Malcolm X Was More Than MLK’s Alter Ego

Forty-nine years after his assassination, remember the real Malcolm X.

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By 1964, after leaving the NOI in a bitter internal dispute over the group’s future direction, Malcolm became an independent political activist. During his last year he spent months in Africa and the Middle East, converting to Orthodox Sunni Islam and taking the name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz and crafting alliances with former political adversaries. He founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity with hopes of launching a global united front to advocate for what he now called a human rights movement, even while the mistreatment of black Americans living in the U.S. remained at the forefront of his mind.

Federal surveillance and death threats from the NOI shadowed Malcolm’s last frenetic year alive. Malcolm’s unwavering commitment to a black political revolution carried a high cost, including the firebombing of his home.

Malcolm’s journey came to an untimely end on Feb. 21, 1965, at the Audubon Ballroom in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City, as he prepared to speak at a political meeting.

Malcolm died, in the end, how he lived: working, teaching and inspiring ordinary black people.

But Malcolm X was more than just a prophet of black rage who galvanized African Americans to reject the political and racial status quo of the 1960s. He was, in fact, an organizer, intellectual and activist whose personal biography mirrored the black community’s pain, tragedy and triumphs. Most importantly, he dared to speak truth to power by offering a revolutionary vision of a new American and global society and, through his own activism, attempted to turn this dream into reality.

Almost a half-century since his assassination, Malcolm’s unapologetic insistence on black liberation, human rights and dignity still resonates around the world.

Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is also the Caperton fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America and Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama. His biography of Stokely Carmichael, Stokely: A Life, is due out in March. Follow him on Twitter.

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