What Malcolm X Might Have to Say About Police Brutality in 2021

a black and white image of Malcolm X

If I believed that we needed guns to defend ourselves in the sixties, then I certainly think so today. Black people are being attacked at all sides, without posing a threat, so we might as well defend ourselves. I’m Malcolm X and I’m going to explain my life experiences and beliefs. You’ll see that my response to police violence today is very similar to my response in the past, because–although the specifics have changed–it is largely the same issue it was seventy years ago.

 

I was born May 19, 1925 as Malcolm Little. My father was a preacher and, like me, he wasn’t quiet about what he believed in. Unsurprisingly, the white supremacists in town didn’t like that, so when he refused to stop preaching, they killed him. I was six. Not long after that, my mom was institutionalized and me and my eight siblings were split up. I spent my adolescent believing the lies society feeds us. That being Black makes you lesser, that white people were inherently beautiful (and Black people weren’t), and I never questioned this. Then, after being sentenced to prison in 1946, I learned many new things. I learned to embrace my natural hair and I shed the last name Little, as that was assigned to my family by slaveholders. The X symbolized the lack of cultural knowledge that African Americans suffer. Then, I learned about Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. I learned of a religion where Jesus wasn’t a white man, but a Black man like me. For many years, I believed in the Honorable Prophet Elijah Muhammad, who told me that Black people were the first people on Earth and I believed we should become our own nation, away from white people. But I was young and the “Honorable” Elijah Muhammad took advantage of that, using the Nation of Islam for his own gain and not truly practicing the religion he supposedly believed so deeply in. When I learned of his infidelities, I renounced the Nation of Islam and embraced my own beliefs, free of any meddling. I travelled to Mecca and saw that the races could work together. As one historian put it, I truly “felt completely enveloped by the brotherhood of Islam” (PBS) and I no longer relied on anger towards white people to fuel my Black pride. 

 

Before that, I had never been driven by hatred. I’d like to emphasize that, as I know my voice has been misunderstood through the years. I may have harbored negative feelings, but my primary goal was to spread Black pride. I knew what it was like to try to embrace the white beauty ideals–like when I used to conk my hair–and I wanted my brothers and sisters to understand that Black is beautiful. We had a culture that was our own, as Afro-Americans we had connections to America as well as to the diverse world we were stolen from. 

 

With a better understanding that Black beauty didn’t mean there couldn’t be racial unity, I returned to the United States, ready to share what I had learned. I founded the Organization for Afro-American Unity with this goal, but after I spoke out against Mr. Muhammad, the Nation of Islam was out to get me. The FBI was also monitoring me, so one of the many shots that killed me could have been from a federal agent, but regardless, I was killed before I could really spread my voice unencumbered by the manipulation of others. 

 

However, despite the influence of the “Honorable” Elijah Muhammad in much of what I said, I do still believe in “developing more militant philosophies that promoted black independence, self-defense, self-sufficiency, and race pride.” (White et. al, Kindle Locations 14802-14803), which are the values I found before my death.

 

While I didn’t get the chance to spread all the messages I wanted to, my voice was carried on in others. Historian Jack Taylor said I “taught an entire generation to speak; [I] taught them that voice is a weapon that should be mobilized to serve the black masses.” This is likely most prominent in the beliefs the Black Panther Party fought for. Specifically, they used their second amendment right to arm themselves and–as I will discuss more later–I believe this was a spectacular choice. That’s likely why the government went to such lengths to silence them.

 

But my voice didn’t end with the Black Panther Party. You can see my influence on hip-hop music–in fact Boogie Down Productions has an album entitled By All Means Necessary. I don’t mention this to brag about my photo inspiring the album cover, but because hip-hop is known to be a voice for typically invisible Black youth. I’m honored to have my legacy connected to that and many other important causes.

 

While I mentioned a few people I influenced or inspired, I don’t mean to come off as self-centered. As you may know, after leaving the Nation of Islam, I embraced Sunni Islam. The first pillar of iman, or faith, is that we are all one with Allah. So, I believe anyone could have risen up in my place to encourage Black nationalism and self-defense. That’s why I was followed by others and always will be. 

 

It’s true that I have been studied in the time since my death and today, and one historian wrote that I “was mindful that [I] could increasingly radicalize and popularize [my] message if [I] changed the form in which it was delivered. For this [I] often turned to jokes” (Taylor, 161). I have to say, I’m pretty upset that I’ve been studied so extensively–now I have to come up with a new way to radicalize everybody. Cause, you know, I don’t think it would work very well to hide rhetoric in my jokes, if you’ve already figured that method out. I guess I just won’t make any more jokes. 

 

No, that’s not really the reason for my more serious tone. You’ll find that I’m trying to adapt to the humor of the twenty-first century, while I’m used to the humor of the 1960s. It’s quite an odd mix, so it’s better if I avoid the humor, for the most part. If that’s my way of tricking you into not noticing that I’m using the same tactic, no it isn’t. (I’m told adding “no it isn’t” to the end of sentences is what they’re doing on the internet these days, I hope I’m using that correctly. On another note, wow the internet is really helpful for planning and spreading a message. I wish we had that in the sixties).

 

What we did have in the sixties is the same problems you have today. That’s the truth. In 1964 I gave a speech about the “Ballot or the Bullet.” I talked about the importance of the Black vote, the corruption in government, that we need to make our voices heard, and that we need a large change now. Are those not the same things that the Black Lives Matter activists say? It’s sad to see that despite the huge differences in the world, there’s still so little change. But what would you expect? Whites posed as our friends and made no change seventy years ago and they’ll do it again now. What we need to do is to stand up and get the protection we deserve.

 

The world is largely desegregated. But I always believed that “Desegregation did not address police brutality, substandard education, poverty, and unemployment, and […] African Americans would get nowhere by loving their oppressors.” (White et. al, Kindle Locations 14931-14932). Not to say I told you so, but . . . well, all those nonviolent protests really did turn out exactly the way I said they would. 

 

However, I would’ve thought the activism of the Black Lives Matter movement–not to mention logic or compassion–would’ve made more of a difference. Instead, “By one estimate, Black men are 2.5 times more likely than white men to be killed by police during their lifetime” (Peeples). The very men “protecting” us, are killing us. This is nothing new, but I wish that 2021 was beyond this issue. However, I learned a statistic that I found even more distressing.

 

If at any point I elicit an emotional response from you, it will be here. There will be no “brilliant rhetorical strategy” or “tricksterism” (Taylor). There will just be a horrifying statistic. The statistic is, according to one study, “Black people who were fatally shot by police seemed to be twice as likely as white people to be unarmed” (Peeples). 

 

Do you understand what I just said? It’s not just about the disproportionate amount of Black Americans being killed by police. We all know that police are killing African Americans in numbers that do not correlate with how many of us there are, let alone how many are perpetuating “crime.” But, if you’re Black, you’re nearly twice as likely to be shot while unarmed. 

 

So why not carry the gun?

 

I mean it. If you’re going to get shot either way, at least get taken down with a weapon to defend yourself. I know that in 2021, things have changed, but I believe that self-defense is still a viable solution. Police these days have gotten too used to going unchallenged. 

 

Now, I’d like to be clear. I am not advocating violence. I have never advocated violence.

 

But if you’re going to get shot for carrying skittles or suffocated for buying cigarettes, then maybe it’s time for something drastic to change. And while my trip to Mecca showed me that we can work together with white activists, the reality is that the white people in power don’t want to make change. So, as we continue the work that the Black Lives Matter movement has started, we should do everything we can to defend ourselves.

 

It will be a complicated process, no one has ever denied that. But it’s time to at least start down the path, even if we don’t get to the destination just yet. Our goal is a nation where Blacks are truly equal and don’t fear for their safety. I still believe this is easiest achieved by allowing us to govern our own communities–because despite the ways it’s presented, most towns and cities are still divided by race, even if we’re no longer technically segregated. We need to not only defund the police, but abolish them completely. A new policing system can be created only if it puts safety and care for its citizens as its number one priority.

 

My message today is nothing new. Exercise your constitutional right to protect yourself. Only Black people are expected to be nonviolent and so far it hasn’t been working very well for us, so it’s time to defend yourself. Know your own worth, your own beauty, and that yes, your life does matter. 

 

Works Cited

“God In America.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 

www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/godinamerica/people/malcolm-x.html#:~:text=When%20Malcolm%20was%206%20years,been%20killed%20by%20white%20supremacists.

Lee, Spike, and Spike Lee. Malcolm X. 1992. 

Media, American Public. “American RadioWorks – Say It Plain, Say It Loud.” APM 

Reports – Investigations and Documentaries from American Public Media, americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/blackspeech/mx.html. 

Peeples, Lynne. “What the Data Say about Police Brutality and Racial Bias – and Which 

Reforms Might Work.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 19 June 2020, www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-01846-z#ref-CR2.

Taylor, Jack. “Laugh! The Revolution Is Here: Humor and Anger in the Speeches of 

Malcolm X.” Journal for the Study of Radicalism, vol. 13, no. 2, 2019, pp. 159–186., web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=2&sid=4f05932f-247a-4d88-83e9-f9dd64edfac4%40sessionmgr102 .

Wendt, Simon. “‘They Finally Found Out That We Really Are Men’: Violence, 

Non-Violence and Black Manhood in the Civil Rights Era.” Gender & History, vol. 19, no. 3, 2007, pp. 543–564., doi:10.1111/j.1468-0424.2007.00487.x.

X, Malcolm. “‘Ballot or the Bullet’ Speech (3 April 1964).” African American Studies Center

2009, doi:10.1093/acref/9780195301731.013.33536.

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