Roar writer Maria Malik pens a tribute to Malcolm X, calling for him to be understood as a source of inspiration for students today.
Following what would have been activist Malcolm X’s (or el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz’s) 95th birthday, I was astounded by muffled calls to mark it in traditional and social media, especially comparing it to Martin Luther King Day, which is widely recognised, celebrated, and discussed.
I feel it apt to talk about Malcolm on this platform as education was so important to his life. Malcolm was a gifted, intelligent child and did well in formal education, but education influenced his life beyond the classroom. Whilst imprisoned, he read frequently and studied Islam, leading him to join the Nation of Islam and to start his political career.
Education helped Malcolm to establish himself, find a cause worth fighting for, and turn his life around. As we face uncertainty at this time, it would be helpful to reflect, for ourselves, on what education means to us personally and what we intend to do with it. In his words ‘Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.’
Malcolm’s spirituality was both admirable and criminally understated. It is fitting that his birthday falls during Ramadan this year, for Malcolm was a dynamic Muslim voice. His religion was both a source of strength and inspiration, particularly for developing his political ideology. It is not uncommon for Muslim figures in Western history to have their religious identities diluted, and so Malcolm’s religion is often overlooked or ignored.
Malcolm famously changed his politics after his pilgrimage to Mecca, upon seeing peaceful racial coexistence there. The pilgrimage has a profound effect on many who often pledge to change their lifestyles as a result. Malcolm did not only make this promise; he enacted it by becoming more open and tolerant.
In combining Islam and politics, Malcolm set an example for contemporary Muslims in how to combine the secular and spiritual; how to embody your beliefs and be proud of your religion. Malcolm should be reclaimed as the Muslim icon he was as his religion was so important to his work and private life. To understand his spirituality is to truly understand his essence as a human.
In Malcolm’s political career, he appealed to those who felt ignored and disillusioned by the civil disobedience movement, calling them to action with his maxim ‘by any means necessary’. Malcolm was incredibly eloquent and spoke truth to power. He criticised powerful figures like MLK, creating a more efficient and representative civil rights struggle.
He also exposed the corruption of Elijah Muhammad and the framework of the Nation of Islam, despite holding far less power than both. This made him incredibly unpopular, with his enemies baying for his blood and forcing to be evicted from his home.
Malcolm decided to travel – despite not being an official – and to forge diplomatic relations, representing the interests of African Americans on the global stage. He founded the Organisation of Afro-American Unity which sought to forge economic ties with Africa and be a voice ‘overseas for Afro-Americans’.
Had this been successful, it would have been revolutionary. Malcolm’s ability to look at the bigger picture and to contextualise the movement within the wider world, no doubt, strengthened the movement.
Why is it so important to recognise and pay tribute to Malcolm X? The answer is not because he was some superhuman historical figure. Rather, it is that his tale is distinctly human and his courage to better himself, and the world for others, is timeless.