This Friday marks the 49th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X, and the 20th-century icon is still making headlines.
His memory remains contested and debated, as witnessed by the recent controversies over his depiction in rapper Nicki Minaj’s cover art and a Queens, N.Y., public school teacher forbidding students to write about him during Black History Month out of ignorance over his true political and historical legacy, describing Malcolm as too “violent.”
Malcolm X, though, stood astride the world stage alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, and should be remembered as a working-class hero.
He’s frequently reduced to being King’s opposite number: eloquent, but angry. But in reality, Malcolm X became black America’s unofficial prime minister, a brilliant and prophetic activist, organizer and intellectual whose life reminds us of the possibilities of a liberated future in America and beyond.
Malcolm’s outsized status as one of black America’s most enduring and important icons makes it easy to lose sight of his humble origins. Malcolm Little was born on May 19, 1925, in Omaha, Neb., the son of Earl and Louise Little, pioneering black nationalists who followed the teachings of Marcus Garvey. As a teenager he came of age during the global freedom surges of the early 1940s, but drifted, in between short stints at various blue-collar jobs, into the criminal underworlds of Detroit, Harlem and Boston, which eventually landed him in jail for almost seven years.
Reading the teachings of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam while in prison transformed him into Malcolm X, the most authentic black working-class political leader the 20th century has ever produced.
Malcolm’s experiences as an ex-convict, former Pullman porter and furniture-store worker helped him relate to the African-American working-class struggle and to propel the Nation of Islam from a small religious sect into a sprawling political empire, whose uncompromising vision of racial dignity and self-determination thrust it into America’s civil rights maelstrom by the late 1950s.