Friday, May 21, 2010

Reflecting on Malcolm X

(This is a piece I co-wrote on Malcolm X is celebration of his birthday this past Wednesday - I've long believed him to be among the most misunderstood figures of the 20th century and I consider him a personal inspiration)
As published in the Los Angeles Sentinel, May 20, 2010
With his 85th birthday celebration this week, his message resonates as boldly as they did 50 years ago

By Evan Barnes, Sentinel Sports Editor
and Nicholas P. Quarles, Sentinel Intern

45 years after his death, Malcolm X remains one of the most captivating figures of the 20th century and his impact among Black people worldwide remains as vital as it did in the 1950's and 60's.

He also remains among one of the most misunderstood individuals of the 20th century. A man whose fiery, unapologetic persona overshadowed the eloquence he shared in articulating the Black struggle in America and then worldwide.

To Black people, Malcolm he remains the shining prince that the late actor Ossie Davis spoke of at his eulogy. To White people and others today, he epitomizes standing for what you believe and not letting the powers that be dictate how you should live.

May 19 would have been his 85th birthday and we'll take a look at reasons why his message remains as alive as ever.


Malcolm spent six years in prison for larceny and burglary. Unlike many activists and leaders, he was sentenced for criminal behavior and being a wayward youth.

While in jail, he was mentored by a fellow prisoner and it was there he began to change from Malcolm Little, the convict, to Malcolm X, the leader and future member of the Nation of Islam.

He read more, devoted himself to the teaching of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and when he was released, he was ready to act on his conversion.

How many people have read his story and found inspiration to not let their past define them? For many, he represents the everyday man who realizes he could be greater than he was.

He remains an example of 'it's-not-how-you-start-your-life but how you change it.' We can see that in reformed criminals who distance themselves from their past and work to help others avoid it.


Not since the legendary figure Marcus Garvey had someone been so vocal without calling for accommodation. Malcolm X was a leader who stood tall (6 feet, 3 inches) and spoke with no fear.

For years since the Civil War, Black people protested how they were treated in America. Those who dared being abrasive faced being lynched or run out of the country like Marcus Garvey.

With the country's mood starting to change in the 1950's, Malcolm's voice carried on the messages of Garvey and W.E.B. Dubois, and it struck a chord with people tired of waiting for change.

A gifted orator, he attacked racism by confronting it more head on. He openly denounced America and its crimes against Black people. He also advocated that Blacks should be more self-sufficient in improving their communities.

His message was simple. The days of sitting back and waiting for change were over. It was time for Black people to not just demand better, but make themselves better as well.

"Education is our passport to the future," he said, "For tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today."

He demanded that Black people know their history, calling it as essential as any other educational ideal. His way with words and his message inspired many to join the Nation of Islam, and better themselves.

The idea of self-sufficiency was inspiring to Black people who had already lived this motto for nearly a century since freedom. His abrasive talk laid the seeds for the student and Black Power movements in the next decade.

By the early 1960's, his voice may have scared mainstream America and the more conservative civil rights leaders, but his influence was undeniable. The New York Times named Malcolm the second-most sought after speaker throughout the country.


After his break from the Nation of Islam and a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964, the world became a bigger stage. No longer did he rail against the evils of White people but instead he sought to be a unifier for universal human rights.

Before he left for Mecca, he made his famous "Ballot or the Bullet" speech - advocating that Black people think before voting, and vote wisely. He reached out to the same moderate civil rights leaders whom he had criticized for years.

His voice was no longer just a rallying cry for Americans, but Africans and others who saw him as their champion. Like any great leader, he updated his message without diluting it or removing its edge.

Consider the phrase he entered into the public discussion: "We declare our right on this earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary"

Today, we can see it was a smart decision. The United States had switched its focus from the race issue to global concerns of the Vietnam War and President Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty.

Once again, Malcolm was ahead of the curve of most civil rights leaders - already adapting his message to the times without losing the boldness that defined his tenure with the Nation of Islam.

Had he not been assassinated, who knows how big his voice would have become? We can see glimpses in how his protégé, Muhammad Ali, defied the U.S. government by resisting being drafted to fight in Vietnam.

Imagine if Malcolm was right there supporting him and forcing people to question the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. What would he have said in the 1970's and 1980's as Black communities suffered due to the influx of drugs and community organizations under siege?

Hip-hop has made his voice live again in a new generation, as groups like Public Enemy and X-Clan brought back a Black consciousness.

Malcolm X was a self-made leader. With direction, he learned while he was in prison and by the Nation of Islam, he spoke to many Black people who shared his upbringing and White people who were amazed at his eloquence even if they disagreed with his views. He was a voracious reader.

With all this being said and taken into account, there are those who might ask 'Why do Blacks insist on embracing a man, who some claim, was a fanatic and a rabble-rouser?' or 'How could the Black community revere someone who taught hate?'

The answer is because very rarely does a person who speaks their mind without any reservation make it to a radio station or to a television broadcast, or even a lectern for that matter. Their words usually stay within the confines of small social circles like dinner-table conversation, or small talk amongst friends at the grocery store.

Malcolm on the other hand, was one of the few Black men who managed to voice his message via radio, television, live and in person.

This is not the only reason why we honor his memory, but also because he protected us. He was our big brother who we unleashed upon White America to do our fighting for us. He was our guardian who watched over us and kept White America honest.

Last but not least, he was the faithful Night Watchman, who dutifully patrolled the impoverished Black communities of Harlem, New York and throughout Black America, with the street savvy and urban poise of an alley cat, tempered with the keen intellect of a learned scholar.

Indeed he was the genuine-article, the champion of Black self-improvement. With his birthday having passed us by, we can see how he still teaches and inspires many to be better and not accept less than satisfactory conditions within our own communities.

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