“I don’t think that we would still be marching, protesting and demonstrating for the same things that we were marching for 55, 56 years ago when my father was alive,” Shabazz said. “He was a results-oriented person.”
But had the civil rights leader, who was assassinated in New York City on Feb. 21, 1965, at the age of 39 been alive to witness the demonstrations, he might have been struck by the diversity of the protesters, she said.
Malcolm X, a minister and activist whose support for the Black power movement and the ideals of race pride, justice and freedom “by any means necessary” often made him a foil to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., would have looked at the multiracial coalition of protesters as the fulfillment of his vision.
“They recognize that Black power is not exclusionary. It simply says that we are a part of the human family,” said Shabazz, 58.
On Wednesday, the Malcolm X & Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Education Center in New York will host an event to honor what would be the leader’s 96th birthday. It will be live-streamed on Facebook at 6 p.m. Eastern time, and will include appearances from Lauryn Hill, Anthony Hamilton and Alice Smith.
About US spoke with Ilyasah Shabazz, one of Malcolm X’s six daughters and an author, professor and co-chair of the center, about her father’s legacy.
Your father would have turned 96 this week. How might things be different today had he not been assassinated and instead lived to continue his work?
A quote that’s really great that I use often that he said is: “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull out six inches, the knife is still in my back.” We have to pull the knife all the way out and address the wound that the blow made. And so that means coming to the table, dismantling, critiquing and reforming unjust, separate sets of rules under which America operates to bring about a more egalitarian policy and be equally accountable to truly educating all Americans as a start.
What do you think he would have thought about Black Lives Matter and the racial justice movement sparked by George Floyd’s death last year?
I think that he would be proud of our young people. These are issues, vision and concerns that he raised 50-plus years ago. And so I think it’s important for us to come together and keep fighting for justice in Malcolm’s name. He said it would be this generation of young leaders that would recognize that those in power have misused it and will demand change and have the capacity to recognize one’s humanity, not from a Black and White perspective, but from a right and wrong perspective. And that they would be willing to roll up their sleeves and doing the necessary work to bring about change. And I think this is what we saw this past summer, while we were all at home quarantining, not knowing what covid-19 even was, questioning our own mortality and being forced to witness this horrific killing of George Floyd. It was our young people who organized through social media and had people of every ethnic, every nationality, everything that you can possibly imagine, the human family, coming together in 50 states in this country and 18 countries abroad proclaiming “Black Lives Matter.”
Over the last year there has been much controversy over efforts to broaden school curriculums to include the role Black and other non-White people played in this nation’s history, with several states going so far as to ban the teaching of critical race theory. What do you think is behind these fights?
Our education curriculum needs to be restructured. The omission of Black, Brown, Indigenous people of color, Latin and even Asian history is not accidental. I think these exclusions distance people from their own heritage and ultimately their own sense of self. The falsified, whitewashed curriculum enforces the myth that there have never been scholars, caregivers, innovators, artists, revolutionaries, iconoclasts across the various identities. Scientists and architects have documented that Africa is the cradle of the most advanced civilization that ever existed in humankind. And I think that we all want to know that. And that African kingdoms were full of immense progress, scholarship and knowledge. If we learned about them in world history classes just as we teach them about ancient Greece and Rome, we would appreciate the present complexity of Black civilization without teaching racism and hate and inferiority and discrimination. It would be an opportunity to provide a moral value system to our young people of honesty, love, human compassion and self-respect.
As much as I grew up loving who I am as a woman, as a person of the African diaspora, first-world nations, and as a Muslim, as much as I love me and my totality is how I love others, I see myself as a reflection of you and I see you as a reflection of me. And if there is any kind of injustice, then most certainly I’m willing to step forward and help in any way that I can.
Many have called Black Lives Matter and the push for racial equality and criminal justice reform the new civil rights movement. Some have noted, however, that it lacks the prominent leaders of the 1960s movement to lead the charge. What are your thoughts on today’s movement? Can it succeed without high-profile leaders such as your father and other civil rights icons to rally behind?
I think that past is certainly prologue. It’s almost odious to compare one generation with another, despite the unchanging systemic racism and white supremacy that continues from the pre-1950s and ’60s to even now. And I think the challenges that those protesters faced in the ’60s are certainly still with us today and remain barriers that we’re struggling to overcome. What I would personally like to see done is the merging of the successful ideas of the past and amalgamate them into some of the more visionary plans and strategies in the Black Lives Matter movement. And we do this at the Shabazz Center with intergenerational dialogue.
Tell us something about your father that would surprise people.
If injustice didn’t exist, my father would likely be in a library reading lots and lots of books. He loved nature. We grew up with his butterfly collection. We grew up with his poetry that he would write to my mother or his reflection. When my father married his wife, as much as he loved New York, he brought her to his home state of Michigan and they married there. His family was very important to him.
When he was in jail and he read the dictionary, he didn’t read the dictionary because he couldn’t read or write. He read the dictionary because he was the star debater at the colony. And the colony was an experimental prison … And yes, he read the dictionary, but not because he couldn’t read or write, but he wanted to know the etymology, the root word, so that he could be his best by any means necessary. And what they did, he was just in his early 20s or late teens, early 20s, they broadcasted his debate on capital punishment throughout Boston and they debated Ivy League schools, Harvard University, MIT, Boston University, Boston College. Malcolm was always an avid learner.
What gives you hope for the future of this country?
These young humanitarians are driving our nation toward a more civilized state. Our society has an opportunity to truly move forward. Bigotry and all this ugly hate is losing and a new era has yet to define itself. And I think that the lesson that young people gleaned is that cheaters lose, moral character wins. And as long as we continue to guide them and encourage them, we can accomplish our goals.