May 19, 1925, in Omaha, Nebraska, the man we would come to know as Malcolm X burst into the world.
As he evolved from his past as Detroit Red, he transformed himself first into a loyal protégé of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, then into a world-renowned human rights activist. He never hid behind his legend to avoid speaking of his time as a petty criminal, instead using his story to bolster the confidence of everyday men facing his same struggles. He let them know, in no uncertain terms, that they didn’t have to have a pristine past to make a difference in the present and the future.
The seismic shift that occurred in our culture, politics and philosophy as Black Americans in the ’50s and ’60s will forever be linked to brother Malcolm and his strength in the face of adversity, his unwillingness to bow to the hypocrisy that he had grown to see within the Nation of Islam, and his refusal to dilute his power for a country that feared his influence.
Many of us forget that he was only 39-years-old when he was gunned down in the Audubon Ballroom just north of Harlem, New York on February 21, 1965. In his short life he went through three pivotal transformations that culminated with the founding of Organization of Afro-America Unity and Muslim Mosque, Inc. Though the two convergent movements never gained the traction and power of the NOI, it spoke to Malcolm’s influence that he was able to step out on purpose and take people with him that were ready to die for him.
As we celebrate the birth of Malcolm, I’m reminded of the day that I had the honor of meeting his eldest daughter, Ambassador Attallah Shabazz in Los Angeles. I was able to look into her eyes and see her father’s spirit, intelligence, resilience and passion — and to also tell her that he shaped my philosophy on religion, politics and race. I shared with her that he gave me strength to stand on principal when it seemed that no one was standing by my side. She smiled when I told her that when I was first introduced to his focus on human rights, rather than civil rights — because how can we expect civility until we are first considered human? — it changed my life.
In a poem I penned in 2011, I recount how I was also able to share my unyielding love and respect for the great El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz with my now 8-year-old son:
Today my son went to school like any other day
He took his shower, brushed his hair, ate his breakfast and
Kissed me goodbye
But not before I told him about a man
Not before I explained to him that, though this man’s time was brief
His impact on the world is one that shook the buildings in Washington
And the hoods from Detroit to Harlem
Not before I told him that here stood a Prince who stood for something
A King who struggled in the trenches each and every day
To shed light in darkness
To weld the power burning in our collective psyches
Into Weapons of Mass Instruction
Not before I told him that because of one Warrior
Freedom will forever be a word in his mother’s vocabulary
Because I’m ready to die for it
Not before I told him that there once was a man
Whose body was defiled by bullets and lies
His death certificate signed by traitors and bureaucrats
A man who could not contain brilliance so bright it lit minds
From the ghettos of this stolen nation to the deserts of Africa
Reminding us that the shackles of slavery have been broken
Yet we still have to escape the plantation
I told him about a Soldier who refused to withdraw from a battle with a country
That refused to define him as man and in that defiance of oppression
Taught an entire generation that equality — on our terms — will be had
By Any Means Necessary
Before my son walked out of the door
I told him about his brother, his teacher, his elder, his ancestor
Who refused to live a lie even if it assured his death
Who refused to kowtow or step and fetch it
Or be a diluted version of the man he was destined to be
Just so he could later be deemed acceptable enough
To warrant a holiday on the day of his birth
Yes, my son went to school today…
But not before I told him about brother Malcolm.
Today, I hope we all take a moment to honor the life of a man who died for us all — and continue to walk in his legacy.
Happy Birthday, brother Malcolm.