Teaching Malcolm X in the 21st century: Part Two


by Christopher Paslay


Note: This is a continuation of an article posted on February 8th





It’s interesting how many teens associate Malcolm X with the phrase “by any means necessary”.  But those who’ve studied Malcolm X closely will understand he never advocated violence.  As Attallah Shabazz wrote so eloquently in the forward to the current edition of her father’s autobiography, “Malcolm X never advocated violence.  He was an advocate of cultural and social reconstruction—until a balance of equality was shared, ‘by any means necessary.’  Generally, this phrase of his was misused, even by those who were his supporters. . . . ‘By any means necessary’ meant examine the obstacles, determine the vision, find the resolve, and explore the alternatives toward dissolving the obstacles.” 


Teaching the life of Malcolm X should not be a means of encouraging revolution, even of the “creative” kind proposed by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail.  Just as with pride and self-expression, teens today have no problem rebelling against authority.  As teachers, we don’t need to whet their appetites for civil disobedience.  We don’t need to get them any angrier than they already are.  If anything, we must find ways to dispel their anger and replace it with tolerance and compassion; we must teach them that taking responsibility for an unpleasant circumstance or situation—not resisting it—is the best way to go about changing it.




We all know the impact education had on Malcolm X’s life (even if it was a homegrown one in prison).  A whole world opened-up to him when he taught himself to read and think critically: “Many who today hear me somewhere in person, or on television, or those who read something I’ve said, will think I went to school far beyond the eighth grade.  This impression is due entirely to my prison studies. . . . I saw that the best thing that I could do was get hold of a dictionary—to study, to learn some words. . . . I spent two days just riffling uncertainly through the dictionary’s pages.  I’d never realized so many words existed!  I didn’t know which words I needed to learn.  Finally, just to start some kind of action, I began copying . . .”


Starting with the word aardvark, Malcolm copied out the entire dictionary, word-by-word.  It took him years to do so.  And as a result, he went from an uneducated inmate with no direction, to an intelligent, impassioned civil rights activist who changed the lives of many. 




America today is more diverse than it’s ever been.  Teachers and students alike are of many races and cultural backgrounds.  In order to tackle the treacherous terrain of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, we must explore the material with an open mind and non-biased eye, and balance our lessons with humility, dignity and responsibility.

3 thoughts on “Teaching Malcolm X in the 21st century: Part Two

  1. The difficulty of teaching compassion, self-responsibility, dignity, and humility is that the teacher must understand those qualities or have experience with them. It is almost an impossible task to teach something that you personally do not know. How can one teach Algebra if they themselves do not understand it? To be a good parent one must be a good person.
    I completely agree with teaching these qualities and characteristics. However, sometimes teachers do not have the foundation to do an exemplary job. In general our culture does not encourage these traits.
    Makes one think!!

  2. I like to point out that Malcolm X spent a period of his life as a racist, but changed when he gained a deeper education in Islam. I can think of precious few racists who have admitted they were wrong and changed their ways. I have a great deal of respect for Malcolm X.

  3. I have written a book dedicated to educating young men and women using the autobiography of Malcolm X. I would love to send a copy to you Mr. Christopher Paslay because I have used your dedication and foresight in my introduction. If you get this message please send me your email address so I can forward a copy to you for your review.

    Thank You’
    Derek Lavelle

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