Malcolm X gets stamp of approval

Leader honored on King's birthday by government he faulted

January 16, 1999|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

In a room where "colored seated in rear" signs hung as reminders of segregation, the U.S. Postal Service unveiled a postage stamp honoring Malcolm X, once deemed "the angriest black man in America."

"In my lifetime, I never thought I'd see the post office to honor Malcolm X," said Carl O. Snowden, an assistant to Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens and a civil rights activist. "The fact that they're doing it on Martin Luther King's birthday should speak volumes to people."

About 70 people gathered on the exhibit floor of the Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis, a 19th-century African Methodist Episcopal church founded by free blacks, to watch the unveiling.

The stamp, the 22nd in the Black Heritage series, bears a black-and-white portrait photograph of the civil rights leader with his right index finger resting behind his right ear. The shot was taken by an Associated Press photographer at a New York press conference in 1964.

Although a local post office branch worked with the museum to arrange the unveiling yesterday, the stamp will be dedicated officially Wednesday in Harlem's Apollo Theater and will go on sale Thursday, said James Nemec, manager of the Postal Service's state operations.

Stamps in the Black Heritage series are released before February to mark Black History Month, said a spokeswoman at postal service headquarters in Washington.

Commemorative stamps are selected by the Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee, established in 1957 by the postmaster general. The group meets quarterly in Washington and examines more than 40,000 stamp suggestions from the public annually.

Between 25 and 30 subjects are selected for commemorative stamps each year. The Black Heritage series began in 1973, when the post office released a stamp honoring "Porgy and Bess."

Some observers said it was interesting that Malcolm X, whose sometimes venomous and angry words seemed opposed to the concepts preached by King, would be honored yesterday on King's birthday.

"It is saying to me these two great leaders were in harmony," said Annapolis activist Robert Eades. "It took Malcolm to make people see value in Martin and Martin to make people see Malcolm's point of view."

`Touch history'

"I think it's perfectly fitting to have the unveiling on Martin Luther King's birthday," Nemec said. "It's a great opportunity to touch history."

Malcolm X "was a social leader," said Nemec. "He also was a great model. He was a family man concerned about the community and he had a message to deliver."

Few would have said that 30 years ago. Malcolm X was a Nation of Islam minister and social leader of the 1960s who preached against whites and stirred blacks to act for themselves.

He gained national attention and disdain when he characterized President John F. Kennedy's assassination as "the chickens coming home to roost."

When Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad suspended Malcolm because of the comment, he broke with the group. He visited Mecca, the holiest site in Islam, and embraced teachings that denounced racism and encouraged love for all people.

He returned as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz and founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity. He was assassinated at an organizational rally for the group in Harlem's Audubon Ballroom in 1965.

Visitors to yesterday's ceremony recognized the irony in the federal government's stamp honoring a man who criticized its policies.

"He was very controversial," said Parris Lane, an Annapolis singer. "To see that he's being honored is a realization that a lot of things he said was true."

Leslie Stanton, another community leader, said, "It gives me hope that we've come a long way for the U.S. government to recognize him."

For some, a stamp honoring Malcolm X means he has become a symbol separated from the controversy of his message.

"People who criticize the system, after their deaths are co-opted," said Ibrahim Sundiata, chair of Howard University's history department.

"We take them as symbols regardless of the context. There were people who were wearing baseball caps not really knowing his message. They knew the movie, but the movie is not the whole of his life."

`Long overdue'

Still, the honor is fitting, he said.

"I think it's long overdue at a time when we have stamps for gospel stars, jazz stars and even Bugs Bunny," he said.

"For me, he's one of the greatest leaders not only of this country but in the century," said Rosalind Savage, executive director of the Maryland Commission on African-American History and Culture. "The difference is the people selected Malcolm to be a leader and representative of what they felt."

Pub Date: 1/16/99

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