El Hajj Malik El Shabazz was born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska. He is seriously underrated as an influential figure in African-American history. Shabazz worked tirelessly and was uncompromisingly committed to the liberation of Africans. He was a Pan-Africanist whose philosophy was based on that of the Honourable Marcus Mosiah Garvey.
Garvey’s influence on Shabazz is not surprising because his parents were members of Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), an organization whose founder/leader openly declared war against imperialism, colonialism and White supremacy.
Shabazz’s parents, Earl and Louise Langdon Little, met at a UNIA Convention in Montreal, Canada and were married on May 10, 1919.
Like Garvey, Shabazz was an icon of the African Diaspora and oppressed people worldwide. As well as being a Pan-Africanist, Shabazz was a dedicated Muslim and human rights activist and advocate. He chastised any individual, institution, organization or government body that worked against the interest of the suffering African-Americans. He fearlessly went right to the heart of the matter and made no apologies while doing so.
This quote from the Autobiography of Malcolm X is a case in point: “I can’t turn around without hearing about some ‘civil rights advance’! White people seem to think the Black man ought to be shouting ‘hallelujah’! Four hundred years the White man has had his foot-long knife in the Black man’s back – and now the White man starts to wiggle the knife out, maybe six inches! The Black man’s supposed to be grateful? Why, if the White man jerked the knife out, it’s still going to leave a scar!”
Again with his “take no prisoners” style, Shabazz addressed the White supremacy practiced in Christian churches during his famous “Ballot or the Bullet” speech: “Don’t join a church where White Nationalism is preached. Now you can go to a Negro church and be exposed to White Nationalism, ’cause you are – when you walk in a Negro church and a White Mary and some White angels – that Negro church is preaching White Nationalism. But when you go to a church and you see the pastor of that church with a philosophy and a program that’s designed to bring Black people together and elevate Black people – join that church. Join that church. If you see where the NAACP is preaching and practicing that which is designed to make Black Nationalism materialize – join the NAACP. Join any kind of organization – civic, religious, fraternal, political, or otherwise – that’s based on lifting the Black man up and making him master of his own community.”
Shabazz also spoke about the importance of names. In an interview he addressed the issue of Africans in the Diaspora, the descendants of enslaved Africans, being stripped of their African names and saddled with the names of the White people who enslaved their ancestors.
In this quote he addressed the reaction of White people to Africans from the continent who were not stripped of their names: “When I’m traveling around the country, I use my real Muslim name, Malik Shabazz. I make my hotel reservations under that name, and I always see the same thing I’ve just been telling you. I come to the desk and always see that ‘here-comes-a-Negro’ look. It’s kind of a reserved, coldly tolerant cordiality. But when I say ‘Malik Shabazz’, their whole attitude changes: they snap to respect. They think I’m an African. People say what’s in a name? There’s a whole lot in a name. The American Black man is seeing the African respected as a human being. The African gets respect because he has an identity and cultural roots. But most of all because the African owns some land. For these reasons he has his human rights recognized, and that makes his civil rights automatic.”
Shabazz was a man before his time because, while the majority of African-American political figures of his era sought freedom and liberation through social inclusion within the United States, he sought human rights on an international level. On July 17, 1963, he addressed the members of the “African Summit”, the second meeting of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), which had been founded in 1963 to bring about joint action by the independent African governments. The OAU conference was held in Cairo (Egypt’s capital) from July 17 to 21, and was attended by nearly all the heads of the 34 member states.
During his presentation he appealed to the African leaders to support their brethren suffering in America: “We beseech the independent African states to help us bring our problem before the United Nations, on the grounds that the United States government is morally incapable of protecting the lives and the property of 22 million African-Americans. And on the grounds that our deteriorating plight is definitely becoming a threat to world peace.
“Out of frustration and hopelessness our young people have reached the point of no return. We no longer endorse patience and turning-the-other-cheek. We assert the right of self-defence by whatever means necessary, and reserve the right of maximum retaliation against our racist oppressors, no matter what the odds against us are.
“>From here on in, if we must die anyway, we will die fighting back and we will not die alone. We intend to see that our racist oppressors also get a taste of death. We are well aware that our future efforts to defend ourselves by retaliating – by meeting violence with violence, eye for eye and tooth for tooth – could create the type of racial conflict in America that could easily escalate into a violent, world-wide, bloody race war.
“In the interests of world peace and security, we beseech the heads of the independent African states to recommend an immediate investigation into our problem by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mzjn11OGBK8
On a recent visit to New York City, I was saddened and shocked when at the Countee Cullen Library there was no evidence, on the eve of this great man’s birthday, of recognition of his contributions to the advancement of human rights for racialized people, Africans and specifically African-Americans. The library is located in Harlem where Shabazz did most of his advocacy and, even more ironic, it is at the corner of Malcolm X Boulevard and West 135th Street.
Surrounded by streets with names such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Frederick Douglass Boulevard and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, it is indeed a great shame that the powers that be at this branch could not find the time to at least mount a display to honour this African-American revolutionary and human rights activist.
Speaking with staff members at the library, I was directed to various shelves containing a total of two titles about the life and work of Shabazz. I needed help to find them. After unsuccessfully searching the shelves to which I was directed, a staff member eventually located a single copy of Malcolm X for Beginners by Bernard Aquina Doctor, published in 1992, and on the third floor there were five copies of The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley, also published in 1992.
Although I was bitterly disappointed at the lack of information and lack of enthusiasm at that library, I live in hope that my enquiries about books on the life of this great man will have moved the staff to at least mount a display of books that they may have to borrow from other branches of the New York Public Library system.
The man loved books; he was extremely well read and by viewing some of the interviews he did where he confounded White journalists, it is so evident. This from one of his reportedly famous quotes: “My alma mater was books, a good library… I could spend the rest of my life reading, just satisfying my curiosity.”
The life work of Shabazz (short as it was, he was 39 when he was assassinated) has had a profound impact on the lives of millions even though much of what he did is still misunderstood. While he was alive, the impact was not recognized as he was vilified by White media and even some of his own people but much has changed for the betterment of racialized people because of Shabazz’s life work which has benefited more than African-Americans.
Maybe 50 years from now, when many of us have transitioned and are not here to read it, someone will write: “Can you imagine how differently everything would have turned out with the Trayvon Martin case, the laws that would have remained unchanged, if Reverend Al Sharpton and Reverend Jessie Jackson had not become involved?”
BY MURPHY BROWNE