Saturday marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X, one of the most central figures in the civil rights movement and an American historical icon. His legacy in the civil rights movement, a pivotal juncture in American history, still resonates today — perhaps even more so in the decades since his death.
Born Malcolm Little in Nebraska, the civil rights leader had a tumultuous childhood; his family often a target of white supremacists for their prominent civil rights activism. Following a stint in prison for several crimes, Malcolm was introduced to the Nation of Islam — where he changed his last name to "X" in memory of the African family name lost to slave owners — whose members were ultimately found guilty for his death.
Oftentimes described as the polar opposite of Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm's message of achieving equality "by the ballot or the bullet" resounded among a black community that had underwent 50 years of violent discrimination and segregation, despite claims of integration. In fact, the two most prominent civil rights leaders deeply disagreed with each other's approach — Malcolm even accused King of being a puppet of the white man:
The white man pays Rev. Martin Luther King; subsidizes Rev. Martin Luther King, so that Rev. Martin Luther King can continue to teach the Negro to be defenseless — that's what you mean by non-violence. To be defenseless in that face of one of the most cruel beasts that has ever taken the people into captivity — that is the American white man.
Articulate and astute, Malcolm became the leading figure in the Nation of Islam, eclipsing even founder Elijah Muhammad and attracting massive audiences and widespread media coverage in the 50s and 60s. Malcolm's activities were closely scrutinized by the FBI, particularly under J. Edgar Hoover's watch, reported CNN. In fact, Malcolm's dedication to the movement prompted plans to bring up the cause to the United Nations, charging the federal government with failure to protect black Americans from "racist white terrorism."
After a bitter falling out with the Nation of Islam, Malcolm traveled widely around Africa and the Middle East in the last year of his life, eventually converting to Orthodox Sunni Islam and changing his name to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. During that time, Malcolm was also under heavy federal surveillance and received death threats from the Nation of Islam. Malcolm was ultimately shot multiple times at close range in Washington Heights, NY, and pronounced dead upon arrival at the hospital.
Yet half a century after Malcolm's death, the causes he championed still reverberate throughout American society — particularly taking into account the troubling instances of police brutality and racial discrimination today. What would Malcolm have said about the police officers' separate killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown that sparked furious protests across the nation? Of the officers' subsequent acquittals by a broken and biased justice system?
Whenever something happens, 20 police cars swarm on one neighborhood,. This force . . . creates a spirit of resentment in every Negro. They think they are living in a police state and they become hostile toward the policeman.