Zainab Chaudry, outreach manager for CAIR-Maryland, spoke on May 19, 2015 at a tribute event for civil rights leader Malcolm X. Here, she shares her words with Altmuslim.
Today — not just Annapolis, not only America, but the entire world – is marking 90 years since the birth of a man whose ideas and contributions helped shaped the course of history for generations to come.
Today — decades after the civil rights movement and more than 50 years since legislation was finally passed that outlawed discrimination based on race, religion, sex or national origin, as our nation struggles with law enforcement misconduct and discrimination against African Americans and other minority communities, we pause for a moment to celebrate the life of El Hajj Malik El Shabazz, better known as Malcolm X — an American Muslim minister, a civil rights activist and one of the greatest Black leaders to ever have lived.
Words cannot do justice to the legacy left behind by this legend who eloquently articulated the anger, struggle and beliefs of millions of voiceless African Americans in the 1960’s. But that should not discourage us from trying to impart it.
Through his words and through the example of his courage, bravery and leadership, El Hajj Malik El Shabazz unapologetically tore down obscure walls, ripped up faulty foundations and helped build bridges among oppressed communities.
He relentlessly forced society to remove its blinders and bear witness to a reality it was neither prepared to accept nor ready to amend. Yet, it was a reality that he recognized needed to be changed in order for justice to prevail.
He believed in uplifting the downtrodden, and he exemplified this through overcoming his own challenging circumstances and reinventing his life even to the extent that his own name would reflect these ideals and beliefs. The X in his name was a clear bid to renounce slavery and represent the unknown African ancestors whose name and heritage had been erased through bondage.
Society has a habit of placing transformative figures on pedestals and glossing over their true character and attributes. It paints a rosy portrait measured according to the confines of its restrictive comfort zone.
When we do this, we do a grave disservice to them. El Hajj Malik El Shabazz was not a saint so let us not hail him as one; he was an imperfect man who educated himself. Based on learned truths, he bettered himself for a perfect and just cause.
We must keep in mind the man Malcolm transformed into towards the end of his life is not who he was when he began his activism. Every element of his journey contributed to the man he was at the time of his death, and each element must be recognized in order for us to fully understand and appreciate the scope of his legacy.
Malcolm X’s message of liberation resonated with captive audiences because it aptly described their condition and lent voice to secret hopes and dormant dreams. That is exactly why it still resonates strongly with the masses decades after his departure from this world. His speeches, observations and remarks reflect his personal experiences with failure and triumph, and the courage and fear that embody the human experience.
The many groups of people who lay claim to Malcolm cannot ignore that he indiscriminately identified with and advocated on behalf of all victims of oppression and injustice — not just selective groups. He often proclaimed: “I am for truth, no matter who tells it. I am for justice, no matter who it’s for or against.”
Reflecting on the turmoil and injustices in my hometown of Baltimore, in Ferguson, in Gaza and Yemen, Burma and Syria — across the nation and across the world — I draw comfort in the truth and wisdom of his words: “Time is on the side of the oppressed today; it’s against the oppressor. Truth is on the side of the oppressed today; it’s against the oppressor.”
A true celebration of El Hajj Malek El Shabazz’ life and legacy means ending our silence and lifting our voices in support for victims of oppression not just in our own streets and backyards, but also around the globe.
Today, El Hajj Malek El Shabazz rests in power 90 years young. His documented life story is now an established classic of modern America that is hailed as one of Time’s ten most important nonfiction books of the 20th century. Streets have been named after him that are traveled by the President of the world’s most powerful nation. And his legacy continues to impact countless people inspired by his determination and commitment to truth, freedom, and justice.
As we mark 90 years since his birth, the greatest way we can celebrate the life of El Hajj Malek El Shabazz is to pass on that legacy according to exactly what he stood for. Especially since the need for political reform is relevant now more than ever.
Zainab Chaudry is the Maryland Outreach Manager for CAIR, Council on American Islamic Relations, contributor to Altmuslim and soon to be a blogger on Patheos Muslim.