Every Martin Luther King day I swell with pride as we celebrate an extraordinary black American and remember King’s magnanimous ideals. But I also hear a voice in my mind saying, “I wonder if there’ll ever be a holiday celebrating another black American?” Is there just one black American who merits a holiday? The bulk rate one-month-fits-all celebration called Black History Month is great, but there’s something special about having a day and surely there’s one other black person from the long stretch of American history who merits it, who’s made such an extraordinary and lasting contribution that they deserve the American version of canonization. There are several black Americans who it could be argued should have a day — Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Ida B. Wells, Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall and others — but I think we should seriously consider a national holiday celebrating the life of a man who indelibly changed America: Malcolm X.
What ideals would be celebrated on Malcolm X Day, May 19, his birthday? Many. Malcolm’s not a static intellectual figure — his mind journeyed throughout his life, he held firm to his principles but was also strong enough to re-evaluate his beliefs and change when he deemed change is right. He was far from a flip-flopper who moved because it was politically expedient — and thankfully not an intellectual mule who refused to change when he uncovered new information and perspectives. Malcolm was intelligent and bold enough to be open-minded. His courage to be a truth seeker is part of what we’d celebrate — his willingness to reconsider his principles, to be protean, to challenge himself and be willing to grow and thus embody the transformative potential of American life. We would celebrate not just his willingness to journey but also his journey itself, which concludes with militancy being defeated by humanism and with racial hatred being defeated by globalism and multiracial acceptance.
Malcolm ended his life rejecting anti-whiteness and nationalism in favor of a bold multiculturalism that was and is still willing to welcome anyone into his international interfaith anti-oppression movement: to judge by creed and not by race. He grew to understand it took all types to make the human family complete and explicitly rejected racial hatred and espoused a universal law of justice. He was a man who challenged the status quo in necessary ways, who was a public intellectual activist and a proponent of voting rights who believed in using the electoral system to achieve meaningful change. And more, Malcolm was someone who saw himself as a global citizen, traveling and taking his critique of America to the rest of the world and treating America like the global citizen it is. This country is special in part because we are composed of people who relatively recently came from somewhere else and Malcolm fully embraced the diasporic nature of Americanness and thought of himself as a member of the world community. All of this would be celebrated on Malcolm X Day.
Surely some will not be able to wrap their heads around supporting a Malcolm X federal holiday because they will get stuck on the image of Malcolm as violent. This misunderstands several things. King was, at a time, considered dangerous and was hated too and, more importantly, Malcolm merely proposed that oppressed people had a right to armed self-defense — an inherently American principle. King, who preached steadfast non-violence, represents America as it wishes it were, while Malcolm symbolizes America as it is. Malcolm never equated self-defense with violence for its own sake and he never fomented violence. He was wiretapped and followed inside and outside the United States by the FBI, the CIA and the NYPD for years and years — if he had incited violence, even in a private conversation at home, he would surely have landed in legal trouble. Indeed, the FBI noted its difficultly in neutralizing him because he did not conspire to break laws and lived by a stringent moral code. A New York police officer surveilling him went to his bosses and told them they should be helping Malcolm — such is the righteousness of his positions to someone who truly listened.
Malcolm was a man unreservedly committed to the cause of liberating black people by any means necessary and his fierce but loving advocacy helps move the country forward as much as King’s Gandhi-ist movement. We cannot separate Malcolm from his era in that he conveyed the righteous anger of the black masses during his time but linked it to an articulation and a brilliance that was inspiring as well as a geopolitical, economic, spiritual and religious strategy. Malcolm was angry because we were, but instead of sparking riots he incited deep self-pride and linked the civil rights struggle to human rights. His militant advocacy was as stunning as it was necessary, to force the issue and imbue millions with the confidence and spirit and strength needed to overcome. He knew power gives up nothing without a demand and inspired millions to not accept victim status and imbued them with the agency to force America to become as democratic as it claimed to be. Malcolm is the true father of Black Power (and its son hip-hop), which deeply inspires all identity freedom movements that follow it.
I bet in many minds Malcolm’s “violent” image would make him a less viable candidate for a holiday than, say, Nelson Mandela, who could easily get his own day if only he were American. Interestingly, Malcolm and Mandela are more similar than some may realize: yes, Mandela is an inspiring racial reconciliatory and a drum major for peace in South Africa, but in his pre-prison years he believed in the necessity of armed struggle. Think of Malcolm not as an intellectual thug but as a Mandelaesque figure who advocated righteous and political-minded self-defense when that was necessary and later grew into peaceful humanists.
It is possible to think of American history in terms of pre- and post-Malcolm. He’s not just the model of ideal blackness for many in the generations that follow him, but he’s also the model of masculinity for millions of men and the ultimate public intellectual as freedom fighter. That is part of why Malcolm X Day is already celebrated in Washington and Berkeley, Calif., and why streets in Harlem, Brooklyn, Dallas and Lansing, Mich., bear his name and why schools in Newark, N.J., Chicago and Madison, Wis., are named after him.
It’s time he had his own day.