Malcolm X said little about dogs, yet his whole message was directly relevant
NEW YORK, N.Y.–– February 21, 2022 will mark the 57th anniversary of the assassination of Afro-American leader Malcolm X at the former Audubon Ballroom in New York City, now preserved as the Malcolm X & Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial & Educational Center.
The life and death of Malcolm X possess overlooked significance for animal advocates, for one reason which should in hindsight be far more evident now than then; but not a reason emerging from the immediate circumstances of his murder.
Nothing to do with Audubon
The Audubon Ballroom was not named after prolific bird shooter and painter John J. Audubon (1785-1851), whose illustrations of more than 700 North American bird species constituting his opus, The Birds of America, were not done from life.
Neither did the Audubon Ballroom have anything to do with the pro-hunting and anti-cat National Audubon Society, founded in 1905 by George Bird Grinnell, John Muir, and T. Gilbert Pearson.
Malcolm X often invoked parables about animal behavior in his speeches, and at times described himself as “an old farm boy” from rural Indiana, who grew up hunting to help feed his family during the Great Depression.
Malcolm X was no animal rights guy, had no known association with any of the determinedly re-segregated humane organizations existing during his adult lifetime, and apparently never had a pet animal of any species.
“If anybody sets a dog on a black man…”
Malcolm X, in short, had no more to do with animal issues than did the building where he was shot 16 times at close range, in front of his wife Betty Shabazz, just as he began an address to a standing-room-only audience of about 400 people.
The best-known Malcolm X quote pertaining to animals was issued on May 10, 1963 at a Washington D.C. rally. Malcolm X spoke then in the political wake of a month of desegregation marches in Birmingham, Alabama, led by Martin Luther King Jr. and Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights founder Fred Shuttleworth.
Hit hard by a fire hose, Shuttleworth was hospitalized. Police dogs injured many other demonstrators.
“I’ll say this,” declared Malcolm X. “If anybody sets a dog on a black man, the black man should kill that dog––whether he is a four-legged dog or a two-legged dog.”
“Chickens coming home to roost”
In that same address, Malcom X emphasized that he did not “preach hatred of white people” and did not regard violence as the way to resolve American racial issues.
But earlier in his career Malcolm X was known for alleging that white people are devils, whom black people should never trust.
Malcolm X later in 1963 was widely denounced for describing as an example of “the chickens coming home to roost” the September 15, 1963 Ku Klux Klan bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, which killed Carol Denise McNair, age 11, and 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson.
Malcolm X also described the November 22, 1963 assassination of U.S. president John F. Kennedy as an example of “the chickens coming home to roost,” and was even more widely denounced for that.
Betty Shabazz was two months’ pregnant with twin girls, Malaak and Malikah, when Malcolm X was assassinated.
Had Malcolm X been able to foresee the life of one of those girls, at least, he might have recognized yet another sad case of “chickens coming home to roost,” and yet another example of white people diabolically misusing black people’s trust.
On November 22, 2021, fifty-eight years to the day after John F. Kennedy was shot during a motorcade in Dallas, Texas, Malikah Savan Shabazz died quietly at her home in the Midwood neighborhood of Brooklyn, apparently from complications of a chronic longterm illness.
Her body was discovered late that afternoon by her daughter Bettih Bahivah Shabazz, 23, granddaughter of Malcolm X.
Some media reports of Malikah Shabazz’s death mentioned that while she had mostly avoided public notice, she appeared to have led a troubled life.
Betty Shabazz, her mother, died at age 61 in 1997 from burns suffered in a fire set by 12-year-old grandson Malcolm Shabazz; Malcom Shabazz, her nephew, was fatally stabbed in a 2013 bar fight in Mexico City.
Feuding with her twin Malaak and another sister over alleged mismanagement of Betty Shabazz’s estate, Malikah Shabazz herself fell under suspicion when some of her father’s writings were offered for sale by Butterfields, a San Francisco auction house.
Fraud & identity theft
Malikah Shabazz contended that she left the papers at a storage facility that sold them when she neglected to pay the rent. The Shabazz estate reacquired the papers for $300,000.
Around a decade after that, in 2011, Malikah Shabazz was convicted of fraud and identity theft for misusing the name of Khaula Bakrof , 70, in a credit card scam.
Malikah Shabazz knew Khaula Bakrof because she was the widow of one of Malcolm X’s most trusted bodyguards, who was with Malcolm X when he was killed.
Malikah Shabazz, ordered to repay credit card debts and court costs of $55,000, had barely completed a five-year probationary sentence when on January 25, 2017 she and her daughter Bettih Shabazz, then 19, were arrested at a WalMart parking lot in La Plata, Charles County, Maryland.
Truckload of pit bulls
They claimed an address in Stark, New Hampshire.
The U-Haul truck in which they were found traveling, licensed in Vermont, had been reported stolen earlier in the day, possibly because a GPS monitor installed on the truck detected that it had been driven beyond the distance it was authorized to travel when rented.
Both Shabazz women were charged with vehicular theft.
The truck’s enclosed cargo area contained seven pit bulls, locked in transport crates and covered with their own waste, according to the arrest report. The New York Post reported that all seven pit bulls were injured. One pit bull had injuries to his face, neck and eyes that reportedly required emergency care.
The facial injuries, suggestive of the pit bull having been in a fight with another pit bull, occasioned suspicion that Malikah and/or Bettih Shabazz were involved in organized dogfighting, but if any evidence of that was ever discovered by the authorities, it was not made public.
Convicted of neglect & abuse
The pit bulls were impounded. Malikah Shabazz was additionally charged with seven misdemeanor counts of animal abuse or neglect, each punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Both Shabazz women were released on bail of $2,000. Malikah Shabazz was reportedly later convicted on all seven animal abuse or neglect counts. Her sentence was not disclosed.
One need not know exactly how Malcolm X felt about dogs in general, or any dog in specific, to know he would have been mightily disappointed in Malikah Shabazz, one of the two daughters he never met, held, or had the opportunity to directly influence.
Malcolm X opposed pointless risk-taking
Malcolm X taught––perhaps more fervently and often than any other prominent American of his time, not just any other Afro-American––against smoking, drinking, using drugs, gambling, fornication, prostitution, petty crime, and anything else he saw as destructive of self, family, community, and society.
Malcolm X preached in particular that Afro-Americans cannot afford to indulge in any form of pointless high-risk behavior, because the struggle for Afro-American rights and freedom is already so dangerous, and so important, that no Afro-American can let himself or herself fall into the many vices he saw as traps set by white people to keep black people from becoming strong enough to rise up and claim their due.
Instruments of white oppression
Malcolm X probably said nothing specific to pit bulls because pit bulls barely existed in Afro-American communities during his lifetime, and for that matter, for nearly 20 years after his death.
Pit bulls and similar dogs, to Afro-Americans before the early 1980s, were almost entirely instruments of white oppression.
This history of oppression began with the use of “Cuban bloodhounds” by slave traders, dogs physically and ancestrally bearing no relationship to those called “bloodhounds” today, but clearly recognizable as the pit bull variants now called Presa Canarios.
Acquired by some of the first U.S. slave masters, for higher prices than were paid for slaves themselves, such dogs were used for the next 246 years to hunt and kill Afro-Americans who dared to flee slavery.
The Proclamation of Emancipation unfortunately changed little pertaining to white use of pit bulls against black people, except that while pit bulls remained the dogs of choice for Ku Klux Klansmen engaging in lynchings, police departments––many of them under Klan control––came to favor German shepherds in the mid-20th century.
This was partly because German shepherds are more safely handled, partly because German shepherds enjoyed a much more favorable public image.
Ku Klux Klan
The Ku Klux Klan, essentially a rural organized crime syndicate, ruled dogfighting, cockfighting, pigeon shoots, rum-running, moonshining, prostitution, and gambling in the South and other enclaves of white supremacy for almost 100 years.
Dogfighting, cockfighting, and pigeon shoots were openly advertised as fundraising events for the quasi-fraternal orders fronting for Klan klaverns, whose lodges were typically speakeasies and gambling dens.
Much of the money thus raised went toward paying off Klan-controlled law enforcement agencies to ignore Klan activities, a custom which persists today, even without currently evident Klan involvement, in the cockfighting strongholds of Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, and the Deep South.
Maintaining control of dogfighting meant maintaining control of pit bulls and pit bull breeding. Mere possession of a pit bull could get a black man lynched––like one Charles Davis, near Dade City, Florida, in April 1926.
Accused of stealing the pit bull, Davis shot and killed the newly deputized storekeeper who first tried to arrest him. Malcolm X would have approved of that.
But Malcolm X would never have approved of how pit bulls––with dogfighting––finally did come into Afro-American communities.
That did not even begin to occur until well after Malcolm X’s lifetime, and the lifetime of Martin Luther King Jr., the time often remembered today as “the civil rights era,” as if winning and keeping civil rights were not of urgent concern to thinking Afro-Americans at all times both before and afterward.
That time could accurately be described, however, as “the integration era,” when Klansmen terrorized neighborhoods undergoing racial desegregation by releasing pit bulls out of the backs of panel vans and pickup trucks to attack anyone of dark skin until whistled back at the first sound of approaching sirens.
This tactic, unfortunately, never disappeared, even after Klansmen mostly quit parading in public in their bedsheets. The so-called “white dog” tactic is known to have been used in the U.S. as recently as January 2019, and was seen in Calgary, Alberta––reputedly the most pit bull-friendly city in Canada––in 2009, where two elderly men and two female children were mauled in a series of apparently racially motivated incidents.
From bedsheets to bike gangs
As overt racism became less and less respectable, along with cruelty to animals, Klan activities never stopped, but mostly became more discreet.
By the 1970s, as the Klan itself faded from visibility, Klan control of dogfighting weakened. The Klan itself largely morphed into motorcycle gangs and skinheads.
Younger generations of racists fled to the west and Pacific Northwest, pursuing twisted dreams of building a white supremacist empire that would stretch from Utah to Alaska.
Instead of moonshining, they cooked meth and grew marijuana. Instead of bedsheets, they wore tattoos.
But they took pit bulls with them to guard their cooks and their grows, and took dogfighting with them as a gambling adjunct to other criminality.
Pit bulls and dogfighting then infiltrated Afro-American neighborhoods through prison gangs.
No real wizards
Had the Grand Imperial Wizards of the Ku Klux Klan when the Klan was at its visible peak schemed to leave a deadly legacy doing the maximum possible damage to Afro-Americans, they could not have concocted a more diabolical plot––a plot Malcolm X might well have seen through and denounced before it achieved even a fraction of the mayhem it has.
With the proceeds from dogfighting in decline for generations during the mid-20th century, there was no longer any reason for the Klan to keep it as an exclusive franchise.
Unleashing pit bulls amid crowded housing projects and multi-family small frame houses full of small children, however, was a surefire way to kill and maim many more black children, faster, than the Birmingham bombers ever dreamed of.
But the Grand Imperial Wizards of the Ku Klux Klan were never really wizards at all. There was no big plot to what they did.
The Klan could not have anticipated that pit bulls rehomed by humane societies would kill more black children from 2010 to the present than were killed by all dog attacks combined from 1930 to 1960, the last thirty years of the time the Klan controlled dogfighting and itself actively used pit bulls to intimidate Afro-Americans.
Humane societies re-segregated
Through the work of American Humane Education Society representatives William Key, John W. Lemon, father and son Richard and Seymour Carroll, & Frederick Rivers Barnwell, humane work was probably the best integrated and racially tolerant aspect of U.S. culture by 1925, when Malcolm X was born.
The American Humane Association, then the only national animal advocacy group, was outspokenly opposed to the Ku Klux Klan, lynchings, and the forced sterilization of orphaned Afro-American girls advocated by “progressive” organizations in the name of eugenics.
Only twenty years later, through the influence of Eric Hansen, who rose to head the American Humane Association from 1937 to 1942, and then headed the Massachusetts SPCA and the American Humane Education Society from 1942 until his death in 1965, the U.S. humane sector was re-segregated.
From 1945 until three years after Hansen died, there were no Afro-Americans in major humane organization leadership positions. There are still fewer than could sit at a lunch counter.
(See Black humane history found in great-grandpa’s attic near a town called Ark and A black-and-white issue that the humane community has yet to face.)
More “chickens coming home to roost”
Malcolm X, unlike Martin Luther King Jr. and most of the other major Afro-American leaders of his time, was not an advocate of racial integration. Malcolm X, rather, believed that Afro-Americans should build their own strong social, civic, and charitable institutions.
Malcolm X therefore might not have cared that the white-led humane sector had re-segregated.
Further, Malcolm X would likely have seen “chickens coming home to roost” in the often blatantly racist misuse by “humane” organizations of terminology stolen from the civil rights movement to be applied in defense of pit bulls, beginning with the phrase “canine racism.”
Malcolm X would have been deeply offended by the co-option of the phrase “Black lives matter” into “Black dogs matter,” and other phrases of similar meaning, as part of efforts to rehome more hard-to-place black dogs and cats.
Such phrases belonged originally to people with a history of being dehumanized, described as animals, and often treated worse than dogs and cats, sometimes worse than livestock.
Most of all, though, Malcolm X would have been furious that much and perhaps most of the U.S. humane movement today is part-and-parcel of advancing pit bull proliferation, including among Afro-Americans, to the point that relative to numbers, a black child is today about three times more likely than a white child to be killed by a pit bull.
Malcolm X would have seen what he called “white deviltry” behind how pit bull attacks, pit bull neglect, violent abuse of pit bulls, and misuse of pit bulls in dogfighting all have since the 1990s come to be associated in popular culture and the public imagination, black and white, with inner city “gangbangers.”
Reality is that all of these offenses to animals and humanity continue to occur most often in mostly white low-income neighborhoods, committed by white people.
Malcolm X would have grieved for his daughter Malikah Shabazz as one of the victims.