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 structural whiteness. 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.
1. Malcolm X “City Desk” interview, March 17, 1963:
Here’s Malcolm X on slavery stealing black identity as well as the enrollment of James Meredith into the University of Mississippi: “It’s a farce; it’s hypocrisy. Because if it’s right for one Negro to be forced into that university then every Negro in the state of Mississippi who is qualified has the same right to go to that university. And if the government is not ready and willing to enforce the right of every Negro in the state of Mississippi, then it’s only hypocrisy to pretend they are for justice by pushing one Negro in and blowing it up all over the world to make it look like they’re solving the problem when millions of black people in that state are going to segregated schools and getting an inferior education.”
2. Malcolm X during an undated ABC interview on the importance of being black:
“The word ‘Negro’ is a term that was made up by the white man himself during slavery. No right-thinking black man in America will accept it as a term to apply to himself. If the white man, no matter how dark he gets, still regards himself as a white man, then our people, no matter how light we get, still regard ourselves as black people. If it’s good enough for them to be white, then it’s better for us to be black.”
3. Malcolm X speaks in Los Angeles on May 5, 1962, at the memorial service for Ronald Stokes, an NOI member killed by the Los Angeles Police Department:
“[Black people] should shock the white man by working together in unity. Despite religious, political, economic, or educational or social differences. Let us remember that we’re not brutalized because we’re Baptist. We’re not brutalized because we’re Methodist. We’re not brutalized because we’re Muslims. We’re not brutalized because we’re Catholic. We’re brutalized because we’re black people in America.”
This speech is also when Malcolm asked the powerful, rhetorical question: “Who taught you to hate yourself?”
4. Malcolm X debates civil rights leader and March on Washington architect Bayard Rustin on the need for self-determination for black America:
“Today the black man, according to the government economist, has spending power of $20 billion per year. We feel that with the black man spending $20 billion per year, not creating any businesses, not creating any industry, not creating any job opportunities for his own kind, he’s not in a moral position to point the finger at the white man and say that he’s discriminating against him for not giving him a job in factories that he himself set up. If the black man has $20 billion and these so-called Negroes are such geniuses that they can integrate white restaurants and white factories and force themselves into that which the white man has set up, they should use that same ingenuity to show the black people how to pool our wealth and set up something of our own.”
In response to Rustin’s criticism of the NOI for organizing in the streets of Harlem, Malcolm responded, “You can reach more people in the street who want to change than you can in the bourgeoisie society, the bourgeoisie church and the bourgeoisie circles.”
5. Malcolm X on voting:
“I wouldn’t suggest that they vote for any party or either party. I would suggest that the so-called Negroes become politically mature, realize the power that they hold in the field of politics. Once the person realizes that the Negro is awakened to the power that he holds, then that person will approach that Negro on a more intelligent plane. As it is right now, most of the Negro leaders sell out to the white politicians for crumbs, and a political awakening among Negroes will make it impossible for the present Negro leaders to sell our people out as they’ve been doing in the past.”