the importance of black women radicals in preparing the ground for his radicalization during his early years and in cultivating his approach to community organizing in 1950s Harlem. Grassroots Garveyism and the Harlem organizing tradition were the common incubators that produced the political leadership of Malcolm X, Queen Mother Moore, and Vicki Garvin. Indeed, if Malcolm X and Vicki Garvin shared an admiration for the Harlem organizing paradigm, then Malcolm X and Queen Mother Moore shared the political trajectory from Grassroots Garveyism to the Black Left. Malcolm's arc began in the political school of his mother's education in Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Following the lead of the Autobiography, thus far most scholarship has unfortunately portrayed Louise Little one-dimensionally as a wretched figure. Haley's Autobiography and Marable's Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention minimize her active role in cultivating Malcolm's political consciousness. The Autobiography frames Louise Little as passive and apolitical, focusing exclusively on her physically abusive marriage and struggles with mental illness triggered by the gruesome murder of Malcolm's father at the hands of a lynch mob and the hardships of raising children as an impoverished widow, which resulted in her institutionalization in a psychiatric hospital in Michigan. (12)

A more careful examination of the archival record, together with using lesser-known family remembrances as told by Malcolm X's third daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz, counters the prevailing myths about Louise Little and the erasure of black women radicals from his life story. In her memoir, Ilyasah Shabazz emphasizes the importance of Louise Little to nurturing Malcolm's political consciousness. Beyond the confines of Jim Crow, in 1900 Louise Langdon Norton Little was born and educated as a colonial subject of the British Empire on the Caribbean island of Grenada. In Montreal she met an itinerate Georgia Baptist preacher, Earl Little, at an international meeting of the UNIA. In 1917, they married in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where they deepened their commitment to Grassroots Garveyism that flowered into their organization of several UNIA divisions (local branches) in Omaha, Nebraska; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Lansing, Michigan. (13)

Underscoring the need for excavating black women's voices for reinterpreting Malcolm X's life story, Ilyasah Shabazz emphasizes her paternal grandmother's importance in laying the groundwork for her father's black radicalism. "It was Grandmother Louise and Reverend Little," she writes, "who sowed the seeds of insight, discipline, educational values, and organizational skills in my father, not Elijah Muhammad. Mr. Muhammad cleared away the weeds and allowed those seeds to flourish and grow" (53). This is a significant claim. From her standpoint, it was not Elijah Muhammad, the head of the Nation of Islam whom Haley's Autobiography credits as a father-figure who saved the young Malcolm Little from a self-destructive life of crime and stoked his political consciousness (190-210), but Louise and Reverend Little who were the source of Malcolm's black radical politics.

The archival record supports Shabazz's claims about Louise Little's advanced political consciousness. Like her husband, Louise Little was a devout Garveyite; in fact, she served in the mid-1920s as a recording secretary of local UNIA branches (Shabazz 53; Marable, Malcolm X 20-38). On July 3, 1926, the Negro World, the official periodical of the Garvey movement, which reported news from around the globe and encouraged self-education amongst its readers, published a report by Louise Little about the UNIA division in Omaha, Nebraska. The brief report noted the branch had launched a membership drive. While her precise role in the division's activities is unclear, it seems that Louise Little made it her business to nurture Garveyism in her children. In a rich grassroots tradition at home, Ilyasah Shabazz claims that Louise Little instilled in her children the love of education and black heritage, a global understanding of self-emancipation, and the power of self-organization. As Malcolm's earliest teacher, Louise Little was not only cosmopolitan, speaking five languages, but also confident, cultivating in Malcolm an immense pride in his Caribbean heritage. She educated her children to sing the alphabet in French and to read the internationally focused Negro World, studying articles by Grenadians. Malcolm grew up in a household that made him feel like a citizen of global Africa, and due in large part to his mother, politically prepared him to organize on behalf of black people (Shabazz 53).

Ilyasah Shabazz's attention to Louise Little contrasts dramatically with Haley's and Marable's trivialization and neglect of her active role in cultivating Malcolm's political consciousness (Malcolm X 1, 2, 7-14). These lesser-known stories do not appear in either man's text. Ilyasah Shabazz's narrative also provides insight into who is telling the story about Malcolm X. As the daughter of Malcolm X, Shabazz is conscious of her own gender and racial identity as a black woman. Given this awareness, she seems deeply invested in telling a particular story about Malcolm X and her grandparents that contrasts with dominant narratives told by both her father and black male biographers. While we may never know the exact role Louise Little played in Malcolm X's political development, this alternative narrative about her as told by Ilyasah Shabazz and corroborated by archival evidence seems plausible. Her testimony speaks to the need to take seriously the voices of black women whose narratives seem to provide a more rich and complex interpretation of Malcolm X than those of Haley or Marable.

While prevailing biographical narratives have downplayed the importance of Louise Little in nurturing Malcolm's initial interest in black self-determination and community organizing, they have virtually erased the interwoven histories between Malcolm X and Vicki Garvin and Queen Mother Moore in forging his approach to community organizing in Harlem during the 1950s and early 1960s. Oral testimonies from Vicki Garvin and Queen Mother Moore, together with rarely cited archival material and correspondence, reveal that these women and Malcolm X shared similar social backgrounds and forged a sense of mutual respect. By the 1950s, Malcolm X gravitated as a minister in the Nation of Islam toward black women radicals such as Queen Mother Moore and Vicki Garvin who, like him, came of age during a 1930s and 1940s that witnessed global depression, fascism, world war, growing African American militancy, and emergent decolonization. For these women, the Communist Left presented itself as a powerful site for winning the full freedom of black people in Harlem and beyond. Their similar backgrounds explain how they found one another and forged a commitment to community organizing and black self-determination. Furthermore, it is significant that sharing light complexions, Malcolm X, Vicki Garvin, and Queen Mother Moore led in the black consciousness transformation of "Brown is Beautiful" into "Black is Beautiful." If Garvin traced her color to a family background that blended Native American and Irish in Virginia, then both Malcolm X and Queen Mother Moore spoke bitterly about the white terror of rape. Moore explained her skin tone in terms of the reign of white terror in Louisiana. Given this, Garvin's and Moore's representation of the origins of their skin color aligned with those of Malcolm X. Ultimately, all three of them were at the cutting edge of remaking an African American and Pan-African identity that repudiated the color-caste system by blending light and dark black people (Garvin, "Malcolm as I Knew Him").

By the 1930s, Queen Mother Moore's devotion to Grassroots Garveyism and Pan-Africanism was articulated in the "Hands off Ethiopia" campaign resisting Mussolini's Italian fascist invasion of the Horn of Africa. The Black Left attracted an impressive number of the veterans of Grassroots Garveyism with a black agenda articulating demands for black workers, women, youth, soldiers, professionals, students, artists, writers, clerks, small business people, and nurses insisting on equality (Woodard 27). By the 1940s, Moore was leading protests against segregation in the Jim Crow North at Harlem's Apollo Theater. In other words, Queen Mother Moore flowered into a charismatic organic intellectual, an indefatigable community organizer, a Harlem communist, and a revolutionary nationalist. By the late 1950s she adopted the title "Queen Mother." The Queen Mother was a powerful position in the nineteenth-century Asante Empire, serving as the royal genealogist, who held the right to determine the legitimacy of all claimants to the Asante throne. Years before it became chic, she wore African clothes. By the early 1960s, young black militants revered her as an elder activist-intellectual whose strident commitment to black self-determination, African liberation, and reparations was legendary. Following Malcolm X's death, Queen Mother Moore often proudly shared her stories with young black militants about tutoring him in the art of community organizing and global politics. Yet these stories are completely absent in his memoir and missing in most biographical portraits of Malcolm (McDuffie, Sojourning 21, 207-208).

Born in 1898 in New Iberia, Louisiana outside of New Orleans, Moore came of age economically impoverished in the violent world of the Jim Crow South, witnessing the horror of white lynch mobs. Her family frequently recounted the painful story of how a white male slave master raped her enslaved paternal grandmother, producing Moore's father. However, like Malcolm's parents, Queen Mother Moore's family refused to bow to white terror and racial oppression. Not fearful of standing up to white supremacy, her father developed his leadership against racial domination as a sheriff in post-Reconstruction Louisiana. However, she lost that shield from white terror because of the untimely deaths of her parents.

At that point, Moore became the family provider for her two younger sisters, including Eloise Moore who would also influence Malcolm X. She took them to New Orleans, where she toiled as a domestic worker--often under the threat of sexual assault from white men. According to Mary Rolinson in Grassroots Garveyism: The Universal Negro Improvement Association in the South. 1920-1927, the threat of rape in the workplace and horror of gang rape generally not only fueled female resistance, it also shaped the massive political participation of black women in the South. Like Malcolm's parents, Moore became a devout follower of Marcus Garvey in the years immediately after World War I (Rolinson 137). After hearing him deliver a militant speech in the Crescent City about the glories of ancient Africa, African redemption from European colonial rule, and the need for armed black self-defense, she pledged her life to the struggle for black self-determination and African liberation. (14)

Moore moved to Harlem before the Great Depression. By the 1930s, she emerged as a grassroots leader in the Harlem Communist Party, representing the broader trajectory of other leaders from the UNIA to the Left. Earning a reputation as a powerful stepladder speaker, Moore flowered into an effective community organizer and political agitator against lynching in the Scottsboro case and against Jim Crow segregation in public and private accommodations in Harlem. Following her break from the Communist Party USA in 1950 due to frustration with its apparent disregard for black self-determination, she developed into a strategic leader in the modern reparations movement and in advancing revolutionary theories of black self-determination and Pan-Africanism in the era of the Bandung Conference. By the 1950s, Queen Mother Moore sent reports of the rise of Malcolm X in the Nation of Islam from her base in Philadelphia to her old comrade in the party, Cyril Briggs, an Afro-Caribbean radical who was also a revolutionary nationalist and a founder of the legendary African Blood Brotherhood. In turn, Briggs sent word to Harry Haywood, a pioneer in the Communist theory of black nationality formation who was then exiled in Mexico City. In the coming years, Queen Mother Moore would work closely with Malcolm, particularly on issues of Pan-Africanism and internationalism. (15) These reports from Queen Mother Moore to black male radicals about Malcolm X's political development provide another example of the necessity for his biographers to consult sources other than the Autobiography and his speeches to interpret this life. Her letters also illustrate the ways black women radicals were often the first ones to recognize his brilliance and to bring it to a wider community of black radicals.

Queen Mother Moore was speaking on the legendary Harlem street corner platform of 125th Street and Lenox Avenue in the 1940s when Vicki Garvin first heard her (Eulogy). Harlem was an important nexus for Moore, Malcolm X, and Garvin. By the 1940s, Harlem had developed into a vital constellation of social, cultural, intellectual, and political forces. The making of Harlem into an international community involved the creation of important political spaces where the migrant and immigrant identities fused together in incubators of black culture and consciousness, like the African Blood Brotherhood, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, and the Communist Party USA. Between 1899 and 1932, at least 142,868 West Indians entered the United States, and some 46 percent of them landed in the state of New York. Thus, Harlem as an international community rekindled Malcolm X's Caribbean identity (James 355-58; Woodard 24).

During the Great Depression, Vicki Garvin's family migrated from Richmond, Virginia, to that international milieu in Harlem in search of a better life, hoping to leave behind Jim Crow. However, just as Malcolm's father Earl Little made the Exodus from white terror in Jim Crow Georgia only to find larger Klan membership in Jim Crow Michigan, Vicki Garvin's father made the Exodus from the skilled trades in Jim Crow Virginia only to find racial exclusion from the construction trades in Jim Crow New York. Garvin tells us that educational and occupational opportunities were limited in the Jim Crow South, but access to the skilled trades was perhaps more racially exclusive in the Jim Crow North, where African Americans had lost their foothold in that labor market:

   Because skilled, non-manual jobs were limited in the south, and
   public education was confined to segregated, inferior schools, my
   parents decided to take their chance in the north; and moved to
   NYC, where the hooded Klan was not riding regularly through black
   neighborhoods. We arrived in Harlem at the beginning of the Great

      My father was trained by black craftsmen in the building trades,
   an industry controlled by exclusively] all-white trade unions. Work
   was seasonal and black tradesmen were only marginally employed at
   lower wage rates.

      My mother stood on the streets of the Bronx [in] what was known
   as "the slave line," hoping she would be selected by one of the
   white women bargaining for a pittance of an hourly rate, usually 5
   cents. (Notes for talk)

That labor odyssey awakened the political consciousness of Vicki Garvin's generation. Despite the fact that her father was denied access to the skilled trades in New York and her mother was forced into the "slave market" for domestic workers in Harlem and the Bronx, Vicki Garvin's parents had outflanked the Jim Crow South to gain access to a better education in New York City than in Richmond, Virginia (Coble 51-76). If Malcolm X gained the habit of reading from his mother, then Vicki Garvin developed the habit of study because her grandmother, who was a schoolteacher, filled her apartment with books. These stories demonstrate the need for scholars to dig through the archival boxes of Vicki Garvin and other black women radicals who collaborated with Malcolm X to discover alternative narratives that challenge dominant myths about him.

Like the young Malcolm Little, Vicki Garvin also shared the working-class background of heartbreaking poverty. She recalled living as a child in freezing, vermin-filled apartments because her family could not afford heat, and "moving from apartment to apartment several times during the dead of the night to escape eviction for non-payment of rent." Garvin explained that her mother was a domestic worker, who performed backbreaking work in white homes. Both their families experienced the racial politics and public policy of the New Deal that designed welfare programs with degrading symbols for working families. Just as Malcolm's family survived on welfare in the Great Depression, Vicki's household depended on relief--and she was ashamed of its stigma in front of her classmates in school. Housing was an exasperating issue for black people. Denied his trade, Garvin's father made-do and helped support the family with odd jobs, including that of a janitor.

While there are many parallels between the lives of Malcolm X and Vicki Garvin, there are also important contrasts. Vicki Garvin was older than Malcolm X; she was born in 1916 and he was born in 1925. In addition, Malcolm X lost his father to Klan terror and his mother to poverty and mental illness; Vicki Garvin had the great benefit of the love and support of both her parents to sustain her through the painful ordeal of poverty in the midst of affluence in the Jim Crow North. Thus, over time they developed a Wise One-Young Lion fictive kinship (Malcolm X, Autobiography 1, 2, 7-14; Garvin, Notes to talk). Grounded in that economic ordeal, Malcolm X, Vicki Garvin, and Queen Mother Moore came of age as leaders in a golden age of grassroots organizing tradition in the Jim Crow North. Veterans like Vicki Garvin had built groundbreaking organizing ensembles since the legendary days of the Harlem Boycott Movement and the phenomenal People's Committee that propelled Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. onto the New York City Council and into the US Congress. If Manning Marable suggests that Powell's People's Committee was the paradigm for Malcolm X's vision of the political promise of the Nation of Islam, then he neglected to examine the leading role that Vicki Garvin played as the architect in developing the Harlem paradigm for the organizing tradition (55-56, 108-109, 133-34).

Legend has it that when Rev. Powell discovered that the communists had recruited Vicki Garvin, he stormed into their Harlem office: "I know that you want to take my best organizer! Can't we share her?" (Gore, Theoharis, and Woodard 1). The Garvin paradigm that attracted Malcolm X's study developed several important dimensions that propelled the Black Revolt from protest politics toward an alternative radical political culture in the Jim Crow North.

For one thing, this Garvin paradigm was based in Black spiritual movements strengthened by the powerful infrastructures in the black church, and that model organized street protests that unleashed the power of disruption from Harlem to downtown Manhattan, protesting discrimination in employment, housing, and public policy. Second, the Garvin paradigm used that phenomenal community infrastructure as the foundation of an independent political movement that could run its own political candidates as well as use its bullet votes to endorse or reject the candidates of other parties (Marable, Malcolm X 56).

Third, the Garvin paradigm developed a newspaper, the Harlem-based People's Voice, as an instrument for political agitation and mass education; the People's Voice championed the struggle for better housing, jobs, and education in the Jim Crow North. Advancing the slogan "Free India, Free China, Free Africa!" the People's Voice supported the independence struggle of Gandhi in India, and protested Japanese American internment (Gore 30-45).

Fourth, once the Harlem movement elected Adam Clayton Powell to the City Council, it used that office as a platform for further targeted political agitation to propel changes in hiring and employment practices that forced breeches in the walls of segregation in the Jim Crow North, including Harlem Hospital and the City University of New York (CUNY). Thus, the Garvin paradigm avoided one of the worst pitfalls in black politics that begins with burning issues, antiracist protest, and mass social mobilization at the grassroots. However, upon the election of the protest candidate, the new public official aims to demobilize the grassroots and guide the burning issues that awakened the community into oblivion in the bureaucratic government channels. By contrast, the Garvin paradigm continued to expand its mass organizations and politics of disruption as it mobilized around substantial and symbolic victories on the progressive black agenda. And the People's Committee and the People's Voice further developed African American political identity as a component part of a global identity against racism and colonialism (Gore 30, 106-129; Anthony 202, 214-16).

By the 1950s, Vicki Garvin was spreading that political paradigm to a score of cities at the helm of the National Negro Labor Council, galvanizing the Black Revolt from Harlem to Los Angeles and from the Jim Crow North to the Jim Crow West. If Manning Marable is correct in his proposition that Malcolm X followed this Harlem paradigm as he flowered in his leadership in the Harlem Mosque, then our research agenda must follow the veteran women who were at the cutting edge of that organizing tradition. However, by the 1950s, Cold War liberal leaders employed a counterrevolutionary initiative to turn grassroots victories into a system of tokenism during the Cold War; and that tokenism aimed not only to disorient but also to demobilize the community base of grassroots politics. That turn heightened the class tensions in the Jim Crow North. And Malcolm X took aim at those next targets in his classic speech, "Message to the Grassroots" (Gore). (16)

Of course, Malcolm X discussed the parallels between the political ambitions of his ministry and that of Rev. Powell. He aimed to develop grassroots community organizations into a political base in experiments such as the organization ACT, the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), the Harlem Rent Strikes, the Freedom Now Party, and so forth. Malcolm X also founded the Muhammad Speaks newspaper as agitator, organizer, and educator in the Black Revolt. He influenced rising black public officials like Percy Sutton to use their good offices to advance grassroots struggles for social justice. Through these various efforts Malcolm X proved to be an important architect in building strategic bridges between black radicalism in the USA and liberation movements in Africa. These approaches were similar to those of Vicki Garvin and Queen Mother Moore.


While black women played a key role in cultivating Malcolm X's political awakening and teaching him about community organizing, they were also crucial in nurturing and transforming his internationalist politics. In fact, they were in many respects ahead of Malcolm in advancing a radical global vision of black freedom. Malcolm's Autobiography and Marable's Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention give mostly cursory attention to this. These narratives, in essence, erase the significance of black women radicals in shaping Malcolm's global vision. However, an alternative reading of the historical record provides a very different biographical portrait of Malcolm X, black women's radicalism, and the black radical tradition. An examination of oral histories and lesser-known biographical narratives and archival sources of black women militants such as Queen Mother Moore, Vicki Garvin, and others demonstrates that they must be credited in informing Malcolm's Third Worldist outlook. This position appreciated the primacy of Africa to African American freedom, the global contours of white supremacy and capitalism, the importance of decolonization across the "Bandung World" in changing the global political status quo, and the importance of international solidarity amongst people of color and newly independent nations in Africa and Asia as well as Latin America and the Caribbean as the revolutionary vanguard globally. Although he had been deeply interested in these issues since the earliest days of his ministry in the Nation of Islam, Malcolm's global outlook became increasingly sophisticated and nuanced during the last year of his life. His burgeoning Third Worldism stoked his growing interest in mass political organizing. This growing interest in engaging in mass politics and internationalism helped push him out of the Nation of Islam, which embraced a narrow black nationalism and adopted an official policy of non-engagement with political action. (17) Also, Malcolm's internationalism and global travels were critical in prompting him to reject the patriarchal gender politics of the NOI and to adopt a more progressive gender politics in the final months of his life. His ongoing conversations and exchanges with black women radicals related to internationalist concerns played a pivotal role in transforming Malcolm's politics and subjectivity, organizational affiliations, and tactics for winning the full freedom of black people everywhere.

From the very beginning of his life, black women were vital to nurturing Malcolm's global vision. As discussed, Louise Little stoked her son's initial interest in Africa and the Diaspora. By the 1950s and early 1960s, black women radicals such as Queen Mother Moore and others played an important role in shaping Malcolm's interest in Africa. This influence is evident in the remembrances of Queen Mother Moore. During the 1970s, looking back on her life, Queen Mother Moore claimed that she and her younger sister, Eloise Moore, schooled Malcolm in the importance of Africa to the African American struggle for self-determination:

Eloise trained Malcolm. It wasn't Elijah [Muhammad]. Malcolm didn't know nothing about Africa. Eloise taught Malcolm about Africa, and I can tell you that when I wanted to talk to Malcolm about Africa, he couldn't mention the word. He told me before he could even say the word, it would have to come from Elijah [Muhammad]. So I told him make the appointment for me for Elijah, and he made it and I went to Chicago.... I talked to Elijah, I spent three days in his home. Across the breakfast table, him and I, arguing about Africa. He didn't want to hear nothing about Africa. We had to teach Malcolm, you hear, and that's how he was able to get a new insight, put that to work. (Gilkes 151)

This is quite a story. But it is absent in Haley's Autobiography and in dominant narratives of Malcolm X. Queen Mother Moore's remembrance not only frames herself, rather than Elijah Muhammad, as Malcolm X's teacher, but also blasts the head of the Nation of Islam for his disinterest in Africa. Given his patriarchal politics and allegiance to the Nation of Islam at the time Haley interviewed him, as well as the masculinist framing of the Autobiography, it is no wonder that Queen Mother Moore did not appear in Malcolm X's memoir. Indeed, Queen Mother Moore's outspoken black nationalism, together with her social location as an elderly, working-class, southern black woman who possessed little formal education, challenged black male patriarchal authority. Telling Queen Mother Moore's story, therefore, provides an alternative narrative to Malcolm's life, and furnishes additional insight into the dynamic history of black women's radicalism. Queen Mother Moore's remembrance captures her brilliance as a radical teacher and political organizer. Her legendary ability as a storyteller and public speaker, something that she owed to her working-class, southern roots, is evident in this passage of her oral testimony, in which she accurately describes the Nation of Islam's ambivalence towards Africa. In its religious teachings, the NOI referred to the African American as the "Asiatic Black Man." This perspective not only rejected Africa as the ancestral home of black Americans but also embraced many of the dominant culture's pejorative views of Africans as backward and uncivilized (Muhammad).

Even more, the narrative provides insight into Malcolm's relationship with two women who were legendary within Harlem radical circles, and suggests that their understanding of the links between African American freedom and African liberation was more developed than his. Queen Mother Moore's and Eloise Moore's lived experiences as black women facing multiple oppressions, together with their backgrounds in the Black Left, which had developed a sophisticated internationalist outlook informed by black nationalism and Communism dating back to the 1920s, may explain why their position on global affairs was more advanced than Malcolm's. What is certain is that Queen Mother Moore, like her sister Eloise Moore, who died in 1963, was well known among black nationalists as a fierce, confident, outspoken grassroots community organizer and champion of racial justice, reparations, African American self-determination, and African liberation. Although Eloise apparently did not join the Communist Party like her older sister Audley, she was actively involved in Depression-era struggles around Scottsboro, housing, and jobs. During the 1950s, she worked closely with her older sister in New York City-area black nationalist campaigns that celebrated African culture and called for African liberation. Both women developed close rapport with African dignitaries at the United Nations, African American youth, and African students studying in New York City. Malcolm's collaborations with the Moores invariably informed his view toward Africa. (18) While we may never know the exact role these women played in cultivating his internationalist outlook, Queen Mother Moore's remembrances counter accepted truths about Malcolm X's life story, and illustrate the need for scholars to appreciate the history of black women radicals when (re)constructing his biography.

Similarly, Malcolm's encounters with Grace Lee Boggs, a Chinese American radical activist-intellectual based in Detroit, and her African American husband James Boggs, an autoworker, journalist, and radical activist, were important in transforming Malcolm's global vision. (19) The Boggs and their left-wing associates recognized African Americans, colonized people, and newly independent nations across the "Bandung World" as the revolutionary vanguard. The Boggses befriended Malcolm. Recognizing his brilliance and growing militancy, Grace Lee Boggs invited him to speak at the Northern Negro Grass Roots Leadership Conference on November 10, 1963, in the Motor City. Conceiving the gathering as a militant alternative to the mainstream civil rights movement, Grace Lee Boggs and other conference organizers hoped the event would galvanize mass direct actions for racial justice and equality across the country. In Detroit, Malcolm delivered his famous "Message to the Grassroots" speech. Rejecting Cold War liberalism and the apparent reformist, domestic-centered civil rights agenda, Malcolm defiantly called for African Americans to look to the global "Black Revolution" taking place across Africa and Asia as a model for black American freedom. (20) His call for revolution and international solidarity defied the Nation of Islam's non-engagement policy and otherworldliness, underscoring his search for answers outside of the organization. The speech surely was a pretext for Elijah Muhammad's decision to "silence" Malcolm less than two weeks later for his alleged statement that President Kennedy's death was a result of the chickens coming home to roost (Breitman 18; Malcolm X, Autobiography 300-301).

Meanwhile, black women's role in shaping Malcolm's internationalist thought was most evident in their encounters with him in Ghana in May 1964. Haley's Autobiography and Marable's Malcolm Xprovide some discussion of these women's impact on Malcolm X's thinking. However, the most insightful information comes from oral histories with, and articles and correspondence by, black women radicals. Malcolm's seven-day visit to this West African nation was transformational. Although often overshadowed in the popular memory of Malcolm's political evolution by his hajj to Mecca in April 1964 following his break from the Nation of Islam, his trip to Ghana arguably was the most important event in cultivating his Third World revolutionary politics. In short, Malcolm identified with Africa and the Third World like never before due to his encounters in Ghana (Malcolm X, Autobiography 351-60).

Gaining its independence in 1957 from Great Britain, Ghana under the leadership of its founder, the militant Pan-African visionary Kwame Nkrumah, sought to position itself as the fulcrum of African unity, decolonization, and Third World solidarity (Gaines 39-51). Appreciating the importance of forging bonds of political solidarity between Africa and the Diaspora, Nkrumah's militant Pan-African and socialist politics deeply resonated with a small but vibrant expatriate community of African Americans who had arrived in Ghana beginning in the years immediately before independence. Disillusioned with US racism and the Cold War political climate in the United States, as well as with the apparent tepid pace of the mainstream Civil Rights Movement, they came to Ghana with the intention of helping to build this new country and to advance Pan-Africanism. The group included Dr. Robert Lee, the young civil rights militant Julian Mayfield, the venerable black scholar W. E. B. Du Bois, and the veteran radical intellectual and activist Shirley Graham Du Bois. Given its symbol as a beacon of hope to African American militants and visibility in the emergent Third World, Malcolm decided to travel to Ghana. (21)

Once there, Malcolm encountered a dynamic group of mature as well as youthful African American women expatriates who were ahead of their times on political and social matters and who broadened his internationalism. They included his old friend Vicki Garvin, Maya Angelou (Make), who would later emerge as an internationally renowned poet, and Alice Windom. Looking back on her life, Windom asserts that her passionate concern for racial equality prompted her interest in Africa and the Nation of Islam, which ultimately led to her path crossing with Malcolm X. Like him, she was reared in the Midwest. She became radicalized as an undergraduate and graduate student. Although she joined neither the NOI nor the CPUSA, she moved easily between black nationalist and black leftist circles. She eventually made her way to Ghana. Like Garvin and Angelou, Windom made her way to this West African nation out of disgust with racism back home and "the excite[ment] about the prospects of an independent Africa," as she recollected (Interview). In Ghana, she worked for Nkrumah's main speech writer, although she never met the Ghanaian president. Similarly, Garvin, who spent two years in Ghana, having traveled there after a brief stay in Nigeria, left the United States because "[she] needed a breath of fresh air" and was intrigued with returning to her "ancient homeland." Garvin taught conversational English to Chinese, Cuban, and Algerian diplomats, while Angelou worked as an instructor in the music department at the University of Ghana (Garvin, "Celebrating" 7). Young, single, female, and thousands of miles from home and sharing passionate convictions in militant Pan-Africanism and Third World solidarity, the women befriended one another and rented the first floor of a house in Accra, Ghana's capital. These women's recollections illustrate the need to turn to black women's history to learn about this key chapter in Malcolm X's life.

Upon hearing of Malcolm's pending arrival in Ghana, these women, with the assistance of the Puerto Rican doctor Ana Livia Cordero and her husband Julian Mayfield, along with the Marxist writer Leslie Lacy, formed the Malcolm X Committee. The ad hoc group planned a whirlwind itinerary for Malcolm during his stay in Ghana. In the Autobiography, Malcolm explicitly credits these women's efforts in organizing the committee and introducing him to Third World foreign diplomats based in Accra. In fact, it was Garvin who introduced him to ambassadors from the embassies of Cuba, Algeria, and China. All three embassies threw wonderful parties in Malcolm's honor. Enjoying lively conversations about anticolonialism and international solidarity, he hit it off with the Chinese ambassador, Huang Hua (Malcolm X, Autobiography 355; Garvin, "Celebrating" 8).

In his memoir, Malcolm also lauded the veteran black radical Shirley Graham Du Bois, a confidant of Nkrumah, for taking him under her wing and discussing the militant Pan-African politics of her late husband, who had passed away the previous year (353). Impressed with Malcolm, she secured his meeting with the Ghanaian president. His conversation with Nkrumah convinced him that "Pan-Africanism was the key" to realizing freedom for Africa and the Diaspora (Autobiography 357; Gaines 194).

While Haley's Autobiography and Marable's biography include some information about Malcolm X's exchanges overseas with black women radicals, both these texts nonetheless underestimate the role of women in influencing Malcolm's Pan-Africanism and Third Worldism. In retrospect, Vicki Garvin described herself, Angelou, and Windom as "three musketeers" and "mother hens" who looked after Malcolm during his stay in Ghana ("Celebrating" 8; Gore 148). As the historian Dayo Gore convincingly argues, Garvin's description of these women as "mother hens" is revealing in terms of "how African American women radicals negotiated the complicated politics of gender and nation in Ghana." On one level, the description captures how these women adhered to the prevailing tendency in black diasporic politics that framed the discourse of motherhood as the only viable means through which women could enter the public sphere and make claims to social justice and women's rights. The description reinforced women's subordination and patriarchy. At the same time, "mother hens" and "musketeers" transgressed normative gender roles of their day. As Gore notes, the term "mother hens" "reflected an effort to mark [Garvin's] role as a knowledgeable elder (a role long gendered as male) within the black liberation movement," while "musketeers" conjures the masculinist image of a soldier (148-49). Garvin, Angelou, and Windom thus both adhered to and challenged prevailing gender roles, but they nonetheless rejected claims of women's intellectual inferiority to men and demanded a voice for women in the global struggle for black freedom. Given this, they saw themselves as leading Malcolm to a more complex understanding of the linkages between African American freedom and African liberation.

While his encounters with African American women expatriates in Ghana transformed Malcolm's consciousness, he left an indelible mark on them as well. As Windom noted in a letter to friends back home immediately following his departure: "his personality had swept Ghana and profoundly affected the political and social thinking of those fortunate enough to hear him." (22) Impressed with his wit, charisma, and powerful oratory, these women and their male colleagues marveled at his ability to capture the imaginations and win the support of Nkrumah, Ghanaian students, and foreign diplomats for his call for Pan-African unity and unapologetic criticisms of the mainstream civil rights movement and US imperialism. These women, in short, adored him. The feelings were mutual (Windom, "Account").

As Windom and Garvin recalled years later, Malcolm encountered both women again overseas when he returned to Africa in June 1964. Garvin met him in Cairo while he attended the OAU summit. It was the last time she saw him. She was in route to Mao's China. Since they both studied comparative revolution, she invited Malcolm to join her to learn more about the Chinese Revolution; however, Malcolm suggested that he was not "going to make it" (Garvin, "From Her Words"). Still, he made her promise that she would return to black America to teach the next generation after learning firsthand about that revolutionary experience. Windom last encountered Malcolm in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where she had relocated by September 1964. (23) Malcolm unexpectedly knocked on her apartment door. Happy to see him, she invited him in. He explained that he had traveled to Ethiopia with the hope of conferring with Haile Selassie, the Ethiopian emperor. Malcolm asked Windom if she could secure an audience with Selassie. She tried. However, Selassie apparently refused to meet with Malcolm out of fear of jeopardizing his relationship with the United States. What is clear from Malcolm's travels through Africa in 1964 is that he deeply admired black women revolutionaries and appreciated their political acumen and ability to get things done. Yet this history remains relatively buried. Moreover, this story reveals the ways Malcolm X negotiated expressing respect for and indebtedness to these women even as his autobiography subsumes their lives and stories to his own. This reveals how the very shape that the Autobiography of Malcolm X ultimately took does not capture the complexities of Malcolm's life story.

Meanwhile, Malcolm's unsuccessful efforts to meet with Claudia Jones during his visit to London in early 1965 provides another example of him seeking out black women radicals and his burgeoning identification with the Third World. Born in Trinidad and coming of age in Depression-era Harlem, Jones emerged as a ranking official and a leading black left feminist theorist on racial and gender oppression in the post-World War II US Communist Party. Her affiliations with the Harlem Communist Left placed her in similar political circles to Vicki Garvin and Queen Mother Moore. In 1955, US authorities jailed Jones for her Communist Party membership and then deported her to the United Kingdom. Once there, Jones remained committed to socialism, peace, decolonization, black liberation, human rights, and internationalism, and emerged as an important leader within London's growing African, Caribbean, and Asian communities. (24)

Tragically, Jones died only weeks before Malcolm arrived in London. Once there, he took an affectionate photo holding her portrait. His intention to meet her is significant. Given her status as a political pariah among US authorities and civil rights liberals, Malcolm consciously allied himself with a black woman radical who was both a survivor of Cold War repression and a leading Third World revolutionary. Moreover, he surely wished to learn from an expert about radical journalism, comparative revolutions, and community organizing (Boyce Davies email; Hinds).

If Malcolm's international travels and exchanges with female revolutionaries of color overseas altered his global vision, they certainly also transformed his gender politics. Underscoring the ways women of color were sometimes ahead of him on political matters, due in part to his encounters with them Malcolm came to reject the Nation of Islam's patriarchal gender politics and began to adopt a progressive gender outlook that appreciated women's status as the barometer by which to measure democracy at home and overseas. This shift is evident in his remarks to an interviewer in Paris in November 1964:

One thing I became aware of in my traveling recently through Africa and the Middle East, in every country you go to, usually the degree of progress can never be separated from the woman. If you're in a country that's progressive, the woman is progressive. But in every backward country you'll find the women are backward.... So one of the things I became thoroughly convinced of in my recent travels is the importance of giving freedom to the woman. And I am frankly proud of the contributions our women have made in the struggle for freedom and I'm one person who's for giving them all the leeway possible because they've made a greater contribution than many of us men. (By Any Means 179)

This statement reveals profound insight into Malcolm's emergent thinking about the legacy of women in realizing revolutionary change overseas and at home. The first part of the passage links the status of women to social progress in Third World nations, while the latter portion of the statement acknowledges women as the backbone of the African American freedom struggle. These comments are a far cry from his days in the Nation of Islam when Malcolm publicly assailed black women for allegedly emasculating men, and angrily called for their subservience to men. Now, Malcolm seemed not only more introspective but also self-confident. Calling for greater women's freedom in the midst of an age of domestic violence that caged millions of women in silent terror, his statement implies that realizing black women's rights and dignity would actualize freedom for all African Americans.

However, this passage reveals contradictions in his new thinking about women and gender. Even as he testified to women's power and the importance of it, he exerts a kind of patriarchal control, insofar as he presents women's freedom as something for men to give (Collins 79). And even when attributing power to the women themselves, he uses the possessive--"our" women. (25) Malcolm's gender politics were still evolving. But they had come a long ways in a short period of time due in no small part to his encounters with African and Middle Eastern women, and exchanges with US black women radicals such as Vicki Garvin, Queen Mother Moore, Maya Angelou, Alice Windom, and Shirley Graham Du Bois. Outspoken opponents of sexism who viewed women as the vanguard for radical change, they helped sow the seeds for Malcolm's nascent progressive gender politics.

While overseas travel and exchanges with radical women of color across Africa, the Middle East, and the United States changed Malcolm's global outlook and gender politics, these developments also influenced his political strategy for advancing African American freedom. For example, black women radicals informed Malcolm's decision in his final years to frame the African American freedom struggle as a campaign for human rights, not civil rights, to appreciate Jim Crow and white racial terror as forms of genocide as defined by United Nations human rights declarations, and to petition the UN for redress. This is evident in the "Outline for Petition to the United Nations Charging Genocide Against 22 Million Black Americans" drafted in July 1964 under the auspices of the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU). Formed officially by Malcolm in June 1964, the group was the primary organizational site of his political work until his death the following year (Malcolm X, By Any Means 57-96). The "Outline for Petition" charged that de jure segregation in the South and de facto segregation in the North, lynching, black misery, and poverty constituted "a systematic form of oppression ... in this country based on color and race" as defined by UN human rights declarations (345). Malcolm intended to take the petition before the UN and charge the United States with violating human rights. Given his success in forging political relations with militant Third World leaders, he surely believed the petition would receive support in the UN and improve the status of black Americans.

Black women radicals were in part responsible for this undertaking. Queen Mother Moore shared with Malcolm the history of initiatives by W. E. B. Du Bois and the black Communist leader William L. Patterson during the early Cold War years to bring the United States before the United Nations. Moore strongly supported this work and repeatedly approached the UN for redress of African American oppression from the 1950s onward (McDuffie, "'I wanted a Communist philosophy'" 187-88). Similarly, the political writings of Claudia Jones framed Jim Crow as a form of genocide (52, 63), while Vicki Garvin participated in organizations such as the Council on African Affairs that supported petitioning the UN for redress (McDuffie, Sojourning 167-69). Therefore it should come as no surprise that Malcolm adopted human rights as a political framework for demanding black freedom, given that his black female mentors had done so for more than fifteen years.

Malcolm's strategy for taking the United States before the UN provides another example of his turn toward the radical left. In the years immediately after World War II, Black Left and mainstream civil rights groups such as the NAACP supported human rights petitions to the UN. However, as the Cold War and anti-Communist hysteria in the United States intensified by the early 1950s, civil rights reformers disassociated themselves from these campaigns against ethnic cleansing due to their alleged "subversive" ramifications. By the early 1960s, these initiatives remained a dirty word among civil rights reformers, while the Black Left still viewed petitioning the UN as a viable strategy for realizing black freedom. Malcolm boldly took sides with the US Black Left and Third World revolutionaries, rejecting Cold War anticommunism and imperialism. His support for this strategy, and the fact that he had learned about these campaigns in part from black women radicals, provide another example of their legacy in shaping and transforming his internationalism, political organizing, and subjectivity, and of the need for biographers to rethink Malcolm X's life story through these women's histories (Anderson 10, 113-65).


If women of color are mostly absent in prevailing biographical narratives of Malcolm X's life, they also remain largely invisible in studies that seek to explore the making of his legacy following his tragic assassination at Harlem's Audubon Ballroom on February 21, 1965. Black women radicals were not only key to Malcolm's political education and transformations but also equally important to him after his death. Vicki Garvin, Queen Mother Moore, Malcolm's widow Betty Shabazz, and others were devastated by his death, but in the following years, these women were critical to keeping Malcolm's legacy alive and to carrying out the work that his female associates had helped to inspire. Equally important, they were prominent in cultivating and leading Black Power organizations that claimed Malcolm as their ideological progenitor.

From the moments immediately after his assassination, radical women of color were visible in continuing his work and promoting his memory amongst a new generation of black militants and young people. Yuri Kochiyama, a Japanese-American radical who had befriended Malcolm years earlier, jumped out of her seat and rushed toward him on the stage of the Audubon Ballroom as bullets struck him and his body guards ran for cover (Bracey; Fujino; Marable, Malcolm X 340). His sister, Ella Collins, who had supported her sibling for years, stepped in to head the Organization of Afro-American Unity soon after his passing. Under her leadership, the OAAU organized the first pilgrimage to Malcolm's grave on May 19, 1965, his birthday (OAAU Flyer).

In terms of Black Power, like their slain comrade, black women radicals were at the forefront of this movement and in advancing a political agenda that linked African American self-determination with internationalism and the study of comparative revolution. Vicki Garvin's support for the People's Republic of China is but one example. In 1964, the Chinese ambassador to Ghana, Huang Hua, extended an invitation for her to teach English in China. She accepted the invitation and spent six exciting years in Shanghai. On April 18, 1968, after the assassination of Dr. King, she spoke before an overflowing crowd that had gathered for a pre-rally meeting at the Shanghai Institute of Foreign Languages. The rally had been planned in honor of Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong's statement, "In Support of the Afro-American Struggle Against Violent Repression" issued two days earlier. Speaking "on behalf of the revolutionary black people of the United States and their likeminded white allies," Garvin expressed "our deep love and respect for, and sincere appreciation to Chairman Mao, the world's revolutionary leader, for his recent statement of encouragement and firm support of the Afro American's struggle." Garvin also asserted, "There is abundant evidence that the American blacks have linked their own struggle with that of the world's revolutionary peoples especially in Viet Nam, and the slogan, 'Hell No, We Won't Go!' is a common rallying call against a common enemy" ("Speech"; "China" 23). Given Malcolm's admiration for Mao's China and outspoken opposition to US military intervention in Vietnam, he surely would have agreed with Garvin's speech (By Any Means 162, 165, 169). Personally, Garvin befriended the legendary black militants Robert F. Williams and Mabel Williams, whose advocacy of armed self-defense forced them to abscond from the United States in 1961. The couple eventually made their way to China. Malcolm had deeply respected Robert Williams and his ally, Mae Mallory, a black working-class woman from Georgia and an ex-Communist, whom US authorities targeted for her associations with the Williamses. Black Power militants revered them as well. Garvin's sentiments cohered with the sentiments of young black militants (Malcolm X, By Any Means 11-12, 29; Tyson).

Likewise, Queen Mother Moore was at the center of Black Power, and sharing her memories of Malcolm with a new generation of black revolutionaries. Chokwe Lumumba, a leader of the Republic of New Africa, made this case, arguing that Black Power emerged from the "teachings" of Malcolm X and Queen Mother Moore (Roots 11, 45; Interview). This was not an overstatement. Moore cofounded and mentored several Black Power organizations committed to black self-determination, self-defense, Pan-Africanism, internationalism, and reparations. These included the Revolutionary Action Movement, Republic of New Africa, the New York chapter of the Black Panther Party, the Congress of African People, and the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations (N'COBRA). She shared her fond memories of Malcolm with these young black revolutionaries, advancing a black radical political agenda which he had embraced due in part to his collaborations with black women radicals (McDuffie, Sojourning 208, 210-11). Personally, Moore worked with Garvin on numerous black radical campaigns during the 1970s and 1980s, and befriended Alice Windom (Interview). These collaborations underscore how black women radicals not only found common ground through their associations with Malcolm but also how they forged a community of black women radicals who shared a passion for black self-determination, the dignity of black womanhood, internationalism, and the study of comparative revolutions.

Black women radicals played an important role in the knowledge production of Malcolm's political and intellectual legacy. However, this role remains largely invisible in Malcolm X's life story. The Autobiography provides another example of this omission. A detailed, six-page, single-spaced letter written by Alice Windom about Malcolm X's sojourn to Ghana served as the basis for Alex Haley's discussion in the Autobiography of Malcolm X's Ghana trip ("Alice Windom to Christine"). She penned the missive within days of Malcolm's departure from Accra and mailed it to friends back home. Haley acquired a copy of the letter. Several paragraphs of Windom's letter appear almost verbatim in the Autobiography; however, he did not credit her. (26) This move speaks not only to black women's importance in keeping Malcolm's legacy alive, but also to the exploitation of their intellectual property by black (male) scholars and the erasure of their vital role in the production and dissemination of Malcolm's life and politics to the public.

Similarly, Vicki Garvin and Alice Windom were important in cultivating what contemporary commentators called "Malcolmania," the frenzy of renewed interest in and construction of Malcolm as a cultural icon in black communities and amongst hip hop artists beginning in the late 1980s (Marable, Race 226, 230, 240). Garvin and Windom vividly recalled their fond memories of working with Malcolm in Africa on the "Malcolm X in Ghana" panel at Malcolm X: The Conference held at Manhattan Community College in New York City in May 1990. Attended by more than a thousand young and veteran black militants, scholars, and community members, this gathering represented a major effort in cultivating resurgent interest in Malcolm's life and legacy. Through her journalism and countless lectures at college campuses during the 1990s about Malcolm X, Garvin emphasized how his life served as a powerful model for young people. "The most salient feature of Malcolm's life was his metamorphosis: from negative self-destructive behavior and anti-social activities (which he publicly acknowledged and overcame) to self-liberation through self-love," she wrote, adding "This transformation enabled him to pursue a relentless commitment" to struggling against racial oppression and for black self-determination. (27)

No woman was more important in keeping Malcolm's legacy alive and in raising his children than Betty Shabazz. Widowed, Shabazz raised the couple's six children, including twins who were born after their father's assassination. This was no easy task. Shabazz feared for her family's safety, but she met these challenges. In her memoir, Ilyasah Shabazz, the couple's third child, lauds her mother: "Mommy did a heroic job of attending not only to our physical and material needs, but to our psychological ones as well" (38). She successfully balanced raising six children with earning a living and speaking about her late husband. In 1975, she earned her doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She wrote her dissertation on the education policy of the Organization of Afro-American Unity. She commuted between New York and western Massachusetts, while she worked as a nurse, volunteered for UNICEF, and raised her children. Sadly, Shabazz died in 1997 as a result of suffering serious burns due to a fire in her apartment sparked accidently by her grandson, who bore his grandfather's name (Shabazz 98-99, 100-110).

Ilyasah Shabazz's biographical portrait of her mother's relationship to her husband differs from Marable's in Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. In contrast to Marable, Shabazz neither mentions marital discord between them nor discusses her father's alleged homosexuality as a young man. Instead, Shabazz focuses on their mutual love and respect, and Betty Shabazz's courage in raising six children following her husband's assassination, while under the constant threat of violence and government surveillance. As the proud daughter of Betty Shabazz and Malcolm, Ilayash Shabazz seems to have been invested in representing her parents' relationship in normative terms.

While black women radicals who came of age during the mid-twentieth century were vital to keeping alive Malcolm's legacy, a younger generation of black women militants are taking up this torch in our times. They are also keenly aware of veteran black women radicals' role in shaping Malcolm's life and politics. This is most evident in the efforts by the New Afrikan Women's Caucus of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) in Atlanta. Formed in Brooklyn in 1993, and claiming Malcolm X as its political forebear, MXGM is a national black radical organization committed to human rights, black self-determination, and women's rights. Underscoring its appreciation for black women's legacy in mentoring Malcolm, the Atlanta branch's women's caucus organized a public discussion, titled "Queen Mother Moore's Ideology Today & Her Influence on Malcolm X," on May 19, 2011, Malcolm's birthday. The event discussed her influence on his thought and celebrated the lives of both revered black revolutionaries. Clearly, academics and non-academics are beginning to recognize the powerful influence of black women radicals on Malcolm's life and legacy (Lumumba, Interview).


In June 1997, Vicki Garvin penned a solemn eulogy, published in the newsletter of the Harlem-based Committee to Eliminate Media Offensive to African People (CEMOTAP), for Queen Mother Moore, who had recently passed away at the age of ninety-eight. Praising her friend as a "courageous, fearless warrior" whose militant advocacy for black self-determination dated to the early twentieth century, Garvin stressed that Queen Mother Moore anticipated Robert F. Williams's advocacy for armed self-defense and Malcolm's famous call that blacks struggle for self-determination "by any means necessary." Garvin added that Queen Mother Moore and Malcolm possessed little formal education. They were brilliant organic intellectuals "rooted in the history and experience of their class and race." While she mourned Queen Mother Moore's death, Garvin framed her life and legacy as a revolutionary "beacon" for black people--young and old. Nearly ten years to the month after Queen Mother Moore's death, Vicki Garvin passed away. She was ninety-one. In the program for her memorial service, Mabel Williams and her son, John C. Williams, issued this statement: "Our many fond memories of our dear friend, Vicki, are helpful in dealing with her passing. She was a wonderful giant of a woman, an extraordinary freedom fighter and a dedicated friend." They added: "It is our prayer that the revolutionary spirit will kindle the fires of continuing struggle in future generations" ("Memorial").

This statement and Garvin's eulogy of Queen Mother Moore capture the essence of both women's extraordinary lives and work. They were black revolutionary women committed to black self-determination. They were also close friends of Malcolm X. More broadly, their collaborations speak to the ways black women radicals were often more advanced on political matters than Malcolm. From his mother Louise Little to his widow Betty Shabazz, female radicals of color played a significant role in cultivating his radicalism, informing his approach to community organizing, nurturing his internationalism, and keeping his memory alive following his assassination. Their exchanges with him, as well as his successful overseas travels, which these women helped to arrange, began to transform his gender politics. These women, together with domestic and global events, were crucial in prompting him to reject the parochial black nationalism embraced by the Nation of Islam for a more revolutionary variant of Pan-Africanism and Third Worldism. This ideological transformation set the stage for his break from the NOI in early 1964. Malcolm changed these women as well. He inspired them to demand unapologetically black freedom and to love black people and their genius. They saw in him a leader who could easily relate with and speak to the dreams and nightmares of everyday black people, and who could win the support from Third World leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah for the African American freedom struggle.

For life writing scholars interested in Malcolm X and the growing field of Malcolm X Studies, these women's stories illuminate the centrality of black women radicals to Malcolm's politics, life, and legacy in ways that counter accepted truths about this leading twentieth century black nationalist leader. Both Alex Haley's Autobiography and Manning Marable's Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention provide important insight into Malcolm X's life story. Yet these narratives can take us only so far. They erase and marginalize the significance of black women radicals to Malcolm X, as well as these women's brilliance as thinkers and activists. Recovering these women's collaborations with Malcolm underscores the ways their histories were interwoven, genders the biographical portrait of Malcolm, and counters the masculinist representations of Malcolm's life in particular and the black radical tradition more broadly. To be sure, these women provide an occasion for (re)interpreting Malcolm's X life story, the history of black radicalism, and black women's history. Telling new stories requires scholars to consult these women's histories and lesser-known sources.

This article has just scratched the surface in examining these dynamic women's histories and collaborations with a leading post-war black radical spokesperson. Much work needs to be done on this topic. But on this point we are clear: appreciating the brilliance of Vicki Garvin, Queen Mother Moore, and other black women radicals and their influence on Malcolm X provides invaluable lessons for those of us committed to realizing black liberation globally in our turbulent yet propitious historical moment.


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(1.) See Garvin, Haywood, and Woodard; and Garvin, "Malcolm as I Knew Him" 18.

(2.) See Garvin, Haywood, and Woodard; Garvin, "Malcolm as I Knew Him" 18; and Gore 15-17, 100-129, 141-51.

(3.) The Bandung Conference was a gathering of Asian and African states that took place between 18 April and 24 April 1955 in Bandung, Indonesia. The Non-Aligned Movement emerged from this meeting. See Mackie; and Prashad.

(4.) See Garvin, Haywood, and Woodard; Gilkes 151; and Ahmad 7-13.

(5.) For other biographies of Malcolm X, see Goldman and Perry.

(6.) For an example of his commitment to black feminism, see chapter three, "Groundings with My Sisters: Patriarchy and the Exploitation of Black Women," of his seminal monograph How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America (69-103).

(7.) For the controversy around Marable's Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, see Ball and Burroughs; and Boyd, Daniels, Karenga, and Madhubuti.

(8.) This phrase is credited to the political scientist Cedric J. Robinson's magnum opus, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, which Robinson defines as a shared revolutionary consciousness rooted in African-descended people's ontological opposition to racial capitalism, slavery, and imperialism. He understands black radicalism and Marxism as "two programs for revolutionary change," appreciating the latter, despite its universalist claims, as "a Western construction--a conceptualization of human affairs and historical development that is emergent from the experiences of European peoples mediated, in turn, through their civilization, their social orders, and their cultures" (1, 2). Marxism, Robinson argues, remains grounded to its own detriment in the racialism deeply embedded within Western civilization. He identifies twentieth century black radical thinkers such as W. E. B. Du Bois, C. L. R. James, and Richard Wright as important exemplars of the black radical tradition.

(9.) There is a rich literature on national communism, including Haywood; and Benningsen and Wimbush.

(10.) For insightful discussions of the erasure of black women from the black radical tradition, see Ransby; Boyce Davies, "Sisters Outside," and Left of Karl Marx; Gore; and Gore, Theoharis, and Woodard.

(11.) See McDuffie, Sojourning 21; and "'I wanted a Communist philosophy'" 181.

(12.) See Malcolm X, Autobiography 1, 2, 7-14; and Marable, Malcolm X 20-38.

(13.) See Malcolm X, Autobiography 1, 2, 7-14; Marable, Malcolm X16, 20-38; and Shabazz 53.

(14.) See Gilkes 117-24; and McDuffie, "'I wanted a Communist philosophy'" 181, 184-85.

(15.) McDuffie, Sojourning 21, 78-79. Copies of the 1950s correspondence between Cyril Briggs and Harry Haywood were kindly provided by Minkah Makalani from his research at the Schomburg; Makalani is the author of In the Cause of Freedom: Radical Black Internationalism from Harlem to London, 1917-1939.

(16.) For discussions of liberal black civil rights bargains with anticommunists, see Horne 201-222.

(17.) Of course, the police murder of Ronald Stokes in Los Angeles, and police brutality generally, worked in tandem with these political discussions with radical women like Gloria Richardson, who led some street fighting as well; see Marable, Malcolm X 207-209.

(18.) See, for example, the New York Amsterdam News for 30 July 1960, 18 March 1961, 15 February 1964, and 31 October 1964; and Gilkes 131, 132.

(19.) For the impact of Detroit-based black radicals on Malcolm's politics, see Young 14-31.

(20.) See Boggs; Breitman 7-9; and Daulatzai 25-44.

(21.) Bond; and Gaines 136-209. Malcolm's visit to Ghana from May 10-17, 1964 was his second trip to the country. He also visited Ghana in 1959.

(22.) See Windom, "An Account," "Alice Windom to Christine," and Interview.

(23.) In search of a better paying job, Windom left Ghana primarily for economic, not political reasons. Her friends secured a position for her with the UN in Addis Ababa (Interview).

(24.) Boyce Davies, email. We would like to thank Carole Boyce Davies for sharing this information with us, and acknowledge her cutting edge research on Claudia Jones in Left of Karl Marx 131-66.

(25.) We would like to thank the anonymous reviewers of this article for helping us appreciate the contradictions in Malcolm X's evolving gender politics.

(26.) According to Alice Windom, Haley may have acquired the letter from John Henrik Clarke (Interview).

(27.) Qtd. in Garvin, "Malcolm X: A Beacon"; see also Garvin, "Malcolm X in Ghana," "Our Elders Lovingly Remember," Notes for talk, and "Malcolm as I Knew Him."

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A358058390