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Renée Graham

It’s time for a Malcolm X monument, too

Malcolm always understood what the city meant to him; Boston needs to show, prominently and unabashedly, what Malcolm X means to this city.
Malcolm always understood what the city meant to him; Boston needs to show, prominently and unabashedly, what Malcolm X means to this city.(Associated Press/File)

SO, WHEN CAN we expect a Malcolm X monument on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall?

Now that a design has been chosen to honor Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King on Boston Common, it’s time for the city to finally pay tribute to another iconic leader it should extol as one of its own — the civil rights firebrand who, 54 years after his assassination, remains a beacon of social justice and resistance to discrimination and oppression.

In Boston, the Kings met as students — Martin was working on his doctorate at Boston University’s School of Theology and preaching at Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury, while Coretta earned her bachelor’s degree at the New England Conservatory of Music.

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Malcolm’s ties to the city are knotted more tightly and were, by his own telling, transformative. Though he wouldn’t abandon his surname until years later, it was in Massachusetts that Malcolm Little began his journey to Malcolm X. Boston helped birth that giant.

“All praise is due to Allah that I went to Boston when I did,” Malcolm X wrote years later in his acclaimed autobiography.

Born in Omaha in 1925, Malcolm grew up in Wisconsin and Michigan. In his early teens, he spent a few summers in Boston visiting his beloved half-sister, Ella Little-Collins. After she gained legal custody of him, Malcolm moved into her Roxbury home when he was 15.

Malcolm was dazzled by his new city.

“I didn’t know the world contained as many Negroes as I saw thronging downtown Roxbury at night, especially on Saturdays,” he wrote. “Neon lights, nightclubs, poolhalls, bars, the cars they drove! Restaurants made the streets smell — rich, greasy, down-home black cooking! Jukeboxes blared Erskine Hawkins, Duke Ellington, Cootie Williams, dozens of others. If somebody had told me then that some day I’d know them all personally, I’d have found it hard to believe.”

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Overwhelmed by the sounds and sea of people, he explored downtown Boston, astonished that a city would have “two big railroad stations — North Station and South Station.” He took his first subway ride, following a crowd to Cambridge, and walked around Harvard University.

“Historic buildings everywhere I turned, and plaques and markers and statues for famous events and men,” he wrote. “One statue in the Boston Commons [sic] astonished me: a Negro named Crispus Attucks, who had been the first man to fall in the Boston Massacre. I had never known anything like that.”

Imagine the impact today on a child walking up to a statue of Malcolm. It is the up-from-never story of Malcolm’s years in Boston that’s as inspirational as any other aspect of his too-brief life.

Here, he worked menial jobs, but found more freedom and daring in petty crimes. The self-described “hick” transformed into a street hustler. He gambled, sold cocaine, then moved onto burglarizing the homes of rich white people.

That life of crime led to his conviction. Sentenced on seven counts of breaking and entering and larceny, Malcolm Little became Inmate #22843 in the Massachusetts State Prison system. He was 21.

His six years in the old Charlestown State Prison (long closed), Concord Reformatory (now MCI-Concord) and especially Norfolk Prison Colony (MCI-Norfolk) could have ended with an existence marked by intractable criminality. Instead, it’s where his calling began.

Malcolm joined the Norfolk Debating Society, where he honed his oratorical skills. He interacted with instructors from Boston University and Harvard; years later, he would deliver an address to the Harvard Law School Forum. An older inmate encouraged him to read, which he did voraciously.

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And through his siblings, who kept in contact with their incarcerated brother, he first learned the teachings of Islam. After his release, Elijah Muhammad, then leader of the Nation of Islam, assigned him as regional minister of several mosques, including Boston’s Mosque No. 11, whose minaret is one of the most recognizable structures in Roxbury.

Appropriately, that mosque is located on Malcolm X Boulevard. No, the city has not ignored Malcolm. In 1998, his sister’s home on Dale Street in Roxbury was designated a city landmark by the Boston Landmarks Commission.

Yet in a city that reveres its revolutionaries, it has never fully exalted Malcolm as an adopted son. He pushed and cajoled America to look within itself, to find greatness through equality. Of course, some found his message threatening, especially coming from a black man who rejected his surname as a slave name, and reminded a nation founded on white supremacy of the great debt it owed to the descendants of those who built it.

Boston wasn’t just another stop on Malcolm’s road to manhood. It was the city where he first discovered black achievement. He took a wrong turn, but ultimately chose a path of grace and service to his people and his country. A monument marking his significance is long overdue. Malcolm always understood what the city meant to him; Boston needs to show, prominently and unabashedly, what Malcolm X means to this city.

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Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.