Wineskins Archive

January 21, 2014

Remembering a Martyr: Malcolm X and America’s Struggle for Racial Justice (Aug 1992)

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by Larry James
August, 1992

Tanisha McCarthy’s voice projected a calm, strong resolve across the crowded picnic area where her African-American church family joined my predominantly Anglo-American church family for a Sunday fellowship meal. Our two groups provided quite a study in contrast. Tanisha’s small, mostly female, Missionary Baptist congregation serves one of the poorest, most drug-infested, crime-ridden parts of far south Dallas. My large, wealthy, pampered, suburban Church of Christ group thrives in one of the richest, safest, most well-protected areas of far north Dallas County. The day signalled the beginning of our mutual commitment to maintain an on-going relationship for the sake of understanding, racial harmony, and “nitty-gritty” ministry. As Tanisha’s pastor introduced her, none of us realized that in just three days racial violence would ignite Los Angeles following the Rodney King verdict.

“I want all of you to meet a very special young woman,” L.J. Pate, her minister, began. “Tanisha is an honor student about to graduate from the Dallas school district’s Health Care Magnet High school. She is a leader among her peers and an asset to her church and community. She plans to train for a career in one of the health care professions. But, I want you to know how worried I am about her. I want you to hear her talk about what her life has been like the last few years.”

Tanisha, a beautiful, black teenager, stood perfectly erect. She started slowly.

“During the last three years, over 50 of my friends and classmates have been murdered,” her words flowed almost without emotion. “This last week I attended funeral services for three close friends who died violently.” We sat stunned as she painted a bleak, hopeless, helpless portrait of what it felt like to grow up in a black ghetto. In Tanisha’s neighborhood the police do not respond to calls for assistance in a timely manner. Just down the street from her church building, “crack” dealers run a profitable business. Children roam the streets. Alcoholism, drug abuse, violence, crime, rape, fear – Tanisha used these words to tell her personal story.

“When I was a little girl, I asked my mother if I could date when I turned 16,” Tanisha told us. “But now that I’m 17, I don’t want to go anywhere. I just stay home and study.” Across two tables her mother nodded smiling agreement, while her grandmother, seated beside me, simply hung her head.

In the frightening aftermath of the riots last May, Willie L. Williams, Los Angeles’ new police chief, told Time (May 11, 1992, page 37), “We have to start talking to each other, not talking at each other.” Tanisha and her brothers and sisters would add an “Amen!” Most of white America remains tragically ignorant of the day-to-day experience of much of black America.

The recent death of noted African-American author Alex Haley sent me searching for a copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Haley collaborated with the fiery, controversial black leader to produce this now-classic book almost 30 years ago. The Autobiography of Malcolm X should be read by every white American, and certainly by every Christian interested in understanding the mindset, life experience, and psyche of many African-Americans.

Born May 19, 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska, Malcolm Little’s conflict with a white racist society began even before his birth. The opening paragraph of his autobiography sets the tone for all that follows:

When my mother was pregnant with me, she told me later, a party of hooded Ku Klux Klan riders galloped up to our home in Omaha, Nebraska, one night. Surrounding the house, brandishing their shotguns and rifles, they shouted for my father to come out. My mother went to the front door and opened it. Standing where they could see her pregnant condition, she told them that she was alone with her three small children, and that my father was away, preaching in Milwaukee. The Klansmen shouted threats and warnings at her that we had better get out of town because “the good Christian white people” were not going to stand for my father’s “spreading trouble” among the “good” Negroes of Omaha with the “back to Africa” preaching of Marcus Garvey (page 3).

As a result of the Klan threats, Earl Little moved his family to Lansing, Michigan where racist violence continued. Malcolm shares vivid childhood memories of the terrifying night white men burned down his family’s home. When Malcolm was six years old, members of the Klan murdered his father, crushing his head and almost severing it from his body. Authorities ruled the death as a suicide, depriving the survivors of all death benefits. The family quickly disintegrated following the death of Earl Little and the compete mental breakdown of his widow.

As a young man, Malcolm proved to be an accomplished student both academically and socially, being elected president of his class in a predominantly white school. A crucial encounter with an eighth grade English teacher radically altered the direction of his life. After sharing his dream of becoming a lawyer, the teacher counseled a more “realistic” approach to careeer plans. “Don’t misunderstand me, now. We all here like you, you know that. But you’ve got to be realistic about being a nigger. A lawyer – that’s no realistic goal for a nigger. You need to think about something you can be” (page 43). Recalling the shattering conversation, he notes, “It was then that I began to change – inside” (page 44).

After the eighth grade he dropped out of school and moved to Boston to live with his half-sister, Ella. Here began his slide into a life of crime, drug abuse, hustling, and despair. Immersed for the first time in the black culture and environment of Boston and Harlem, Malcolm landed in prison after being arrested for burglary. He was 21 years old. In prison he encountered the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Lost-Found Nation of Islam, referred to popularly as the Black Muslims. He spent his prison years reading widely and familiarizing himself wih the Afro-American version of Islam which maintained that the white man personified the devil with whom blacks could not live. Upon his release from prison, Malcolm converted to the Black Muslims. Adopting “X” as his last name, symbolic of his stolen identity as the child of African-American slaves, he served as minister of Temple No. 7 in Harlem, becoming the most effective national spokesman for the cause of Elijah Muhammad.

Elijah’s jealousy of his disciple’s popularity and Malcolm’s disillusionment with his leader’s sincerity led to a split between the two men. Malcolm journeyed to Mecca where he first heard orthodox Islamic teaching concerning the equality of all races. More importantly, he met white people who treated people of color with respect, appreciation, and dignity. Returning to America as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, the still-fiery spokesman for black rights contended racism would destroy America and only blacks could free themselves from their oppression. In June 1964 malcolm X founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Affected the American civil rights movement especially through his influence on the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) whose members were the first to call for black power for black people. Gunned down by a Black Muslim assassin at a rally in New York, Malcolm X died on February 21, 1965.

Why read a book now almost three decades old, about the life of such a radical spokesman for the rights of black people?

On April 29, 1992 a Simi Valley, California Superior Court jury, composed of 10 whites, one Asian and one Hispanic, acquitted four white Los Angeles police officers on all but one count brought against them as the result of their violently beating motorist Rodney King on the night of March 3, 1991. For over a year America watched the sickening video tape of King’s arrest and brutal beating. The not-guilty verdict forced all Americans, black and white, to confront our nation’s unfinished struggle for justice for African-Americans. Malcolm X confronted and addressed issues which blacks in this nation still face. His intriguing story remains extremely relevant for those of us who seek to improve race relations in America and in the church today.

Second, read Malcolm X’s story as a beginning attempt to understand and to contextualize the rage, anger and pent-up frustration of millions of black Americans who live in the great cities of our nation. The easy assumptions, the confident, pseudo-expertise expressed by so many white social analysts and Christian leaders sound empty and ill-informed when compared to the stories of Malcolm and Tanisha.

Third, getting into the world of Malcolm X allows me to catch a glimpse of the daily roadblocks black people must break through in their attempts to move beyond the despair and hopelessness of poverty and social alienation. Malcolm X understood institutional racism. He learned it first from an eighth grade English teacher, held captive himself by the same oppressive, limiting worldview. My new, south Dallas friends live with it constantly, and so do I. Reading Malcolm’s story teaches me so much about my own.

Finally, read his story to develop a context and a frame of reference for bringing about meaningful, substantive change in the Christian community. Christian leaders must make clear the connections between faithfulness and a radical commitment to pursue social justice, racial harmony, and the free assimilation of black and white believers into fully-integrated congregations.

Malcolm X, reflecting on his decision to drop out of school and move to Boston, writes, “All praise is due to Allah that I went to Boston when I did. If I hadn’t, I’d probably still be a brainwashed black Christian” (page 46). What a sobering challenge to contemporary Christians of all races to reconsider the message of Jesus Christ and to reject every attempt by a racist society to compromise, dilute or distort his clear commands.Wineskins Magazine

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