50 years after Malcolm X, civil rights icon inspired fear and love
“… We will know him then for what he was and is. A prince. Our own black shining prince who didn’t hesitate to die because he loved us so.” — Actor Ossie Davis in his eulogy for Malcolm X.
When civil rights icon Malcolm X was gunned down fifty years ago on February 21, 1965, he didn’t have many devoted followers. The New York Times called his life “pitifully wasted,” and he was more often than not viewed as a victim of the radical rhetoric he preached, which was occasionally tinged with violent overtones.
But in death, the man born Malcolm Little (he later adopted the ‘X’ as a repudiation of his ancestral slave name) was in many ways reborn: Thanks in part to a best-selling autobiography penned by Alex Haley, generations of African-Americans born in Malcolm’s wake came to see him as the truly revolutionary political figure that he was.
His life didn’t begin so auspiciously. Malcolm’s father was killed under suspicious circumstances and his mother was soon committed to a psychiatric hospital. He fell into a life of crime early, and was well on his way to becoming just another statistic when a fellow prisoner introduced him to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, the controversial leader and founder of the Nation of Islam.
Malcolm’s embrace and later rejection of the Nation of Islam’s black separatist philosophy would help shape the arc of his public life, and eventually lead to his premature death. It was three members of the Nation who were found to be responsible for his assassination at New York’s Audubon Ballroom, where he was shot in front of his wife and children. Other accomplices believed to have been involved in the plot have never been officially identified or charged. It has long been suspected, but never proven, that the killers were acting on the orders of Muhammad, the Nation of Islam founder.
During his final years, Malcolm had begun to rebuke Muhammad for his strict leadership many alleged infidelities. After a high-profile pilgrimage to Mecca not long before his death, Malcolm’s previously staunch views on race began to evolve as well. In 1964, he founded the Organization for Afro-American Unity, which promoted the concept that racism of all kinds, not just white racism, was the greatest impediment to black life. And just days before he was assassinated, he made overtures to Dr. Martin Luther King through his wife Coretta, during a pit-stop in Selma.
A riveting speaker with a biting intellect, Malcolm’s black nationalist vision grew in power and influence over the ensuing decades and was made even more legendary thanks to Spike Lee’s acclaimed biopic, which featured Oscar-winner Denzel Washington in perhaps his most memorable role as the slain leader.
Fifty years ago, Malcolm X was a figure who inspired fear – but time has been kinder to his image and message, which was far more nuanced and insightful than it seemed when a shocked nation first encountered it in the late 1950s and early ‘60s.
Malcolm himself may not have envisioned himself one day emblazoned on a U.S. postage stamp, but he did foresee his own demise, which came just days after his home was firebombed.
“It is a time for martyrs now, and if I am to be one, it will be for the cause of brotherhood,” Malcolm, just 39 years old, said two days before his assassination. “That’s the only thing that can save this country.”