For those who may not have noticed, last Friday would have marked the 81st birthday of the man born and raised as Malcolm Little; who lived his all too brief but enlightening life under the name Malcolm X, and who was taken from this earth 41 years ago under his Muslim name of El Hajj Malik el Shabazz.
Most of us living today would probably know of Malcolm X only because of what has been said in the history books (or from Spike Lee’s original film X) about his progression from young petty criminal to firey Black Nationalist polemicist for the early Nation of Islam, to antiwar/antiracist Black radical militant. But for those who lived through the bad old days of the civil rights struggle, Malcolm stood as the human incindeary fuse that lit into the ticking time bomb of Black oppression; the enforcer whose message of independent self-determination and defense of freedom “by any means neccessary” was the compliment to his fellow activist icon Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” vision of non-violent disobedience. And strangely enough, even though Malcolm X and Dr. King developed from different backgrounds and perspectives, the two of them were slowly but surely reaching a consensus, if not a agreement, on the need to go beyond the limitations imposed by their religious upbringing and seek radical transformation of the political system for the benefit of everyone, not just Blacks.
I could go on about how important Malcolm X’s/El Hajj Malik el Shabazz’s legacy was to the Black freedom movement, and how his words still strike meaningful chords in this day and age….but fortunately, someone far better than me has penned a tribute that is more than worthy of his impact.
Shanikka, who is a regular diarist at Maryscott O’Connor’s megablog resourse My Left Wing, has come out with what she says is the first of a three part series on Malcolm, his legacy, and his relevance to the present times. It is very long for an MLW diary, but trust me, it is more than worth reading it in full. An execerpt, to tempt your hungry soul:
Most people in the mainstream don’t know (or don’t want to know because it’s inconvenient for their post-hoc reconstruction of Dr. King’s views) that at the end of their respective lives, Dr. King and Malcolm X were politically moving towards each other, in terms of viewpoints about the struggle and methods. Over the years I have had many moments of fantasy about what could have been, for African-Americans, if Malcolm had continued to live even until Dr. King was killed 3 years later. Most Americans have this fantasy that it was Dr. King who was successful all by his lonesome, his Christian non-violence movement morally swaying Americans to his view, and that other than “small details”, America itself has truly changed. And, but for folks — mostly of color — who just won’t “move on”, has solved its race problem.
Whereas if you actually study the history and compare on the ground to what exists today, it becomes obvious that but for Malcolm X, and the subsequent ascension of the Black Nationalist movement including its champions the Black Panthers in the urban areas, Dr. King’s success –transitory as it appears to be, in hindsight — was directly correlated with majoritarian America seeing full frontal what the alternative could be and *would be.*
What could have been, had they both lived. I suspect that a lot of things we still talk about and struggle about today would have been resolved long ago. I know that when I first heard The Ballot or The Bullet as a college student in 1978, I cried, knowing he was dead and that the brutal, practical advice to African-Americans about how to succeed long term and *permanently* in our struggle for our due in this country was rapidly being shunted away as “violence” and “hatred” for self-serving political reasons, and no more.
Someone on MLW referred to Malcolm’s “time of clarity” in Mecca, his spiritual enlightment, as Malcolm X becoming more “peaceful”. I hope they read this quote with open mind, and ask themselves: what did they really feel, claiming that Malcolm became “more peaceful” when (a) there is no evidence that Malcolm X was ever involved in a single violent event or act; and (b) Malcolm X’s demand that Blacks preserve their right to self-defend against racist violence never wavered, right up until the last week of his life, so this is not something that Mecca changed?
I bring up this person’s comment not to focus on her and I hope its’ not taken that way. But it does raise a point: how many really progressive folks who are white see and remember El Hajj-Malik el-Shabazz is not all that much different from how mainstream whites, or conservative whites, choose to remember him: violence and hate are always in the picture. Even as progressives have, often, far more sympathy for his viewpoint (since it was quite socialist and revolutionary) than the average man/woman on the street. I would argue that despite this sympathy of cause, the manner in which his “hate” and “violence” are always remembered is for the same reasons that others bring it up all the time. IMO, its a subconscious reaction to, and memory of Malcolm X as someone who, unlike Dr. King, did not feel that whites had a role in the struggle (i.e. as someone who rejected, and therefore emotionally hurt, them.) The differences in how Dr. King and Malcolm X saw white people’s role in the cause of Black liberation/civil rights is, IMO, the single greatest reason for the that Dr. King is culturally revered by America and Malcolm X is not. Even though they spent their lives fighting for the same thing, one man always kept at least part of his focus on what whites thought, how whites would react, and limited his methods accordingly. The other made clear that he did not care at all what whites thought about either his opinion or his methods, so long as the work he perceived needed doing actually got done. In other words, in Dr. King’s vision, white cooperation was central to Black liberation – they were still “needed” and nothing couldn’t work without them. In contrast, in Malcolm’s vision whites were not needed at all – they were irrelevant (except as possibly violent actors trying to get in the way). Even if, when the basic work was done, they could be *allies.*
If there is one thing about white supremacy, and racism, it is a disease of deep insecurity and sense of worthlessness. When you know that, it becomes clear why culturally it has been so important to America that Blacks diss/write off/diminish and hopefully *forget* Malcolm X and embrace Dr. King’s vision.
Well, the good news is that even though Dr. King and others spent a lot of effort avoiding Malcolm X, he spent his career reaching out to those of his own people who were working on the cause of Black liberation, even as he did not make a priority out of reaching out to whites. But how can any rational person really argue with his reasons? “There can be no Black-white unity until there is first some Black unity.”
That’s why I love the picture above, so much. You see, the picture — part of a series — was not an accident. It was planned. It was confronting Dr. King, after Dr. King had spent months avoiding communication with, or alliance with, Malcolm X.
And yet once cornered, once Dr. King had no choice, by all accounts that brief stairwell meeting between Dr. King and Malcolm X from which this and a few other photos were taken, was gracious and friendly. The laughter and smiles were by all accounts sincere.
Perhaps because both men were so profound that they always knew what history tries to avoid: both men’s primary mission in this life was obtain freedom and equality, across all measures of life, for African-Americans. And thus, perhaps each had a far better understanding of, and appreciation for, the methods chosen by the other, than anyone today, including most of the progressive left, gives them credit for.
My Left Wing: El Hajj Malik el Shabazz, Race & Politics (Full Diary Entry)
If you are genuinely interested in understanding the man and his legacy, a visit to MLW to check out that article is highly recommended.