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Speaker offers fresh look at Malcolm X

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

From left, Sharif Z. Liwaru and Cloyd Clark pause for a smile immediately following a presentation on the life of Malcolm X at the Bieroc Cafe, Thursday evening. Liwaru is the president of the Malcolm X Foundation and gave the presentation as part of an open to the public meeting of the Nebraska State Historical Society Foundation, which Clark is a trustee for. Clark introduced Liwaru as a wonderful person he had the privilege of being friends with for many years.
(Bruce Baker/McCook Gazette) [Order this photo]
McCOOK, Neb. -- Malcolm X is remembered by many for his fiery and divisive speeches while a spokesman for the Nation of Islam, an American sect of Islam. A broader look at his life and ideology, provided by the president of the Malcolm X Foundation during a presentation in McCook last week, revealed a familiar narrative featuring an ahead-of-his-time human rights leader, struggling to share his message with the world around him.

Nebraska State Historical Society board members, trustees and area residents attended Sharif Z. Liwaru's recap of the life of Malcolm X at the Bieroc Cafe, Thursday evening.

Liwaru attempted to put into context many of the speeches and popular comments Malcolm X is remembered for. A casual conversation with a few of the attendees afterwards revealed a common theme, an undeniable suspicion that the Muslim minister and civil rights activist who dealt with constant death threats and criticism during his time, might be received in a more positive light today.

"I believe in human beings, and that all human beings should be respected as such, regardless of their color," one of several Malcolm X quotes provided by Liwaru during the presentation.

Liwaru said one of Malcolm X's most popular speeches included the phrase "any means necessary" and is often taken out of context today. Many remember the phrase and use it as a war cry for violence, but fewer-than-should remember the rest of the passage or ideology behind it.

Liwaru said Malcolm X believed in defending human rights by "any means necessary," but he also preached that extreme measures were only to be taken in extreme circumstances.

"We declare our right on this earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary," Malcolm X during a 1965 speech.

Although Malcolm X was born in Nebraska in 1925, his life story is not part of the state's mandatory school curriculum, as Liwaru said it was in California during his own youth.

At the age of six Malcolm X lost his father, Earl Little, a similarly outspoken man who faced death threats for his own message. Little encouraged those living in poverty to take ownership and responsibility for their life, he was a strong believer in entrepreneurship and encouraged those who found themselves in the lower classes of society to never settle with living in a state of oppression.

Little discouraged any reliance on the government.

Although he was beaten to death and run over by a train, the life insurance company Little had taken a policy out with refused to pay his survivors, claiming he had done it to himself, said Liwaru. Little's death led to difficult times for his widowed wife, Louise Norton Little, and the couple's children.

Liwaru provided an insightful recap of the childhood of Malcolm X, including the future civil rights leader being taken to a group home at the age of 12, after his mother was deemed to have suffered a nervous breakdown.

Liwaru said it's easier to understand Malcolm X's early embrace of the Nation of Islam after reviewing his life and experiences. As the spokesperson for the American sect Malcolm X is remembered by many for claiming the concept of good vs. evil boiled down to race.

Looking back on the strife and hardships he faced, Liwaru said it makes sense that Malcolm X would initially accept and relate to the concept of the white man being the devil.

What many today don't remember, according to Liwaru, is that prior to the assassination of Malcolm X he had renounced the Nation of Islam, after taking a pilgrimage to the Middle East.

Liwaru said it was during this pilgrimage that Malcolm X met Muslims of all colors and nationalities and realized racial divisiveness had been interjected into the Muslim faith by the American sect. His subsequent return to America and newfound dialogue, which admitted he was mistaken when he previously declared the concept of good vs. evil was defined by race, brought with it a new set of enemies and death threats.

Malcolm X disavowed racism and after repudiating the Nation of Islam he was assassinated by three of its members in 1965.

Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little and took the name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz before his death. Shabazz was the last name of his wife, Betty Shabazz.

Liwaru offered an interesting comparison and said when he researched Martin Luther King and his pacifist approach to civil rights, he found that violence often surrounded MLK. Similar research of Malcolm X reveals, while he was outspoken about his stance that he would respond to violence with violence, he was targeted by it far less.

Liwaru attempted to dispel several rumors during a question and answer session. He said Malcolm X had no organizational tie to the Black Panthers, although their members certainly picked up on many of his concepts from his ideology.

Liwaru noted that free breakfast programs for students, in place today in most school districts, were actually started by the Black Panthers in California. When the breakfast program was first implemented it was flagged by the FBI as one of the most dangerous programs in America, according to Liwaru.

"Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today," Malcolm X quote provided by Liwaru during his talk.

Liwaru is the president of the Malcolm X Foundation and a University of Nebraska at Omaha graduate. He is Director of Equity and Diversity at Omaha Public Schools.

The event was made possible by financial contributions from the Humanities Nebraska and the Nebraska Cultural Endowment.

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