by Bryan K. Bullock
May 19th was Malcolm X’s birthday. The man who was Malcolm Little, then Malcolm X, then El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, is still an inspirational, important, giant figure in the black liberation struggle. Malcolm’s message and critique of the United States and the systemic nature of racism in this country is just as important and cogent an analysis as ever. Malcolm spoke for and to the African American 99%. His “field negro” analysis, was brilliantly designed to give voice to the poor, urban African American who was disenfranchised, unemployed, and unprepared to “turn the other cheek” from a society where African Americans were second class citizens.
An older friend of mine confided in me many years ago that many black people, including him, were afraid of Malcolm X. They were not afraid of him because he was wrong, but instead, they were afraid of him because he was right. He was feared because he openly, confidently, and boldly stated things that many black people agreed with, but were too afraid to say in public for fear of reprisal. But if Malcolm was feared, he was also loved for speaking truths that the masses could only whisper in private.
Malcolm was a teacher. He read voraciously and shared his knowledge with the masses of black people in a down to earth easy to understand manner. Malcolm was brilliant. A man who had never been formally educated, imprisoned at an early age, was able to debate with scholars and to speak to the masses equally. Another gentleman that I met many years ago said to me that he and Malcolm were walking through a university one night, when Malcolm stopped and pointed at a library and remarked that this is where he would, if he could, spend all of his time because that is where the seeds of black people’s liberation is contained.
Two giants of the so-called Civil Rights Movement, Wyatt Tee Walker and James Farmer noted, many years later, that Malcolm X”s analysis of racism and its deep roots in American society was more accurate than their own. By their own admission, they didn’t understand how deeply racism ran in America. Malcolm, they said, had a more realistic and cogent understanding of structural racism than did they. Malcolm remained, until his death, by his own words, a black nationalist freedom fighter. He traveled the globe speaking to leaders of the emerging African nations, who themselves were finally breaking the yoke of colonialism, impressing them with his intellect and his commitment to the struggles of black people the world over. Malcolm’s Pan-Africanism sought to unite the African diaspora, as well as other so-called Third World peoples, to form a united effort to fight colonialism and imperialism.
The popularization of the term African American is a testament to Malcolm who consistently said that black people in American were transported Africans and he used the term Afro-American. The Organization of Afro-American Unity that he founded, was meant to be an American wing of the Organization of African Unity which had formed among African nations. Malcolm spoke of taking the United States in front of the United Nations for its oppression of African Americans and characterized the black freedom struggle as an issue of human rights instead of civil rights. He was deeply suspicious of the motives and commitment of American politicians and black “leaders” to seek full rights and power for the black masses. Unlike many black civil rights leaders, he never differentiated between southern and northern politicians. Malcolm never saw the southern racist as an anomaly as many did. Instead, he viewed both southerners and northerners as part of a whole racist system that was designed and determined to keep African Americans in a subordinate status.
He frequently remarked that southerners were more blatant in their discrimination, but that black people faced just as much discrimination, although more subtle, in the north. Malcolm became a respected figure world-wide, and yet, in many quarters, he is still disrespected and under-appreciated. Here in my hometown of Gary, Indiana, the city council refuses to even name a street after brother Malcolm. A city that was at the heart of the emerging black political movement refuses to even name a street after a man for whom the black political movement owes much of its rhetoric, strength and courage. Gary, a city hardest hit by white flight (which Malcolm predicted would happen in many northern cities), one of the first major cities to elect an African American mayor, host to the black political convention, is too afraid and defeated to accept a Malcolm X Boulevard. But, then, it doesn’t have a Richard Gordon Hatcher Boulevard either.
Malcolm’s legacy lives on in the thousands of grassroots organizations who continue to fight for justice in their own majority minority communities worldwide. The organizational children of Malcolm, namely, the Black Panther Party, The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, the Black Radical Congress, and others, are testaments to his influence. His life continues to be studied and his messages analyzed by a new generation of scholars and leaders. He continues to inspire me, personally, with his courage, intellect and oratory. Happy birthday Malcolm.
Bryan K. Bullock is a lawyer. He was habeas counsel for detainees imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He practices employment discrimination and civil rights law and is a resident of Gary, IN.