On February 14, 1965, Malcolm X spoke at the Ford Auditorium in Detroit, Michigan. It was a keynote address for an awards event sponsored by a group called the Afro-American Broadcasting Company. Sidney Potier, Marian Anderson, Jackie Gleason, Motown Records and a few other business honorees were given awards. So was civil right legend and Detroit resident Rosa Parks.
Malcolm’s speech is often called his “Last Message” because it is the last major public address he ever gave. He was assassinated one week later, on February 21, 1965.
There are so many easy ways to take quotes or excerpts of Malcolm’s speeches and make both powerful and meaningful statements about our past and present. He is highly quotable, yes, but he was also powerfully prescient, sensationalistic, and charismatic. But he was also a human being who, like all of us, changed, learned, grew, and evolved. For those reasons, I prefer listening to his speeches in as full a way as possible. I also find it important to put them into context–into the particular time and place of his own life–in order to understand them.
This “last message” is a different Malcolm, at least measuring against the two-dimensional, anti-MLK image we typically have of him. It is not so much that he is different that the earlier Malcolm, although he is. The most powerful difference, for me, is his wisdom and maturity. Malcolm is speaking as an established leader, as one voice in a larger movement, and as a man committed to an international vision of justice.
In anticipation of a weekend of media coverage of the 50th anniversary of Malcolm’s murder, here’s that address from a week before, a window into the change agent Malcolm had become in 1965. What a loss that his living influence was cut short.