Happy birthday, Malcolm X
May 11, 2005
Forty years after his murder, and 80 years after his May 19 birthday, the name Malcolm X still evokes a vast range of emotions.
In spite of his status as a cultural icon (thanks in large part to Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic) and as one of the most important leaders in black history, Malcolm is still viewed by many as a man who preached hate, evoked fear and scared white folks.
Middle America had a much harder time digesting the percussive attack of Malcolm’s black nationalist rhetoric compared to the melodious, nonviolent flow of the Rev. Martin Luther King’s oratory.
Malcolm X was fiery, charismatic and brilliant, and, most importantly, a symbol of the power of transformation.
Malcolm grew up hard. His father was murdered when he was still a child, his mother was subsequently institutionalized after having an emotional breakdown, and Malcolm and his siblings were split up and packed off to foster care. It wasn’t long before he became a petty criminal, eventually moving into drug, prostitution and gambling rings.
Malcolm’s story could easily have become one of just another black youth caught in the revolving door of the prison-industrial complex, but while he was serving a sentence for burglary, he became interested in the teachings of the Nation of Islam and its leader, Elijah Muhammad.
For Malcolm, the Nation of Islam offered a philosophy and framework that addressed many of his frustrations with racism in America. It promoted black pride and empowerment, and it did not require acceptance or assistance from whites.
Within a year of his release from prison in 1953, Malcolm rocketed to the top of the group’s leadership. He was named minister of the Nation of Islam’s Boston mosque, became a national spokesperson and, a few years later, founded the Nation’s "Muhammad Speaks" newspaper.
He was credited, almost single-handedly, with increasing the group’s membership from around 500 in the early 1950s to 30,000 a decade later.
By 1963, The New York Times was reporting that Malcolm X was the second most sought-after speaker in America. (His popularity and message also led to years of close surveillance by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.)
In 1964, Malcolm bitterly and very publicly left the Nation after tension escalated between himself and the organization's leadership. Not surprisingly, Malcolm’s departure was viewed as a betrayal, and threats began to be made against his life and family.
Malcolm quickly founded his own group Muslim Mosque Inc., and shortly thereafter made a pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, where for the first time he gathered with other Muslims from around the world. Malcolm’s views of racism were once again transformed, and he reported meeting "blonde-haired, blued-eyed men I could call my brothers."
Unfortunately, within a few months of his return from Mecca to the United States, three members of the Nation of Islam assassinated Malcolm. He was about to begin a speech at Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom and was shot 15 times in front of his three young daughters and his wife, Betty Shabazz, who was pregnant with twins at the time.
We can only wonder what role Malcolm X would have played in the rest of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and what influence he would have had on world affairs if he had lived to the ripe age of 80. He likely would have provided even greater inspiration to generations of young black men and women, who would have heard his commanding voice speaking out and bridging the gulf of misunderstanding between the Christian and the Muslim faiths.
I envision him being a tireless advocate for the oppressed.
More than anything, however, I see him as a symbol of our individual ability to learn, evolve and change, even in the most difficult circumstances.
Andrea Lewis is a San Francisco-based journalist and co-host of "The Morning Show" on KPFA Radio in Berkeley, Calif. She can be reached at email@example.com. firstname.lastname@example.org.