There's Justice in Telling the Truth

by Jeannine Sherman
Thursday 15, 2022

 

“If you’re not ready to die for it, put the word ‘freedom’ out of your vocabulary.” 

“Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you’re a man, you take it.”  

– Malcolm X

“In one of my favorites stories from the Hadith, a man asks the beloved Prophet Muhammad: ‘What is the best form of jihad?’ I have always loved the Prophet’s answer: ‘A word of truth in front of a tyrant ruler or leader, that is the best form of jihad.’ For me, this call to peaceful yet courageous action expresses our highest human responsibility – to care for one another by showing up and speaking out for the voiceless among us. It’s a call that I believe is especially crucial in these times.” 

– Linda Sarsour, Introduction to We Are Not Here to Be Bystanders

 

Introduction

 

When I saw the New York Times article, I was initially just excited to have a reason to write about Malcolm X. The voice that comes through The Autobiography of Malcolm X and the voice you hear in Malcolm’s recorded speeches – it channels a unique kind of courage and determination. I love Malcolm for that, for the ferocious, fearless energy he brings. 

So I want to know more about him, even when it’s hard and scary. 

The New York Times article references the Netflix docuseries, Who Killed Malcolm X? I don’t like crime shows, and I’m squeamish about violence. There’s usually a kind of grim, trainwreck-ish curiosity. Or it’s about an obsession with the gory details of a case. 

David J. Garrow, historian and author, explains: “The person who was the most electronically surveilled by Hoover’s FBI was Elijah Muhammad.” Garrow describes “classic bureau tactics” like finding ways to publicly embarrass someone or use their personal life against them. For example, the FBI were sending anonymous letters to Clara Muhammad (Elijah’s wife) about the secret girlfriends and children of the self-declared apostle.

I don’t think that the FBI and NYPD were necessarily Bad Guys that masterminded everything that happened. It’s more like Hannah Arendt’s The Banality of Evil – it’s a collective responsibility, the result of a lot of shrugs and taking orders and skimming just a bit off the top. The result is “monstrous”, but the steps in between are somehow ordinary, often cold and bureaucratic. 

I’m so grateful to Abdur Rahman Muhammad, who was kind of the star of the show. He’s an historian and a tour guide who has always been passionate about this case. In the documentary, he’s disheartened and authentic about his somewhat lonely struggle to find the truth. 

It was heartbreaking, sickening, to hear his story of police abuse at age 14. I resonated with the way he describes how, as an angry young man, he fell in love with Malcolm’s fearlessness.

Abdur Rahman Muhammad persisted and was successful in making sure that Muhammad Abdul Aziz AKA Norman 3X Butler was exonerated. 

 

Letter to a Brave Historian

 

Brother Abdur Rahman, I appreciate that you shared your emotional responses, reviewing the details of Malcolm’s death. Your crime documentary was a love story, a way of seeking justice and truth. This is what we’re fighting for at MLFA, too, insha Allah.

What made Malcolm so powerful? You identify the same elements that I was moved by – his fearless commitment to truth, his pursuit of freedom and justice.

Repeatedly you’re told to “leave it alone”, especially by former members of the Nation of Islam and especially by these former members of the mosque in Newark. It comes out that many people have known all along that William X Bradley was the man who used the shotgun and whose pellets killed Malcolm. This man is now a well-respected member of the community. I want to believe in redemption, but the community’s acceptance feels kind of wrong, especially since two other innocent men went to prison for 20+ years.

Muhammad Abdul Aziz tells the camera, “If the white man say you guilty, you guilty. Why? Cause he says so and he got a gun, or he got a key, or he got money and it’s that simple.”

After having served time for a crime he didn’t commit, Muhammad Abdul Aziz doesn’t know many of his children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren. He missed his life, and he missed feeling a part of the lives of his family. He also “had to live with the awful stigma of being the murderer of Malcolm X”. 

At the end of the docuseries, you’re asking 81-year-old Muhammad Abdul Aziz if it’s okay to petition the Conviction Integrity Unit to clear his name of the crime he didn’t commit. He reluctantly agrees. The NY Times article takes us into 2022, when Muhammad Aziz has been exonerated – alhamdulilah! This is your effort, your commitment to truth and justice, ma sha Allah.

You say for yourself that you’ve “never been afraid of the truth”. That’s what this is all about. 

Thank you.

 

To Malcolm X

 

The Netflix documentary made me miss you, Malcolm, and you died before I was born. So that’s not possible. But the feeling is still real, and it’s real for a lot of people in the show – a kind of longing for what could have been, maybe, or just an awareness that the courage you brought to the world is sorely needed. 

I loved seeing your wife Betty Shabazz telling them, the day after you died, that your work was a bigger deal than they even realized.

It was hard to watch the show. It hurt. So many people hurting. Sore hearts. I got to see the videos of your speeches, to observe the way people were laughing with relief. You were up there telling the truth no one else was quite brave enough to tell. Speaking truth to power.

I was waiting for Mecca. The first five episodes were so hard to watch, heavy on the heart. I was getting a little impatient as they kept rehashing the last year of your life without mentioning Hajj. I remember the way it felt, reading your autobiography, when the time of Hajj came. So much suffering, exclusion, danger, deep hurt – then the time of Hajj comes as a bright light, an open space – I could breathe easier, even as the reader of the story. After all the heaviness of watching you die, I was longing for the images of you at Hajj, the stories you told, how it changed you (they do come in episode 6).

One of today’s buzzwords is intersectionality. In the last year of your life, you tried to unify people around the world. You said, “The only way we’ll get freedom for ourselves is to identify ourselves with every oppressed people of the world. We are blood brothers to the people of Brazil, Venezuela, Haiti, Cuba – yes, Cuba, too.” 

 

Conclusion

 

“There’s a justice in telling the truth,” Abdur Rahman Muhammad narrates.

This is how Malcolm still affects us. They tried to shut him up, shut him down, push him out, firebomb his house, put bullets in him – and here we are, still inspired. I long for what he could have done, had he lived. Allah knows best, and Allah is the Most Just, the Owner of All Justice. May He show us the way. 

 

Sources

Watch Who Killed Malcolm X? | NetflixWatch Who Killed Malcolm X? | Netflix

Linda Sarsour Spoke of Jihad, But Didn’t Mean Violence | Time

Man Exonerated in Malcolm X Murder Sues New York City After Talks Fail – The New York Times (nytimes.com)

What did Hannah Arendt really mean by the banality of evil? | Britannica