Malcolm X quote at Robert Smalls Middle School riles Beaufort County legislator

tbarton@beaufortgazette.comMarch 27, 2013 

This photo was tweeted, placed on Facebook and emailed by Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort who thought a Malcolm X quote, "You can't have capitalism without racism," included on a painting that was displayed at Robert Smalls Middle School was inappropriate.

SUBMITTED PHOTO — Submitted photo

  • The following comments were posted Wednesday in response to a Facebook post by state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, calling for the removal of a painting at Robert Smalls Intermediate/Middle School. The painting, which was incorrectly described on Davis' Facebook page as a mural, is by students and features a quote from a 1964 Malcolm X speech, in which he says: "You can't have capitalism without racism."

  • "Completely inappropriate!"
  • "WOW! Ignorance at its best ..."
  • "As much as I disagree with the mural, the First Amendment protects it. The whole point is to protect unpopular speech. Proceed with caution, Mr. Davis ..."
  • "Even if this statement was true. Expressing it in a public-school setting is very wrong, rude and racist. That's so disrespectful to workers."
  • "This is clearly a student's art project depicting a Malcolm X quote. While I don't agree with the (painting), I agree with EVERY student's right to express themselves."

State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, on Wednesday tweeted and posted a photo to Facebook of a painting by eighth-graders at Robert Smalls Intermediate/Middle School containing an excerpt from a 1964 speech by the Muslim minister and civil rights activist.

Malcolm X's comment, "You can't have capitalism without racism," was on the painting.

Davis said he received the photo from a constituent upset with the artwork and shared it online because he, too, felt it inappropriate for the wall of a public school.

The Facebook posting -- which incorrectly said the artwork was a school mural -- led to a flurry of comments by parents, calling the quote offensive and an inappropriate endorsement of anti-free-market theories, such as communism. Others, while questioning the selection of the quote, defended the artwork as the students' right to free speech.

Davis emailed district administrators, school board members and the media seeking an explanation and stating his displeasure. The painting was part of a rotating, monthlong exhibit of student art and had been taken down before Davis sent his email, according to an email response from Robert Smalls principal Denise Smith.

As part of Black History Month, the art students were asked to commemorate various aspects of the Civil Rights Movement, according to Smith. One group researched the movement's history and chose to depict Malcolm X.

The students selected the quote from the 1964 speech and were not prompted to do so by a teacher, according to school district spokesman Jim Foster.

Why they chose the quote was not immediately clear Wednesday afternoon.

The quote originally appeared unattributed, Smith said, with the attribution being added later.

Other artwork included depictions of Maya Angelou and the Harlem Renaissance, according to Smith.

"In retrospect ... the students should have included appropriate text along with their paintings that provided the proper historical context," she wrote. "Without that context, someone viewing the paintings might have mistakenly believed that the students or the school were endorsing a particular political or social viewpoint, which certainly was not the case."

Davis said he accepted Smith's explanation and apology, but said he was still bothered by the school "simply allowing this offensive and false statement to be displayed in the school hallway."

"The notion that capitalism is inherently racist is every bit as offensive as racism itself," he said. "And the fact such a message (was) displayed in a public school is inexcusable. The free market is the greatest source of prosperity the world has ever seen."

Attempts Wednesday to reach representatives of the Malcolm X Foundation in Omaha, Neb.; Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Education Center in New York; and City Colleges of Chicago's Malcolm X College were unsuccessful.

Supporters of Malcolm X -- born Malcolm Little, also known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz -- have said in the past the quote is not a fair representation of his political or economic philosophy and should not diminish his accomplishments as a proponent of civil and economic freedom for blacks.

Related content

  1. State Sen. Tom Davis', R-Beaufort, Facebook posting
  2. Malcolm X Foundation
  3. Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Center
  4. Robert Smalls Intermediate/Middle School

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