Today marks the 52nd anniversary since we lost one of our greatest figures of the 20th century. The tragic murder of Malcolm X in Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom marked one of the darkest moments of the U.S. Civil Rights Struggle, given the potential Malcolm had to unite a range of people of differing opinions and convictions, under a unified banner to wage a war for the promotion of human rights. It is worth noting that when Malcolm X was assassinated, he had outgrown the narrow language of racial hatred, and was instead talking in terms of promoting human rights. Larger than life figures such as Malcolm gain an almost mythical status, with their message often being appropriated from a wide spectrum of people; he has been talked about with respect from people as fundamentally tied to “the establishment” as Clarence Thomas and Barack Obama, to people as far outside it as Huey Newton and Fidel Castro. He rose to prominence at a time of great social upheaval in the U.S., and much of what he strove for and against still resonates with us today. Here are 6 lessons we might learn to apply from his life and example.
Malcolm’s enlightenment was in large part spurred on by his immersion in reading. While in prison, he spent long hours devouring books, using a slither of light that entered his cell during the night to carry on reading into the small hours of the morning. He read a range of authors including Englishman H.G. Wells, sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois, geneticist Mendel, and historian Will Durant. Having forgotten much of his elementary education by the time he found himself in prison, Malcolm first focused on self-education, initially by way of reading, writing and memorizing the dictionary. The long hours Malcolm spent in this process paid hugely, as he went on to become a masterful communicator, so gifted in speech.
“I have often reflected upon the new vistas that reading opened to me…as I see it today, the ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive…my homemade education gave me, with every additional book that I read, a little bit more sensitivity to the deafness, dumbness, and blindness that was afflicting the black race in America…you will never catch me with a free fifteen minutes in which I’m not studying something I feel might be able to help the black man.”
Challenge Yourself in Your Search For The Truth
Malcolm went through a few seismic shifts within the short 39 years of his life. Going from a promising student in his early years, to a dropout and full time hustler, in part due to a dismissive and racist elementary teacher, prison forced Malcolm to reexamine his life. His path lead him initially to the Nation of Islam, ultimately rejecting it and opting to convert to orthodox Islam, partly inspired by his experience in Mecca while performing the Hajj. On realizing that racism had no part to play in the teachings of real Islam, nor had it any benefit in promoting healthy societies, Malcolm publicly and vocally rescinded the racialist views that he had for years been promoting.
“Despite my firm convictions, I have always been a man who tried to face facts, and to accept the reality of life as new experience and new knowledge unfolds it”.
“You may be shocked by these words coming from me. But on this pilgrimage , what I have seen, and experienced, has forced me to rearrange much of my thought-patterns previously held, and to toss aside some of my previous conclusions…during the past eleven days…I have eaten from the same plate, drunk from the same glass, and slept in the same bed – 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 the white…we were truly all the same.”
Don’t Write Anyone Off
In his lowest of days, Malcolm was using drugs just to keep functioning; he helped transport prostitutes to clients, and was eventually caught and put in prison for theft. He describes himself at this time as being animalistic and cutthroat, ready to die for no reason at all. Professor Michael Eric Dyson makes the point that had he been murdered at 25, he would have been just another forgotten about criminal. He eventually built his way out of his foul situation, and deserves a lot of respect for it, but we cannot ignore the reality that there are many people out there who have been dealt as foul a hand as Malcolm was as a youngster. If we cannot help change the environments of oppressed, we should at the very least avoid being dismissive and judgmental of them. Malcolm himself in his autobiography lamented how the hustlers that he used to engage in criminality with might have been mathematicians or brain surgeons had the environment not been as rigged against them from their early childhood. Investing in the misguided, rather than being condemnatory of them, just as the Nation of Islam initially did with Malcolm, gave the 20th century one of it’s brightest lights.
“Don’t be in a hurry to condemn because he doesn’t do what you do or think as you think or as fast. There was a time when you didn’t know what you know today”.
Open Your Eyes
Malcolm’s education led him to realise the realities of debilitating biases in both the media and the political system surrounding him. He commented on this frankly, in the below quote that is perhaps one of his most well known. It is hard to read it and not think of the plight of the Palestinians, victims of a brutal occupation, yet frequently dehumanized by the news media and Hollywood. Arabs and Muslims on the whole get infamously unfair treatment; the media often serves the narrative of the powerful, at the expense of the weak. This was on display in the U.S. of Malcolm’s time, and continues to be true of all kinds of minorities today. Malcolm also commented on the political system, and the way in which it also served the interests of the powerful, offering only superficial choices, none of which truly offered the hope of real change.
“If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing”
“The shrewd capitalists, the shrewd imperialists, knew that the only way people would run toward the fox would be if you showed them a wolf…so they created a ghastly alternative.
Strive For Unity
Malcolm can be forgiven for adopting dogmatic and divisive positions during the course of his life. Having experienced a racial oppression that murdered his father, lead to the psychological breakdown of his mother, and the ultimate break up of his family, anger borne of a sense of injustice was to be expected. Malcolm found answers to the racist state policies of the mid 20th century U.S., in the racist ideology of the Nation of Islam. He would have attacked other Black leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King as being “house Negroes”. Thankfully, this proved to be a part of his learning curve. As his ideas grew and matured, the dogmatism of his past gave way to the pragmatism and enlightenment of his later years. He stopped hating whites and strove to work with anyone who was committed to promoting human rights, regardless of their skin colour. He stopped being dismissive of the likes of Dr Martin and moved to work with them. Malcolm ceased thinking along the lines of black separatism and began fighting instead for universal human rights.
“Ignorance of each other is what has made unity impossible in the past. Therefore we need more enlightenment. We need more light about each other. Light creates understanding, understanding creates love, loves creates patience, and patience creates unity. Once we have more knowledge about each other, we will stop condemning each other and a United front will be brought about.”
Keep Cool And Smile
Despite the turbulence that engulfed his world towards the end of his life, the lawsuits, death threats and firebombs, Malcolm maintained his composure and carried on doing his thing. He had many people rooting for his downfall, from his former colleagues at the Nation of Islam, to the establishment that was terrified of his rise as a leader. He was at peace with the difficult realities that faced his people as a whole, and more personally, of the immediate danger threatening him and his loved ones. This peace was borne of a wholehearted belief that everything, as difficult as they might seem, were in the hands of a higher power. There is a pertinent wisdom in his very last words to this world, “Cool it brothers”. Times continue to be heating up, we would be doing well to remember these words. In his eulogy to Malcolm, delivered at his funeral, Ossie Davis remarked, “Did you ever talk to Malcolm? Did you ever touch him, or have him smile at you?” – what a beautiful smile that was, powerful enough to warm us through photographs even to this day. Remember the words of another great man, “when you smile in your brothers face, it is an act of charity”.
“Stumbling is not falling”
“There is no better than adversity. Every defeat, every heartbreak, every loss, contains its own seed, its own lesson on how to improve your performance next time”.