as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, February 20, 2022
“Did you ever talk to Brother Malcolm? Did you ever touch him or have him smile at you? Did you ever really listen to him?,” I begin my sermon with these words from Ossie Davis for a simple reason. Tomorrow marks the fifty-seventh anniversary of the assassination of el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, best known as Malcolm X.
Malcolm voice is missed. The Lieutenant Governor of our state is openly threatening academic freedom. Like many others in his political party, he does not care for critical race theory. Actually, he does not like the caricature he has constructed of it. He reduces the theory to, in his words, the belief, “That if you’re white, you’re born a racist.”
Such a position is the opposite of what critical race theory argues. It revolves around the claim that race is a social construct that has been intentionally created through legislation and theological doctrine to further the economic and political interests of people—primarily men—with great privilege and power. Its proponents do not claim that if you are born white, you are born a racist. They understand that race as it is envisioned today—that there is such a thing as Black and White—is something which came into being when European theologians in fifteenth century, colonial legislatures in the seventeenth century, the United States Congress, and the Supreme Court invented it to justify slavery. They observe that in order to be a racist, in the words of an old Rogers and Hammerstein song, “You’ve got to be carefully taught!” And that men like the Lieutenant Governor are doing the teaching.
Shortly before his death, Malcolm X passionately put forth a position similar to the one advocated by scholars of critical race theory. He stated, “Victims of racism are created in the image of the racists.” He sought to reframe the struggle for civil rights as a struggle for human rights. He came to believe that white supremacy was “a problem for all humanity.” He embraced—in the gendered language of the mid-twentieth-century— “brotherhood of all men” while warning, “I don’t believe in wasting brotherhood on anyone who doesn’t want to practice it with me.”
In these times, when men like the Lieutenant Governor spew forth obfuscating drivel and pass harmful laws in an effort to further what W. E. B. DuBois once named, “the propaganda of history,” Malcolm’s voice is missing.
Arguably one of the most important political thinkers and religious figures of the twentieth century, there is no federal holiday in his name. Though he once had a postage stamp, he does not have a monument on the national mall. He is not even much honored in his hometown. I know this because Malcolm and I grew up in the same place. We are each from the Lansing, Michigan area.
And here, I should acknowledge the obvious. I am White man talking about a Black man. And not just any Black man, but the one who Davis named “our own black shining price,” a person who in life, and in death, became a symbol for Black liberation.
My Whiteness is almost certainly one reason why I did not learn that Malcolm and I, more than forty years apart, spent our childhoods on many of the same streets. Indeed, he is wholly absent from my early memories of the city we shared. When I was a kid, there was no high school, middle school, or elementary school named after him in his hometown. No street carried his name. No statue of him sat at the city’s center or graced a park. The places he worked, the homes he lived in, the schools he attended, all silent about the one-time presence of this great prophet and freedom fighter.
The diner that I used to frequent as a teenager—the one down the street from the house my parents owned—is where Malcolm had one of his first jobs. Yet, when I was fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, there was no plaque remarking that he had once worked there. No big photograph of him gazed down upon us as my friends and I ate our ice cream sundaes or munched on french fries.
Malcolm was missing from the Michigan of my youth.
This past January, just after the New Year, while visiting my parents, Sadé and I decided to set out to see if that had changed. Under the guidance of Professor John Aerni-Flessner, students from Michigan State University had put together a web site titled Malcolm’s Lansing. It provides a tour of where he and his family lived, loved, and struggled for much of the first two decades of his life.
Using Malcolm’s Lansing, we compiled a list of a half-dozen important sites, drew up a route, and, borrowing one of my parents’ cars, set off on a short pilgrimage. Was Malcolm still missing in Michigan? What could we find of him? How might our encounter change us?
Have you ever gone on a similar pilgrimage? Pilgrimage is an ancient religious practice. Not often practice by Unitarian Universalists—except for the occasional trip to Boston or Transylvania—it is the experience of going on a journey in search of a holy place, person, or object. The pilgrim anticipates transformation along the way and upon reaching their destination. That transformation might be a deeper unity with the divine, a new form of insight, better self-knowledge, or, even, a new understanding of what it means to be human.
The Muslim practice of the Hajj profoundly transformed Malcolm’s life. The name he used at the end, el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, was one that signified he had fulfilled his religious duty to visit the Kaaba, the House of God, in the city of Mecca. It changed his understanding of Islam and of religion. It began his shift away from the teachings of the Nation of Islam towards a spiritual understanding based in Sunni Islam. It altered his politics, moving him from a militant Black nationalism to a revolutionary Pan-Africanism.
I did not anticipate a similar transformation on my pilgrimage. Nor did I undergo one. But, nonetheless, I found much to ponder and contemplate on our search for Malcolm in Michigan. Come with me, for a little of it, and maybe the journey will change you a little too.
We begin in a neighborhood across from the Lansing Airport, at the site of Malcolm’s first house in Michigan. The homes here are small and, by Houston standards, old. They date from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. A few we see now might have stood here when a very young Malcolm played tag with his siblings in the yard or walked the city streets with his father Earl Little.
Malcolm’s Dad, along with his mother Louise, were organizers with the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Founded by Marcus Garvey, the movement advocated for Black cultural, economic, political, and spiritual power at a time when it was incredibly dangerous to be Black in America. The Garveyites practiced self-defense against White violence. They put forth a message that only oppressed peoples can free themselves.
This was not a popular message in Lansing in the 1930s. It did not endear Earl, Louise, and their children to their White neighbors. Malcolm’s family was burned out of their first Michigan home by white supremacists. When we arrived at the address where their house had stood, we found another building in its place. There was nothing to commemorate what had happened there. Malcolm was missing. His family was missing. There was not a trace to be found.
Our next stop takes our to his family’s second homesite. His family lived there only briefly. All we found was a parking lot. No home. No marker. Just asphalt. Malcolm was missing there as well.
At this point, feeling dispirited, we thought we would try the place his third home had been situated. According to Malcolm’s Lansing, completed in 2015, there was a historical marker there honoring his time in Michigan. Driving another ten minutes or so through the grey of winter, we arrived at our destination only to find… nothing. We found out at later that, last year, someone had destroyed it in an act of vandalism.
The marker had honored the last place where Malcolm had lived with both his parents. While his family was in that home, his father died—crushed to death by a streetcar. It is unclear exactly what happened. Some people claim that Earl Little was pushed under the streetcar by white supremacists. Others believe that his death was accidental. Malcolm himself seemed to have been uncertain on this point, sometimes describing his father as the victim of White violence and other times calling his death an accident.
Whatever the case, when we visited intersection of E. Michigan Ave. and Detroit St., the site where Malcolm’s father died, we found no memorial for him there. There was only asphalt–the streetcar and its tracks long gone–despite the fact that some of Malcolm’s daughters had visited it some years ago as part of their own pilgrimage in honor of their father and grandparents.
I want to share the final two stops on our pilgrimage. The first brought us to only real, enduring, public recognition of Malcolm in Lansing, Michigan. There is a street named after him. We found the spot where Malcolm X Street intersects with Martin Luther King Boulevard and took pictures there.
The juxtaposition of the two men might seem curious to some. They are often presented in the media as contrasting, oppositional, figures. The truth is different, as it often is. At the end of their lives, their political beliefs were far closer than is commonly appreciated. As the great theologian James Cone wrote, near his end Malcolm started to “advocate ‘hope’… [and] the participation of African-Americans in the political process.” And near his end, King found his “dream was shattered… observed the nightmare in American cities and on the battlefields of Vietnam. He began to talk like Malcolm.”
Our final stop, should have been a celebration of the way in which Malcolm’s hometown had come to honor him. We went to visit the Shabazz Public School Academy. Featuring a sign with the red, black, and green of Pan-Africanism and a portrait of Malcolm, we hoped he would find an institution in the city devoted to furthering his legacy. Instead, we found the school permanently and a large banner reading “Court-Ordered Sale” nailed over the academy’s placard. It seemed that Malcolm was destined to continue to be missing from Michigan.
The closure of the Shabazz Public School Academy and the absence of Malcolm’s historical marker are uncomfortable metaphors for the propaganda of history that people like Texas’s Lieutenant Governor are waging under the guise of their assault on critical race theory. It might be better to call the school’s demise and the marker’s vandalism as symptoms of the assault. The Lieutenant Governor’s project is fundamentally about the erasure of history and its replacement with something that furthers a political agenda centered on the maintenance of White power and supremacy. Almost ninety years ago, W. E. B. Du Bois, one of Malcolm’s heroes, described such efforts as a project “to discredit human beings” put forth by “those who would compromise truth in the past in order to make peace in the present and guide policy in the future.”
Those who would compromise truth… Here I would direct you to the fourth principle of our Unitarian Universalist Association. It states that our religious communion is committed to, “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”
Freedom of speech and a devotion to a search for the great truths of human existence, are one of the organizing principles of Unitarian Universalism. If there is a through line that connects sixteenth-century Unitarianism with twenty-first century Unitarian Universalism, it is the commitment to the search for truth. It is so important to us that we even encode it into our agreements between ministers and congregations. My contract with First Houston has a clause that reads, “The Church affirms the Developmental Minister’s freedom of speech in the pulpit and in the community, and will not abridge it in any way.”
We live in times when academic freedom and disciplines like history are under attack by those who wish to erase knowledge of the past so that they might resurrect their lost cause of Jim Crow. One of the things our congregation offers each other and the larger community at such a moment is a place where we can proclaim, debate, and search for the truth.
It was such a search to which Malcolm devoted his life. In his autobiography, he wrote, “I’ve had enough of someone else’s propaganda. I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I’m a human being first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.”
It would be hard for me to provide a better interpretation of the Fourth Principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Though, of course, Malcolm was not interpreting that principle. He was speaking from the perspective of a Muslim who, following his pilgrimage to Mecca, had come to understand that Islam embraced all of humanity. Grounded in this theology, at the end of his life he came to be devoted to the project of collective liberation for the entirety of the human family.
Malcolm’s vision was such, his import to the project of freedom and liberation so profound, that he should not be missing in Michigan or anywhere else for that matter. His absence in our hometown is impoverishing. It furthers the propaganda of history.
Counteracting that propaganda is one thing that this congregation has–in our best moments–been devoted to. It is why we work in the Freedmen’s Town–not just preserving Black History with the Yates Museum but trying to support Black Future with the Freedmen’s Town Association. It is why we celebrate the words of those, like Malcolm’s friend the great poet Maya Angelou, who tell the Lieutenant Governor and his allies:
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
It is why this pulpit has, for more than a hundred of years, been devoted to the search for truth and celebration of freedom of speech. I was reminded of the importance of these things on my search for Malcolm in Michigan. Perhaps, I have reminded you of them as well. el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz certainly believed in them central to the human and the religious project. For the truth he lived. Devoted to the cause of freedom he died.
“Did you ever talk to Brother Malcolm? Did you ever touch him or have him smile at you? Did you ever really listen to him?”
So that we might oppose the propaganda of history, hear the words of Malcolm X, and find the truth that leads to liberation, I invite the congregation to say Amen.