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Historians, lawmakers reflect on 50th anniversary of Malcolm X’s death

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Fifty years after Malcolm X was assassinated in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom, historians and politicians alike say his teachings and principles remain relevant today.

U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-Jamaica) said he would not be where he is today without a leader like Malcolm X, noting that his teachings still apply today.

“He was an individual who taught himself in prison, reading the dictionary, and continued to evolve his philosophy to make sure it was making a difference in the lives of individuals who needed someone to be their vocal chord,” Meeks said.

He also said there should be more comprehensive black history taught in schools beyond February’s Black History Month and that Malcolm X’s connection to Queens needs to be brought to the forefront.

“Some people don’t realize that tie and it’s something that I think we should, because it’s part of Queens’ history,”Meeks said. “It should be spoken about more.”

Born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925, in Omaha, Neb., Malcolm X was a black nationalist leader who represented the Nation of Islam in the 1950s and the 1960s. He and his wife, Betty, raised their four daughters in East Elmhurst.

He was assassinated Feb. 21, 1965 at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan where he was getting ready to give a speech. Three gunmen went onstage and shot him 15 times at close range.

Talmadge Hayer, Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson, were convicted of first-degree murder in March 1966. They were all members of the Nation of Islam.

Speaking before students at the Merrick Academy in Springfield Gardens last month, Malcolm X’s daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz, pointed to the cover of her book, “Malcolm Little,” which features Malcolm as a “young, impressionable child.”

“He would grow up to become one of the world’s greatest leaders for human rights for all people,” Shabazz said during the Jan. 17 event. “One of the greatest leaders around the world. And so it says we have to celebrate and prepare you now while you are nice and young.”

Richard Hourahan, collections manager for the Queens Historical Society, said he heard Malcolm X speak for the first time on the radio when he was about 13 years old. He said Malcolm X sounded pessimistic about the state of the United States at the time.

The way that he is perceived changes from one time period to the next, Hourahan said.

“His outlook on the world developed tremendously in the last six, 12 months of his life and he was getting a greater and greater international following,” Hourahan said. “Nobody even looks at that. They get the Malcolm they want. They use him for their own purposes.”

When he first moved to Queens, he said, he was surprised that people were not interested in learning about Malcolm X, given that he lived in the borough.

“When I first came to Queens, I wondered why nobody cared about Malcolm in Queens. They wouldn’t talk about Malcolm,” he said. “This place should be a landmark. This is in the late ‘60s...they should be honored that Malcolm X lived here.”

State Sen. James Sanders (D-South Ozone Park) has called for a reinvestigation of the events surrounding Malcolm X’s death.

“No matter how many decades have passed since the death of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, those responsible must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” Sanders said in a statement. “Justice must be served.”

Meeks said that if there is any new evidence that was not presented before the Freedom of Information Law went into effect, for example, a re-examination might be beneficial.

But he said it would be better to focus on Malcolm X’s lasting legacy.

“I’d rather focus on the message of the man Malcolm X and how his teachings and his words can help us move forward today, even 50 years later,” he said.

Reach reporter Madina Toure by e-mail at mtoure@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4566.

Posted 12:00 am, February 27, 2015
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