The Legacy of Malcolm X
He terrified whites and turned Negroes into African-Americans
"By any means ... " Much of what young people think they know about Malcolm comes from rap music. The rap group Public Enemy, in its "Shut Em Down" video, shouts, "Screw George Washington," then knocks the first president off the dollar bill and replaces him with Malcolm X. In Prince Akeem and Chuck D's "Time to Come Correct," Malcolm is shown speaking and then lying dead in his coffin while the words "by any means necessary" flash across the screen. Those four words--now Malcolmania's No. 1 slogan--are also the title of a Boogie Down Productions album, the cover of which has lead rapper KRS-One peering out a window with a semiautomatic rifle, just as Malcolm did in an Ebony magazine photo in 1964.
Malcolm's oldest daughter, Attallah Shabazz, says too many youths believe that "by any means necessary" means using a gun. Shabazz, who at the age of 6 saw her father shot to death, favors another interpretation. "Any means," she says, can include reading books and studying hard. Malcolm himself always used the term ambiguously in telling how to achieve justice and equity, and he let friends and foes alike interpret as they wished. But his message about self-improvement was plain. "Without education," he warned, "you are not going anywhere in this world." Spike Lee says he made his movie in hopes of ending a disturbing trend in inner-city schools: Blacks who make good grades, he notes, are assailed by peers as acting white.
The color line. It was not easy to be black and contented in the 1960s. The Supreme Court had outlawed school segregation, but nearly every Southern classroom remained either all-white or all-black until late in the decade. Hotels, eating places, theaters, libraries, buses, ballparks, zoos--all were segregated. The typical Southern service station provided three restrooms: "Ladies," "Gentlemen" and "Colored." In some counties, blacks who tried to vote risked losing their jobs or their lives. Outside the South, local laws banned discrimination and politicians spoke of brotherhood. But millions of blacks lived in crumbling, rat-infested housing with no hope of moving to the white suburbs, and their children attended schools as segregated as any in the old Confederacy. Police floggings were commonplace in the North and South alike.
Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X looked at what black people were up against and reached totally different conclusions on what should be done. King, focusing initially on the South, believed a campaign of nonviolent protests would end segregation, changing white people's hearts as well as their laws. "We are simply seeking to bring into full realization the American dream--a dream yet unfulfilled," the Baptist minister explained. By contrast, Malcolm X found nothing in America worth saving. "I see America through the eyes of the victim," he said. "I don't see any American dream. I see a nightmare." The pre-Mecca Malcolm said King was a "chump" and an "Uncle Tom" for pursuing integration. The real answer, Malcolm said, was the voluntary but permanent separation of the races, with whites in one place and blacks in another. The government, he said, should "give us part of this country." He grinned that someplace sunny, like Florida or California, would do fine.