45 years. 45 years ago, Malcolm X, also known as El Hajj Malik El Shabazz, was taken from the earth. While I never knew Malcolm, I came of age believing that Malcolm X was the prototype for Black leadership. I wonder will our children believe Barack Obama is what Black leadership means? In 2008, we organized, ran to the polls and chose the ballot over the bullet and elected Barack Obama. A year later, many of us are looking at Barack Obama wondering what has happened, but maybe we should be asking, “Where are the Malcolm X’s of today?” During the presidential campaign, many in our community embraced Obama as the continuation of a grassroots legacy.Well, if Obama is the continuation of that legacy, what remains is buried in politics. It’s now, more so than ever before, that we need a strong grassroots to push forward a truly progressive agenda for Black Americans.
The assumption that the legacy of political power among African-Americans transferred from Martin and Malcolm to Obama has a number of issues. First, if we assume that Malcolm and Martin were the last great leaders, we need to seriously ask, “then what have we been doing for the past 40 years?” Too often, the assumption that Obama carries on a grassroots tradition overlooks the fact that grassroots activism is what has maintained what political ground we won in the 1950s, 1960s, and the 1970s. While the US government was rolling back Affirmative Action, launching a War on Drugs, and pathologizing young Black and Brown folks, grassroots activists were the voices that challenged Reagan, Clinton and Bush on the moves that were “tough on crime” but were really war on poor folks and Black and Brown folks.
Second, if Obama carries on the legacy of Malcolm and Martin, where are Obama’s steadfast politics or political positions on which we can count? Malcolm went to the grave a Black Nationalist, even after his conversion to Sunni Islam. He unapologetically took on a perspective of Pan-Africanist unity which was about the collective necessity to self-determine among people of African descent. What this meant was his primary concern was the livelihood and human rights of people of African descent. He fought hard to make it clear his calling was for Black people. That is not Obama.
We likely would all agree, it would be fool-hearted for Obama to take such a stand if his politics were even in this position. It’s become commonplace to hear, “Barack Obama is the President of the United States, not the President of Black America.” I could not agree more, we need the Black community to advocate and agitate so that the President of the United States is forced to respond to Black America. We cannot deny that Black people are a central part of the United States and our interests need to be spoken to in policy and discourse. The fact that the President is Black guarantees us no additional support, so let’s dispense with that assumption! While some are beating the drum for Obama to “up” his “race talk” I have come to terms that he will not and/or cannot and still remain politically afloat if he does so. Instead, I’m brought back to the grassroots activism that pushed Presidents of past to address the needs of the poor and disenfranchised in “the land of opportunity.”
While we will never know, I’m pretty sure that Malcolm himself would not have looked to Barack Obama to push an agenda that benefits Black folks. Instead, he would have advocated for the organizing of our communities to do for self and pressure the government to address our needs, not ask for them to meet them. Given the recent dust-up between Al Sharpton and Tavis Smiley, the question of who is “promoting” a Black agenda has been resurrected. (I’d rather not get into who is right – Tavis or Al – because I can’t see it benefiting the movement to improve Black lives much if we picked sides). This is an optimal moment for Black America to take account of what has been happening since Obama has been in office for a year.
Looking for the modern day Malcolm’s means finding those among us who are willing to work outside of the government to get what we need for our community. That means working for better schools that prepare our children. That means working to break down the schoolhouse to jailhouse continuum that ensnares so many of our girls and boys. That means working to create jobs in and outside of our communities that can cut into the staggering unemployment. That means building an infrastructure for employment that is sustainable. It may have been 45 years since Malcolm X left this planet, but his goals and community aspirations still ring true and remain unmet. That’s why I’m still missing Malcolm.
R. L’Heureux Lewis is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Black Studies at the City College of New York – CUNY. His research concentrates on issues of educational inequality, the role of race in contemporary society, and mental health well-being.