This piece will be in contrast to my piece about Dr. Martin Luther King. Today, in honor of his recent birthday (May 19th) I would like to discuss the legacy of Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little and known late in his life as el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz.
Most consider Malcolm X as a radical. He was viewed as a violence first kind of person. A Lot of this comes from his time with the Nation of Islam. It comes from his words which have been immortalized, “By any means necessary.”
But few realize there was a much more complex man beneath that facade. Take a few minutes…or perhaps a few days, and read his autobiography. Malcolm suddenly becomes far less of “an angry black man” and much more a product of a system which he elected to fight. He tells of being in school and telling his teacher he wanted to be a lawyer. The teacher pulled him aside later and suggested that Malcolm consider a career to which he was better suited. This was to Malcolm who was a better student than several of his classmates. And I should mention that Malcolm had been in a situation where several of his classmates in this instance were white.
Perhaps it is best described by the dictionary scene from the film, Malcolm X. While there is no reference that this actually occurred in Malcolm’s life (he was introduced to the Nation of Islam (N.O.I.) by family, not a fellow inmate), it is a moving scene that rather well represents Malcolm’s change in life views during his incarceration.
So we come to Malcolm X, the X representing his unknown African heritage. And Malcolm used his connection to his race and his incredible oratory skills to recruit members to the N.O.I. He would spend several years recruiting and calling for a change. It did begin as a peaceful show of force. Men from the N.O.I. would come out to watch over the neighborhood and family since they were not getting fair treatment from city, state, and federal officials. At first there was no violence, it was just a peaceful demonstration of power.
But things change. And when they did, Malcolm did not back down from his call for action, for change. He was as committed to a better future for Black people in the US as Dr. King, but his methods were different. So to, were some of his views. Malcolm at the time considered all White people devils. This would change.
Later in his life, Malcolm X would shift from N.O.I. and find that not all Whites were devils. His shift in views did not sit well with the N.O.I. Leadership and Malcolm X would pay with his life.
Several people complain that Malcolm was too violent. They say he should have taken an approach more like MLK’s. Few realize that MLK was even more hated in his time than Malcolm. And fewer still realize both the impact and changes Malcolm went through and led. There is a moving scene in the film Selma where Malcolm comes to visit Coretta Scott King. He mentions there that his violence would be seen as the alternative. In our time since, we have seen MLK become idolized because of this contrast.
Few realize that Malcolm had also come to change his position. He was far less violent at this time and Coretta felt that this meeting with Malcolm suggested these two giants of the Civil Rights movement would meet at a closer place on their issues.
Unfortunately, Malcolm would be killed days later.
See, Malcolm X is a name which inspires something in everyone. For some, that is passion. For others, fear or frustration. Regardless, it should inspire respect. Sadly, that is a term less than often enough offered to the man.