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Prophet of Respect: Why Malcolm X Still Matters 50 Years After His Assassination

02/28/2015 01:03 pm ET | Updated Apr 30, 2015

"Peace be with you," were his finals words as he spoke to a large audience exactly 50 years ago. Then, all of a sudden, several men jumped up from the crowd in Harlem, pulled out their guns and shot him to death. The assassins aim was to silence the man, his words, his oratory and his influence. The succeeded in killing the man but failed to silence him. Malcolm X is arguably more popular today than he was 50 years ago -- worldwide!

Malcolm X, the icon

You can see or hear or read about Malcolm X these days from a seemingly unlimited supply of sources. On YouTube there is even a Malcolm X Network with high viewer rates, where a rich collection of his appearances can be seen. Watching them, one usually sees an angry man with glasses speaking in front of big crowds, often in scratchy black and white film footage.

For anyone who digs a bit into black culture, it doesn't take long to stumble upon the name of Malcolm X. You can be looking at contemporaries including Hip-Hop, Rap, or Kwanzaa, or also at people like Beyoncé or Barack Obama and come across references or connections to Malcolm X. Even with echoes of the past like Muhammad Ali, Harry Belafonte, Sidney-Poitier-movies or old-school funk and soul music; everything seems to trace back to Malcolm X. And this ubiquitous black furthers the impression of Malcolm X as an immortal.

Anyone who wants to better understand contemporary black culture needs to take a closer look at Malcolm X.

Malcolm X, the key to black culture

Who was this man who is so influential to this day? Who was this man who never held any public office, who came out of nowhere from the Midwest? Who was this man who had no formal education and made some incredible mistakes in his life that caused him to spend long years in prison? Who was this man who gave his enemies so much ammunition and quotations that they could denounce him with? Who was this man who even President Obama has said had a big influence on his life?


American biography in times of segregation

On May 19, 1925 he was born as Malcolm Little, the son of Baptist preacher in beautiful Omaha, Nebraska. His parents were followers of nationalist Mark Garvey. In those difficult times of segregation, Garvey preached pride and - as a possible solution - a migration to escape the racial hatred and the lack of legal protection.

His family was of course threatened by the Ku Klux Klan. When Malcolm was just six years old his father died run over by a streetcar. The family did not believe in an accident and his death broke his mother's heart.

Malcolm was raised with his half-sister in Boston, dropped out of school. When he was unable to get a decent job, he turned to the criminal underworld and ended up taking drugs. In the early 1940s, he moved to New York, began as a waiter and then went completely off the rails: drug trafficking, pimping and theft.

When the pressure from the police got too intense, he went back to Boston, was arrested and sentenced in 1947 at the age of 22 to ten years in prison. Until now, it would have been just another unremarkable story about a young man getting into trouble, the sort of thing that happened a lot in that era of racial segregation. Cynics would say it was the result of an unwritten law of the street: You have no chance, so grab it, no matter from whom. This thinking was reflected in the famous words of Enlightenment philosopher Vittorio Alfieri: "Society prepares the crime, the criminal commits it."

The conversion to Malcolm X

In prison, Malcolm got his inspiration from a fellow inmate who was an avid reader. Malcolm started to read. Because he did not know what to read, he started off with a dictionary. The first word: Aardvark. After that, he got swept up in a cascade of knowledge and he absorbed as much as he could from the hundreds of books that followed the animal in the dictionary. He quickly discovered his voracious appetite for knowledge and intellectual discourse. And taking part in the prison debating club, helped sharpen the rhetorical skills and tricks that would later on be so admired and feared.

Behind bars, he became acquainted with a religious sect and later joined: the "Nation of Islam." This group, which is not recognized by orthodox Islam, preaches that all blacks are Allah's beloved children and therefore good. Whites, on the other hand, are purely evil.

For many black prisoners those were comforting words of salvation. In a racially segregated society there had seemingly been no fair chance but instead only oppression and disadvantage. That's why those who followed the sect dropped their last names. According to the view of the believers, everyone's last name could ultimately be traced back to the slaveholder society that robbed them of their history and culture. As the original names were unknown, many simply swapped their last time with an X.

Rise to national fame

After spending many years in prison, Malcolm X became a preacher for the Nation of Islam, which were also known as the "Black Muslims". From the head of the New York community he quickly rose to become a nationally known figure. The secret to his success was that he spoke the language of the street, combined with an incredibly rich knowledge of Bible, Koran and general history.

He managed to communicate with ordinary people as well as making a lasting impression on mass audiences or scholarly audiences. The emerging medium of television certainly helped. In the same way that visuals and oratory helped John F. Kennedy to win over voters, Malcolm X benefited from the new power of television as well. He certainly loved the camera and the camera loved him back. Many recordings show his casual eloquence even when he spoke about uncomfortable topics such as self-esteem.

While watching these videos it's important to keep in mind that they were made during an era of segregation: Non-whites were not allowed to do the same things as whites; using public transport - for example - they had to sit in the back. It was the time when many believed that Muhammad Ali was not a typical black boxer because he talked so much. And then there was this man with glasses doing all the talking, and rhetorically taking whites who insisted on racial segregation for a ride.

It was his appearance; it was his uncommonly powerful eloquence that made him famous and immortal. From his speeches and comments in those days there are many quotes from him that are now heard over and over again in movies, books and pop songs.

His assertion that a person can defend his rights "by any means necessary" is perhaps his most lastingly famous quotation.

It also "helped" his notoriety that he was built up as a rival of Martin Luther King, the preacher of non-violence. Malcolm X did not believe in the Christian ideal of loving one's enemy and all that stuff about turning the cheek. He wanted his rightful respect. From everyone!

His approach was wonderfully captured in the Sidney Poitier classic "In the Heat of the Night."

Break with the Black Muslims

In Malcolm X's heyday the Black Muslims had grown from small sect to a mass phenomenon. Probably because of his personal popularity and his fame, there was a rupture with his congregation. Malcolm X made a pilgrimage to Mecca, converted to orthodox Sunni.

This trip opened his mind: among other things he realized that outside of the United States it was possible for different religions and races to co-exist peacefully - un-segregated. This experience changed him again - made him a humanist. He felt closer to Martin Luther King: equal rights and justice for everybody.

The Nation of Islam regarded his new thinking as betrayal, some saying publicly that he had deserved death.

The assassination

There were many death threats and he barely survived a fire bomb. At his next speech, on February 21, 1965 he was shot to death. Even today, the full background of the assassination has not been determined. Those arrested for killing him were members of the Nation of Islam and they were sentenced to life imprisonment.

Similar to the assassinations of Kennedy and Martin Luther King, speculation and theories are rife about the facts and the background. Many witnesses saying that there must have been more than the three identified shooters. Because Malcolm X was under constant surveillance by the FBI the rumors never ceases that the FBI was aware of the plot to kill him.

Malcolm X: An attitude

His death started another transformation: a virtual "attitude Malcolm X", supported by worldly occurrences. Four months after his death, his autobiography was released and became a worldwide bestseller. For many young men that book is a coming of age inspiration.

Time magazine called it one of the most important books of the 20th century. The Autobiography of Malcolm X is still in the literary canon of many American universities.

When hip-hop and rap emerged in the seventies and eighties, then music of angry young men, Malcolm X was often quoted, his words put to big beats.

In the early nineties, Hollywood star Denzel Washington breathed new life into Malcolm X. Director Spike Lee's movie became a blockbuster.

The film is probably so successful around the world because the story is as fascinating as startling and his life sounds like a movie: a kid with seemingly no chances goes down the wrong path - drugs, theft, pimping, and prison! Then the catharsis - education - but still hating his oppressors. Another twist of fate and a pilgrimage is needed to find salvation.

It is his iron self-discipline that is so legendary: He was an incredibly hard worker since his prison days. In his autobiography, he describes wonderfully how he could not stop. In prison there is no light at night, but he kept on reading. The excessive strain of his eyes reading in the dark damaged his vision and led to a later need to wear glasses.

Personal misconducts after his catharsis are not known. Keeping in mind that the FBI went to pains to get taped recordings of Martin Luther King's womanizing in an attempt to discredit him, there was nothing they could find in Malcolm X's life to try to discredit him.

Malcolm X lived in the backstreets of a society, in a ghetto: The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard famously described big cities ghettos once "Excesses of crime and speculation, leftovers, which will have been never more than leftovers."

Living one's life, never accepting anything leftover - that's Malcolm X.

Influence on Obama

When Barack Obama was elected, many posters and T-shirts appeared with an unusual group picture of three men: Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Barack Obama. Martin Luther King had a dream. The fighter, demanding the necessary respect, was Malcolm X. And Barack Obama was the one to make a dream come true. Malcolm X is seen by many as catalyst: Without him, there would have been no President Barack Obama.

In reality, the effect on the young Barack Obama was enormous. In his autobiography Dreams From My Father, the President describes how he tried as a teenager tried to come to terms with his mixed race - white of his mother, black of his father - and this inner struggle was calmed by reading Malcolm X's autobiography.

He found the same anger, the same doubts, and the same self-contempt. Malcolm X's "repeated acts of self-creation spoke to me: the blunt poetry of his words, his unadorned insistence on respect, promised a new and uncompromising, martial in its discipline, forged through the sheer force of will."

The author Marc Ferrara analyzed in his book Barack Obama and the Rhetoric of Hope that Obama and Malcolm X were anything but contradictory: "Self-reliance, continual improvement, drive, discipline, tempered and hard work," sound almost like a direct quote from Malcolm X.

Malcolm X, the symbol

Malcolm X's life - especially if you keep in mind that books are so 18th, 19th and 20th century - might be today's equivalent of Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther , the best coming of age book of all times. Werther was all German, Malcolm X deals with contemporary phenomenon: people are mixed and grow up with two cultures.

And Malcolm X stands for self-empowerment. He is proof that anyone, even those who have fallen far, can free himself. You just have to work harder. That's why his spirit is very much still alive in the whole wide world even 50 years after his violent death.