Today is the birthday of one the major figures in 20th century American history, and in particular African-American history, Malcolm X (El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, pictured at right, Laurence Henry, Laurence Henry Collection, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library). Born Malcolm Little in 1925, he was assassinated a little over 40 years ago (February 21, 1965), in the Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights, New York, a few months before his 40th birthday, but in that short time he accomplished almost a lifetime's worth of work, becoming one of the leading religious figures, public spokespersons, and a nationalist and pan-Africanist icon for millions of Black people in America and across the globe.
Outspoken and fearless, a born leader, intellectual and organizer, Malcolm X viewed the survival and political, social and economic liberation of African-Americans as one of the leading goals of his life. His autobiography (written with the late author Alex Haley) is a classic of African-American literature. Traveling the country and working through the Nation of Islam, particularly in New York, Malcolm X articulated the new militancy, racial pride, diasporic consciousness, and push for socioeconomic autonomy that would mark the most significant period of the Black Civil Rights movement of the 20th century. He spoke out against the Vietnam War and against imperialism in general; before his assassination, he traveled the globe, visiting many of the newly liberated countries in Africa (in Nigeria he was named "Omowale"), as well as Canada and the Caribbean. A devout Muslim and member of the Nation of Islam, he also made the Hajj, to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. His death was a terrible blow, though many of his ideas about self-protection and social autonomy were taken up by subsequent groups like the Black Panthers, and remain in the African-American and Diasporic imaginary.
Only three years after Malcolm X was killed, the other truly major Black leader of this period, whose vision and activism often competed with Malcolm X, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., perhaps the greatest Black American leader who ever lived, would be assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, and one could argue that, despite the many subsequent gains we as a people have achieved, we've yet to recover fully from this dual loss, and certainly have never found another leader or combinations of leaders to match, in intellectual, spiritual, political and social stature, either man.
At the end of his life, Malcolm X had shifted his views, in keeping with a concomitant religious shift into the mainstream tradition of Islam, and it may very well have been this personal turn, which also included a change in worldview, and the rift that it marked with the NOI, that led, in part, that to his death. (FBI involvement has also been alleged.) The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture currently has an exhibit, "Malcolm X: A Search for Truth," which provides extensive information on his life and work. It also features many previously unseen personal effects, which were nearly sold off a few years after the rental locker in which they'd been stored went unpaid. I definitely will be viewing them when I get back to the New York area soon. (Thanks Larry K., for the reminder!)
Updated, thanks to a post on Blackgriot's site: He links to betterdays, who reprints an obnoxious, high problematic Guardian UK article by Peter Tatchell about Malcolm X being a "gay black" hero. (Thing can't even get the characterization right--as racially proud as Malcolm X was, it would have to be "black gay" or more likely "black sgl," wouldn't it?) The article is a bit of a minefield from start to finish; truly annoying are his presumptions to know what would be best for young LGBT people of color. He also wrongly states there is not a single, living "world famous" black LGBT person. Peter, there's Angela Davis, if it's activism you're talking about, but what about Frankie Knuckles, RuPaul, Samuel Delany, Alice Walker, Cecil Taylor, Isaac Julien, etc... No, none of these folks embodies in combined form all the greatest of Malcolm X's traits, but there's no guarantee that anyone else, self-identifying as LGBT or not, ever will, and in any case, each offers a possible model to young Black LGBT people. Above all, reaching our young people is an immediate issue that we have to address whether or not there's a global icon. That's the important thing to keep in mind.