By Mark Hallum
Rev. Al Sharpton’s weekly rally in Harlem brought to the podium a senior at Christ the King High School in Middle Village who was told he could not put the name Malcolm X on a school sweatshirt.
Malcolm Xavier Combs said he was told by a staff member he should not be “associated with that name” when he ordered the shirt through the school to have his first name and middle initial printed on the back because of the perception that the civil rights leader endorsed terrorism.
“I was in AP English when I was called down to the office,” Combs said of his interaction with Assistant Principal Veronica Arbitello “They told me to wait in the office. Once she got there, she told me she could not put my name on the sweater. She said I did not want to be associated with that name. She asked me if that was my real name and I said yes… Her husband walked into the office and she said, ‘This is the new Malcolm X,’ and she laughed at me… I was silent the whole time because I was in shock that in this year that she would say something like that.’”
But Christ the King’s chairman of the board, Serphin Maltese, who once served as state senator in the district now represented by Sen. Joseph Addabbo (D-Howard Beach), claimed the order form for sweaters only allowed for first and last names, and sometimes nicknames. He said this had been misconstrued by the family and in media reports.
“The recent articles about one of our students and Malcolm X has, unfortunately, been taken out of context and has been misconstrued,” Maltese said. “When this student’s family raised the issue about the name he wished on the sweatshirt, the school readily agreed to meet and discuss the matter. Unfortunately, before that meeting took place, this became a media issue.”
He also said the school places a high priority on educating its students on Malcolm X as well as other African-American leaders.
Combs stood on stage at the National Action Network on 145th Street with his parents and Ilyasah Shabazz, the daughter of Malcolm X, where they confronted the perception that the civil rights leader was a terrorist.
The notion of Malcolm X as a terrorist stemmed from a fiery speech given days before his Feb. 21, 1965 assassination in Washington Heights in which he condoned black retribution against hate groups and bigots such as the Ku Klux Klan, according to news reports at the time.
“A teacher said, ‘You cannot use that name. Why would you use a role model like Malcolm X?’” Sharpton said. “First of all, before you can get to the insult, Malcolm is his name. So the first violation is you’re asking him to deny his name. Secondly, his mama and daddy gave him that name, and no school has the right to disregard or disrespect the decision of parents. You wouldn’t do that to other parents and you’re not going to do that to black parents in our communities… It’s about respecting the identity of this child and it’s about respecting his parents.”
Sharpton said he had sent one of the ministers from his network to speak to the school, which had not been receptive to discussing the matter and refuted the perception Malcolm X was a terrorist.
“Malcolm represented the ability to redeem and build and we found our pride and manhood in him, because he proved we can be broken and put back together again,” Sharpton said.
The mother of the 17-year-old, Mychelle Combs, said the school made no attempt to involve the parents and when Combs’ father went to the school to speak to the assistant principal, he was told she was out to lunch and he would need an appointment.
“No school should do anything to a child and the parent can’t address it that day,” Mychelle Combs said. “Christ the King, you made it a media issue when you messed with our son… Malcolm X is not controversial, but Christ the King, your administration is.”
Shabazz told the story about how her father was gunned down in front of his wife and children in 1965.
“My mother made certain she kept my father’s humanity, his love, compassion and impeccable integrity very integral in our household,” Shabazz, who was born in Queens, said. “Less than 55 years ago, mass lynchings in our communities across the nation were rampant. Men, women and children were strung up and hung on tree limbs… My young father came along and said, just in his 20s, we demand our human rights as your brother, we demand our human rights ordained by God for all people. He was fearless because he loved us and our humanity… We must come together and ensure our educational curriculum is inclusive of historical facts.”
Shabazz said teachers need cultural sensitivity training in a city school system heavily populated with children from different ethnicities and praised Combs for speaking out.
Rev. Kevin McCall, the crisis director of National Action Network, said he attended a meeting at the school following the incident where he claimed to be unwelcome during an attempt to allegedly “sweep this under the rug.”
Sharpton pointed out that February is Black History Month and that the incident indicated educators needed a better understanding of African-American leaders and that Malcolm X himself was victim of terrorism.
Reach reporter Mark Hallum by e-mail at mhall