Forty-five years after his murder in February 1965, Malcolm X’s legacy remains surprisingly vibrant. But that legacy also complicates the relationship blacks have with America’s first black president.
There’s no doubt the slain Muslim activist would have marveled at the election of Barack Hussein Obama. But there’s also little doubt he would be in the front ranks of those protesting the president’s race-neutral policies.
Malcolm X (aka Malik al-Shabazz) is most noted for his militant stance in challenging America’s racial status quo and his assertive black pride. Until his assassination on Feb. 21, 1965, he was seen as a kind of counterpoint to the Rev. Martin Luther King’s nonviolent activism.
In his first book, “Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance,” Obama spoke well of the slain Muslim activist, although it wasn’t Malcolm’s ideology that attracted him. “Only Malcolm X’s autobiography seemed to offer something different. His repeated acts of self-creation spoke to me,” he wrote.
Malcolm’s life embodied the message that you cannot become what you need to be by remaining what you are. That message is perhaps the primary reason for his enduring relevance.
His journey from a promising youth in Nebraska to a street criminal in the urban North, to a religion-cursing convict, to a black Muslim convert and evangelist, to an Islamic stalwart seeking global human rights, is an epic one with few parallels.
Malcolm’s critique of U.S. imperialism contrasts starkly with Obama’s foreign policy agenda, which has amounted to running the system more smoothly than President Bush.
This presents a dilemma for many black intellectuals and activists whose political identities were formed in opposition to U.S. policies seen as racist and imperialist.
On domestic issues, that conflict is compounded. Obama’s insistence on race-neutral policies directly defy Malcolm’s argument on the need for compensatory policies to redress the historical grievances blacks endured.
Malcolm’s portfolio is so varied that various partisans have claimed his legacy.
Black activists cite his influence as a militant alternative to the nonviolent civil rights movement.
Sunni Muslims say he was a major progenitor of Islam in America.
Black nationalists claim him as a leading light.
Contemporary Pan-Africanists list him not far below Kwame Nkrumah as a founding father.
Black studies advocates credit Malcolm for essential inspiration.
And leftists note with pride his growing affection for socialism.
All of them are right.
And all of them box Obama in.