Malcolm X’s Legacy and the Debate Surrounding Critical Race Theory

Education for African Americans has always been a matter of controversy

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By Abayomi Azikiwe

Note: These remarks were prepared for and delivered in part at the African American History Month webinar entitled “Critical Race Theory Forum, Let’s Talk: What is Critical Race Theory and What It is Not”. The webinar featured Sammie Lewis, self-raised scholar and feminist; Lloyd Simpson, organizer for Detroit Will Breathe (DWB); Nancy A. Parker, interim managing attorney for the Detroit Justice Center; and Mark P. Fancher, staff attorney for the Michigan ACLU Racial Justice Project. The webinar was co-hosted by Derek Grigsby, organizer for the Moratorium NOW! Coalition (MNC) and the Michigan Emergency Committee Against War & Injustice (MECAWI) along with Abayomi Azikiwe, PANW editor and co-founder of MNC and MECAWI.


The video link to the entire webinar is below.

Examining this topic is important for African American History Month 2022 since the issue has generated controversy which is being exploited politically by the right-wing.

Moreover, we deliberately selected this date, the 57th anniversary of the martyrdom of Malcolm X (Hajj Malik El Shabazz, 1925-1965), since the life of this strategic thinker, organizer and public spokesman for the African people worldwide represents an excellent example of self-education and transformation.

Malcolm was born in Omaha, Nebraska as the son of staunch members of the Garveyite Universal Negro Improvement Association, African Communities League (UNIA-ACL). Earl and Louise Little had met at the annual organizational convention held in Montreal, Quebec in 1919, Malcolm and his siblings were obviously exposed to Black Consciousness and Pan-Africanism. Louise Little, a Grenadian born woman, wrote and published articles for the Negro World newspaper, the journal of the UNIA-ACL.

Due to their Garveyite affiliations, the Little family were victimized by racial violence in Omaha and later in Michigan. Earl Little died when Malcolm was only six years old, sending the family into a crisis, eventually resulting in the break-up of the family. Malcolm and the family believed that Earl was killed by a white racist group, possibly the Black Legion or the Ku Klux Klan, both of which maintain a huge presence in Michigan with thousands of members and supporters, even within the ruling class.

Despite the racism which the family suffered, Malcolm had excelled in school as a scholar and athlete. An incident with a racist teacher would impact his thinking related to formal education.

Malcolm would leave school and travel to Boston to live with his older sister Ella Collins. In Boston, according to his autobiography, were years when he was introduced to street life, leading to a criminal career and later imprisonment in the state correctional system.

Education Inside the Prison System

In the Autobiography of Malcolm X, written with the assistance of Alex Haley, the author discusses his transformation while being incarcerated in the Massachusetts Norfolk prison facility. The institution had a large collection of books in their library where Malcolm explored many issues impacting the world far outside the prison walls. He attended debates, discussed worldly subjects with other inmates, wrote letters to people including United States President Harry S. Truman, expressing his opposition to the Korean invasion by the Pentagon in 1950.

He would join the Nation of Islam, formed in Detroit in 1930, while in prison during the early 1950s. Malcolm was paroled in 1952 taking up residence in Inkster, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit.  His living space in Inkster has now been designated for its historic significance and should in turn, be refurbished and repurposed as a center for education and cultural expressions.

Malcolm X and the CRT Controversy

Undoubtedly, the speeches and writings of Malcolm X are being banned by school board and library commissions under the control of conservative right-wing political forces. These works are joining other African American hidden figures such as Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Ann Petry, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, Dr. Huey P. Newton, Dr. Angela Davis, George Jackson, among many others.

These bans are not new to the history of the U.S. During the course of our history, African American and African studies were only taught in the segregated schools prior to the 1960s, when the demand for recognition of Black people permeated the previously all and predominantly white institutions. Initially, the response to the demand for Black and Pan-African Studies was that no such field of study existed. Today such an argument has even less weight than it did in 1968. There are immeasurable amounts of literature and other forms of expression which document the history and social existence of African people from prehistory to the present.

The real issues undergirding the attempts to ban literature and educational materials which reveal the actual history of the U.S. and the world involve the changing dimensions of human society both domestically and internationally. As the U.S. changes to a collective minority-majority society, the dominant Euro-American elites will inevitably continue to make the arguments against democratic governance, including in the realm of education.

Even though Critical Race Theory as an intellectual and academic construct arose within the Law Schools of the U.S., the term now is being utilized negatively to advance an agenda which is in perpetual opposition to the advancement and liberation of African and other oppressed peoples. As the author of the 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones says, there is no one who has produced a fifth-grade teacher who writes lesson plans utilizing the legal definitions of CRT.

Nonetheless, a serious and honest fifth-grade teacher would know that the U.S. is a country born in the forced removal and genocide of the Indigenous people along with the kidnapping, importation, exploitation and oppression of the African people. An educator committed to truth and transparency could not conceal the material fact that the societal institutions in the U.S. reflect the history of institutional racism and economic exploitation. It is necessary to accept that the laws and enforcement institutions are designed to uphold the status-quo as is reflected in the disproportionate presence of Black and Brown people within the jails and prisons of the country.

These core observations and tenets guided the thinking and action of Malcolm X. Despite the efforts to suppress his writing and speeches, successive generations have been influenced by his farsighted analysis. By banning literature in the public schools and libraries, the ruling interests are waging a war in which they cannot win. During the period of African enslavement people were able to learn how to read and produce literature. African people will continue this process of resistance to the dominant structures responsible for their oppression.

Education and Social Transformation: The Continuing Legacy of Malcolm X

For twelve years Malcolm X worked tirelessly for the NOI. He would leave the organization over differences with the leadership under the direction of the Hon. Elijah Muhammad in March 1964. Immediately, Malcolm would form two new groupings, the Muslim Mosque Incorporated and the Organization of Afro American Unity (OAAU). He went abroad for the second and third times since his initial trip to Africa and West Asia in 1959.

His second trip in 1964 landed him that July at the second annual summit of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) held in Cairo, Egypt. He would compel the OAU to pass a resolution supporting the African American struggle for human rights. Malcolm’s influence was spreading globally making him an even greater threat to the U.S. capitalist and imperialist systems.

As a keen student and observer of international affairs and jurisprudence, Malcolm was able to implement a long-held ideological position linking the struggles for liberation of African people worldwide. His assassination on February 21, 1965, cut short his life, although the ideological foundations of his research and teaching remain valid well into the 21st century.

One source on the educational impact of Malcolm X’s legacy cites two quotes from the martyred leader:

“’Education is an important element in the struggle for human rights. It is the means to help our children and thereby increase self-respect. Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today…. ‘If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.’”

This webinar seeks to lend clarity towards the debate surrounding CRT and its implications for the challenges facing African Americans and people of African descent globally. The attacks against CRT and antiracist education accompanies the restrictions being placed on the right to vote in 19 states. The attacks on education and public libraries are taking place alongside the escalation of police repression, mass incarceration, class exploitation and imperialist war.

Consequently, the building of a movement to encompass all of these struggles is necessary in the current period. The realization of democratic and antiracist education will be ensured only through the social transformation of the existing system.

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