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MALCOLM X hats are everywhere. Youths born long after the death of the black nationalist leader in 1965 wear the X hat. Middle-aged men who may not have supported him when he was living wear the hat.

Much of this can be attributed to the eager anticipation of Spike Lee's movie on Malcolm, slated for release by the end of the year, as well as the frequent use of segments of Malcolm's speeches by rap groups. But there is a deeper reason why Malcolm X has re-emerged as the symbol of forceful black leadership.

When he was alive, Malcolm X frightened much of white America and a large portion of black America. For whites, Malcolm represented race hate and violence, despite the fact that he was never involved in any physical attacks on white people. He merely pointed out the fact that the history of race relations in the country is filled with examples of white violence against African Americans. Many black opponents of Malcolm feared that his uncompromising stands would undermine the progress they perceived was being made through the more conciliatory approach of the nonviolent civil rights movement.

In 1992, Malcolm X has more supporters than he ever did when he was alive because he is seen as a prophetic figure who represents the suffering and triumph of blacks in America. He suffered from white hate violence at a young age when the Ku Klux Klan burned his family home. Later, whites murdered his father. He was taught self-hatred by his teachers. He dropped out of school, became a criminal and found redemption in prison through the teachings of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. Later, he broke with the group and became an international revolutionary figure. He was only 39 when he died.

In the current climate, Malcolm X seems more and more a seer. With racial animosity exacerbated by debates over affirmative action and the sagging economy wreaking havoc on many families, the atmosphere is heavy with anger. The Los Angeles riots showed that people left in despair in the midst of wealth will not suffer indefinitely without rising up. Malcolm X had said that the progress in race relations that many thought they saw in the early '60s was illusory.

Malcolm's rise from hate-filled convict to family man and crusader for moral and political reform makes him a figure to be admired, if not emulated, by young black males looking for heroes. He has a credibility with urban youths that "square" traditional black leaders can never have.

I was in Georgetown in February and happened to pass a bookstore. In its Black History Month display it featured "The Autobiography of Malcolm X." The book is a classic of American literature and continues to sell well nearly three decades after its publication. I see young people reading it on the bus and in the parks. The bravery and oratorical skill of the man whose birthday we celebrate today make current black leaders seem tepid by comparison.

R.B. Jones is editor of the Baltimore Times.

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