As we prepare for the unveiling of the Washington memorial for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it is important that we take a second to contextualize this extraordinary event. Dr. King deserves to be celebrated next to other great heroes of American history, and it is a proud testament to the growth and maturity of our nation that Dr. King has been honored in this way.
Most of us also know that an equally extraordinary American, Malcolm X, has not been given the same respect as Dr. King. Malcolm’s grave site doesn’t look like it holds one of the greatest men in American history; it looks as common and anonymous as the one next to it. There is very little mention of Malcolm in public school history classes, and Malcolm’s contributions are not considered essential to the social evolution of America. Millions of African Americans who attend cushy (and excessively commercialized) dinners and galas for Dr. King every year don’t even know Malcolm X’s birthday.
Let’s be clear: Malcolm X was the George Washington for Black America. He was a man who gave his life to stand against unspeakable tyranny and demanded nothing less than true equality, freedom and empowerment for the people he loved. The fact that America has left Malcolm’s legacy in the basement of our history books is largely a testament to the fact that our nation still does not accept the principles of decency and equity that Malcolm demanded for blacks.
Nearly a half century after the death of Malcolm X, our nation has achieved what we thought would be the pinnacle of integration: We have our first black president and Attorney General. We have countless Black doctors, lawyers, professors, and corporate executives. We even have African Americans in leadership positions within the Republican Party.
But in light of the illusion of Black American gains from integration, we still find ourselves with the highest unemployment rates, our wealth was decimated during the Great Recession from the last three years, we are faced with a mass incarceration epidemic that has reached holocaust proportions, and we endure educational systems that lead our children to hug on the tree of perpetual ignorance.
In addition to being last in line for educational and economic opportunities, we have almost no ability to control our images in media, as nearly every major black online media outlet is owned by a big (mostly white) corporation. We’ve found that having black faces in high places on Capitol Hill and elsewhere means almost nothing if you are not truly powerful at your spiritual, psychological, and economic core. Dr. King helped us to fight for our freedom….Malcolm X taught us how to fight for our independence: A man who is free, but not independent is ultimately a puppet to those who control the things he needs to survive.
If there were ever a time that Black people needed to embrace the spirit of Malcolm X, that time would be RIGHT NOW.
African Americans had long hoped to be invited to the Dinner Party of integration and found that their meal would be served next to the toilet. Malcolm warned us that achieving integration without earning some degree of independence would only result in second-class citizenship; you can’t live in someone else’s house and expect to move around the furniture. Even your friends lose respect for you if you can’t take care of yourself.
America’s inability to appreciate the legacy of Malcolm X is, in many ways, symptomatic of the fact that racism still flows in the social veins of our society. Malcolm gave America the tough love that it needed, and our nation has rejected it the way an alcoholic’s body rejects fruits, vegetables and vitamins. The day that America learns to appreciate Malcolm is the day when they will have learned to appreciate all of us.
Black America needed both Martin and Malcolm, and nearly every one of us knows this. So, as we put on our party hats and celebrate the unveiling of the King Memorial in Washington DC, it might behoove us to build a Monument of the Mind by also celebrating the brilliant and powerful legacy of the great Malcolm X. In fact, demanding that our community celebrate and respect Malcolm just as much as Martin would be a tremendous step in obtaining the independence of thought that Malcolm wanted all of us to have.
There are at least two great dreams in Black American history and neither have been fulfilled. We can’t let either dreamer disappear from our collective consciousness.