Sept. 12 2007 12:00 AM
Ben Corr/City Pulse

Members of the Mayor's Commission on Celebrating Diversity are sorting through those issues as they determine a recommendation for honoring Malcolm X, including naming a street after the controversial former Lansing resident. And once the commission decides whether and how to honor him, will Lansing citizens agree that the controversial figure — first a criminal, then a racist, who in his last year professed a complete change of heart and mind — should be honored? Perhaps, if they are convinced that he gave his life for his newfound views.

The Malcolm X subcommittee, is weighing options for possible memorials. The subcommittee is divided into six small groups, each exploring a different option: creating  a diversity center named after him; honoring him with a law degree from Cooley Law School or Michigan State University; adding his story to the public school curriculum to emphasize local history; negotiating with the Memorial Review Board to find different ways to honor him (possibly by naming a street or facility after him); creating a film and/or lecture series; and dedicating rooms at public libraries and buildings after him. {mosimage}

Farhan Bhatti, the chairman of the subcommittee, said the purpose of memorializing Malcolm X is to spread the values of peace, unity and love he preached late in his life. “We want to educate the public about Malcolm X's true life,” Bhatti said. “He's one of us, raised in Lansing, and the public might be a little misinformed about what he really stood for, and what he died for.”

Moreover, Lansing had an effect on him. “It laid the groundwork for everything that he would have to go through prior to the spiritual transformation later in life,” Bhatti said. “This is where it all started.”

Malcolm Little was born in Omaha, Neb., on May 19, 1925. He was 4 years old when his family moved to Lansing. It was here where he witnessed the burning of his home, an act of arson his family was sure was committed by a white supremacist group. The same group is responsible, they claim, for the death of Malcolm's father, found dead on the Michigan Avenue railroad tracks. According to the police, both were accidents.

Later, at a Mason middle school, a teacher would, according to the famed Alex Haley biography, tell Malcolm Little that his dream of becoming a lawyer was “no realistic goal for a nigger” and that he should try carpentry instead. He later became involved in a life of drug selling, numbers running and pimping in Boston, where he was arrested for burglary.

While he was in prison, he was exposed to the Nation of Islam, a black separatist organization promoted by his mentor, Elijah Muhammad. The Nation of Islam, according to the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish advocacy group, “has maintained a consistent record of racism and anti-Semitism under the guise of instilling African-Americans with a sense of empowerment since its founding in the 1930s.” Indeed, in 1964, even after he had split with the Nation of Islam, he continued to refer to Jews as exploiters of blacks, rhetoric left over from his recently ended Nation of Islam period. (The exact reasons for his split with the Nation of Islam remain unclear. His disillusionment apparently began after he was silenced for his callous remark following JFK's assassination: “[Kennedy] never foresaw that the chickens would come home to roost so soon.” It continued with his discovery of Elijah Muhahhad's sexual infidelities.)

Farhan argues that when he was assassinated in March 1965, Malcolm X had changed his views because of his late-1964 trip to Mecca and his conversion to Orthodox Islam. “He definitely had had undertones of racism against everybody who wasn't black,” says Bhatti, 22, a med student at MSU. “After he converted to Orthodox Islam, it changed his entire way of thinking. And that's what we're celebrating— that change, and if he been allowed to live till old age, he would have been a great advocate for peace.”

Moreover, Bhatti contends, Malcolm X not only was assassinated for his new beliefs but knew he was endangering his life by expressing them.

Dr. John H. McClendon III, director of African American and African Studies at MSU, said the life of Malcolm X must be viewed with an emphasis on his final years. “It is difficult to find balance in terms of how to measure one's last year against all the other years of one's life,” he said. “However, the last year of Malcolm's life was very important in terms of his ideological evolution and his views on a number of issues. In the final year of his life, he rejected the notion that the fundamental question for African Americans was anchored in the issue of black versus white. He relinquished the anti-white position that he held when he was in the Nation of Islam and began to talk in terms of the issue not being fighting white people but fighting white supremacy and white racism.”

Whether locals support honoring Malcolm X is still in question. Residents in Lansing showed mostly positive reactions when asked how they felt about the city paying homage to Malcolm X. Out of 37 people interviewed downtown, 27 supported honoring the man. Five opposed the idea, and five were neutral. Lansing resident Sara Shamoon said she would like to see a street named after Malcolm X. “You always see Martin Luther King Boulevard, why not Malcolm X?” she said.

Of the five who opposed the idea, three were uncomfortable providing their full names. Negative respondents included Lansing residents Diane Curtis, who said, “I don't support Malcolm X” and Mary Clark, who simply offered, “Not in favor.” What exactly they opposed is unclear. Bhatti said the city has received two pieces of hate mail regarding the project, denouncing Malcolm X as a racist unworthy of recognition.

Another letter, sent to City Pulse last weekend, defended Malcolm as being worthy of remembrance. “Malcolm Little in Boston was not the same person as the Malcolm Little who had been in Lansing, or the Malcolm Little who had lived in Mason, Mich.,” wrote Ammahad Shekarakki. “We must get a street named Malcolm X.”

It will be next spring before the subcommittee decides how to honor the civil rights leader – members expressed relief that they have until the week of Malcolm's birthday, May 19, to finalize plans – but already, members are skeptical of renaming one of Lansing's streets based on the city's spotty history of new road christenings. In 1994, the Lansing City Council decided to rename Logan Street as Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, a decision met with mixed reactions from purists wishing to preserve the original street label, so named after a Civil War Union Army commander. A similar situation took place in 1995, when the Council voted to rename Grand Avenue after farm workers union champion Cesar Chavez. The public quickly pushed for a referendum and returned the street to its original name.

Currently, the only memorial in Lansing honoring X is his home site, located on the corner of Martin Luther King Boulevard. and Vincent Court and registered by the state in 1975. The site marker hints at the effect Lansing had on his philosophies. In prison, the marker says, Malcolm X “developed an understanding of black self-hatred and came to see his years in Lansing as common to black experience.”