Neglecting to Celebrate Malcolm X

Rina Cakrani, Opinion Columnist

When most people think of the civil rights movement, they think of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose work for the rights of African Americans led to him being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and secured his place in history as the voice of peaceful mass protest in the 1960s. Nevertheless, the immense praise and recognition for MLK took attention away from other great civil rights activists who challenged the system even more openly and in a harsher way. The civil rights movement achieved some of its greatest results, such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, due to the competing and perhaps radical strategies and agendas of individuals such as Malik el-Shabazz, commonly known as Malcolm X.

As one of the most powerful, controversial and enigmatic figures of the movement, he occupies a certain place in history but has never received widespread recognition across American society. While Dr. King has a day for people to remember him, Malcolm X doesn’t. At a time when people are protesting the removal of Confederate memorials for soldiers who represent white supremacy and racism, Malcolm X’s center, located in New York, struggles to remain open because it lacks funding. Although he was typically dismissed as being “too violent,” his story must be remembered through reading his autobiography and understanding his overall ideology.

The system never liked and still doesn’t like icons such as Malcolm X because he challenged the foundations of everything upon which the US stands. During his life, Malcolm X was constantly reinventing himself, from a troubled youth to an advocate of black separatism to a human rights activist. Nowadays, many of his beliefs and ideologies are still relevant, and that is keeping his legacy alive. Particularly resonant are his assertion that black lives matter, even if they aren’t treated as mattering, and his belief that it is possible to create societal transformation through radical change.

While most of his career is about opposition, cynicism and pessimism, he also displayed a kind of deep self-respect and pride and sense of defiance that not many other activists would display so openly. That sense of spirit and militancy in the face of oppression and a sort of pessimism for the improvement of things is what makes people believe in him. Unfortunately, he never had a “I Have a Dream” speech, because he was utterly realistic about the condition of America and didn’t want to have to compromise with the political elite who wanted to silence him and the other activists rather than pursuing active change for the benefit of the black community. Malcolm X attacked white supremacy and institutional racism many times and, according to the political elite, that wasn’t appropriate. An active campaign against him was pursued: he was a crazy radical who hated white people. On top of that, he was Muslim, too. 

Unfortunately, despite so many people being inspired by his legacy, he will never be remembered as a great activist — he will always be misconceptualized as an angry, reactionary man who hated white people. He will never have a national holiday dedicated to him because he was actively challenging the status quo and institutional racism while inspiring other movements and figures around the world. Either way, he wouldn’t have wanted a day dedicated to him.