by Zaheer Ali
February 21 marks fifty-two years since Malcolm X/El Hajj Malik Shabazz was assassinated. As much as his absence is felt, there are signs that his legacy still resonates today. From the recurring “X” iconography in Beyonce’s Super Bowl performance last year to Colin Kaepernick sporting a Malcolm X-Fidel Castro t-shirt, Malcolm continues to inspire artists, activists, and everyday people. Today, Malcolm X’s life takes on even greater significance as African Americans and Muslims (and African American Muslims!) find themselves in the cross-hairs of a presidential administration hell-bent on scapegoating Muslims and Black and Brown people. President Donald Trump’s Executive Order restricting immigration from seven Muslim-majority nations has all the makings of the Muslim ban he promised while campaigning for office. And, as his administration focuses its anti-extremist initiatives exclusively on Islam—while ignoring the threat posed by domestic terrorists like white supremacist Dylann Roof—the role and status of Muslims in America will likely remain a central concern in the nation’s foreseeable future. Further, his Executive Order on crime looks to be a ramping up of the war on Black and Brown youth in what will undoubtedly be a boon to the prison industrial complex.
Over fifty years ago, Malcolm X offered incisive critiques of white supremacy and state power, appealed to the moral authority rooted in both spirituality and political philosophy, and called upon us to see ourselves as citizens of the world. In turning to Malcolm X’s history in this current moment, it is important that we first unpack the many misunderstandings about him. “My whole life has been a chronology of changes,” he declared in his Autobiography; and keeping up with those changes has been as challenging for his interpreters over the years as his rapidly evolving ideas were for his contemporaries. It is no surprise then that several myths have arisen about Malcolm X, largely due to attempts to make meaning out of fragmentary snapshots of his life.
Myth 1: Malcolm X was a racist.
“The white man is the devil,” is probably one of the phrases most commonly associated with Malcolm X. And Malcolm did say it, loudly, confidently, and repeatedly. Rooted in the Nation of Islam’s theological grappling with the dilemma of theodicy, it was an attempt to explain the existence of evil and suffering under an all-powerful and just God. While the Holocaust prompted some theologians to question the very existence of God in the face of immense suffering, Malcolm and the Nation of Islam proclaimed not the death of God, but the living reality of the devil. In doing so, they echoed 19th century abolitionist David Walker who accused white slaveowners of “acting like devils,” and Malcolm’s proclamations resonated with his audiences who had experienced or witnessed Jim Crow segregation, lynchings, and attacks with fire hoses and police dogs.
In 1964, Malcolm left the Nation of Islam and made the Muslim hajj, or pilgrimage, to Islam’s holiest site in Mecca. There, while fulfilling one of the five pillars of the faith, Malcolm wrote of a transformative experience: “I have eaten from the same plate, drunk from the same glass, and slept in the same bed (or on the same rug)—while praying to the same God–with fellow Muslims, whose eyes were the bluest of blue, whose hair was the blondest of blond, and whose skin was the whitest of white.” Though the Nation of Islam and Malcolm had long accepted the existence of white Muslims, he publicly stated for the first time: “[P]erhaps if white Americans could accept the Oneness of God, then perhaps, too, they could accept in reality the Oneness of Man–and cease to measure, and hinder, and harm others in terms of their ‘differences’ in color.” It was a conditional statement—white America still had work to do—but it created possibilities for white people that Malcolm had heretofore seemingly foreclosed.
Myth 2: Malcolm X preached violence.
One of the most iconic images of Malcolm X depicts him peering out a window while holding an automatic carbine rifle. Published in the September 1964 issue of Ebony magazine, the photograph’s caption indicated that Malcolm intended the gun to be used in self-defense in the event of an attack on himself or his family. The image has since come to signify Malcolm’s commitment to self-defense, even if it meant violence; and his advocacy that African Americans form rifle clubs to protect their communities if the federal government failed to do so. Malcolm rejected the tactics of non-violent civil disobedience used by civil rights demonstrators, because those tactics depended on demonstrators being met with state violence in order to awaken the consciences of bystanders in the broader public. For Malcolm that was a risk too great to take—if thousands of Americans had in the past gathered gleefully to witness lynchings, would a child being assaulted by a police dog awaken their consciences? Further, Malcolm argued that while nonviolent civil disobedience may result in liberal reforms, what was needed in America was a revolution—a fundamental overturning of the systems and structures of power that had enforced inequality. Drawing on lessons in American and world history, he contended in his famous 1963 “Message to the Grassroots” speech, “There’s no such thing as a nonviolent revolution.” That said, a few months later in his “Ballot or the Bullet” address, he would suggest a different possibility for America: “[T]his country can become involved in a revolution that won’t take bloodshed”: “All she’s got to do is give the black man in this country everything that’s due him, everything.”
Myth 3: Malcolm X was not a real Muslim.
Upon his death, Malcolm X received the full burial rites of a Muslim and is regarded by Muslims around the world as a martyr who sacrificed his life for the greater good, thus settling the matter of his religious authenticity. What is debatable, however, is when his journey to Islam began. For some, Malcolm’s life as a Muslim began in 1948 when he encountered the Nation of Islam’s teachings while in prison, at the urging of his siblings. Led by Georgia-born Elijah Muhammad, the Nation of Islam combined elements of classical Islam with black nationalism in a radical critique of white supremacy and equally radical commitment to establishing autonomous black institutions. Throughout its existence, the Nation of Islam’s status within the global super-tradition of Islam has been debated; regardless, as far as Malcolm was concerned he was a Muslim from the beginning of his acceptance of the NOI’s teachings, and he began making demands of the prison to accommodate his adherence to Muslim dietary rules and his desire for a prayer space. Malcolm officially joined the Nation of Islam upon his release from prison in 1952, and eventually became its national spokesperson until he left the movement in 1964. It was in April of that year when he made the hajj pilgrimage, solidifying in the minds for many his adherence to Islam as many around the world recognized it.
Myth 4: Malcolm X was a civil rights leader.
Though his public career was contemporaneous with the civil rights movement, Malcolm X operated separate and apart from the established civil rights leadership and organizations. As a minister of the Nation of Islam and thereafter, he rejected liberal integration as a goal and nonviolent civil disobedience as a tactic; and his spiritual commitment to Islam placed him outside the largely church-led and –based civil rights movement in the South, though he attracted the attention of younger activists like those in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). His strongest critique of the civil rights movement, however, was its framing: “As long as you fight it on the level of civil rights, you’re under Uncle Sam’s jurisdiction.” Instead, he advocated the adoption of “human rights” as the rallying cry, one that would put the movement in conversation with struggles for justice around the world, like the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.
Myth 5: Malcolm X was un-American.
“I’m not an American. I’m one of the 22 million black people who are the victims of Americanism.” Malcolm seized upon the contradictions in America’s treatment of African Americans and went right at the heart of American exceptionalism in the starkest terms: “I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.” As harsh as they were, his criticisms were rooted in the American tradition of protest and critique, from abolitionists, suffragists, labor organizers, on up to civil rights activists. To make his point he often appealed to the authority found in American tradition, whether it was quoting Patrick Henry’s commitment to freedom or death, or daring the nation to fulfill its obligations in a “bloodless revolution.” It was not Malcolm who was un-American, it was America itself that had betrayed the lofty principles it held up to the world as a beacon of democracy. Malcolm challenged America to disprove his claim of not being an American: if America considered Black people Americans, then they would be treated as such.
Zaheer Ali (@zaheerali) (www.zaheerali.com) is the Oral Historian at Brooklyn Historical Society, and an adjunct lecturer of United States history at New York University’s Paul McGhee Division. Formerly, he served as Project Manager of Columbia University’s Malcolm X Project under the leadership of the late Manning Marable, and worked as a researcher for Marable’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (2011).