"If violence is wrong in America, violence is wrong abroad. If it is wrong to be violent defending black women and black children and black babies and black men, then it is wrong for America to draft us, and make us violent abroad in defense of her. And if it is right for America to draft us, and teach us how to be violent in defense of her, then it is right for you and me to do whatever is necessary to defend our own people right here in this country."
Excerpt from speech by El Hajj Malik El Shabazz, Nov. 1963, New York City.
El Hajj Malik El Shabazz was born on May 19th, 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska and transitioned to be with the ancestors on February 21st, 1965 in the Audubon Ballroom, Manhattan, New York. Shabazz was born into a home of Pan-African activist parents who as Garveyites adhered to the philosophy of the Honourable Marcus Mosiah Garvey. Garvey, born in St Ann, Jamaica, was the leader of the Pan-African movement and founder of the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). The philosophy of Garvey’s UNIA provided the blueprint for several African centred movements that served to educate Africans in the Diaspora about their history. Ilyasah Shabazz, El Hajj Malik El Shabazz’s daughter who spoke at the University of Toronto (OISE) on Monday, February 4th reminded us that her father’s parents met at a UNIA convention in Montreal. Ilyasah Shabazz, her parents’ third child, was almost three years old (born July 1960) and her mother Dr. Betty Shabazz was pregnant with twins, Malaak and Malikah when El Hajj Malik El Shabazz was assassinated on February 21st, 1965. When Ossie Davis eulogized Shabazz on February 27th 1965; he said in part “Here - at this final hour, in this quiet place - Harlem has come to bid farewell to one of its brightest hopes -extinguished now, and gone from us forever. Consigning these mortal remains to earth, the common mother of all, secure in the knowledge that what we place in the ground is no more now a man - but a seed - which, after the winter of our discontent, will come forth again to meet us. And we will know him then for what he was and is - a Prince - our own black shining Prince! - who didn't hesitate to die, because he loved us so."
Even though there were approximately 400 people in the Audubon Ballroom on the night of Shabazz’s assassination, there is still confusion about the identity of Shabazz’s assassins. There has been speculation that the American government was involved, since the Shabazz family had been under constant surveillance by the CIA and FBI, including having their telephone wiretapped. Forty three years later, there are many unanswered questions about the role of the US government in the assassination of Shabazz. It has been reported that the carefully orchestrated “confusion” began when two men began loudly arguing with each other just moments after Shabazz stood at the podium to begin his speech on February 21st, 1965. As his body guards approached the two men there was another distraction when a smoke bomb was detonated at the back of the room. The assassins chose those moments of confusion to attack and when the smoke cleared another one of our freedom fighters was gone. In “Redemption song,” Bob Marley asks, “How long shall they kill our prophets while we stand aside and look?” Today character assassination is more in line with the neo-conservative agenda of white supremacy in our midst.
John Edgar Hoover, who was Director of the FBI in 1965 when Shabazz was assassinated, began his more than five decades (1917 to 1972) long career in the FBI by harassing the Honourable Marcus Mosiah Garvey. Hoover hired his first “Negro” operative in the FBI to sabotage the work of the UNIA and destroy Garvey’s life. He continued his dedicated harassment of and quest to destroy African freedom fighters including Shabazz, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Black Panther Party, Paul Robeson and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In the 1960’s at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Hoover is credited with writing an FBI memo that directed “We must stop the rise of a black messiah.” The white power structure was mightily afraid that the “Negroes” would rally around a charismatic leader like Shabazz who was forcing white America to realize that the group of people who they had oppressed for generations would not ask but would rise up and seize their civil and human rights.
Hoover established the infamous COINTELPRO, the counter intelligence program of the FBI which was successful in sabotaging the work of individuals and groups that sought to end white supremacy in the USA and secure the civil and human rights and equality for racialised communities. The FBI did not pursue white supremacist groups or individuals that slaughtered African Americans and worked to deny racialized people their civil and human rights. Three African American men were convicted of assassinating Shabazz but there remain questions about the role of the FBI which fostered a climate of distrust in much of the African American activist community with surveillance including bugs, wiretaps, cameras, spies and agent provocateurs. To the government of the USA, Shabazz was a danger because he planned to take a petition that documented human rights violations and acts of genocide against African Americans to the United Nations. Shabazz was assassinated on February 21st, 1965 but the work he did during his lifetime was not in vain. His advocacy, unswerving dedication to improving the life condition of Africans and internationalizing the human rights violations against Africans bore fruit in 2001.
At the United Nations World Conference Against Racism (August 31st to September 7th 2001) the issue of slavery, racism and reparations for the descendants of enslaved Africans was addressed. It was recognized that: “Africans and African Descendants share a common history shaped by the slave trade, slavery, conquest, colonization and apartheid, all of which constitute crimes against humanity, and a common experience of anti-Black racism. We acknowledge that people of African descent live all over the world, although in many instances they have been renamed, suppressed and marginalized. On every continent African and African Descendants continue to suffer from racism. We affirm that the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and the enslavement of Africans and African Descendants was a crime against humanity and a unique tragedy in the history of humanity, and that its roots and bases were economic, institutional, systemic and transnational in dimension.” Since 2001 there have been several cases where Africans in the Diaspora have launched law suits (claiming reparations) against companies that were involved in the enslavement of Africans. In 2002, the Canadian National Railway was one of those companies named by a group of African Americans who sued for reparations in a Federal Court in Chicago, Illinois. The plaintiffs led by Deadria Farmer-Paellmann are demanding that a humanitarian trust fund be created rather than individual payments. In Canada we have not filed any lawsuits yet although the issue of African centred schools as part of reparations to address the anti-African racism that leads to the inordinately high number of our youth not graduating from secondary school, might be a good place to start.
On Monday, February 4th, Ilyasah Shabazz shared with us the importance of learning about our history, which her mother ensured was a part of the Shabazz children’s education. This is especially important since our history is distorted, marginalized or ignored in the Eurocentric education system. As we deal with the continued attacks and attempts to derail the successful establishment of the African centred school in Toronto we need to remember the words of El Hajj Malik El Shabazz, one of our greatest freedom fighters, and learn from that history as we strategically continue the struggle. “A race of people is like an individual man; 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. I believe that there will be a clash between those who want freedom, justice and equality for everyone and those who want to continue the systems of exploitation.”
Written in February 2008