More than 10,000 people came by car, by bicycle and on foot to Anacostia Park yesterday for the 11th annual Malcolm X Day celebration, an eight-hour musical and political extravaganza that stressed voter registration and unity in Washington's black community.
Between funk, rock and reggae performances, a parade of neighborhood activists and politicians urged the crowd to remember the spirit of the slain black nationalist leader by becoming politically active and registering to vote.
"Sign up for survival!" shouted Malik Edwards, executive director of the Malcolm X Cultural Education Center in far Southeast, organizers of what has become one of the city's most heavily attended spring events.
"Malcolm once said it was the ballot or the bullet," Edwards told the crowd. "Right now this country's priorities are all wrong. But they won't start listening to us until we start to go to the polls and make our voices heard."
As he spoke, dozens of volunteers armed with clipboards and voter registration forms made their way through the crowd, marking the kickoff of a drive that the center hopes will net 10,000 new voters.
All afternoon, a steady stream of youngsters and families with picnic lunches filled up a freshly mowed meadow near the Anacostia River. The bands and the speakers performed on a raised platform. Scores of youngsters carried enormous radios, most tuned to WHUR, which was broadcasting the celebration.
"I know most of you came here for the music, or maybe for the speakers," said Taalib Abdul Samad of the American Muslim Mission, who delivered the opening prayer. "But you also must know about Malcolm . . . . He was known for his militancy and his revolutionary tactics, but all of that succumbed to his worship for God. We pray that you go away today with more than just music on your mind, but also Malcolm."
Malcolm's life provides inspiration to many young blacks, Edwards said, especially because he rose from being a drug addict, pimp and convict to become a respected leader who stressed unity and pride among black people. "People can hit the bottom, and still educate themselves and rise to overcome," he said. "We are missionaries of that message."
Samad said that Malcolm's early anti-white attitudes changed markedly in his final years after his conversion to Islam. "Malcolm was the name he used before he came to his true identity, El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz," he said. "Malcolm later overcame his color-consciousness. Instead of being concerned about Afro-Americans, he became concerned by the plight of humanity."
Malcolm X was assassinated on Feb. 21, 1965.
On stage, Africa and Southeast Washington were united, Edwards observed, as the noted African drummer Olatunji joined a local favorite, the Junkyard Band, a group of youngsters from a Southeast housing project whose style, using tin cans and discarded buckets for drums, has earned them local and national television appearances.
"Most people come here for music," said Kamala Richardson, 17, a senior at Spingarn High School in Southeast. "I come here for the speeches . . . and the music." She said little mention is made of Malcolm in her school books, but that her mother had told her about him.
Her friend, Willie Jackson, 25, said his older brother Roderick, now a Baptist minister, used to sit him down and tell him about Malcolm's message. "I think Malcolm was a philosopher. Talking about things the way presidents do . . . . He wanted people to be more broad-minded, and start looking up instead of down."
Robert and Aina Sneed, a Baltimore couple, brought their sons, Bayo, 6, and Akilah, 4, who both wore Malcolm X T-shirts. "We need holidays like this to celebrate our black kings and princes," Aina Sneed said. "Malcolm taught us we need to be self-sufficient and not depend on governments or charities."