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The legacy of Malcolm X should be change, not hatred
Dear Friends of FAIR,
We’re sending you next week’s essay early. It’s a thoughtful piece by Angel Eduardo, the former editor of FAIR Substack and current member of FAIR's Board of Directors, marking the birthday of Malcolm X and asking us to rethink his popular legacy as the antagonist to MLK. We hope you enjoy reading it as much as we did.
Have a great weekend,
FAIR Substack Team
The Autobiography of Malcolm X is one of the most important books I’ve ever read. Up until I pulled it off the shelf, I thought of Malcolm the way most people do: as the vengeful and hawkish foil for the peaceful and virtuous Martin Luther King Jr. Where King preached nonviolence, X advocated for justice “by any means necessary.” While King sought unity, X joked that the only thing he liked integrated was his coffee.
Malcolm X is still seen by most as a rancorous, racist, and angry antagonist of the Civil Rights Movement—and for much of his public life, he was. But as I read through the whole of his story, aghast at the wrathful rhetoric and hateful screeds against “blue-eyed devils” that would become his trademark, I discovered something else—someone else—entirely. Despite it all, I had become convinced that Malcolm X’s legacy should not be hatred, but change.
“All of our experiences fuse into our personality,” he said in the book. “Everything that ever happened to us is an ingredient.” When I closed that back cover, I knew exactly what he meant.
The man we know as Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska on May 19th, 1925. After his family fled the Ku Klux Klan and settled in Lansing, Michigan, Malcolm’s house was burnt down. When he was six, his father was suspiciously killed. His mother later suffered a nervous breakdown and was institutionalized, leaving Malcolm and his seven siblings in foster care. Despite this turmoil, Malcolm excelled in school—but soon after a teacher told him that his aspiration to practice law was “no realistic goal for a nigger,” he dropped out. Malcolm grew more bitter and angry, and entered a wayward phase of his life where he engaged in pimping, racketeering, and burglary, among other crimes. After a series of robberies in Boston in 1946, Malcolm was arrested and sentenced to ten years in prison. His anger was notorious, and his rebukes toward Christianity earned him the nickname “Satan” by his fellow inmates.
But then, he began to change. Malcolm became an insatiable reader, devouring as many books as he could find and opening his perspective to realities beyond his own experience. “The ability to read awoke inside of me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive,” he said.
Through letters from his siblings, Malcolm also began to learn about the Nation of Islam—a religious organization which described itself as preaching black independence and self-reliance, led by a man named Elijah Muhammad. By his release from prison in 1952, Malcolm had converted and devoted himself entirely to ministry in the Nation’s service. It was then that he abandoned his surname and adopted the now-famous “X,” to replace “the white slavemaster name” that “some blue-eyed devil named Little had imposed upon [his] paternal forebears.”
This began the most prominent phase of Malcolm’s life, a decade-long period that cemented him as the scathing minister, activist, and public speaker we’re most familiar with. He recruited thousands to the Nation’s cause, setting up new mosques across the country and becoming an influential public figure. It was also the time where he preached much of the racist, antisemitic, and divisive rhetoric for which he is best known. He was an anti-integrationist and a vicious critic of both Martin Luther King Jr. and the principles of nonviolence. He believed whites were literally failed genetic experiments, and that blacks were the superior race destined to overtake them. He saw no hope for unity, and believed the ultimate goal was for all black Americans to return to Africa.
But he soon began to change again. By 1962, politics and petty jealousies among leadership, along with disconcerting rumors about Elijah Muhammad’s extramarital affairs and sexual misdeeds—which Malcolm himself investigated and confirmed—caused Malcolm to question the entirety of his perspective and allegiance to the movement. He publicly announced his disassociation in 1964, and had once again begun a process of self-reflection and evolution that would change his mind in consequential ways. “I was a zombie then—like all Muslims,” he would later say of his time with the Nation. “I was hypnotized. It cost me 12 years.”
Malcolm founded new organizations—Muslim Mosque, Inc. and the Organization of Afro-American Unity—to continue his efforts with a new perspective. He opened himself up to working with other civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., and disavowed much of the divisive rhetoric that had become synonymous with his name. His most profound shift came in 1964, after he traveled to Mecca and saw Muslims of all colors living, eating, and praying together without so much as an inkling of the vile racial animus he had grown up seeing and raging against in America. “I remember one night at Muzdalifa with nothing but the sky overhead,” he recounted in his book, “I lay awake amid sleeping Muslim brothers and I learned that pilgrims from every land—every color, and class, and rank; high officials and the beggar alike—all snored in the same language.” Far from the firebrand he had once been, Malcolm was once again becoming something—someone—new.
It’s impossible to overstate both the importance and the rarity of such a foundational and extremely public personal transformation. Given the climate we find ourselves in today, where admissions of mere error—let alone shifts in an entire worldview—are cynically interpreted, selfishly exploited, or flat-out denied in favor of tribal allegiance, financial gain, or personal pride, what Malcolm did and said in the last few months of his life almost beggar belief.
Here was a man who had made it his life’s work to preach and promote ideas he would later come to renounce and regret. And rather than double down out of fear or self-preservation, he had the courage and strength of character to not just renounce those ideas, but to do so with the world watching closely. I can count on one hand the number of current public figures I would trust or expect to behave the same way. That alone should justify us thinking of Malcolm differently than we do.
The man we know as Malcolm X died el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz on February 21, 1965—assassinated while giving a speech in Harlem. By then, he was preaching things that, if you weren’t told, you’d think Martin Luther King Jr. had said them:
“I believe in recognizing every human being as a human being—neither white, black, brown, or red; and when you are dealing with humanity as a family there's no question of integration or intermarriage. It's just one human being marrying another human being or one human being living around and with another human being.”
It’s a terrible shame that this last and most enlightened period of Malcolm’s life would also be the shortest, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it. In fact, his 39 years showcase more self-reflection, reinvention, and strength against adversity than what others could claim if they had many lifetimes to try. It is for this reason that we should change what Malcolm X represents in our public consciousness. To think of him as nothing more than the ugly inversion of Martin Luther King Jr., to see him only as a dark and divisive figure to be used as a cautionary tale, is to diminish the whole of a human being who repeatedly built himself up, tore himself down, and rebuilt himself again whenever his principles dictated.
“Despite my firm convictions,” he said near the end of his book, “I have been always a man who tries to face facts, and to accept the reality of life as new experience and new knowledge unfolds it.” These words deeply affected me when I first read them nearly 25 years ago. Learning Malcolm’s story inspired me to emulate his fearlessness, honesty, and intellectual humility—to admit my errors, to seek the truth no matter how inconvenient or frightening, and to strive to become better than I have been. Our culture can use more figures to symbolize those principles, and few fare better in that regard than Malcolm does. His willingness and capacity to change, against all incentives to do otherwise, should be his most lasting legacy. It certainly is for me.
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