The evolution of Malcolm X

2/19/2015, 7:42 p.m.
“You may be shocked by these words coming from me. But on this pilgrimage, what I have seen, and experienced, ...
Marc H. Morial

Marc H. Morial

“You may be shocked by these words coming from me. But on this pilgrimage, what I have seen, and experienced, has forced me to rearrange much of my thought patterns previously held, and to toss aside some of my previous conclusions. This was not too difficult for me. Despite my firm convictions, I have always been a man who tries to face facts, and to accept the reality of life as new experience and new knowledge unfolds it.” ~ Malcolm X, Letter from Mecca, April 1964

Perhaps no American civil rights leader has generated as many divergent opinions as Malcolm X. As we near the 50th anniversary of his assassination on Feb. 21, 1965, our nation will scrutinize his life, his work and his lasting impact on our country and our continuous struggle to address racial inequality and its heinous consequences.

Depending on one’s perspective or politics, Malcolm X was a hatemonger filled with a blind, race-based rage. Another view paints him as an inspiring figure, pulling himself up from a life of crime to become a leading human rights figure. I would put forththeviewthatMalcolmX was much more than any one- dimensional interpretation of his life or its seminal moments. He was a man who literally and figuratively journeyed far in his short 39 years, reinventing himself countless times along the way.

Born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925, to a Grenadian mother and African-American father who also was a well-known activist, Malcolm became accustomed to the cruelties of racism at an early age. He lost his father in a suspected attack by white supremacists. His early life was a blur of broken homes, petty crime and incarceration. Introduced to the teachings of the Nation of Islam during his time in jail, Malcolm X traded prison for a pursuit of racial justice and equality for black people in America.

While his initial approach may not have always been championed by or aligned with other civil rights leaders of the time, Malcolm X’s later life transition and his embrace of multiculturalism is an important story to be acknowledged and retold. But often supporters and critics alike attempt to isolate the “by any means necessary” civil rights leader to one part of his journey.

Malcolm X left the United States on April 13, 1964, for a life-altering trip through the MiddleEastandAfrica,includ- ing a pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, the holiest city in Islam. It was during his experience of the pilgrimage that his next transformation would occur.

In letters from his trip, he described scenes of unimagined interracial harmony among “tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world. They were of all colors, from blue- eyed blondes to black-skinned Africans.” As he began to see that unity and brotherhood were not impossible realities between “the white and the non-white,” his fight for equality never changed. It only became more inclusive.

In a letter to James Farmer, then president of the Congress of Racial Equality, Malcolm, now El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, wrote, “I am still traveling, trying to broaden my mind, for I’ve seen too much of the damage narrow-mindedness can make of things, and when I return home to America, I will devote what energies I have to repairing the damage.”

Unfortunately, Malcolm X’s newfound approach to the pursuit of racial equality was cut short less than a year later under a fatal hail of bullets in Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom. But rather than end his journey to mend our wounded nation, we can each walk a few steps in his remaining miles to ensure equality and justice for all.

Marc H. Morial, former mayor of New Orleans, is president and CEO of the National Urban League.