In a Newsweek interview, Ilyasah Shabazz (featured in the clip below) confided that she was worried that her father “was being written out of history.” And although there has been some limited media coverage to mark the fiftieth anniversary of his assassination, it seems unbalanced in comparison to remembrances of Selma and the legacy of the now-immortal Dr. Martin Luther King. (One of America’s favorite public intellectuals, Melissa Harris-Perry, is a notable exception.) That prompts me to ask whether Americans—more specifically, African-Americans—still view El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz as relevant to the history of racial justice and black empowerment in this republic. Or, alternatively, do we think of him as some campy but fading holdover from a pre-Millennial generation like Shaft movie reruns, bell-bottom pants or the Afro hairstyle? That would be regrettable, but isn’t even the Afro making a comeback?
If Malcolm X is being written out of history, it may be because the American culture has a checkered past in embracing its agents of progress—something akin to a national split personality disorder. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover would conspire to destroy a determined Dr. King, yet an admiring nation would eventually grant MLK's memory a federal holiday. And Frederick Douglass didn’t have many advocates in a post-antebellum South, although today some southern Republicans may wish to invoke him as a symbol of party inclusiveness. They may accept Mr. Douglass’ audacity framed in the dream of racial equality; it may take another century for them to eventually respect Obama’s love of country and audacity of hope.
Malcolm, to the annoyance of condescending authorities, was also audacious; he rhetorically equipped himself to play the role of a prosecuting attorney against a negligent and indifferent republic, a career option he was discouraged from pursuing by a supremacist system of education. Indeed, Malcolm was audacious enough to expect that an underclass of second-class citizens of a democratic nation, a republic that guaranteed the right to bear arms, should also have the right to defend themselves from the ever-present threat of lynching, beatings, bombings, burnings and police brutality. But somewhere along the formation process of public opinion, that conviction was translated by an American media and sympathetic liberals who were not accustomed to black assertiveness, it was interpreted into a caricature as “militant” and “violent” and “radical.” You know, just like the British colonial powers must have reacted to Patrick Henry’s exhortation of “Give me liberty, or give me death!” (That was an analogy that Malcolm himself invoked.) The one difference I would suggest is that Malcolm’s brilliant rhetoric of the “ballot or the bullet” was less extremist than Patrick Henry’s posture. It also suggested a more optimistic belief in the possibilities of the democratic process under a system controlled by a dominant power. Nihilists and anarchists see no possibility of success in the quest for freedom; optimists and patriots see nothing but victory for those determined to embrace it. Nevertheless, it seems that Malcolm is still viewed—even in 2015—as some twentieth-century equivalent of the gladiator Spartacus, whose legend is of incited slave revolts against the power of ancient Rome. Malcolm X assuredly was a useful and evolving tactician in using hyperbole and threats as external sources of pressure for White House negotiations with civil rights leaders (a classic exercise of the good guy-bad guy stratagem), but I see nothing in his record that suggests he ever came close to inciting a revolt akin to the Spartacus legend. Even the Black Panther Party, which was influenced by his ideological constructs, never posed any real threat to the republic.
So, I will here suggest that if your intellectual or moral temperament towards the advancement of human rights can be described as existentialist, progressive, just, freedom-loving, assertive, conservative (but not reactionary), freethinking, internationalist, Pan-African, uncompromising, democratic, community-oriented, entrepreneurial, anti-colonial, religious, results-oriented, compassionate, determined, disciplined, inquiring, defiant, courageous, indicting, analytical or just simply critical, then you must—by definition—admire the legacy of Malcolm X. And that is because Malcolm was all those things. Now, if by chance you don’t feel you fall into any one of the aforementioned categories, you should accept Malcolm’s significance anyways—if you happen to be black. And also if you believe that all people should always embrace one or more of the above temperaments in the conduct of their daily lives.
But that’s a moral argument to advocate Malcolm X’s status in the nation’s history. In a subsequent post, I will cite two reasons why, now more than ever, it is strategically essential for all Americans to embrace Malcolm X as a national symbol in order to bolster the welfare and security of the American republic. In ten years, we will mark the centennial of his birth. The clock is ticking if we hope to see it become a national holiday by then or, at least, a monument erected in his honor in the nation’s capital. Neither may ever happen, but he is worth the try. MLK earned his right to national honors because he became this nation’s moral compass. I note, however, that the needle of any compass is only functional because it has two opposing points. – Geronimo Redstone