Columbia Heights, in northwest Washington, is a vibrant neighbourhood where working class Whites, Blacks, Latinos and newly arrived immigrants mingle and go about their business in seamless concert. If you live there, as I have done over the last 46 years, you can’t but feel deep affinity with its rhythmic hum, the cadence of its street sounds and the effortless flow of its multicultural character.
Columbia Heights is also the neighbourhood where you find the 12-acre Malcolm X Park, built on a hill overlooking the nation’s capital. It was opened in 1969 in honour of its namesake, the towering African American Muslim, civil rights activist and vocal advocate of Black empowerment.
Malcolm was killed on Feb. 26, 1965, as he was preparing to address a large crowd gathered at a ballroom in Harlem. A man had rushed toward him and fired a shot to his chest with a sawed-off shotgun, while two other men charged to the stage, firing semi-automatic handguns. He was pronounced dead shortly after his arrival at a nearby hospital.
Witnesses at the time identified who they thought were the gunmen. All three were later convicted and sentenced to life in prison. And that was to be that.
Who Killed Malcolm X?
Only it wasn’t. Last week, fifty-six years after the fact and two years after the 2019 documentary series, “Who Killed Malcolm X?” raised serious doubts about the guilt of the men — which drove the authorities to reopen the case, where it was discovered that the New York Police Department had deliberately withheld vital evidence that would’ve very likely made the jury find the defendants innocent — the convictions were vacated.
True, the case reignited the national debate common in the Black Lives Matter Movement and reinforced the belief among Black Americans that the justice system is rigged against them — essentially that when White privilege runs amok, Black rights are run over. But the case also invoked in our minds the haunting figure of Malcolm X, who boldly challenged Blacks to challenge the notion that they should remain “the other” in American political culture
Malcolm began his young life inauspiciously as a felon before he joined The Nation of Islam, a cultish group whose leader, Elijah Muhammed, devised for his followers a twisted version of Islam — one remote from the original precepts of the faith — which promoted the racialist view that White folks were essentially “demons” or devilish creatures from the lagoon.
In time, however, Malcolm became estranged from The Nation and sceptical of its teachings and went on to establish Muslim Inc., an institution that allowed followers to explore the real Islam found in the religion’s Holy Texts.
It was not, however, till April, 1964, when Malcolm made the pilgrimage to Mecca, which transpired for him as a transformative journey of the spirit, where he experienced an epiphany that changed his life, his view of the world and vision of Islam as a universal faith, that he found himself.
Finding his faith
In his book, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X”, ghostwritten by Alex Haley, the author of “Roots” (1977), he muses: “In my thirty years on this earth, the Holy City of Mecca was the first [place where] I had stood before the Creator of All and felt a complete human being”.
He was to discover while there, as he explained in his book, that Islam practised, as it were, what it preached, namely that all men, regardless of their race, nationality and class, were created equal, that their humanity is of equal worth in the eyes of God.
At the airport in Cairo, on his way to Jeddah, and then to the Holy City, he was astonished at how all pilgrims around him were dressed identically in ‘ihram’, the garment required of those heading for the Haj. “Every one of the thousands at the airport, about to leave for Jeddah, was dressed this way”, he wrote. “You could be a king or a peasant and no one would know”.
After he returned to the US, Malcolm still retained the same revolutionary fervour that had informed his philosophy in the past, but the philosophy itself had taken a sharp turn, becoming more profound, more nuanced and decidedly more in tune with the orthodoxies of mainstream Islam.
Whenever Malcolm was asked by the media why he had converted to Islam, he would respond by saying that he never “converted”, but actually “reconverted” to Islam, adding — correctly as historical fact would attest — that the overwhelming majority of African Americans’ ancestors, who arrived to the New World on slave ships, had been Muslim in the first place.
When Malcolm X was gunned down at 2:00pm on Sunday, Feb. 21, 1965, he was 39 years old. He was buried on February 27. His tombstone identified him as Haj Malik El-Shabbaz, a name he had taken in Mecca.
The voice of this man of history still speaks to us and about us all, both White Americans and Black Americans.
And I hear that voice resounding around every corner of my own being every time I stroll through that park in my neighbourhood named after him.
— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile