May 11, 2004
May 19 is Malcolm X's birthday. He would have been 79. He remains a hero to millions of African-Americans.
When I was 12 years old, my father had me read "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," by Alex Haley. It is the story of one of the most important African-American spokesmen for human rights and racial justice of the 20th century.
"He was the most electric personality I have ever met," Haley wrote in the epilogue to the classic book years later.
And his life and work is still relevant today.
He was born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925, in Omaha, Neb. When he was a young boy, the Ku Klux Klan allegedly murdered his father, and his family sank deep into poverty. His mother was committed to a mental hospital, and Malcolm and his siblings were placed into foster homes.
As a teenager he eventually landed in Boston but soon made his way to Harlem, where he became involved in petty street crime. He became known on the rough streets of Harlem as "Detroit Red" and eventually went to prison on a 10-year sentence for burglary after returning to Boston.
It was in prison that Malcolm Little transformed himself and became known as Malcolm X. There he joined the Nation of Islam, a controversial black-nationalist Islamic organization, and soon he became its star spokesman. He adopted the organization's philosophy of racial separatism and became a minister at several mosques.
Not long after, Malcolm X was speaking more defiantly about racial oppression than any other black leader in the country.
But Malcolm X was also an intellectual who demonstrated an ability to challenge his earlier assumptions and to arrive at a more sophisticated understanding of the world. He also maintained a strict moral code of conduct. He traveled the world, studied and read, took the Muslim pilgrimage (hajj) to the holy city of Mecca and soon dramatically changed his views about white people and the racial problems in America.
In 1964, he disavowed the racial separatist philosophy of the Nation of Islam and left the organization. He rededicated himself to the African-American fight for civil rights, human rights and dignity in the United States.
He was now known as El Hajj Malik El Shabazz, and he began writing and speaking on the racial problem in America to a receptive international audience.
"I am not a racist, and I do not subscribe to any of the tenets of racism," he wrote in the Egyptian Gazette on Aug. 25, 1964. "But the seed of racism has been firmly planted in the hearts of most American whites ever since the beginning of that country."
Today, the words of Malcolm X are even more relevant as the war rages in Iraq.
"You're not supposed to be so blind with patriotism that you can't face reality," Malcolm X said in a Jan. 7, 1965, speech to a mostly white audience. "Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or says it."
Now, nearly 40 years after they were spoken, Malcolm X's words continue to ring loud with moral truth.
Brian Gilmore is a lawyer and poet with two collections of poetry, including "Jungle Nights and Soda Fountain Rags: A Poem for Duke Ellington and the Duke Ellington Orchestra" (Karibu Books, 2000). He can be reached at email@example.com.