The address, which he delivered in Detroit, was meant to dissuade black folks from blindly following white politicians who only wanted their vote and to instead start looking out for their own interests. It also included a chilling critique of black people who allow white politicians to use them as props to gain trust from other black Americans.
“The first thing the cracker does when he comes in power, he takes all the Negro leaders and invites them for coffee. To show that he’s all right,” Malcolm X said. “And those Uncle Toms can’t pass up the coffee. They come away from the coffee table telling you and me that this man is all right.”
While he was likely referencing meetings between Martin Luther King Jr., Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and other civil rights leaders with President Lyndon B. Johnson, his insight into the power dynamic is relevant today as prominent black folks meet with President-elect Donald Trump.
Martin Luther King III, Kanye West, Steve Harvey and NFL legends Ray Lewis and Jim Brown have all sat down with Trump to discuss issues facing black Americans ― and have tried to convince Trump’s black critics that he isn’t racist, or at least has their best interests at heart.
“[Trump] said that he is going to represent all Americans,” King said. “He said that over and over again. I think that we will continue to evaluate that. I think that the nation supports, I believe, that that’s his intent, but I think also we have to consistently engage with pressure.”
After meeting with Trump, West tweeted that having “a direct line of communication with our future President” is vital “if we truly want change.”
Ray Lewis, the former football player, cast all Trump-induced racial tension aside. “What we believe with the Trump administration is if we can combine these two powers of coming together — forget black or white. Black or white is irrelevant. The bottom line is job creation and economic development in these urban areas to change the whole scheme of what our kids see.”
Brown praised Trump “because he really talks about helping African-American, black people ― and that’s why I’m here.” He added that “the graciousness, the intelligence, the reception we got was fantastic.”
These celebs aren’t policymakers and aren’t, arguably, the leaders of any communities. But they do have a considerable amount of reach and influence.
Aligning himself with a wide range of black celebs allows Trump to reach sections of the black community he likely missed during his campaign ― from the black teens who know all the lyrics to West’s songs to the oldheads who admire Brown’s history of activism ― and, by proxy, gain popularity with their fanbases. For some folks, a simple approval from a celebrity could convince them to give Trump the benefit of doubt or rationalize his actions when he makes a racist comment.
Even during the campaign, Trump used well-known black people to appeal to African-American voters. He met with black religious leaders and paraded his famous black friends ― most notably Katrina Pierson, Sheriff David Clarke, Ben Carson and Omarosa Manigault ― in front of America. The Famous Black Trump Supporters continued to pop up, claiming that Trump would do great things for average black folks ― likely because they’d never been on the receiving end of his racism.
But Trump’s record directly contradicts these nods of approval. Trump was slow to denounce the Ku Klux Klan when former KKK leader David Duke endorsed his presidency. He has been sued by the Justice Department twice for racially discriminating against black people who wanted to rent apartments from him in New York.
Trump took out racially charged advertisements calling for New York to reinstate the death penalty to execute five black and Latino teenage boys falsely accused of raping a white woman in Central Park. He has reportedly suggested that black people are lazy, and said he’d consider reinstating “stop and frisk,” a policy that violated the constitutional rights of black people and Latinos. He has even referred to the 1700s and 1800s as a good era, completely disregarding black people’s enslavement at the time.
During his campaign, the president-elect repeatedly conflated blackness with poverty, saying that black voters were “living in hell.” He accused the Black Lives Matter movement of provoking the murder of police officers and employed Steve Bannon, a man who ran a white supremacist website, as his campaign manager, promoting him to White House chief strategist after the election.
This brings us back to Malcolm X’s riveting 1964 speech. Its overarching point was that black people should do what needs to be done to achieve basic human rights ― including criticizing white politicians who claim to care about their issues when the record indicates otherwise. They have the power to create change and don’t have to embrace the status quo, nor do they have to welcome politicians who do not have their best interests in mind with open arms.
The same is true today of Trump and his black supporters. Yes, he may have black friends who speak fondly of him. Yes, he may be developing plans to try and improve black communities (whatever that means). But it doesn’t change the fact that Trump has a proven record of racism ― and that he’s basically using his black supporters as props to distance himself from that past and convince all black Americans that he isn’t that bad after all.