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Legacy of Malcolm X: Why Malcolm matters

Legacy of Malcolm X: Why Malcolm matters February 22, 2005
Malcolm in the middle

Forty years ago today, Malcolm X graced the stage of the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, NY and greeted his audience in the name of peace, “Asalaamu alaykum.” The American who famously spoke of the metaphorical choice between the ballot and the bullet was violently struck minutes later by sixteen bullets and died at the young age of 39. His fate was similar to that of other contemporaneous African American leaders: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated at the same age, and Medgar Evers at 38.

In the narratives of American history, Malcolm is generally less favorably compared with Dr. King and the two are posed as antagonistic opposites: Malcolm, the violent pessimist, and Martin, the peaceful optimist. But this depiction defies the uniqueness of Malcolm’s life experience, the complexity of his thought and his relationship with Dr. King. The life and legacy of Malcolm X deserve an honest and accurate public reevaluation, and current developments in our country make such an effort increasingly necessary.

“The Autobiography of Malcolm X” was chosen by Time magazine as one of the ten most important nonfiction books of the twentieth century. Over three million copies of the book have been sold worldwide. Spike Lee’s movie X, was similarly popular, and helped inform a new generation of the slain civil rights activist.

The book and the film deliver the story of the child of a slain black nationalist who battles childhood poverty, excels in school but faces systematic discrimination and the unraveling of his family and, as a result, turns to a life of crime.

Malcolm Little becomes “Detroit Red,” the hustler. In prison, his mind and heart are liberated; the eight-grade honor student and class president reemerges in the form of Malcolm X – X symbolizing the rejection of the surname acquired from owner of his ancestors. The high school dropout and ex-criminal becomes a national figure, the spokesman of an important national movement, and lectures and debates at institutions such as Harvard and Oxford.

But he was still a man of the people. The places he frequented, the manner in which he spoke, and the issues he dealt with show a man who lived the life of those who he spoke to and never denied that fact. He was larger than life, but human at the same time. It is this realness that appealed to people then and continues to today.

Malcolm’s moral conduct was an integral part of his towering image. Like any other practicing Muslim, he abstained from alcohol, drugs, and pork. He was faithful to his wife, and treated women with the utmost respect and dignity. While Malcolm acknowledged the external roots of problems in the black community, he was an ardent advocate of personal responsibility and self-reliance” – a message relevant in an America today in which young black males are, for example, disproportionately represented in the prison population and in tallies of victims of gun violence. Regardless of the roots of the problem, Malcolm argued that change must first come from within the individual’s mind, conduct, and relationship with the community.

Malcolm was murdered at the place that made him famous: the podium. Some regarded his words as pernicious and lethal, but perhaps it was his boldness that made his critics uncomfortable. Malcolm made it “plain” – he questioned why African Americans should be patient to receive what was their human right and the sincerity of liberals who claimed to be their supporters. He was a necessary critic who provided a sobering commentary on the progress of the civil rights movement.

After his tour of Africa and pilgrimage to Mecca, Malcolm rejected the label of civil rights for the struggle of African Americans and embraced the term human rights. To him it was little different from the anti-colonial struggles elsewhere in the world. Perhaps this is something many or most Americans are unable to do: to see their country as like any other. Perhaps Malcolm defied this unstated rule and this is why he has generally been castigated. Yet, in our inclination toward a comfortable history, we forget that Dr. King, toward the end of his life, too became uneasy with the pace of change in America, and spoke out against the Vietnam War.

The pace of change in Malcolm’s life was frequent, and his series of transformations ended positively. He finally found a last name. He died as El Hajj Malik El Shabazz, or Malik Shabazz for short. Malcolm found a home in orthodox Islam. During his pilgrimage to Mecca, he was astounded by the diversity of the pilgrims and the irrelevance of race.

Malcolm X is treated as an important African American, rarely simply as an American figure, and even more rarely as a critical American Muslim. Islam is America’s fastest growing religion. It is an integral part of the discourse on our national security and foreign policy. But it has been a part of our nation’s history since the arrival of Muslim slaves from West Africa, and more obviously, since the civil rights movement. Malcolm’s role in shaping American Muslim identity, in posthumously bringing thousands of African American males to Islam, and in shaping the identity of contemporary young American Muslims – both African-American and non-African-American – may be popularly recognized in the future. But we live in a time of urgency, a time in which we are struggling to understand Islam and Muslims. We need not necessarily go to the streets of Cairo or Karachi to do this; we can simply try to understand a very misunderstood American and see what Islam means through his life.

The recently departed Ossie Davis, in his beautiful eulogy at Malcolm’s funeral asked those who refer to Malcolm as “full of hate, a fanatic, [and] a racist,” if they “ever talk[ed] to brother Malcolm.”

Forty years after Malcolm’s death, it is now time that we begin that conversation.

The Polemicist writes about politics, culture, and Yankee baseball on his self-titled weblog.

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