Malcolm X's reputation growing among blacks Weekend ceremonies to honor activist

May 15, 1992|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,Staff Writer

You see it in the popular X hats sported by young and old. You see it on city street corners where vendors prominently display Malcolm X tapes, books, buttons and T-shirts decorated with his likeness.

It is the Malcolm X appeal, a phenomenon gaining momentum -- particularly among young African-Americans, many of whom weren't born when the outspoken black leader was active in the 1950s and early 1960s.

This weekend, thousands of Maryland residents and others across the nation will honor the African-American leader, who was born May 19, 1925 in Omaha, Neb., and was assassinated in 1965. Celebrations including rallies and speeches, will be held in Baltimore tomorrow and in Annapolis and Washington, D.C., on Sunday.

For the past few years, interest in Malcolm X has been increasingly fueled by elements of popular culture: rap songs by groups such as Public Enemy, the anticipation of and controversy over Spike Lee's movie about Malcolm X scheduled to be released next fall, even street fashions.

And although Malcolm X has always had followers and admirers, this year -- in the wake of the Rodney King verdict -- some African-Americans feel his message has gained additional urgency.

"Malcolm X's message is resounding in the ears of our young people as they begin to question the [civil rights] strategies of their parents," said Kareem A. Aziz, an administrator at Baltimore's Sojourner-Douglass College, where celebrations will be held all day tomorrow. He expects the crowds to surpass last year's attendance of about 2,000, he said.

Mr. Intef, who sells Malcolm X paraphernalia at his street stand on North Avenue, explains the draw: "His appeal is his uncompromising stance," said the 28-year-old vendor. "He recognized our dignity. He was not intimidated."

Indeed, the former leader's message was one of "power, self-determination, self-defense and self-affirmation," said James Turner, a political sociologist at Cornell University.

"Why does [Malcolm X] speak to youth in the 1990s? For all intents and purposes, there is a leadership crisis," said Mr. Turner, who is president of the National Malcolm X Commemoration, an organization that acts as a clearing house for information about Malcolm X.

Black leaders today "assume the support of the black community," he said. "Where is the black leader who is standing up to say: 'I am a black man. I am a black woman. Respect your elders. Don't rip each other off.' Where's that voice that speaks to them? They don't find it. Malcolm helps fill that gap."

Although some black leaders disagree with Mr. Turner's statement, many also understand Malcolm X's appeal to youths.

"Clearly, Malcolm X is a hero to this current generation," said Annapolis Alderman Carl O. Snowden, who helped arrange the Sunday celebration in Annapolis and who said he understands the disenchantment of some young blacks with civil rights leaders.

Yet some youths who wear the hats with the bold X's and the T-shirts are unclear about the origins of the Malcolm X philosophy. One youth who was hanging out at Reisterstown Road Plaza wearing an X cap could only shrug and say: "He's a famous black man."

But at Morgan State University, students talk about Malcolm X among themselves, said Joe Simms, 21: "On this campus, it's not just about fashion. The people on this campus know about Malcolm X." But the psychology major echoed the comments of many African-Americans who feel that the media distort the image of Malcolm X.

"The Malcolm X portrayed by the media is of someone who spread hate," Mr. Simms said. Although the younger Malcolm X did indeed have "a harder edge," he became more tolerant of people of European descent after he matured and traveled to Mecca, he said.

"He was a positive influence on the black community as well as a revolutionary," said James Nabors, 21, a biology major at Morgan. "He is really waking up black youths in today's society. It is important to know your history. Especially now after the Rodney King incident. People see that the system is not fair."

Mr. Turner, the Cornell University political sociologist, said Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. represent two distinct components of "the black consciousness-black power movement."

One component involves a sense of inclusion and participation while the other stresses the idea that black people do not need acceptance by others to see themselves as successful, he said.

"If King is symbolic of the first, Malcolm is the symbolic figure for the latter," said the professor, who will speak at Sojurner-Douglass tomorrow.

Kobie Parker, an 18-year-old senior at Annapolis High School, has embraced Malcolm X's philosophy without turning his back on Dr. King's teachings.

"What Malcolm X was saying is coming to life now: his stress on the importance of economics for us," Mr. Parker said.

"I like Dr. King also," Mr. Parker adds, "although his philosophy was different from Malcolm X's."

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