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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 200

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This is the grave of Malcolm X.

I hardly need to go over the biography of Malcolm X. Or at least I hope I don’t. So here are a few points to spur discussion:

1) Malcolm really had one of the most remarkable journeys of any Americans, from growing up dirt poor after his father was (possibly) lynched and his mother placed in a mental hospital to serving time in prison to converting to Islam and becoming the Nation of Islam’s primary speaker to realizing what Islam really was about and knowingly putting his life at risk by leaving the NOI and embracing it to becoming one of the global leaders of anti-colonialism.

2) Of all Americans who died young, I wonder perhaps the most what would have happened if Malcolm had lived. I feel the King story is likely more comprehensible, although still unknowable–I think he would have a very positive impact on black politics in the 70s and pushed back against the move toward economic conservatism of some of the civil rights figures such as Maynard Jackson, but eventually the affairs would have come out and hurt his reputation before becoming a senior figure to the liberal-left. Although who knows. But Malcolm? I think it’s really hard to know. How would he have responded to the 1970s? The 1980s?

3) Malcolm is probably one of the most globally influential of all American activists, perhaps more so than King. This largely comes from the best decision he ever made–putting together his Autobiography with Alex Haley. I assume many if not most readers have read it, but if you haven’t, this wonderful last will and testament of his political beliefs is both readable and powerful, taking you through his journey and his increasingly sophisticated analysis of injustice at both the national and global scale.

4) While the Nation of Islam served an important purpose in the black community, the routine murders it committed against apostates, not just Malcolm, was a sign of deep moral bankruptcy. The fact that Louis Farrakhan coordinated so much of this is the real moral failing of him becoming the prominent black leader of the 1990s, which also reflected something of a vacuum at that time.

5) The whole “King needed Malcolm on his left to push the window of possible change by making MLK look moderate” is mostly back of the cocktail napkin drunken philosophizing than analysis connected closely to reality. First, it narrows down the African-American freedom struggle of the 1960s to two men, which is a real problem in our memory of the movement (if you ask your students what civil rights figures of the 50s-70s they have heard of, for the vast majority, it is 3: King, Malcolm, Parks. And that does not vary except for one or two advanced or activist students or maybe the occasional awareness of Thurgood Marshall or Jesse Jackson). It also creates a scenario where King was the accepted leader, which was flat out untrue. White people hated King as much or more as they hated Malcolm. He was never acceptable to most white people. And in fact, Malcolm’s speeches in northern and western cities, primarily, were as influential as King’s actions, particularly in developing the urban-based movements of the late 60s that were heavily influenced by his brand of black nationalism and self-defense. They really could have used his guidance as well, as they so often fell apart in the wake of both FBI assassinations but also violence against each other.

6) Malcolm’s personal asceticism was certainly not hypocritical; unlike Farrakhan or Elijah Muhammad, he did not look to profit. Of course, this also meant that his family has nothing when he died. This is a moment to note that this is also the grave of his wife Betty Shabazz, who was left with six children to raise after only seven years of marriage. Unfortunately, whether in the NOI or anywhere else in the civil rights movement, women were treated as secondary citizens whose primary job was to service men, whether through being ascetic Muslim wives in Malcolm’s case or cleaning the kitchens and serving coffee in the SCLC or often being sexually available in parts of SNCC. This would all help spur the women’s rights movement by the late 60s. Luckily, she received half the royalties from Malcolm’s Autobiography and then after Haley published Roots and definitely did not need the money, he deeded all of his rights to her as well. She eventually grew into a speaker on her home and received a PhD from the University of Massachusetts in higher education in 1975, finally becoming a nursing professor at Medgar Evers College in New York. She hated Farrakhan, blaming him for Malcolm’s death, which he didn’t exactly deny. This would eventually lead to her own death. In 1995, their daughter Qubilah was charged with hiring someone to murder Farrakhan. She accepted a plea agreement that required her to spend time in rehab. Her son Malcolm lived with his grandmother during this incident. Sadly, he set a fire in her apartment with gasoline and while he escaped, she died of burns. He was a troubled youth suffering from mental illness and served time in juvenile detention for this. He turned his own life around and became involved in activism. But while in Mexico doing some work publicizing conditions for Mexican construction workers in the US, he ended up a known spot in Mexico City’s Plaza Garibaldi where there are a lot of prostitutes. He refused to a pay a bill, apparently not understanding that what this bar was and was beaten to death outside the club with an iron rod.

That is more than enough on all of this. There is much more to say, but that can happen in comments.

Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz are buried in Ferncliff Cemetery, Hartsdale, New York.

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