Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Malcolm X, the Humanitarian: Detroit Free Press Editorial


Malcolm X, the humanitarian

Lost chapters reveal broader view of the controversial leader


Detroit attorney Gregory J. Reed is leading a national resurrection -- and re-evaluation -- of Malcolm X, 18 years after he bought the manuscripts omitted from the slain human rights leader's autobiography.

The just-released four "lost chapters," Reed told me last week, were dropped from Alex Haley's "Autobiography of Malcolm X," published in 1965, because they showed a broader view of humanity and freedom that was out of sync with the separatist tone of the rest of the work.

Malcolm X signed an agreement, on March 21, 1964, just before a trip to the Middle East and pilgrimage to Mecca, authorizing publication of the original 17-chapter manuscript, including those unpublished chapters. Reed said Haley also wanted the lost chapters released and even told Kenneth McCormick, then executive editor of Doubleday, that they were the autobiography's most important material.

Will the lost chapters become the final call of the greatest leader this nation produced in the 20th Century? Like Malcolm X's life, they are sure to ignite controversy. Scholars will argue over their significance. It's almost inevitable. Malcolm's magnificent mind -- as open as it was uncompromising -- was, in life and in death, a moving target.

The unpublished work includes an introduction and 14-point plan for African-American independence -- leading to a true integration of equals between whites and blacks -- that will reshape the legacy of Malcolm X, said Reed. He was assassinated Feb. 21, 1965, at the age of 39. The lost chapters, Reed said, will be published in three book volumes; the first, entitled "Best Interests of Humanity," will be released within three months. "It shows a broader vision of humanity than people wanted to show," said Reed, who bought the unpublished work for more than $100,000 in 1992 at an auction of Haley's estate. "It's inclusive and shows how he was evolving. It's about how to achieve the miracle of true integration and fellowship."

Malcolm X's daughter Ilyasah Shabazz wrote the forward to one of the volumes, which include commentary by William Haley, Alex Haley's son. Reed released the material during a commemorative celebration of what would have been Malcolm's 85th birthday Wednesday at the Malcolm X & Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Education Center, the former Audubon Ballroom in New York City, where he was assassinated.

The event started a yearlong campaign in cities across the country, including a symposium at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit this past Friday. The national campaign has brought together hundreds of thousands of people, Reed said, including students, writers and community activists.

"I can't believe how fast this movement has steamrolled," said Reed, who also represented civil rights icon Rosa Parks and seeks a Presidential Medal of Freedom and Congressional Gold Medal for Malcolm X, as well as another commemorative stamp issued by the U.S. Postal Service.

It's overdue recognition for this fearless freedom fighter that should have special meaning in Michigan. Nicknamed Detroit Red, Malcolm X spent much of his youth in the Lansing area and Detroit, the birthplace of the Nation of Islam and home to one of the first temples Malcolm attended. He rose from street hustler to international voice for the oppressed, taking the struggle of African Americans into the global arena and redefining the movement to one of human, not simply civil, rights.

"My whole life has been a chronology of changes," Malcolm said.

After his pilgrimage to Mecca, he altered his views on whites and race relations, affirming that we are all part of the human family. While working with white groups, he remained a black nationalist, understanding that African Americans must control their institutions and economies to gain equality in America.

"I'm for truth, no matter who tells it," he said. "I'm for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I'm a human being first and foremost, and as such I'm for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole."

Reed told me the lost chapters extend Malcolm's widening view of humanity while promoting traditional values like self-reliance, self-respect, self-determination, self-examination and, ultimately, forgiveness. He exhorts his people to "wake up, clean up and stand up," meaning self-knowledge, moral discipline, responsibility and initiative.

Some will call this a conservative message, but Reed agreed that Malcolm X was not, in advocating self-reliance and self-improvement, abandoning calls for social and political change. He would be fighting today for, among other things, universal health care and criminal justice and prison reforms. A former prisoner, Malcolm X questioned the incarceration rates of his time. I believe he would have been appalled that his country has since become the world's leading jailer, with more than 2 million people locked up -- half of them black men.

Toward the end of their lives, Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. became, philosophically, far closer than the media made them out. Both men opposed the Vietnam War; both were increasingly concerned with poverty and economic inequality and fairness. Malcolm never received the widespread adulation King did. Still, by articulating the reality and rage of the simmering northern ghettos, he made it far easier for those who professed nonviolence to push America forward.

Reed told me it took him 18 years to release the material because, from 1990 to 2005, he was busy representing Parks, protecting her legacy and helping her secure the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. He considers his mission for Malcolm a personal obligation. "He gave me a sense of dignity," Reed said. "He gave me an understanding of what it means to stand up and have the courage to be who you are."

Malcolm X's words, and his extraordinary journey, should challenge us to do better, as individuals and a nation. They will, I'm certain, serve as an unrelenting reminder not of how far we've come, but of how far we, too, have yet to travel together.

On the net: www.365-50.com. JEFF GERRITT is a Free Press editorial writer. Contact him at gerritt@freepress.com or 313-222-6585.

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