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Malcolm X

Malcolm X

By the early 1960's nearly a century had passed since the end of the Civil War, but it was still perfectly legal to keep people out of restaurants, museums, public parks, schools, universities, theaters, and the voting booth simply based on their skin pigmentation. And this was also the time when college educated black Americans found themselves driving cabs or working on lower scale construction jobs. The top of the class were lucky if they could get postal, teaching, or preaching jobs. Civil rights workers were growing in numbers but they still risked being jailed, beaten, and even murdered. Some were.

Malcolm and his friends had long felt enough was enough. Their goal was to develop a completely separate black community which operated independently of the white economic system. Only then, they felt, could they keep the products of organized crime - drug addiction, alcoholism, prostitution - out of their neighborhoods. Also in the late 1940's Malcolm had converted to Islam - originally belonging to the Nation of Islam led by Elijah Muhammad, and after his pilgrimage to Mecca, to Sunni Islam. He, like all Americans, felt he should be allowed to follow his own beliefs, whether mainstream or not, without interference.

Regardless of whether you agreed with him or not, Malcolm was certainly the most articulate of the black leaders from the heyday of the Civil Rights movement. His speeches were delivered in a straightforward manner and without the rhetorical devices and flourishes that makes most politicians sound so corny. As far as the content of his speeches (which even white "liberals" found so alarming), it's also forgotten how dangerous the times were. In 1963, a sitting (and white) governor had stated publicly the way to stop integration was to have - and this is a quote - "a few first class funerals". A week later a bomb exploded in a church in the state's largest city, killing four black girls, ages 11 to 14. So compared to the rhetoric from some elected white officials, Malcolm's speeches were surprisingly moderate in tone and were not the incitement to violence and revolution that they were taken for.

Actually Malcolm was as strict a constitutionalist as anyone, and when you get down to it, a man ahead of his time. Today when more and more Americans are strapping on firearms because they distrust the ability of official enforcement authorities to provide protection, it's surprising that Malcolm caught so much grief simply because he said the Bill of Rights permitted him and his fellow African Americans as private citizens to defend themselves. Malcolm's position - a hotly debated interpretation of the 2nd Amendment - has recently been affirmed by the Supreme Court.

Of course, we've come a long way since Malcolm's time. Segregation has long been illegal, all Americans can vote (if they want), and many southern (and northern) states and cities have black political leaders. And above all we and our politicians now understand the importance of addressing the issues and avoid incitement to violence by inflammatory and dangerous political rhetoric.

Don't we?