An ABC documentary report released on February 3rd concerning the assassination of Malcolm X—and the exoneration, 55 years after the fact, of the Black men convicted for it—reminded me of his importance to Black Catholic identity.
Yes, you read that right: Malcolm X should be seen as an inspiration and a hero to Black Catholics.
I am not the first to think so. Servant of God Thea Bowman once said:
“Let’s remember the ones who brought us this far, in faith, who led us and fed us in faith: St Simon of Cyrene and the Ethiopian eunuch, Anthony of Egypt… Malcolm X…”
(Black History and Culture, 1988)
Now, some of you may be thinking: Why is Malcolm X on this list? Wasn’t he a Muslim? What does he have to do with being Black and Catholic?
Well, to be fully Catholic is to love Black people. And very few people loved Black people more than Malcolm X. Moreover, he taught us to be unapologetic about loving ourselves—about the essential need for self-esteem in our material and spiritual flourishing. His lessons on this point cannot go unstudied by anyone who seeks to understand what it means to be Black and Catholic.
Sister Thea once noted that:
“A disproportionate number of our men are dying of suicide and AIDS and drug abuse, and low self-esteem.”
This is also a lesson recently echoed by Pope Francis in his latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti:
“Destroying self-esteem is an easy way to dominate others. Behind these trends that tend to level our world, there flourish powerful interests that take advantage of such low self-esteem, while attempting, through the media and networks, to create a new culture in the service of the elite.”
Malcolm X had a keen sense of how White Supremacy sought to destroy the self-esteem of Black people. One place he saw its destructive effects was in the Catholic Church.
He understood that the Church, at its foundations, was formed and organized by Black people, writing in his autobiography that:
“You can go right back to the very beginning of Christianity. Catholicism, the genesis of Christianity as we know it to be presently constituted, with its hierarchy, was conceived in Africa—by those whom the Christian Church calls ‘The Desert Fathers.’”
(The Autobiography of Malcolm X, p. 424)
Indeed, the Church recognizes Saint Anthony the Great, mentioned above by Sister Thea, as the father of monasticism.
But, despite this deep connection to Africa, the Church in the Americas has continued to facilitate and participate in White Supremacy. Malcolm X artfully made this point concerning the life of one of his contemporaries, the Black Catholic boxer Floyd Patterson.
Malcolm recounted that in 1965, Patterson announced, “as a Catholic, he wanted to fight Cassius Clay [aka Muhammad Ali] to save the heavyweight crown from being held a Muslim.”
The irony, of course, was that the Muslim faith of some Africans was the very justification used by White Catholics to justify their dehumanization in the early Transatlantic Slave Trade. Patterson was echoing and putting his talents at the service of an ideology that furthered White Supremacy.
What followed in his life highlights the way he had deluded himself. Three weeks after losing to Ali by technical knockout, it was reported that Patterson was selling his home in Yonkers, New York “for a $20,000 loss”.
Moreover, Yonkers was a White Catholic stronghold. Patterson was facing racial abuse from his own co-religionists.
His children had been called “n****rs,”, another neighbor “trained his dog to deface Patterson’s property,” and another built a fence to avoid seeing Black people.
Or, in Patterson’s words: “I tried. It just didn’t work.”
Patterson aside, how could a Church whose very foundations were laid by Black people behave in this way? The answer, of course, is that it had been captured by White Supremacy.
The only way for a Black Catholic to avoid participating in their own self-destruction in the Church is to insist on being Black and Catholic. Indeed, when we consider the history of our faith, it’s clear that to be deep in Black history is to be authentically and traditionally Catholic.
What this means is that the embrace of White Supremacy by the Church is actually a turning away from its evangelical mission and its Christian roots. A movement so anti-Gospel that it caused the child of a Baptist minister, Malcolm X, to reject Christianity entirely.
This is why Sister Thea insisted that Black Catholics come to Church “fully functioning”. Any other kind of faith life would be anti-faith—contrary to truth.
This is the lesson of Malcolm X. This is why he should be counted among those who taught us in the faith. He taught us that Black lives matter. He taught that self-esteem and a sense of self-worth were crucial in the freedom of Black people, as echoed by Pope Francis and Sister Thea.
Significantly, Malcolm also pointed out that the Church cannot be true to itself, to the Spirit it received from Christ, if it does not embrace the gift of Blackness, just like Pope St John Paul II said in New Orleans in 1987:
“Dear brothers and sisters: your black cultural heritage enriches the Church and makes her witness of universality more complete. In a real way, the Church needs you, just as you need the Church, for you are part of the Church and the Church is part of you.”
Sister Thea had it right when she counted Malcolm X as a faith leader, because his love of Black people was a reflection of the Gospel.
We need to live that Gospel message out—by any means necessary.
Gunnar Gundersen is an attorney in Newport Beach, CA. He serves in his parish council and choir, is a published essayist, and regularly lectures on natural law and the American Founding. He is also the first Ordinariate member of the Knights of Peter Claver. Follow him on Twitter at @GBGundersen.