Policy and Advocacy

Malcolm X's Legacy of Protecting Black Women

May 19, 2024
4 min
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Malcolm X with the letter "X" hovering next to him | SisterLove, Inc Atlanta Free HIV/AIDS Testing

Malcolm X: An Unwavering Advocate for Black Women in a Time of Scant Support

"The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman."—Malcolm X

On a spring day in Los Angeles, California, May 22, 1962, Malcolm X took the stage to address an issue close to his heart: the plight of Black women in America.

His words have since been immortalized, presenting a stark portrayal of the treatment of Black women in a society that often marginalizes them. His discourse that day challenged Black women to reflect on the deeply ingrained societal disdain for their authentic selves, particularly concerning their physical attributes.

"Who taught you to hate the color of your skin? Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the shape of your nose and the shape of your lips? Who taught you to hate yourself from the top of your head to the soles of your feet?"

These are not merely poignant quotations, but a reflection of Malcolm's dedication to empowering Black women.

Malcolm X and Maya Angelou in Ghana in 1964
Malcolm X and Maya Angelou in Ghana in 1964

Malcolm X's Commitment to Black Women

Despite the popular quotes above, we do not adequately acknowledge Malcolm X's commitment to Black women as a vital part of his civil rights leadership. In an era riddled with sexism and misogynoir, his focus on women and their advocacy was a radical act deserving of acknowledgment.

One episode that especially highlights Malcolm's commitment to women is his confrontation with his mentor, Elijah Muhammad, over accusations of sexual assault within the Nation of Islam (NOI).

Malcolm X (right) and Elijah Muhammad (left)
Malcolm X (right) and Elijah Muhammad (left)

Initially, Malcolm refuted these claims, standing up for Muhammad, whom he regarded as a significant influence. However, as the rumors proliferated within the NOI, encouraged by Betty, Malcolm chose to listen to the victims' narratives. He then publicly accused Muhammad of having inappropriate relations with six teenage girls, resulting in eight children. This courageous act resulted in his public disaffiliation from the NOI and resulted in significant personal and professional repercussions.

Malcolm's stand for the rights of Black women entailed jeopardizing his leadership position within the NOI and ultimately led to the severance of ties with the organization. However, his commitment to integrity superseded personal loss. His transformative journey to Mecca, a requirement for Muslims who can, proved instrumental in reshaping his philosophical perspective.

"You don’t have to be a man to fight for freedom. All you have to do is to be an intelligent human being."—Malcolm X

Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr standing in a crowd
Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

A Man Before His Time

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Malcolm’s discourse often centered on “men,” reflective of the societal norm. However, the above quote marks a divergence, emphasizing that the quest for freedom is not confined to men. This shift is likely a result of his wife, Betty's influence, demonstrating his evolution from gendered commentary. For any Black feminist in the 21st century who is aware of the erasure of women from Black liberation history, this divergence is noteworthy.

Acknowledging Malcolm X’s legacy requires recognizing the complexities and transformations that shaped his life. From his exposure to acts of White supremacist terrorism in his early years to a stint in prison due to criminal engagement, Malcolm’s life was a spectrum of trials and triumphs. These experiences painted a relatable, human portrait of a leader, making him a more approachable figure compared to the untouchable aura surrounding some global leaders.

Malcolm's autobiography provides an intimate look into his transformative journey. From "Detroit Red" to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, his life's tapestry reveals the layers of his persona as a man, activist, and global leader. More than half a century after his passing, Malcolm's words continue to echo powerfully as modern-day freedom fighters carry forward the battle for Black liberation. Audible's initiative of featuring Emmy-winner Laurence Fishburne to breathe life into Malcolm's narrative  in audiobook format introduces a new generation to this pivotal piece of Black literature and keeps his legacy ablaze.

Honoring Black Women's Legacy for Social Justice

Malcolm's powerful declarations about the neglect, disrespect, and lack of protection for Black women resonate now more than ever, revealing a sad truth: Our contributions to activism against police brutality, social justice, and our leadership in movement-building are persistently overlooked and erased. We continue to stand up confront systemic violence in healthcare, education, and employment sectors.

A civil rights protest for black women

Our existence is fraught with increased risk due to our devaluation by society.

We know that Black women are innately resilient. We are the pioneers of innovation, leaders of change, and the embodiment of magic. We thank Malcolm for publicly voicing his support when we needed it the most. Our hope is that others will be inspired by his legacy and work to acknowledge and appreciate the inherent value and humanity of Black women globally.

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