The values of Malcolm X in modern America: Most of my heroes don’t appear on the calendar

Malcolm X

Malcolm X Photo by Jaemi Yoo

Malcolm X was born on May 19, 1925, and many choose to celebrate May 19 as Malcolm X Day. At a government level, though, it’s unrecognized outside of Berkeley, Calif. That’s probably OK in the end, because Malcolm never needed mainstream recognition. He got things done through word of mouth, organizing people on a personal level. In some sense, he’s probably one of history’s greatest grassroots campaigners.

In my own history classes, Malcolm was typically relegated to the sidelines in any lesson on civil rights, usually characterized as an erratic and incendiary “also-ran” with much less influence than Dr. King. It was independent curiosity that led me to learn more. What I found was an inspiring figure, an orator who never compromised his core values yet constantly refined his vision.

For many, that revision is precisely what makes him so controversial. Detractors point to his origins as a criminal and his incendiary rhetoric in the Nation of Islam. They fail to see a man rising from an extreme disadvantage and finding his gift for moving people with words. What’s more, his tale is redemptive. Unlike myths that paint Washington or Lincoln as morally infallible — though they certainly weren’t — Malcolm is a much more constructive role model: a human in constant search of truth and improvement.

When young people, especially black youth, are constantly marginalized and prejudged by the education and employment systems, a figure like Malcolm X appeals to a fundamental desire to speak and be heard. These times make so many people feel powerless; why do anything less than promote a figure who empowers and inspires the disenfranchised? Malcolm’s message makes many people uncomfortable because it involves actively pursuing that which one deserves.

When, in the spirit of equality, you have been placed at a disadvantage, you do everything you can to level the playing field. You do not wait patiently to be given that which is yours, and you do not thank those who withhold it from you when you finally get it. To quote the man himself: “How can you thank a man for giving you what’s already yours? How then can you thank him for giving you only part of what’s already yours? You haven’t even made progress, if what’s being given to you, you should have had already. That’s not progress.”

In “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” Malcolm laments the untapped potential of people he’s met in the criminal underworld. Among these are West Indian Archie, who runs a complex numbers-racket without ever writing anything down: “His brain, which could tape-record hundreds of number combinations a day, should have been put at the service of mathematics or science.” Though Malcolm made it out of poverty, his story is the exception. He’s a testament to the diverse forms of intelligence and natural gifts in those rejected by mainstream society.

Malcolm’s adherence to fulfillment through self-discipline stands in stark contrast to a modern world increasingly driven by pursuits of hedonism and luxury. Those pursuits prove unfulfilling for many, yet American society often neglects or devalues the cultivation of spiritual and mental improvement.

His advocation that Americans study Islam has become almost prescient in this millennium. Undertaking his pilgrimage to Mecca showed him the common fraternity of humanity, and the true beauty of the Muslim faith. Now, when Islam is so misinterpreted and vilified in global discourse, that study of the faith is requisite for any meaningful moves to be made toward peace.

Malcolm X doesn’t need a state holiday. Instead, he needs to be read, listened to, and his ideas circulated. There are too many people speaking with their heads full of misconceptions. Today, go read his autobiography, watch the excellent Spike Lee film, look up some speeches on YouTube. If you’ve never really been exposed to Malcolm, take that first step. Tomorrow, take another. Educate yourself as Malcolm educated himself. Come to your own conclusions, and don’t accept anyone else’s. 


Reach opinion writer Dylan Teague McDonald at opinion@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @DylanTM708

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