A few weeks ago the world celebrated the 89th birthday of Malcolm X. He was publically memorialized by civil rights legends like Harry Belefonte, who praised his visionary leadership. Those of my generation reflected on how Malcolm X’s autobiography, and Spike Lee’s movie “Malcolm X,” rocked our collective imagination. Yet one of Malcolm X’s greatest social justice projects still seems to pass, year after year, without mention – he helped found one of the most widely circulated and substantial black newspapers in history.
Throughout his adult life, Malcolm X asserted that the Black press was the only outlet for people of color “to voice our true plight.” As chief minister of the Nation of Islam (NOI) he envisioned a protest-oriented paper that used stirring language to stage news stories within a narrative of racial justice. In 1960 he launched Mr. Muhammad Speaks (later named Muhammad Speaks); a tabloid sized paper that included the speeches of Nation of Islam leadership and news coverage on Black communities. By Malcolm X’s design, the staff was largely composed of progressive, professional Black journalists who were attracted to the level of journalistic freedom they had to cover stories without the hindrance of corporate sponsorship.
By 1961, the paper was so popular that it became a national press, and by the mid 1960s it had a weekly circulation in the 100,000s. Yet despite its size the paper maintained an aggressive commitment to community-based investigative journalism, making it a popular source of information in urban centers throughout the nation. The paper was so successful that sales revenue financed production as well as a cadre of investigative journalists, editors, and bureau chiefs nationwide and internationally.
The paper built its reputation in Black communities by covering Black perspectives that mainstream press either ignored or underrepresented. Whether doing a story about school desegregation, urban renewal, law enforcement or U.S. foreign policy, the paper gave voice to Blacks who experienced public policy at the ground level. For example, a story of excessive police force against a Black Los Angeles teenager, that went unreported in the L.A. Times, received full coverage in Muhammad Speaks. In North Carolina, Muhammad Speaks extensively covered the groundswell of Black community protest in 1968, against unequal desegregation despite the issue being ignored by local and national media. Throughout its lifespan from 1961 – 1975, the papers’ investigative journalists broke stories about medical abuse, published exclusives with political prisoners and sent journalists to cover international liberation struggles in Africa, Asia, and Central America.
Ironically, Malcolm had no direct contact with the paper he created after 1961 and was rarely mentioned in its pages. Yet, ultimately, the press’ message shared the spirit of what Malcolm X exclaimed in his public speeches: a telling of the Black liberation struggle from the point of view of millions of silenced, urban Blacks. Long after Malcolm X’s passing in 1965, the impact of his journalistic vision ripples through social justice movements. Later radical media, such as the Black Panthers’ Black Panther Intercommunal News borrowed much of the tone and community orientation of Muhammad Speaks and deployed news stories to protest unequal and unrepresentative public policies. In turn, white leftist media incorporated some of the Black Panther’s practices and style.
Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of Malcolm X’s passing. I hope 2015’s remembrance will include conversations about his contribution to the Black press and the lessons they offer us now. Just as Malcolm X’s organizing skills have inspired generations of activists, teachers and scholars, Muhammad Speaks’ approach to media production remains inspiring. The paper provides enduring lessons on the importance of seeking underrepresented modes of analysis. Both Malcolm X and Muhammad Speaks nurtured counter narratives that were intellectually honest and psychologically satisfying. With rhetorical force, pushed up from the grassroots, they delivered information that was both entertaining and important. They both worked from and for communities. This was central to their logic and their sense of hope.
Ultimately Malcolm X understood that undemocratically controlled, highly centralized media needed to be directly challenged. He, and the paper he started, sustained a relentless pursuit of dominant media narratives, identifying its collusions with state and corporate power and shedding light on the silenced aspirations of millions. In turn, this aspect of Malcolm’s legacy, may hold important insight for those who seek to speak the truth of the powerless, to the powerful.