2015 is a special year. Exactly 50 years ago, a lot of things in the history of civil rights movement happened: The Civil Rights Act, the March on Washington, the Voting Rights Act, but also the loss of one of the main leaders of the civil rights movements: Malcolm X.
His name was previously Malcolm Little. He replaced the white slave master name of ‘Little’, by the letter ‘X’, which symbolizes the unknown. Ilyasha Shabazz is one of the six daughters of the slain activist (who took the Arabic name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz). She held a speech in memory of the Legacy of Malcolm X at Harvard Law School.
In the interview Ilyasha Shabazz shared more information about her family, herself, being the daughter, her father’s life and legacy and what he would think today.
Who was Malcolm X for you?
Malcolm X was a very young man, only in his twenties, when the world learned about him- a very compassionate person, a courageous leader, a man of great faith, who fought for human rights. Just a dynamic, passionate individual. Someone I loved very much, my father.
His childhood seems to have had a deep impact on his future path. What did he experience?
When you look at Malcolm’s life, even in his childhood – as exciting and fulfilling as it was up until the assassination of his father, when he was just six years old- he endured lots of pain. His family house was set afire twice. His father purchased land that was reserved “for whites only” during the Jim Crow Era of the 1920s. His father was killed because of hate, and Malcolm was separated from his siblings and his mother. And even though he was separated from his siblings, he still was very smart: learning the values instilled in him by his parents-the love of education and learning. Even though he was the only African American student, he won the class presidency in seventh grade. His teacher asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. Malcolm said he wanted to be a lawyer. That means he wanted to fight for human rights, and help others- much as he saw the work done by his father. His teacher told him he could not be a lawyer- that there was a certain way that African Americans had to be in life, and that they should not aspire to be great. And he should be a carpenter and work with his hands.
Later Malcolm X became a leader for human rights. Initially he believed in the separation of black and white Americans as a solution to the racial problem and he rejected nonviolence as a strategy because, in his view, African American should advance and defend themselves “by any means necessary.” He is often contrasted with Martin Luther King, who endorsed nonviolent resistance. Both had the same goal. What do you think about this frequent comparison?
That is right, both had the same goal. I think it is unfortunate that we have to compare or choose one over the other. For instance, when we talk about Thomas Jefferson’s contribution versus George Washington’s contribution, we are not encouraged to choose one over the other. We embrace and respect both contributions. I think even when it comes to Dr. King and my father, we should not have to choose one over the other. We should be grateful that each made the ultimate sacrifice to serve their country for the betterment of their people, to end oppression and to seek social justice.
Also, my father never promoted segregation or violence. We must consider the social climate that Malcolm challenged- and consider that when we see Malcolm, we see him reacting to the violence perpetrated against innocent children, nonviolent protesters, young defenseless men, women, even elders. Not that he ever caused this violence. My father was one of the most highly sought-after speakers in our nation during this time. My favorite speech of his is the one he made at the Oxford Union in the U.K., where he is not reacting to violence but rather engaged in dialogue with his favorite audience- young people: where he plants seeds with young future leaders.
Some months before his assassination, it is often said that he had a transformation. Do you agree?
No, he did not. You know, people always talk about this big transformation. But when you look at him, he continually evolved. He continued to research, to learn, and to adopt his new knowledge in his work. When we first learned about Malcolm X, he was only in his twenties. When he was gunned down, he was 39. So he continued to evolve- and certainly, whoever you are at 20 is not the same person that you will be at 30, 40, or 50. And Malcolm was always compassionate. He was always a responsible, accountable, and great leader, who stood toe to toe with injustice. If something was not right, he challenged it to make it better- for all of humanity.
Initially he focused on working only with African Americans. Later he was open to working with others- no matter what their religion or ethnic background was- as long as the goal was to secure African American rights. How do you see this shift?
That is correct. African Americans were the descendant of enslaved Africa in this country who for so many hundreds of years were psychologically scarred, psychologically traumatized, and not considered or given full rights as a human being. They were considered to be only three-fifths of a human being Their rights were not even included in the Constitution.
During his trip abroad for his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964, he saw that people of different skin colors and ethnic backgrounds saw and treated each other equally as human beings, and prayed together. He realized that the treatment of blacks in the United States was a particularly American problem was an American problem and that you cannot see all white people as racists. I think being in the U.S.A. all his life, without basic human rights- and then being able to visit other countries- broadened his perspective and further heightened his commitment to improving race relations.
Your mother, Betty El-Shabazz, was a civil rights and women’s rights advocate. How did she face the challenging time after the assassination?
Before her husband was killed, she believed that the woman’s role was in the home, where she could nurture her husband and her children. After her husband was killed she could no longer subscribe to that. So she felt that if she wanted her daughters to have equality and a good education, she would have to work very hard. She invested in herself to get her Ph.D. so that she could take care of her six children. She knew that if she wanted equality and education for us, extracurricular activities like music, religious and history lessons would be important. She had to work very hard to make that possible. And she accomplished even more than that. Because she understood the importance of education and history, she never accepted “no” or “I can’t” as answers for herself. She possessed faith in God and self-respect and self-esteem. She did not live her life as a victim or in despair. She just believed that, whatever it is, you want to make the best of your life.
Being the daughter of a man like Malcolm X, who had such a deep impact on human rights history, is an honor, but it might also involve a lot of outside expectations and pressure. How do you experience it?
Before we understood the icon that is Malcolm X, our mother made sure that we knew him primarily as “Daddy” or “Mommy’s husband”- the loving and compassionate man, that we knew about the importance of his love and compassion, about his intelligence and commitments! It was at school where I learned about him as one of the leaders in the civil rights movement. That was where I learned of racism and injustice.
There was pressure initially, but as I talked about it in my first book, Growing X, I eventually found that my relationship with God was most important, and not the judgment of others: that as long as I could look in the mirror and like me, I would be fine. I am so happy that he is my father. I just honor and respect the work that he did. And so I realized that if I wanted to ensure accuracy of his works so that it could empower young people, then I just have to do the work also.
Why would the legacy of Malcolm and Betty El-Shabazz be so important today?
Each hour someone gets killed through a hate crime. FBI crime report statistics show that at least 8 African Americans, 4 Muslims, 3 Jews, 3 whites, 3 gays, and 1 Latino become hate crime victims every day. Did you know that young people commit the majority of hate crimes in the United States? According to the latest available FBI report statistics, one-half of all the hate crimes in our nation are committed by people between the ages of 15 and 24.
Those numbers are just alarming. I ask the young people: What have you been taught? We teach our children to hate and that means that we are teaching them to hate themselves. We are one of the greatest countries in the world. I ask all young people: Where is your value system, your purpose? We hear this slogan: Black Lives Matter. How specifically does your life matter?
Concerning the rights of African Americans, a lot of things have improved in the last 50 years, but some have not. In recent tragic events, like in Ferguson or on Staten Island, African Americans were victims of police brutality.
The legacy of Malcolm and Betty El-Shabazz is important during this time because people are still being killed, senselessly. This says that we haven’t addressed systemic injustice, institutional racism. The only way it is going to end is if we learn about it and address the root of the problem. All responsible, smart-thinking adults must act and teach our young people better.
Would Malcolm X have a similar viewpoint?
Yes. That is what he was doing 50 years ago. Some people have tried to write him out of history and reduce his significant contributions and character to something he was not. But now, when these problems have continued to exist 50 years later, people suddenly say, “Oh! This is what he was talking about! Oh, look at Malcolm X’s Autobiography!”
What kind of change do you wish to see?
I just want young people to take charge. We all know what we are looking for. We just have to take charge and make it happen. Young people have to be more active, not only in #Black Lives Matter, but in all lives, wherever injustice occurs. We have to have compassion for one another regardless of where we come from. To know that we are sisters and brothers, a family, under the surveillance of God. So if you are in pain because you don’t have education, then I have to help you so that you can have an education. Or if someone else is challenged for whatever reason, that I see it also as my responsibility to act. I am my brothers’ and my sisters’ keeper. Life is about giving something back!
When you say that young people have to be more active beyond #Black Lives Matter, what do you mean by that? How would you suggest they face these challenges?
#Black Lives Matter is an important effort but we have to go beyond it. If I had the answer to how to go beyond it, I would be doing it. I want to address this message to the young, smart, people and students.
It was in the 1960s that young students demanded to have African studies included in the overall educational curriculum throughout the country. That did not exist before. But they demanded it because it was their ancestors who cultivated a once barren land so we could co-exist in one of the greatest countries in the world. Because Blacks made significant contributions, despite all the psychological trauma they had to endure. And those young students]reached their goal.
Today we have Africana studies- but it is not enough. If you want to have change, you have to come together and figure out the next steps with a clear end goal. We cannot just go and make hashtags and say, “Now we are participating in revolution, in the movement, the struggle continues.” We have to look at Malcolm. He was a result-oriented person. He called for smart action and figured it out. You are younger and smarter than me! It is very clear that this generation is going to be the generation that makes the change. I mean, look what happened with the #Black Lives Matter campaign, look at what passionate people are able to do. The idea that they are able to organize all this through social media is one of the greatest advantages. That was amazing. More can be done from it.
You have also written some books. The last one, X: A Novel, which you wrote with Kekla Magoon, was published just last month. Why did you write them?
This book tells about the adolescence of Malcolm X, who was a person like anyone else, but who stood up against injustice. I wrote these books because I want young people to understand their roles in life: that we have to give something back to society. It is not about getting rich, it is about our humanity, our purpose.
Ilyasah Shabazz is the author of the books The Diary of Malcolm X: El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, Growing Up X, Malcolm Little, and X: A Novel