The Enduring Relevance of Malcolm X: A Personal Reflection

My first exposure to radical politics of any kind was through watching documentary footage of Malcolm X speak. Often I would watch this with my father and other family from Barbados, who had a long and deep involvement in the development of the Barbados Labor Party. I clearly remember observing the faces of my father, aunt, and uncles as they watched Malcolm speak. Their eyes were glued, faces frozen in a tense way. They did not necessarily agree with every single thing he said, but they had a lot of respect and took what he had to say very seriously. Vibrant discussion and debate among them would always take place after.

Malcolm X at Oxford Union.

I was only in middle school when I was first exposed to Malcolm. I was deeply struck by his militancy and fire, even if I did not fully understand all that he was talking about. Every time I watched him at the Oxford Union debate I got chills all over my body. The more I learned about him as years passed, the more intrigued I became.

Perhaps the most striking thing about his life to me is the constant evolution of his politics and thought over time. By the end of his life he was much more advanced politically than other leading political figures at the time. He was a deeply committed internationalist, forging ties with anti-imperialist forces abroad and always thinking about the struggle of African Americans as part of a global fight.

Malcolm anticipated the increasingly militant direction the movement would take with Black Power. He was talking more and more about socialism and forging alliances with groups on the white left. Malcolm was never static and was always in tune to the events developing around him. By meeting Fidel Castro when the Cuban leader stayed in Harlem in 1960 and visiting the revolutionaries in Algeria, he sent clear signals on where he stood politically and facilitated his own growth.

This evolution from his days as a leading spokesman and organizer for the Nation of Islam took place in a remarkably short amount of time. He died while trying to build the Organization of African American Unity (OAAU), and seemed to be only just beginning to reach his full potential as a political leader.

Of course he was a controversial figure, and the opinions of him held by friends and acquaintances of mine vary widely. For some, the only image they have of Malcolm X is from his days early on with the Nation Islam, with no appreciation of the evolution in his politics. Others try to sum up his politics under the heading of “violence.” Whatever one thinks of him, there can be no denying the fact that he inspired so much political activity during his lifetime and continues to do so today. So many young African-American activists see him as a point of reference for their current activity; whether it is in anti-police brutality, anti-war, or labor work. There is something in his uncompromising militancy that continues to inspire young people and draw them to his writings and speeches.

As we reflect on his life fifty years after his brutal assassination, his relevance does not seem diminished. Today Black communities across the country face the crises of under-funded schools, overflowing prisons, and rampant police brutality. Imperialist aggression against people of color around the world still proceeds without letup. In an age of endless compromise, there does not seem to be room to compromise much more. With this situation, how can we not be forced to consider the words and deeds of Malcolm X?

Paul Prescod is a member of Solidarity in Philadelphia.

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