As the #BlackLivesMatter movement continues to grow in strength like the perfect storm, the prescient words of Malcolm X (El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz) slice with laser-sharp precision through the rhetoric of politicians and pundits alike as if he still walked among us.
He was born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925, in Omaha, Neb., and he would have been 90 years old today. We don’t know how long he would have lived had he not been assassinated 50 years ago on Feb. 21, 1965, on the stage of the Audubon Ballroom at Broadway and West 165th Street in New York City. We just know that he was taken from us far too soon. Still, his intense, bespectacled gaze, forefinger resting against his face, remains the prevailing emblem of black rage and resistance. That his legacy has reverberated for decades without the stamp of approval from the U.S. government, without being taught in schools or quoted in Christian churches on Sunday mornings, speaks to the sheer magnitude of the man and the undeniable truth in his message.
Malcolm didn’t tiptoe around diagnosing the illness of white supremacy or pointing out its symptoms in the form of religious terrorism and police brutality. He boldly declared that systemic racism is not baseless conjecture; rather, it is a deeply embedded statement of fact that provides the framework for the United States of America.
Malcolm X loved black people and hated white racism. Today, as dead black bodies continue to fall in U.S. streets from Ohio to New York, a booming prison-industrial complex continues to scour street corners for prey and a corrupt political system continues to placate black citizens with a blurry carbon copy of equality, his words in a 1964 letter to the Egyptian Gazette still ring true:
We can never get civil rights in America until our human rights are first restored. We will never be recognized as citizens there until we are first recognized as humans. … The American “system” (political, economic and social) was produced from the enslavement of the black man, and this present “system” is capable only of perpetuating that enslavement.
It is often said that revolution is for the young; this was true of Malcolm. Though he looms larger than life, he was 27 years old when he began preaching at Muhammad’s Temple No. 7 in Harlem and only 39 years old when at least seven bullets left him gasping for his final breaths mere moments after greeting a crowd with “As-Salaam-Alaikum.”
Peace be unto you.
And when he said peace, he also meant freedom because he taught us that there is no way to be at peace without it.
In his riveting and iconic eulogy, activist and actor Ossie Davis declared Malcolm to be our “shining black prince.” What is less often quoted is that Davis also said that Harlem’s black community—“beleaguered, unfortunate, but nonetheless proud”—had never had a “braver, more gallant, young champion” than Malcolm X. And it is that same bravery that propels a movement from city to city today.
Many of us know the myth and the legend of Malcolm X. Here, The Root takes a look at the young man in action, putting on for his city and for his people, in these rarely seen clips.