On 50th anniversary of Malcolm X's assassination, his family tackles the enduring controversy of his legacy

Highlights of this day in history: Malcolm X assassinated; President Richard Nixon visits China; Televangelist Jimmy Swaggart makes a tearful confession; Steve Fossett is the first to fly across the Pacific Ocean in a balloon. (Feb. 21)

Saturday marks the 50th anniversary of Malcolm X’s assassination ahead of a speech at Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom in 1965. Hundreds of people, including his relatives, politicians and activists are expected to fill the now-renamed Malcolm X & Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center to honor the civil rights leader in the place where he died.

It may seem like relatively little fanfare compared to the federal holiday observed annually on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. But while the two men are both immortalized in history for their civil rights activism, Malcolm X is often remembered as the violent counterpart to King’s pacifist.

Though he abandoned his separatist views following a trip to Mecca the year before he died, Malcolm X had already been labeled by opponents as “angry,” “extremist” and a “radical militant” — a reputation that has, to his family's dismay, seems to have withstood time.

In an interview with CBS Saturday, Malcolm X’s oldest daughter, Attallah Shabazz, said she thinks time has warped her father’s message.

“I understand people needing to hold on to the strength they associate to him,” Shabazz told CBS’s Vladimir Duthiers. “However they do him a disservice, an injustice, when they excerpt him and redefine him in their way and not as he is.”

More than forty years after Malcolm X was killed, a black man was elected as president of the United States. And just days before the 50th anniversary of his assassination, that president called on the global community to take a stand against “extremism” — a concept that played a major role in Malcolm X’s legacy.

Malcolm X, who pushed for “equality by any means necessary,” was seen by many as an extremist. Rather than shying away from such criticisms, he tackled them head on, most notably as a guest participant in the renowned Oxford Union’s 1964 debate on the very topic.

The debate's proposition was: “Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Conservative presidential candidate Barry Goldwater had made this brazen declaration just months earlier in his acceptance speech for his party’s nomination at the Republican National Convention. That irony of the statement's origin was not lost on the renowned civil rights activist when he chose to argue in favor of the white conservative politician’s words. That Goldwater’s message somehow changed as soon as it came out of Malcolm X’s mouth was exactly his point.

“As long as a white man does it, it’s all right. A black man is supposed to have no feelings,” he said. “But when a black man strikes back he’s an extremist; he’s supposed to sit passively and have no feelings, be patient, and love his enemy no matter what kind of attack — verbal or otherwise, he’s supposed to take it. But if he stands up in any way and tries to defend himself, then he’s an extremist.”

Less than three months after his speech at Oxford, Malcolm X was shot and killed in Harlem by members of the Nation of Islam, the African-American Islamic movement which he’d disavowed earlier that year.

In the 50 years since his assassination, “extremism” has become more of a global concern than ever. But is the kind of religious extremism we associate today with motivating violent militant groups like the Islamic State and deadly terrorist attacks like the one that killed 12 people at a satirical newspaper in Paris, the same kind of extremism that Malcolm X was talking about? The kind that he had previously been accused of?

How would the aggressive orator’s commitment to “equality by any means necessary” be received today? Would the kinds of statements or affiliations that earned him labels like “radical” or “extremist” over half a century ago even raise eyebrows in 2015? The Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit that tracks hate groups and extremists in the United States, still counts the Nation of Islam — the black separatist group to which Malcolm X was once devoted and then later disowned — among the country’s most prominent extremist organizations. But the hateful rhetoric espoused by that group’s leadership is hardly a top concern in the era of beheadings and suicide bombings.  

The brutality exhibited by groups like IS and al-Qaida over the past two decades has certainly raised the bar in terms of what we expect from “extremists.” But do we actually apply any less prejudice in perceiving those who promote extremism now than when Malcolm X spoke at Oxford Union in 1964? After all, the biggest domestic threat to the United States comes not from those Islamic terrorist organizations that dominate headlines, but from right-wing, anti-government extremist Americans.

A New York Times op-ed by Ilyasah Shabazz — another of Malcolm X’s six daughters — offers a deeper understanding of her father’s legacy through the lens of today’s issues. She considers not how he would be perceived by today’s public, but what he would say about the “renewed spirit of civil rights activism after the tragic events in Ferguson, Mo., on Staten Island and in countless other parts of the country.”

While Shabazz admits that her father’s “ability to boil down hard truths into strong statements and catchy phrases presaged our era of hashtag activism,” she predicts Malcolm X would criticize today’s protesters for lacking a specific target and relying too heavily on slogans rather than action.

“I imagine he would applaud the ‘Hands Up’ gesture for its sheer dramatic effect, but also critique it as rank capitulation that ironically accommodates the very goal of police brutality — to intimidate and immobilize black citizens, forcing them into a defenseless posture if they hope to survive,” Shabazz writes. “He’d agree that ‘Black Lives Matter,’ indeed — but also note that the uniformed police officers who disagree are not likely to be persuaded by a hashtag.”

While police brutality hasn’t exactly changed in the 50 years since Malcolm X’s death, writes Shabazz, other things, like minorities’ place in American society and “access to the system,” have.

“We have the ability to become law officers and judges, and the ability to register and vote,” she says. “He would encourage activists to take advantage of this access, to take power inside the system as well as outside it.”

“Grass-roots work is not flashy, and rarely celebrated on the national media level, but that is where change begins.”