On Feb. 21, 1965, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz was assassinated by three members of the Nation of Islam (NOI) at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan.
At the funeral, the actor Ossie Davis spoke of the significance of El-Shabazz — known as Malcolm X during his tenure with the NOI: “There are those who will consider it their duty, as friends of the Negro people, to tell us to revile him, to flee, even from the presence of his memory, to save ourselves by writing him out of the history of our turbulent times. Many will ask what Harlem finds to honor in this stormy, controversial and bold young captain — and we will smile.”
“Many will say turn away — away from this man, for he is not a man but a demon, a monster, a subverter and an enemy of the black man — and we will smile. They will say that he is of hate — a fanatic, a racist — who can only bring evil to the cause for which you struggle! And we will answer and say to them: Did you ever talk to Brother Malcolm? Did you ever touch him, or have him smile at you? Did you ever really listen to him? Did he ever do a mean thing? Was he ever himself associated with violence or any public disturbance? For if you did you would know him. And if you knew him you would know why we must honor him.”
Last Monday, Malcolm’s daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz, spoke about her father’s legacy at North Michigan University. As Shabazz spoke of her father’s message — “They [the children] should be inclusive of the past that African-Americans laid the foundation for this country. That African-Americans laid the foundation for many countries” — the second speaker, Ta-Nehisis Coates, spoke of what the man meant to her. Ta-Nehisis spoke of looking up to the slain leader, of being inspired to want to make a difference.
“The times have changed, right? The time has changed. No longer is it enough for me to be a credit to me. I have to be a credit to my country, too, right? I’m a part of a bigger community and the same is true for you guys. You are a part of something bigger, it’s not enough, you have to be a credit to your country,” Coates said.
Many agree with her.
Malcolm X’s posture of actuating African-Americans’ human rights — ”We declare our right on this earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary” — gave weight to the White community to the idea that Malcolm favored open rebellion. In reality, Brother Malcolm — as he was called — favored Black self-reliance.
Malcolm’s early philosophy reflected the NOI, as he was the NOI’s principal minister and spokesperson prior to his falling out with Elijah Muhammad — the NOI’s leader at the time. As such, he preached of Black superiority and the need of the race to segregate itself completely from White society.
However, after his split with the NOI after being censured for openly mocking President Kennedy’s assassination and after Elijah Muhammad’s naming Cassius Clay “Muhammad Ali” outside of the organization’s established policies — he moved toward the defense of human rights, instead of civil rights.
After his hajj — or pilgrimage to Mecca — El-Shabazz softened his posture on race, seeking equal positioning with people of all races. In a conversation with activist Gordon Parks — two days before his assassination — El-Shabazz said, “Brother, remember the time that white college girl came into the restaurant — the one who wanted to help the [Black] Muslims and the whites get together — and I told her there wasn’t a ghost of a chance and she went away crying? Well, I’ve lived to regret that incident. In many parts of the African continent I saw white students helping black people. Something like this kills a lot of argument. I did many things as a [Black] Muslim that I’m sorry for now. I was a zombie then — like all [Black] Muslims — I was hypnotized, pointed in a certain direction and told to march. Well, I guess a man’s entitled to make a fool of himself if he’s ready to pay the cost. It cost me 12 years.”
Brother Malcolm’s life is part legend and part warning. He spoke of the passions of his time and became the defiant, saber-rattling symbol of resistance against a system that was blatantly wrong. He infused his people with pride in their race and he showed that it was okay to stand for what you believed in. But, so much of his life was devoted to hate and distrust. It’s in this that his legacy is the greatest.
He showed the world that it is never too late to make good for past ills. He showed the world that love is stronger than hate. This is why, despite the New York Times writing that Malcolm was “an extraordinary and twisted man” who “turn[ed] many true gifts to evil purpose” and that his life was “strangely and pitifully wasted,” Harlem and communities all across the nation celebrate his birthday every May 19. This is why Nelson Mandela, Al Sharpton and many others count Malcolm as one of their heroes. This is why politicians of all persuasions and beliefs are quick to claim his legacy today.