Apparently, Malcolm X does not exist. At least that’s what you might think while visiting the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. During our rally for the Heather Ellis case, the young woman who faced 15 years in prison after cutting line at a Wal-Mart, I took a tour of the museum. After completing the hour-long tour, I realized that they’d forgotten something. Even though the museum had hundreds of pictures of other events representing the civil rights struggle in America, I saw only one picture of Malcolm X.

This incredibly disappointing display at the Civil Rights Museum is a reflection of how Malcolm’s legacy has been treated like the neglected step-child of the African-American struggle for freedom and equality. Malcolm fought for civil rights just as diligently as Dr. King. He was just as impactful as Dr. King. He gave his life like Dr. King. But for some reason, most of us don’t remember Malcolm’s birthday. We’ve never considered having a holiday to commemorate his contribution. He is rarely discussed in the same sentence with Dr. King. We just ignore him and this has got to change.

It’s easy to understand why mainstream America has been conditioned not to appreciate the legacy of Malcolm X. They dislike Malcolm for the same reasons that the British dislike George Washington. Malcolm wasn’t an apologist and challenged black folks to respect themselves, which was in direct contrast to a strategy of constrained and oppressive integration. Our goal was to get a seat at the table, even if we were given the scraps, and some are wondering if we are better off because of it. Malcolm kept a crystal ball in his mind which told him that a distorted, imbalanced marriage between blacks and whites would lead to terrible inner city schools, huge imbalances of wealth and unemployment and a lack of willingness by politicians to acknowledge serious concerns within the African-American community. Hence, you have the year 2010.

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While the social, economic and political relationships of blacks and whites have presented quite a few gains for African-Americans, they don’t work when there is still a fundamental disrespect for black people themselves. Malcolm was not necessarily against these kinds of ties, but he might agree that this union should only take place when there is definitive proof of mutual respect. Rather than embracing concepts such as ownership and institution-building, African-Americans have positioned themselves as an occupied state which leaves itself vulnerable to distorted economic and political condition. Many of us understand that the dreams of neither Malcolm nor Martin have been fully realized.

It’s time for us to evolve our thinking. If we continue to use the same models, we will continue to get the same results. Martin Luther King was an undeniably great man, but to some extent, mainstream media has chosen him as an African-American hero. In the same way Lil Wayne has been promoted extensively by non-black music executives, Martin Luther King is tossed at us like the latest Jay-Z song or those Democratic nominees that none of us have ever heard about. We’ve never been given the opportunity to choose our own iconic figures. Instead, we are taught that Dr. King fought the entire struggle for civil rights all by himself.

We must make a collective effort to raise Malcolm from the dead to give him the appreciation he deserves. We can first start by learning Malcolm’s birthday, which is May 19, 1925 and the date of his assassination, Febuary 21, 1965. We can also study his life, and his contribution to the country in which we live today. Malcolm gave black people pride and courage, which are just as valuable as eating at the same lunch counter at whites. He encouraged an honest recollection on our experience as slaves, which is far better than being taught that slavery should be forgotten. He helped us understand that black history is a living, breathing phenomenon, determining how we name ourselves, what we eat and what we think. In many ways, Malcolm gave black America a new beginning.

Malcolm, Martin and thousands of others fought to get us where we are today, and we know that. It’s time to talk differently about our history. So, as we go to one MLK dinner after another, we must make a point to stop and give respect to Malcolm.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition and the initiator of the National Conversation on Race. For more information, please visit>