Above: Black Muslim leader and Chairman of the Organization for Afro American Unity, Malcolm X, is shown at London Airport, Feb. 9, 1965. AP PHOTO/VICTOR BOYNTON
This weekend, millions of people of African descent in the United States and across the world commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Al-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, the internationally renowned human rights activist who was also known as Malcolm X.
Throughout much of the week, men, women, and children studied Malcolm X’s speeches at conferences and took to social media to reflect on his influence on their coming of age through the #MalcolmTaughtMe hashtag on Twitter.
Though many of these tweeters weren’t alive during the Civil Rights movement, they said Malcolm X’s legacy has galvanized them during what many consider a tumultuous time.
Malcolm X, an ex-convict who converted to Islam in prison, gained a following among poor urban blacks in the North and returning citizens struggling to find their way after long stints in the penitentiary. His message of self-determination and freedom from the reins of white supremacy “by any means necessary” sounded nothing like Dr. Martin Luther King’s calls for integration and brotherly love with white people, gaining him many enemies within the Civil Rights movement and in the United States government.
Still, Malcolm X confidently soldiered on, determined to unify black people across the United States and around the world against institutions that have levied centuries of injustices against the Diaspora.
“I’m not in a society that practices brotherhood. I’m in a society that might preach it on Sunday, but they don’t practice it on no day — on any day,” Malcolm X told an audience in Detroit a week prior to his death in 1965.
Black Americans, many of whom have taken to the streets in protest in recent months, have evoked the spirit of Malcolm X by candidly expressing their frustration with what they consider an unfair criminal justice system and later refusing to retreat from the front lines, even when police officers threw tear gas and swatted batons their way. Last year, thousands of people converged on Ferguson, MO – where police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot teenager Mike Brown without consequence – and other major cities in solidarity with victims of police violence and their families as part of the Black Lives Mattermovement, an effort to bring their grievances to the national and world stage.
While the Black Lives Matter protests have largely emphasized nonviolent sit-ins in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr., Kymone Freeman, program director at independent DC-based media outlet We Act Radio, argued the movement should embrace some of Malcolm X’s more controversial teachings, like his call for aggressive self-defense.
Freeman, who said he has read extensively about Malcolm X and Dr. King, implored Millennials to study Malcolm X’s life on their own because they won’t learn the true story of the civil rights icon in their classes, particularly his argument that black people have the right to defend themselves against those who try to physically harm them.
“Obey the law and respect everyone but if someone puts their hands on you, send them to the cemetery,” Freeman told ThinkProgress, quoting Malcolm X. “Brother Malcolm talked that straight talk and that’s what is missing from the Black Lives Matter movement. Right now, they all sound like little girls. Police are shooting them in their backs and they got their hands up talking about ‘don’t shoot.’ If we start talking differently, then racist cops will think twice before touching us.”
Bob Williams, a 72-year-old activist and filmmaker, had different thoughts. Today’s movement, Williams said, highlights the importance of young people taking their qualms with the police system to the ballot box. He admits that getting that message through to young activists has been a challenge, saying that many of them are infatuated with Malcolm X’s endorsement of coming to arms against those who threaten their lives.
“I’m sure that Malcolm would have been on board with protecting your community and young ones,” Williams said. “But they have to understand that when it comes to guns, it’s just about self-defense. They won’t make a change with guns.”
He told ThinkProgress that the Black Lives Matter movement has allowed all young people to assume leadership in some form. Williams said he has stood alongside protesters in Ferguson since August 2014, collecting footage for a documentary titled “Mike Brown Movement Justice for All.”
“Something is happening here. The young people are coming off of the white man’s plantation,” Williams said. During his interview with ThinkProgress, Williams recounted his first taste of activism as a graduate student in the 1960s when he helped protect residents of a Cairo, IL housing project against white aggressors who didn’t like their boycott of stores in the region that refused to hire black people.
“I want to educate the young people to vote,” Williams said. “If you control the politics, you control the money. Some of the young leaders of this movement don’t want to register to vote. When you understand electoral politics, you can get on the city council if you want to.”
That message may be hard to swallow for black Millennials, a group that came out in huge numbers for then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2008 and again in 2012. Since the historic election, their support for the nation’s first black president has fallen. In the first two years of his presidency, Obama’s approval rating among young black people fell 8 percentage points. By 2014, 80 percent of young people of color supported the president, 8 percentage points less than that of their counterparts who were over the age of 65. When it came to congressional races, many black Millennials also stayed home. Voter turnout among young people of color during the 2014 midterm election stood at less than 25 percent.
While Malcolm’s X movement has become stuff of legend, little has changed about the economic and social condition of black people in the United States half a century after his brutal assassination, even with a black president in office and a black man heading the Justice Department.
The disillusionment among black people of all ages, career fields, and economic classes has been decades in the making. Since Malcolm X’s time in prison, mass incarceration has exploded, disproportionately targeting African Americans. Today, black Americans account for more than 40 percent of the prison population. In the aggregate, black people haven’t fared well economically either. Even with post-recession gains, the black unemployment rate currently stands at more than 13 percent, far above the national average of 8.1 percent.
If black America stood as its own country, its poverty level – more than 27 percent – would eclipse that of war-torn Iraq. White wealth is eight times greater than that of blacks, primarily because of family inheritances and the seizure of land from blacks during the Reconstruction Era and decades to follow. The most well-to-do black people most likely have their assets tied into their home, a shaky investment as the 2008 mortgage crisis has shown.
Segregation, legally defeated by civil rights leaders, also remains a reality for many communities. Despite the passage of the Fair Housing Act, many black people have been relegated to dilapidated, low-income housing units located in food deserts across the country. Life in low-income enclaves in tandem with other factors has created dismal health outcomes for black people. Rates of obesity and hypertension among black people surpass 30 percent. Heart disease, cancer, and stroke count among the leading causes of death for people of color.
Salim Adofo, the national vice chairperson of the National Black United Front, a coalition of organizations working together to advance the cause of people of African descent, argues that part of lowering the black unemployment rate and securing black America’s future requires people of color to spend their dollars within their communities. The numbers support his conjecture. A 2014 NAACP report found that despite having $1.1 trillion buying power, black money circulates in the black community for just six hours. The report also said that only two cents of every dollar that a black person spends goes toward a black-owned business.
Adofo said that black people in the United States and across the world need to heed Malcolm X’s messages of black love and unity by supporting black businesses and providing services that aren’t often found in communities of color. He did acknowledge, however, that black entrepreneurs face hurdles of their own. Research shows black small business owners have a harder time than any other minority group accessing low-interest bank loans, which can be crucial for a new business getting off its feet.
“When you’re a black business, you’re black first, so we’re not dealing with the same circumstances as other businesses,” Adofo told ThinkProgress. “We bought into the concept that other communities are better than us. We never learned how to do things for ourselves. The propaganda has been that ideas of black business ownership are racist. It’s not racist. If we want to have a little Africa, we have to understand the propaganda. Children in other communities are groomed to run their family business.”
At the height of his career, Malcolm X encouraged poor blacks in urban cities to become financially self-sufficient. For nearly 14 years, he mobilized legions of African-Americans frustrated with institutional racism as the national spokesman of the Nation of Islam, a religious movement centered on improving the economic, social, and spiritual condition of black Americans, and later founder of Muslim Mosque Inc. and the Organization for Afro-American Unity.
No matter his organizational affiliation, Malcolm X represented the idea of a man that many aspired to be, in life and especially in death. Subsequent movements, including that of the Black Panther Party and early hip-hop were influenced by the late civil rights leader.
“Malcolm X represented black manhood,” Anonamas, a singer and songwriter from the D.C. metropolitan area, told ThinkProgress. In 2009, Anonamas released “Us,” a track inspired by the unique history of African-Americans. She said that Malcolm inspired her to be a better spiritual being. “Malcolm’s words shaped minds, which threatened many people. It was for our betterment. Malcolm was trying to show us that we were beautiful. He pointed out our flaws in love so that we could get it together. Self-love, accountability, and respect were the foundation of his movement.”