Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were the two defining civil rights leaders of the 1960s, but only one of them got a holiday. The other has been largely ignored by white America because 50 years after his assassination on Feb. 21, 1965, he still makes whites uncomfortable.
Rather than ignore that discomfort, Americans should learn from it.
Malcolm’s father, a civil rights activist himself, was likely murdered by white supremacists when Malcolm was a child. When as a young man, Malcolm expressed interest in becoming a lawyer, his teacher told him to “be realistic” and suggested he pursue carpentry. That he emerged with a great distrust of white people is hardly surprising.
Malcolm X refused to renounce violence, famously saying that African-Americans must win their freedom “by any means necessary.” While making it clear that he would prefer to reach equality by peaceful means, he also said, “I am not against using violence in self-defense,” adding pointedly, “The only people in this country who are asked to be nonviolent are black people.”
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It’s hard to imagine the families of victims Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner or Tamir Rice disagreeing with that statement.
Malcolm’s rhetoric about white people was sometimes harsh, but he grew more expansive in his last months, saying, “I no longer subscribe to sweeping indictments of any one race.” But he never backed down from the idea that African-Americans couldn’t depend on the generosity of whites but instead needed to control their own destiny.
“We don’t believe that we can win a battle where the ground rules are laid down by those who exploit us,” Malcolm X said in one of his later speeches. “We don’t believe that we can carry on a struggle trying to win the affection of those who for so long have oppressed and exploited us.”
It’s tricky to speculate on what someone who’s been dead for 50 years would say about present-day society, but if Malcolm X were suddenly dropped into 2015 America, he probably wouldn’t be shocked to learn that for every dollar of wealth a U.S. white family has, the median black family has a little more than a nickel. He most likely wouldn’t be surprised to see white politicians working to suppress the voting rights of blacks, with a wink and a nod from the U.S. Supreme Court.
He might even say, “I told you so.”
Orson Aguilar is executive director of The Greenlining Institute. He wrote this for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues.