By Gloria J. Browne-Marshall
Malcolm X was a complex man. The beating death of his grandson, Malcolm Shabazz, 28, in a Mexico City bar, days before his grandfather’s birth date, only adds to this complex legacy. For, the life and death of Malcolm X is unlike any other civil rights icon.
Malcolm X is remembered as an impassioned speaker who demanded change by any means necessary. Malcolm X said things aloud about White oppression most African Americans whispered because they lacked his courage, intellect, and love of race. Yet, he was gunned down by his own people.
Malcolm was born into conflict in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1925. His parents, Earl and Louise Little, and their eight children moved to Lansing, Michigan, seeking opportunity and peace from racial oppression. They would find neither. Malcolm’s father, a minister, and member of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, became a target of the Ku Klux Klan.
Earl Little was beaten to death. However, his body was laid across train tracks and ruled a suicide. Louise Little, now impoverished, lost her home, children, and then her mind. Malcolm was raised by relatives. Although class president, he left school at age 15 after an English teacher’s racist remarks crushed his dream of becoming an attorney.
When the streets beckoned he responded, with enthusiasm. Crime led to Malcolm’s incarceration in 1946. Incarceration led to his introduction to the Nation of Islam and the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. In 1952, Malcolm replaced Little with the surname X.
Malcolm X gave voice to oppressed African Americans. He created Muhammad Speaks, a national newspaper. A natural orator, his training by the Nation of Islam catapulted him onto the national stage. He would lead the growth of the Nation of Islam becoming minister of Temple No. 7 in Harlem and Temple No. 11 in Boston as well as opening temples in Hartford and Philadelphia.
Television images of Black women and children mercilessly beaten, Black men murdered with impunity, led to a conflict with Dr. Martin Luther King. Dr. King spoke of non-violence. Malcolm X preached fighting back. Dr. King asked Blacks to love their enemies. Malcolm X challenged White supremacy demanding that Black communities love themselves first. Dr. King had a dream for the entire nation. Malcolm X offered Black Nationalism, saying, “There is no such thing as a nonviolent revolution.”
Malcolm X and Dr. King were limbs from the same mighty tree. Both men were needed to battle American racism. However, the Black community was forced to take sides. It was either King or Malcolm. Choose either an integrationist Christian nonviolent movement or a separatist Black Muslim militant group. The famous photo of Malcolm X shaking hands with Dr. King, taken March 26, 1964, is the only recorded interaction between these two men.
Malcolm X trusted the Nation of Islam with his life and family. He was an ideal spokesman until running afoul of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. Conflicts grew between him and his father figure. Malcolm X had come to realize, even among oppressed people, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Malcolm then broke away from the Nation of Islam. He traveled to Africa.
On March 8, 1964, when Malcolm X returned from his pilgrimage to Mecca or Hajj, he changed his name to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. His views expanded to include human rights. He created the Muslim Mosque, Inc. and the Organization of Afro- American Unity. Tensions between Malcolm and the Nation of Islam escalated, fueled by government agents. A bomb was planted in Malcolm’s car.
His house was burned down by arsonists on Valentine’s Day, 1965. Despite death threats, Malcolm continued his public appearances. He spoke to activists, college students, and especially members of beleaguered Black communities pushing them to recognize their power to change their world.
On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X addressed the Organization of African Unity at Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom. His pregnant wife Betty Shabazz was in the audience with their daughters. A staged commotion diverted attention from the men who then shot Malcolm in cold blood. He was 39. Three men were convicted in his death, all members of the Nation of Islam; all claim innocence.
Malcolm’s death remains a point of contention in the Black community. Books like Alex Haley’s “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and Manning Marable’s “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention” attempt to unravel the paradox of Malcolm X and his immense contribution to Black communities from New York to Dallas, Atlanta to Milwaukee. Now, his grandson, Malcolm Shabazz, has been murdered.
In 1997, Shabazz was convicted of setting a fire that took the life of his grandmother, Betty Shabazz, a beloved civil rights matriarch. After juvenile detention for that crime, Shabazz served several prison sentences for other crimes. Shabazz was beaten to death under mysterious circumstances on May 9, in Mexico. Once again, the community is left with questions.
Shabazz was the grandson of a murdered man, Malcolm X; who was the son of a murdered father, Earl Little. Where will it end?
Gloria J. Browne- Marshall, an Associate Professor of Constitutional Law at John Jay College in New York City, is author of “Race, Law, and American Society: 1607 to Present” and a journalist covering the U.S. Supreme Court. @ GBrowneMarshall