With the death of George Floyd at that hands (or rather knee) of a Minneapolis police officer and the protests that followed, I found myself wanting to try to understand the perspective of those who don’t share my white privilege. I thought back to the days of civil rights marches and protests in the 1960s. Growing up, I had learned about the Montgomery bus boycott, the March on Washington, and Martin Luther King, Jr. I also learned, but only in passing, about a man named Malcolm X.
What a learned in school about Martin Luther King, Jr. was only the headlines version, but I’ve heard much of his “I Have a Dream Speech” and read his “Letter from a Birmhamham Jail”. The only thing I learned about Malcolm X was that he was an angry Muslim that rather than believing in non-violence advocated for violent resistance. So in the midst of protests that occasionally turned violent, I decided to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
Malcolm X was a complex and dynamic man who isn’t done justice by the simplistic view of him that I had before I read this book. He grew up poor with only an eighth grade formal education. After the eighth grade he moved from the Lansing, MI area to Boston. There he live with his half sister and started work as a shoe shiner. Later he moved to Harlem where he used and sold drugs. He was eventually caught and incarcerated for these crimes and served ten years.
While in prison, Malcolm X spent most of his time either in the prison library or reading in his cell. He always sought to learn and grow. He also converted to the Nation of Islam. After leaving prison, he preached around the country, opening new temples (later called mosques). It was during this time that he rose to public prominence for his views. He was opposed to integration, feeling that the white man was the problem and that the black man needed to take pride in himself and to support and nurture his fellows. His speeches were fiery, and he never shied away from telling it like he saw it. It was during this time in his life that he gained the reputation as an angry, violent man.
Eventually Malcolm X had a falling out and a parting of the ways with the founder and leader of the Nation of Islam. In the process of this severance of ties, Malcolm made a pilgrimage to Mecca that change him profoundly. On this journey he had seen Muslims of all colors and nationalities live and worship as one during the Hajj. When he returned from this trip, he no longer saw the white man personally as his enemy. Instead he took the racist actions of men as his opposition. Unfortunately, no one in the media or public life seemed willing to acknowledge his growth. They still associated him with his days as a minister in the Nation of Islam. And while he was still in the process of redirecting his life in this new direction, he was assassinated.
For me, Malcolm X represents what we need today for civil rights. The 1960s led to institutional and legal changes required to move us further toward a more just and fair society. But now we need to face the hard facts of changing the culture itself. That’s the change that Malcolm X was trying to effect when his life was cut short. He wasn’t willing to wait any longer for justice for his people. The Black Lives Matter movement embraces that spirit. We’ve removed the overt racism that existed in our laws. Now we need to remove it from where it is embedded in our institutions.
For me the lesson of Malcolm X’s life is that we are always capable of learning and growing. The challenge is often that those around us aren’t willing to accept the changes that we go through. In Mecca, Malcolm X was able to see the humanity in everyone and that softened his heart but not his resolve. That’s what is missing in our politics today. Our politics is strong on resolve but lacks the heart of compassion and understanding. I hope that we can all embrace those qualities and work to embody them just as Malcolm X strove to in the last two years of his life.