The 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the Selma to Montgomery March, and the passage of the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965 and Dr. Martin Luther King’s role in these events is correctly capturing the imagination of Black America. But, there is another set of events that should also receive attention of our people.
Twenty-fifteen marks the 50th memorial of the assassination of Malcolm X, and it is also the year of his 90th birthday. It seems odd that very little attention is being devoted to the anniversary dates of the life and legacy of such an extraordinary leader. It is as if Black America is gripped by a case of historical amnesia. This is not the first time for such a lapse of memory.
February 21, 1990, more than 3,000 people jammed into the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem for the 25th memorial of the assassination of El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, Malcolm X. Another 1,000 or more gathered in the street to watch the program on a television monitor, hastily positioned in a Church window to accommodate the outside audience. Inside the Church C-SPAN broadcast live ringing tributes to the life and legacy of our “Black Shining Prince.”
Poets and political activists Haki Madhubuti and Sonia Sanchez; the Honorable Percy Sutton, confidant of Malcolm and the family lawyer; New York Councilman Al Vann; Preston Wilcox, Director of AFRAM and facilitator of the Malcolm X Lovers Network were among the notable leaders offering tributes. The evening climaxed with an electrifying oration by Dr. James Turner, Chairman of the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University and mentee of Malcolm. The audience rose for a prolonged rousing ovation as Dr. Turner proclaimed, “Malcolm, we will never forget you!” Dr. Betty Shabazz, who had never attended a memorial on the anniversary of the assassination of her husband, was visibly moved by the tremendous outpouring of admiration, love and affection for one of the greatest leaders in the history of Africans in America.
The Commemoration was hosted by Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts, Senior Pastor of Abyssinian, and I had the honor of serving as Moderator of this memorable occasion. But, the process of uplifting Malcolm did not end there. May 19th of that year hundreds of people from around the country gathered in Omaha, Nebraska, Malcolm’s birthplace, for a National Ceremony to celebrate his 65th birthday. Dr. Maulana Karenga, Dick Gregory, Sonia Sanchez, Haki Madhubuti, Dr. James Turner and scores of other activists and luminaries were in the company of Dr. Betty Shabazz and family members as the highly acclaimed actor Avery Brooks read a Proclamation declaring, May 19th the birthday of Malcolm X, a National African American Day of Commemoration – as an act of Kujichagulia, Self-Determination.
1990 was “The Year of Malcolm X,” an incredible season of uplifting and celebrating Malcolm’s life and legacy to inspire continued resistance and struggle for freedom and self-determination for Africans in America and the Black world. But, this magnificent season of celebrating Malcolm did not occur by accident; it was the outcome of a conscious strategy, a calculated plan devised by a group of leaders determined not to let the legacy of Malcolm be the victim of “historical amnesia.”
Martin Luther King and Malcolm X are unquestionably the seminal leaders of the civil rights/human rights, Black Power, Nationalist/Pan-Africanist era that transformed the status of Africans in America. But, Martin has always been more palatable to the power elite, much of White America and the more conciliatory elements in Black America. Despite the increasingly radical nature of his politics as he neared the end of his life, King’s non-violent commitment to achieving a “more perfect union” and “dream” of a “beloved community” were more readily digested and co-opted than Malcolm’s fierce denunciation of White Supremacy, castigation of the American “nightmare” and his advocacy of “freedom by any means necessary!” In a choice between Martin and Malcolm, it is clear that the power elite preferred Martin. Hence, Martin has been sanitized and elevated while Malcolm has largely been ignored, except in those periods when his devotees have refused to allow his contribution to be relegated to irrelevance.
As the 25th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X and his 65th birthday approached in 1990, Martin was ascendant and celebrated, and justifiably so, as a seminal leader. But, Malcolm was not seen on par with Martin in the popular consciousness. His legacy languished on the margins of memory of a young generation of Africans in America, progressive youth/young people and much of Black America.
It was against this backdrop that a formation called the African American Progressive Action Network (AAPAN) resolved that 1990 should be declared “The Year of Malcolm X.” AAPAN created a National Malcolm X Commemoration Commission, with Dr. James Turner as Co-Chairman, to coordinate the campaign. The goal was not to denigrate Martin Luther King but to seize upon the occasion of the 25th Anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm and his 65th birthday to wage a campaign to elevate his profile beyond the true believers to a new generation of young activists and to remind folks of all socio-economic strata in Black America of the unique contribution of Malcolm X to the liberation of Black people in this country and the world.
Yes, to remind Black people and the world of Malcolm who was uncompromising in this criticism of and opposition to White supremacy as an ingrained aspect of the very fabric of the American nation; Malcolm who stressed Black/African history, culture and identity and linked the Black liberation movement in the U.S. to the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles in Africa and people of color in the developing world; Malcolm, an unabashed Black Nationalist, demanding that Black people “control the politics, economics and social life” of the domestic colonies in this nation; Malcolm, the Pan-Africanist, exhorting African people the world over to unite to exercise global Black Power; Malcolm, the Muslim, who came to understand and respect the universal brotherhood of humankind without abandoning his fundamental commitment to the liberation of Black people; Malcolm, our “Black Shining Prince,” who rose up from a life of petty crime and destructive behavior to evolve into a master-teacher, brilliant organizer and one of the most feared, respected and admired African leaders of all time – a model of possibilities for every Black man or woman imprisoned in America’s “dark ghettos.”
1990 the Year of Malcolm X was not about diminishing Martin but enhancing the understanding of the life and legacy of Malcolm among the masses of Black folks, as an indispensible dimension of the prescription for the liberation of a people! The campaign was highly successful. For years, the symbol X signified young people’s identification with Malcolm. Indeed, in 2005, on the occasion of the 40th memorial of Malcolm’s assassination, another massive commemoration was held at Abyssinian Baptist Church.
The current lack of major national recognition of the 50th memorial suggests the need for yet another campaign to prevent Malcolm’s memory from being relegated to relative obscurity. It is not that programs are not being planned. As is the case every year, there will be commemorations in New York and cities across the country. In fact, I’m told that young activists/leaders are conducting an “X Speaks” online. My concern is that the various commemorations are largely among the true believers and taken together they lack the public/visible scope and scale commensurate to the occasion of the 50th memorial of the assassination of Malcolm and the year of his 90th birthday. I simply believe that Malcolm deserves better.
In that regard, the words of Dr. James Turner on the momentous evening 25 years ago must forever be the mantra of every African person devoted to the liberation of Black people – We must never forget Malcolm.
Hence the utter necessity to utilize the balance of this year, particularly May 19th, his 90th birthday to once again elevate Malcolm to his rightful place in the pantheon of esteemed ancestors – one of the greatest African leaders of all time.
To do otherwise would be to succumb to the machinations of a White supremacist power elite that would have the masses of our people believe that Malcolm was just a bit player in the historic, heroic, courageous struggle of Africans in America for freedom and self-determination. We cannot, must not allow this happen.
Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website www.ibw21.org and www.northstarnews.com
To send a message, arrange media interviews or speaking engagements, Dr. Daniels can be reached via email at [email protected]