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'If You Don't Stand for Something, You'll Fall for Anything'

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Lessons for young people, from the life of Malcolm X - by Kanja Sesay, Usman Ali and Nabil Ahmed

In December 1964 Malcolm X walked into a Manchester mosque and took off his shoes. On his way out, he struggled to find them amongst the hotchpotch of footwear that lay between him and the door. The man who eventually found the black size 14s later said, 'We found that they had huge holes in them.' Though hole-ridden shoes would act as a source of embarrassment for political figures today, this only served to confirm Malcolm X's simplicity and proximity to the poor and needy he tried to serve.

His rare combination of magnetism and modesty was seen at the University of Manchester where he addressed students as part of a whistle-stop tour of British Universities with the national Muslim student body FOSIS, which saw him also speak at Oxford and Sheffield. Rather than sleep overnight in a hotel, he stayed with the students that were hosting him and gave a "historical survey of slavery and the Black situation" which was packed an hour before it even started. Anna Ford, who attended and later became Manchester University's Student Union President, commented how Malcolm X "was highly intelligent and charismatic and made a lot of sense to students passionate about racial equality."

Civic and political figures often become contemplative creatures after completing their terms in office. This is no different for us student activists. At a time when young people in Britain face the biggest challenges in a generation, we believe that the life of Malcolm X provides crucial lessons to inspire the leadership we need today.

But it would be untypical to find the teaching of racial supremacy or the selling of drugs on a role model's resumé. Malcolm X's strength of character allowed him to disavow his racial views and emerge as an unrelenting fighter for human rights and leading intellect of his generation. In fact, many socialists, black nationalists and civil rights activists alike, now jostle to lay claim to his legacy; even Barack Obama mentioned his biography as offering "something different", praising his "insistence on respect", and describing how his "repeated acts of self-creation spoke to me."

It was in the 1960s that Martin Luther King dreamt of racial equality, Muhammad Ali fought for civil rights, and Malcolm X empowered the black masses, all to the ire of many. Though there has been some progress, fifty years on the world is still stifled by inequality; Britain is no exception. Today this country is a place where the top 10% are one-hundred times richer than the bottom 10%; and where just 16% of pupils eligible for free school meals progress to university compared to 96% from independent schools. One thing has certainly changed since those times - as the ruling elite prices the poor out of education, most of us watch on and do little, if anything at all.

Malcolm X transformed a community that was exploited and gave it self-respect, made it one that was feared. Young people in this country have taken a bruising in recent years but as we regroup we think there are four crucial lessons from the life of Malcolm X which we need to embody today.

The first is his humility and selflessness. Malcolm notably for example once exclaimed how the white man was the devil, yet later in his life despite his popularity realised that he had been wrong. Malcolm X would speak with utter conviction, but this did not stop him from seeking the truth. We must question, are we so hung up on our egos that it blinds our quest of truth? That humility is deeply entrenched in his selflessness. With little or no money in his pocket, he was not a careerist-politician or thirsty-for-power, rather only justice for his communities and truth. In fact, his disregard for material comforts made him only stronger in the face of powerful elites.

The second is that Malcolm X had authentic grassroots credibility. He knew the streets and he stood for them; his people trusted him because he was transparent - they knew that he was always on their side. In Summer 1964 when a riot broke out, he wrote "I got up on top of a car, telling them to quiet down. They did quiet, and then I asked them to disperse - and they did". If a young leader does not understand the mood of young people, or doesn't command their respect in the worst of times, then in reality he or she is not their leader.

The third is that Malcolm X made us proud of who we are and destroyed the labels that were thrown at his people, unapologetically. We should realize that labels and slurs are a tool to make us apathetic and to discourage us - remember how the media slurred students in November 2010, or how innocent Muslims have been labeled as extremists in a fear-fuelled post-7/7 climate. In particular today, the government's Prevent programme - which led to the spying of innocent Muslims on campus - is an outcry, and should be dismantled. Prevent doesn't stop terrorists - but it does prevent dissent.

Finally, it may be surprising that three very different people are writing this article, but it is upon principles that people like Malcolm gave us we are united; young people need not superficial but substantial unity. Malcolm in his pilgrimage to Makkah recounted how he ate, drank and prayed with others from all backgrounds, including "whose eyes were the bluest of blue, whose hair was the blondest of blond". By the end of his life his struggle united people from all walks of life - when the message of Malcolm X became universal was the point at which it was at it's most powerful.

We know Malcolm X by his later name, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. Nine days prior to his death he visited students again in Britain, and was shot wearing the same clothes at the Audubon Ballroom. His legacy cannot be restricted to the events of the past; the time for reviving El-Hajj Malik's universal example should begin now.

Kanja Ibrahim Sesay works in the education sector with a keen interest on BME attainment, and is well known as a campaigner in the anti-racism movement. He was formerly Black Students' Officer for the National Union of Students (NUS), the largest organisation of black students in Europe.

Nabil Ahmed is a community activist, works in international development and completed his post recently as President of FOSIS (the national Muslim student body in the UK and Ireland).
Follow on Twitter: https://twitter.com/nabilslahmed

Usman Ali is currently is an advisor on external relations and is an active grassroots campaigner, with a passion for access to education and raising aspirations. He was formerly the first Muslim elected as Vice President (Higher Education) of the National Union of Students (NUS)
Follow on Twitter: https://twitter.com/UsmanAli1984

Original post on the European Muslim Youth Organisation FEMYSO