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To fight injustice, Ilyasah Shabazz wants to help create a ‘society that works for everyone’

Hosted by the Organization of Black Students (OBS) in partnership with the Harris School of Public Policy, the 90-minute featured lecture; a discussion led by Jordyn Varise, OBS political chair; and a question-and-answer session. The event was also live-streamed for viewers beyond the Keller Center.

Shabazz initially took her audience back to Feb. 21, 1965, when three gunmen killed her 39-year-old father in Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom. He was about to give a speech about the Organization of Afro-American Unity, the group he formed after leaving the Nation of Islam. His family of him, including a 2-year-old Ilyasah, was there.

“My pregnant mother placed her body over my three sisters and me to protect us from gunfire and to make sure we would not see the terror before us,” Shabazz said.

Afterward, though Malcolm X “was physically gone, my mother made certain that her husband remained a part of our household conversations for as long as I can remember,” she said. “I knew my father loved me. I knew he had impeccable integrity and a great sense of humor. … I knew he loved music, literature, poetry, history, nature, and the arts.”

“We have beautiful butterfly and poetry collections that were his,” she added. “We had his clothes on him, his briefcase on him, and his size 14 shoes that we would put our feet in and try to romp around in.”

It was only in college, Shabazz said, that she began to learn about what she ended up with “the inaccurate portrayals of his character and life’s work.” “I started to understand why my mother protected us from the negative depictions of her husband de ella.”

“The story that has been written of Malcolm is so far from the truth,” she said.

Inaccuracies, she said, include descriptions of the relationship between her father and Dr. King. Malcolm X criticized the mainstream civil rights movement and he and King clashed, particularly over King’s nonviolent approach to ending racial discrimination. But, Shabazz said, the men “saw themselves as brothers,” not enemies.

“People often come, and they whisper to me that they were on the side of Malcolm or that they were on the side of Martin,” she said. “But ladies and gentlemen, we do not have to choose sides. Both men challenged an unjust and immoral world. Even though they have their philosophical differences—my father’s point of view was human rights and Dr. King’s point of view was civil rights—both were needed to accomplish our ultimate goal.”

“Why can’t we appreciate both for their undying love and commitment for their people?” she asked, adding that her mother de ella and Coretta Scott King became friends, as did she and King’s daughter Bernice. “We’re not rivals. We’re sisters.”

To link her father’s actions to the America of today, Shabazz reached back to 1957 when Malcolm X led a march to a New York City police station to demand medical treatment for a Nation of Islam member who had been beaten by officers and then detained. When officers finally took the injured man to Harlem Hospital, the protesters followed—a scene that’s dramatized in Spike Lee’s 1992 film Malcolm X.

“That evening each Nation of Islam member called two members and it became a domino effect,” she said, “much like with the protests that followed the murder of George Floyd.”

Those protesters 65 years ago did not quit until they accomplished their goal, and “their united spirit of organized activism has much to teach us today,” she added.

After Floyd’s 2020 murder by a police officer in Minneapolis, she said, “we went out marching, protesting, demonstrating. But then the marching, protesting, demonstrating was over—and we went back home. And then you had to say, ‘Well, what did I accomplish?’ It’s so important that we know what we are marching for. What is our goal?

One goal in what she described as today’s challenging times is “creating a society that works for everyone. And this means challenging systems that maintain disproportionate incarceration rates of young Black men, systems that create racial disparities in child poverty. Clinging to hope, we must propose legislation that combats injustice.”

When, she said, “we learn that we can only win together, we will stop focusing on what divides us.”

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