The New York City district attorney announced in 2020 that it had launched an investigation into the 1965 murder of Malcom X, for which three members of the Nation of Islam had been convicted.
Malcolm X (Malik Shabazz) had broken with the organization’s policy of Black separatism, though not from his convictions regarding systemic racism.
In recent days, a former New York policeman’s deathbed written confession—claiming that the police and the FBI collaborated in arranging Shabazz’s murder – is raising the investigative stakes.
Why is this noteworthy?
For starters, the truth is always worth the trouble. More importantly, though, we need to assess the culpability of law enforcement.
It has already been established beyond all reasonable doubt that the FBI (and the US Army intelligence service) engaged in illegal monitoring of Martin Luther King Jr and other civil rights leaders.
William Sullivan, head of the FBI’s domestic intelligence division, wrote in a report after the 1963 March on Washington that King was “ the most dangerous Negro in the country.”
If King – consistently and emphatically committed to nonviolence – was considered a threat, one can only imagine their assessment of Malcolm X.
Writing in his 1991 book (whose title I’ve adapted for this essay title), Malcolm, Martin, and America: A Dream or a Nightmare? James Cone said: “Martin and Malcolm are important because they symbolize two necessary ingredients in the African-American struggle for justice in the United States. We should never pit them against each other.”
He continued: “Anyone, therefore, who claims to be for one and not the other does not understand their significance for the black community, for America, or for the world. We need both of them and we need them together. Malcolm keeps Martin from being turned into a harmless American hero. Martin keeps Malcolm from being an ostracized black man.”
It’s important to recognize that both men experienced a widening and deepening of their respective visions during their lifetime – amazingly short lifetimes, since both were killed at age 39.
Following his 1964 hajj to Mecca, Saudi Arabia – fulfilling the ritual mandate for all Muslims, where he experienced a transforming global, multiracial immersion – Malcolm controversially broke with Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam and its message of Black separatism.
After the civil rights movement’s initial goals of integrated buses, water fountains and lunch counters, King began to see the complex web of racial, social and economic factors that must be confronted before meaningful change could occur.
He spoke of the triple threats of racism, materialism and militarism, and he provoked much contention, a year before his assassination, when he very publicly and forthrightly condemned the war in Vietnam, linking domestic oppression with international aggression.
The last public opinion poll assessing his popularly found that only a third of the country supported his activism. The “dream,” which four years earlier captivated the imagination of many, lost its luster; and King’s memory was domesticated.
Recently, I pulled up a reflection written six years ago to commemorate the golden anniversary of Malcom X’s autobiography.
I was grateful that that essay has held up reasonably well, given recent history, particularly with the mobilizing work of Black Lives Matter and the renewed controversy over U.S. history in light of repeated incidents of the killings of unarmed Black folk.
Our nation is grappling with the question of whether race is incidental to our history or baked in.
Just how deep is this archeological dig into racism’s roots, this de-romanticizing of U.S. history? And what are we going to do with the mounting pile of embarrassing artifacts?
Going forward, there are many things to be learned, particularly by those of us in the “white” community. As has been said, “nobody was white until we got to America.”
Two things are certain for those willing to make the long journey toward the Beloved Community.
First, we must center the voices of those who have felt the lash, endured the chains and been pushed to the margins.
The consistent testimony of Scripture is that God’s attention and ire are aroused by the blood of Abel “crying to me from the ground” (Genesis 4:10), the enslaved Hebrews toiling Pharaoh’s brick yards (Exodus 2:23), the landless poor who are not given rights to the harvest (Leviticus 23:22) and the moans of the destitute (Psalm 146:7).
Furthermore, the Most High announces that provision for the poor is a form of holiness (Proverbs 14:31) and “knowledge of God” is confirmed in heeding the pleas of the destitute (Jeremiah 22:16) with whom Jesus identifies himself (Matthew 25:31-46).
Indeed, the cries of creation itself, groaning as a woman in labor (Romans 8:8:19), is commended as the proper posture for people of faith, signifying the Spirit’s rebellion against the rule of enmity in the world now known.
Second, coming to terms with racism will be unpleasant and will not happen quickly.
Having scales pulled off our eyes will sting and disorient. But the pain is not for humiliation but the proffer of healing and right-relatedness.
It is in our own interests to make this journey, ever drawn by the beatific vision of creation’s promise, purpose and provision.
Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. Part two is available here.
Curator of prayerandpolitiks.org, an online journal at the intersection of spiritual formation and prophetic action, and author of, most recently, In the Land of the Willing: Litanies, Prayers, Poems, and Benedictions. He was the founding director of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and founding co-pastor of Circle of Mercy Congregation in Asheville, North Carolina.