Fifty years after Malcolm X’s assassination, what he and Martin Luther King fought for is under attack. We can honour their legacy by completing their mission

Malcolm X circa 1962
 Malcolm X speaking to a rally of African American Muslims in Washington, circa 1962. Photograph: Richard Saunders/Getty Images

When Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965 – 50 years ago on Saturday – I was an activist in the civil rights movement of Martin Luther King, a man of peace who led the nonviolent protests that brought down segregation in America, and ushered in the civil rights and voting rights acts.

Malcolm was seen as a militant who saw violence as an appropriate response to the oppression of black people. “Freedom by any means necessary” was his most famous slogan.

I did not always agree with Malcolm X, specifically his critiques of Dr King and of the philosophy of nonviolent resistance. But I have always admired Malcolm the man. He was a giant: his courage pierced the darkness of racism. And his life story is still an inspiration.

I first heard of Malcolm through the reporting of Louis Lomax, a black New York journalist, whose documentary The Hate that Hate Produced brought Malcolm’s organisation, the Nation of Islam, to national attention in 1959. Through Lomax’s other writings I learned of Malcolm’s story: a young man born in Nebraska whose father was murdered by suspected white racists when he was six; whose mother, unable to cope with raising seven children alone, had them taken away from her, and was eventually committed to a mental institution.

At school, despite his sharp mind, Malcolm was laughed at by teachers when he said he wanted to be a lawyer. Without his parents to guide him, he turned to a life of crime in New York and Boston, where he was eventually caught and served six years in prison for larceny, and breaking and entering. But this proved his salvation. He turned his cell into a classroom, and jail became his temple, as he began to read voraciously and discovered Islam. He realised the emptiness of his previous life and turned his back on it for good.

I was so intrigued on hearing of him that I drove to New York to see the man, but he was out of town so I never got to meet him. Above all, I was inspired by his capacity to debate and sharpness of mind. He was a true believer: his message was international, and he travelled to Europe, Africa and the Middle East in order to spread his message of setting black people free.

Both Malcolm and King were firebrands. And both were disciplined organisers of people. Malcolm was able to channel the anger of a crowd into action, but then to ensure they did not descend into violence. As one New York police officer said on witnessing his crowd control: “This is too much power for one man to have.” And as some observers at the time said, Malcolm X was the only black man who could either start a race riot, or stop one.

In fact, though to many they seemed opposites, Malcolm was inspired by King. He was fascinated by the impact of the civil rights movement; he even came to Selmashortly before his assassination, to offer his support for the protesters being beaten by police over their demands for black people’s right to vote.

King, rooted in the heart of the hateful segregated south, had the capacity to organise mass protest on a far greater scale than Malcolm. He brought together churches, students, and the old and young of all races. But Malcolm never stopped growing; never stopped learning; never stopped changing. Disillusioned with the Nation of Islam, he set out on a new path – taking the pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964. He realised that, though strong language is necessary, it cannot on its own change society. He rejected previous belief that “whites are the devil” and embraced the value of making alliances and the need for multiracial and multicultural coalitions.

King’s tactics changed laws on voting and segregation – achievements Malcolm could never claim; and in the end he began to appreciate this. Perhaps if Malcolm and Dr King were to have lived on, they would have become powerful partners in the fight for economic justice and racial equality.

King was defiant like Malcolm, but nonviolent too, in the tradition of Gandhi – the belief in the ultimate strength and power of nonviolent resistance that empowers you with the ability to resolve conflict and create change. Not only that, but in the US violence is simply not a credible tactic when the state so overwhelmingly outguns you.

And the same applies today. In recent months and years, from Florida to Ferguson, we’ve heard the tragic stories of black men and boys killed by state forces or vigilantes, with seemingly no sense of justice. Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice are just some of the better-known victims.

At times like this, some people look to Malcolm X and say violence is the way to fight back. But that’s not the way forward; as Dr King showed, the most awesome power is the power of love.

It is undeniable that Malcolm was a beacon of huge strength in his lifetime. He could connect with swaths of people when others could not. He dedicated his life to lifting up the black masses, for fighting uncompromisingly for dignity, respect and self-respect. His life on the streets gave him a credibility many others could not match, and his story of redemption through faith is an inspiration.

Fifty years on, his courage and his non-negotiable dignity still stand out. And it remains a huge regret that both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were shot down by assassins’ bullets before either could fulfil his mission.

But the movement lives on beyond the bullets. Much of what Malcolm and King fought for is under attack. We can honour the legacy of both men by continuing to organise and to complete the unfinished business of our time.