Saturday, February 21, 2009

A seat at the table: Malcolm X, 44 years after

When Malcolm X (El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz) was shot to death at 3:10 p.m., on Sunday, Feb. 21, 1965 at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City, it ended a part of the civil rights movement that the civil rights movement never fully embraced. This 44th anniversary of his assassination occurs with America in the midst of societal transition he would have no doubt relished — a transition resulting in great measure from his critical assessment of America and its various racial dishonesties, an assessment that helped lay the groundwork for vast social and political change.

In the years of his ascendancy as a harsh, incisive and necessary critic of the nation of his birth, Malcolm X spoke truth to power with a volcanic directness and urbane wit that fascinated and frightened white Americans. But it was his adoption of Islam in a Christian nation that more or less isolated him from the mainstream visibility and acceptance enjoyed by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Malcolm has always been held at a figurative arm’s length both by the media and by the national historical record; both tend even now to fixate on King and the more familiar (and palatable) narrative of the civil rights movement’s origins in the Christian church. Today, more than two generations after his death, a philosophical dichotomy between King and Malcolm X has been erected and enforced, a schism that, in fact, may not ever have existed.

Malcolm X’s place in the leadership of the civil rights movement as taught in schools and universities has certainly been more peripheral, if not downright marginal. You got the overview on King (however abbreviated it might be) in your American history class. You had to go to a black studies class to find out about Malcolm.

That simplistic, convenient division has been a persistent fiction in the national life; Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were taking different avenues to the same objective. Considering that both men had essentially the same goal in mind — social and economic empowerment of Americans of African descent — considering that both men found more common ground as the Jim Crow agonies of the 1960’s continued — the time is past to weave Malcolm more fully into the fabric of the historical narrative on civil rights. Where he’s always belonged. Where he’s always been anyway.

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“The juxtaposition of the views of Malcolm and Martin defines the evolution of the struggle,” Howard Dodson, director of the Schomburg Center for Research, told me in February 2005. “The tendency to create polar opposites, which is what media did at that time, doesn’t reflect the struggle. … they were part and parcel of the same program. Malcolm said in so many words, ‘either you deal with Martin King or you deal with me.’”

The contrasts between the two men — one steeped in the body of the church, the other seared in the crucible of the street — embodied the duality of black Americans’ lives. Both men were riveting public speakers, of course, but Malcolm’s earliest addresses sharply, sometimes harshly made plain the stakes: nothing less than equal, whatever it takes. Period.

King was expressing much the same message from the loftier rhetorical precincts of the Baptist church, but his reverential homiletics had a resonance to a Christian nation that Malcolm, before his conversion to Islam and certainly after, could never hope to attain.

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What’s been largely omitted from the histories of the civil rights movement is the commonalities that developed between the two men. Dodson told me, for example, that, well before the end, “Malcolm had shifted into a broader humanistic perspective, upgrading the position of black, Hispanic and native Americans.” King had begun to widen the scope of his message to include a full-throated opposition to the Vietnam War.

And what’s likely to be seen in the next episodes of the improvisation we call America — the history still to be written — is a matter of faith: the role of Islam in the United States, a nation still psychically scarred by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a country never quite far away from the stealth xenophobia that informs its past.

Dodson in 2005: “Americans will have to come to terms with Islam within the United States and outside, and formulate positions at individual and societal levels that bring the same respect to Islam that people bring to Christianity. ... It won't happen overnight.”

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Malcolm X has been gone for 44 years. In that time, the varying expressions of the civil rights movement have transformed this nation at every level, ultimately making possible the new man of the moment, Barack Obama, the 44th president.

To the media, the academy, the namers of the pantheon, let the record show: The civil rights movement was as multidimensional as the people it was meant to empower. Malcolm X has always had a seat at that table. In his search for voice and identity is mirrored the search for our own. We stand on his shoulders as well. By acknowledging his obvious presence in the national narrative, by accepting his faith in the national panorama, we perform vital double duty:

We begin to listen to a voice from the past, one we often marginalized or ignored; we start to prepare for a future, one that’s coming to meet us whether we like it or not.
Malcolm top: The Official Web Site of Malcolm X. Martin and Malcolm, 1964: Public domain.

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