Muslims continue Malcolm X's legacy 50 years later

Graham Liddell
Special to The Detroit News
Malcolm X holds up a paper for the crowd to see during a Black Muslim rally in New York City on Aug. 6, 1963.

While the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X was Saturday, many in the Muslim American community are actively following in his footsteps.

Malcolm X, whose full name was El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, was 39 when he was shot in the Audubon Theater (now the Malcolm X & Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center) in Harlem on Feb. 21, 1965, as he was preparing to address several hundred of his followers.

By the time he died, the Muslim leader had moderated his militant message of black separatism and pride, but was still very much a passionate advocate of black unity, self-respect and self-reliance. He had repudiated the Nation of Islam less than a year earlier. Three members of the Nation of Islam were convicted of murder in his death.

Dawud Walid, executive director of the Michigan Chapter of the Council of American-Islamic Relations, said a new generation of Muslims of all backgrounds are increasingly focused on racial justice.

"Malcolm X saw that the issue of human rights of blacks in America was not an isolated struggle, but is a struggle that was connected to other people of color,” said Dawud Walid, executive director of the Michigan Chapter of the Council of American-Islamic Relations.

"Muslims who are black have always felt connected to the broader racial justice efforts in the United States of America, because we've always had a direct stake in it," Walid said. "Malcolm X saw that the issue of human rights of blacks in America was not an isolated struggle, but is a struggle that was connected to other people of color."

The national Take On Hate campaign against Islamophobia and anti-Arab bigotry — started by Arab-Americans in the Detroit area last year — has been facilitating discussions between young Arab-Americans and African-Americans.

"We are focused now more than ever on what we would call brown-black coalition-building," said campaign spokeswoman, former state Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit.

Rashida Tlaib.

"We are now working with a sorority of predominantly African-American women (the Inkster chapter of Delta Sigma Theta), and we are intentionally engaging them in a conversation," Tlaib said. "We are just trying to have honest conversations about various stereotypes and misconceptions about who we are as Arab-American women and vice-versa."

"This (solidarity) is something that we may have never seen in the past among American Muslims, and I really credit the younger people."

Last year, as the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, fueled a national discussion about race, Walid and four other Muslim leaders of various ethnic backgrounds co-founded a collective called Muslims for Ferguson. The group held a teleconference with nearly 2,000 Muslim-American participants who supported the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and in December led a group of activists to Missouri for a National Day of Action.

In the highly acclaimed "Autobiography of Malcolm X," Malcolm recounts an instance in which a Nation of Islam member was beaten and badly injured by police in New York. Members protested until police called an ambulance to take the man to the hospital.

Walid and others have taken inspiration from Malcolm X to fight against police brutality.

"Muslims for Ferguson helped bring people out to the National Day of Action ... and members continue to be involved in the Black Lives Matter solidarity efforts, which included right after the non-indictment of those who killed Eric Garner (in Staten Island, New York)," Walid said.

"Some of our organizers, including myself, have still been attending meetings regularly about Black Lives Matter. Whenever the decision comes out about whether they're going to indict or not indict pertaining to Tamir Rice, the young boy who was killed in Cleveland, we're ready to mobilize regarding that whichever way it turns out."

While many associate Malcolm X with New York, he had strong Michigan ties. Born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925, in Omaha, Nebraska, his family moved to Lansing in 1929. As a young adult, he moved to Boston to live with his half sister, Ella. That's where he was arrested and convicted on burglary charges in 1946. Following his release from prison in 1952, Malcolm moved to Detroit and joined the Nation of Islam, replacing Little with X as his last name, and attending Temple Number One, the first mosque the group opened in the 1930s. Malcolm served as an assistant minister at the mosque before being sent to Boston and then all over the country to grow the movement.

Temple Number One — now called Masjid Wali Muhammad — stands today on Linwood Avenue, and its congregation has since converted to mainstream Islam under the leadership of the late Warith Deen Muhammad.

The mosque holds Friday prayers, offers Arabic courses and serves the community with tutoring programs for students and free meals for locals in need. Its leadership plans to expand the social programs and has been raising money for the mosque's recognition as a Detroit historic site next month.

"Malcolm — when he first spoke it was here at this masjid," said Adella Alim, a member of Masjid Wali Muhammad's board of trustees. "He learned a lot, and I think he prepared us for the transition that we made" from the Nation of Islam to orthodox Islam, she said.

The emphasis Malcolm X put on human rights is often buried in comments about his "militancy" and anger. For Walid, this demonstrates that much racial justice work still needs to be done.

"We as Americans, we've become comfortable with a national view of ourselves that is only partially based in reality," Walid said. "There's discomfort when people get separated from their illusion, and I understand that. So Malcolm was separating people away from their illusions and making people see both sides of America."

Graham Liddell is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.

The Associated Press contributed