Celebrating Malcolm X's 90th Birthday Through Collective Courage and Not Mere Nostalgia

05/19/2015 05:26 pm ET | Updated May 18, 2016

By the look of things, America is suffering through a pretty bad identity crisis. As our society indulges in 50th anniversary commemorations of civil rights movement milestones and tragedies - such as the passage of the Voting Rights Act or the Sunday massacre at Selma police across the country continue to go unchastised for shooting unarmed, naked, and even mentally ill civilians. It is no surprise, then, that the Malcolm X is making a comeback in our national conversation about race, justice, and memory.

Predicated on decades of a national culture of police hubris not to mention systematic racial disenfranchisement, Baltimore's descent into violence last month now echoes the many race riots that haunt this nation's history. But riots are symptoms, not diseases, and in so long as the debts of bigotry and institutionalized racism go unpaid, our society can expect to be haunted again soon.

Today, as the nation faces complex questions about race and inequality, it is important to draw upon our own history for resources and traditions that can help us overcome the regressive forces challenging our democratic values. But it is critical that we dig deep into our collective memory for more than mere nostalgia. As the celebrated scholar James Cone pointed out, the way we often remember Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X forces us to ask whether America should be seen as a dream or a nightmare. But rarely are things so simplistic. Few choose remember that by end of his life Martin Luther King Jr. warned against the tyrannical fusion of racial supremacy at home and US military imperialism abroad. Likewise, few remember that Malcolm X, by the end of his life, advocated a robust approach to coalition building and solidarity, urging unity across ideological, ethnic, and religious lines.

When the aspirations of the Civil Rights Movement were swallowed by the Cold War and Reaganomics, American society between the 1960s and 1980s was as polarized and conflicted as it is today. Endless wars abroad, staggering inequality, police abuse, and social polarization: these are just a few of the maladies that consumed the post-Civil Rights generation. The breakdown of society into distinct populations with their own, seemingly-unrelated "causes" has driven communities to political isolation rather than collective action. We must learn from our civil rights heroes on this point and, rather than push for improvements in each issue separately, work together to create a stronger pool of communities seeking political and social change. We must also be vigilante of new forms of rampant bigotry and xenophobia even as we seek to redress generations of indignity..

Malcolm X and other great advocates of human rights during the Civil Rights era understood the social ills of racism through institutional and imperial lenses. They understood that the only way to overcome such challenges was to work with other communities disproportionately affected by police brutality and institutionalized racism. It is clear that Malcolm was committed to this type of coalition-based politics by the fact that he formed the Organization for Afro-American Unity for the purposes of pan-Africanist solidarity, as well as the Muslim Mosque Inc. to promote spiritual cultivation. Malcolm's teachings live on through leaders like Angela Davis and movements like Dream Defenders who make connections between Ferguson and Gaza or police brutality and Pentagon spending. too often we forget the overwhelming connection between institutionalized racism and religious bigotry, poverty, job security, and the other factors that no doubt contribute to what we saw in Baltimore last month and Ferguson before that.. Realizing these connections through collective action is indispensable for the advancement of our democratic culture.

An impressive "Malcolm moment" was seen in the way communities across New York City came together to demand reform of the NYPD's "stop-and-frisk" policy and its "Muslim surveillance program." These cases need to be documented and studied closely because, in order to change a broken system, we need to build coalitions as strong as fortresses. Organizations like the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) are doing just that through their research and publications on these and other issues. 

Opportunities for collective action are everywhere. Anti-Muslim bigotry, one of the greatest stains on American society today, for example, is not an ephemeral or marginal cultural attitude. Like racism, Islamophobia is perpetuated by opportunistic politicians and ideologues with clear political agendas of malevolence. Its funding sources and networks are tied to interest groups that systematically work against a healthy democracy. It is unsurprising then that many state legislators across the country who supported regressive (and uninformed) "anti-Sharia" bills also sponsored legislation harming African Americans, Latinos, and the LGBT community, making Islamophobia a veritable "canary in the coalmine".

Understanding the living legacy of Malcolm X - and joining causes together as one unified front - allows us to focus on the successes and challenges of ongoing struggles, rather than lamenting a lost era. And isn't participating in those struggles a much better way to honor the legacy of our country's greatest leaders than simply memorializing them?  

Dr. Abbas Barzegar is Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Georgia State University where he co-directs the After Malcolm Digital Archive. He is also a Fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understandin