Malcolm X (1925-1965) was one of the most important civil rights figures of the 20th century. A reformed convict who emerged from prison as the fiery spokesman of the Nation of Islam, he decried racism and injustice to a largely urban African American audience fed up with police brutality and government inaction in the black community. Criticized as an extremist by the mainstream media and rival civil rights leaders during his lifetime, he has since been recognized by many as an articulate and charismatic champion for political, economic, and cultural self-determination.
I remember listening to recordings of his speeches as a child, and years later shared those recordings with my students. By the time he was assassinated in 1965, Malcolm X had begun reaching out to other civil rights and religious leaders and calling for international unity among all people of African descent around the world. My mother was a great admirer of Malcolm X and saw him as an inspiring example for anyone struggling to throw off the shackles of shame and discrimination. He is also perhaps America’s most famous Muslim, an important role in an age of emerging religious pluralism.
The city of Berkeley, California (where I lived, studied, and worked from 1985 to 1991) adopted May 19 as an official municipal holiday in 1979, with public schools and city offices closed in honor of Malcolm X’s birthday. The state of Illinois passed a resolution adopting Malcolm X Day as a holiday in 2015. Many other local communities commemorate his life and work either on this day or during the third weekend in May.
Malcolm X was among the most exceptional orators in American history. Many of his speeches have a contemporary ring today. His message remains inspirational to all who seek to transcend the negative voices of the past and embrace a positive, independent future with confidence and courage.
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