As I reflect on the life of Malcolm X 40 years after his assassination, I do so with a keen understanding of the political, social and economic condition in America. Like other great leaders, Malcolm - who later accepted the name Haj Malik El Shabaaz - was influenced by his environment and the social conditions of his time.
In 1903, WEB Dubois penned the Souls of Black Folk, in which he prophesied that the central issue of the 20th century would be race. Following the rise of domestic terrorism, represented by the cowardly nightriders of the Ku Klux Klan, the organised movement to resist racism began to flourish among African-Americans. By the end of the century, two paths of resistance had emerged, led by the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X.
Although their paths had parallel ends, each was distinct. Dr King, having studied the philosophies of Jesus and Mahatma Gandhi, focused on non-violent direct action to achieve a shift in the paradigm of public policy. He employed liberation theology to frame racism as a national moral sin.
Malcolm X studied the philosophy of Marcus Garvey as a young man and developed a black nationalist perspective in response to racial bigotry. He viewed appeals to the US government for redress as "taking the criminal to his own court". He gained national notoriety as the no-nonsense voice of the Nation of Islam, imploring people to revolutionary change "by any means necessary".
Malcolm X's perspective had a great appeal among college students and those adults unwilling to "turn the other cheek". Yet his legacy centres not around his defiance and fiery oratory, but his intellectual evolution.
Let us not forget that Malcolm Little was elected president of his eighth-grade class. But after his father's brutal murder at the hands of white racists, and the mental breakdown of his mother, Malcolm was drawn to street life, which resulted in a prison term. While in prison he returned to the discipline of academic study and joined the Nation of Islam.
After returning from Islam's holy site of Mecca, Malcolm changed his philosophy from the perspective that the Anglo-Saxon was the embodiment of evil to a global understanding of humanity which encompassed good and evil within all ethnicities.
As it had been in the turbulent 1960s, the perceived political authenticity of Malcolm X was praised by college students in the 1990s following Spike Lee's film Malcolm X. Malcolm's image was immortalised on clothing, artwork and building murals, and by popular rap groups such as Public Enemy on the theme of anti-establishment defiance of the status quo.
Today, the life of Malcolm Little, Malcolm X, Haj Malik El Shabaaz, is instructive in three poignant ways. His academic studiousness is a brilliant example to youth who, in many cases, define what is "cool" as non-academic. As we seek to reclaim our youth as a nation, we must transform their values to embrace academic excellence and civil participation. Malcolm's rebelliousness after his father's murder is an example in the negative of the need to keep one's eyes on the prize of scholastic achievement.
Second, Malcolm X's rejection of destructive behaviour is instructive as a set of values which places dignity above designer clothes. We should not forget that while in Boston, Malcolm dressed like a pimp, acted like a thug and was jailed. However, during his enlightenment while incarcerated, he realised that his purpose in life was not to pimp, peddle and plunder, but rather to be clean and upright in his attitude. It is a fact that in many instances one's dress determines the perception of others.
Lastly, Haj Malik El Shabaaz is a glowing example of the individual need to seek a higher understanding. Proverbs 4:7 advises the faithful to seek wisdom. As a devout Muslim, he journeyed to the holiest of holy places in Islam on a pilgrimage to develop a deeper understanding of his faith and his role in the world. After Mecca, Malik El Shabaaz viewed Anglo-Saxons as brothers in humanity, provided they were clean and upright.
Malcolm's life and legacy in study and practice illuminate our path today: his defiance, determination and dignity have made us all better. Like Dr King, he was assassinated when he was 39. The noble Ossie Davis delivered the famous phrase in his eulogy that Malcolm X as Haj Malik El Shabaaz was "our black shining prince".
The "princely" paradox of Malcolm X's life was that he was inflexible on the question of dignity, yet very flexible to intellectual growth, and people of all ethnicities will be well served to emulate his shining example.
The Rev Jesse Jackson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is president of the Rainbow/Push Coalition and worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr during the 1960s.
© 2005 Guardian Newspapers, Ltd.