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Omaha Magazine

Protecting Ourselves: Malcolm X’s Nebraska Legacy

Dec 21, 2023 01:36PM ● By Claudia Moomey

Photo by Marion S. Trikosko, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Listen to this article here. Audio Provided by Radio Talking Book Service.

"If you have no critics, you’ll likely have no success.”

Malcolm X wrote this line in his autobiography, and while it may not be his most famous quote, it’s nonetheless an observation that the American minister and activist lived by and one that has inspired courage in countless others.

His history is fairly well-known. During the tumultuous 1960s, Malcolm X emerged as one of the most revered and controversial activists of the civil rights movement. His imposing stature and charismatic way of speaking allowed him to rise through the Nation of Islam’s ranks and capture the attention of the American public. His strong beliefs, however, made him a lightning rod for controversy, one that he still today remains more than half a century after his assassination. 

That spark started in Nebraska. Born Malcolm Little in Omaha on May 19, 1925, the young man went from committing crimes to becoming an icon for both the Black community and civil rights activists across the nation. He joined the Nation of Islam under the leadership of Elijah Muhammad, whom he revered and respected, and changed his name to Malcolm X. An undeniably influential voice, he went on to become the most popular spokesman for this religious organization, growing its membership from about 400 to around 10,000, even more by some estimates.

Disillusionment followed. Malcom X learned that Muhammad had illegitimately fathered several children out of wedlock, an act that directly contradicted his own teachings. As a result, Malcolm X reached a turning point. He undertook a pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, an essential part of the Islamic faith, and experienced people of all colors interacting with one another and praying to the same God. The combination of these two events resulted in the decision to denounce Muhammad and embrace the notion of peacefully creating equality rather than his previous preference for violent revolution. This led to multiple death threats from Nation of Islam members and spokesmen, along with a few reported assassination attempts.

Less than a year later, on February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was preparing to speak to a crowd when he was shot 21 times on stage by three members of the Nation of Islam, the organization to which he had previously belonged and represented.

Today, Malcolm X is an important figure in the struggle for racial equality. The Malcolm X Memorial Foundation was founded in 1971 by Rowena Moore and now boasts 17 acres of land, including the site of the house in which Malcolm X was born. According to the organization’s mission statement, “the grounds serve the purpose of bringing residents together to remember the legacy of Malcolm X through educational programs, a community radio station, town hall forums, and special events.”

Executive Director JoAnna LeFlore-Ejike states the organization’s mission as working “to preserve the human rights legacy of Malcolm X.” She is honored to lead the foundation in her new position. “I was a former volunteer for 10 years,” she said, “so it was kind of a full-circle moment in general because of my commitment to the organization.” 

The foundation’s expansive land is used to host events, community workshops, and festivals in collaboration with other local nonprofit organizations. It also features a community garden. “We pride ourselves on being a hub for people to have dialogues and conversations about change,” LeFlore-Ejike asserted. The organization additionally provides several educational programs and events, which engage people within the Omaha community. 

Malcolm X’s origins have helped grab the attention of visitors. “They have an introspective moment when they realize his connection to our city,” LeFlore-Ejike reflected. “Once they get that story, it’s kind of an enlightening experience.”

For the director, the most powerful of Malcolm X’s teachings comes from the speech by which he popularized the phrase, “by any means necessary.” LeFlore-Ejike explained, “In this speech, he asserts that we, as a human race, should have opportunities to protect ourselves and our democracy and be able to do so by any means necessary. I think that is very powerful.”

Malcolm X briefly met arguably the most famous civil rights figure, Martin Luther King, Jr., of which there is a famous photo. Beyond this, however, the two men did not speak directly. They sometimes referred to one another in speeches, which created the perception of conflict between them in the eyes of the public.

“Both of their philosophies have more in common than people realize,” said LeFlore-Ejike, defending both men’s characters. “They both emphasized the self-sufficiency of the Black race and building allyship that made sense. Though they came at it from somewhat different angles, they both knew that it wasn’t the white race that we need to be focused on, but rather our own race.”

The Malcolm X Memorial Foundation hosts an annual birthday celebration for Malcolm on May 19, which is celebrated with a luncheon, community awards, and panel discussions. This year, the organization will also be celebrating Malcolm X’s induction into the Nebraska Hall of Fame in May. 

The Memorial Foundation has been fighting for Malcolm’s spot in the hall of fame for decades. “It’s been a 30-year process,” LeFlore-Ejike lamented, but she is glad he finally gets this recognition. Malcolm X’s legacy will be preserved by the state of Nebraska with a bust of the monumental man who influenced the lives and thoughts of so many, and continues to do so in 2024. 

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This article originally appeared in the January/February 2024 issue of Omaha Magazine. To subscribe, click here. 

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