By Corey Blackman
NEW YORK (AA) - A man’s legacy can often change given time and distance from his death.
Before he was felled by an assassin’s bullet in 1965, Malcolm X was depicted in the American media as “a pimp, a cocaine addict and a thief. He was an unashamed demagogue. His gospel was hatred.”
Fifty-three years later, views about the civil rights icon and global luminary have taken a 180-degree turn.
The man who once disrupted the political and social hierarchy in this country, with no formal training beyond the eighth grade, is now universally accepted and looked upon as a source of pride for blacks, non-blacks, Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Malcolm X’s ability to transform his life and condition continues to be probably the most appealing aspect of his existence for those who share an affinity for the man and his legacy.
Abdul Osman used the example of the life of Malcolm X to change his own from convicted felon to one that now tries to illustrate to others how personal difficulties and setbacks can be used in furtherance of self-empowerment and economic independence Malcolm X taught.
“I like his transitioning from being a drug dealer, from being a pimp, from drinking alcohol -- reforming his life, from doing those things,” he told Anadolu Agency while standing in front of a closed storefront along 125 St. in Harlem, New York. “And I lived a similar lifestyle because I had prison experience … so I can relate to him so I changed my life around for the better. Now I’m trying to teach people another way to live life instead of robbing people and stuff like that, you could come out here and work for yourself and try to make a living for yourself and better yourself and your community and change the frequency of the world in that manner.”
So inspired was he, Osman decided to study the entire dictionary.
“I had read the dictionary, the whole dictionary, like Malcolm X, so my vocabulary could be up to par so I could understand what a person is saying -- even hitting meanings a person might try to convey to you ... so, a person wouldn’t be able to bamboozle me and get over on me, stuff like that, so I could know exactly what they coming at, what they’re talking about what they’re getting at, what they’re trying to say, what they’re not trying to say, the subliminals, the indirect messages, the direct messages, all of that and more -- that’s what I take from Malcolm X, to be educated and to be self-taught,” he added.
Malcolm came to Harlem in the 1950s and gained prominence and fame as the top minister for the Nation of Islam headed by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, who was his personal teacher. His mastery of his teacher’s lessons helped him to rise to the position of national spokesman for the group often cited as controversial because of some of its positions that do not always appear to align with traditional Islam.
Neal Shoemaker is a native Harlemite who has conducted a walking tour of this section of Manhattan since 1998. He believes Malcolm X owes credit to a lot of the men who surrounded him when he became a Muslim in the Nation of Islam.
While a member of the group, those same men who held important positions in the organization and who previously were “parasites” in the community, suffered the same fate as Malcolm X. But as Malcolm X did, they were also able to transform their lives through the teachings of Muhammad, he said.
Shoemaker said Malcolm X continues to influence American politics from beyond the grave. He cited an hour-long documentary about the icon’s life set to air on American television a day after the anniversary of his death.
“I think this is because there being a call for current day civil rights. And, when I play the song, What’s Going On, it sounds great from the [1970s], but it resonates till today, we all want to know what’s going on right now,” he said, referencing Marvin Gaye's smash hit single that became one of the defining songs of the anti-Vietnam War movement. “And our country, when you can walk up to a woman and grab her by her private parts and do all the stuff and run around and act dumb and say things that are wrong and yet you have a sizable fountain enough that you can still become the President of the United States, what’s going on?”
Malcolm was often attacked by those who claimed he used biblical and Quranic scriptures to stoke racial tensions and during his life and in death, he is often reduced to his famous, “by any means necessary” quote.
But he taught blacks to empower themselves, educate themselves and take control of and love their communities.
That message has motivated Aisha McBride since she was first drawn to his style and class in her late teens when she came to New York City.
“I loved how, because he was Muslim, and that’s how I found out more about him. I had a connection, ‘Oh, he’s Muslim, At the time I was practicing Islam so I was like, ‘Oh, that’s me, too.’ Then I realized he was really pro black,” she told Anadolu Agency.
McBride has passed on her knowledge of Malcolm X to her young daughter to “Embrace who you are first” and “love you first.”
But beyond teaching her of the man, she tries to impart his example of overcoming difficulties and hardships.
“He came from a state or darkness to a state of consciousness and then he just blossomed from there. I just wish he was able to continue his life longer than he had because he would have made some great, great changes in the world,” she said.
It’s impossible to tell how Malcolm X would have navigated the current political climate had he lived to be an elder statesman, having to come through the turbulent days of the 1960s, nationwide riots late in that decade, economic downturns, the Cold War, the fall of the apartheid system in South Africa, expanding foreign wars and the elections of Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
He reportedly admitted to famed author Alex Haley, who penned Malcolm X’s autobiography, “I'm man enough to tell you that I can't put my finger on exactly what my philosophy is now, but I'm flexible.” Those words were spoken three days before he was gunned down.
Despite his continual evolution and development, many believe if he were alive today, Malcolm X would not deviate from the principles and fiery denunciations on the system.
“His evolution was cut short,” said Nova Fuller, a street vendor in Harlem whose father once believed Malcolm X was a “madman” because of his views.
“In the African realm, you do not become full grown until you’re 40 years. And that’s when you’ve reached full adulthood,” he told Anadolu Agency.
“So, can you imagine, if he was where he was at in 1965 when he was murdered, Feb. 21, 1965, and he had lived another 30 or 40 years, what the man would’ve been able to accomplish?,” he asked purposefully.
“He definitely would’ve had a huge influence on us and our psychology. Not just black people but the whole world. We have the people here from Europe, they look up to him. Arabs I’ve met look up to Malcolm X. And not a pandering looking up, a realistic -- they love that brother. They respect him for what he did.”
Regardless of what path he may have taken in the years to follow had he survived that fateful day in 1965, it’s not hard to imagine Malcolm X would have continued to be a force with which to be reckoned.
Long before Black Lives Matter became a movement, Malcolm X was advocating its very principles.
Some of the same issues being fought today are the very same he was up against in the 1950s and 1960s – racial discrimination, police brutality and basic human rights and a litany others.
“He was like a nuclear bomb the way he hit America with his intellect. Not one day spent in a college classroom. His college was those prisons that he spent time in here in the United States,” according to Fuller.
“I have the pictures of him teaching in the mosque -- manhood training, family, children, your wife, responsibility. Just those principles alone, they sound simple but in particular, even nowadays, we need to hear that more,” he said with a passion reminiscent of the man he calls his hero.
“The black man is out the house. Malcolm would be telling up to pull up our pants, be strong, stand up for your community, stand next to your woman, stand with your woman, stand with your children. And on an international scope he would be trying to get bodies together because that’s what he was doing in ’65. Come together, work as a race.”
Spending so much time in the city where Malcolm X honed his skills, Fuller cannot help but feel he is walking in the literal footsteps of the iconic figure.
“Many times, this very spot where we’re standing, I say Malcolm X’s spirt is right here because I can feel it,” he said. “There’s an energy. I feel it everywhere but in particular here in Harlem, it’s the strongest. Because he walked these streets.”