Our Opinion: The evolution of Malcolm X was cut short

Written Feb 21, 2015 by Berkshire Eagle Editorial Staff in The Berkshire Eagle

The turbulent 1960s were marred by assassinations, which America reflects upon when significant anniversaries arrive. It was 50 years ago Saturday that Malcolm X was gunned down, and like all those prominent figures who died young we wonder what would have been different had they lived.

Malcolm X was perceived as the anti-Martin Luther King Jr., a civil rights firebrand who advocated taking the fight to the enemy, not turning the other cheek. He was feared if not hated by white America, but when he died in hail of bullets on February 21, 1965, it was not white supremacists who pulled the triggers but his former brothers in the Nation of Islam. Malcolm X was a complicated man, as complicated as America’s history of race relations.

Malcolm Little (X replaced what he regarded as his slave name) was born in Omaha but lived for several years in Boston, arriving at the age of 14 to live with his half-sister. In an article in the February 15 Boston Globe, Ideas section columnist Ted Widmer argued that Boston should embrace its connection to Malcolm X, observing that the young trouble-maker not only had affection for the city, as recounted in his powerful “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” but was essentially educated by the books he found while serving time for burglary in Norfolk State Prison.

Mr. Widmer notes that Malcolm X read the works of Great Barrington native W.E.B. Du Bois in prison, and it can be assumed that Mr. Du Bois’ landmark “The Souls of Black Folks” (1903) was one of the books that influenced the young man. Mr. Du Bois was in a sense the Malcolm X of his time, not that the civil rights leader, author and historian defended violence in response to violence. His righteous anger against institutional racism and the roadblocks that prevented black Americans from improving their lives echoed that of Malcolm X decades later, and like Malcolm X, Mr. Du Bois made white people, in particular white people in authority, uncomfortable.

Great Barrington and Berkshire County were in no more of a hurry to embrace Mr. Du Bois than Boston is of Malcolm X. This is in part because of his disillusioned “abandonment” of the United States (he died in Ghana at the age of 95 two years before Malcolm X was killed) and his embrace of communism.

Du Bois ultimately broke from communism, distressed by the intolerance and immorality of its large-scale practitioners. Before he was killed, Malcolm X was following a similar path, as his advocacy for racial separation, for example, was putting him in the same camp as the Klansman and other white racists who advocating the same thing.

The character of Malcolm X makes a brief but significant appearance in the movie “Selma,” reaching out to his old foe Martin Luther King, with Coretta Scott King as intermediary. Malcolm X was moving away not only from separatism but his confrontational approach. Mr. King, it could be argued, was focusing more on the broader issues of human rights that Malcolm X had championed.

Had both lived into their 40s and beyond they may have formed a formidable team. They were both brilliant, articulate and passionate and shared the same cause. Their differences were largely a matter of strategy. Malcolm X’s evolution angered those in the Nation of Islam he was leaving behind, and as a result, we will never know where he would have gone.

Thanks to the hard work of his Berkshire advocates, Mr. Du Bois is now honored with a museum in his native Great Barrington. A Malcolm X museum in Boston would be an appropriate bookend to it. Both men focused their anger at injustice in the cause of the greater good, combining it with their many skills to make a lasting impact for many millions of African-Americans, and for the nation.