May 19, 1925: Birthdate and celebration of civil rights leader

“The Autobiography of Malcolm X,”
in collaboration with Alex Haley, tells the life story of the pimp, convict, and eventual minister for the Nation of Islam. The book is a classic and has influenced the perception of Malcolm X over the decades, offering a useful counter narrative to the dominant impression of his life and work. As Malcolm reminds us: “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”

Malcolm X’s autobiography serves for many as the first look beyond the traditional story of America’s race relations. Brown v. Board of Education, Rosa Parks, Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech has dominated the country’s imagination and timeline. The contributions of actors ranging from black nationalists to the Quakers is often ignored. Learning about Malcolm X’s transformation was crucial to my own understanding of race in America and the work that remains to this day.

Malcolm X and Martin Luther King’s worked lived in uneasy tension with one another. Whatever tactical disagreements passed between the two, in the end they were brothers working to build a more just, equitable, and peaceful society. As Malcolm put it: “Dr. King wants the same thing I want. Freedom.”

Courtesy the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University

Courtesy the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University

Malcolm’s influence resonates today, through the respect he still engenders and the words he left us with.

“Don’t be in a hurry to condemn because he doesn’t do what you do or think as you think or as fast. There was a time when you didn’t know what you know today.”

“If violence is wrong in America, violence is wrong abroad. If it is wrong to be violent defending black women and black children and black babies and black men, then it is wrong for America to draft us, and make us violent abroad in defense of her. And if it is right for America to draft us, and teach us how to be violent in defense of her, then it is right for you and me to do whatever is necessary to defend our own people right here in this country.”

“I believe that there will ultimately be a clash between the oppressed and those that do the oppressing. I believe that there will be a clash between those who want freedom, justice and equality for everyone and those who want to continue the systems of exploitation.”

“It is a time for martyrs now, and if I am to be one, it will be for the cause of brotherhood. That’s the only thing that can save this country.”

“When a person places the proper value on freedom, there is nothing under the sun that he will not do to acquire that freedom. Whenever you hear a man saying he wants freedom, but in the next breath he is going to tell you what he won’t do to get it, or what he doesn’t believe in doing in order to get it, he doesn’t believe in freedom. A man who believes in freedom will do anything under the sun to acquire . . . or preserve his freedom.”

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