Malcolm X loses Nebraska Hall of Fame vote to botanist, 3rd Ld-Writethru, NE
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) _ To many, his name was by far the most recognizable on the list of seven nominees to the Nebraska Hall of Fame: Malcolm X.
But that didn’t convince a state commission Tuesday that a bust of the Omaha native and Civil Rights leader should be in the state Capitol.
The Nebraska Hall of Fame Commission chose little-known botanist Charles Bessey as the next hall-of-fame inductee, three years after Malcolm X was passed over for a U.S. senator who helped remove homosexuals from government posts in the 1940′s and 1950′s. The pick of Sen. Kenneth Wherry was later nixed because of an open-meetings violation.
The five members of the commission said they were impressed with Bessey’s pioneering scientific work, including in prairie ecology, and the fact he did much of his work in Nebraska.
Commission chairman Harold Andersen said Malcolm X was born in Omaha but, “as far as I’m concerned, never looked back at Nebraska.”
Other members expressed the same concerns, and Andersen said Malcolm X supported racial separatism for years.
Ernie Chambers, the state’s only black legislator, said the decision demonstrated the need for diversity on the commission. All five members who voted Tuesday are white men.
“It’s an insult to everybody who is not old, white and male,” Chambers said of both the commission and its decision.
Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little in Omaha in 1925, the son of a Baptist preacher. His family left for Milwaukee in 1926.
As an adult, Malcolm emerged as a fiery Nation of Islam minister with a new name and a message that blacks should cast off white oppression “by any means necessary.” In 1964, he split from the Nation of Islam, and after an Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, he renounced racial separatism. His new direction angered some Black Muslims — and led to his murder during a speech.
During hearings across the state on the seven nominees for the hall, Malcolm X garnered the most support, said Sharif Liwaru, who said he attended all the hearings and is president of the Omaha-based Malcolm X Memorial Foundation.
“I’m not disappointed in the selection of Bessey,” Liwaru said. “But I am disappointed everyone recognizes the impact of Malcolm X but the state of Nebraska.”
In 1984, the Omaha land on which Malcolm’s family home sat was added to the state list of historic sites.
By highlighting controversial aspects of Malcolm X’s life, Andersen raised questions about whether the Civil Rights leader’s popularity is rooted in an accurate reading of history.
“The inspirational value comes from, perhaps, that there’s been a sort of cult grown up” around Malcolm X, Andersen said. “Assassination, martyrdom, perhaps, has added to that.”
Commission member Ron Hull said Malcolm X was his first choice, but said he ended up voting for Bessey because the commission wanted to vote unanimously for an inductee.
“I believe he had a momentous impact on this country,” Hull said of Malcolm X.
Bessey was a University of Nebraska professor of botany and horticulture from 1884 to 1915. He helped establish a program to take university research to Nebraska’s citizens, according to a biography of Bessey on the Nebraska State Historical Society’s Web site. He also wrote Congressional legislation requiring land-grant universities to distribute new knowledge and research to the public through agricultural experiment stations.
Bessey also developed modern plant classification and was president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, according to the biography.
“His research and scholarship remains central ... to this very day,” said commission member Dennis Mihelich.
Bessey will be officially inducted into the Nebraska Hall of Fame in 2009.
On the Net:
Nebraska Hall of Fame Commission: http://www.nebraskahistory.org/admin/hall—of—fame/index.htm