The 46th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X, passed unnoticed by the mainstream press.
Growing up in Lansing, Michigan, in the late 1930s, Malcolm Little was a highly verbal, bright middle-schooler. He was elected president of his class and set his sights on becoming a lawyer. But his teacher called becoming a lawyer “unrealistic for a nigger.” Malcolm soon dropped out of school and into a string of low-road experiences, including prison.
When he got out, Malcolm dropped the name “Little,” describing it as “a white slavemaster’s name” imposed on his ancestors. He adopted a one-letter surname, X, to symbolize his ancestors’ unknown African family name.
The name change was symbolic of a deeper transformation. In prison, Malcolm X had a mentor who encouraged him to educate himself. He read voraciously, cleaned up his act, and joined the Nation of Islam, which demanded that he atone for his crimes. He got clean and sober; built a disciplined, prayerful life; and became a highly effective minister.
On the strength of his intellectual and rhetorical gifts, Malcolm rose to national prominence. This evoked jealousy and resentment from the leadership of the Nation of Islam, aggravated by Malcolm’s refusal to keep quiet about the sexual misconduct of its autocratic leader. In 1964, citing the rigidity of its teachings and its prohibitions against cooperation with other civil rights leaders, Malcolm left the Nation amid threats of retaliatory violence.
He then made a Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, where he encountered pilgrims of many ethnic backgrounds interacting with mutual respect. He returned to the United States a changed person with a tremendous sense of optimism about racial harmony.
Meanwhile, the threats against Malcolm intensified. On February 21, 1965—46 years ago yesterday—while he was giving a speech at the Audubon Ballroom near Harlem, Malcolm was assassinated by members of the Nation of Islam. He was 39.
More than any other highly visible leader, Malcolm X built a ministry of liberation on two fundamental truths: that human identity is formed in and by community, and that the community called white America has a long history of being toxic to African-American identity.
Malcolm’s objective was the “decolonization of the black mind.” He was about that work when he said the following in a speech to a white audience on February 16, 1965, just five days before he was assassinated:
Because [whites] were so successful in projecting [a] negative image of Africa, those of us here in the West of African ancestry, the Afro-Americans, we looked upon Africa as a hateful place. We looked upon the African as a hateful person … And what was the result? [Whites] ended up with 22 million Black people here in America who hated everything about us that was African. We hated the African characteristics … When you teach a man to hate his lips, the lips that God gave him, the shape of the nose that God gave him, the texture of the hair that God gave him, the color of the skin that God gave him, you’ve committed the worst crime that a race of people can commit. And this is the crime that you’ve committed.
The damage to black self-esteem inflicted by slavery and Jim Crow was studied by two social psychologists, Kenneth and Mamie Clark, in the 1940s. They performed what became famous as “the doll experiments.” Handed a white doll and a black doll and asked various questions about them, black children consistently attributed positive qualities to the white doll and negative ones to the black doll.
Malcolm gave his people a very different story about themselves—one they never heard from white America and seldom heard from most of the leaders in their own communities, including, glaringly, their ministers. It was heroic and ennobling—oxygen for their self-esteem, which had been the target of degrading, destructive storytelling by white America for centuries.
The implications of Malcolm’s realizations for his social and political strategies has been well captured by James Cone, a leading theologian at Union Theological Seminary in New York:
If blacks were going to achieve the unity necessary for the attainment of their freedom, then self-hate—according to Malcolm the number one problem in the black community—had to be replaced with a love of themselves. … In Malcolm’s perspective, black people should not even think about uniting with or loving any other people until they first learn how to come together with love and respect for each other.”
Malcolm insisted on being a black marble in a jar of white marbles, instead of a black drop in a can of white paint. He knew that “assimilation” was a euphemism for death.
Malcolm was a role model for African-American men. He overcame a childhood devastated by racial violence, left behind the self-hatred that made him “conk” (straighten) his hair to look more white, and cultivated personal dignity and self-respect. He decolonized his own mind and then set about leading his people down the same path. The likes of him has not been seen since. As Spike Lee has said, “Young black men today need role models, and it’s a shame we have to dig up a dead man instead of finding someone who walks among us.”
In his eulogy at Malcolm’s funeral, the African-American actor Ossie Davis described this heroism in soaring terms:
He was our shining black prince, our manhood. … There are those who will consider it their duty, as friends of the Negro people, to tell us to revile him, to flee, even from the presence of his memory, to save ourselves by writing him out of the history of our turbulent times. … And we will answer and say to them: Did you ever talk to Brother Malcolm? Did you ever touch him, or have him smile at you? Did you ever really listen to him? Did he ever do a mean thing? Was he ever himself associated with violence or any public disturbance? For if you did you would know him. And if you knew him you would know why we must honor him.
Malcolm X was a herald of inconvenient truths that persist to this day. The low rate of wealth accumulation among black people continues to reflect the effects of chattel slavery and Jim Crow. The reach of civil rights legislation has been prospective only. America walked off the job with the dismantling of racism only half done.
With respect to land, labor, and government programs designed to foster wealth accumulation, black people were stolen from, cheated, and excluded outright. They were barred from land grant programs for settlers migrating westward. Social Security excluded the only categories of employment available to most black people. The G.I. bill was administered so as to minimize the benefit of it for black veterans. In many areas, redlining by banks and insurance companies locked blacks out of opportunities for home ownership—a critical building block of wealth accumulation.
From generation to generation, whites have handed down wealth accumulated by the commission of these injustices. Today the average African-American family holds about a dime’s worth of wealth for every dollar of wealth held by the average white family. Wealth affects education, which affects income. In many American cities and towns, nearly half of the black population have incomes clustered around the very stingy federal poverty level. The comparable poverty level figure for whites is a little over ten percent. So the incidence of poverty is four times higher for blacks than for whites.
These external statistics about African-Americans mirror the internal reality: the damage to self-esteem that Malcolm X grasped so well is still prevalent. In 2006, a young videographer repeated the doll experiments of Kenneth and Mamie Clark and got the same results.
For Inauguration Day in January, 2009, African-American poet Elizabeth Alexander wrote and read a poem called “Praise Song for the Day.” In it she called for “Love beyond marital, filial, national; love that casts a widening pool of light …”
A widening pool of light. How wide? Wide enough, surely, for Toni Morrison, Tiger Woods, Venus and Sabrina Williams, Oprah, and two black football coaches meeting up in the Super Bowl. Wide enough for Eric Holder to be sworn as America’s first African-American attorney general. Wide enough for Michael Steele, the new African-American chairman of the Republican National Committee. Wide enough for the inauguration of Barack Obama.
But who remains in shadow? Millions of black children who are still choosing the white doll over the black one or brown one. Millions of young African-American men looking for role models with Malcolm X’s fire, strength, charisma, and unshakable sense of mission. Millions of black families who lack the capital to enable their children to compete with white children for the best schools, jobs, and other opportunities.
And Malcolm himself.
Yesterday, right in the middle of Black History Month, the mainstream news media let the 46th anniversary of his assassination pass unmarked. Bringing Malcolm within that widening pool of light would have meant bringing too many hard-to-face truths back into the consciousness of a public yearning to forget.
But no matter how deep the denial runs, Malcolm X remains unforgettable—a good man doing great work, gone way too soon.