Mural, detail, Grand River Ave. at Lahser Street, Detroit, 2018. Camilo José Vergara

Thirty years ago, his likeness could be found in many poor, minority communities. Today, these images are disappearing as the buildings they were painted on have either collapsed or have been demolished.

Minister and civil rights icon Malcolm X would have turned 93 years old this weekend. The version of him I know best is the one portrayed in the ‘hood.

Thirty years ago, the likeness of three great black leaders, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Nelson Mandela, were popular in poor, minority communities. Later, it was just King and Obama. Now, only MLK leads the black pantheon.

MLK Jr. and Malcolm X mural on a private home, Palmer St. at Bulls Rd., Compton, CA., 1998. (Camilo José Vergara)

Earlier this month at Harlem’s Showman’s Club, I got in a conversation about Malcolm X. As I showed some of the patrons the murals I had photographed with my Nikon 800 and stored in my phone, I argued that he was portrayed as righteous and angry. A woman corrected me, saying he looked serious. She attributed his waning popularity to his Muslim faith and his militant attitude. She then explained that there aren’t many Muslims in the U.S., while King was a Baptist—America’s largest Protestant denomination. A former New York City policeman deflected the conversation to Malcolm X’s 1965 assassination and his bodyguard—also a former policeman whom this man knew. My efforts to get them to speak about his present relevance failed.

Mural of Malcolm X and MLK Jr. "African Amalgamation of Ubiquity," by Curtis Lewis, on the side wall of Operation Get Down, a drug rehabilitation center, 9980 Gratiot  Avenue, Detroit, 2008. (Camilo José Vergara)

In the 1980s, Malcolm X’s likeness was depicted in murals on the walls of urban drug rehabilitation centers where a strong motivational presence was needed. One of these was the now abandoned Operation Get Down in a former bank on Gratiot Avenue in Detroit. During this same period, muralists working in drug corners in Chicago had to listen to the suggestions of the gangs that favored Malcolm X over MLK, lest their murals be defaced.

Farmer's Food Market, Drexel Ave. at 63rd St., Chicago, 2009, RK Design. (Camilo José Vergara)

Malcolm X was portrayed with Rosa Parks in Chicago, with Cambodian divinities and Pancho Villa in Oakland, and with longtime mayor Coleman Young in Detroit. In Los Angeles and Oakland, Latino sign painters depict his likeness with Latino features. Most of these images have disappeared as the buildings they were painted on have either collapsed or have been demolished. As the remaining portraits fade, Malcolm X’s skin color turns lighter and grayer with time.

4826 S. Central Ave., MLK and Malcolm, Los Angeles, 2018. (Camilo José Vergara)

Every once in a while, Malcolm X will still appear in a new mural. Earlier this year in Detroit, I photographed his face as seen on a recently painted mural titled “Be A Man.” In it, he’s placed next to a pyramid and a figure riding a camel. A mosque can be seen in the background. One side of the eyeglasses on his face shows the KKK, the other raised fists and black faces yelling.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Transportation

    What Happens When a City Tries to End Traffic Deaths

    Several years into a ten-year “Vision Zero” target, some cities that took on a radical safety challenge are seeing traffic fatalities go up.

  2. photo: Chris Burden's "Urban Light," installed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, features several of L.A.'s historic streetlight styles.
    Design

    The Future of the Streetlight Might Be in the Past

    A new competition from the L.A. mayor’s office invites designers to reimagine the rich history of civic illumination and create next-generation streetlights.

  3. photo: a WeWork office
    Equity

    Amid Layoffs, WeWork’s Other Workers Are Making a Stand

    The co-working giant is letting 2,400 employees go and outsourcing 1,000 cleaning and facilities jobs as part of a company-wide belt-tightening.

  4. photo: A Starship Technologies commercial delivery robot navigates a sidewalk.
    POV

    My Fight With a Sidewalk Robot

    A life-threatening encounter with AI technology convinced me that the needs of people with disabilities need to be engineered into our autonomous future.

  5. A photo of a police officer in El Paso, Texas.
    Equity

    What New Research Says About Race and Police Shootings

    Two new studies have revived the long-running debate over how police respond to white criminal suspects versus African Americans.

×