Malcolm X was shot to death on February 21, 1965 — fifty years ago.
Of the two most prominent figures of the Civil Rights Era, I feel more religiously aligned with Malcolm X than with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I find Dr. King to be a forbidding figure. Dr. King’s writing, his preaching, and his speaking were all extraordinary. Dr. King not only stayed true to his principle of non-violence in the face of actions that would make just about anyone else retaliate in anger, but he also managed to lead his many thousands of followers to maintain their commitment to nonviolence as well. Dr. King intimidates the hell out of me, and makes me realize my own utter inadequacy as both a minister and a human being.
Of course, Malcolm X is a forbidding figure as well. His father was murdered by whites, and his mother then went into an insane asylum, leaving Malcolm X effectively an orphan. Malcolm was imprisoned, yet in prison he had a religious awakening, got himself straightened out, and educated himself. He wound up becoming one of America’s most compelling religious leaders. Malcolm X intimidates the hell out of me, too: I have no doubt I would crumple under that kind adversity, and he too makes me realize my own utter inadequacy as both a minister and a human being.
I’m a pacifist, but I still feel more aligned with Malcolm X than with Dr. King. I think it’s because I better understand Malcolm X’s way of writing. He was a master of the plain style. In his book The Ballot or the Bullet, he wrote: “Three hundred and ten years we worked in this country without a dime in return — I mean without a dime in return. You let the white man walk around here talking about how rich this country is, but you never stop to think how it got rich so quick. It got rich because you made it rich.” This is stating a simple fact as clearly as possible. Perhaps it lacks some of the literary finesse of, say, “Letter form Birmingham Jail”; what it lacks in finesse it gains in clarity.
Reading Malcolm X is a bracing experience for me. Recently, I’ve been questioning this notion of “white privilege” that we white liberals have been playing around with for twenty-five years or so. In The Ballot or the Bullet, Malcom X writes: “Whenever you’re going after something that belongs to you, anyone who’s depriving you of the right to have it is a criminal. Understand that. Whenever you are going after something that is yours, you are within your legal rights to lay claim to it. And anyone who puts forth any effort to deprive you of that which is yours, is breaking the law, is a criminal.” This simple, clear statement puts the lie to the concept of “white privilege”; what we’re actually talking about is theft, a criminal act, a crime; it’s not white privilege, it’s white theft.
One of Malcolm X’s clearest statements comes from his Autobiography. Yes, the Autobiography of Malcolm X was written in collaboration with Alex Haley. But Haley based the book on extensive interviews and conversations, and I have enough trust in Haley’s skill as a writer to trust him to accurately record Malcolm X’s words in key passages. And when I read the following passage, I can hear the clarity of language and thought that belong Malcolm X, not Alex Haley:
“Since I learned the truth in Mecca, my dearest friends have come to include all kinds — some Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, and even atheists! I have friends who are called capitalists, Socialists, and Communists! Some of my friends are moderates, conservatives, extremists — some are even Uncle Toms! My friends today are black, brown, red, yellow, and white!”
An essential religious insight into theological anthropology; a plainly spoken insight that needs to be heard clearly by people throughout America.
Malcolm X was murdered at age 39: a sorry waste of a brilliant mind.