Why we shouldn’t ask “…what would Malcolm X have done had he lived?”

In connection with the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X I, like many other activists, found myself reflecting on the man, his mission and his work.  Reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, at the age of 13, changed my life, a point that i never tire of articulating.  From the moment of his murder onward, for many of us there has been the continuously asked question of “What would Malcolm X have done?” or “What would Malcolm X have said?”

I recently decided to compose my thoughts in the column below.  I think that it is important to examine the importance of great people not from the standpoint of what they would have done had they lived, but in the context of their actual life and the challenges that they faced.

I hope that you find this piece useful and interesting.

Why we shouldn’t ask “…what would Malcolm X have done had he lived?”

By Bill Fletcher, Jr.

There is something akin to a ritual or ceremony that happens in the case of deceased leaders.  Whether the leader happens to have been on the Right or the Left, there is a tendency, as the years go by, to ask the question of what that leader might have done had s/he lived.  We have certainly seen this in the case of Martin Luther King.  We have seen it, on the other end of the political spectrum, with Ronald Reagan.  With the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X we have seen this yet again.

In the case of Malcolm X, this is certainly not a new phenomenon.  Within a few years of his murder different political tendencies within the Black Freedom Movement claimed to be the legitimate heirs to his legacy.   In the late 1980s/early 1990s, with the resurgence in interest in Malcolm X, such discussions reemerged.

As a fan of science fiction I am always interested in stories about what are called “alternative time-lines,” i.e., alternative scenarios involving a host of characters.  Such stories are often thought-provoking but when one leaves the realm of science fiction and enters the realm of real world politics, they are actually unhelpful.

In asking the question of ‘what might Malcolm X have done, thought, etc.,’ we are making a very big and problematic assumption.  We are assuming that Malcolm’s life and thinking were following a straight trajectory.  We are assuming that there would have been no alterations; no second guessing; no emotional or personal crises.  We are assuming a life of continuous progress.  Such lives do not exist.

What was amazing about the last 15 months of Malcolm X’s life was the rapidity of growth and change.  Malcolm was, in essence, reconsidering everything.  But it was not a straight line.

In the 1980s I had the opportunity to interview a Boston icon, Chef Chandler, who owned a restaurant in the South End of Boston.  As it turned out, Chef Chandler had known Malcolm X.  They both worked on the railroad in the 1940s.  Chandler told me a story that, at the time, I did not want to believe.  He told me that at some point after Malcolm X had broken with the Nation of Islam he visited Boston.  During the course of this visit, he and Chandler met and in the course of their discussion Malcolm X expressed an ambivalence about his situation, asking Chandler–perhaps rhetorically–whether he should return to the Nation of Islam.

When I heard this story I was incredulous.  I had operated, since the age of 13, on the assumption that from the moment that Malcolm X had left the Nation of Islam that it was something akin to a straight line in his growth toward revolutionary nationalism, Pan Africanism and Third World solidarity.  Yet, here was someone telling me that Malcolm X had had doubts!!  It took me a while to come to grips with a very basic truism:  Malcolm X, as great as he was, was also a human being, and humans can and do frequently have doubts.

The point here is that Malcolm’s trajectory could have taken any number of directions.  Yes, there are some directions that are probably more likely, all things being equal.  Yet all things are never equal and there are factors that can emerge that can change an entire equation.

As a result it is more important that in studying the life and work of great individuals that we try to understand the circumstances of their greatness, i.e., what was it about the challenges that they faced that led them to tackle such challenges in a particular manner.  It is from such a critical evaluation that we, in whatever era we happen to be, can actually learn great lessons rather than fall prey to great myths.

Malcolm X remains my hero.  I do not need to know or speculate on what he might have done.  He was great because of what he did.


Bill Fletcher, Jr. is the host of The Global African. He is a racial justice, labor and global justice activist and writer.  Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and at www.billfletcherjr.com

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