In death, Malcolm became larger than he had been in life. Black radicals embraced him as the revolutionary avatar of black liberation in America and around the world. His posthumously published autobiography became a best-seller, and his legacy inspired numerous books, a U.S. postage stamp, a major motion picture and a Malcolm X revival during the early 1990s.
In 2014 Malcolm X matters now more than ever. His political integrity and personal sincerity set a high bar for all future black leaders. His identification with, and love for, the black working class set an enduring standard. Malcolm didn’t just love black people—he respected them enough to challenge them, offering stinging criticism in some instances and gentle prodding in others.
His wide grin, handsome face and fierce intelligence made him the most powerful speaker, leader and prophet that has ever come from what Ralph Ellison called “the lower frequencies” of black America. Malcolm’s transformation from prisoner to activist reminds us that America’s jails have been utilized by African Americans as sites of political struggle and intellectual achievement.
Finally, Malcolm’s ability to boldly speak truth to power, no matter the costs and consequences, reminds us that we can afford to do no less at this critical, historic juncture.
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, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and the newly released Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.