It’s been 49 years since Muslim Black rights activist Malcolm X was gunned down as he spoke before hundreds at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan.
In the years since his death, Malcolm X’s role as a freedom fighter has solidified, though he is not heralded to the same degree as civil rights martyrs such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Medgar Evers, civil rights leaders said. Even as he was preaching self-defense and self-reliance in New York City, many of the leaders of the civil rights movement in the South were unfamiliar with him.
As the anniversary of his death approached this week, there was little of the fanfare attached to celebrations for other slain civil rights heroes.
In a 2012 column posted on MSNBC.com, commentator Melissa Harris-Perry said Malcolm X “rarely receives the kind of mainstream press attention that his better-known counterpart, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. does. And perhaps that is best. Unlike King, Malcolm has not been subjected to the historical nostalgia machine of American hero making. His radicalism remains intact.”
Some activists who worked in the same era as Malcolm X believe that radicalism is the reason why he has not been treated as reverently in history.
While King told his followers to resist reacting with violence when they were beaten and battered, Malcolm X urged followers to defend themselves and their families. While King said to embrace White people and often referred to them as “brothers and sisters,” Malcolm X said he did not want to be with people who did not want to be with him. He told Blacks to build up their own communities, support their own businesses and protect and value their Black families.
Dorie Ladner, a resident of Northwest Washington who was active in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s, said Malcolm X’s view that Blacks should empower themselves, instead of focusing on getting along with Whites, made him more threatening than King to the White establishment at the time.
She said history has treated Malcolm X the same way it did others whose approach to fighting for freedom was considered aggressive, though Whites who fought to keep Blacks oppressed are treated with respect in history.
“I heard an analogy being done on WPFW where the speaker compared [abolitionist] John Brown and [Confederate Gen.] Robert E. Lee, who were both crusaders out to help their side,” she said. “In history, John Brown is portrayed as a wild-eyed, crazy wild person, whereas Lee is revered and still held in a certain amount of esteem.”
She said Malcolm never received the same national focus even in his own time because of his views and the message he presented for Blacks to concentrate on themselves.
“I had never met Malcolm X when we got word down in Mississippi that he had died,” said Ladner, who grew up in the segregated South and moved to D.C. after working in the civil rights movement. “There was a girl who was working with us who had grown up in the Bronx. She said, ‘Oh, my God! Malcolm X is dead!’ I said ‘Who?’ I didn’t know his history. I later learned who he was and the work that he had done.”
Margaret Kibbee, of Greenwood, Miss., who was also active in the movement in the South, said she learned much about him from his autobiography, written by the late Alex Haley and published in 1965.
“I didn’t know about how much he had struggled until after I read his [autobiography],” Kibbee said. “It says right on the cover that he thought he would not live to see it published and he didn’t. I remember thinking it was a tragedy. When I read it, I really took to heart and understood what he had gone through.”
The activists said that while history has treated Martin Luther King Jr. appropriately, Malcolm X has been misunderstood.
“My impression was that he was very similar to Martin Luther King Jr. He did two things that were similar. The first was to surround himself with [very capable] people. Like Dr. King, he liked to work with people who had a lot on the ball,” said Kibbee.
“The other thing was that he could examine himself and rethink things,” she said. “Like Martin Luther King, he could look at something and examine it objectively and see it for what it was. He was a mature enough person and confident enough in himself and his own ability that he could change his mind or reexamine his position on something …I had the utmost respect for him.”
Malcolm X was 39 when he died. He came from a loving family, but had a troubled childhood after he became a ward of the court as a teenager. He ended up in prison, where he became a Black Muslim and follower of Nation of Islam Leader Elijah Muhammad. He grew to become a leader in the movement, known for his stand that Blacks should defend themselves against oppression “By Any Means Necessary.” He later parted with the Nation of Islam and began receiving death threats. A week before his died, his house was firebombed.
“You don’t get that much information about Malcolm X, compared to Dr. King,” said Ladner, who speaks frequently on civil rights issues. “Young people don’t know about Malcolm because he’s not in the mainstream media. Dr. King is in the history books. He’s pulled out every year for the holiday for his birthday. Malcolm is unknown to a lot of people.”