– E.D. Mondaine; President, NAACP Portland / May, 19th 2018
It must have been a very sad and difficult day for those who insisted on believing the world was flat to discover that the world is indeed round. But round it is, and this radical paradigm shift reminds us that throughout history the illusions of human culture must at times give way to proper alignment with the demands of the real world.
The legacy of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X) represents one such shift, and today his legacy is more relevant than ever. Because like the discovery of our spherical Earth, his life and his work represented a movement away from the tired and unjust distortions of human ideology and toward a restorative relationship with the truth that sets all people free. This can be summed up in the three critical components that Malcolm X believed would strengthen and fortify the African American community. They were:
- The need for Blacks to become educated,
- The rights of Blacks to defend themselves, and
- The urgent requirement of economic development in the Black community.
In his critically acclaimed autobiography, Malcolm X recites his own journey to these positions. He reflects on his life and the lives of his various personas (like “Detroit Red,” and “Hustler”) recounting how he dated White women, lied, cheated and became a drug-selling brawler, all to remove himself from the pains of poverty he had experienced as a child. Climbing from the pit of oppression, Malcolm X eventually converted to Islam while serving time in prison for burglary. Upon his release from prison in the 1950s he became a steadfast disciple of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, and overtime he became a bitter taste in the mouth of White America, unleashing unabashed criticism of classism and White supremacy.
Naturally this gave momentum to a White backlash already moving against Martin Luther King’s gentler and less radical criticisms of American public life. Adding insult to injury, Malcolm X’s polished, pearlized echoes of The Honorable Elijah Mohamed’s “blue-eyed devil dog” (the Myth of Yacob’s portrayal of White people) and his frequent insistence that Black communities had to be protected “by any means necessary,” marked him as a threat to White society. Soon the name “Malcolm X” represented a rebel force that White nationalists feared as an imminent danger to the United States.
But Malcolm X’s thinking continued to evolve. In 1964, he began to question the Nation of Islam’s leader. Unearthing the truth of Muhammed’s improprieties, and pushing back against what he saw as a flawed ideology, eventually he parted ways with the Nation of Islam. This break led him to a pilgrimage in Mecca – a requirement of all Muslims who are physically able – after which Malcolm X rejected the racially divisive teachings of the Nation of Islam. In a letter written at the time, he said that seeing Muslims of “all colors, from blue-eyed blondes to black-skinned Africans,” helped him to see the Islamic faith as a way in which racial problems could be reconciled. But it also helped him distill the critical components listed above, and this refined focus, and his dedicated example, became his great gift to American history.
Malcolm X spent the rest of his life trying to build a new organization, all the while being harassed by serious and credible death-threats. Ultimately, on February 21st, 1965, at the beginning of an Organization of Afro-American Unity meeting in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom, Malcolm X was gunned down by assassins affiliated with the Nation of Islam. Later, in eulogizing Malcolm X, the great African American thespian Ossie Davis dubbed Malcolm X, “A prince … our own Black, shining prince, who didn’t hesitate to die because he loved us all.” But I am even more moved by Malcolm’s own words in the conclusion of his autobiography: “If I can die having brought any light, having exposed any meaningful truth that will help destroy the racist cancer that is malignant in the body of America, then all of the credit is due to Allah. Only the mistakes have been mine.”
This is why we celebrate Malcolm X. He reframed the work of empowering marginalized communities not just as a dream, but as an immanent reality that must be lived into in the here and now. Today our survival depends on seeing the world in its three-dimensional, rounded, and fully realized existence – understanding that we are all of us the same distance from its luminous center. In the name of righteousness, now is the time we must walk the unbroken circle that binds us together. Joining our commitment as we join hands around this miraculous, shared, and collective globe.