50 years ago tonight Malcolm X was shot to death. He was both opposed and dismissed by many, perhaps loved and admired by some, but in all that he was he was a voice of a man speaking up for himself.
I read his autobiography a few years ago, and while I had to return to the 50s and 60s to understand his world, it did bring back to mind what it was like to live in that America where there was a complacent ruling class and a voiceless, powerless underclass.
He said some awful, violent things, no more violent nor awful than his opponents said about him and those like him, but he also said some truly great things about being a person who stands for yourself, for discovering who you are, warnings about going along with what you’re told, and frustrations with how even people with the best intentions and thoughtful words could take you right back into another form of oppression.
I think we focus on the violence in some of his speech, but fail to understand that he was neither uninformed nor unthoughtful. He was awake and aware of his times and his place in his culture, and given what he was seeing and the lack of power and change, he struggled to break through the silence and reach people.
When we are satisfied with our lives and full of achievement, we can forget what he was attempting to bring about. And when we are listening only to ourselves and to those who offer their approval of ourselves and our achievements, we are letting the circumstances slide right back to what they were when Malcolm X attempted to be the voice of the voiceless and a force for change in a world that did not want change. If we cannot listen to his voice and if we try to suppress the calls for change, we are setting up, again, a world where people see violence as the only remaining method to use to bring about change and justice.