Prolific civil and human rights activist Malcolm X, aka El Hajj Malik El Shabazz, was assassinated in 1965. To this day, a loyal group of followers and students of his make a pilgrimage to his gravesite in upstate New York on his birthday to honor his legacy.
It’s been unofficially dubbed in the Harlem community as Malcolm X Day and has continued for almost 60 years, even through the pandemic, said attendees. It was first organized by the Organization of Afro-American Unity (O.A.A.U.) members: Dr. Leonard Jeffries, Dr. James Small, and Ella Collins, the sister of Malcolm X.
“Reparations are long overdue,” said Councilmember Kristin Richardson Jordan at the gravesite.
Every year the group gathers on the corner of 125th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard. They piled into a bus and drove upstate to the famed Ferncliff Cemetery and Mausoleum, where X and his wife are buried, in Hartsdale, NY. Jordan’s office helped cover traveling expenses and arranged free transportation for those who couldn’t afford to make the trip on their own.
“It’s about a sense of community. Sense of pride for the sacrifice of the fallen,” said Garifuna drum instructor Alex Kwabena Colon-Olaniyan, 55. He said that he has taken the ride to the gravesite every year since his time attending City College in 1986.
For a few passengers, like Shatema Williams, an education advocate that created TheSchoolGirl LLC, this year was their first time taking the trip. There was also a fresh caravan of young students on a field trip from East New York Middle School of Excellence, a school whose principal is directly related to Small.
“For one day, out of the year we come to pay respects to the symbol of what all of us are trying to be. Dedicated human being to human rights and other human beings,” said Small.
The route to the gravesite was lively and scenic, filled with views of the river and trees tucked into the cliffside. As the bus arrived, it was easy to spot the ever-growing crowd at the cemetery. The place was well manicured and a lush green, but still unassuming considering its reputation for housing famously dead people. A ways from the entrance, laid a simple plaque embedded in the grass with a few plants on top that marked X’s grave.
In all, there were about 200 people at this year’s memorial service.
Small and the brothers, as they call themselves, organized the attendees and performed a number of traditional ceremonies on top of the grave. These Sons of Africa did their usual rolling and unfurling of the Pan-African flag, placed stools to symbolize X and Dr. Betty Shabazz at the plaque, and had eight young men dress in white robes to silently encircle the grave. Elders sat in chairs. Kids crowded the grounds. Others stood close by.
“An element of white means life,” said High Priest Babalawo Ifakunle, “It honors the ancestors.”
Ifakunle said a few words, recited from the Koran, and poured libations. Afterwards several spoke about the complex impact X left behind and about passing the torch onto the next generation.
After the rituals were completed, most of the group returned to the 125th Street main corridor in Harlem for the annual Shut ‘Em Down Boycott and March, which is a Black Power memoriam for Malcolm X that demands that for three hours businesses shutter their store fronts.
Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about politics for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting https://bit.ly/amnews1.