Photograph of an art mural of Malcolm X.

OPINION: The Teachings of Malcolm X Can Guide Our Path to Greater Equity

by LaNesha DeBardelaben


From a global pandemic to a renewed focus on social justice, many have suggested that historians will one day look back on 2020 as a turning point for our nation. Turning points can spark much-needed progressive change, but only if we cultivate it, educate our communities, and hold decision makers accountable.

The past year made it painfully clear that some of the very institutions designed to keep neighborhoods and communities safe and healthy are failing People of Color.

The COVID-19 pandemic underscored health care disparities that put People of Color at greater risk. The COVID-19 death rate among Black people is 1.4 times higher than among white people, according to data from the COVID Tracking Project. In King County, data shows that confirmed cases, hospitalized cases, and deaths due to COVID-19 are all higher within communities of color than for white residents. Data also shows racial disparities in the national distribution of COVID-19 vaccinations, with Black and Hispanic people receiving smaller shares of vaccinations compared to their shares of cases and deaths and compared to their shares of the total population in most states. As Seattle physician Dr. Ben Danielson noted at a recent conversation that we hosted at the Northwest African American Museum (NAAM), “This is about more than science; this is about us.”

Additionally, renewed calls for racial justice following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Manuel Ellis, 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant, and other precious Black lives have illuminated the persistent presence of prejudice in our American society and systems. A radical commitment to love of humanity is a step toward eradicating these kinds of disparities and bringing greater light. It was Malcolm X who declared, “We need more light about each other. Light creates understanding, understanding creates love, love creates patience, and patience creates unity.”

Today, fortified with facts that illustrate the painful inequities in Black well-being, we must ensure that this is a true turning point in the long journey to eradicating racial disparities in our nation. To do so, we must build on the lessons and experiences from our shared past.

Born on May 19, 1925, and at one point nicknamed “Detroit Red,” Malcolm X self-evolved to become a leading voice for Black liberation and the human rights of all. Many of his teachings are just as relevant today as they were in the 1950s and ’60s, and guide our work at NAAM. Three Malcolm X teachings resonate most strongly with this moment on our path to greater equity:

  1. Celebrate and uplift Black culture. Malcom X said, “A race of people is like an individual … until it uses its own talent, takes pride in its own history, expresses its own culture, affirms its own selfhood, it can never fulfill itself.” At NAAM, we do this with programming and exhibitions that celebrate our shared history and uplift Black arts, Black culture, and Black voices.
  1. Educate all children about the past to help inform a more equitable future. Malcolm X said, “It is the process of miseducation that inhibits the full potential of a nation.” A key part of NAAM’s mission is to provide people of all ages the opportunity to learn through meaningful programs. Our Knowledge is Power Book Giveaway program, Interactive Storytime series, Think Big series, Kwanzaa, and Juneteenth youth programs, annual HBCU program, and Youth Curator program are all designed to prepare and empower future generations.
  1. Pursue meaningful systemic change. Malcolm X said, “The present American ‘system’ can never produce freedom … A chicken cannot lay a duck egg because the chicken’s ‘system’ is not designed or equipped to produce a duck egg.” At NAAM, we strive to serve as a safe space for dialogue and connection, fostering conversations about complex topics as the first step on a path to true systemic change. Our recent ‘It Takes a Village’ conversation with Dr. Cornel West is one example.

On Wednesday, May 19, NAAM will host two Malcolm X Day programs. In the morning, we will distribute children’s books about Malcolm X to local children via a Knowledge is Power Book Giveaway in south King County. At 6:00 p.m. in partnership with Seattle Central College, Malcolm X’s daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz, will join NAAM for a virtual celebration of her father’s life and legacy. NAAM is also pleased to feature a variety of local performers during the evening program, including musician Kent Stevenson, spoken word artist Naa Akua, and dance crew Kutt‘N’Up led by Koach T. The program will be moderated by Seattle-based social justice activist Erica N. Williams. Those wishing to attend the online event can register for free on the following website.

On Saturday, May 22, NAAM will host a drive-up screening of Spike Lee’s 1992 film, “Malcolm X,” in the parking lot of the Museum of Flight. The event is free but space is limited, so community members are encouraged to register online as soon as possible.

I encourage you to join NAAM for one of these special events to learn more about Malcolm X, his teachings, his legacy, and their relevance to our current challenges. More broadly, I encourage all of us to look to the sage teachings of Malcolm X as we work to ensure that the current moment is indeed a turning point on our nation’s path to greater equity. Today, 96 years after his birth and 56 years after his death, the liberating wisdom of Malcolm X continues to challenge us in our work to eradicate racial disparities that continue to threaten Black lives and to build unity.


LaNesha DeBardelaben is the president and CEO of the Northwest African American Museum (NAAM) in Seattle, Washington.

📸 Featured image is attributed to Thomas Hawk (under a Creative Commons, CC BY-NC 2.0 license).

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