February 21 marks the 51st anniversary of the martyrdom of El Haj Malik el-Shabazz, better known as Macolm X. Born Malcolm Little, he adopted the letter 'X' after his name to signify rejection of the name imposed on him by the white supremacist establishment. His was a life of struggle, sacrifice and ultimately triumph through martyrdom. We reproduce this article first published in Crescent International on March 1, 2015 to honor him.
Sunday February 21, 2016, 08:39 EST
If there is anonymity in sacrifice, it should be obvious that there is immortality in sincerity. The life of Malcolm X provides us with a study in the resilience of the human spirit and the boundlessness of its promise and potential.
Malcolm X was arguably the greatest African American who ever lived. He was cut down by assassins of the Black Muslim movement in New York City exactly 51 years ago today (martyred on February 21, 1965).
And in the study of no contemporary life is the manifest evil of the racist argument so plain to see; and how its temporary triumph has deprived the world of both the life and contributions of one of its greatest sons-unnecessarily made controversial and misunderstood by a society that probably didn’t deserve him.
At school, Malcolm was the captain and the best student in his eighth grade class—and he was its chief debater and chatterbox. So, when the career guidance counsellor arrived at the all-white school, Malcolm X [then known as Malcolm Little], the only black student in the school and the only one who wanted to become a lawyer, thought he had it all wrapped up.
Students of lesser intelligence and aptitude had their choice of careers—doctors, engineers, scientists and teachers—approved by the counsellor. But when it came to Malcolm’s turn, the counsellor repeated this question for the third time: “So, what did you say you wanted to become?”
Malcolm calmly said, “Lawyer.”
“Come on, let’s be realistic Malcolm, why not a carpenter?”
The insult was obvious enough: the best student couldn’t become what he wanted because of the colour of his skin.
And at this, Malcolm rose and, with left foot following right, left school never to return. On the way home, he seemed to have vowed to oppose this unjust system in every way he could.
From school, he graduated into the world of organized crime and by his own admission, with the exception of murder, he had committed every dastardly crime in the book. He had sunk to what his protégé Hakim Jamal called the dead level.
And from dead level the obvious destination was prison. That was where Malcolm, after conviction, went. But his trip from school to prison was indeed the other way round, because, while school happened to have been prison for him, prison turned out to be a school for him.
Malcolm retired to the prison library and locked himself up among books; but after some time he was forced to abandon the attempt, because it proved impossible for him to read profitably with his limited vocabulary.
But so great was his motivation that instead of being discouraged his resolve became even stronger. He decided to enlarge his vocabulary and he adopted an unprecedented step.
He dropped everything and decided to memorize the dictionary, after which he resumed his quest for knowledge by reading everything he could in that library for his remaining six and a half years of incarceration. He became a self-taught scholar, the prototypical street intellectual—jack of all trades as well as the master of them all.
Through all this, Malcolm proved resilient enough to plan how to pick up the pieces of his broken family and scattered world—father killed by white supremacist Ku Klux Klan (KKK), mother placed in a mental institution and siblings scattered in adoptive homes.
As a recent commentator said of him, “At the age of 21, he was a middle school dropout and prison inmate who ‘didn’t know a verb from a house’. Three months shy of his 40th birthday, he was an international media presence, a voracious reader, tough debater (Howitzer-like) and a leading proponent of Black Nationalism.”
Also while in prison he was introduced to the preaching of the Black Muslims led by Elijah Muhammad. That obviously didn’t introduce him to real Islam, but it gave him the tools and the philosophy with which he was able to embark on the road to self-discovery, a journey that gave him the self-confidence he needed to confront and vanquish a hostile world.
This was to finally lead him to also discover Islamic orthodoxy.
But even before then, the Black Muslims’ Nation of Islam would spawn the most uncompromising aspect of the American civil rights struggle; and it would prove that even a debased form of the religion was capable of producing and supporting a force for liberation.
Malcolm would rise to the leadership of this group and, on its platform, become the greatest orator of the entire American scene.
Perhaps during his time, Malcolm was arguably the greatest public speaker in the world. At least he was on record as the most sought-after speaker in the United States, both for what he said and how he said it.
Compared to Malcolm, Barack Obama might qualify as an honored student of elocution at the feet of the master for there is no doubt that Malcolm was a better speaker, with greater oratorical skills and unmatchable spell-binding eloquence.
He combined eloquence with wit and it was impossible to catch Malcolm off-guard under any circumstance. Once, when asked whether in his struggle to free black people from the American nightmare, he could accept help from Communists, an act that in those days almost amounted to an unpatriotic crime, he instantly resorted to parables.
“Let me tell you a little story. It’s like being in a wolf’s den. The wolf sees someone on the outside who is interested in freeing me from the den. The wolf doesn’t like that person on the outside, but I don’t care who opens the door and lets me out.”
“Then your answer is yes?” he was asked.
“No, I’m talking about a wolf,” he answered.
He said he studied white society as it was on the street and it was with street morality that he always approached it.
While the Big Six of the American civil rights struggle—Martin Luther King, Jr., James Farmer, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young and John Lewis—were establishment persons and might have been used to regulate, or, to use Malcolm’s favorite word, integrate aspects of the struggle, Malcolm represented the independent and anti-Establishment branch.
Without doubt, Malcolm was the sincerest and most respected of all the civil rights leaders. He was once described in his presence as the only Negro leader who could start a riot or be able to stop one.
Asked whether he agreed with this assessment, Malcolm, with his characteristic humor and wit, gave a response so pregnant with meaning. He said, “I don’t know whether I can start a riot; and I don’t know whether I would want to stop one.”
And in the light of America’s violent and bloody interventions around the world, Malcolm offered a long, scathing and trenchant putdown of the philosophy of non-violent resistance championed by Martin Luther King, Jr.
“As long as the white man sent you to Korea, you bled. He sent you to Germany, you bled. He sent you to the South Pacific to fight the Japanese, you bled. You bleed for white people, but when it comes to seeing your own churches being bombed and little black girls murdered, you haven’t got no blood. You bleed when the white man says ‘bleed;’ you bite when the white man says ‘bite;’ and you bark when the white man says ‘bark.’
“I hate to say this about us, but it’s true. How you go be nonviolent in Mississippi, as violent as you were in Korea? How can you justify being nonviolent in Mississippi and Alabama, when your churches are being bombed, and your little girls are being murdered, and at the same time you go and get violent with Hitler, and Tojo, and somebody else you don’t even know?
“If violence is wrong in America, violence is wrong abroad. If it is wrong to be violent defending black women and black children and black babies and black men, then it is wrong for America to draft us and make us violent abroad in defence of her. And if you feel it is right for America to draft us, and teach us how to be violent in defence of her, then it is right for you and me to do whatever is necessary to defend our own people right here in this country.
“There is nothing in our book, the Qur’an, or, as you call it, the Ko-ran, that teaches us to suffer peacefully. Our religion teaches us to be intelligent, be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery. That’s a good religion. That’s an all-time religion. And then... anybody... no one resents that kind of religion being taught but a wolf who intends to make you his meal.”
And at exactly 3:30 pm on Sunday February 21, 1965, they—the FBI, the CIA and the Black Muslim finger that pulled the trigger—finally made him their meal.
He fell martyr to the great eternal cause for the fight for justice for others, in self-defence and in defence of his inalienable right to self-expression and courageous refusal to be silenced, a refusal that proved fatal. And his final claim, contained in what must now be regarded as his epitaph, was modest.
For him, it was a fate foretold and he seemed to have got himself ready.
“It is a time for martyrs now, and if I am to be one, it will be for the cause of brotherhood. That’s the only thing that can save this country.”
It was as if he was finally now being entertained by his own mortality; and he added: “I know that societies often have killed the people who have helped to change those societies. And if I can die having brought any light, having exposed any meaningful truth that will help to destroy the racist cancer that is malignant in the body of America, then all of the credit is due to Allah,” he said.
“Only the mistakes are mine.”