Malcolm X's legacy obscure in city where he grew up

LANSING, Mich. (BNW) — Malcolm X still lives! A mural in a high school, a charter school bearing his Muslim name and a state historical marker are the only tangible reminders that civil rights leader Malcolm X grew up in Lansing and nearby Mason.

Try our ClassifiedsThe civil rights leader, who was assassinated 40 years ago Monday in New York, was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Neb. His family moved to Lansing when he was 2. His father, a minister, was killed after receiving threats from the Ku Klux Klan.

Malcolm X was 12 when he was sent to live in Mason, 10 miles south of Lansing. He attended Mason High School until 1941, when he left Michigan. Years later, as the charismatic leader of the Nation of Islam, he preached a message of black pride and autonomy perceived as antithetical to the Rev. Martin Luther King's philosophy of nonviolence.

He later scorned Lansing in "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," in which he wrote: "I don't know a town with a higher percentage of complacent and misguided so-called `middle class' Negroes — the typical status-symbol-oriented, integration type of Negroes."

If Malcolm X did not embrace Lansing, the feeling apparently was mutual.

"He's generally thought of as negative," Melvin Peters, a professor of African-American Studies at Eastern Michigan University, told the Lansing State Journal for a Monday story. "People were uneasy about what he had to say."

Other cities have given Malcolm X greater recognition than Lansing. A community college in Chicago, a cultural center in Washington and a park in Philadelphia all bear his name.

"I think it demonstrates how closed-minded our city can be," said Eugene Cain, administrator of El-Hajj Malik El Shabazz Academy, a public charter school in Lansing whose name came from Malcolm X's Muslim name. "Our city honors (basketball great) Magic Johnson, as well they should. But Magic Johnson is an athlete, an entertainer.

"Malcolm X didn't seek to entertain. He sought to open your mind. And when you have closed minds that don't open themselves to the world, you can see why he's not honored in his town."

A state historical marker was erected in 1975 at the site of Malcolm X's former home in Lansing — at the corner of Vincent Court and what is now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

The most recent effort to honor Malcolm X was begun by Mason High School graduate Raquel Lis, who didn't learn until her freshman year at Western Michigan University that he attended her alma mater. She wrote her former principal to ask why she hadn't been taught that in high school.

"It was such a big deal in our history that it wasn't just black history, it's American history, and our school should've taught it better," said Lis, 21.

In 2003, Mason High dedicated a larger-than-life portrait of Malcolm X that was prompted by Lis' letter, principal Lance Delbridge said.

"It just kind of put a thought in my mind," he said. "Why haven't we shared this information with our students? Regardless if people believed in what he stood for or not, he's a history figure."

Cain said he regretted that more people don't know the full story of Malcolm X's life — particularly his 1964 split from the Nation of Islam and his renunciation of racial separatism after an Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca where he worshipped alongside Muslims of all colors.

"Some still have a vision of him using strong, direct language," Cain said. "I think that's what they have seen over the years in terms of films and news footage. But when he went to Mecca, he made a complete change. He embraced everybody."

Malcolm X's new direction angered some Black Muslims, and led to his murder.

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