ABOVE PHOTO: CIVIL RIGHTS LEADER MALCOLM X speaks to reporters in Washington, D.C., in this May 16, 1963 photo.
By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Eighty-eight years after the birth on May 19, 1925, and 48 years after the assassination of black nationalist leader Malcolm X, the tragedy and triumph of his life and work still clouds and uplifts us.
The years have seen Malcolm ignored, reviled, and praised. But the roller coaster effect that Malcolm X had on race and social struggles in America, and around the globe, did not end with Malcolm’s murder. It also tore into and tore apart his family. There were the squabbles among family members over his memorabilia, a well-publicized arrest of a daughter for credit card theft, fights between his widow Dr. Betty Shabazz and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan over whether Farrakhan was directly responsible for the murder of Malcolm and should apologize for it… And then there was the attempt by Farrakhan to reconcile with Shabazz and her terse message of thanks (sans forgiveness) of him, which drew headline news.
The tragic events that dogged Malcolm’s widow finally literally engulfed her when her troubled grandson, Malcolm Shabazz (then just 14 –years-old) was convicted of the home arson fire that resulted in Betty Shabazz’s death.
Last week, just days before the 48th anniversary of his grandfather’s murder, Malcolm Shabazz himself was murdered in a bizarre altercation in a Mexico City bar.
Then there was Malcolm’s assassination. Malcolm’s murder can’t be totally separated from the well-documented and savage war that the FBI waged against Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., against black organizations and black leaders during the 1960s. In an infamous memo from those years, FBI officials flatly warned of the necessity to prevent “the rise of a “black messiah.” The FBI was more than willing to do whatever it could to make sure that didn’t happen. Malcolm undoubtedly was an unwitting casualty of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI’s obsession to decapitate black leadership.
The inevitable deconstruction of a popular but controversial figure years after his death shrouded Malcolm in even more controversy. That happened when the late professor Manning Marable sparked a firestorm of indignation and rage at what some considered inconvenient truths in his exhaustive biography, which depicted Malcolm’s early and later life — chock full of myths and concoctions that threatened to blow up his sacrosanct image among black militants. Others lambasted Marable’s book as a blatant slander, character assassination and an attempt to besmirch Malcolm’s legacy.
But lost in the headline-making family fights and raging debates over Malcolm’s life and assassination, is the truth that Malcolm’s legacy was never in danger. He was a human being with the all the foibles and frailties of every other man. His family members had the same frailties. To say that — to even write about them — in no way detracts from the power of Malcolm’s message and the sterling example and lessons of his life.
Malcolm had become a major national and international figure who shortly before his death had worked out a constructive program for domestic social and economic change. Asian and African leaders increasingly viewed him as an able, respected, and visionary spokesman against apartheid, colonialism, the Vietnam War, and for world peace. Malcolm had evolved from the popular and much distorted media depiction of him as a race-baiting demagogue, to become one of America’s leading social critics.
This is only part of Malcolm’s legacy. He, like Dr. King, took selflessness to a level that few men or women ever reach. I don’t mean selflessness as an organizer and leader, but selflessness in their personal lives.
Malcolm did not seek to enrich himself off the glamour, allure and fame that he attained. He was repelled by what he considered the garishness and opulent living of the higher-ups in the Nation of Islam and minced no words in lambasting them for it. For Malcolm, the quest for justice and true equality, and the restoration of pride in the history and heritage of African-Americans was the ultimate reward for him. A man who could be so relentlessly single-minded and uncompromising in that quest was a gale of fresh air. This cemented the esteem and reverence that thousands had for him. It assured that no matter how low the roller coaster dipped in how Malcolm was seen and remembered — even vilified — over the years, that the esteem in which he was held would never end.
Two generations later, Malcolm still holds a lofty place in the hearts and memories of many African-Americans young and old. Due to the avalanche of negative distortions of and about his life or the slavish mythologizing of that life, or even the turmoil that plagued some of his family members, or whether he was a sinner or saint. But because he embodied the spirit of struggle and sacrifice that has been the enduring earmark of black life in America.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new ebook is How the NRA Terrorizes Congress—The NRA’s Subversion of the Gun Control Debate (Amazon). He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM 1460 AM Radio Los Angeles and KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network. Follow him on Twitter at @earlhutchinson.