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By Sylvia Cunningham

By the time Imamu Khari was 8 years old, he had read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” By age 10, he had watched Spike Lee’s cinematic adaptation, “Malcolm X,” starring Denzel Washington.

Learning about the slain activist’s teachings was a critical part of Khari’s childhood, especially because Khari’s dad served as part of Malcolm X’s security unit while Malcolm was still a member of the Nation of Islam. Of all the black leaders Khari studied, Malcolm was always the one he admired most.

That’s why on Thursday, on what would have been Malcolm’s 91st birthday, 34-year-old Khari, along with dozens of other supporters, boarded a bus from the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building in Harlem to the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York, to pay their respects.

Several hundreds of people gathered at Malcolm’s resting place to witness a ceremony organized by the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) since 1965. Originally designed by Malcolm's sister, Ella Collins, the pilgrimage is now facilitated by the Sons of Africa and managed by Malcolm’s nephew, Rodnell Collins, along with Willie Stark and James Small, a former professor at the City University of New York.

“Malcolm demonstrated that he will either be free or he will accept death,” Small, vice president and executive director of the OAAU, told NBCBLK. “And if every black man were to take that attitude, freedom would come tomorrow, for all of us.”

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As part of the ritual, one Pan-African flag in red, black and green, is placed over Malcolm’s grave site, and another is draped over a chair with a framed photograph of Malcolm, also known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. Additionally, there is a stool covered in white fabric to honor Betty Shabazz, Malcolm’s wife.

Professor James Small speaks at the annual ceremony honoring slain activist Malcolm X on what would be his 91st birthday.Sylvia Cunningham

Men in Sudanese-style white robes and turbans march and form a square around the grave, making way for Imam Al-Hajj Talib ‘Abdur-Rashid from the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood in Harlem, New York, to deliver his prayer and reflections.

“Evolution is revolution slowed down, and revolution is evolution speeded up. So El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz set an evolutionary example for us and a revolutionary example for us, blazing a path and following those who preceded him,” Imam Talib said.

"It’s important to me to pay homage to our shining prince."

Imam Talib said he has noticed that the number of children present at the ceremony has increased drastically over the years and offered advice to the young people in attendance.

“Don’t ever let anybody tell you that you don’t have power,” Imam Talib said. “Don’t ever let anybody tell you that you don’t have the seed of greatness within you.”

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Armed with a bag full of notebooks and pages of essays and spoken word poetry, Khari came prepared to get people in the right spirit as the bus headed north to the cemetery Thursday morning.

“See, I’m trying to get us reparations at the very least,” Khari recited to passengers on the bus. “Instead, they lock me in a cage like a scary beast.”

About three years ago, Khari said he had a spiritual awakening when he noticed there were a lot of similarities between the world he was living in and the world he had read about in the 1960s. That’s when he began to write.

“I came to this realization about where we came from, where we are now and how much further we have to go,” Khari said.

Many people embarking on the pilgrimage were first timers, including Sheba X, a New Yorker. Although she was just a baby when she met Malcolm, her parents learned from him and passed on his teachings.

“It’s difficult to say in one word what he has done,” Sheba said.

Malcolm gave African-American people hope, she said, even when they felt disenfranchised and oppressed.

Imam Al-Hajj Talib 'Abdur-Rashid delivers a prayer and reflections to several hundreds of people who came to Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York, to honor Malcolm X on his birthday.Sylvia Cunningham

“He gave us not only pride but a sense of self worth through the knowledge that he passed on,” Sheba said.

Although she doesn’t think there's been much progress in the United States in terms of legal, economic or education systems, she believes Malcolm X changed the consciousness of African people.

Sheba said Malcolm was “uncompromising in terms of his convictions,” which is why she knew she needed to make the trip to Hartsdale to honor him on his birthday.

“It’s important to me to pay homage to our shining prince,” Sheba said.

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