Saturday will mark a half-century since the untimely death of one of the most important intellectuals, organizers and revolutionaries that black America has ever produced. And on the 50th anniversary of his assassination, Malcolm X remains as relevant to our times as he was in his.
We still don’t know all the details surrounding Malcolm’s shooting death at New York City’s Audubon Ballroom while he was speaking at an Organization of Afro-American Unity rally. Calls for the federal government to release previously classified information will eventually shed important and much-needed light on mysteries that still surround his death.
We do, however, have spectacular documentary and archival evidence of how Malcolm lived, and it is his life, more than his death, that speaks to this contemporary generation.
Malcolm understood perhaps better than anyone else of his generation that black lives not only mattered but were capable of triggering global, political revolutions that could reverberate from Haiti to Harlem and from New Orleans to Nigeria.
His most potent attributes were political integrity and personal sincerity that allowed him to speak truth to power with a moral force and candor that galvanized the most radical sectors in the black community and, over time, became part of the African-American mainstream.
African Americans were Negroes before Malcolm literally and figuratively shook up the entire community with bone-rattling lectures on black history, racism and the possibility of self-determination that won people over in ever-increasing numbers.
His political relevance reverberated in the 1990s, boosted by hip-hop group Public Enemy’s lyrical identification with the black power icon, Spike Lee’s seminal Malcolm X biopic and the Los Angeles uprising after the Rodney King verdict.
In the era of Ferguson, Mo., and #BlackLivesMatter, Malcolm speaks to a new generation of anti-racist and civil rights activists. And while the corporate reinvention of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and image has turned him into a placid icon—that even the political right is able to embrace—Malcolm’s radicalism is not so easily sanitized.
Although both men were political revolutionaries, Malcolm’s bold rhetorical assaults on white supremacy, institutional racism and black political moderation made him the most uncompromising political leader of 1960s-era social movements. And Malcolm’s immediate legacy could be seen in the political activism of black power leader Stokely Carmichael, the Black Panthers and a host of international revolutionaries who publicly proclaimed kinship with his legacy.
That legacy included a radical critique of American democracy, what Malcolm called nothing more than “hypocrisy.” Malcolm’s personal experiences—years spent in the bowels of America’s prison system, toiling in a furniture factory and working as a Pullman car porter—made him uniquely attuned to the institutional racism that infected not just the criminal-justice system but also the nation’s systemic inequalities.
Yet Malcolm could also be pragmatic, negotiating a delicate peace with other civil rights activists that included a visit to Selma, Ala., where he met with Coretta Scott King less than three weeks before he was killed.
Perhaps the biggest absence in our contemporary civil rights landscape is the absence of the radical social-justice vision that Malcolm X embodied. In an era when Martin Luther King Jr. dominated headlines as a Nobel Peace Prize winner with access to presidents and power brokers, Malcolm offered an alternative narrative of black liberation in America and abroad.
Just as the massive protests unleashed in Ferguson’s wake have raised global political consciousness, Malcolm’s political activism, which included three trips to Africa, reordered the political imagination of revolutionaries around the world, black activists in the United States, and a multiracial cast of allies and supporters.
During his last year on earth, Malcolm broke with the Nation of Islam and became an independent political revolutionary, one who advocated a “human rights” movement capable of braiding disparate global struggles into a united front capable of defeating racism, militarism and imperialism.
Fifty years after his death, the struggle for black liberation continues with nationwide protests that recall the tumultuous 1960s, when Malcolm’s message of uncompromising struggle frightened white and black political leaders alike. Today’s rising activists, who boldly demand an end to racial and economic injustice beyond token political reforms, are channeling the best part of Malcolm’s legacy—one that, even in the face of death, cries out for justice by any means necessary.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. 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 Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.