Okay kids when you grow up what do you want to be?
When I grow up I want to be a lawyer!
Now hold on Malcolm that’s not a realistic goal for a negro. Maybe you could be a carpenter people like you and I’m sure you would get plenty of work.
These are the words that were told to a child named Malcolm Little who would later be known as Malcolm X. Knowing what I know about this man is the reason I see this moment of his life as such a significant statement about the society that was designed to destroy his incredible potential and came dangerously close to succeeding,
Before I continue let me tell you a little about Malcolm’s family life. He was born in a two parent home and had seven siblings. His Father was a Baptist preacher and a proponent of Garveyism and taught his children self-reliance and black pride. Malcolm’s father was murdered by the Klu Klux Klan because they felt he was preaching values to other blacks that were causing trouble. After his father’s death his mother had a nervous breakdown from the pressures of trying to raise the family by herself and with very little income since the insurance company refused to pay his father’s life insurance policy.
Malcolm dropped out of school and eventually turned to a life of crime. He used drugs and committed burglaries among other things. He was arrested and sent to prison where he encountered the Nation of Islam. Interestingly enough while in prison his several of his siblings who were not incarcerated became affiliated with the Nation of Islam and encouraged him to join. In addition to learning about the Nation of Islam while in prison Malcolm read the dictionary as part of his self-education. He was able to turn his life around thanks to joining the Nation of Islam and carry himself with dignity and self-respect.
Once he was released from prison he rose through the ranks of the Nation of Islam due in no small part to his dynamic speaking abilities and his remarkable logical analysis. In addition to being able to engage his supporters he out maneuvered his critics in debates and was able to expose the myriads of flaws in premises of his ideological opponents. It is this ability that reminds me of young Malcolm’s aspirations of becoming an attorney and so perfectly illustrate his aptitude in that area. Malcolm himself noted this trend when thinking about some of the skills possessed by other individuals he knew that did not manage to overcome these societal roadblocks.
I am forced to ask the question of why he was able to rebuild his life when so many others fell deeper into a quagmire of self-destruction. Of course I believe that the Nation of Islam was instrumental in reversing his descent into depravity. I have seen the Nation of Islam provide structure, direction and a sense of self-worth in individuals who were otherwise living deplorable lifestyles. But even beyond that I believe that having an initial foundation provided by his father helped provide Malcolm with a potential anchor that allowed him to have a moral compass underneath the layers of negativity he had allowed to control his life.
I think it was the sense of justice that his father instilled in him that ultimately led him to reject the aspects of the Nation of Islam that indicted and convicted people of crimes solely on the basis of the color of their skin. And as I look around at young black and brown people who are led astray today I often see enormous potential that I fear all too often will go unrealized because many of these young people have no foundation, and are lacking that anchor underneath the layers of negative behaviors to serve as a moral compass. That does not mean they are hopeless but means any efforts to reach them must take into account these factors. In light of this awareness I find it is necessary to be proactive in building an environment for young people in the future that will provide them with a foundation so that even If they go off track at some point they have an underlying sense of self-worth and values that allows them to turn their lives around. Because at a time when our neighborhoods are in such bad shape and the black community is still not realizing it’s full potential we could really use the next Malcolm X.