Civil Rights

Why Malcolm X’s Image as a Separatist Lives On, 50 Years after His Death

Photo via RNS

Photo via RNS

Rodnell Collins stood next to his uncle, Malcolm X, as the latter stared thoughtfully at Plymouth Rock during a visit to Massachusetts when Collins was a child.

It wasn’t until years later that Collins, the son of Malcolm’s sister, Ella Little Collins, would learn what his uncle was thinking: “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock. The rock was landed on us.”

Malcolm X, the African-American nationalist leader and onetime minister of the Nation of Islam who was assassinated 50 years ago Feb. 21, inspired countless people with the frank and uncompromising way he spoke about race relations in America. And much of what he said about the experiences of black Americans remains true today, experts say.

Yet, while other civil rights leaders of the 1950s and ’60s are more broadly celebrated as American heroes, the fire with which Malcolm X spoke still overpowers the words he was saying.

Revolutionary Love: Do You Hear the Call?

Kittikorn Phongok /

Kittikorn Phongok /

Revolutionary Love
Revolutionary love has given birth to new life.
We are gasping, breathing (I can’t breathe)
Screaming (We have nothing to lose but our chains)
We have been in the womb long enough
Blinking to the blinding light of the revolution
Our eyes adjusting
And we answer with what love looks like in public

I’ve been thinking about the life birthed out of revolutionary love. The night I met Waltrina, we stayed up until an ungodly hour — instant sister-friends. We bonded, talking about everything, about finding and losing faith — in God and humanity — then slowly picking it up again piece by piece, about being the diversity in mostly white professional spaces, about friends, family, and the struggle to find our places (as 30-somethings) in this “new” freedom movement.

Out of a deep revolutionary love inspired by Jesus and nourished from the well of our people, we have determined to get in where we fit in, living out the belief that there is a place for everyone in the movement.

Today's fight against the powers and principalities of systemic injustice cannot be left to the continued service of the elders that survived the 1960s civil rights movement, nor hoisted solely upon the shoulders of the teens and 20-somethings of today, just because they have energy and new ideas. Despite the focus on elders and youth, this is an intergenerational movement that requires all of us to answer the communal call. I am encouraged by one of my mentors, Mama Ruby (Sales) who says it is time to have all hands on deck.

Civil Rights Movement 2.0

Rena Schild /

Protesters march against police shootings and racism during a rally in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 13. Rena Schild / Shutterstock.

The zeitgeist is clear. Much like Emmett Till’s murder in 1955 sparked the civil rights movement, the tragic string of murders of blacks in 2014 catalyzed another movement, the #BlackLivesMatter movement. This movement picks up where the civil rights movement left off, addressing systemic racial injustice in the legal and penal system, educational system, and economic system. In some ways, the battles we fight are more challenging than the ones our grandparents fought. Undeniably, we face off in a more complex world and against forms of systemic racism that are so subtle that they are almost invisible. Nevertheless, due to a unique combination of gifts and experiences, I’m hopeful that my generation of black millennials is ready to lead us on to a more equitable society. Here’s why.

1. We are propelled by the prophetic legacy of the past.

With a technological savvy that gives us unprecedented access to the true history of our people, and as perhaps the last generation to breathe the same air as the civil rights generation, we draw upon the legacies of the past as we move forward. When I sense that my capacity to forgive is waning, I recall my recent conversations with several survivors of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., and I’m reminded of the inner healing that forgiveness promises. When I am tempted to pander to the powers that be, I call my radical granddad and ask him to tell me again about the many Black Panthers meetings that took place at the church he pastored in Berkeley, Calif., in the 1960s. When I feel that I’m losing my courage, I read Ida B. Wells’ autobiography and am reminded that we are not alone. We are connected — part of a chain of black activists, each generation inspiring the next. Our heroes guide us every day.

VIDEO: Nashville Sit-Ins

In the 1960s Rev. Dr. Sam Dodson, a Methodist pastor in Nashville, Tenn., received pressure to stop his unpopular desegregation activism. He and many others who were a part of the ecumenical “clergy movement” were considered the black sheep of the Methodist church, facing resistance from their own congregations for their actions.

Read “The Cost of Discipleship” (Sojourners, March 2015) to learn more about Dodson and the clergy who supported civil rights in Nashville. Check out the video below to see what the black community and their supporters faced during the Nashville Marches.

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Moved, or Moved to Act?

FOR TWO YEARS in a row we have seen significant films about oppression and struggle nurture public consciousness. Selma and 12 Years a Slave invite us to reimagine iconic moments closer than we usually think, their protagonists more like us. Slavery had not been portrayed in such visceral fashion in a mainstream film before 12 Years. Before Selma, images of Martin Luther King Jr. had never quite transcended the almost superhuman projections that accrue from his martyrdom and decades of being co-opted by cultural mavens from Apple to Glenn Beck.

These films create new benchmarks for the mainstream depiction of black history, black struggle, and wider perceptions. But entertaining portrayals of inspiration contain a powerfully dangerous substance that needs to be handled with care. The cathartic tears shed at a film about other people’s suffering and heroism can also be a narcotic, implying that the work has been done. Think of all the talk about freedom struggles after Braveheart, or challenging the principalities and powers after The Matrix. The problem was, most of it was just that. Talk.

Countercultural critic Armond White suggests that the danger of such films is that viewers “are encouraged to profess an inheritance they do not earn”—watching Selma is not the same thing as participation in social struggle. This is a problem, not just for the personal integrity of audiences, but for the world, because feeling something is not the same thing as doing something. Schindler’s List swept the Oscars in 1994, where speeches invoked the plea that “never again” should genocide be permitted. It was only days before the Rwandan genocide began.

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The Cost of Discipleship

BORDERED BY strip malls, chain restaurants, and drug stores, four-lane Hillsboro Pike in Nashville, Tenn., carries cars from the Vanderbilt University area out to suburban neighborhoods. Every afternoon, thousands of drivers heading home from the city crest a ridge and pass a long, red-brick church.

That church, Calvary United Methodist, is where I was confirmed, participated in youth group, and sang in the choir. In the archives room off the education wing, a visitor can open a filing cabinet drawer, flip past photos of youth group retreats and church league basketball games, and find a manila folder labeled “Rev. Dr. Sam Dodson, 1958-1965.”

The folder is thin, but its contents are weighty. A letter to the local Methodist bishop from the church’s board explains that Dodson cannot adequately minister to his congregation while participating in political activities and suggests he be demoted to assistant pastor. A newspaper clipping from 1965 announces that Rev. Dodson and his family will be moving to Athens, Greece, where he will head St. Andrew’s American Church. I recognize some of the names signed to letters calling for Dodson’s demotion—an usher who pressed strawberry candies into my palm whenever I asked, a woman who looked me in the eye when I was 11 and told me I would be a leader in the church someday.

During the months and years immediately after the relative success of the 1960 sit-ins and before the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed Congress, a wide range of activist groups and individuals in Nashville sought to desegregate restaurants, movie theaters, churches, schools, and recreational facilities, many in predominantly white areas of town. “The ‘Whites Only’ signs were down, but we had not yet seen the white mind behind those signs,” remembered Kwame Leo Lillard, a college student in Nashville in the early ’60s who participated in Freedom Rides to the Deep South to desegregate interstate buses.

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Weekly Wrap 1.2.15: The 10 Best Stories You Missed This Week

1. Here Is What Happens When Each Myers-Briggs Personality Type Makes A New Year’s Resolution
These may or may not be scarily accurate... 

2. The Birth of a New Civil Rights Movement
“The shattering events of 2014, beginning with Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, in August, did more than touch off a national debate about police behavior, criminal justice and widening inequality in America. In 2014, the new social justice movement became a force that the political mainstream had to reckon with.”

3. 10 Resolutions for 2015
“We often only use the word in the context of this season, but “resolution” is a nuanced noun. Some of its definitions include: A firm decision to do or not to do something; the quality of being determined or resolute; the action of solving a problem, dispute, or contentious matter. In a world of seemingly endless conflicts, I sure like the sound of that. We need more of all of these qualities just now in this brand new year.”

4. The Tragedy of the American Military
“The American public and its political leadership will do anything for the military except take it seriously. The result is a chickenhawk nation in which careless spending and strategic folly combine to lure America into endless wars it can’t win.”

How A Drunk Man Got Home One Christmas Eve

Man at a bar on Christmas. Image courtesy ambrozinio/

Man at a bar on Christmas. Image courtesy ambrozinio/

I was 6 years old, growing up in Cleveland. It was Christmas Eve. The traditional Slovak meal was ready on the stove — mushroom soup and pierogies. My mom, my younger brother and I were waiting for my dad to get home so we could eat.

The waiting part was no surprise. 

My dad was an alcoholic. During the Korean war, he went off to serve as a paratrooper. He was wounded. My mom said the experience changed him. He brought some personal demons with him when he returned. 

Those demons seemed to emerge especially during the holidays. When my dad got off work, he’d go to a bar downtown near the butcher shop where he worked. The other workers would have a holiday drink and go home. My dad would stay and keep drinking. He couldn’t stop. Maybe he was trying to drown those demons. Who knows? 

While he was at the bar, we were home waiting. And getting hungry. 

Finally, my mom decided we would eat without him. After supper, my brother and I got into our new pajamas. We always got new ones for Christmas, the kind with the footies and cool designs like race cars or superheroes. Snug in our sleepwear, we sat on the couch and waited. My mom got very anxious, afraid that something bad had happened. 

Finally, headlights lit up the driveway. We looked out the front window. We could see a car, but it wasn’t my dad’s car. We could see two silhouettes in the front seat — a driver and a slumped-over passenger. 

TIMELINE: Incarnation

Vincent and Rosemarie Harding—as teachers, mentors, and scholars—influenced a generation of activists in the name of social justice and equality. In her article “‘Don’t Get Weary Though the Way Be Long’” (Sojourners, December 2014), Joanna Shenk spoke of their abounding love and dedication to civil rights and social change.

Read the interactive timeline below to walk through the lives and work of the Hardings and the significant figures who inspired them on their journey.

Lani Prunés is an editorial assistant at Sojourners.

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