The 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the Selma to Montgomery March, and the passage of the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965 and Dr. Martin Luther King’s role in these events is correctly capturing the imagination of Black America. But, there is another set of events that should also receive attention of our people. Twenty-fifteen marks the 50th memorial of the assassination of Malcolm X, and it is also the year of his 90th birthday. It seems odd that very little attention is being devoted to the anniversary dates of the life and legacy of such an extraordinary leader. It is as if Black America is gripped by a case of historical amnesia. This is not the first time for such a lapse of memory.
February 21, 1990, more than 3,000 people jammed into the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem for the 25th memorial of the assassination of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, Malcolm X. Another 1,000 or more gathered in the street to watch the program on a television monitor, hastily positioned in a Church window to accommodate the outside audience. Inside the Church C-SPAN broadcast live ringing tributes to the life and legacy of our “Black Shining Prince.” Poets and political activists Haki Madhubuti and Sonia Sanchez; the Honorable Percy Sutton, confidant of Malcolm and the family lawyer; New York Councilman Al Vann; Preston Wilcox, Director of AFRAM and facilitator of the Malcolm X Lovers Network were among the notable leaders offering tributes. The evening climaxed with an electrifying oration by Dr. James Turner, Chairman of the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University and mentee of Malcolm. The audience rose for a prolonged rousing ovation as Dr. Turner proclaimed, “Malcolm, we will never forget you!” Dr. Betty Shabazz, who had never attended a memorial on the anniversary of the assassination of her husband, was visibly moved by the tremendous outpouring of admiration, love and affection for one of the greatest leaders in the history of Africans in America.
The Commemoration was hosted by Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts, Senior Pastor of Abyssinian, and I had the honor of serving as Moderator of this memorable occasion. But, the process of uplifting Malcolm did not end there. May 19th of that year hundreds of people from around the country gathered in Omaha, Nebraska, Malcolm’s birthplace, for a National Ceremony to celebrate his 65th birthday. Dr. Maulana Karenga, Dick Gregory, Sonia Sanchez, Haki Madhubuti, Dr. James Turner and scores of other activists and luminaries were in the company of Dr. Betty Shabazz and family members as the highly acclaimed actor Avery Brooks read a Proclamation declaring, May 19th the birthday of Malcolm X, a National African American Day of Commemoration – as an act of Kujichagulia, Self-Determination!
1990 was “The Year of Malcolm X,” an incredible season of uplifting and celebrating Malcolm’s life and legacy to inspire continued resistance and struggle for freedom and self-determination for Africans in America and the Black world. But, this magnificent season of celebrating Malcolm did not occur by accident; it was the outcome of a conscious strategy, a calculated plan devised by a group of leaders determined not to let the legacy of Malcolm be the victim of “historical amnesia.”
Martin Luther King and Malcolm X are unquestionably the seminal leaders of the civil rights/human rights, Black Power, Nationalist/Pan-Africanist era that transformed the status of Africans in America. But, Martin has always been more palatable to the power elite, much of White America and the more conciliatory elements in Black America. Despite the increasingly radical nature of his politics as he neared the end of his life, King’s non-violent commitment to achieving a “more perfect union” and “dream” of a “beloved community” were more readily digested and co-opted than Malcolm’s fierce denunciation of White Supremacy, castigation of the American “nightmare” and his advocacy of “freedom by any means necessary!” In a choice between Martin and Malcolm, it is clear that the power elite preferred Martin. Hence, Martin has been sanitized and elevated while Malcolm has largely been ignored, except in those periods when his devotees have refused to allow his contribution to be relegated to irrelevance.
Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website www.ibw21.org and www.northstarnews.com.