This Saturday marked fifty years since El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, better known as Malcolm X, was gunned down in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom. A few celebrations took place to remember his legacy, but the day garnered little attention. His daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz, worried aloud that history might forget him. I am not sure there is a substantive national memory in place that could be lost, unfortunately.
I want to offer a few informal thoughts on the man and why a white, Christian theologian-in-training finds him important enough to write about half a century after his assassination.
It is one thing to slip from historical memory, but it is another to be remembered wrongly. That is the fate of Malcolm X.
Since before I can recall, I have always loved Dr. King. You can guess how I felt about Malcolm, then, of whom my education led me to believe only one thing: he was not-King. The few moments he came up in school fed me the notion that there were two responses from black Americans during the civil rights era. On one side, there was constructive, loving, nonviolent, polite, civic engagement. King lived at this pole. Across the spectrum, however, was destructive, hateful, violent, arrogant racial agitation. Malcolm dwelt there, and his name accrued a sinister tone to it after seeing enough juxtapositions between the two in my state-sanctioned textbooks. Malcolm was not-King, we loved King, and that was that. He became a footnote in the neat little story American children are force-fed after they are too old to believe in dragons and unicorns.
Luckily, an unlikely actor intervened to shatter this new myth I had inherited. In high school I came across a reading list put together by Rage Against the Machine. It included names I had never heard before, like Joan Didion, Noam Chomsky, Emiliano Zapata, and Howard Zinn. If Zack de la Rocha’s band read books, I concluded, maybe there was something to it I had missed in the bland ritual of the classroom. Like Sartre’s Ogier P. in Nausea, I began making my way through the list and eventually happened upon the speeches of Malcolm X.
I remember a very strong feeling of being cheated, of being lied to. Why had I been implicitly taught this man was not important enough to pay attention to? His incisive logic and uncompromising assessments of the reality that was America in the 1960s carried more power than anything I had read before. He told white America that it would be either the ballot or the bullet. He told black America they didn’t have time to walk around singing “We Shall Overcome” with Dr. King. His attack on the philosophy of my favorite figure unnerved me, because I suspected he was on to something. He was too explosive to be a foil or a footnote any more. Why had schools made him one?
I turned to his autobiography, and even before getting through the introduction I found an answer to my question. “No man in our time aroused fear and hatred in the white man as did Malcolm,” it read, “because in him the white man sensed an implacable foe who could not be had for any price.” While King and friends reportedly censored John Lewis’ speech at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom for being too critical of the Kennedy administration, Malcolm refused to shy away from strong condemnations of Kennedy’s policies in the wake of the president’s assassination. Even Elijah Muhammad, leader of Malcolm’s Nation of Islam, was not willing to go so far. No wonder, then, that the educational wing of the same government he spent much of his life struggling against would muzzle his voice. As the introduction continued, referencing slavery’s history, “He attacked with a violence and anger that spoke for the ages of misery.”
And there is that word again, so often associated with Malcolm – violence. It pervades his image, despite his impeccably not-violent career. Years later, I raised this point in class and asked why they thought such a disconnect existed between his life and reputation. My students, mostly black, rejected the question and posed one back to me. Why, they wondered, are black Americans expected to be nonviolent at all? They had taken centuries of unspeakable abuse. Malcolm raised the possibility of violence against an oppressive government forcing a people into political, economic, and social subjugation. Don’t we celebrate George Washington for actually doing precisely what Malcolm talked about? Why enshrine the violent white man but condemn the not-violent black man as violent?
I told them it was a good question. They said they knew.
Malcolm’s “X” is the most densely compact condemnation possible.
In a conversation with NBC Chicago newscasters, he explained the letter. “The last name of my forefathers was taken from them when they were brought to America and made slaves. And then the name of the slavemaster was given which we refuse – we reject that name today.” An increasingly flustered interviewer pushed the point. “You mean you won’t even tell me what your father’s supposed last name was?” Malcolm replied. “I never acknowledge it whatsoever.”
Every time a newspaper printed his name to slander him, every time the FBI mentioned the information they had gathered from spying on him, and every time his name appears preceding misinformation in our schools’ history books, the symbol that refuses to erase the brutal history that stole humans and then robbed them of their very name resurfaces: “X.” Malcolm, like others in the Nation of Islam, would not dignify the massacre of African diaspora. It accuses, indicts, and reproaches.
But he changed names, and this is what I find most inspiring about the man who became El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. It’s not so much that he converted to a more mainstream version of Islam (Sunni), or started holding views closer to what I was raised to think acceptable, or that he stopped calling whites “devils.” (It seems a fitting word choice for a people who enslaved his ancestors, killed his father, stole his mother and put her in an insane asylum, burned his house as a child, told him he couldn’t be a lawyer, lynched his people, withheld the vote from him, imprisoned him, tapped his phones, and became violently indignant and murderous when confronted with their terrorism.) And it wasn’t that he stopped antagonizing Dr. King and started reaching out to him. A common narrative, that his integrity and moral stature are measured by the idea that he was “coming around to King” before he was killed, seems completely inadequate.
For all its faults, Manning Marable’s biography captures something about Malcolm with its subtitle, “A Life of Reinvention.” Malcolm had an admirable ability to listen deeply, to adjust, to change, to recognize when he was wrong, and to convert. He entered prison a petty criminal and came out an upright Muslim. He said of learning the humility to pray, “I had to force myself to bend my knees, and waves of shame and embarrassment would force me back up. For evil to bend its knees, admitting its guilt, to implore the forgiveness of God, is the hardest thing in the world.” In disgust at his inability to read or write well, he copied the entire dictionary to practice both. Those who have heard him intimidate others with the power of his words in debate may find this humble act astonishing.
I know of no stronger diligence than his search for God in prayer or more fervent zeal than what he put into studying the language to understand and express the plight of black Americans. He sharpened himself into a tool for faith and justice. Though he would later conclude he had misplaced his allegiance, the obedience with which he submitted to Elijah Muhammad contradicted my culture’s message that authentic individuality is everything. As someone who (verbally) professed a passion for faith and justice, his path of surrender challenged me. He stood as a testament, as one who took seriously the demands of moral outrage in a world preaching to me self-indulgence and fun. A black Muslim from a bygone age was reaching out through time to a white Christian, giving lessons on prayer, vigilance, and the very substance of life.
But Malcolm was not one to stagnate – to cease thinking, prodding, poking, observing, sniffing, inquiring, learning, or growing. He slowly came to recognize his prophet was more cult leader than saint. The walls felt close, he wanted more engagement with the racial struggle than he was allowed, he felt there was more truth to God and religion than he could find. And he therefore outgrew his welcome with the Nation of Islam. The details are too many to list, but he left for Africa and reinvented himself again.
“My life has always been one of changes,” he once wrote. The wider world he found in Africa, racially and religiously, would enact more than his final name-change. Reading his account of the trip to Mecca is one of the most beautiful passages I have encountered. When one Muslim asked him what most impressed him at the Hajj, he replied, “The brotherhood! The people of all races, colors, from all over the world coming together as one! It has proved to me the power of the one God.” After 345 pages of tragic treatment in America, I felt a small taste of the breakthrough he must have experienced. He wrote much of his reaction in a letter, part of which captures his humility that allows conversion:
“On this pilgrimage, what I have seen, and experienced, has forced me to re-arrange much of my thought-patterns previously held, and to toss aside some of my previous conclusions. This was not too difficult for me. Despite my firm convictions, I have been always a man who tries to face facts, and to accept the reality of life as new experience and new knowledge unfolds it. I have always kept an open mind, which is necessary to the flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of intelligent search for truth…During the past eleven days here in the Muslim world, I have eaten from the same plate, drunk from the same glass, and slept in the same bed (or on the same rug) – while praying to the same God – with fellow Muslims, whose eyes were the bluest of blue, whose hair was the blondest of blond, and whose skin was the whitest of white… We were truly all the same (brothers).”
Wendell Berry, writing shortly after 9/11, warned about the public media making a “caricature of our enemies.” To combat this inevitability, he advocated teaching in all schools the histories, languages, cultures, and arts of Muslim societies. He finally added that Americans “should have the humility and the wisdom to ask the reasons some of those people have for hating us.”
In light of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and their the pernicious race and religious issues surrounding a white, historically Christian nation invading nonwhite, largely Muslim nations, he is relevant as ever. Part of Dr. King’s institutional exaltation had to do with his Christian religion that was much more palatable to white America than Malcolm’s Islam. We continue to be plagued by a fear of Islam, highlighted by the rumors that President Obama is a Muslim and, it was implied, therefore unfit for office. Such episodes seem innocent to some but they pave the way for the obscene religious persecution, such as those taking place against the Muslim detainees in Guantanamo, where they were forced to worship idol shrines and the guards urinated and defecated on the Quran, among much else.
Malcolm, who himself is an example of Islam’s glory, has blazed a trail forward for this situation. He combated the caricature of Islam handed to him in prison. He had the humility to realize and admit his mistakes and change the entire locus around which his life revolved. He was far from perfect but so are we, along with the society we have crafted. His integrity resides in his reaction to his faults, which Americans, and America, would do well to learn from. In a moment as racially charged as ours, his life is a valuable resource.
“America needs to understand Islam,” he wrote. “If White Americans could accept the Oneness of God, then perhaps, too, they could accept in reality the Oneness of [People] – and cease to measure, and hinder, and harm others in terms of their ‘differences’ in color.”
Across racial and religious boundaries, Malcolm taught me as no one else that we are united as humans in God, that we share the same blood that spilled out of his body fifty years ago at the foot of his podium. He can no longer remain an antithesis, a not-King in our culture. Everyone, but especially whites and Christians in America, would do well to discover his positive content, his accusatory “X.” Much depends on us attending to his unsettling witness.
Eric Martin is a doctoral student in historical theology at Fordham University in New York.