El-Haj Malik el-Shabazz, commonly known as Malcolm X, was a religious and human rights leader in the 20th century and a contemporary of Martin Luther King. He is commonly known for being a spokesperson for the Nation of Islam, which is a black political and religious movement in America. There are mixed reactions to the legacy of Malcolm X. Many regard him as a black separatist who preached hatred and division in America. When he was assassinated, few outside of America’s poorest black neighborhoods mourned his death and no mainstream media outlet had positive things to say about him. Many prominent blacks who broke glass ceilings of success in America in the 1970s and 80s argued that Malcolm X had little significance and left no meaningful legacy in America. However, in the early 1990s, the popularity of Malcolm X began to grow within young blacks who questioned the philosophy of Martin Luther King as a means to addressing the economic and political deprivations of poor black communities. Many universities began studying his philosophy, and his autobiography climbed up the bestseller list. While his image is slightly less negative today than it was at the time of his death 51 years ago, many still question his significance, and his legacy is thus misunderstood. The reality is that Malcolm X was an important black American leader who challenged the hypocrisy of white America and affirmed a love for self in the black community that had been lost. So many people dismiss Malcolm X entirely while embracing Martin Luther King completely without truly understanding either of them. This is both intellectually dishonest and historically inaccurate. There are many reasons why Malcolm X matters and why his life and message are necessary today:
1. Lifelong learner: Malcolm X was an evolving man. He always sought growth and challenged himself to become a better leader and man. This was evident in his conversion to the Nation of Islam in prison; his split from the Nation of Islam and formation of his own religious and political Black Nationalist group; and his pilgrimage to Mecca where he challenged his limited perspective on race and religion, embracing a global human rights perspective. Whether or not you agree with his political or religious philosophies, his continual growth and transformation is something to be celebrated and learned from.
2. Self-love: One of the lasting effects of slavery was psychological—the self-hatred of blacks. Black Americans were taught of the superiority of the white race, and that was/is reflected in education, religion, broader culture. For example, black Americans were taught during slavery that they were meant to be slaves and that God and Jesus were white. This claim is not only historically inaccurate, but psychologically toxic. When you are forced into slavery and told that you are inferior and that everything good (including the God you worship) looks different from you, this understanding will breed self-hatred. Malcolm X also helped create a greater awareness and appreciation of African culture and African identity. In the 20th century, the image of an African was that of a savage. Movies and plays depicted Africans as being uncivilized people who needed the white European to save them. Many blacks rejected having any association of Africa (still prevalent today) and believed the myth that being African meant being less than human. Malcolm X talked about loving where you come from and appreciating your African ancestry, no matter how distant you were from the continent generationally.
3. Human Rights: During the last year of Malcolm’s life, he went through a transformation from focusing on civil rights to human rights. After his pilgrimage to Mecca and travels to African countries, he began connecting the race problem in America to the global fight against racism and colonialism. He made plans to bring complaints to the United Nations regarding the treatment of black people in America and started building alliances with revolutionaries around the world. His global focus has impacted many contemporary movements including the Black Lives Matter movement, which connects the liberation of blacks in America to the liberation of oppressed minorities around the world. The Black Lives Matter movement has also been effective at building alliances and chapters outside of the U.S. and is referred to as a global movement; they think globally and act locally.
4. Martin Luther King: It is well known that Malcolm X and Martin Luther King had stark differences and disagreements on how to address racial issues in America. However, towards to end of their lives, they began moving closer to each other. After Malcolm X’s trip from Mecca some of his views on race began to move closer to MLK’s. Likewise, towards to end of Dr. King’s life, he began to understand Malcolm X more, and as a result, his criticism of American policies both domestically and internationally became stronger. He emphasized the oppression of people from both a national and global perspective and shifted towards a focus on human rights. The latter part of Martin Luther King’s life was greatly influenced by Malcolm X. If they had lived longer, they would have had a much greater impact collectively than they had individually.
5. Black church & Christian faith: Although Malcolm X was not a Christian, his critiques of Christianity challenged many black Christians to wrestle with their faith and make sense of it. Christianity was used to justify enslaving and marginalizing black Americans, and while those actions were inconsistent with core Christian teaching, many black and white Christians had not wrestled with that reality. Malcolm X’s critique forced many to think through and reflect on Christian theology. Much of the liberation theology and in particular, black liberation theology has been inspired by the challenges and critiques from Malcolm X. Liberation theology connects the Christian experience with the struggle of oppressed communities. It affirms one’s identity both in Christ and with their culture and allows marginalized people to see liberation as the core of the gospel, rather than feeling submissive or subservient to a dominant culture that has corrupted the Christian faith.
Malcolm X was a great leader who demonstrated the value of lifelong learning, self-love and appreciation, and the global fight against racism and oppression. His message and meaning also challenged black Christians like Martin Luther King to affirm their culture in light of their faith and to take a more global approach to racism. People who write off Malcolm X completely do not understand him. People who undermine his influence while overstating Dr. King’s influence are ignorant of history. It is essential to understand and learn from Malcolm X as we do from Dr. King because both of their messages and stories are relevant and necessary in the age of Black Lives Matter.