This month marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of one of America’s greatest and arguably most influential African American civil rights activists in history, Malcolm X.
I had the huge honour of speaking alongside Malaak Shabbaz, the youngest daughter of Malcom X and a world leading humanitarian within her own right, when she visited Bradford in December as part of the 2014 UK tour ‘An insight into Malcolm X’.
I remember being nervous with excitement at the sheer thought of being in the presence of someone who continues to fly the flag of a man who changed people’s lives and who played his part in shaping the agenda of ‘Race’ beyond America.
After listening to Malaak speaking movingly about her parents, I spoke to many of my colleagues and friends alike who told me that ‘Malcolm X on Afro-American History’ was the book that changed their whole lives in terms of their own identity and empowered them.
I took a great deal from Malaak’s words as I felt inspired and it gave me and others present so much food for thought. However the following day when I mentioned my excitement to my niece, who just graduated from the University of Bradford, I was shocked that she had never heard of Malcolm X, which prompted me to write about him.
Malcolm X (originally known as Malcolm Little), born in May 1925, was one of eight children of Earl Little, an outspoken Baptise Minister who supported the ‘Back to Africa’ civil rights movement. Earl’s views made him a target which led to the family moving many times and in 1929, the family house was burnt down and soon after he was found dead. Following these tragedies, Malcolm X’s mother, Louise, suffered a nervous breakdown and was sent to a mental health institution where she remained for the next 24 years until her children secured her release. All the children were sent to foster homes.
Although Malcolm X did very well at school when he expressed his desire to become a lawyer, he was told that ‘it was no realistic goal for a nigger’. That conversation was a game changer in that Malcolm X dropped out of school the following year and soon his life then descended into crime which took him to prison which is where he joined the ‘Nation of Islam’ whilst serving a ten-year prison sentence. He later renounced the ‘Nation of Islam’ and its teachings and converted to ‘Sunni Islam’ and completed ‘Hajj’ in 1964. Seeing Muslims of ‘all colours, from blue-eyed blondes to black-skinned Africans’ interacting as equals, led him to see Islam as a means by which racial problems could be overcome. Following his pilgrimage to Mecca, he changed his name to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.
Malcolm X also contributed to the agenda on our shores. In December 1964 he took part in a debate at the Oxford Union Society. The motion was: ‘Extremism in the Defence of Liberty Is No Vice; Moderation in the Pursuit of Justice Is No Virtue”. Malcolm X argued for the affirmative, and interest in the debate was so high that it was televised nationally by the BBC.
On February 12, he also visited Smethwick in Birmingham, where the Conservative Party had won the parliamentary seat in the 1964 general election. The town had become a byword for racial division after Conservative supporters used the slogan ‘If you want a nigger for your neighbour, vote Labour.’ In Smethwick he compared the treatment of black people with the treatment of Jews under Hitler, saying, ‘I would not wait for the fascist element in Smethwick to erect gas ovens’.
Malcolm X felt that calling the movement a struggle for civil rights would keep the issue within the United States, while changing the focus to human rights would make it an international concern. The movement could then bring its complaints before the United Nations, where Malcolm X said the emerging nations of the world would add their support.
Malcolm X worked tirelessly to change the world. Between 1957 and 1965 he travelled over 6 million miles, delivered more than 2500 speeches and wrote 5 books as well as many other writings. He is credited with raising the self-esteem of black Americans and reconnecting them with their African heritage.
On February 21, 1965 he was assassinated by members of the ‘Nation of Islam’ during a meeting with members of an organisation ‘African-American Unity’.
At the Funeral, actor and activist Ossie Davis delivered the eulogy, describing Malcolm X as ‘our shining black prince.’
One of the things I took from Malaak’s talk was the role which her mother Betty Shabaaz played following the killing of her husband whilst she was pregnant with Malaak and her twin sister. Betty went on to become a Civil Rights Leader within her own right and ensured the work continued. Today, across America dozens of schools have been named after Malcolm X which not only keeps his memory alive but also ensure the dialogue of race relations continues.
Fortunately fifty years on, we as a world have come a long way in achieving racial justice but we still have a long way to go. According to a recent report by The Runnymede Trust, ‘Drifting Upwards or Sliding Back’ post 9/11 incidents of race crime have risen although there was a decrease following the London Olympics. The world has changed, some observers would go as far as arguing that ‘religious’ discrimination is now the dominant status quo.
Is there some comparison to be drawn between the civil rights movement and what is happening post 9/11 and more recently, ‘Charlie Hebdo’, following which voices are now rising and demanding that they are heard; that they are recognised for their reality of being good humans and are not responsible for the acts of 0.1 % of the 1.6 Billion Muslims across the globe?
In the 50’s and 60’s Malcolm X articulated concepts of race pride and Black Nationalism.
Fifty years on is our new reality, that we now live in times where the concept of ‘Muslim Pride’ is, will or can be the new ‘Civil Rights Movement’ of this side of the millennium? Whichever juncture we are at, one thing is for sure, he inspired the world to change. Let’s continue to celebrate his life and his legacy.
RIP Malcolm X
(19th May 1925- 21st February 1965)