Malcolm X was an ally to the oppressed. That's why he matters today

Malcolm X was an ally to the oppressed. That's why he matters today
On his 99th birthday, Malcolm X remains the inimitable voice for the voiceless, writes Richard Sudan. But what would Malcolm X think about the world today?
6 min read
24 May, 2024
Malcolm X was ahead of his time in so many ways, writes Richard Sudan [photo credit: Lucie Wimetz/TNA/Getty Images]

Malcolm X, one of the great black leaders, thinkers, and organisers would have celebrated his 99th birthday this week. And like so many people born after his assassination in 1965, Malcolm's impact on my life is hard to overstate. His autobiography, which I read as a young teen, is one of the few books I'd describe as life-changing. 

Malcolm X remains a formidable figure in the mosaic of civil rights leadership and his legacy continues to resonate today.

His unwavering, uncompromising advocacy for Black American descendants of slavery, his fierce opposition to police brutality, and his efforts to lay the groundwork for transnational, intersection solidarity remind us of the broad impact of his work.

Reflecting on his life's work, it's clear that Malcolm X's vision and actions are as relevant now as it was in the 1960s. His battle to achieve justice for Black American descendants of slaves was rooted in understanding and honouring their unique historical struggle. "You can't separate peace from freedom because no one can be at peace unless he has his freedom," Malcolm stressed.

Malcolm X's moral compass

Those words capture Malcolm X's belief that true liberation for Black Americans could only be achieved by dismantling the systems enforcing their oppression. I believe those systems remain in place today.

He'd seen his father murdered at the hands of white supremacists. He'd lived through the prison system as a result of America's social order. He'd seen his mother driven to madness because of it. 

Malcolm X was ahead of his time, he spoke up for reparations for Black Americans, a topic that seldom gets the focus from mainstream political discourse it deserves. In 1963 he said:

“The greatest contribution to this country was that which was contributed by the Black man. If I take the wages, just a moment, if I take the wages of everyone here, individually it means nothing, but collectively all of the earning power or wages that you earned in one week would make me wealthy. And if I could collect it for a year, I'd be rich beyond dreams. Now, when you see this, and then you stop and consider the wages that were kept back from millions of Black people, not for one year but for 310 years, you'll see how this country got so rich so fast. And what made the economy as strong as it is today. And all that, and all of that slave labour that was amassed in unpaid wages, is due someone today. And you're not giving us anything.”

As Malcolm understood so astutely, economic justice is a crucial part of achieving equality. It's a lesson that today's political so-called leaders could learn from. The US government has an endless chequebook for war but not a single dollar to the black communities that built the country.

A united, shared struggle

Malcolm X's critique of police brutality was clear and uncompromising. He understood that law enforcement in America had long been a tool of terror against Black communities. His passionate speeches often highlighted the hypocrisy of a system that claimed to uphold justice while systematically brutalising Black people.

Malcolm once quipped, “That’s not a chip on my shoulder. That’s your foot on my neck.” These words are relevant today, as we see a global movement against police violence. His call for self-defence and community protection remains the centrepiece of debates about police reform and accountability.

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Beyond the United States, Malcolm X worked to build solidarity with leaders and movements across Africa and the Arab world. His pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964 saw a development in his worldview.

Embracing Sunni Islam and taking the name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, Malcolm expanded his fight against injustice to a global stage. He formed alliances with revolutionary leaders like Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana and Gamal Nasser of Egypt, advocating unity against colonialism, imperialism, and global white supremacy.

Malcolm’s work with other liberation movements was visionary. He knew the fight for Black liberation in America was part of a larger struggle against racial and economic oppression globally. This international perspective echoes through to today, as we deal with the global aspects of racism, vast economic inequality, and political repression. His vision encourages us to build coalitions that can smash and challenge systemic injustice worldwide.

But one of the most lasting aspects of Malcolm X’s legacy is his insistence on self-respect and self-reliance for Black people. He envisioned that:

“We need to expand the civil-rights struggle to a higher level—to the level of human rights… When you expand the civil rights struggle to the level of human rights, you can then take the case of the black man in this country before the nations in the UN. You can take it before the General Assembly. You can take Uncle Sam before a world court.”

By framing the fight for equality universally, Malcolm aligned his people’s struggle with a broader struggle for human dignity and justice. This perspective is crucial in today’s social and political climate, where the fight for civil rights must be seen as part of a larger human rights agenda. We see the plight of the Palestinians and our brother Malcolm advocated for them too.

His legacy reminds us of the importance of education and political awareness. He believed that knowledge was a vital tool for empowerment and liberation. His own journey — from a troubled kid to a leading intellectual thinker and organiser — shows the power of education. As he eloquently once put it “Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.”

In celebrating Malcolm’s legacy, we must also acknowledge his willingness to evolve and adapt his views. His life was marked by continuous learning and growth, which led him to adopt a more inclusive and global perspective. Malcolm was truly gifted with a brilliant mind and great moral courage too.

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Next year, a significant event will honour what would have been Malcolm X’s 100th birthday. The “Convention of Afrikan People,” organised by renowned UK scholar Professor Kehinde Andrews, will be held in Gambia from May 17 to 19, 2025.

This gathering aims to fulfil Malcolm’s legacy by linking up with people from Africa and the Diaspora to build a global organisation for Black people.

The convention’s aims include pushing unity, advancing social justice, and creating a strong, collective voice for Black communities worldwide. This event highlights the enduring impact of Malcolm X’s vision and the continued efforts to build solidarity among Black communities worldwide.

Malcolm X’s relevance today is undeniable. Concrete. Set in stone. His love and advocacy for Black American descendants of slaves, his strong stance against police brutality, and his efforts to build global solidarity offer lessons and an example to us all.

Richard Sudan is a journalist and writer specialising in anti-racism and has reported on various human rights issues from around the world. His writing has been published by The Guardian, Independent, The Voice and many others.

Follow him on Twitter: @richardsudan

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.