When he met with assistant principal Veronica Arbitello, he was told he couldn’t use the name “Malcolm X” on the back of his senior sweater.
“Then she told me that was a name I didn’t want to be associated with,” Combs said. “I stood silent, but confused.”
Another faculty member then walked into the office. Combs recalled that Arbitello introduced the student to her colleague as “the new Malcolm X.” Then they both laughed, Combs said.
Combs’s story garnered national headlines. Last Wednesday, dozens of activists, elected officials and other supporters gathered in front of Christ the King’s gates to denounce the school’s decision to double down on their refusal.
The rally, which then turned into a brief march along Metropolitan Avenue, coincided with the 53rd anniversary of Malcolm X’s assassination. The civil rights leader was killed in the Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights in 1965.
Combs, whose parents named him after the icon, said Arbitello made him feel “intimidated” in the principal’s office. He said he felt “like it was a crime” having Malcolm X on his back.
The Middle Village student, wearing a Malcolm X shirt, argued that if Malcolm X’s name is fit to be used for stamps, streets and institutions, it should be accepted on a school sweater.
“Today was the day Malcolm X was assassinated in physical form,” Combs said. “But I stand here to make sure his name and legacy are not assassinated.”
Combs’s family enlisted the help of Reverend Al Sharpton’s National Action Network (NAN) and other civil rights groups to support their cause. After meeting with Christ the King officials last month, who did not stand down, activists decided to rally instead.
Invoking Malcolm X’s famous phrase “by any means necessary,” advocates said they will “not take no for an answer.”
“Either you correct the record or we’re going to correct the personnel at this school,” said Minister Kirsten John Foy from NAN.
Foy said Christ the King officials “need to be educated” about the legacy and actions of Malcolm X, whom he called a freedom fighter who “laid down his life for freedom and liberty.” Though the civil rights leader died five decades ago, Foy said Malcolm X’s legacy and message is still alive today.
“The student has become the teacher, and the teacher has become the student,” he said.
Activists and Combs’s family demanded not only that the school allow him to use his prefered name, but that teachers receive cultural sensitivity training. Legislators supporting the cause also want African-American history to be taught in every school.
Public Advocate Letitia James said though black history is often painful, it must be taught and not be “sanitized.”
“This is a teaching moment, an opportunity to enlighten some about the legacy of Malcolm X and African-American figures during Black History Month,” she said.
The public advocate asked Christ the King to apologize to Combs and his family. She volunteered to meet with the school administrators and even host a discussion about the contributions of African Americans “so no child is ever disrespected again” in a classroom.
“We will not allow a child to be belittled,” James said. “It is unacceptable.”
State Senator Jesse Hamilton also expressed support for Combs and his family. Hamilton called Malcolm X a “hero” and said his contributions cannot be erased.
The senator is pushing a bill, passed by the State Senate last year but not the Assembly, that would have black history taught from kindergarten to 12th grade.
“Society doesn’t want our children to look up to people who are freedom fighters or fought for our rights, that’s a problem,” Hamilton said. “As educators, we should be educating kids, liberating their minds.
“It would enlighten everybody that our cultures have made just as many contributions to America to make it great,” he added. “It is overdue.”
After the rally, the activists took to the street. They marched down Metropolitan Avenue chanting “I am Malcolm X.” When they circled back around to Christ the King, Combs and his supporters posed in front of the school with their arms crossed in an “X.”
When asked after the march what the last month has been like for her family, Myschelle Combs, Malcolm’s mother, said it has been a “whirlwind.”
“I’m absolutely proud of him, that’s why we named him Malcolm X,” she said. “I wouldn’t expect anything less of him but to stand up for what he believes in.
“I’m just glad he’s making his own name, but at the same time, honoring Malcolm X,” Combs added.
Combs said her son is using the platform to bring about change, whether it’s for more cultural awareness, sensitivity training or black history. She hopes that future students at Christ the King can see what has transpired as a lesson on speaking up.
“Never let anyone silence your voice,” Combs said. “I hope they walk away demanding to see themselves reflected in the country they helped build.”
In a February 12th statement, Serphin Maltese, chairman of the board at Christ the King, said one of the school’s “established and longstanding rules” is that students can have their first or last name on the sweater, but no nicknames.
A nickname is only approved if a student is commonly known by students and faculty by that name, he said.
Maltese also said the recent articles about Combs’s situation were “taken out of context” and misconstrued. He added that school administrators agreed to meet and discuss it, but it “became a media issue” when the parents went to the press.
A third option to use Combs’s first and middle name was offered to the family, but turned down, Maltese said.
The school leader said Malcolm X is covered in history classes, and has been part of the civil rights movement curriculum for years.
“While we believe that there was a misinterpretation between the parties, we regret the turn of events and the problems that have ensued,” Maltese said. “It is our hope, that in the spirit of Christ the King that guides us, we will be able to resolve this on mutually acceptable terms.”