THE GRAVE of civil rights leader Malcolm X at Ferncliff Cemetery in Ardsley, New York..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Malcolm X, the charismatic black Muslim leader of the late 1950s and early 1960s, is arguably one of the most fascinating figures of the 20th century.
His name and likeness are rich with symbolism, so much so that in the eyes of his admirers he has come to represent black pride, black empowerment, defiance and self-determination.
This week marked the anniversary of Malcolm X’s assassination at the hands of black Muslim rivals from the Nation of Islam. The calendar date is as good excuse as any to briefly ponder the man and his legacy, taking stock of his flaws while appreciating his willingness to reconsider them.
What is most remarkable about Malcolm X is the trajectory of his life, as unique as any among leaders of people. After being sentenced to prison for theft, he came under the influence of an educated black Muslim and rose to become a major figure in the Nation of Islam following his release.
As the chief spokesman for the organization, he trumpeted the black separatist’s group’s extremist views – that which branded whites as “the devil” and called on blacks to take up arms if necessary.
Martin Luther King, Jr., whom was referred to by Malcolm X as “a chump” – called it “a hate group arising in our midst that would preach the doctrine of black supremacy.”
While the mainstream civil rights movement sought integration into American society through largely nonviolent means, the ideology as preached by Malcolm X was far more confrontational and reactionary.
Like many militant leaders, the man who was born Malcolm Little was blessed with marvelous oratorical skills. His worldviews were also shaped and informed by personal traumas. As a child, Malcolm X’s family was harassed by white supremacists who burned their home to the ground and also killed three of his uncles.
This painful personal past no doubt compelled him to adopt rigid a political ideology that left very little room for compromise.
Yet Malcolm X’s greatness was his willingness to reinvent himself as a full-fledged civil rights leader who broke with his dogmatic ideology – a break that ultimately cost him his life.
For Malcolm X, it was, ironically enough, a religious experience – the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca – that set in motion a process of moderation in how he viewed his erstwhile tormentors. Consider this passage from his landmark book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X: “There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world. They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans.
But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and nonwhite...
“You may be shocked by these words coming from me. But on this pilgrimage, what I have seen, and experienced, has forced me to re-arrange much of my thought patterns previously held, and to toss aside some of my previous conclusions. This was not too difficult for me.
Despite my firm convictions, I have been always a man who tries to face facts, and to accept the reality of life as new experience and new knowledge unfolds it. I have always kept an open mind, which is necessary to the flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of intelligence search for truth.
“During the past eleven days here in the Muslim world, 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. And in the words and in the actions and in the deeds of the ‘white’ Muslims, I felt the same sincerity that I felt among the black African Muslims of Nigeria, Sudan, and Ghana.”
In other words, the experience of worshiping the same deity enabled Malcolm X to see whites as more human, and not as an abstract, homogeneous concept which was used by radical black nationalists to preach separatism.
He was able to transcend his prejudices and engage in an experienced that challenged his assumptions about whites. This, in turn, made him realize that there were conditions in which the needs of both sides could be met through mutual respect, a commonality of purpose, and a shedding of concepts and judgments about the other that were entirely dictated by the past and yet could be altered through a willingness to forge a better path for the future.
This was manifest in the new political positions that he took following his departure from the Nation of Islam, including the denunciation of racism in all its forms, countenancing a greater role for women in leadership positions within the black nationalist movement, and encouraging black participation in the electoral process – something which was anathema to him beforehand.
Malcolm X realized that the betterment of the future of his people required expanding his coalition and changing tactics –a revolutionary shift given his image and background. This is a worthy lesson for world leaders who cling to tried-and failed policies that brook no dissent, make no room for inclusiveness and allow fear to trump any possibility of change and good will.