In Memory of Malcolm X

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I just learned from reading today’s meditation in Janus Adams’ delightful book FREEDOM DAYS: 365 Inspired Moments in Civil Rights History that today is the 49th anniversary of the murder of Malcolm X in New York’s Audubon Ballroom. Right in front of a crowd of 400 people his killers shot him after one of them created a disturbance to divert the bodyguards.

As throughout his life opinion was divided over his death, with the head of the Nation of Islam, which Malcolm had quit after his pilgrimage to Mecca, stating that he got what he deserved, to the following statement by what most observers regard as his chief rival for the leadership of Black America, Dr. King:

“While we did not always see eye to eye on methods to solve the race problem, I always had a deep affection for Malcolm and felt that he had a great ability to put his finger on the existence and root of the problem. He was an eloquent spokesman for his point of view and no one can honestly doubt that Malcolm had a great concern for the problems that we face as a race.”

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My own opinion of the fiery leader changed after I read his The Autobiography of Malcolm X. In it you can see why he left the Nation of Islam with its anti-white beliefs, as well as because of his disillusionment over the morality of its leader. Malcolm reported that he was surprised by the diversity of the pilgrims at Mecca where he saw Muslims of “all colors, from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans” freely mingling and getting along without the hostility he had known in the USA. He therefore gave up his own hostile views of whites and began preaching that Islam is the means of reconciling the races.

I remember seeing Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing on which Malcolm X apparently had a great influence. Mr. Lee stars as Mookie, a young man working in Sal’s Famous Pizza in the heart of the ghetto. One of the neighborhood characters is a mentally disabled black man called Smiley who wanders the black neighborhood displaying photos of both Malcolm X and Dr. King. The crux of the story is a riot sparked by the refusal of Sal to add to the photos of white celebrities on his “Wall of Fame” those of blacks. Another character called Radio Raheem who always carries with him a boom box playing Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” and it is the loudness of the song that makes Sol so angry that he smashes the device with a baseball bat, starting a fight that escalates into the riot.

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Mishandled by the police who accidentally kill one of the main characters, the blacks in the street become a mob, smashing and burning not only Sal’s parlor, but other establishments as well. After the riot Smiley places a picture of Malcolm X and Dr. King on what is left of the “Wall of Fame,” Sal and his black assistant Mookie are reconciled, and the film ends with a quotation from both Malcolm X and Dr, King.

Three years later (1992) Spike Lee filmed the biography Malcolm X in which Denzil Washington played the leader, from the Malcolm Little days of his all-consuming anger against white America; through his conversion to Islam by a fellow prison inmate; his emergence as a powerful speaker in Elijah Mohammed’s Nation of Islam; his growing disillusionment over his leader’s hypocrisy; his break with the Nation of Islam and his hajji to Mecca and his revising his racial views; to the firebombing of his home and his  assassination.

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There follows a montage that includes a major portion of the eulogy that actor Ossie Davis gave at the funeral: “However much we may have differed with him or with each other about him and his value as a man, let his going from us serve only to bring us together, now … Consigning these mortal remains to earth, the common mother of all, secure in the knowledge that what we place in the ground is no more now a man, but a seed which, after the winter of our discontent, will come forth again to meet us. And we will know him then for what he was, and is: a prince! Our own black shining prince who didn’t hesitate to die, because he loved us so.” (For more of his remarks click here.)

The film closes with shots of a teacher and students, in America and Africa, paying tribute to the leader, and of the recently freed Nelson Mandela quoting from one of Malcolm’s speeches.

I was especially struck by a scene in the movie in which Malcolm takes issue with a painting of Christ hanging on the walls of the prison chapel. It was Christ holding out his arms to the viewer, painted as a white man. Asking the chaplain what color was Jesus, he engages the befuddled chaplain in debate over the color of Jesus and God. The white chaplain assumed that both Jesus and God were white. Now a follower of Elijah Mohammed, Malcolm proves by quoting from the Book of Revelation that Jesus, as a Hebrew definitely did not have “a pale face.” (See Scene 22 “Color of Jesus.”) At that time (1992) I was working on my M. Div. degree’s thesis: “From the Catacombs to the Silver Screen: the Changing Images of Christ,” several parts of which were devoted to works by African, Latin American, and Asian artists depicting Christ as a member of their own race and culture.

Also during that time I had gone to Ghana as videographer for a church work/service project and had an opportunity to search for what I hoped would be black images of Christ—but they were all, even in the Catholic cathedral I visited, European works, a white Jesus. When I asked a seminary professor about this, he replied, “You know, Ed, it’s been only 15 or so years since we were allowed to use African dances and music in the liturgy. Come back in another 10 or 15 years, and maybe you will find a black Jesus.” I also talked with a famous woodcarver who had carved numerous “Last Suppers” based on Da Vinci’s painting. I asked him had he ever made a black Christ, and he replied that no one had ever asked for one, nor had he thought of the idea. He said that maybe he would do so sometime in the future. I can only hope this is the case.

So, let’s pause during the day and give thanks for this man who was capable of such enormous growth and who strongly challenged our racist culture. I often wonder what he would have contributed to race relations—he had promised to reach out to other C-R leaders. (Indeed his earlier meeting with Dr. King was friendly but lasted just a minute following a press conference>)—if he had not been snatched from us.  I am thankful that God has sent his prophets to America in so many forms and colors, working for justice, even though not always agreeing on the means.

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