Today, Malcolm X would have turned 83. Much is written about him often in comparison to Martin Luther King with an eye toward discrediting him. He’s portrayed as a race obsessed maniac unworthy of sympathy even as we are pushed to forgive the transgressions of this nation’s founding fathers because of “the nature of the times.” His name is tossed about as though he is an ex-con who simply got lucky and his followers are too gullible to witness his flaws, even as we turn a blind eye to the hypocrisy of today’s politicians.
Yet very few people, even those who claim to love him, have taken the time to learn more about what he believed and what he did over his lifetime. There was more to Malcolm X than his views on race; his leadership style is something to admire. Too often, as I have written about here, older leaders are inaccessible because they are spoken about as though they are angels who neither grow nor change over their lifetime. However, Malcolm X never hid the fact that he made mistakes and that he was constantly learning and growing nor that he expected people to take ownership of their lives.
Here’s what I think all leaders can learn from Malcolm X’s life:
1. You must create and stick to your non-negotiables. Even if it means leaving people and organizations behind who violate the rules you have established for the way you live your life.
2. You must evolve. Even leaders make mistakes. The key is to owning up to them, sharing with people where you have fallen, and actively correct them.
3. You must seek knowledge beyond your surroundings. Be open to new people and new ideas—that’s the only way you will truly understand where you stand and why.
4. You must always encourage a sense of ownership and agency. No one moves forward if they are convinced to sit around and wait for a savior. People must always actively take control of their life.
5. You must realize that it isn’t about you. Keep the bigger picture in mind: the movement will always be bigger and last longer than the man.
The following is an article written by Princeton professor, Melissa Harris-Lacewell. I’ve highlighted some particularly poignant parts.
Though Malcolm’s life was short, it was marked by dramatic change. He was born into poverty, madness and racial violence. His youthful arrogance, crime and indulgence led him to jail. But prison was no end for him; through a religious and political awakening, he found freedom in the context of imprisonment. He became an organization man, an orator, a world citizen and a free thinker with a cosmopolitan vision of the world.
Malcolm displayed the capacity to learn, to grow, to discern and to change direction. It takes courage to admit that society’s approach to old subjects has grown rigid and needs to evolve and change. It is hard for leaders to admit that they have been wrong in the past. His life is a reminder that greatness is not found in arrogant self-righteousness or intellectual hubris, but in the willingness to be open to our own limitations.
Malcolm also reminds us that the movement is more important than the man. He was fiercely loyal to the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, who was the conduit of his political awakening, the author of his adult manhood, the embodiment of his idea of the sacred, and his dear and beloved friend. But when Malcolm came to believe that his mentor was abusing power in a way that threatened to destroy the very principles that he embraced, he made the difficult choice to walk away from the Nation of Islam.
Many in the post-civil rights generation have yearned for their own history-defining, charismatic leader. But Malcolm’s struggle to make his own authentic, political contribution reminds us that ideals are more important than personalities. Progressive political movements that engender lasting change are always bigger than the flawed human beings who lead them. The goal is to invest our energies and efforts in the movement itself rather than in blind loyalty to any single figure. Malcolm reminds us that we must always lead, even as we follow.
Many of our modern leaders live by cynical double standards. They practice slippery personal ethics, while lecturing the masses about morality. They consume conspicuously, while telling ordinary folks to save their pennies. They father children outside of marriage, then blame single mothers for the violence in black communities. They blame individuals for their circumstances, rather than help them deconstruct, understand and overcome the historical, structural, political, reasons for their plight.
Malcolm taught us better. He criticized the powerful rather than the powerless. He pointed to the pathologies of the privileged instead of the failings of the oppressed. His own story of redemption was emblematic of the possibilities available to even the most disempowered, but when he pointed to solutions, they were consistently collective.
Fulfilling his religious responsibility of Hajj, Malcolm discovered that the United States looked very different when viewed from the other side of the Atlantic. Living abroad altered his understanding of race, politics and power. Worshipping in Mecca and living in Accra, he came to understand himself and black America as part of a larger, global struggle for human rights. That sort of world view is crucially important now, in an era in which the United States’ domestic and foreign policy has become woefully narrow.
Early in his public career, a young white woman approached Malcolm and asked him what role sincere white allies could have in the struggle for racial equality. He rebuffed her and told her that there was no role for whites at all. Years later, he said he regretted his response and spoke of the difficulty in building workable interracial coalitions. He remained committed to black empowerment and self-governance within African-American organizations, but toward the end of his life he also came to understand the critical importance of anti-racist efforts among white Americans. He taught us that we must acknowledge human interdependence if we hope to build enduring movements out of the fragile and complicated interests that we share.
There are so many more lessons that we might draw from Malcolm’s life. He taught us the importance of naming ourselves; the importance of telling our stories honestly so that we create a historical record of our work; the importance of questioning our leaders; and the importance of knowing that the people we think are our allies may ultimately seek to destroy us. In The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Alex Haley recounts a reflection Malcolm X shared with him in the days before his assassination:
“I believe that it would be impossible to find anywhere in America a black man who has lived further down in the mud of human society than I have; or a black man who has been any more ignorant that I have been; or a black man who has suffered more anguish during his life than I have. But it is only after this deepest darkness that the greatest joy can come; it is only after slavery and prison that the sweetest appreciation of freedom can come. I do believe that I have fought the best that I could, with the shortcomings that I have had. I know that my shortcomings are many.”
As we stop to reconsider Malcolm X on his birthday, we should reaffirm our own commitments to creating a more just and fair world. We should express to his spirit our gratitude, not for his perfection, but for his courage and for the lessons he imparted to us, to light the way for our struggle.