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MALCOLM X, HIS LIFE AND VIEWS AND ITS RELEVANCE TO TODAY'S WORLD
By Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad, Unit Pendidikan Politik - Institut Kajian Dasar

 

At the end of the powerful drama on racism, American History X, the character Danny Vineyard, ended his history assignment with the memorable words,

"So I guess this is where I tell you what I learned. My conclusion, right? Well, my conclusion is, hate is baggage. Life is to short to be pissed off all the time. It's just not worth it. Derek says it's always good to end a paper with a quote. Since someone else had said it best, so if you can't top it, steal from them and go out strong..."

Before quoting Abraham Lincoln,

" 'We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies, though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic cords of memory will swell when again touched as surely they will be by the better angels of our nature.' "

After watching this movie, it brought to my memory a true drama and legend on the battle against the ugly beast of racism, the tale of Malcolm X. I have not been able to watch the movie starring Denzel Washington, but I have read the famous 'Autobiography of Malcolm X' as told to Alex Hailey and other books on the famous black leader.

It was a time when the African Americans were fighting for their liberty. They struggled to have their voices heard. They fought a biased system and a biased society. As a result of centuries of oppression, enslavement and injustice, an extremist organisation, which advocated hatred against the whites and preyed on the insecurities of the African Americans, was born.

The Nation of Islam.

The name betrayed Islam's nature. It was a cult that had little resemblance to true Islam. It preached hatred, whilst Islam preached love and peace. It had a racist outlook, whilst Islam is a universal religion, for black, yellow and white alike.

A New York telecast in 1959 spoke of it being 'The Hate That Hate Produced'.

While the supreme leader of the organisation was a man by the name of Elijah Muhammad, the one man who played a significant part in the rise of Nation of Islam into a large, national black organisation was Al Hajj Malik al-Shabazz, better known as Malcolm X.

Born Malcolm Little in Omaha in 1925, he was the son of a Baptist preacher. During his childhood, his family frequently faced threats from the Ku Klux Klan. When he was four, the Klan firebombed his house, and that left a lasting impression on his life. His father was actually arrested for that incident, which illustrated what a divided, oppressive country the land of the free was in those dark days. Marcus Garvey, who stood for racial separation and more power for the blacks, influenced both of his parents.

Eventually Earl Little, Malcolm's father, was killed by racists in 1931. But that was not all, eight years later, his mother was declared insane, and that landed the final blow to the family of eight. Malcolm possessed uncommon intelligence and ambition, and faced enduring prejudice from the American society. Even those who were supposed to spur and motivate him did not give him the encouragement he needed.

In his autobiography, he pictured in detail an incident, which left a lasting scar on him. He was the top student in his school. Once, his teacher, a Polish, asked him of his ambition.

"I've been thinking I'd like to be lawyer," the young Malcolm answered eagerly.

His teacher looked surprised. "Malcolm, one of life's first needs is for us to be realistic. Don't misunderstand me now. We all here like you, you know that... A lawyer - that's no realistic goal for a nigger. You need to think of something you can be... Everybody admires your carpentry shop work. Why don't you plan on carpentry?"

This discouragement played a great deal in making Malcolm chose to go to Boston to work various odd jobs that paid miserably. Nevertheless, he viewed this period of his life, which was later plagued, by a hedonistic life of crime and free sex, as an important educating tool for him, replacing the university he never was able to go. Here he learnt to be successful at everything he did, even crime. If he had received encouragement to pursue his legal career, in his own words, "I would today probably be among some city's professional black bourgeoisie, sipping cocktails and palming myself as a community spokesman for and leader of the black masses..."

It was Boston, where he enjoyed his first drink, drugs and white women. He became involved in selling drugs and prostitution, while establishing his name throughout the underworld. People called him 'Red', the hue of his skin, as a result of his grandfather being a white man.

Malcolm X managed to avoid from being enlisted. He went to record for saying that he was worried only about three things-jail, job and army. He was judged unfit for saying that he would organise blacks to kill whites had he been called into the US army.

A year after the Second World War came to an end, he was sent to prison. It was prison, which introduced him to Islam. At first he was acquainted with a true Muslim, who taught him about Islam and how to pray. Nevertheless, the appeal of the Nation of Islam, with its bigotry of white hatred and black empowerment influenced his sharp mind, and took him away from the arms of true Islam.

Slowly he started reading again, especially the work of de Bois (who founded NAACP), Socrates, Shakespeare, Aesop and Gandhi. His orating skills were polished when he joined the prison's debating team.

A few weeks after his release from prison, he officially joined the Nations of Islam and started contributing significantly to the organisation. He gave speeches on the streets and his rhetorical power and appeal to the masses led them to join the group in large numbers. It did not take him long to launch himself as an important spokesperson for the Nation.

He set up Black Muslim 'temples' (the houses of the organisation were called temples rather than mosques, a sign of poor research by the founders of the cult) in Boston, Hartford and Philadelphia. Elijah Muhammad made him a minister at a temple in Harlem. In Malcolm Elijah found a man who knew the true tribulations and challenges of African Americans in the slums. This was also a man who can lead and had the natural ability of being the voice of the people. Elijah did not hesitate to use Malcolm for the good of the Nations of Islam. Elijah was a man who hated the cameras and the newspapers, Malcolm welcomed, in fact embraced them, despite outwardly he had harsh words for the media being the white men's tool. Elijah rarely gave speeches, Malcolm changed thousands of people's lives through his powerful words.

A good example would be his speeches on pork. Benjamin Karim, an admirer of Malcolm, recalled him giving a sermon on swine one Sunday. That same night Karim was invited to a friend's house who served pork, and Karim recalled, "I put a little piece of it in my mouth and it almost burnt." Later he vomited and could not take anything for that night. "That was the last time I had any pork... I tell you, Malcolm just had an effect on people that was astounding."

It was not only the way he talked, Malcolm also possessed a stature to match his fiery oratory skills. Professor Kathryn Gibson remarked that Malcolm seemed 'a giant' and 'commanding'.

However stories started circulating, that the 'Honourable' Elijah Muhammad had secret affairs with his secretaries and fathered a few illegitimate children. Being a conscientious follower of Elijah Muhammad, he met with three of them and talked to all; all three confirmed the rumours.

Slowly, the once-close relationship between the spokesman and the mastermind of the Nations of Islam deteriorated. Within a year, after Malcolm delivered his most influential speech ever-'A message to the grassroots', he defied an Elijah Muhammad directive on not commenting on the assassination President John f. Kennedy, and as a result, he was suspended from the Nations of Islam. A month later, on January, he visited another well-known Nations of Islam member, Cassius Clay a.k.a. Muhammad Ali. Their relationship was already strained, but it took a turn for the worse after that.

Upon announcing his break from the Nation of Islam, he disclosed his intention of forming a 'Black Nationalist party' to heighten the political consciousness of Afro-Americans. The Nation of Islam began moving against their once-revered hero. The group filed an eviction notice on the house, which Malcolm was staying with his family. Malcolm had never been rich, even under the group. He had used all his resources for his struggle, and thus the Nations of Islam fulfilled most of his needs.

On April 13, 1964, Malcolm left for the overseas. First, he went to Frankfurt. What touched him was that how 'Europeans acted more human, or humane, whichever the right word is.' And he also noticed how the Europeans treated him differently in a better way, when they knew he was a Muslim.

After Frankfurt, he left for Cairo. Malcolm X traveled alone in Cairo, and he was immensely impressed by the modernisation brought by Gamal Abdul Nasser. He was especially surprised that in the Northern African state, buses and cars were manufactured. He met Egyptian scientists and scholars, and discussed with them about the fallacies of America.

Having spent two days in Cairo, he left for a journey that would change his life.

The pilgrimage to Mecca, also known as the Hajj.

Malcolm was astonished that even in the plane, "...Were white, black, brown, red and yellow people, blue eyes and blond hair, and my kinky red hair-all together, brothers. All honouring the same God Allah, all in turn giving equal honour to each other."

Mecca is only open for Muslims. At first, Malcolm X faced difficulties in getting permission to enter the Holy Land as Islamic Court did not recognise followers of the Nation of Islam being true Muslims. He had to wait for the court decision and spent a night in the airport at Jeddah.

It was here that his guide taught him the correct Muslim prayers. The irony did not escape Malcolm, who said, "Imagine, being a Muslim minister, a leader in Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam, and not knowing the prayer ritual."

However, he faced the difficulties in his stride, despite being surrounded by Muslim from all over the world who must have been surprised that their Muslim brother who was about to perform one of the pillars in Islam did not know the second - Solah or praying. It was not easy, some of the positions were actually very alien to Westerners, although most Asians would not have problems in doing it. It was something Malcolm's ankles had not experienced before, but he continued to try it. He never even thought of sleeping, and refused to think how ridiculous he must have appeared to the rest who were used to doing it. After a few days, his ankles swelled.

When the other Muslims realised that he was an American, they all looked at him in amazement and wonder. Some mistook him for Muhammad Ali himself, who was famous throughout the Muslim lands for his legendary victory against Sonny Liston, when Malcolm told them he was a friend of the popular boxer.

He described vividly his first Solah, the Subuh prayers. It illustrated his sheer determination and resoluteness in being a true and proper Muslim, despite his lack of knowledge and experience. In his first prayer, his words did not come out quite right, rather they were mumbled and distorted, but that did not deter the spirit to learn in him.

Afterwards he recalled that a friend of a friend was staying in Jeddah. When he met the family of this man, they all embraced him as if he had been a family acquaintance for years. In fact, they treated him a family member.

Malcolm was truly amazed, that this man, who would have been regarded as 'white' in the States, who barely knew him, had given up his suite and treated him as a brother. Always in his life, he had judged a white person's motive as being selfish. But Dr Omar had nothing to gain by being nice to him. In fact Malcolm was frequently being accused of using Islam as being a cover for his criminal practices and philosophies. He was jobless. He had no money. It was his sister, another convert to true Islam, who financed his pilgrimage to Mecca.

"That morning," he said in his autobiography, "Was the start of a radical alteration in my whole outlook about 'white' man."

Dr Omar told Malcolm that most of the problems of colour that existed in the Muslim world were where Western influence had a foothold. Islam as it truly is, never taught about racism, about discrimination those who are not of the same colour.

Finally he was recorded in the court register as being a true Muslim, and the judge expressed hope that Malcolm would be a great preacher of Islam in America. Malcolm unfortunately did not live long enough to fulfill that hope.

The former leader of the Nation of Islam was enthralled by the sight of millions of people, from across the globe, different ethnic backgrounds and both of the rich and poor, circling the Kaabah in Mecca. He prayed and was numbed at the feeling of being in the House of God.

It was here that he wrote his famous letter, when he made public his change of conviction. It was, as he described, a letter from his heart. Here are the excerpts,

"Never have I witnessed such sincere hospitality and the overwhelming spirit of true brotherhood as is practice by the people of all colours and races here in this ancient Holy Land, the home of Abraham, Muhammad, and all the other prophets of the Holy Scriptures. For the past week, I have been utterly speechless and spellbound by the graciousness I see displayed all around me by people of all colours.

"There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world. They were of all colours, from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and the non-white.

"America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem. Throughout my travels in the Muslim world, I have met, talked to, and even eaten with people who in America would have been considered 'white' - but the 'white' attitude was removed from their minds by the religion of Islam. I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colours together, irrespective of their colour.

"You may be shocked by these words coming from me. But on this pilgrimage, what I have seen, and experienced, has forced me to re-arrange 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 been always a man who tries to face facts, and to accept the reality of life as new experience and new knowledge unfolds it. I have always kept an open mind, which is necessary to the flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of intelligent search for truth.

"During the past eleven days here in the Muslim world, I have eaten from the same plate, drunk from the same glass, and slept in the same bed (or on the same rug) - while praying to the same God - with fellow Muslims, whose eyes were the bluest of blue, whose hair was the blondest of blond, and whose skin was the whitest of white. And in the words and in the actions and in the deeds of the 'white' Muslims, I felt the same sincerity that I felt among the black African Muslims of Nigeria, Sudan and Ghana.

"We were truly all the same (brothers) - because their belief in one God had removed the 'white' from their minds, the 'white' from their behavior, and the 'white' from their attitude.

"I could see from this, that perhaps if white Americans could accept the Oneness of God, then perhaps, too, they could accept in reality the Oneness of Man - and cease to measure, and hinder, and harm others in terms of their 'differences' in color.

"With racism plaguing America like an incurable cancer, the so-called 'Christian' white American heart should be more recep-tive to a proven solution to such a destructive problem. Perhaps it could be in time to save America from imminent disaster - the same destruction brought upon Germany by racism that eventu-ally destroyed the Germans themselves.

"Each hour here in the Holy Land enables me to have greater spiritual insights into what is happening in America between black and white. The American Negro never can be blamed for his racial animosities - he is only reacting to four hundred years of the conscious racism of the American whites. But as racism leads America up the suicide path, I do believe, from the ex-periences that I have had with them, that the whites of the younger generation, in the colleges and universities, will see the handwriting on the wall and many of them will turn to the spiritual path of truth - the only way left to America to ward off the disaster that racism inevitably must lead to."

Describing the treatment he received from his Saudi hosts, he reflected, "Never would I have even thought of receiving such honours - honours that in America would be bestowed upon a King, not a Negro. All praise is due to Allah, the Lord of the Worlds."

Personally, reading this letter has always had a profound effect on me - how a man who previously was possessed by a fanatical zeal of hatred and racist bigotry, who scorned assimilation with the whites just as much as the white supremacists did not want to be assimilated with the blacks, had an incredible change of heart, a leap of faith, when he subscribed to the true form of Islam. Indeed, the Hajj, which was meant to be a gathering of all Muslims, to show a unity of brotherhood regardless of race and status, had signified to this Afro-American leader the true meaning and beauty of Islam.

After his pilgrimage, he was treated as a state guest by the Saudi government, and he later toured Beirut, Cairo and Nigeria, where he attended talks, discussions and meetings with scholars and political leaders alike. Malcolm X addressed the Ghanaian parliament in May, before flying of to Liberia, Senegal, and Morocco and later celebrated his 39th birthday in Algiers.

He returned to the United States and formed a new organisation to fight for the rights of Afro-Americans-the Organisation of Afro-American Unity, or OAAU. Islam continued to drive him with a new spirit. He wanted to bring to the attention of the United Nation, through the independent African nations the cause of the oppressed and downtrodden Afro-Americans.

In November 1964, he was invited to take part in an Oxford Union debate on the motion "extremism on the defence of liberty is no vice, moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue." On Valentine's Day the next year, his house in Elmhurst was firebombed, and four days later his family was finally evicted.

Later, he refused to spend the night at his friend's apartment, fearing the lives of the family. He went on saying, "I always knew it would end like this."

It was on February 21st, 1964, just as he was about to address an OAAU rally in Audubon Ballroom, Malcolm X was shot by a black male identified as Talmadge Hayer. He was pronounced dead on arrival. Although his family organised his funeral to be held at a Church, Alex Hailey wrote in the Foreword to Malcom X's Autobiography how a crowd of a dozen people, led by a turbaned Sudanese by the name of Sheik Ahmed Hassoun, Malcolm's new spiritual advisor, prepared Malcolm for a Muslim burial.

The last sentence in his Autobiography went, "Yes, I have cherished my demagogue role. I know that societies often have killed the people who have helped to change those societies. And if I can die having brought any light, having exposed any meaningful truth that will destroy the racist cancer that is malignant in the body of America - then all the credit is due to Allah. Only the mistakes have been mine."

What lesson, you may ask, can Malcolm X teach us? He lived at a time when racial segregation and discrimination were strife. His Autobiography may be beautiful, but how much did he actually contribute towards the betterment of the Afro-Americans?

This man was not a perfect leader without weaknesses. He had his critics, but Malcolm X embodies a struggle to raise the profile of his people from centuries of slavery, prejudice and racial apartheid. He had chosen hatred as a tool to vent the frustration and helplessness of his people. His remarkable pilgrimage however, was more than a physical one. It was also a spiritual pilgrimage, which finally provided him with the answer to overcome the barriers that his people faced, and the rest of the West has continued to shun it. We can only learn from him. As Malcolm aptly puts it,

"I am in agreement one hundred percent with those racists who say that no government laws can force brotherhood. The only true world solution today is governments guided by true religion-of the spirit."

May Allah bless the soul of this great visionary, Al Hajj al Malik Shabazz, a.k.a. Malcolm X.