Imagine being 6 years old and living in hell.
Picture a man who's fighting to evict you from your home, harassing you with round-the-clock threatening phone calls, and sending goons to lurk outside your windows and menace you with shotguns whenever you venture forth. Visualize henchmen forcing your allies' cars off the road, firebombing your home (while you, your father, your pregnant mother, and your three small sisters sleep), colluding with the police and FBI to position assassins wherever you appear, inciting your father's murder (which you and your family witness), then taking his place in the organization that your martyred father has put on the map.
Now imagine that 35 years later, the man who is at least partially responsible for the ruination of your childhood has grown elderly and become rich from the profits of the empire wrested from your father over his dead body. Would a general "statement of regret" that denied direct involvement in your father's murder and that began, "As I may have been complicit in words that I spoke" suffice? Would it even come close?
Those are the questions that Attallah Shabazz, the oldest daughter of Malcolm X, and her five sisters are faced with in the wake of the "60 Minutes" interview that recently brought Shabazz and Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, together at his home in Arizona. Although Farrakhan delicately avoided specifics like the ones listed above, and probably remains safely hidden from the proof of any direct links, Farrakhan has long been suspected of much more than what press reports politely synopsize as "incendiary rhetoric" where Malcolm was concerned.
|What were Farrakhan's words but a fatwa of the type that the Ayatollah Khomeini issued against Salman Rushdie?
Let us be blunt: Many people believe that Louis Farrakhan is an unindicted co-conspirator who zestfully helped engineer the death of Malcolm X in 1965. Out of jealousy, out of zealotry, out of ambition, out of politics, out of blindness. But definitely out of conscious intent. For those who believed in Malcolm X and the good he might have done, Minister Farrakhan's passive-voice not-quite-apologies simply won't do.
Karl Evanzz, a Washington Post researcher and the author of the exhaustively researched new biography "The Messenger: The Rise and Fall of Elijah Muhammad," traces the events surrounding Malcolm's death nearly moment by moment. He recounts that in the year leading up to Malcolm's death, he had become estranged from both his former mentor, Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, and the Nation's teachings of race hatred and violence. Malcolm was appalled by Muhammad's mistreatment of his wife, his countless affairs, and his unsupported illegitimate children; all were direct contraventions of "the Messenger's" own teachings and the tenets of the Nation of Islam.
Enlightened by his experience at Hajj (the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca) and an embrace of orthodox Islam, Malcolm refused to tolerate the decadence he saw around him in the Nation, which among other things coerced "donations" from followers and from black businesses while its higher-ups lived like pashas. Marginalized and penalized for speaking up, Malcolm was forced to step out on his own, which he did both nationally and internationally with growing success.
Malcolm was moving away from the anti-intellectual nihilism of the 1960s Nation of Islam (which happily awaited the violent demise of the white man) and was maturing into a visionary statesman motivated by love and progress rather than by evening the score with oppressors. Most dangerously for him, he was taking black Muslims and the international Muslim world with him, and away from the Nation of Islam, in droves.
Jealousy, power hunger, and a desperation to keep the truth about the Nation's nefarious inner workings secret made it imperative that Malcolm be silenced. In hours-long Castro-esque harangues, he was denounced in every Nation of Islam mosque and meeting in America. Two months before his assassination, and on the anniversary of his suspension from the Nation, Farrakhan published the following words in Muhammad Speaks, the Nation's official newspaper: "Only those who wish to be led to hell, or to their doom, will follow Malcolm. The die is set, and Malcolm shall not escape.... Such a man as Malcolm is worthy of death."
In a religious environment that required followers to be prepared to use violence, what were such words but a fatwa of the type that the Ayatollah Khomeini issued against the writer Salman Rushdie? Yet all Minister Farrakhan will admit to is being misunderstood and feeling "regret that any word that I have said caused the loss of life of a human being."
He assured Malcolm's daughter that he "truly loved" her father and carried his picture after the murder, proving, presumably, that he hadn't wanted Malcolm dead. Then he tried to shift the blame for Malcolm's death to the FBI, saying, "This is bigger than the Nation of Islam."
While it's probably true that the Nation hypocritically colluded with the police and the FBI (Evanzz's book is based on government sources and is replete with dirty tales of such collusion), that's only because they all had an interest in seeing Malcolm silenced forever. When Farrakhan suggested on "60 Minutes" that the FBI killed Malcolm in fear of "a black Messiah emerging to unite African-Americans," Attallah Shabazz wasn't buying it. She pointed out that it was young black men who carried out the assassination and snapped, "My father was not killed from a grassy knoll." Farrakhan dropped that line of excuse.
In the end, Farrakhan is trying to have it both ways, like the lady who slyly cuts in front of you in line then turns to give you a big old smile. She can actually be rude; she just doesn't want to be thought of as rude. If Farrakhan was involved in Malcolm X's torment and murder, then he can actually be a ruthless murderer. He just doesn't want to be treated like a ruthless murderer. At best, he irresponsibly caused a murder, a murder that traumatized a family and robbed a people of a great leader. That's got to make it hard to sleep at night. Hopefully.
Now that Farrakhan is an old man battling cancer and the judgment of history, he obviously doesn't want to have to feel bad about himself, and he doesn't want to die unshriven. He's extending olive branches in every direction.
|At best, he irresponsibly caused a murder that traumatized a family and robbed a people of a great leader. That's got to make it hard to sleep at night. Hopefully.
Malcolm's widow, Betty Shabazz, had long accused Farrakhan of playing a role in her husband's death. But in 1994, she publicly reconciled with Farrakhan when her daughter Qubilah was implicated in a murder plot against him. Farrakhan grandly forgave her, and the charges were dropped.
Aside from making amends to Malcolm's remaining family, Minister Farrakhan engineered a rapprochement with Wallace Deen Muhammad, Elijah's son, who had kept close ties with Malcolm and who led his deceased father's followers to Orthodox Islam while Farrakhan led his faction to the modern Nation of Islam. Farrakhan has also reached out to the Jewish community to undo his decades of virulent anti-Semitism; The Final Call (the Nation's current newspaper) is replete with photos of Farrakhan with the few fringe Jewish leaders who responded to his overtures and with explanations of how the media has distorted his words to make him look bad all these years. (The Final Call still argues that Malcolm was wrong in his charges against Elijah Muhammad.)
The success of the 1995 Million Man March among mainstream blacks--who made clear their desire for closer ties to other blacks as well as their lack of interest in Farrakhan--probably gave him a taste of the leader he might have been, the good he might have done, the respect he might have had if only...he'd been a completely and utterly different person. Apparently getting away with murder isn't all it's cracked up to be.
After their talk, Shabazz issued a statement saying, "I thank him for acknowledging his culpability, and I wish him peace." She's a more forgiving woman than I am.