What would Malcolm X say to the world on his 95th birthday? Likely that he’s proud we’ve woken up, that he’s inspired by the progress, but that there’s still so much more work that needs to be done.
When El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz left his humanly form, the society he ventured to change was not ready for his vision of equality. “People used to say, Malcolm—he was angry, he was violent,” daughter Ilyasah Shabazz tells ESSENCE. “Now we’re able to see he simply had a profound reaction to injustice.”
“Daughter number three” as she’s affectionately known, has been, for a number of years, the keeper of her father’s legacy. As the author of Growing Up X and the forthcoming, The Awakening, she’s delved into the essence of who Malcolm X was and shared his message of humanity to those open enough to hear it. Ilyasah was a tot when she witnessed her father’s assassination. Today she resurrects his teachings for a day-long celebration of his life.
With special musical guests Erykah Badu, Common, Chuck D., and Stevie Wonder, along with political activists like Angela Davis, the Rev. Al Sharpton and Ayanna Pressley, “Malcolm X Day” according to Shabazz, is a time to explore what his legacy means in this moment. “You can’t help but to rely on his words as a reaction or precursor to what is happening today and what has continually happened,” Shabazz says, while also touting it as an opportunity for people to come together and acknowledge who her father really was and what it means a cohesive community, to be united in its fight for equity.
“We organized this day so that we could not only celebrate Malcolm,” says Shabazz, “but so that we could also create an alliance, and have people see the importance of coming together, the importance of planning, and strategizing around whatever it is we need to accomplish.”
Though it’s been 55 years since Malcolm X’s assassination, the killings of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery remind those carrying on X’s legacy that too little has changed. Shabazz says we must still fight to end police brutality, and we must still fight to end injustice. “It touches home when you see the outright killing and brutality of police officers, of bigots, killing young Black children because they’re Black, beating them so violently, women, young men, elders,” Shabazz laments. “And it’s traumatic when you go on social media and see a killing right in front of you. So I think now when they see Malcolm they’re able to put him in context, understanding what he was talking about. Why he had such a profound reaction to injustice.”
The third-eldest daughter to the late conduit for change believes there are so many things we, as a society, need to do. And she hopes that celebrating her father’s life will help people to understand that the reason her father boldly protested, is because he didn’t want future generations to find themselves in the same exact place he was in during his day.
In discovering his humanity and his empathy, the author and activist also hopes that people will be inspired, in these unprecedented times, to activate around the teachings that have come to define her father’s legacy. “COVID gave us a great opportunity to sit still, sit quiet and hear what is happening around us, and what is going on inside of us,” notes Shabazz. “Who are we? What is important in the bigger scheme of things? What I’m finding is more people are turning to Malcolm. And they are listening to what he’s saying. And they are having these lightbulb moments.”
The events of April 27, 1962, led Malcom X to his own watershed moment. When Los Angeles police entered a Nation of Islam Mosque and wounded seven unarmed Muslims, leaving William Rogers paralyzed and Ronald Stokes dead, the self-described Muslim minister was overwhelmed by the barbarity. The Black community recognized the assault on Black lives for what it was. Malcolm X used the moment to illustrate the need for radical change. It’s the same change that Ilyasah Shabazz says is still needed today. “We’ve been fighting the same fight for as long as we know. Ever since slavery we’ve been fighting the same fight,” she says. “I think we must identify what it is and recognize there are 8 billion people in this world, the vast majority of which want peace, justice, and equality. When you look at it from that perspective you realize we can make change.”
In that regard, the author of the children’s book Malcolm Little: The Boy Who Grew Up to Become Malcolm X, is hopeful for the coming generations. Her father wanted us to be fearless in our pursuit of freedom, fearless in our pursuit of equity and change. She believes that is now possible. Quoting Toni Morrison she says, the generations ahead of us will understand their value and worthiness as Black people. They won’t need to spend so much time trying to prove themselves. Though history tried to strip us everything that God gave us, says Shabazz, realizing what we have and who gave it to us “makes all the difference.”
The doting daughter confesses she didn’t inherit her father’s love for reading, or his brilliant, off-the-cuff oratory skills, but she does believe she was given his empathy and his desire to see a refashioned America. It’s what she insists her father always wanted. Though he was often painted as a violent extremist, Shabazz asserts, “Malcolm wasn’t the one who was advocating violence. He was reacting to it. And he was reacting to it out of compassion, out of love, out of faith in our humanity, faith in God, and providing a blueprint of how this fight for injustice will end.”
In the 21st century, Malcolm X still speaks. Shabazz believes there’s no better time than his 95th birthday to turn our ear to his message.
Performances and the full-day of programming will be broadcast on the Shabazz Center’s website, Facebook and Instagram pages. To join in on the celebration, visit theshabazzcenter.org and show love for the late icon on social media using the official hashtag #MalcolmXDay.