We have just marked the 49th anniversary of the martyrdom of Malcolm X, the iconic civil rights leader. Malcolm was killed on February 21, 1965 in Harlem. Malcolm was 39, ironically the same age as Dr. King when he was killed. The two stand as the two most iconic pillars of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and were intimately linked with one another.
Brother Malcolm, also known by his Muslim name (El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz) was a powerful leader of the radical black tradition whose own transition from the Nation of Islam of Elijah Muhammad to Sunni Islam prefigured the later mass conversion of tens of thousands of Nation of Islam members.
Brother Malcolm, whom a leading American Muslim scholar (Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah) calls “The Imam Malik of New York”, is largely written out of the National African American history month celebration. Students are even prohibited from writing papers on him.
Malcolm’s life and legacy, indeed his transformations, were too complicated to capture in a short blog. Readers would do well to read Manning Marable’s masterful book on Malcolm X which represents a lifetime of scholarship.
Still, it seems worthwhile to look at some of Malcolm’s pithy and provocative statements.
In some ways, the best thing that happened to popularizing Malcolm was Spike Lee’s movie. And if one may excuse the observation, Spike’s movie also stands as one of the major obstacles to learning about the fullness of Malcolm’s radical commitment. It is always good to get back to Malcolm’s own powerful speeches.
One should not confuse reading quotes about Malcolm with walking in his footsteps. It is an easy task to pick a few of Malcolm’s powerful quotes, entirely another to walk in his footsteps. But Malcolm himself emphasized the importance of education. He often noted how speaking in college settings was one of his favorite activities. And Malcolm constantly preached that unless we truly knew our own truth, we were bound to remain bonded to tyranny. So in light of Brother Malcolm, here are a number of his teachings:
Malcolm on patriotism:
“You’re not to be so blind with patriotism that you can’t face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or says it.”
Malcolm on truth:
“I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I’m a human being, first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.”
Malcolm on the power of education:
“People don’t realize how a man’s whole life can be changed by one book.”
Malcolm on self-defense:
“Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery.”
Malcolm on capitalism:
“You show me a capitalist, and I’ll show you a bloodsucker”
Malcolm on liberation:
“Truth is on the side of the oppressed.”
Malcolm on the power of corporate media:
“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.”
Malcolm on America:
“I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see any American dream — I see an American nightmare.”
Malcolm on brotherhood:
“I believe in the brotherhood of man, all men, but I don’t believe in brotherhood with anybody who doesn’t want brotherhood with me. I believe in treating people right, but I’m not going to waste my time trying to treat somebody right who doesn’t know how to return the treatment”
Malcolm on Islam:
“America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem. Throughout my travels in the Muslim world, I have met, talked to, and even eaten with people who in America would have been considered white, but the white attitude was removed from their minds by the religion of Islam. I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all together, irrespective of their color.”
Malcolm on black unity:
“There can be no black-white unity until there is first some black unity. There can be no workers’ solidarity until there is first some racial solidarity. We cannot think of uniting with others, until after we have first united among ourselves. We cannot think of being acceptable to others until we have first proven acceptable to ourselves. One can’t unite bananas with scattered leaves.”
Malcolm on the need to alter our narrative of America:
“We are African, and we happened to be in America. We’re not American. We are people who formerly were Africans who were kidnapped and brought to America. Our forefathers weren’t the Pilgrims. We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock. The rock was landed on us. We were brought here against our will. We were not brought here to be made citizens. We were not brought here to enjoy the constitutional gifts that they speak so beautifully about today.”
Malcolm on the connection between American racism and colonialism:
“But despite the fact that I saw that Islam was a religion of brotherhood, I also had to face reality. And when I got back into this American society, I’m not in a society that practices brotherhood… And so, since I could see that America itself is a society where there is no brotherhood and that this society is controlled primarily by racists and segregationists — and it is — who are in Washington, D.C., in positions of power. And from Washington, D.C., they exercise the same forms of brutal oppression against dark-skinned people in South and North Vietnam, or in the Congo, or in Cuba, or in any other place on this earth where they’re trying to exploit and oppress. This is a society whose government doesn’t hesitate to inflict the most brutal form of punishment and oppression upon dark-skinned people all over the world…” Malcolm X, Feb 14, 1965, Ford Auditorium, Detroit