Malcolm X is Still Misunderstood – and Misused
Published: February 22, 2020 • Updated: August 18, 2020
Author: Dr. Omar Suleiman
بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمٰنِ الرَّحِيْمِ
In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.
"Ignorance of each other is what has made unity impossible in the past. Therefore, we need enlightenment. We need more light about each other. Light creates understanding, understanding creates love, love creates patience, and patience creates unity. Once we have more knowledge (light) about each other, we will stop condemning each other and a United front will be brought about."
"The majority of white Americans consider themselves sincerely committed to justice for the Negro. They believe that American society is essentially hospitable to fair play and to steady growth toward a middle-class Utopia embodying racial harmony. But unfortunately this is a fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity."
Martin is the perfect hero who preached non-violence and love, and Malcolm the perfect villain who served as his violent counterpart, preaching hate and militancy. The result is not just a dishonest reading of history, but a dichotomy that allows for Dr. King to be curated to make us more comfortable, and Malcolm X to be demonized as a demagogue from whom we must all flee. Reducing these men to such simplistic symbols allows us to filter political programs according to how "King-like" they are. Hence, illegitimate forms of reconciliation are legitimized through King and legitimate forms of resistance are delegitimized through Malcolm X.
Malcolm was never violent, not as a member of the Nation of Islam, nor as a Sunni Muslim. But Malcolm did find it hypocritical to demand that black people in the United States commit to non-violence when they were perpetually on the receiving end of state violence. He believed that black people in the US had a right to defend themselves, and charged that the US was inconsistent in referencing its founding fathers’ defense of liberty for everyone but them.
Malcolm knew that his insistence on this principle would cause him to be demonized even further and ultimately benefit the movement of Dr. King, which is exactly what he had intended. Just weeks before his assassination, he went to Selma to support Dr. King and willingly embraced his role as the scary alternative. In every interview, in his meeting with Dr. Coretta Scott King, and elsewhere, he vocalized that the US would do well to give the good reverend what he was asking for, or else.
As Colin Morris, the author of Unyoung, Uncolored, Unpoor wrote, "I am not denying passive resistance its due place in the freedom struggle, or belittling the contribution to it of men like Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Both have a secure place in history. I merely want to show that however much the disciples of passive resistance detest violence, they are politically impotent without it. American Negroes needed both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X …"
But it was not just that Malcolm and Martin had complementary strategies to achieve black freedom, they also spoke to different realities. Malcolm spoke more to the Northern reality of black Americans who were only superficially integrated, whereas Martin spoke to the Southern reality where even that was not possible.
That is why, despite the diminishing of Malcolm in textbooks and holidays, he has been consistently revived through protest movements and the arts. He has lived through the activism of the likes of Muhammad Ali and Colin Kaepernick, inspired the black power movement, and been an icon for American Muslims on how to exist with dignity and faith in a hostile environment.
And even in those claims to Malcolm as a symbol, Malcolm himself in the fullness of his identity is erased. In championing his movement's philosophy, some seek to secularize him, intentionally erasing his Muslim identity. And in championing his religious identity, others seek to depoliticize him. This was a tension that Malcolm noted in his own life, saying: "For the Muslims, I’m too worldly. For other groups, I’m too religious. For militants, I’m too moderate, for moderates I’m too militant. I feel like I’m on a tightrope."
Muslims too should be cautious not to sanitize Malcolm, as the US has sanitized Dr. King. To restrict Malcolm solely to his Hajj experience is similar to restricting King solely to his "I have a dream" speech. Malcolm was a proud Muslim who never stopped being black. And while he no longer subscribed to a condemnation of the entire white race, he was unrelenting in his critique of global white supremacy.
Malcolm was consistently growing in a way that allowed him to not only champion his own people’s plight more effectively but to tackle a broader set of interconnected issues. And while history seems to posit Malcolm as his polar opposite, Dr. King had begun to articulate many of the same positions that made Malcolm so unpopular.