February 21, 2015 will mark the 50th anniversary of the death of Malcolm X. This means that more than half of all Americans were not even alive on that day, and an even larger number of Americans have no real time memory of the man whose name now adorns schools, street signs and countless birth certificates. Historians and biographers will debate the details of his life, as is the case for the narratives of all great lives. But it is also important to know and understand what Malcolm X meant in real time.
It is important to know that during his ascendancy onto the national stage in the latter part of the 1950’s until his assassination in 1965, Malcolm X lived and spoke truth to power at a time when a black person could be killed for defending his life or his wife. But it was also a time when a black person could be denied a job or fired because that black person could not abide by casual slurs, incidental degradation or careless bigotry.
Malcolm X gave a voice to a people who saw their brothers hung from trees while their killers walked the streets with arrogant impunity. He wove into his rhetoric the frustration of mothers and fathers who knew that at birth their daughters and sons would never drink from the fountain of unbounded opportunities and that instead they would have to be satisfied with a few drops of beneficence foully tainted with condescension.
Because he presumed and preached that black Americans were endowed with, and entitled to, all the pride and glory of manhood and womanhood to which they were entitled by the Creator, he was branded a radical. That he demanded this pride and glory caused many to term him dangerous. And it was not only white Americans that branded him a dangerous radical. Many black Americans joined in the chorus of caution and denial, afraid of what real freedom for black people might mean in white America.
For the white Americans who bathed in the polluted pool of fear and prejudice, they were afraid that by achieving opportunity black Americans would take opportunities away from them, opportunities that were theirs simply because of the hue of their skin. For black Americans who also wallowed in this pool the fear was plain and simple – if black Americans achieved real freedom their role as intermediaries, interlocutors, translators, conciliators and bridge builders between the white bastion and the blacks on the other side of the walls would evaporate because the gates would be open.
Even a casual student of history knows that in looking back we find ourselves looking through the prism of whomever is holding the looking glass. And so some may be surprised to learn that although Malcolm X preached self-defense he was passionate in his calling for an end to crime in the black community and he simply never called for or led an attack on white Americans.
Some may be surprised to learn that while Malcolm X did indeed preach the virulent anti-white rhetoric of the Nation of Islam for a number of years, he did evolve into a man who understood that definitions of good and evil transcended race and color. And he evolved into a secure black man who could and did embrace anyone who advocated and believed in justice.
Everyone appropriates historical figures for their own purpose. This is why the radical side of Martin Luther King is conveniently forgotten and erased from the common memory bank. It is also why the passion for justice that fueled the shooting star that was Malcolm X is also a footnote instead of the headline.
Malcolm X believed in justice and spoke out against injustice when black Americans felt the cold breath of racism in the North and the South and the East and the West. He called for justice when that call was inconvenient for many to hear. And when he died the New York Times opined that he was an “extremist” who spoke with “bitter eloquence against what he considered to be the white exploitation of Negroes”.
Perhaps what the writers at the Times didn’t understand is that Malcolm X was not bitter nor was he an extremist. His message was bitter for the exploiters to hear and he was only extreme to those who thought that full justice and real freedom for black Americans were extreme notions.
Fifty years later we can only wonder how far we have really come since February 21, 2015.