By Garry Graham, MA, MPH, CASAC, LMHC
Member of Ephesus SDA Church
Last February 2018, Christ the King High School in New York was the center of a controversy caused by their response to one of their students.
Malcolm Xavier Combs was a senior at Christ the King High School in Middle Village, Queens, New York and he wanted to have an abbreviation of his legal name written on his high school senior jacket as “Malcolm X.” His request started a firestorm that began with the high school administration calling him out of his AP English class to the Assistant Principal’s office. “I was confused about why I was being called down because I really didn’t do anything,” said Malcolm Xavier Combs. When he reached the assistant principal’s office, she had a talk with him.
“She said, ‘We can’t put your name on the senior sweater. He’s too controversial. We don’t agree with what he stood for and that’s not somebody you want to look up to,’” said Malcolm Xavier Combs. “I was just confused as to why somebody wouldn’t want to look up to Malcolm X. Then her husband walked in and she said, “This is the new Malcolm X” and she started laughing. So then after that, I kind of felt disrespected because she just denied me my shirt and then she laughed at me for it.” Malcolm Xavier Combs went home and told his mother what happened.
“I was furious and I was confused because I couldn’t believe that you literally had the audacity to say that to him,” Myschelle Combs said. “And I’m so glad that we have that relationship where my son would come home and tell the good, bad and the ugly that happens in school because it could have gotten swept under the rug. They thought he was not going to say anything at all but it didn’t work that way.” They told his dad, Marc Combs, Sr., who became so upset that he went to the school to request a meeting with the assistant principal. He was given the run around. Marc knew that there was a deadline for ordering the senior jacket so he tried his best to explain the situation.
“I didn’t think that in this day and age that people were still that ignorant. So I figured it’s got to be Malcolm, it can’t be them,” he said. “I told them that I need to see them as soon as possible and I want to meet them before the deadline and they just kept giving me the runaround. I felt like it shouldn’t be that hard over a T-shirt. I just didn’t get it.”
When Marc Combs, Sr. returned home and said he tried to speak to them with no avail, Myschelle called National Action Network.
“It was one of those things where I knew that if I go National Action Network, I could turn the heat up,” she said. “I didn’t know it would be strike to be that big. I didn’t know it would take on the life that it did and I’m glad that it did because it brings to light who Malcolm X really was…A lot of people didn’t really know. It started making people research, started making people understand that we’re still in an invisible type of slavery.”
According to Marc Combs, National Action Network told them to go to their Headquarters in Harlem right away. They shared their story and were told that this could be “something big or something small” and were asked if they were willing to go ahead with it. The Combs Family said yes. This story quickly took on a life of its own to the point where Malcolm X’s daughter met with Malcolm Xavier Combs and his story gained widespread media attention.
“It became huge—made the front page of the newspapers like two days in a row,” said Myschelle Combs. “We were on radio stations, we were on ABC News, every channel known to man. We even protested outside the school on the day of Malcolm X’s assassination. The cast of Malcolm X the play actually heard about, gave him tickets and invited him to meet the whole cast. They told him (my son) that you’re the real hero because you’re standing up for something, you’re standing up for your name.”
The Combs Family noted that this controversy happened during Black History Month. They worked with Reverend Kevin McCall through the National Action Network to address it. “This was definitely outrageous and absurd that in the middle of Black History Month, they would do something like this and they had no regards to respect the legacy that Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. paved the way for,” said Rev. McCall. “It was disrespect.” Reverend McCall said he advised The Combs Family to speak up. “They’re a very religious family. They are Sabbath Keepers. One of the things that I told them to do was to follow their instincts in terms of being led by their faith,” said Rev. McCall. “You have to be able to speak up about what you believe in and that’s one of the things that I told Malcolm in the beginning: Do you want to be silent or speak up like Jesus did? You have to say something. You cannot be silent in this season. It is time.”
Marc Combs, Sr. said that he and his wife wanted to bring light to situation by going to the news media. “We wanted to encourage people tostay silent when wrong is being done to you,” he said. “Malcolm, who is shy and reserved, to himself type person, a good kid. People were shocked and encouraged that if Malcolm can stand up for his rights, so can I, regardless of the situation or who it is. So even if putting his name on a shirt, it awakened the sleeping Giant in a lot of people.”
Myschelle recounted her struggles in trying to resolve this situation in person with the school administration, before going to the news. “That’s my son’s name. His name is Malcolm Xavier Combs. He just said Malcolm X for short but he was thinking about himself when he put it there,” Myschelle said. “You guys are trying to attach Malcolm X to him which is no problem because he’s one of our heroes.” Myschelle said the meeting was a bust because they refused to move and let Malcolm have his name on his senior jacket because they don’t allow nicknames.
“So we’re like, ‘It’s not a nickname, it’s his name.’ Mind you, there were kids walking around with names that were not their names and yet, my son couldn’t have Malcolm X because they said that he was someone that my son shouldn’t want to be associated with which just ticked me off beyond belief,” Myschelle said. “And on top of that, the school is predominately Black! I even said to them, ‘Excuse me. But if he were so bad as you think, why do they have stamps, streets and libraries named after him?’ Again, no answer.”
Myschelle Combs said that she told the school principal that this situation could become a moment of learning with school assemblies like one that Malcolm X’s daughoffered to do. But they refused. Myschelle did not give up. She pressed on.
“I felt like we needed to stand up and make an example because there are many Black girls and boys who are named after our people who are being penalized,” Myschelle said. “It was so frustrating to think that in 2018 at the time, we’re even having this conversation.”
Myschelle and her husband went as far as to bring their son’s birth certificate to school to prove his name. They also presented mail from the honor society that he’s on and showed that it said “Malcolm X.” “It doesn’t say Xavier or anything else. It says Malcolm X Combs and yet they made that the issue and once we clarified that then all of a sudden, there’s another issue why they can’t do it then after we deal with that, there’s another issue why they don’t do it,” she said. “It’s sad to say but I have to boil it down to race, what else is there for me to think?”
According to Myschelle, the school administration was focused on upholding peace at the school and believed that if the students saw that name on a jacket, it would cause and uprising. She shared why she did not agree.
“First of all, you don’t even teach about the man, so chances are, most of them wouldn’t even know who it is,” she said. “And here’s the kicker: How small the letters were going to be…You would think that it would be blazing across the jacket but it’s not. It was going to be across the arm of the sleeve and the letters are probably maybe 12 or 14 font size on Microsoft Word. Who’s going to see it?”
The controversy gave Malcolm Xavier Combs a platform. He was able to team up with Jesse Hamilton and get Black history put in the curriculum in the schools. The Smithsonian invited The Combs Family to see the screening of the private tapings of Malcolm X because they heard about the situation. The situation also encouraged young people like Malcolm.
“A lot of other young people thanked him,” Myschelle said. “They were like, ‘Thank you for showing us to stand up for ourselves and speaking up against injustice, not having to be quiet about it and doing it the right way.’”
Myschelle does not regret going to the news media with this story.
“When people try to say, ‘Well, why did you have to make it such a big deal?’ I didn’t have to do anything. They made me do it. I came to you and expressed to you what happened. I came to you, sat your table and tried,” she said. “So since I tried to do what you said—go internally—but since I couldn’t get the proper respect, not just the response, the respect so everybody needs to know.”
One year later, according to Myschelle, the administration of Christ the King High School have not apologized to The Combs Family and have not had a change of heart. However, Myschelle’s son has changed.
“It changed Malcolm because he’s due to go to a school upstate. But he was like, ‘You know what? I really feel like I need to be around my own and he ended up going to Oakwood University which is an HBCU.’ And he loves it there. He’s thriving there,” she said.
“They still call him Malcolm X there,” Myschelle said. “Matter of fact, the President of the school introduced him to the whole school and told them the story, introduced him as Malcolm X and he just felt vindicated by his own. So I think it’s changed him more than it’s changed me because I’m older. So I understand it. He’s young, thinking the world is one way and when you bump up against something like this, it opens your eyes.”
News of the controversy reached officials within the Seventh-day Adventist Church of which The Combs Family are members, and they too, showed their support.
“The President of the Northeastern Conference actually came out and marched with us, which also brought forth that Adventists can be involved in social justice,” Myschelle said. “I was very pleased to see that the President involved himself in it. Usually, they try to steer away from the heat. He spoke and everything. It was wonderful and to show that as Christians we still can fight a battle and be a Christian at the same time.”
Today, Malcolm Xavier is a student at Oakwood University in Huntsville, Alabama. He’s applying the lessons he’s learned from the controversy at his former high school in New York.
“He’s learned to stand up for himself because he is a quiet guy. So this gives him a little more courage to speak up when people take advantage of you,” said Marc Combs, Sr.. “People definitely take advantage of people who are quiet. So this gave him a little more courage and confidence in knowing that God’s got his back, people’s got his back as long as he’s in the right.”
This situation has turned Malcolm Xavier Combs into an ambassador. “I now have the power to be an ambassador for Black rights after what happened so that’s what I try to do on a lower scale more through social media in trying to bring awareness,” he said. Malcolm Xavier Combs shared his thoughts on how going to an HBCU helps him heal and makes him feel. “Just seeing more people who look like me—which I haven’t basically my whole life—in a school setting is kind of relieving because always seeing somebody else or not really learning about our roots, it’s kind of not annoying but it’s doesn’t feel so good all the time knowing that all you study about your people is slavery this, slavery that and not really their accomplishments outside of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.,” he said.
Now, Malcolm is studying journalism with the goal of becoming a sports journalist. He shared his thoughts on what he’s learned from the situation. “Life isn’t always fair, you don’t always get what you want in life but you don’t always have to accept it,” he said. “You always fight for your right and don’t let anybody try to bully you.”
Reverend McCall said that last year, they organized a rally, filed a complaint with the New York State Human Rights Commission but this year, they’re still investigating. “Just because he’s not in the school anymore doesn’t mean that the issue is not still being handled,” said McCall. “So there’s some investigations still going on with Christ the King High School.”
“We’re still fighting,” Myschelle said. “We didn’t sue them but we put in for them violating his human rights. We’re still going back and forth with it because they still refuse and it’s not about the shirt, it’s the principle of it.”
Despite the controversy surrounding her son’s name, Myschelle looks up to the original Malcolm X whom her son is named after. “I read that when he changed his life, that he lived with such integrity that even the FBI that as surveying him had to say, ‘What a man of character.’ They couldn’t get him with anything. He meant what he said and he said what he meant,” Myschelle said. “And when he changed his mind from his past thoughts then that was it! He was a man of character and I said if my son can be half the man that Malcolm X was, I’m blessed.”
Christ the King High School did not return calls for comment.