Something important happened on May 19, 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska. A great American was born. Yet, today there is little physical evidence to support this thesis.
Many famous men have been born in Nebraska–Johnny Carson, Marlon Brando, Gerald Ford, Fred Astaire, Henry Fonda, Gale Sayers, Nick Nolte, and Darryl Zannuck to name a few–but have any, other than Malcolm X, left a legacy as rich? All these men, but one were entertainers, and thus their contributions relatively frivolous, no matter the extent of their fame and fortunes. The one political man, Gerald Ford, though President of the United States was never elected to that office. Suffice it to say, Malcolm Little, a.k.a. Malcolm X, and after his pilgrimage to Mecca, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz was the greatest political figure ever born in the state of Nebraska. This fact makes it all the more difficult to accept the empty lot in north Omaha where he was born.
I set out one cold Saturday afternoon in March for a learning experience, and I suppose the disappointment I felt at 34th and Pinkney was indeed educational. I learned that I had foolishly brought expectations to a neighborhood that long ago let them go. I suppose I felt there ought to be a reward waiting for me. After all, did I not risk my personal safety as well as my property venturing into this cold, dark place? For certain, few friends and family have made, or would make, this journey. Even if they possessed the interest to do so, fear of being hijacked at gunpoint or picked off in a drive-by shooting makes the prospect questionable, at best.
Perhaps it is this very confronting of fears that prevents Omaha from erecting a suitable shrine to Malcolm X. For white Omahans would surely be confronted with the ugly facts that led to the removal of the Little family from their home, and the state. The fact that some of our white forefathers were members of the Ku Klux Klan could not be ignored, nor conveniently forgotten. Nor could the reality that the black nationalist minister, Earl Little, and his family fled Omaha under intimidation from that hateful organization. In other words, it’s easier to overlook Malcolm’s importance to the nation, than it is to confront our own ancestors’ racism and quite possibly the presence of racism, latent or active, among the white population today.
The next logical question has to be, “Why doesn’t black Omaha build a monument to Malcolm X?” Social critic, Cornel West, may be able to help answer this question. A monument takes money and that means the duty would necessarily fall on the shoulders of the black professional, or middle class and Malcolm X has never been their go-to-guy. In his essay, “Malcolm X and Black Rage,” West contends that black professionals have photos of Martin Luther King, Jr. hanging in their offices, but keep Malcolm X as a skeleton dangling in their closets. (97) Why? Because they identify more closely with wealth, status, and prestige–all constructs of white Euro-centric America–than they do with Black Nationalism. In other words, the black middle class believes in, and practices, racial and economic integration.
Omaha is currently experiencing something of an inner city revival. New skyscrapers are going up, new luxury hotels, new corporate headquarters, and interest in developing the riverfront is palpable. Now is the time for Omaha to honor a native son known to thinking people the world over. Efforts are underway in Lansing, Michigan and Roxbury, Massachusetts–the other towns of Malcolm’s childhood–to preserve his legacy. Now it’s Omaha’s turn to do the right thing.
West, Cornel. “Malcolm X and Black Rage.” Race Matters. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993. 95-105.
©2001 David Burn Some rights reserved