Malcolm X is being forgotten

Leila Chabane, Author


That was the word inspirational speaker Ilyasah Shabazz, daughter of Malcolm X, used to describe her father while speaking at the Muslim Community Association in Santa Clara on Feb. 2, earlier this month.

Kicking off 2018’s Black History month on the right foot, I received the amazing opportunity to hear Shabazz discuss her experience growing up as one of X’s daughters and the importance of getting youth involved in social justice issues. After listening to her discuss how uneducated people are about X, I feel obligated to encourage everyone to recognize and spread awareness of how important X was to the Civil Rights Movement and encourage people to donate to the Malcolm X & Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Education Center.

While human rights activist the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. has a day for people to remember him, X doesn’t. While people are considering opening Confederate memorials for soldiers who represent white supremacy and racism, X’s center, located in New York, struggles to remain open because it lacks funding. Although X typically gets dismissed as being “too violent”, his story will be remembered we read his autobiography, learn about him in class, and donate to the center.

X was a Muslim and prominent leader in the Civil Rights Movement, who, according to Stanford University student’s Abayomi Fashoro and Gerard Johnson’s article on the influence of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X on Black Progression, “instilled a sense of religion, pride, and perseverance into the Black community,” Fashoro and Johnson said. By changing his outlook on racial integration from one that challenged the mainstream Civil Rights Movement and non-violent approach to one that recognized the importance of racial integration, X represents advocating for equality through any means necessary. A large portion of X’s life was spent in jail, where he discovered Islam and the Nation of Islam (NOI), an organization that advocated for Black power through the separation of Black and White people. According to the Malcolm X Biography website, X was the appointed minister and national spokesperson for the NOI. Ultimately, he resigned from the NOI after learning that his so-called prophet, Elijah Muhammad, was defying his own teachings by having multiple affairs. After resigning, he made the pilgrimage to Mecca where he discovered the beauty of all races and the importance of preaching to all races when advocating for Black people’s rights. Soon after resigning from the NOI, X was assassinated by the NOI on Feb. 21, 1965. According to Stanford’s article, X made many strides in the Civil Rights Movement including helping African-Americans gain their own sense of identity and pride in their culture and the “inalienable” rights of the 14th and 15th Amendment.

During the event on Feb. 2, various speakers, from an Islamic Studies teacher and his students to a Muslim activist rapper and poet, discussed the importance of donating to the X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Education Center. An Islamic Studies teacher described his experience while trying to visit the center. After flying out to New York, he wanted to visit the center but to his surprise, the center was closed. The teacher stressed the importance of donating to the center because a memorial, meant to educate everyone about the history of an important civil rights activist, was closed on a weekend afternoon in New York. Afterwards, an auction took place to encourage people to donate to the center. Each speaker reinforced the idea that while X continues to get written out of history, we have the power to change this.  

During Shabazz’s interview, the first question she was asked was how she came to learn about her own dad. Shabazz made a point about describing her father as a very loving husband and father, separate from X’s social outlook on society. Shabazz suggested that her mother, Betty Shabazz, taught her everything she knows about who X was as a father. Her eyes light up when she began describing her mother and said that her mother was the backbone of her father. Instead of focusing on teaching Shabazz who X was as an activist and leader, her mother focused on teaching her who he was as a father and husband. In fact, up until when she went to college, she hadn’t learned about who her father was as an activist and leader.

After the event, I bought X’s autobiography to learn more about how he managed to become so successful and how I can become more active in combating social justice issues. After reading the book’s introduction, I’ve gained an understanding about the small difference between leaders and followers. X suggests that the difference between being an active leader of society and following those who lead is one’s ability to look past judgment and speak up. As a society that often values political correction over speaking up, we choose to silence ourselves in order to not look ignorant. While X had previously adopted the NOI, he resigned from the NOI, which portrays his authenticity. Instead of never coming to terms with his desire to resign from the NOI, X resigned and didn’t care about how others were going to react. Rather than undermining X’s importance as a civil rights activist, we must recognize X’s morale and be able to discuss his achievements.

While interviewing Palo Alto High School students about the ways in which high schoolers can get more involved in social justice issues around Palo Alto, I described my experience at the event and asked for their response. During two separate interviews, Paly seniors, both different genders and races, weren’t able to respond to my question because, according to both of them, they hadn’t learned enough about X to give an educated response.

Curious to learn more about this issue, I sent out an email to every history teacher at Paly asking whether or not the history department discusses X, what their take is on him and what the general response is when X gets brought up in class. I then set up an interview with history teacher Jaclyn Edwards to discuss whether or not Paly teaches about X in school.

Edwards made sure to make it clear that X is covered during the Civil Rights Movement here at Paly.

“Malcolm X is covered during the Civil Rights Movement,” Edwards said. “For some teachers, the Civil Rights Movement is covered more thematically than chronologically. I can speak as a US history teacher that I do cover Malcolm X in the same way that I include a variety of different civil rights leaders.”

Edwards also discussed the difference between civil rights leaders, such as Malcolm X, in comparison to peaceful leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr.

“Stokely Carmichael, for example, is another predominant civil rights leader, kind of in the same vein as Malcolm X, in which he wanted to focus more on the Black Power Movement,” Edwards said. “As a result, what we try to let students know is that there were a lot of individuals during the Civil Rights Movement that wanted to get to the end result of more rights, just the means in which they did it were different.”

While discussing X during history class, in addition to his letters, Edwards teaches students about one of Malcolm X’s most well-renowned speeches.

“One speech that I use for Malcolm X is ‘The Battle or the Bullet’, it’s probably one of his more famous speeches, in order to get that message across that there are a variety of different approaches so that African Americans can gain civil rights,” Edwards said. “(…) We go over his letters, we go over his speeches. I mean this is a great opportunity to be able to use those primary sources to let other people interpret what these Civil Rights Leaders hope for in the future.”

Edwards proposed that one of the reasons why important figures such as X may not be covered more than others is due to a figure’s lifespan.

“His [Malcolm X’s] life itself and his time with the civil rights movement is shorter than Martin Luther King. You just simply have more from other leaders in addition to Malcolm X but I can assure you that we cover Malcolm X and that he’s not a forgotten individual in the Civil Rights Movement,” Edwards said.

Edwards made a point about the importance of inclusivity when discussing the Civil Rights Movement.

“But also keep in mind the Civil Rights Movement isn’t only just to African Americans, we have to also cover what become an extension to Civil Rights Movements,” Edwards said. “We have the Women’s Movement, you have the Chicano Movement, you have the LGBTQ Movements, you have Native Americans, I mean there are quite a few movements that come out of that that we also cover.”

In addition to Malcolm X’s shorter lifespan, Edwards suggested that time is a determining factor when going into detail about history.

“Sometimes it’s a matter of how much can we do, what can we fit in, without just skimming the surface but digging deep,” Edwards said. “Therefore, teachers have to make choices because you could send an entire semester just on Civil Rights, just on the different factions of it, and all of the different groups and leaders and people who have made headlines and those who are unsung heroes.”

Edwards discussed how students typically respond when X’s name is brought up in class.

“In the times in which I have covered Malcolm X in class, students are just generally interested just as much as when we cover some other primary source like Martin Luther King, not just glossing him over as here’s this guy who spoke at the Lincoln Memorial,” Edwards said.

Edwards proceeded to stress the importance of a students eagerness to learn both inside the classroom, when given research papers, and outside the classroom, if interested in learning more.

“Like any particular topic, it doesn’t have to be specific to Malcolm X, it’s partly on the student to be able to investigate further and research,” Edwards said. “In the US history, we always give students an opportunity to research a paper in the second semester. This is a great opportunity that if you want to focus on an individual like Malcolm X or anybody else that students don’t feel that we cover enough, then do it. We can certainly support it and help students with navigating around the sources themselves because you don’t want to google the first thing that pops up about Malcolm X because usually, it’s just Wikipedia and the”

When asking Edwards about the importance of covering X in history class, I also brought of whether or not Ethnic Studies, a class which explores the comparative and integrative study of the history and culture in the United States, should be a required course here at Paly. While, according to Edwards, she hasn’t given this suggestion much thought, she discussed the idea of “keeping the integrity of student choice”.

In addition, I also proposed why Edwards thinks that there are no white men in my Ethnic Studies class.

In response to the fact that there aren’t any white males in Ethnic Studies, a class which explores the comparative and integrative study of the history and culture in the United States, Edwards brought up the idea of feeling comfortable.

“That’s the nature of electives: Students are going to, at this point, gravitate towards classes that they maybe feel most comfortable with but there are very few students who will take a course where they know nothing about the subject and therefore want to dive down deeper,” Edwards said.

I also brought up whether Ethnic Studies should be a required course here at Paly. While, according to Edwards, she hasn’t given this suggestion enough thought to fully comment, she enjoys the idea of allowing students to choose which electives they want to take.

“The only reason it [Ethnic Studies] hasn’t run is because of student interest,” Edwards said. “…You have to have student interest in order to run the class… The great thing about electives is what students are willing to do. How far are students willing to participate?… I like the idea of keeping the integrity of student choice… I think Ethnic Studies is just as valuable as some of our other electives, it just brings out different parts of the social science, our social experience.”

Edwards then went on to discuss the school’s core values and the ways in which students can explore their interests further.

“Ethnic studies, just as much as a lot of our other classes, supports what this department stands on. We want students to be good citizens. What does it mean to be a citizen? (…) What does it mean to understand and have empathy for other human beings? We feel that a lot of our classes allow for students to explore that. Creating the humanity, the empathy, for one another. Social justice promotes that, that’s the human experience that we do not want to lose for our students that we really want to let our students explore for themselves and when they leave Paly. If you have additional interests, college is awesome for those kinds of things to really dig in deep into some other topics that really touch on the human experience are what we want for students to just really go out there and explore and be out there and not be apathetic, but to be more proactive about the world they live in.”

While Edwards suggests that Paly teaches about X, in addition to many other Civil Rights leaders, she made a point about those who go completely unmentioned in history textbooks and discussed the duty of an educator when it comes down to remembering the forgotten.

“Your right to say that it’s definitely Malcolm X [who is being written out of history],” Edwards said. “…You could also even argue that there are hundreds of individuals in history that have never been mentioned, that are not even in history books… Therefore, it really is dependent upon a classroom teacher and a student who wants to go forward and explore.”

Although she recognizes that X isn’t always remembered, Edwards hopes that in the future, he isn’t ignored.

“I’d like to think that he [Malcolm X] is not written out of history because he’s a very important part of US History. I would imagine, coming from his daughter, she would never want her father to be written out of history,” Edwards said. “I would imagine she would be pretty passionate about it just like anybody else would. Martin Luther King [Jr.] gets a lot of attention because a lot of people want to focus on his… non-violent approach. There’s a day that remembers him [Martin Luther King Jr.], you don’t have a day off for Malcolm X. Therefore, it’s very irresponsible to not cover Malcolm X or any other person who just simply has a different point of view or a different approach.”

Unfortunately, X is one of the many examples of important figures that get written out of history. In my Ethnic Studies Class, there was a discussion board about the history of various groups including Asian American and Pacific Islander, Hispanic, and Black history. If you are interested in reading about important achievements, events, and figures who aren’t typically discussed in history classes, I would recommend the three articles linked.

If you are interested in donating to Malcolm X & Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Education Center, here is a link to their website.