Today is Malcolm X’s birthday. Had he avoided assassination in 1965 (along with the perils and snares of the CIA and FBI) he would have been 97 today.
History is an interesting phenomenon because the truth turns out to be a shape shifter over time. Indeed, history has always depended on who is telling the story.
In the case of Malcolm X, it is difficult to overstate the impact that he had on Black America and white America during his meteoric rise to fame and prominence and after his tragic assassination (which has yet to be fully solved to this very day). Malcolm X spoke the words that Black men and women had wanted to say out loud for over three centuries.
He stripped away the gossamer web of lies that had been draped over pretensions of white superiority and the myth of an America as a shining example of freedom, liberty and all that was good. And in the process of doing so he gave a voice to the long-silenced voices of Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey and all of the men and women who had their lives mangled in the charnel house called America.
Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey spoke truth to power, but typically their voices were moderated and modulated. They spoke truth to power but took care not to offend too much by telling too much truth.
Malcolm X’s illustrious contemporary, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke in biblical terms. Indeed, by referencing the Bible King made clear the grievous sins of America in its treatment of Black people. Malcolm, on the hand, cared not about offending with the truth. He spoke the words that Black men and women could not because their lives would be endangered if they even whispered them.
Malcolm made it clear that the rage and tears of Black America were justified by the facts of history – not made up self-congratulatory history – but the history of the slave ships and the enslavement camps and the raping and killing by the enslavers and the lynching and the daily infinite indignities of Jim Crow.
And from the moment that he started telling that truth, not just on 125th Street or in a mosque in Detroit or Chicago, his life was in jeopardy. His life was in jeopardy because he was a Black man in America speaking Black truth to white power.
By the time of his death, Malcolm X had changed Black America forever and, in the process, he changed white America as well. By telling the truth about America and its treatment of Black people, it was impossible for anyone to erase that truth, no matter how hard that they might try – and indeed as you are reading this there are state legislatures and school boards all across this country trying to do just that, 57 years after the death of Malcolm X.
But they will not succeed.
Indeed, we would do well to take a moment to acknowledge the life of a man who did indeed bring about much needed change in this country knowing that there is still more change to come.
As the late Sam Cooke said – “a change is going to come”.