When you take a trip to the far north part of Manhattan and visit what had once been the Audobon Ballroom — now redesigned and renamed the Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz Memorial Educational Center — you see a modern showplace, filled with interactive displays, shiny floors, and a different atmosphere than what existed five decades ago.
Walk up the stairs, past the life-size statue of El-Hajj Malik el Shabazz, and you enter the main hall. You hear your feet echo as you look right and left, toward where you think the stage was. Toward where the crowd was that day. Toward where some armed men started a commotion and rushed the stage, opening fire and bringing the former Malcolm Little to his end.
That’s the moment that gives you pause and you begin to fast forward in your head from 1965 until now. What’s really happened since Malcolm X was assassinated? What progress have we made? Have we gone backward in some ways? And above all what would Malcolm say if he were alive today?
If nothing else, Malcolm X was a pragmatist. His famous quote “make it plain” was more than just a phrase, it was his approach to getting things done. For him, there was no time for extraneous things or for rhetoric. Black folks didn’t have the luxury of dancing around for things like the right to vote, or equal opportunity. His activism made that clear and by the time both he and Martin Luther King died, both had a no B.S. approach to things.
So imagine, if you will, that Malcolm had lived into the 1970s. A time in our reality when urban America had been transformed by social unrest and children were being raised in the hulls of burned out buildings and jobs were leaving the urban core. Maybe Malcolm would have led movements to take what money we had and start small, self-sufficient businesses in a “do for self” fashion. Or maybe he would have combatted President Richard Nixon‘s insidious “war on drugs” and headed off what is now the prison industrial complex.
Imagine if Malcolm had lived into the 1980s. By then he would have been in his 50s, and may have trained an entire generation of soldiers (perhaps through his Organization of Afro-American Unity), to create a culture of youth activists to continue the free breakfast and educational programs of the Black Panthers. Maybe that would have galvanized brothers enough to avoid the growth of gang nations and combatted the war against the black family then, prevalent, but still unseen.
If he had made it into the 1990s, a wise sage now approaching 70, could he have been effective in mobilizing us to fight the crack trade that ravaged our communities and families? Could he have used the same methods to get that drug monkey off people’s backs as he did with the Nation of Islam? Would the Los Angeles riot of 1992 have had a different outcome just by him telling young men to channel their anger positively?
In the 2000s, even at 80, no doubt he’d have an opinion on the direction of hip-hop. Would he have publicly lamented the deaths of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls? And perhaps have predicted the watering down and hyper-commerialization of rap music, but also showed us a way back to embracing the meaningful messages of rap instead of popping bottles, fake tits and asses, gaudy jewelry, and sociopathy.
What if he were alive in 2008 and there was a photo of him shaking hands with a Black president? And not long after, holding that president’s feet to the fire on things like unemployment, sentence disparities, and web privacy.
If he were here just last year to witness the demonstrations against police killings…the same thing that he actually did march against in the 1960s, what would he have suggested we do? Would he tell us to march more? Would he have sent us to Washington to confront Congress?
In May, Malcolm would have been 90. Had he lived, there’s so much his life could have been. There’s so much enrichment we all could have had. Things would not have been the same. That’s equally true for Martin and Medgar Evers.
Walking through the Malcolm X museum, it’s hard not to wonder what could have been. But read his autobiography and it’s clear that even he knew that his life would be cut short. For Malcolm it wasn’t about living to be 90. It was about the lives of the people he touched and what could be for them.
So I wonder what things could have been like, and then I wonder what things could be in our lives, in a future that is not yet written.
Madison J. Gray is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based multimedia journalist specializing in urban issues and criminal justice. He writes for NewsOne on the subject of Black males in America. Follow him on Twitter:@madisonjgray