Famous Sayings #112 — ‘By Any Means Necessary’

July 8, 2018

We are going to fight for our rights and get them by any means necessary.

by any means necessary, Malcolm X, Civil Rights Movement, famous sayings
In one of Malcom X’s most famous speeches, he told his followers that they would fight for their human rights “by any means necessary.” Image via Flickr by Sabatu. Public domain image.

This is a phrase that can be applied today, but one that is at least 64 years old.

I first heard the phrase “by any means necessary” in the 1990s, during an episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. In that episode, an activist friend of Phillip and Vivian Banks came to town and began influence Will and Carlton. The activist was still stuck in a 1960s mindset and she told Will that change needed to be fought for “by any means necessary.” Afterward, Will and Carlton tried to engage in their own activism while fighting to save the job of an unconventional teacher at their school.

At the time, I didn’t give much thought to what the phrase meant, especially since it was portrayed in such a negative light. The character who uttered the phrase in the Fresh Prince episode was stuck in time and labeled a radical, which is itself a loaded term. And while Uncle Phil and Aunt Viv were themselves activists in the 1960s, the writers made sure to make it clear that much of that was in the past.

With the past in mind …

Who First Used the Phrase ‘By Any Means Necessary’?

The phrase was first popularized in political speech by Malcolm X, but it can also be found in a translation of earlier French text.

Malcolm X

On June 28, 1964, Malcolm X gave his first public address on the new organization he founded, the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU). The speech was delivered at the Audubon Ballroom in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan.


Here is the key part of the speech where he utters the phrase “by any means necessary”:

One of the first things that the independent African nations did was to form an organization called the Organization of African Unity. This organization consists of all independent African states who have reached the agreement to submerge all differences and combine their efforts toward elimination from the continent of Africa colonialism and all vestiges of oppression and exploitation being suffered by African people … So, we have formed an organization known as the Organization of Afro-American Unity which has the same aim and objective – to fight whoever gets in our way, to bring about the complete independence of people of African descent here in the Western Hemisphere, and first here in the United States, and bring about the freedom of these people by any means necessary.

That’s our motto. We want freedom by any means necessary. We want justice by any means necessary. We want equality by any means necessary. We don’t feet that in 1964, living in a country that is supposedly based upon freedom, and supposedly the leader of the free world, we don’t think that we should have to sit around and wait for some segregationist congressmen and senators and a President from Texas in Washington, D.C., to make up their minds that our people are due now some degree of civil rights. No, we want it now or we don’t think anybody should have it.

Jean-Paul Sartre

The phrase can be found in the English translation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s play Dirty Hands (original French Title: Les Mains Sales; 1948). In Act V of the play, Hugo and Hoederer talk about class and lies. At one point, Hugo, the main character, questioned the morality of lying to soldiers, especially since they could be sent to their deaths. Hoederer, the main antagonist, said that he didn’t really care for the dead and that he honored the living. In the end, he felt that the ends justified the means.

This is a translated passage from the play I found on Wikipedia:

I was not the one to invent lies: they were created in a society divided by class and each of us inherited lies when we were born. It is not by refusing to lie that we will abolish lies: it is by eradicating class by any means necessary.

The exact passage was also found in the book entitled, Recontextualized: A Framework for Teaching English with Music.

I found another translation that basically had the same idea, but it didn’t contain the phrase “by any means necessary.” Here’s a key passage:

HUGO: I never lie to my comrades, I—Why should you fight for the liberation of men, if you think no more of them than to stuff their heads with falsehoods?

HOEDERER: I’ll lie when I must, and I have contempt for no one. I wasn’t the one who invented lying. It grew out of a society divided into classes, and each one of us has inherited it from birth. We shall not abolish lying by refusing to tell lies, but by using every means at hand to abolish classes.

HUGO: All means are not good.

HOEDERER: All means are good when they’re effective.

What Does It Mean When People Do Things ‘By Any Means Necessary?’

The phrase “by any means necessary” is an idiom that means something with be done by any method someone feels is needed (Merriam-Webster). More specifically, people (like activists and revolutionaries) will consider all possible avenues, including violence, to reach a certain result. However, since the qualifier “necessary” is used, that means violence will not be used if deemed unnecessary (“By Any Means Necessary”).

Do I Agree with This Idiom?

Yes and no.

While I know I would be ostracized for advocating violence to achieve political ends — which I don’t, for the record — I understand the level of frustration many people feel when they are being oppressed, they are being discriminated against, or they see that authority figures aren’t even listening to them. To make things worse, there are people who would like to severely limit free speech, arrested journalists, and make it illegal to protest. Thus, when people start taking away the peaceful ways in which people can redress their grievances, they make it more likely the populace will get violent. This is not a threat but a reality.

Malcolm X gained as much attention as he did because he expressed an anger that black Americans felt at the time. While there were black people who supported the wider Civil Rights Movement, others felt that it felt short because it didn’t adequately address their frustration. Black people were being threatened systematically and socially, so many of Malcolm X’s followers were receptive to a message that included one of self-defense. However, when Malcolm X gave his “By Any Means Necessary” speech, he had already gone on his pilgrimage to Mecca and his views on race were beginning to evolve.

That said, I think citizens need to have a variety of options to deal with their government because the latter is supposed to be in service to the former. I also think that people can act within the law to make authority figures uncomfortable at times.

Does this mean that I agree with the various protests that are occurring in America? Of course, I approve of the conventional rallies, but I am watching the types of protests that involve citizens meeting authority figures in public spaces (like restaurants and movie theaters). As long as those are nonviolent, and people maintain a respectable distance from those they are talking to, I honestly don’t see a problem. I may draw the line at meeting authority figures at their homes, but some protesters were able to reach former FCC Wheeler Tom Wheeler by standing in his driveway …

Works Cited

“Dirty Hands by Jean-Paul Sartre.” Goodreads. Web. Retrieved 8 July 2018. <https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/11098581-dirty-hands>.

Goering, Christian Z. and Johnson, Lindy L. Recontextualized: A Framework for Teaching English with Music. Print. 2016. Page 102. Retrieved 9 July 2018.

“No Exit and Three Other Plays by Jean-Paul Sartre.” Uploaded by Vanderbilt University. PDF. Retrieved 8 July 2018. <https://www.vanderbilt.edu/olli/class-materials/Jean-Paul_Sartre.pdf>.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Les Mains sales. Play. 1948. Translated in 1963. Act 5, Scene 3.

Various Authors. “By any means necessary.” Wikipedia. Last Updated 27 Nov 2017. Web. Retrieved 8 July 2018. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/By_any_means_necessary>.

Various Authors. “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air (Season 2).” Wikipedia. Last Updated 16 May 2018. Web. Retrieved 9 July 2018. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fresh_Prince_of_Bel-Air_(season_2)>.

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