Still Mourning Malcolm

Linda Peters, Director of Development
February 27, 2018

Still Mourning Malcolm

In a way, Malcolm X haunts me, especially at this time of year. I’m still trying to figure him out—this charismatic and complicated man. This man was executed, gunned down in the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem during a speech on Feb. 21, 1965. He was only 39. Several assailants opened fire on him as he stood at the podium. His pregnant wife and their three young children looked on in horror.

In one photograph of his bullet-riddled body lying on a stretcher being taken to a waiting ambulance, one of the police officers is smiling.

Growing up as I did on the South Side of Chicago in the tumultuous 1960s was, in a word, a trip. We darker-skinned residents in the “changing” neighborhoods got our news filtered down to us through white mouths, white newspapers, white television and radio broadcasts, white teachers and white pastors. And in my case, a white mother and white grandparents. My African-American father, separated from my mother, was the unspoken voice of the victims of the racist and violent society that surrounded us.

I was 5 years old when Malcolm was assassinated. I had never been told about him. Three years later, in 1968, while hospitalized with an emergency appendectomy, I watched the television one day and saw a funeral. It was for Martin Luther King, Jr. That was my first image of King. In my child’s mind I knew someone great and good had died, because of the American flag draped on the casket.

I don’t remember seeing Malcolm’s funeral. I’ve since seen a photograph of the lone silver hearse in Harlem, no cars behind it, no police escort, and no American flag, with several thousand people lined up neatly along the sidewalks.

I didn’t really begin to learn about Malcolm X until I got to high school and was assigned to read his autobiography, written with Alex Haley (of Roots fame). Up until that time, I had heard snippets, seen photos of him with a rifle, looking mean. But in high school, I also saw one of my male classmates “become” a Muslim—or more accurately, a member of the Nation of Islam. He started wearing suits and ties to school, the kind you saved for church or graduation. He talked about the “white devils” (i.e., white people). He showed me a workbook with a cartoon illustration of a white man with blue eyes, yellow hair and Satanic horns on his head. I thought this was strange stuff and stayed away. I feared my Muslim classmates. And once I found out that Malcolm X had been one of those guys, I feared him as well.

The dichotomy was fixed. Malcolm X: Bad man of violence. Martin Luther King: Good man of peace. King was the one we revered. Malcolm was the one we feared. And nobody told us otherwise.

My trip through four years of racial minefields at the very-white Brown University in Providence, RI in the late 1970s, brought me new revelations about Malcolm X. All of the African-American student leaders on campus wanted to be like him. They had no use for the Gandhi-esque Dr. King.

“Let’s bomb University Hall,” one such leader said during a heated discussion about Brown’s hesitance in divesting from companies in South Africa. Posters of Malcolm X were everywhere. Posters of King were nowhere. Classmates were changing their names to African names, shedding the “slave names” of their lineage. Malcolm was admired; Martin was dismissed.

I was confused.

So I decided to educate myself and solve the riddle of Malcolm X. Who was he? Was he a bad man or a good man? Did he want to kill all white people? What did he do for African-American people? Why wasn’t he on America’s pedestal with King? Why no national holiday for Malcolm? Why no American flag on his casket?

As I pored over books, documentaries, speeches, and interviews, I found out that this man—a grade-school dropout whose black Baptist preacher father was hunted down and murdered by white supremacists, whose white mother descended into insanity, and who became a thief and spent 7 years in prison—was brilliant. It was in prison that he discovered and joined the Nation of Islam. He spoke and wrote with wisdom, clarity, passion, and authority, and as his life was changing, he was changing the course of race relations in America.

Where did this Malcolm come from? Was he there all the time, behind all the white filters? I was amazed and depressed at how so much about this great leader had been kept from me—even growing up in an African-American neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago.

It’s an image thing. Malcolm knew all about it, and explained it during a speech he made at the Corn Hill Church in Rochester, N. Y., five days before he was murdered. “This is a skill,” he said. “This skill is called...image making. They hold you in check through the science of imagery. They even make you look down upon yourself, by giving you a bad image of yourself.

“Some of our own black people have eaten this image themselves and digested it so far, until they themselves don’t want to live in the black community. They don’t want to be around black people themselves...

“It’s a science they use, very skillfully, to make the criminal look like the victim, and to make the victim look like the criminal.”

I grew up thinking Malcolm was basically a criminal, a troublemaker—no real friend to African-American people in America. But after getting to know him through his writings and interviews and speeches, I see that he loved African-American people. He wanted them (us) to be treated with dignity, justice, and respect, enjoying the same human rights as any other citizen of this country or this world.

As he travelled to Africa, Europe, and the Middle East on speaking engagements and to meet with African leaders, he instilled in black people worldwide a pride that spoke out against oppression without fear. He lifted America’s civil-rights movement onto the global stage of human rights for all people of African descent— and all people of non-European descent—from Cuba to the Congo. And he expanded his scope to include speaking out against the Vietnam War.

He had the integrity and the courage to break with a corrupt, hypocritical black Muslim organization, the movement in which he forged his identity, knowing that he risked his life in doing so. He paid the ultimate price trying to unify, dignify, and empower oppressed peoples, especially those he loved most.

We need him desperately today.

Laura Slabaugh