They say you can’t fight fire with fire—but if you don’t fight the fire at all, it will burn the whole house down.
In a room of 10,000 people, I’m the least likely person to advocate violence—so when I tell people that I am inspired by what Malcolm X did during his life, they often raise their eyebrows in surprise.
He is most famously known for promoting violence as a means to bring about change. Despite this inaccurate portrayal of what Malcolm X truly stood for, he remains equally revered and scorned; some love his supposed call to violence, while others abhor it.
Many of us believe Malcolm X’s call to action was at the opposite end of the spectrum, firmly rooted in violence, and we write him off without a second thought. But in doing so, we are missing out on the two most important things he did in his life.
The first: He kept an open mind and evolved over time by allowing his beliefs to change.
In his early years, Malcolm X thought that whites and blacks needed to remain segregated. This belief was taught to him by people he respected at the time, and it appeared to be a truth to him. But rather than cling to that notion, he allowed new experiences to give him a different perspective.
After visiting Mecca and witnessing people of all types praying side by side, Malcolm realized that people of any color, race, or religion can live peacefully amongst one another. Upon his return, he brought this revelation to the podium and encouraged people to unite under a single commonality—in opposition to oppression, exploitation, and degradation.
Many of the problems we face today are a result of being stuck in our old ways. We cling to traditions and values that only serve to destroy us. Even when presented with evidence, we turn a blind eye.
Imagine if we could face ourselves—and each other—and be able to say, “I once did that, said that, believed that…but I was wrong.” It would take a great deal of bravery and courage.
Malcolm X did that publicly. Rather than hold fast to the beliefs instilled in him, he kept his mind open. Instead of making excuses or being afraid to rock the boat, he shared his experiences, his shift in perspective, and altered his approach to bringing about change.
The second thing Malcolm X did in his lifetime: He showed us how to put out the fire.
It is true that he is famously quoted saying “by any means necessary,” but he also spoke of remaining peaceful until someone laid a hand upon you—to only fight back in self-defense.
He motivated and gave power back to thousands of marginalized people. He inspired individuals to stand up for themselves and to demand equality. In his famous “Ballot or Bullet” speech, he said:
“It doesn’t mean that we’re anti-white, but it does mean we’re anti-exploitation, we’re anti-degradation, we’re anti-oppression. And if the white man doesn’t want us to be anti-him, let him stop oppressing, and exploiting, and degrading us.”
Through his speeches, Malcolm X brought great awareness—showing the oppressed that they shouldn’t be treated in those ways and warning the oppressors to change their behavior…or else.
They say you can’t fight fire with fire. But if you don’t fight the fire at all, it will burn the whole house down. Malcolm X inspired people to find a way to fight the fire: to slide down the pole, don the fireproof suit, and bust out the fire hose.
But more importantly, he showed us how to actually put out the fire and prevent future fires from happening. By keeping an open mind, Malcolm X was able to shift his beliefs from segregation to unity.
How many things do we consider normal and acceptable, simply because we are taught that they are? We may shake our heads in disgust at other cultures, but we are no different. We assume that if others are doing it, it must be okay. We live in accordance to social norms, rarely questioning the ethics of our beliefs and actions.
If we follow in the footsteps of Malcolm X, keep an open mind, and cast off the harmful and misguided notions instilled in us, we can create a space for peace, love, compassion, and equality.
Author: Danielle Ciminero
Image: Flickr/thierry ehrmann
Editor: Yoli Ramazzina