The epilogue of The Autobiography of Malcolm X is told from Alex Haley’s point of view. As such, Haley noted, “I asked for—and he gave—his permission that at the end of the book I could write comments of my own about him which would not be subject to his review.” These comments became the epilogue, which Haley wrote after the death of Malcolm.
Haley first hears about the Nation of Islam in San Francisco in 1959, and first meets Malcolm X in New York in 1960. He writes a few articles on Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad—Mr. Muhammad Speaks for Reader’s Digest in March 1960 and Black Merchants of Hate for The Saturday Evening Post on January 26, 1963—before a publisher proposes to Haley the idea of a biography. Having won the trust of Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad with the earlier pieces, Haley gets them both to agree to the project.
However, it takes a long time for Haley to win the trust of Malcolm. In Haley’s own words, he mentions, “We got off to a very poor start.” Malcolm was stiff and formal, spouting propaganda while revealing little of himself. “You, I trust about 25 percent,” he said, and Haley began to think the project might have to be abandoned.
Slowly, after numerous interview sessions in Haley’s Greenwich Village writing studio, Malcolm opens up. Haley begins work on the book shortly before Malcolm’s falling out with Elijah Muhammad, and the epilogue traces the last two years of Malcolm’s life. Haley emphasizes the tension and violence surrounding Malcolm’s final days, and describes in detail the death threats and close encounters that preceded Malcolm’s assassination. On February 21, 1965, Malcolm is gunned down by three audience members while he is delivering a lecture at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X: Epilogue By Alex Haley
During nineteen fifty-nine, when the public was becoming aware of the Muslims after the New York telecast “The Hate That Hate Produced,” I was in San Francisco, about to retire after twenty years in the U.S. Coast Guard. A friend returned from a visit to her Detroit home and told me of a startling “black man’s” religion, “The Nation of Islam,” to which, to her surprise, her entire family was converted. I listened with incredulity to how a “mad scientist Mr. Yacub” had genetically “grafted” the white race from an original black people. The organization’s leader was described as “The Honorable Elijah Muhammad” and a “Minister Malcolm X” was apparently chief of staff.
When I entered a civilian writing career in New York City, I collected, around Harlem, a good deal of provocative material and then proposed an article about the cult to the Reader’s Digest. Visiting the Muslim restaurant in Harlem, I asked how I could meet Minister Malcolm X, who was pointed out talking in a telephone booth right behind me. Soon he came out, a gangling, tall, reddish-brown-skinned fellow, at that time thirty-five years old; when my purpose was made known, he bristled, his eyes skewering me from behind the horn-rimmed glasses. “You’re another one of the white man’s tools sent to spy!” he accused me sharply. I said I had a legitimate writing assignment and showed him my letter from the magazine stating that an objective article was wanted, one that would balance what the Muslims said of themselves and what their attackers said about them. Malcolm X snorted that no white man’s promise was worth the paper it was on; he would need time to decide if he would cooperate or not. Meanwhile, he suggested that I could attend some of the Harlem Temple Number 7 meetings (“temples” have since been renamed “mosques”) which were open to non-Muslim Negroes.
Around the Muslim’s restaurant, I met some of the converts, all of them neatly dressed and almost embarrassingly polite. Their manners and miens reflected the Spartan personal discipline the organization demanded, and none of them would utter anything but Nation of Islam clichés. Even excellent weather was viewed as a blessing from Allah, with corollary credit due to “The Honorable Elijah Muhammad.”
Finally, Minister Malcolm X told me that he would not take personal responsibility. He said that I should talk about an article with Mr. Muhammad personally. I expressed willingness, an appointment was made, and I flew to Chicago. The slightly built, shy-acting, soft-voiced Mr. Muhammad invited me to dinner with his immediate family in his mansion. I was aware that I was being carefully sized up while he talked primarily of F.B.I. and Internal Revenue Service close surveillance of his organization, and of a rumored forthcoming Congressional probe. “But I have no fear of any of them; I have all that I need—the truth,” Mr. Muhammad said. The subject of my writing an article somehow never got raised, but Malcolm X proved far more cooperative when I returned.
He would sit with me at a white-topped table in the Muslim restaurant and answer guardedly any questions I asked between constant interruptions by calls from the New York press in the telephone booth. When I asked if I could see Muslim activities in some other cities, he arranged with other ministers for me to attend meetings at temples in Detroit, Washington, and Philadelphia.
My article entitled “Mr. Muhammad Speaks” appeared in early 1960, and it was the first featured magazine notice of the phenomenon. A letter quickly came from Mr. Muhammad appreciating that the article kept my promise to be objective, and Malcolm X telephoned similar compliments. About this time, Dr. C. Eric Lincoln’s book The Black Muslims in America was published and the Black Muslims became a subject of growing interest. During 1961 and 1962, the Saturday Evening Post teamed me with a white writer, Al Balk, to do an article; next I did a personal interview of Malcolm X for Playboy magazine, which had promised to print verbatim whatever response he made to my questions. During that interview of several days’ duration, Malcolm X repeatedly exclaimed, after particularly blistering anti-Christian or anti-white statements: “You know that devil’s not going to print that!” He was very much taken aback when Playboy kept its word.
Malcolm X began to warm up to me somewhat. He was most aware of the national periodicals’ power, and he had come to regard me, if still suspiciously, as one avenue of access. Occasionally now he began to telephone me advising me of some radio, television, or personal speaking appearance he was about to make, or he would invite me to attend some Black Muslim bazaar or other public affair.
I was in this stage of relationship with the Malcolm X who often described himself on the air as “the angriest black man in America” when in early 1963 my agent brought me together with a publisher whom the Playboy interview had given the idea of the autobiography of Malcolm X. I was asked if I felt I could get the now nationally known firebrand to consent to telling the intimate details of his entire life. I said I didn’t know, but I would ask him. The editor asked me if I could sketch the likely highlights of such a book, and as I commenced talking, I realized how little I knew about the man personally, despite all my interviews. I said that the question had made me aware of how careful Malcolm X had always been to play himself down and to play up his leader Elijah Muhammad.
All that I knew, really, I said, was that I had heard Malcolm X refer in passing to his life of crime and prison before he became a Black Muslim; that several times he had told me: “You wouldn’t believe my past,” and that I had heard others say that at one time he had peddled dope and women and committed armed robberies.
I knew that Malcolm X had an almost fanatical obsession about time. “I have less patience with someone who doesn’t wear a watch than with anyone else, for this type is not time-conscious,” he had once told me. “In all our deeds, the proper value and respect for time determines success or failure.” I knew how the Black Muslim membership was said to increase wherever Malcolm X lectured, and I knew his pride that Negro prisoners in most prisons were discovering the Muslim religion as he had when he was a convict. I knew he professed to eat only what a Black Muslim (preferably his wife Betty) had cooked and he drank innumerable cups of coffee which he lightened with cream, commenting wryly, “Coffee is the only thing I like integrated.” Over our luncheon table, I told the editor and my agent how Malcolm X could unsettle non-Muslims—as, for instance, once when he offered to drive me to a subway, I began to light a cigarette and he drily observed, “That would make you the first person ever to smoke in this automobile.”
Malcolm X gave me a startled look when I asked him if he would tell his life story for publication. It was one of the few times I have ever seen him uncertain. “I will have to give a book a lot of thought,” he finally said. Two days later, he telephoned me to meet him again at the Black Muslim restaurant. He said, “I’ll agree. I think my life story may help people to appreciate better how Mr. Muhammad salvages black people. But I don’t want my motives for this misinterpreted by anybody—the Nation of Islam must get every penny that might come to me.” Of course, Mr. Muhammad’s agreement would be necessary, and I would have to ask Mr. Muhammad myself.
So I flew again to see Mr. Muhammad, but this time to Phoenix, Arizona, where the Nation of Islam had bought him the house in the hot, dry climate that relieved his severe bronchial condition. He and I talked alone this time. He told me how his organization had come far with largely uneducated Muslims and that truly giant strides for the black man could be made if his organization were aided by some of the talents which were available in the black race. He said, “And one of our worst needs is writers”—but he did not press me to answer. He suddenly began coughing, and rapidly grew worse and worse until I rose from my seat and went to him, alarmed, but he waved me away, gasping that he would be all right. Between gasps, he told me he felt that “Allah approves” the book. He said, “Malcolm is one of my most outstanding ministers.” After arranging for his chauffeur to return me to the Phoenix airport, Mr. Muhammad quickly bade me good-bye and rushed from the room coughing.
Back East, Malcolm X carefully read and then signed the publication contract, and he withdrew from his wallet a piece of paper filled with his sprawling longhand. “This is this book’s dedication,” he said. I read: “This book I dedicate to The Honorable Elijah Muhammad, who found me here in America in the muck and mire of the filthiest civilization and society on this earth, and pulled me out, cleaned me up, and stood me on my feet, and made me the man that I am today.”
The contract provided that all monies accruing to Malcolm X “shall be made payable by the agent to ‘Muhammad’s Mosque No. 2,'” but Malcolm X felt this was insufficient. He dictated to me a letter to type for his signature, which I did: “Any and all monies representing my contracted share of the financial returns should be made payable by the literary agent to Muhammad’s Mosque No. 2. These payments should be mailed to the following address: Mr. Raymond Sharrieff, 4847 Woodlawn Avenue, Chicago 15, Illinois.”
Another letter was dictated, this one an agreement between him and me: “Nothing can be in this book’s manuscript that I didn’t say, and nothing can be left out that I want in it.”
In turn, I asked Malcolm X to sign for me a personal pledge that however busy he was, he would give me a priority quota of his time for the planned 100,000-word “as told to” book which would detail his entire life. And months later, in a time of strain between us, I asked for—and he gave—his permission that at the end of the book I could write comments of my own about him which would not be subject to his review.
Malcolm X promptly did begin to pay me two- and three-hour visits, parking his blue Oldsmobile outside the working studio I then had in Greenwich Village. He always arrived around nine or ten at night carrying his flat tan leather briefcase which along with his scholarly look gave him a resemblance to a hardworking lawyer. Inevitably, he was tired after his long busy day, and sometimes he was clearly exhausted.
We got off to a very poor start. To use a word he liked, I think both of us were a bit “spooky.” Sitting right there and staring at me was the fiery Malcolm X who could be as acid toward Negroes who angered him as he was against whites in general. On television, in press conferences, and at Muslim rallies, I had heard him bitterly attack other Negro writers as “Uncle Toms,” “yard Negroes,” “black men in white clothes.” And there I sat staring at him, proposing to spend a year plumbing his innermost secrets when he had developed a near phobia for secrecy during his years of crime and his years in the Muslim hierarchy. My twenty years in military service and my Christian religious persuasion didn’t help, either; he often jeered publicly at these affiliations for Negroes. And although he now would indirectly urge me to write for national magazines about the Muslims, he had told me several times, in various ways, that “you blacks with professional abilities of any kind will one of these days wake up and find out that you must unite under the leadership of The Honorable Elijah Muhammad for your own salvation.” Malcolm X was also convinced that the F.B.I. had “bugged” my studio; he probably suspected that it may even have been done with my cooperation. For the first several weeks, he never entered the room where we worked without exclaiming, “Testing, testing—one, two, three. . . .”
Tense incidents occurred. One night a white friend was in the studio when Malcolm X arrived a little earlier than anticipated, and they passed each other in the corridor. Malcolm X’s manner during all of that session suggested that his worst doubts had been confirmed. Another time when Malcolm X sat haranguing me about the glories of the Muslim organization, he was gesturing with his passport in his hand; he saw that I was trying to read its perforated number and suddenly he thrust the passport toward me, his neck flushed reddish: “Get the number straight, but it won’t be anything the white devil doesn’t already know. He issued me the passport.”
For perhaps a month I was afraid we weren’t going to get any book. Malcolm X was still stiffly addressing me as “Sir!” and my notebook contained almost nothing but Black Muslim philosophy, praise of Mr. Muhammad, and the “evils” of “the white devil.” He would bristle when I tried to urge him that the proposed book was his life. I was thinking that I might have to advise the publisher that I simply couldn’t seem to get through to my subject when the first note of hope occurred. I had noticed that while Malcolm X was talking, he often simultaneously scribbled with his red-ink ball-point pen on any handy paper. Sometimes it was the margin of a newspaper he brought in, sometimes it was on index cards that he carried in the back of a small, red-backed appointment book. I began leaving two white paper napkins by him every time I served him more coffee, and the ruse worked when he sometimes scribbled on the napkins, which I retrieved when he left. Some examples are these:
“Here lies a YM, killed by a BM, fighting for the WM, who killed all the RM.” (Decoding that wasn’t difficult knowing Malcolm X. “YM” was for yellow man, “BM” for black man, “WM” for white man, and “RM” was for red man.)
“Nothing ever happened without cause. Cause BM condition WM won’t face. WM obsessed with hiding his guilt.”
“If Christianity had asserted itself in Germany, six million Jews would have lived.”
“WM so quick to tell BM ‘Look what I have done for you!’ No! Look what you have done to us!”
“BM dealing with WM who put our eyes out, now he condemns us because we cannot see.”
“Only persons really changed history those who changed men’s thinking about themselves. Hitler as well as Jesus, Stalin as well as Buddha . . . Hon. Elijah Muhammad. . . .”
It was through a clue from one of the scribblings that finally I cast a bait that Malcolm X took. “Woman who cries all the time is only because she knows she can get away with it,” he had scribbled. I somehow raised the subject of women. Suddenly, between sips of coffee and further scribbling and doodling, he vented his criticisms and skepticisms of women. “You never can fully trust any woman,” he said. “I’ve got the only one I ever met whom I would trust seventy-five percent. I’ve told her that.” he said. “I’ve told her like I tell you I’ve seen too many men destroyed by their wives, or their women.
“I don’t completely trust anyone,” he went on, “not even myself. I have seen too many men destroy themselves. Other people I trust from not at all to highly, like The Honorable Elijah Muhammad.” Malcolm X looked squarely at me. “You I trust about twenty-five percent.”
Trying to keep Malcolm X talking, I mined the woman theme for all it was worth. Triumphantly, he exclaimed, “Do you know why Benedict Arnold turned traitor—a woman!” He said, “Whatever else a woman is, I don’t care who the woman is, it starts with her being vain. I’ll prove it, something you can do anytime you want, and I know what I’m talking about, I’ve done it. You think of the hardest-looking, meanest-acting woman you know, one of those women who never smiles. Well, every day you see that woman you look her right in the eyes and tell her ‘I think you’re beautiful,’ and you watch what happens. The first day she may curse you out, the second day, too—but you watch, you keep on, after a while one day she’s going to start smiling just as soon as you come in sight.”
When Malcolm X left that night, I retrieved napkin scribblings that further documented how he could be talking about one thing and thinking of something else:
“Negroes have too much righteousness. WM says, ‘I want this piece of land, how do I get those couple of thousand BM on it off?'”
“I have wife who understands, or even if she doesn’t she at least pretends.”
“BM struggle never gets open support from abroad it needs unless BM first forms own united front.”
“Sit down, talk with people with brains I respect, all of us want same thing, do some brainstorming.”
“Would be shocking to reveal names of the BM leaders who have secretly met with THEM.” (The capitalized letters stood for The Honorable Elijah Muhammad.)
Then one night, Malcolm X arrived nearly out on his feet from fatigue. For two hours, he paced the floor delivering a tirade against Negro leaders who were attacking Elijah Muhammad and himself. I don’t know what gave me the inspiration to say once when he paused for breath, “I wonder if you’d tell me something about your mother?”
Abruptly he quit pacing, and the look he shot at me made me sense that somehow the chance question had hit him. When I look back at it now, I believe I must have caught him so physically weak that his defenses were vulnerable.
Slowly, Malcolm X began to talk, now walking in a tight circle. “She was always standing over the stove, trying to stretch whatever we had to eat. We stayed so hungry that we were dizzy. I remember the color of dresses she used to wear—they were a kind of faded-out gray. . . .” And he kept on talking until dawn, so tired that the big feet would often almost stumble in their pacing. From this stream-of-consciousness reminiscing I finally got out of him the foundation for this book’s beginning chapters, “Nightmare” and “Mascot.” After that night, he never again hesitated to tell me even the most intimate details of his personal life, over the next two years. His talking about his mother triggered something.
Malcolm X’s mood ranged from somber to grim as he recalled his childhood. I remember his making a great point of how he learned what had been a cardinal awareness of his ever since: “It’s the hinge that squeaks that gets the grease.” When his narration reached his moving to Boston to live with his half-sister Ella, Malcolm X began to laugh about how “square” he had been in the ghetto streets. “Why, I’m telling you things I haven’t thought about since then!” he would exclaim. Then it was during recalling the early Harlem days that Malcolm X really got carried away. One night, suddenly, wildly, he jumped up from his chair and, incredibly, the fearsome black demagogue was scat-singing and popping his fingers, “re-bop-de-bop-blap-blam—” and then grabbing a vertical pipe with one hand (as the girl partner) he went jubilantly lindy-hopping around, his coattail and the long legs and the big feet flying as they had in those Harlem days. And then almost as suddenly, Malcolm X caught himself and sat back down, and for the rest of that session he was decidedly grumpy. Later on in the Harlem narrative, he grew somber again. “The only thing I considered wrong was what I got caught doing wrong. I had a jungle mind, I was living in a jungle, and everything I did was done by instinct to survive.” But he stressed that he had no regrets about his crimes, “because it was all a result of what happens to thousands upon thousands of black men in the white man’s Christian world.”
His enjoyment resumed when the narrative entered his prison days. “Let me tell you how I’d get those white devil convicts and the guards, too, to do anything I wanted. I’d whisper to them, ‘If you don’t, I’ll start a rumor that you’re really a light Negro just passing as white.’ That shows you what the white devil thinks about the black man. He’d rather die than be thought a Negro!” He told me about the reading he had been able to do in prison: “I didn’t know what I was doing, but just by instinct I liked the books with intellectual vitamins.” And another time: “In the hectic pace of the world today, there is no time for meditation, or for deep thought. A prisoner has time that he can put to good use. I’d put prison second to college as the best place for a man to go if he needs to do some thinking. If he’s motivated, in prison he can change his life.”
Yet another time, Malcolm X reflected, “Once a man has been to prison, he never looks at himself or at other people the same again. The ‘squares’ out here whose boat has been in smooth waters all the time turn up their noses at an ex-con. But an ex-con can keep his head up when the ‘squares’ sink.”
He scribbled that night (I kept both my notebooks and the paper napkins dated): “This WM created and dropped A-bomb on non-whites; WM now calls ‘Red’ and lives in fear of other WM he knows may bomb us.”
Also: “Learn wisdom from the pupil of the eye that looks upon all things and yet to self is blind. Persian poet.”
At intervals, Malcolm X would make a great point of stressing to me, “Now, I don’t want anything in this book to make it sound that I think I’m somebody important.” I would assure him that I would try not to, and that in any event he would be checking the manuscript page by page, and ultimately the galley proofs. At other times, he would end an attack upon the white man and, watching me take the notes, exclaim. “That devil’s not going to print that, I don’t care what he says!” I would point out that the publishers had made a binding contract and had paid a sizable sum in advance. Malcolm X would say, “You trust them, and I don’t. You studied what he wanted you to learn about him in schools, I studied him in the streets and in prison, where you see the truth.”
Experiences which Malcolm X had had during a day could flavor his interview mood. The most wistful, tender anecdotes generally were told on days when some incident had touched him. Once, for instance, he told me that he had learned that a Harlem couple, not Black Muslims, had named their newborn son “Malcolm” after him. “What do you know about that?” he kept exclaiming. And that was the night he went back to his own boyhood again and this time recalled how he used to lie on his back on Hector’s Hill and think. That night, too: “I’ll never forget the day they elected me the class president. A girl named Audrey Slaugh, whose father owned a car repair shop, nominated me. And a boy named James Cotton seconded the nomination. The teacher asked me to leave the room while the class voted. When I returned I was the class president. I couldn’t believe it.”
Any interesting book which Malcolm X had read could get him going about his love of books. “People don’t realize how a man’s whole life can be changed by one book.” He came back again and again to the books that he had studied when in prison. “Did you ever read The Loom of Language?” he asked me and I said I hadn’t. “You should. Philology, it’s a tough science—all about how words can be recognized, no matter where you find them. Now, you take ‘Caesar,’ it’s Latin, in Latin it’s pronounced like ‘Kaiser,’ with a hard C. But we anglicize it by pronouncing a soft C. The Russians say ‘Czar’ and mean the same thing. Another Russian dialect says ‘Tsar.’ Jakob Grimm was one of the foremost philologists, I studied his ‘Grimm’s Law’ in prison—all about consonants. Philology is related to the science of etymology, dealing in root words. I dabbled in both of them.”
When I turn that page in my notebook, the next bears a note that Malcolm X had telephoned me saying “I’m going to be out of town for a few days.” I assumed that as had frequently been the case before, he had speaking engagements or other Muslim business to attend somewhere and I was glad for the respite in which to get my notes separated under the chapter headings they would fit. But when Malcolm X returned this time, he reported triumphantly, “I have something to tell you that will surprise you. Ever since we discussed my mother, I’ve been thinking about her. I realized that I had blocked her out of my mind—it was just unpleasant to think about her having been twenty-some years in that mental hospital.” He said, “I don’t want to take the credit. It was really my sister Yvonne who thought it might be possible to get her out. Yvonne got my brothers Wilfred, Wesley and Philbert together, and I went out there, too. It was Philbert who really handled it.
“It made me face something about myself,” Malcolm X said. “My mind had closed about our mother. I simply didn’t feel the problem could be solved, so I had shut it out. I had built up subconscious defenses. The white man does this. He shuts out of his mind, and he builds up subconscious defenses against anything he doesn’t want to face up to. I’ve just become aware how closed my mind was now that I’ve opened it up again. That’s one of the characteristics I don’t like about myself. If I meet a problem I feel I can’t solve, I shut it out. I make believe that it doesn’t exist. But it exists.”
It was my turn to be deeply touched. Not long afterward, he was again away for a few days. When he returned this time, he said that at his brother Philbert’s home, “we had dinner with our mother for the first time in all those years!” He said, “She’s sixty-six, and her memory is better than mine and she looks young and healthy. She has more of her teeth than those who were instrumental in sending her to the institution.”
When something had angered Malcolm X during the day, his face would be flushed redder when he visited me, and he generally would spend much of the session lashing out bitterly. When some Muslims were shot by Los Angeles policemen, one of them being killed, Malcolm X, upon his return from a trip he made there, was fairly apoplectic for a week. It had been in this mood that he had made, in Los Angeles, the statement which caused him to be heavily censured by members of both races.
“I’ve just heard some good news!”—referring to a plane crash at Orly Field in Paris in which thirty-odd white Americans, mostly from Atlanta, Georgia, had been killed instantly. (Malcolm X never publicly recanted this statement, to my knowledge, but much later he said to me simply, “That’s one of the things I wish I had never said.”)
Anytime the name of the present Federal Judge Thurgood Marshall was raised, Malcolm X still practically spat fire in memory of what the judge had said years before when he was the N.A.A.C.P. chief attorney: “The Muslims are run by a bunch of thugs organized from prisons and jails and financed, I am sure, by some Arab group.” The only time that I have ever heard Malcolm X use what might be construed as a curse word, it was a “hell” used in response to a statement that Dr. Martin Luther King made that Malcolm X’s talk brought “misery upon Negroes.” Malcolm X exploded to me, “How in the hell can my talk do this? It’s always a Negro responsible, not what the white man does!” The “extremist” or “demagogue” accusation invariably would burn Malcolm X. “Yes, I’m an extremist. The black race here in North America is in extremely bad condition. You show me a black man who isn’t an extremist and I’ll show you one who needs psychiatric attention!”
Once when he said, “Aristotle shocked people. Charles Darwin outraged people. Aldous Huxley scandalized millions!” Malcolm X immediately followed the statement with “Don’t print that, people would think I’m trying to link myself with them.” Another time, when something provoked him to exclaim, “These Uncle Toms make me think about how the Prophet Jesus was criticized in his own country!” Malcolm X promptly got up and silently took my notebook, tore out that page and crumpled it and put it into his pocket, and he was considerably subdued during the remainder of that session.
I remember one time we talked and he showed me a newspaper clipping reporting where a Negro baby had been bitten by a rat. Malcolm X said, “Now, just read that, just think of that a minute! Suppose it was your child! Where’s that slumlord—on some beach in Miami!” He continued fuming throughout our interview. I did not go with him when later that day he addressed a Negro audience in Harlem and an incident occurred which Helen Dudar reported in the New York Post.
“Malcolm speaking in Harlem stared down at one of the white reporters present, the only whites admitted to the meeting, and went on, ‘Now, there’s a reporter who hasn’t taken a note in half an hour, but as soon as I start talking about the Jews, he’s busy taking notes to prove that I’m anti-Semitic.’
Behind the reporter, a male voice spoke up, ‘Kill the bastard, kill them all.’ The young man, in his unease, smiled nervously and Malcolm jeered, ‘Look at him laugh. He’s really not laughing, he’s just laughing with his teeth.’ An ugly tension curled the edges of the atmosphere. Then Malcolm went on: ‘The white man doesn’t know how to laugh. He just shows his teeth. But we know how to laugh. We laugh deep down, from the bottom up.’ The audience laughed, deep down, from the bottom up and, as suddenly as Malcolm had stirred it, so, skillfully and swiftly, he deflected it. It had been at once a masterful and shabby performance.”
I later heard somewhere, or read, that Malcolm X telephoned an apology to the reporter. But this was the kind of evidence which caused many close observers of the Malcolm X phenomenon to declare in absolute seriousness that he was the only Negro in America who could either start a race riot—or stop one. When I once quoted this to him, tacitly inviting his comment, he told me tartly, “I don’t know if I could start one. I don’t know if I’d want to stop one.” It was the kind of statement he relished making.
Over the months, I had gradually come to establish something of a telephone acquaintance with Malcolm X’s wife, whom I addressed as “Sister Betty,” as I had heard the Muslims do. I admired how she ran a home, with, then, three small daughters, and still managed to take all of the calls which came for Malcolm X, surely as many calls as would provide a job for an average switchboard operator. Sometimes when he was with me, he would telephone home and spend as much as five minutes rapidly jotting on a pad the various messages which had been left for him.
Sister Betty, generally friendly enough on the phone with me, sometimes would exclaim in spontaneous indignation, “The man never gets any sleep!” Malcolm X rarely put in less than an eighteen-hour workday. Often when he had left my studio at four a.m. and a forty-minute drive lay between him and home in East Elmhurst, Long Island, he had asked me to telephone him there at nine a.m. Usually this would be when he wanted me to accompany him somewhere, and he was going to tell me, after reviewing his commitments, when and where he wanted me to meet him. (There were times when I didn’t get an awful lot of sleep, myself.) He was always accompanied, either by some of his Muslim colleagues like James 67X (the 67th man named “James” who had joined Harlem’s Mosque Number 7), or Charles 37X, or by me, but he never asked me to be with him when they were. I went with him to college and university lectures, to radio and television stations for his broadcasts, and to public appearances in a variety of situations and locations.
If we were driving somewhere, motorists along the highway would wave to Malcolm X, the faces of both whites and Negroes spontaneously aglow with the wonderment that I had seen evoked by other “celebrities.” No few airline hostesses had come to know him, because he flew so much; they smiled prettily at him, he was in turn the essence of courtly gentlemanliness, and inevitably the word spread and soon an unusual flow of bathroom traffic would develop, passing where he sat. Whenever we arrived at our destination, it became familiar to hear “There’s Malcolm X!” “Where?” “The tall one.” Passers-by of both races stared at him. A few of both races, more Negroes than whites, would speak or nod to him in greeting. A high percentage of white people were visibly uncomfortable in his presence, especially within the confines of small areas, such as in elevators. “I’m the only black man they’ve ever been close to who they know speaks the truth to them,” Malcolm X once explained to me. “It’s their guilt that upsets them, not me.” He said another time, “The white man is afraid of truth. The truth takes the white man’s breath and drains his strength—you just watch his face get red anytime you tell him a little truth.”
There was something about this man when he was in a room with people. He commanded the room, whoever else was present. Even out of doors; once I remember in Harlem he sat on a speaker’s stand between Congressman Adam Clayton Powell and the former Manhattan Borough President Hulan Jack, and when the street rally was over the crowd focus was chiefly on Malcolm X. I remember another time that we had gone by railway from New York City to Philadelphia where he appeared in the Philadelphia Convention Hall on the radio station WCAU program of Ed Harvey. “You are the man who has said ‘All Negroes are angry and I am the angriest of all’; is that correct?” asked Harvey, on the air, introducing Malcolm X, and as Malcolm X said crisply, “That quote is correct!” the gathering crowd of bystanders stared at him, riveted.
We had ridden to Philadelphia in reserved parlor car seats. “I can’t get caught on a coach, I could get into trouble on a coach,” Malcolm X had said. Walking to board the parlor car, we had passed a dining car toward which he jerked his head, “I used to work on that thing.” Riding to our destination, he conversationally told me that the F.B.I. had tried to bribe him for information about Elijah Muhammad; that he wanted me to be sure and read a new book, Crisis in Black and White by Charles Silberman—”one of the very few white writers I know with the courage to tell his kind the truth”; and he asked me to make a note to please telephone the New York Post’s feature writer Helen Dudar and tell her he thought very highly of her recent series—he did not want to commend her directly.
After the Ed Harvey Show was concluded, we took the train to return to New York City. The parlor car, packed with businessmen behind their newspapers, commuting homeward after their workdays, was electric with Malcolm X’s presence. After the white-jacketed Negro porter had made several trips up and down the aisle, he was in the middle of another trip when Malcolm X sotto-voced in my ear, “He used to work with me, I forget his name, we worked right on this very train together. He knows it’s me. He’s trying to make up his mind what to do.” The porter went on past us, poker-faced. But when he came through again, Malcolm X suddenly leaned forward from his seat, smiling at the porter. “Why, sure, I know who you are!” the porter suddenly said, loudly. “You washed dishes right on this train! I was just telling some of the fellows you were in my car here. We all follow you!”
The tension on the car could have been cut with a knife. Then, soon, the porter returned to Malcolm X, his voice expansive. “One of our guests would like to meet you.” Now a young, cleancut white man rose and came up, his hand extended, and Malcolm X rose and shook the proffered hand firmly. Newspapers dropped just below eye-level the length of the car. The young white man explained distinctly, loudly, that he had been in the Orient for a while, and now was studying at Columbia. “I don’t agree with everything you say,” he told Malcolm X, “but I have to admire your presentation.”
Malcolm’s voice in reply was cordiality itself. “I don’t think you could search America, sir, and find two men who agree on everything.” Subsequently, to another white man, an older businessman, who came up and shook hands, he said evenly, “Sir, I know how you feel. It’s a hard thing to speak out against me when you are agreeing with so much that I say.” And we rode on into New York under, now, a general open gazing.
In Washington, D.C., Malcolm X slashed at the government’s reluctance to take positive steps in the Negro’s behalf. I gather that even the White House took notice, for not long afterward I left off interviewing Malcolm X for a few days and went to the White House to do a Playboy interview of the then White House Press Secretary Pierre Salinger, who grimaced spontaneously when I said I was writing the life story of Malcolm X. Another time I left Malcolm X to interview the U.S. Nazi Party Commander George Lincoln Rockwell, who frankly stated that he admired the courage of Malcolm X, and he felt that the two of them should speak together across the United States, and they could thus begin a real solution to the race problem—one of voluntary separation of the white and black races, with Negroes returning to Africa. I reported this to Malcolm X, who snorted, “He must think I’m nuts! What am I going to look like going speaking with a devil!” Yet another time, I went off to Atlanta and interviewed for Playboy Dr. Martin Luther King. He was privately intrigued to hear little-known things about Malcolm X that I told him; for publication, he discussed him with reserve, and he did say that he would sometime like to have an opportunity to talk with him. Hearing this, Malcolm X said drily, “You think I ought to send him a telegram with my telephone number?” (But from other things that Malcolm X said to me at various times, I deduced that he actually had a reluctant admiration for Dr. King.)
Malcolm X and I reached the point, ultimately, where we shared a mutual camaraderie that, although it was never verbally expressed, was a warm one. He was for me unquestionably one of the most engaging personalities I had ever met, and for his part, I gathered, I was someone he had learned he could express himself to, with candor, without the likelihood of hearing it repeated, and like any person who lived amid tension, he enjoyed being around someone, another man, with whom he could psychically relax. When I made trips now, he always asked me to telephone him when I would be returning to New York, and generally, if he could squeeze it into his schedule, he met me at the airport. I would see him coming along with his long, gangling strides, and wearing the wide, toothy, good-natured grin, and as he drove me into New York City he would bring me up to date on things of interest that had happened since I left. I remember one incident within the airport that showed me how Malcolm X never lost his racial perspective. Waiting for my baggage, we witnessed a touching family reunion scene as part of which several cherubic little children romped and played, exclaiming in another language. “By tomorrow night, they’ll know how to say their first English word—nigger,” observed Malcolm X.
When Malcolm X made long trips, such as to San Francisco or Los Angeles, I did not go along, but frequently, usually very late at night, he would telephone me, and ask how the book was coming along, and he might set up the time for our next interview upon his return. One call that I never will forget came at close to four a.m., waking me; he must have just gotten up in Los Angeles. His voice said, “Alex Haley?” I said, sleepily, “Yes? Oh, hey, Malcolm!” His voice said, “I trust you seventy percent”—and then he hung up. I lay a short time thinking about him and I went back to sleep feeling warmed by that call, as I still am warmed to remember it. Neither of us ever mentioned it.
Malcolm X’s growing respect for individual whites seemed to be reserved for those who ignored on a personal basis the things he said about whites and who jousted with him as a man. He, moreover, was convinced that he could tell a lot about any person by listening. “There’s an art to listening well,” he told me. “I listen closely to the sound of a man’s voice when he’s speaking. I can hear sincerity.” The newspaper person whom he ultimately came to admire probably more than any other was the New York Times’ M. S. Handler. (I was very happy when I learned that Handler had agreed to write this book’s Introduction; I know that Malcolm X would have liked that.) The first time I ever heard Malcolm X speak of Handler, whom he had recently met, he began, “I was talking with this devil—” and abruptly he cut himself off in obvious embarrassment. “It’s a reporter named Handler, from the Times—” he resumed. Malcolm X’s respect for the man steadily increased, and Handler, for his part, was an influence upon the inner Malcolm X. “He’s the most genuinely unprejudiced white man I ever met,” Malcolm X said to me, speaking of Handler months later. “I have asked him things and tested him. I have listened to him talk, closely.”
I saw Malcolm X too many times exhilarated in after-lecture give-and-take with predominantly white student bodies at colleges and universities to ever believe that he nurtured at his core any blanket white-hatred. “The young whites, and blacks, too, are the only hope that America has,” he said to me once. “The rest of us have always been living in a lie.”
Several Negroes come to mind now who I know, in one way or another, had vastly impressed Malcolm X. (Some others come to mind whom I know he has vastly abhorred, but these I will not mention.) Particularly high in his esteem, I know, was the great photographer, usually associated with Life magazine, Gordon Parks. It was Malcolm X’s direct influence with Elijah Muhammad which got Parks permitted to enter and photograph for publication in Life the highly secret self-defense training program of the Black Muslim Fruit of Islam, making Parks, as far as I know, the only non-Muslim who ever has witnessed this, except for policemen and other agency representatives who had feigned “joining” the Black Muslims to infiltrate them. “His success among the white man never has made him lose touch with black reality,” Malcolm X said of Parks once.
Another person toward whom Malcolm X felt similarly was the actor Ossie Davis. Once in the middle of one of our interviews, when we had been talking about something else, Malcolm X suddenly asked me, “Do you know Ossie Davis?” I said I didn’t. He said, “I ought to introduce you sometime, that’s one of the finest black men.” In Malcolm X’s long dealings with the staff of the Harlem weekly newspaper Amsterdam News, he had come to admire Executive Editor James Hicks and the star feature writer James Booker. He said that Hicks had “an open mind, and he never panics for the white man.” He thought that Booker was an outstanding reporter; he also was highly impressed with Mrs. Booker when he met her.
It was he who introduced me to two of my friends today, Dr. C. Eric Lincoln who was at the time writing the book The Black Muslims in America, and Louis Lomax who was then writing various articles about the Muslims. Malcolm X deeply respected the care and depth which Dr. Lincoln was putting into his research. Lomax, he admired for his ferreting ear and eye for hot news. “If I see that rascal Lomax running somewhere, I’ll grab my hat and get behind him,” Malcolm X said once, “because I know he’s onto something.” Author James Baldwin Malcolm X also admired. “He’s so brilliant he confuses the white man with words on paper.” And another time, “He’s upset the white man more than anybody except The Honorable Elijah Muhammad.”
Malcolm X had very little good to say of Negro ministers, very possibly because most of them had attacked the Black Muslims. Excepting reluctant admiration of Dr. Martin Luther King, I heard him speak well of only one other, The Reverend Eugene L. Callender of Harlem’s large Presbyterian Church of the Master. “He’s a preacher, but he’s a fighter for the black man,” said Malcolm X. I later learned that somewhere the direct, forthright Reverend Callender had privately cornered Malcolm X and had read him the riot act about his general attacks upon the Negro clergy. Malcolm X also admired The Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, in his Congressman political role: “I’d think about retiring if the black man had ten like him in Washington.” He had similar feelings about the N.A.A.C.P. lawyer, now a New York State Assemblyman, Percy Sutton, and later Sutton was retained as his personal attorney. Among Negro educators, of whom Malcolm X met many in his college and university lecturing, I never heard him speak well of any but one, Dr. Kenneth B. Clark. “There’s a black man with brains gone to bed,” Malcolm X told me once, briefly lapsing into his old vernacular. He had very distinct reservations about Negro professional intelligentsia as a category. They were the source from which most of the Black Muslims’ attackers came. It was for this reason that some of his most bristling counterattacks against “these so-called educated Uncle Thomases, Ph.D.” were flung out at his audiences at Negro institutions of higher learning.
Where I witnessed the Malcolm X who was happiest and most at ease among members of our own race was when sometimes I chanced to accompany him on what he liked to call “my little daily rounds” around the streets of Harlem, among the Negroes that he said the “so-called black leaders” spoke of “as black masses statistics.” On these tours, Malcolm X generally avoided the arterial 125th Street in Harlem; he plied the side streets, especially in those areas which were thickest with what he described as “the black man down in the gutter where I came from,” the poverty-ridden with a high incidence of dope addicts and winos.
Malcolm X here indeed was a hero. Striding along the side-walks, he bathed all whom he met in the boyish grin, and his conversation with any who came up was quiet and pleasant. “It’s just what the white devil wants you to do, brother,” he might tell a wino, “he wants you to get drunk so he will have an excuse to put a club up beside your head.” Or I remember once he halted at a stoop to greet several older women: “Sisters, let me ask you something,” he said conversationally, “have you ever known one white man who either didn’t do something to you, or take something from you?” One among that audience exclaimed after a moment, “I sure ain’t!” whereupon all of them joined in laughter and we walked on with Malcolm X waving back to cries of “He’s right!”
I remember that once in the early evening we rounded a corner to hear a man, shabbily dressed, haranguing a small crowd around his speaking platform of an upturned oblong wooden box with an American flag alongside. “I don’t respect or believe in this damn flag, it’s there because I can’t hold a public meeting without it unless I want the white man to put me in jail. And that’s what I’m up here to talk about—these crackers getting rich off the blood and bones of your and my people!” Said Malcolm X, grinning, “He’s working!”
Malcolm X rarely exchanged any words with those Negro men with shiny, “processed” hair without giving them a nudge. Very genially: “Ahhhh, brother, the white devil has taught you to hate yourself so much that you put hot lye in your hair to make it look more like his hair.”
I remember another stoopful of women alongside the door of a small grocery store where I had gone for something, leaving Malcolm X talking across the street. As I came out of the store, one woman was excitedly describing for the rest a Malcolm X lecture she had heard in Mosque Number 7 one Sunday. “Oooooh, he burnt that white man, burnt him up, chile . . . chile, he told us we descendin’ from black kings an’ queens—Lawd, I didn’t know it!” Another woman asked, “You believe that?” and the first vehemently responded, “Yes, I do!”
And I remember a lone, almost ragged guitarist huddled on a side street playing and singing just for himself when he glanced up and instantly recognized the oncoming, striding figure. “Huh-ho!” the guitarist exclaimed, and jumping up, he snapped into a mock salute. “My man!”
Malcolm X loved it. And they loved him. There was no question about it: whether he was standing tall beside a street lamp chatting with winos, or whether he was firing his radio and television broadsides to unseen millions of people, or whether he was titillating small audiences of sophisticated whites with his small-talk such as, “My hobby is stirring up Negroes, that’s spelled knee-grows the way you liberals pronounce it”—the man had charisma, and he had power. And I was not the only one who at various times marveled at how he could continue to receive such an awesome amount of international personal publicity and still season liberally practically everything he said, both in public and privately, with credit and hosannas to “The Honorable Elijah Muhammad.” Often I made side notes to myself about this. I kept, in effect, a double-entry set of notebooks. Once, noting me switching from one to the other, Malcolm X curiously asked me what for? I told him some reason, but not that one notebook was things he said for his book and the other was for my various personal observations about him; very likely he would have become self-conscious. “You must have written a million words by now,” said Malcolm X. “Probably,” I said. “This white man’s crazy,” he mused. “I’ll prove it to you. Do you think I’d publicize somebody knocking me like I do him?”
“Look, tell me the truth,” Malcolm X said to me one evening, “you travel around. Have you heard anything?”
Truthfully, I told him I didn’t know what he had reference to. He dropped it and talked of something else.
From Malcolm X himself, I had seen, or heard, a few unusual things which had caused me some little private wonder and speculation, and then, with nothing to hang them on to, I had dismissed them. One day in his car, we had stopped for the red light at an intersection; another car with a white man driving had stopped alongside, and when this white man saw Malcolm X, he instantly called across to him, “I don’t blame your people for turning to you. If I were a Negro I’d follow you, too. Keep up the fight!” Malcolm X said to the man very sincerely, “I wish I could have a white chapter of the people I meet like you.” The light changed, and as both cars drove on, Malcolm X quickly said to me, firmly, “Not only don’t write that, never repeat it. Mr. Muhammad would have a fit.” The significant thing about the incident, I later reflected, was that it was the first time I had ever heard him speak of Elijah Muhammad with anything less than reverence.
About the same time, one of the scribblings of Malcolm X’s that I had retrieved had read, enigmatically, “My life has always been one of changes.” Another time, this was in September, 1963, Malcolm X had been highly upset about something during an entire session, and when I read the Amsterdam News for that week, I guessed that he had been upset about an item in Jimmy Booker’s column that Booker had heard that Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X were feuding. (Booker was later to reveal that after his column was written, he had gone on vacation, and on his return he learned that Malcolm X “stormed into the Amsterdam News with three followers . . . ‘I want to see Jimmy Booker. I don’t like what he wrote. There is no fight between me and Elijah Muhammad. I believe in Mr. Muhammad and will lay down my life for him.'”)
Also, now and then, when I chanced to meet a few other key Muslims, mainly when I was with Malcolm X, but when he was not immediately present, I thought I detected either in subtle phrasing, or in manner, something less than total admiration of their famous colleague—and then I would tell myself I had misinterpreted. And during these days, Dr. C. Eric Lincoln and I would talk on the phone fairly often. We rarely would fail to mention how it seemed almost certain that seeds of trouble lay in the fact that however much Malcolm X praised Elijah Muhammad, it was upon dramatic, articulate Malcolm X that the communications media and hence the general public focused the great bulk of their attention. I never dreamed, though, what Malcolm X was actually going through. He never breathed a word, at least not to me, until the actual rift became public.
When Malcolm X left me at around two a.m. on that occasion, he asked me to call him at nine a.m. The telephone in the home in East Elmhurst rang considerably longer than usual, and Sister Betty, when she answered, sounded strained, choked up. When Malcolm X came on, he, too, sounded different. He asked me, “Have you heard the radio or seen the newspapers?” I said I hadn’t. He said, “Well, do!” and that he would call me later.
I went and got the papers. I read with astonishment that Malcolm X had been suspended by Elijah Muhammad—the stated reason being the “chickens coming home to roost” remark that Malcolm X recently had made as a comment upon the assassination of President Kennedy.
Malcolm X did telephone, after about an hour, and I met him at the Black Muslims’ newspaper office in Harlem, a couple of blocks further up Lenox Avenue from their mosque and restaurant. He was seated behind his light brown metal desk and his brown hat lay before him on the green blotter. He wore a dark suit with a vest, a white shirt, the inevitable leaping-sailfish clip held his narrow tie, and the big feet in the shined black shoes pushed the swivel chair pendulously back and forth as he talked into the telephone.
“I’m always hurt over any act of disobedience on my part concerning Mr. Muhammad. . . . Yes, sir—anything The Honorable Elijah Muhammad does is all right with me. I believe absolutely in his wisdom and authority.” The telephone would ring again instantly every time he put it down. “Mr. Peter Goldman! I haven’t heard your voice in a good while! Well, sir, I just should have kept my big mouth shut.” To the New York Times: “Sir? Yes—he suspended me from making public appearances for the time being, which I fully understand. I say the same thing to you that I have told others, I’m in complete submission to Mr. Muhammad’s judgment, because I have always found his judgment to be based on sound thinking.” To C.B.S.: “I think that anybody who is in a position to discipline others should first learn to accept discipline himself.”
He brought it off, the image of contriteness, the best he could—throughout the harshly trying next several weeks. But the back of his neck was reddish every time I saw him. He did not yet put into words his obvious fury at the public humiliation. We did very little interviewing now, he was so busy on telephones elsewhere; but it did not matter too much because by now I had the bulk of the needed life story material in hand. When he did find some time to visit me, he was very preoccupied, and I could feel him rankling with anger and with inactivity, but he tried hard to hide it.
He scribbled one night, “You have not converted a man because you have silenced him. John Viscount Morley.” And the same night, almost illegibly, “I was going downhill until he picked me up, but the more I think of it, we picked each other up.”
When I did not see him for several days, a letter came. “I have cancelled all public appearances and speaking engagements for a number of weeks. So within that period it should be possible to finish this book. With the fast pace of newly developing incidents today, it is easy for something that is done or said tomorrow to be outdated even by sunset on the same day. Malcolm X.”
I pressed to get the first chapter, “Nightmare,” into a shape that he could review. When it was ready in a readable rough draft, I telephoned him. He came as quickly as he could drive from his home—which made me see how grinding an ordeal it was to him to just be sitting at home, inactive, and knowing his temperament, my sympathies went out to Sister Betty.
He pored over the manuscript pages, raptly the first time, then drawing out his red-ink ball-point pen he read through the chapter again, with the pen occasionally stabbing at something. “You can’t bless Allah!” he exclaimed, changing “bless” to “praise.” In a place that referred to himself and his brothers and sisters, he scratched red through “we kids.” “Kids are goats!” he exclaimed sharply.
Soon, Malcolm X and his family flew to Miami. Cassius Clay had extended the invitation as a sixth wedding anniversary present to Malcolm X and Sister Betty, and they had accepted most gratefully. It was Sister Betty’s first vacation in the six years of the taut regimen as a Black Muslim wife, and it was for Malcolm X both a saving of face and something to do.
Very soon after his arrival, he telegraphed me his phone number at a motel. I called him and he told me, “I just want to tell you something. I’m not a betting man anymore, but if you are, you bet on Cassius to beat Liston, and you will win.” I laughed and said he was prejudiced. He said, “Remember what I told you when the fight’s over.” I received later a picture postcard, the picture in vivid colors being of a chimpanzee at the Monkey Jungle in Miami. Malcolm X had written on the reverse side, “One hundred years after the Civil War, and these chimpanzees get more recognition, respect and freedom in America than our people do. Bro. Malcolm X.” Another time, an envelope came, and inside it was a clipping of an Irv Kupcinet column in the Chicago Sun-Times. Malcolm X’s red pen had encircled an item which read, “Insiders are predicting a split in the Black Muslims. Malcolm X, ousted as No. 2 man in the organization, may form a splinter group to oppose Elijah Muhammad.” Alongside the item, Malcolm X had scribbled “Imagine this!!!”
The night of the phenomenal upset, when Clay did beat Liston, Malcolm X telephoned me, and sounds of excitement were in the background. The victory party was in his motel suite, Malcolm X told me. He described what was happening, mentioned some of those who were present, and that the new heavyweight king was “in the next room, my bedroom here” taking a nap. After reminding me of the fight prediction he had made, Malcolm X said that I should look forward now to Clay’s “quick development into a major world figure. I don’t know if you really realize the world significance that this is the first Muslim champion.”
It was the following morning when Cassius Clay gave the press interview which resulted in national headlines that he was actually a “Black Muslim,” and soon after, the newspapers were carrying pictures of Malcolm X introducing the heavyweight champion to various African diplomats in the lobbies of the United Nations headquarters in New York City. Malcolm X toured Clay about in Harlem, and in other places, functioning, he said, as Clay’s “friend and religious advisor.”
I had now moved upstate to finish my work on the book, and we talked on the telephone every three or four days. He said things suggesting that he might never be returned to his former Black Muslim post, and he now began to say things quietly critical of Elijah Muhammad. Playboy magazine asked me to do an interview for them with the new champion Cassius Clay, and when I confidently asked Malcolm X to arrange for me the needed introduction to Clay, Malcolm X hesitantly said, “I think you had better ask somebody else to do that.” I was highly surprised at the reply, but I had learned never to press him for information. And then, very soon after, I received a letter. “Dear Alex Haley: A quick note. Would you prepare a properly worded letter that would enable me to change the reading of the contract so that all remaining proceeds now would go to the Muslim Mosque, Inc., or in the case of my death then to go directly to my wife, Mrs. Betty X Little? The sooner this letter or contract is changed, the more easily I will rest.” Under the signature of Malcolm X, there was a P.S.: “How is it possible to write one’s autobiography in a world so fast-changing as this?”
Soon I read in the various newspapers that rumors were being heard of threats on Malcolm X’s life. Then there was an article in the Amsterdam News: The caption was “Malcolm X Tells Of Death Threat,” and the story reported that he had said that former close associates of his in the New York mosque had sent out “a special squad” to “try to kill me in cold blood. Thanks to Allah, I learned of the plot from the very same brothers who had been sent out to murder me. These brothers had heard me represent and defend Mr. Muhammad for too long for them to swallow the lies about me without first asking me some questions for their own clarification.”
I telephoned Malcolm X, and expressed my personal concern for him. His voice sounded weary. He said that his “uppermost interest” was that any money which might come due him in the future would go directly to his new organization, or to his wife, as the letter he had signed and mailed had specified. He told me, “I know I’ve got to get a will made for myself, I never did because I never have had anything to will to anybody, but if I don’t have one and something happened to me, there could be a mess.” I expressed concern for him, and he told me that he had a loaded rifle in his home, and “I can take care of myself.”
The “Muslim Mosque, Inc.” to which Malcolm X had referred was a new organization which he had formed, which at that time consisted of perhaps forty or fifty Muslims who had left the leadership of Elijah Muhammad.
Through a close associate of Cassius Clay, whom Malcolm X had finally suggested to me, my interview appointment was arranged with the heavyweight champion, and I flew down to New York City to do the interview for Playboy. Malcolm X was “away briefly,” Sister Betty said on the phone—and she spoke brusquely. I talked with one Black Muslim lady whom I had known before she had joined, and who had been an admirer of Malcolm X. She had elected to remain in the original fold, “but I’ll tell you, brother, what a lot in the mosque are saying, you know, it’s like if you divorced your husband, you’d still like to see him once in a while.” During my interviews with Cassius Clay in his three-room suite at Harlem’s Theresa Hotel, inevitably the questions got around to Clay’s Muslim membership, then to a query about what had happened to his formerly very close relationship with Malcolm X. Evenly, Clay said, “You just don’t buck Mr. Muhammad and get away with it. I don’t want to talk about him no more.”
Elijah Muhammad at his headquarters in Chicago grew “emotionally affected” whenever the name of Malcolm X had to be raised in his presence, one of the Muslims in Clay’s entourage told me. Mr. Muhammad reportedly had said, “Brother Malcolm got to be a big man. I made him big. I was about to make him a great man.” The faithful Black Muslims predicted that soon Malcolm X would be turned upon by the defectors from Mosque Number 7 who had joined him: “They will feel betrayed.” Said others, “A great chastisement of Allah will fall upon a hypocrite.” Mr. Muhammad reportedly had said at another time, “Malcolm is destroying himself,” and that he had no wish whatever to see Malcolm X die, that he “would rather see him live and suffer his treachery.”
The general feeling among Harlemites, non-Muslims, with whom I talked was that Malcolm X had been powerful and influential enough a minister that eventually he would split the mosque membership into two hostile camps, and that in New York City at least, Elijah Muhammad’s unquestioned rule would be ended.
Malcolm X returned. He said that he had been in Boston and Philadelphia. He spent ample time with me, now during the day, in Room 1936 in the Hotel Americana. His old total ease was no longer with him. As if it was the most natural thing in the world to do, at sudden intervals he would stride to the door; pulling it open, he would look up and down the corridor, then shut the door again. “If I’m alive when this book comes out, it will be a miracle,” he said by way of explanation. “I’m not saying it distressingly—” He leaned forward and touched the buff gold bedspread. “I’m saying it like I say that’s a bedspread.”
For the first time he talked with me in some detail about what had happened. He said that his statement about President Kennedy’s assassination was not why he had been ousted from the Muslims. “It wasn’t the reason at all. Nobody said anything when I made stronger statements before.” The real reason, he said, was “jealousy in Chicago, and I had objected to the immorality of the man who professed to be more moral than anybody.”
Malcolm X said that he had increased the Nation of Islam membership from about four hundred when he had joined to around forty thousand. “I don’t think there were more than four hundred in the country when I joined, I really don’t. They were mostly older people, and many of them couldn’t even pronounce Mr. Muhammad’s name, and he stayed mostly in the background.”
Malcolm X worked hard not to show it, but he was upset. “There is nothing more frightful than ignorance in action. Goethe,” he scribbled one day. He hinted about Cassius Clay a couple of times, and when I responded only with anecdotes about my interview with Clay, he finally asked what Clay had said of him. I dug out the index card on which the question was typed in advance and Clay’s response was beneath in longhand. Malcolm X stared at the card, then out of the window, and he got up and walked around; one of the few times I ever heard his voice betray his hurt was when he said, “I felt like a blood big-brother to him.” He paused. “I’m not against him now. He’s a fine young man. Smart. He’s just let himself be used, led astray.”
And at another time there in the hotel room he came the nearest to tears that I ever saw him, and also the only time I ever heard him use, for his race, one word. He had been talking about how hard he had worked building up the Muslim organization in the early days when he was first moved to New York City, when abruptly he exclaimed hoarsely, “We had the best organization the black man’s ever had—niggers ruined it!”
A few days later, however, he wrote in one of his memo books this, which he let me read, “Children have a lesson adults should learn, to not be ashamed of failing, but to get up and try again. Most of us adults are so afraid, so cautious, so ‘safe,’ and therefore so shrinking and rigid and afraid that it is why so many humans fail. Most middle-aged adults have resigned themselves to failure.”
Telephone calls came frequently for Malcolm X when he was in the room with me, or he would make calls; he would talk in a covert, guarded manner, clearly not wishing me to be able to follow the discussion. I took to going into the bathroom at these times, and closing the door, emerging when the murmuring of his voice had stopped—hoping that made him more comfortable. Later, he would tell me that he was hearing from some Muslims who were still ostensibly Elijah Muhammad’s followers. “I’m a marked man,” he said one day, after such a call. “I’ve had highly placed people tell me to be very careful every move I make.” He thought about it. “Just as long as my family doesn’t get hurt, I’m not frightened for myself.” I have the impression that Malcolm X heard in advance that the Muslim organization was going to sue to make him vacate the home he and his family lived in.
I had become worried that Malcolm X, bitter, would want to go back through the chapters in which he had told of his Black Muslim days and re-edit them in some way. The day before I left New York City to return upstate, I raised my concern to Malcolm X. “I have thought about that,” he said. “There are a lot of things I could say that passed through my mind at times even then, things I saw and heard, but I threw them out of my mind. I’m going to let it stand the way I’ve told it. I want the book to be the way it was.”
Then—March 26, 1964—a note came from Malcolm X: “There is a chance that I may make a quick trip to several very important countries in Africa, including a pilgrimage to the Muslim Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina, beginning about April 13th. Keep this to yourself.”
While abroad, Malcolm X wrote letters and postcards to almost everyone he knew well. His letters now were signed “El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.”
Then, in mid-May, Sister Betty telephoned me, her voice jubilant: Malcolm X was returning. I flew to New York City. On May 21, the phone rang in my hotel room and Sister Betty said, “Just a minute, please—” then the deep voice said, “How are you?”
“Well! El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz! How are you?”
He said, “Just a little bit tired.” He had arrived on a Pan-American Airlines flight at 4:30. He was going to have a press conference at seven p.m. at the Hotel Theresa. “I’ll pick you up at 6:30 at 135th and Lenox, on the uptown side—all right?”
When the blue Oldsmobile stopped, and I got in, El-Hajj Malcolm, broadly beaming, wore a seersucker suit, the red hair needed a barber’s attention, and he had grown a beard. Also in the car was Sister Betty. It was the first time we had ever seen each other after more than a year of talking several times a week on the telephone. We smiled at each other. She wore dark glasses, a blue maternity suit, and she was pregnant with what would be her fourth child.
There must have been fifty still and television photographers and reporters jockeying for position, up front, and the rest of the Skyline Ballroom was filling with Negro followers of Malcolm X, or his well-wishers, and the curious. The room lit up with flickering and flooding lights as he came in the door squiring Sister Betty, holding her arm tenderly, and she was smiling broadly in her pride that this man was her man. I recognized the Times’ M. S. Handler and introduced myself; we warmly shook hands and commandeered a little two-chair table. The reporters in a thick semicircle before Malcolm X seated on the podium fired questions at him, and he gave the impression that all of his twelve years’ oratorical practice had prepared him for this new image.
“Do we correctly understand that you now do not think that all whites are evil?”
“True, sir! My trip to Mecca has opened my eyes. I no longer subscribe to racism. I have adjusted my thinking to the point where I believe that whites are human beings”—a significant pause—”as long as this is borne out by their humane attitude toward Negroes.”
They picked at his “racist” image. “I’m not a racist. I’m not condemning whites for being whites, but for their needs. I condemn what whites collectively have done to our people collectively.”
He almost continually flashed about the room the ingratiating boyish smile. He would pick at the new reddish beard. They asked him about that, did he plan to keep it? He said he hadn’t decided yet, he would have to see if he could get used to it or not. Was he maneuvering to now join the major civil rights leaders whom he had previously bitterly attacked? He answered that one sideways: “I’ll explain it this way, sir. If some men are in a car, driving with a destination in mind, and you know they are going the wrong way, but they are convinced they are going the right way, then you get into the car with them, and ride with them, talking—and finally when they see they are on the wrong road, not getting where they were intending, then you tell them, and they will listen to you then, what road to take.” He had never been in better form, weighing, parrying, answering the questions.
The Times’ Handler, beside me, was taking notes and muttering under his breath, “Incredible! Incredible!” I was thinking the same thing. I was thinking, some of the time, that if a pebble were dropped from the window behind Malcolm X, it would have struck on a sidewalk eight floors below where years before he had skulked, selling dope.
As I resumed writing upstate, periodic notes came from Malcolm X. “I hope the book is proceeding rapidly, for events concerning my life happen so swiftly, much of what has already been written can easily be outdated from month to month. In life, nothing is permanent; not even life itself (smile). So I would advise you to rush it on out as fast as possible.” Another note, special delivery, had a tone of irritation with me: he had received from the publisher a letter which indicated that he had received a $2500 check when the book contract was signed, “and therefore I will be expected to pay personal income tax on this. As you know, it was my repeated specification that this entire transaction was to be made at that time directly with and to the Mosque. In fact, I have never seen that check to this very day.”
The matter was straightened out, and I sent Malcolm X some rough chapters to read. I was appalled when they were soon returned, red-inked in many places where he had told of his almost father-and-son relationship with Elijah Muhammad. Telephoning Malcolm X, I reminded him of his previous decision, and I stressed that if those chapters contained such telegraphing to readers of what would lie ahead, then the book would automatically be robbed of some of its building suspense and drama. Malcolm X said, gruffly, “Whose book is this?” I told him “Yours, of course,” and that I only made the objection in my position as a writer. He said that he would have to think about it. I was heartsick at the prospect that he might want to re-edit the entire book into a polemic against Elijah Muhammad. But late that night, Malcolm X telephoned. “I’m sorry. You’re right. I was upset about something. Forget what I wanted changed, let what you already had stand.” I never again gave him chapters to review unless I was with him. Several times I would covertly watch him frown and wince as he read, but he never again asked for any change in what he had originally said. And the only thing that he ever indicated that he wished had been different in his life came when he was reading the chapter “Laura.” He said, “That was a smart girl, a good girl. She tried her best to make something out of me, and look what I started her into—dope and prostitution. I wrecked that girl.”
Malcolm X was busy, busy, busy; he could not visit my hotel room often, and when he did, it shortly would get the feeling of Grand Central Station. It seemed that when the telephone was not ringing for him, he was calling someone else, consulting the jotted numbers in his ever-ready memorandum book. Now he had begun to talk a great deal with various people from the Middle East or Africa who were in New York. Some of these came to see him at the hotel room. At first, I would sit by the window engrossed in reading while they talked by the room’s door in low tones. He was very apologetic when this occurred, and I told him I felt no sensitivity about it; then, afterwards, I would generally step out into the hallway, or perhaps take the elevator down to the lobby, then watch the elevators until I saw the visitor leave. One day, I remember, the phone had rung steadily with such callers as C.B.S., A.B.C., N.B.C., every New York City paper, the London Daily Express, and numerous individuals—he and I had gotten no work at all accomplished; then a television camera crew arrived and filled the room to tape an interview with Malcolm X by A.B.C.’s commentator Bill Beutel. As the crew was setting up its floodlights on tripods, a Dayton, Ohio, radio station called, wishing to interview Malcolm X by telephone. He asked me to ask them to call him the following day at his sister Ella’s home in Boston. Then the Ghana Ministry of Information called. I turned with a note to Malcolm X to whom the commentator Beutel had just said, “I won’t take much of your time, I just have a few probably stupid questions.” Glancing at my note, Malcolm X said to Beutel, “Only the unasked question is stupid,” and then to me, “Tell them I’ll call them back, please.” Then just as the television cameras began rolling, with Beutel and Malcolm X talking, the telephone rang again and it was Life magazine reporter Marc Crawford to whom I whispered what was happening. Crawford, undaunted, asked if the open receiver could be placed where he could hear the interview, and I complied, relieved that it was one way to let the interview proceed without interruption.
The manuscript copy which Malcolm X was given to review was in better shape now, and he pored through page by page, intently, and now and then his head would raise with some comment. “You know,” he said once, “why I have been able to have some effect is because I make a study of the weaknesses of this country and because the more the white man yelps, the more I know I have struck a nerve.” Another time, he put down upon the bed the manuscript he was reading, and he got up from his chair and walked back and forth, stroking his chin, then he looked at me. “You know this place here in this chapter where I told you how I put the pistol up to my head and kept pulling the trigger and scared them so when I was starting the burglary ring—well,” he paused, “I don’t know if I ought to tell you this or not, but I want to tell the truth.” He eyed me, speculatively. “I palmed the bullet.” We laughed together. I said, “Okay, give that page here, I’ll fix it.” Then he considered, “No, leave it that way. Too many people would be so quick to say that’s what I’m doing today, bluffing.”
Again when reading about the period when he had discovered the prison library, Malcolm X’s head jerked up. “Boy! I never will forget that old aardvark!” The next evening, he came into the room and told me that he had been to the Museum of Natural History and learned something about the aardvark. “Now, aardvark actually means ‘earth hog.’ That’s a good example of root words, as I was telling you. When you study the science of philology, you learn the laws governing how a consonant can lose its shape, but it keeps its identity from language to language.” What astonished me here was that I knew that on that day, Malcolm X’s schedule had been crushing, involving both a television and radio appearance and a live speech, yet he had gone to find out something about the aardvark.
Before long, Malcolm X called a press conference, and announced, “My new Organization of Afro-American Unity is a non-religious and non-sectarian group organized to unite Afro-Americans for a constructive program toward attainment of human rights.” The new OAAU’s tone appeared to be one of militant black nationalism. He said to the questions of various reporters in subsequent interviews that the OAAU would seek to convert the Negro population from non-violence to active self-defense against white supremacists across America. On the subject of politics he offered an enigma, “Whether you use bullets or ballots, you’ve got to aim well; don’t strike at the puppet, strike at the puppeteer.” Did he envision any special area of activity? “I’m going to join in the fight wherever Negroes ask for my help.” What about alliance with other Negro organizations? He said that he would consider forming some united front with certain selected Negro leaders. He conceded under questioning that the N.A.A.C.P. was “doing some good.” Could any whites join his OAAU? “If John Brown were alive, maybe him.” And he answered his critics with such statements as that he would send “armed guerrillas” into Mississippi. “I am dead serious. We will send them not only to Mississippi, but to any place where black people’s lives are threatened by white bigots. As far as I am concerned, Mississippi is anywhere south of the Canadian border.” At another time, when Evelyn Cunningham of the Pittsburgh Courier asked Malcolm X in a kidding way, “Say something startling for my column,” he told her, “Anyone who wants to follow me and my movement has got to be ready to go to jail, to the hospital, and to the cemetery before he can be truly free.” Evelyn Cunningham, printing the item, commented, “He smiled and chuckled, but he was in dead earnest.”
His fourth child, yet another daughter, was born and he and Sister Betty named the baby Gamilah Lumumbah. A young waitress named Helen Lanier, at Harlem’s Twenty Two Club where Malcolm X now often asked people to meet him, gave him a layette for the new baby. He was very deeply touched by the gesture. “Why, I hardly know that girl!”
He was clearly irked when a New York Times poll among New York City Negroes reflected that three-fourths had named Dr. Martin Luther King as “doing the best work for Negroes,” and another one-fifth had voted for the N.A.A.C.P.’s Roy Wilkins, while only six percent had voted for Malcolm X. “Brother,” he said to me, “do you realize that some of history’s greatest leaders never were recognized until they were safely in the ground!”
One morning in mid-summer 1964, Malcolm X telephoned me and said that he would be leaving “within the next two or three days” for a planned six weeks abroad. I heard from him first in Cairo, about as the predicted “long, hot summer” began in earnest, with riots and other uprisings of Negroes occurring in suburban Philadelphia, in Rochester, in Brooklyn, in Harlem, and other cities. The New York Times reported that a meeting of Negro intellectuals had agreed that Dr. Martin Luther King could secure the allegiance of the middle and upper classes of Negroes, but Malcolm X alone could secure the allegiance of Negroes at the bottom. “The Negroes respect Dr. King and Malcolm X because they sense in these men absolute integrity and know they will never sell them out. Malcolm X cannot be corrupted and the Negroes know this and therefore respect him. They also know that he comes from the lower depths, as they do, and regard him as one of their own. Malcolm X is going to play a formidable role, because the racial struggle has now shifted to the urban North . . . if Dr. King is convinced that he has sacrificed ten years of brilliant leadership, he will be forced to revise his concepts. There is only one direction in which he can move, and that is in the direction of Malcolm X.” I sent a clipping of that story to Malcolm X in Cairo.
In Washington, D.C. and New York City, at least, powerful civic, private, and governmental agencies and individuals were keenly interested in what Malcolm X was saying abroad, and were speculating upon what would he say, and possibly do, when he returned to America. In upstate New York, I received a telephone call from a close friend who said he had been asked to ask me if I would come to New York City on an appointed day to meet with “a very high government official” who was interested in Malcolm X. I did fly down to the city. My friend accompanied me to the offices of a large private foundation well known for its activities and donations in the civil rights area. I met the foundation’s president and he introduced me to the Justice Department Civil Rights Section head, Burke Marshall. Marshall was chiefly interested in Malcolm X’s finances, particularly how his extensive traveling since his Black Muslim ouster had been paid for. I told him that to the best of my knowledge the several payments from the publisher had financed Malcolm X, along with fees he received for some speeches, and possible donations that his organization received, and that Malcolm X had told me of borrowing money from his Sister Ella for the current trip, and that recently the Saturday Evening Post had bought the condensation rights of the book for a substantial sum that was soon to be received. Marshall listened quietly, intently, and asked a few questions concerning other aspects of Malcolm X’s life, then thanked me. I wrote to Malcolm X in Cairo that night about the interview. He never mentioned it.
The Saturday Evening Post flew photographer John Launois to Cairo to locate Malcolm X and photograph him in color. The magazine’s September 12 issue appeared, and I sent a copy by airmail to Malcolm X. Within a few days, I received a stinging note, expressing his anger at the magazine’s editorial regarding his life story. (The editorial’s opening sentence read, “If Malcolm X were not a Negro, his autobiography would be little more than a journal of abnormal psychology, the story of a burglar, dope pusher, addict and jailbird—with a family history of insanity—who acquires messianic delusions and sets forth to preach an upside-down religion of ‘brotherly’ hatred.”) I wrote to Malcolm X that he could not fairly hold me responsible for what the magazine had written in a separate editorial opinion. He wrote an apology, “but the greatest care must be exercised in the future.”
His return from Africa was even more auspicious than when he had returned from the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. A large group of Negroes, his followers and well-wishers, kept gathering in the Overseas Arrival Building at Kennedy Airport. When I entered, white men with cameras were positioned on the second level, taking pictures of all the Negroes who entered, and almost as obvious were Negro plain-clothesmen moving about. Malcolm’s greeters had draped across the glass overlooking the U.S. Customs Inspection line some large cloth banners on which were painted in bold letters, “Welcome Home, Malcolm.”
He came in sight, stepping into one of the Customs Inspection lines; he heard the cheering and he looked up, smiling his pleasure.
Malcolm X wanted to “huddle” with me to fill me in on details from his trip that he wanted in the book. He said that he was giving me only the highlights, because he felt that his carefully kept diary might be turned into another book. We had intensive sessions in my hotel room, where he read what he selected from the diary, and I took notes. “What I want to stress is that I was trying to internationalize our problem,” he said to me, “to make the Africans feel their kinship with us Afro-Americans. I made them think about it, that they are our blood brothers, and we all came from the same foreparents. That’s why the Africans loved me, the same way the Asians loved me because I was religious.”
Within a few days, he had no more time to see me. He would call and apologize; he was beset by a host of problems, some of which he mentioned, and some of which I heard from other people. Most immediately, there was discontent within his organization, the OAAU. His having stayed away almost three times as long as he had said he would be gone had sorely tested the morale of even his key members, and there was a general feeling that his interest was insufficient to expect his followers’ interest to stay high. I heard from one member that “a growing disillusion” could be sensed throughout the organization.
In Harlem at large, in the bars and restaurants, on the street corners and stoops, there could be heard more blunt criticism of Malcolm X than ever before in his career. There were, variously expressed, two primary complaints. One was that actually Malcolm X only talked, but other civil rights organizations were doing. “All he’s ever done was talk, CORE and SNCC and some of them people of Dr. King’s are out getting beat over the head.” The second major complaint was that Malcolm X was himself too confused to be seriously followed any longer. “He doesn’t know what he believes in. No sooner do you hear one thing than he’s switched to something else.” The two complaints were not helping the old firebrand Malcolm X image any, nor were they generating the local public interest that was badly needed by his small, young OAAU.
A court had made it clear that Malcolm X and his family would have to vacate the Elmhurst house for its return to the adjudged legal owners, Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam. And other immediate problems which Malcolm X faced included finances. Among his other expenses, a wife and four daughters had to be supported, along with at least one full-time OAAU official. Upon his return from Africa, our agent for the book had delivered to me for Malcolm X a check for a sizable sum; soon afterward Malcolm X told me, laughing wryly, “It’s evaporated. I don’t know where!”
Malcolm X plunged into a welter of activities. He wrote and telephoned dozens of acceptances to invitations to speak, predominantly at colleges and universities—both to expound his philosophies and to earn the $150-$300 honorariums above traveling expenses. When he was in New York City, he spent all the time he could in his OAAU’s sparsely furnished office on the mezzanine floor of the Hotel Theresa, trying to do something about the OAAU’s knotty problems. “I’m not exposing our size in numbers,” he evaded the query of one reporter. “You know, the strongest part of a tree is the root, and if you expose the root, the tree dies. Why, we have many ‘invisible’ members, of all types. Unlike other leaders, I’ve practiced the flexibility to put myself into contact with every kind of Negro in the country.”
Even at mealtimes, at his favorite Twenty Two Club, or elsewhere in Harlem, he could scarcely eat for the people who came up asking for appointments to discuss with him topics ranging from personal problems to his opinions on international issues. It seemed not in him to say “No” to such requests. And aides of his, volunteering their time, as often as not had to wait lengthy periods to get his ear for matters important to the OAAU, or to himself; often, even then, he most uncharacteristically showed an impatience with their questions or their suggestions, and they chafed visibly. And at least once weekly, generally on Sunday evenings, he would address as many Negroes as word of mouth and mimeographed advertising could draw to hear him in Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom on West 166th Street between Broadway and St. Nicholas Avenue, near New York City’s famous Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center.
Malcolm X for some reason suddenly began to deliver a spate of attacks against Elijah Muhammad, making more bitter accusations of “religious fakery” and “immorality” than he ever had. Very possibly, Malcolm X had grown increasingly incensed by the imminence of the court’s deadline for him to have to move his wife and four little daughters from the comfortable home in which they had lived for years in Elmhurst. And Sister Betty was again pregnant. “A home is really the only thing I’ve ever provided Betty since we’ve been married,” he had told me, discussing the court’s order, “and they want to take that away. Man, I can’t keep on putting her through changes, all she’s put up with—man, I’ve got to love this woman!”
A rash of death threats were anonymously telephoned to the police, to various newspapers, to the OAAU office, and to the family’s home in Elmhurst. When he went to court again, fighting to keep the house, he was guarded by a phalanx of eight OAAU men, twenty uniformed policemen, and twelve plain-clothes detectives. The court’s decision was that the order to vacate would not be altered. When Malcolm X reached home in Long Island, one of his followers, telephoning him there, got, instead, a telephone company operator who said that the OL 1-6320 number was “disconnected.” A carload of his OAAU followers, racing to Long Island, found Malcolm X and his family perfectly safe. Inquiry of the telephone company revealed that a “Mrs. Small” had called and requested that the service for that number be disconnected, “for vacation.” The OAAU followers drove back to Harlem. There was an ensuing confrontation between them and followers of Elijah Muhammad in front of the Black Muslim restaurant at 116th Street and Lenox Avenue. The incident wound up with policemen who rushed to the scene finding two guns in the OAAU car, and the six OAAU men were arrested.
Malcolm X had a date to speak in Boston, but he was too busy to go, and he sent an OAAU assistant who spoke instead. The car returning him to the Boston Airport was blocked at the East Boston Tunnel by another car. Reportedly, men with knives rushed out of the blockade car, but the Malcolm X forces showed a shotgun, and the attackers dispersed.
Malcolm X steadily accused the Black Muslims as the source of the various attacks and threats. “There is no group in the United States more able to carry out this threat than the Black Muslims,” he said. “I know, because I taught them myself.” Asked why he had attacked the Black Muslims and Elijah Muhammad when things had seemed to be cooled down, he said, “I would not have revealed any of this if they had left me alone.” He let himself be photographed in his home holding an automatic carbine rifle with a full double clip of ammunition that he said he kept ready for action against any possible assassination efforts. “I have taught my wife to use it, and instructed her to fire on anyone, white, black, or yellow, who tries to force his way inside.”
I went to New York City in December for Malcolm X’s reading of final additions to the manuscript, to include the latest developments. He was further than I had ever seen him from his old assured self, it seemed to me. He kept saying that the press was making light of his statements about the threats on his life. “They act like I’m jiving!” He brought up again the Saturday Evening Post editorial. “You can’t trust the publishing people, I don’t care what they tell you.” The agent for the book sent to my hotel a contract dealing with foreign publication rights which needed Malcolm X’s and my signature. I signed it as he observed and handed the pen to him. He looked suspiciously at the contract, and said, “I had better show this thing to my lawyer,” and put the contract in his inside coat pocket. Driving in Harlem about an hour later, he suddenly stopped the car across the street from the 135th Street Y.M.C.A. Building. Withdrawing the contract, he signed it, and thrust it to me. “I’ll trust you,” he said, and drove on.
With Christmas approaching, upon an impulse I bought for Malcolm X’s two oldest daughters two large dolls, with painted brown complexions, the kind of dolls that would “walk” when held by the left hand. When Malcolm X next came to my room in the Hotel Wellington, I said, “I’ve gotten something for you to take to Attallah and Qubilah for Christmas gifts,” and I “walked” out the dolls. Amazement, then a wide grin spread over his face. “Well, what do you know about that? Well, how about that!” He bent to examine the dolls. His expression showed how touched he was. “You know,” he said after a while, “this isn’t something I’m proud to say, but I don’t think I’ve ever bought one gift for my children. Everything they play with, either Betty got it for them, or somebody gave it to them, never me. That’s not good, I know it. I’ve always been too busy.”
In early January, I flew from upstate New York to Kennedy Airport where I telephoned Malcolm X at home and told him that I was waiting for another plane to Kansas City to witness the swearing-in of my younger brother George who had recently been elected a Kansas State Senator. “Tell your brother for me to remember us in the alley,” Malcolm X said. “Tell him that he and all of the other moderate Negroes who are getting somewhere need to always remember that it was us extremists who made it possible.” He said that when I was ready to leave Kansas, to telephone him saying when I would arrive back in New York, and if he could we could get together. I did this, and he met me at Kennedy Airport. He had only a little while, he was so pressed, he said; he had to leave that afternoon himself for a speaking engagement which had come up. So I made reservations for the next flight back upstate, then we went outside and sat and talked in his car in a parking lot. He talked about the pressures on him everywhere he turned, and about the frustrations, among them that no one wanted to accept anything relating to him except “my old ‘hate’ and ‘violence’ image.” He said “the so-called moderate” civil rights organizations avoided him as “too militant” and the “so-called militants” avoided him as “too moderate.” “They won’t let me turn the corner!” he once exclaimed, “I’m caught in a trap!”
In a happier area, we talked about the coming baby. We laughed about the four girls in a row already. “This one will be the boy,” he said. He beamed, “If not, the next one!” When I said it was close to time for my plane to leave, he said he had to be getting on, too. I said, “Give my best to Sister Betty,” he said that he would, we shook hands and I got outside and stood as he backed the blue Oldsmobile from its parking space. I called out “See you!” and we waved as he started driving away. There was no way to know that it was the last time I would see him alive.
On January 19, Malcolm X appeared on the Pierre Berton television show in Canada and said, in response to a question about integration and intermarriage:
“I believe in recognizing every human being as a human being—neither white, black, brown, or red; and when you are dealing with humanity as a family there’s no question of integration or intermarriage. It’s just one human being marrying another human being or one human being living around and with another human being. I may say, though, that I don’t think it should ever be put upon a black man, I don’t think the burden to defend any position should ever be put upon the black man, because it is the white man collectively who has shown that he is hostile toward integration and toward intermarriage and toward these other strides toward oneness. So as a black man and especially as a black American, any stand that I formerly took, I don’t think that I would have to defend it because it’s still a reaction to the society, and it’s a reaction that was produced by the society; and I think that it is the society that produced this that should be attacked, not the reaction that develops among the people who are the victims of that negative society.”
From this, it would be fair to say that one month before his death, Malcolm had revised his views on intermarriage to the point where he regarded it as simply a personal matter.
On the 28th of January, Malcolm X was on TWA’s Flight No. 9 from New York that landed at about three p.m. in Los Angeles. A special police intelligence squad saw Malcolm X greeted by two close friends, Edward Bradley and Allen Jamal, who drove him to the Statler-Hilton Hotel where Malcolm X checked into Room 1129. Said Bradley, “As we entered the lobby, six men came in right after us. I recognized them as Black Muslims.” When Malcolm X returned downstairs to the lobby, he “practically bumped into the Muslim entourage. The Muslims were stunned. Malcolm’s face froze, but he never broke his gait. Then, we knew we were facing trouble.” Malcolm X’s friends drove him to pick up “two former secretaries of Elijah Muhammad, who (had) filed paternity suits against him,” and they went to the office of the colorful Los Angeles attorney Gladys Root. Mrs. Root said that Malcolm X made accusations about Elijah Muhammad’s conduct with various former secretaries.
After dinner, Malcolm X’s two friends drove him back to the hotel. “Black Muslims were all over the place,” Bradley related. “Some were in cars and others stood around near the hotel. They had the hotel completely surrounded. Malcolm sized up the situation and jumped out of the car. He warned me to watch out and ran into the lobby. He went to his room and remained there for the rest of his stay in Los Angeles.”
The car in which Malcolm X left the hotel, bound for the airport, was followed, said Bradley. “Hardly had we got on the freeway when we saw two carloads of Black Muslims following us. The cars started to pull alongside. Malcolm picked up my walking cane and stuck it out of a back window as if it were a rifle. The two cars fell behind. We picked up speed, pulled off the airport ramp, and roared up to the front of the terminal. The police were waiting and Malcolm was escorted to the plane through an underground passageway. Then I saw Malcolm to the plane.”
Chicago police were waiting when the plane landed at O’Hare Airport that night at eight o’clock. Driven to the Bristol Hotel, Malcolm X checked in, and the adjoining suite was taken by members of the police force who would keep him under steady guard for the next three days in Chicago. Malcolm X testified at the office of the Attorney General of the State of Illinois which had been investigating the Nation of Islam. Another day he appeared on the television program of Irv Kupcinet; he described attempts that had been made to kill him. He said he had on his desk a letter naming the persons assigned to kill him. When police returned Malcolm X to his hotel “at least fifteen grim-faced Negroes (were) loitering nearby.” Whispered Malcolm X to Detective Sergeant Edward McClellan, “Those are all Black Muslims. At least two of them I recognize as being from New York. Elijah seems to know every move I make.” Later, in his room, he told the detective, “It’s only going to be a matter of time before they catch up with me. I know too much about the Muslims. But their threats are not going to stop me from what I am determined to do.” After that night spent in the hotel, Malcolm X was police-escorted back to O’Hare where he caught a plane to New York City’s Kennedy Airport.
Right away, he was served with a court order of eviction from the Elmhurst home. He telephoned me upstate. His voice was strained. He told me that he had filed an appeal to the court order, that on the next day he was going to Alabama, and thence to England and France for scheduled speeches, and soon after returning he would go to Jackson, Mississippi, to address the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, on February 19. Then he said—the first time he had ever voiced to me such an admission—”Haley, my nerves are shot, my brain’s tired.” He said that upon his return from Mississippi, he would like to come and spend two or three days in the town where I was, and read the book’s manuscript again. “You say it’s a quiet town. Just a couple of days of peace and quiet, that’s what I need.” I said that he knew he was welcome, but there was no need for him to tax himself reading through the long book again, as it had only a few very minor editing changes since he had only recently read it. “I just want to read it one more time,” he said, “because I don’t expect to read it in finished form.” So we made a tentative agreement that the day after his projected return from Mississippi, he would fly upstate to visit for a weekend with me. The projected date was the Saturday and Sunday of February 20-21.
Jet magazine reported Malcolm X’s trip to Selma, Alabama, on the invitation of two members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Dr. Martin Luther King was in a Selma jail when Malcolm X’s arrival sent officials of Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference “into a tailspin.” Quickly, the SCLC’s Executive Director Reverend Andrew Young and Reverend James Bevel met with Malcolm X, urging him not to incite any incidents and cautioning him that his presence could cause violence. “He listened with a smile,” said Miss Faye Bellamy, secretary of the SNCC, who accompanied Malcolm X to a Negro church where he would address a mass meeting. “Remember this: nobody puts words in my mouth,” he told Miss Bellamy. He told her that “in about two weeks” he planned to start Southern recruiting for his Harlem-based OAAU. At the church where he would speak, Malcolm X was seated on the platform next to Mrs. Martin Luther King, to whom he leaned and whispered that he was “trying to help,” she told Jet. “He said he wanted to present an alternative; that it might be easier for whites to accept Martin’s proposals after hearing him (Malcolm X). I didn’t understand him at first,” said Mrs. King. “He seemed rather anxious to let Martin know he was not causing trouble or making it difficult, but that he was trying to make it easier. . . . Later, in the hallway, he reiterated this. He seemed sincere. . . .”
Addressing the mass meeting Malcolm X reportedly shouted: “I don’t advocate violence, but if a man steps on my toes, I’ll step on his.” . . . “Whites better be glad Martin Luther King is rallying the people because other forces are waiting to take over if he fails.”
Returned to New York City, Malcolm X soon flew to France. He was scheduled to speak before a Congress of African Students. But he was formally advised that he would not be permitted to speak and, moreover, that he could consider himself officially barred forever from France as “an undesirable person.” He was asked to leave—and he did, fuming with indignation.
He flew on to London, and reporters of the British Broadcasting Corporation took him on an interviewing tour in Smethwick, a town near Birmingham with a large colored population. Numerous residents raised a storm of criticism that the B.B.C. was a party to a “fanning of racism” in the already tension-filled community. On this visit, he spoke also at the London School of Economics.
Malcolm X returned to New York City on Saturday, February 13th. He was asleep with his family when at about a quarter of three the following Sunday morning, a terrifying blast awakened them. Sister Betty would tell me later that Malcolm X, barking commands and snatching up screaming, frightened children, got the family safely out of the back door into the yard. Someone had thrown flaming Molotov cocktail gasoline bombs through the front picture window. It took the fire department an hour to extinguish the flames. Half the house was destroyed. Malcolm X had no fire insurance.
Pregnant, distraught Sister Betty and the four little daughters went to the home of close friends. Malcolm X steeled himself to catch a plane as scheduled that morning to speak in Detroit. He wore an open-necked sweater shirt under his suit. Immediately afterward, he flew back to New York. Monday morning, amid a flurry of emergency re-housing plans for his family, Malcolm X was outraged when he learned that Elijah Muhammad’s New York Mosque Number 7 Minister James X had told the press that Malcolm X himself had fire-bombed the home “to get publicity.”
Monday night, Malcolm X spoke to an audience in the familiar Audubon Ballroom. If he had possessed the steel nerves not to become rattled in public before, now he was: “I’ve reached the end of my rope!” he shouted to the audience of five hundred. “I wouldn’t care for myself if they would not harm my family!” He declared flatly, “My house was bombed by the Muslims!” And he hinted at revenge. “There are hunters; there are also those who hunt the hunters!”
Tuesday, February 16th, Malcolm X telephoned me. He spoke very briefly, saying that the complications following the bombing of his home had thrown his plans so awry that he would be unable to visit me upstate on the weekend as he had said he would. He said he had also had to cancel his planned trip to Jackson, Mississippi, which he was going to try and make later. He said he had to hurry to an appointment, and hung up. I would read later where also on that day, he told a close associate, “I have been marked for death in the next five days. I have the names of five Black Muslims who have been chosen to kill me. I will announce them at the meeting.” And Malcolm X told a friend that he was going to apply to the Police Department for a permit to carry a pistol. “I don’t know whether they will let me have one or not, as I served time in prison.”
On Thursday he told a reporter, in an interview which did not appear until after his death: “I’m man enough to tell you that I can’t put my finger on exactly what my philosophy is now, but I’m flexible.”
The blackboard in the OAAU office counseled members and visitors that “Bro. Malcolm Speaks Thurs. Feb. 18, WINS Station, 10:30 p.m.” Earlier Thursday, Malcolm X discussed locating another home with a real estate dealer. On Friday, he had an appointment with Gordon Parks, the Life magazine photographer-author whom he had long admired and respected. “He appeared calm and somewhat resplendent with his goatee and astrakhan hat,” Parks would report later in Life. “Much of the old hostility and bitterness seemed to have left him, but the fire and confidence were still there.” Malcolm X, speaking of the old Mosque Number 7 days, said, “That was a bad scene, brother. The sickness and madness of those days—I’m glad to be free of them. It’s a time for martyrs now. And if I’m to be one, it will be in the cause of brotherhood. That’s the only thing that can save this country. I’ve learned it the hard way—but I’ve learned it. . . .”
Parks asked Malcolm X if it was really true that killers were after him. “It’s as true as we are standing here,” Malcolm X said. “They’ve tried it twice in the last two weeks.” Parks asked him about police protection, and Malcolm X laughed, “Brother, nobody can protect you from a Muslim but a Muslim—or someone trained in Muslim tactics. I know. I invented many of those tactics.”
Recalling the incident of the young white college girl who had come to the Black Muslim restaurant and asked “What can I do?” and he told her “Nothing,” and she left in tears, Malcolm X told Gordon Parks, “Well, I’ve lived to regret that incident. In many parts of the African continent I saw white students helping black people. Something like this kills a lot of argument. I did many things as a Muslim that I’m sorry for now. I was a zombie then—like all Muslims—I was hypnotized, pointed in a certain direction and told to march. Well, I guess a man’s entitled to make a fool of himself if he’s ready to pay the cost. It cost me twelve years.”
Saturday morning, he drove Sister Betty to see a real estate man. The house that the man then showed them that Malcolm X particularly liked, in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood also on Long Island, required a $3000 down payment. Sister Betty indicated her approval, too, and Malcolm X told the real estate man he thought they would take it. Driving Sister Betty back to the friends’ home where she was staying with the children, they estimated that it would cost them about another $1000 to make the move. He stayed until mid-afternoon with Sister Betty at the friends’ home, talking. He told her that he realized that she had been under protracted great strain, and that he was sorry about it. When he got his hat to leave, to drive into Manhattan, standing in the hallway, he told Sister Betty, “We’ll all be together. I want my family with me. Families shouldn’t be separated. I’ll never make another long trip without you. We’ll get somebody to keep the children. I’ll never leave you so long again.”
“I couldn’t help but just break out grinning,” Sister Betty would later tell me.
She figured that he must have stopped at a nearby drugstore to use the telephone booth when I later told her that Malcolm X had telephoned me upstate at about 3:30 that afternoon.
For the first time in nearly two years, I did not recognize immediately that the voice on the other end of the phone belonged to Malcolm X. He sounded as if he had a heavy, deep cold. He told me that in the middle of the night he and some friends had helped a moving company’s men take out of the other house all of the family’s furniture and other belongings salvageable after the fire-bombing—before a sheriff’s eviction party would set the things out on the sidewalk. “Betty and I have been looking at a house we want to buy”—he tried a chuckle—”you know nobody’s going to rent, not to me, these days!” He said, “All I’ve got is about $150,” and that he needed a $3000 down payment plus $1000 moving costs; he asked if I thought the publisher would advance him $4000 against the projected profits from the book. I said that when our agent’s offices opened on Monday morning, I would telephone and I knew that he would query the publisher to see if it couldn’t be arranged, then Monday night I would call him back and let him know.
He said that he and Sister Betty had decided that although they were going to pay for the house, to avoid possible trouble they had gotten the agreement of his sister Ella who lived in Boston to let the house be bought in her name. He said that he still owed $1500 to his sister Ella which she had loaned him to make one trip abroad. Eventually they would change the house’s title into Sister Betty’s name, he said, or maybe into the name of their oldest daughter, Attallah.
He digressed on the dangers he faced. “But, you know, I’m going to tell you something, brother—the more I keep thinking about this thing, the things that have been happening lately, I’m not all that sure it’s the Muslims. I know what they can do, and what they can’t, and they can’t do some of the stuff recently going on. Now, I’m going to tell you, the more I keep thinking about what happened to me in France, I think I’m going to quit saying it’s the Muslims.”
Then—it seemed to me such an odd, abrupt change of subject: “You know, I’m glad I’ve been the first to establish official ties between Afro-Americans and our blood brothers in Africa.” And saying good-bye, he hung up.
After that telephone call, Malcolm X drove on into Manhattan and to the New York Hilton Hotel between 53rd and 54th streets at Rockefeller Center. He checked the blue Oldsmobile into the hotel garage and then, in the lobby, he checked himself in and was assigned a twelfth-floor room, to which a bellman accompanied him.
Soon some Negro men entered the giant hotel’s busy lobby.
They began asking various bellmen what room Malcolm X was in. The bellmen, of course, never would answer that question concerning any guest—and considering that it was Malcolm X whom practically everyone who read New York City newspapers knew was receiving constant death threats, the bellmen quickly notified the hotel’s security chief. From then until Malcolm X checked out the next day, extra security vigilance was continuously maintained on the twelfth floor. During that time, Malcolm X left the room only once, to have dinner in the hotel’s lobby-level, dimly lit Bourbon Room.
Sunday morning at nine o’clock, Sister Betty in Long Island was surprised when her husband telephoned her and asked if she felt it would be too much trouble for her to get all of the four children dressed and bring them to the two o’clock meeting that afternoon at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. She said, “Of course it won’t!” On Saturday he had told her that she couldn’t come to the meeting. He said to her, “You know what happened an hour ago? Exactly at eight o’clock, the phone woke me up. Some man said, ‘Wake up, brother’ and hung up.” Malcolm X said good-bye to Sister Betty.
And four hours later, Malcolm X left his room and took an elevator down to the lobby, where he checked out. He got his car and in the clear, warm midday of Sunday, February 21, he drove uptown to the Audubon Ballroom.
The Audubon Ballroom, between Broadway and St. Nicholas Avenue, on the south side of West 166th Street, is a two-story building frequently rented for dances, organization functions, and other affairs. A dark, slender, pretty young lady, occupationally a receptionist and avocationally a hardworking OAAU assistant to Malcolm X, has since told me that she arrived early, about 1:30 p.m., having some preliminary work to do. Entering, she saw that the usual four hundred wooden chairs had been set up, with aisles on either side, but no center aisle; the young lady (she wishes to be nameless) noticed that several people were already seated in the front rows, but she gave it no thought since some always came early, liking to get seats up close to the stage, to savor to the fullest the dramatic orator Malcolm X. On the stage, behind the speaker’s stand, were eight straight brown chairs arranged in a row and behind it was the stage’s painted backdrop, a mural of a restful country scene. The young lady’s responsibilities for this day had included making arrangements and subsequent confirmations with the scheduled co-speaker, the Reverend Milton Galamison, the militant Brooklyn Presbyterian who in 1964 had led the two one-day Negro boycotts in New York City public schools, protesting “racial imbalance.” She had similarly made arrangements with some other prominent Negroes who were due to appeal to the audience for their maximum possible contributions to aid the work of Malcolm X and his organization.
The people who entered the ballroom were not searched at the door. In recent weeks, Malcolm X had become irritable about this, saying “It makes people uncomfortable” and that it reminded him of Elijah Muhammad. “If I can’t be safe among my own kind, where can I be?” he had once said testily. For this day, also, he had ordered the press—as such—barred, white or black. He was angry at what he interpreted as “slanted” press treatment recently; he felt especially that the newspapers had not taken seriously his statements of the personal danger he was in. United Press International reporter Stanley Scott, a Negro, had been admitted, he later said, when a Malcolm lieutenant decided, “As a Negro, you will be allowed to enter as a citizen if you like, but you must remove your press badge.” The same criterion had applied to WMCA newsman Hugh Simpson. Both he and Scott came early enough so that they obtained seats up near the stage.
Malcolm X entered the ballroom at shortly before two o’clock, trudging heavily instead of with his usual lithe strides, his young lady assistant has told me. By this time several other of his assistants were filtering in and out of the small anteroom alongside the stage. He sat down sideways on a chair, his long legs folded around its bottom, and he leaned one elbow on a kind of counter before a rather rickety make-up mirror that entertainers used when dances were held in the ballroom. He wore a dark suit, white shirt and narrow dark tie. He said to a little group of his assistants that he wasn’t going to talk about his personal troubles, “I don’t want that to be the reason for anyone to come to hear me.” He stood up and paced about the little room. He said he was going to state that he had been hasty to accuse the Black Muslims of bombing his home. “Things have happened since that are bigger than what they can do. I know what they can do. Things have gone beyond that.”
Those in the anteroom could hear the sounds of the enlarging audience outside taking seats. “The way I feel, I ought not to go out there at all today,” Malcolm X said. “In fact, I’m going to ease some of this tension by telling the black man not to fight himself—that’s all a part of the white man’s big maneuver, to keep us fighting among ourselves, against each other. I’m not fighting anyone, that’s not what we’re here for.” He kept glancing at his wrist watch, anticipating the arrival of Reverend Galamison. “Whenever you make any appointment with a minister,” he said to his young lady assistant, “you have to call them two or three hours before time, because they will change their mind. This is typical of ministers.”
“I felt bad, I felt that it was my fault,” the young lady told me. “It was time for the meeting to start, too.” She turned to Malcolm X’s stalwart assistant Benjamin X, known as a highly able speaker himself. “Brother, will you speak?” she asked—then, turning to Malcolm X, “Is it all right if he speaks? And maybe he could introduce you.” Malcolm X abruptly whirled on her, and barked, “You know you shouldn’t ask me right in front of him!” Then, collecting himself quickly, he said “Okay,” Brother Benjamin X asked how long he should speak. Malcolm X said, glancing again at his wristwatch, “Make it half an hour.” And Brother Benjamin X went through the door leading onto the stage. They heard him expertly exhorting the audience about what is needed today by “the black man here in these United States.”
The Reverend Galamison and other notables due hadn’t arrived by three o’clock. “Brother Malcolm looked so disappointed,” the young lady says. “He said to me ‘I don’t think any of them are coming, either.’ I felt so terrible for him. It did seem as if no one cared. I told him ‘Oh, don’t worry, they’re just late, they’ll be here.'” (It was also reported by another source that Galamison, unable to come to the meeting, did telephone earlier, and that Malcolm X was told of this before he went out to speak.)
Then Brother Benjamin X’s half-hour was up, and the young lady and Malcolm X, alone back there in the anteroom, could hear him entering the introduction: “And now, without further remarks, I present to you one who is willing to put himself on the line for you, a man who would give his life for you—I want you to hear, listen, to understand—one who is a trojan for the black man!”
Applause rose from the audience; at the anteroom door, Malcolm X turned and looked back at his young lady assistant. “You’ll have to forgive me for raising my voice to you—I’m just about at my wit’s end.”
“Oh, don’t mention it!” she said quickly, “I understand.”
His voice sounded far away, “I wonder if anybody really understands—” And he walked out onto the stage, into the applause, smiling and nodding at Brother Benjamin X who passed him en route to the anteroom.
The young lady had picked up some paperwork she had to do when Benjamin X came in, perspiring. She patted his hand, saying, “That was good!” Through the anteroom door, just ajar, she and Benjamin X heard the applause diminishing, then the familiar ringing greeting, “Asalaikum, brothers and sisters!”
“Asalaikum salaam!” some in the audience responded.
About eight rows of seats from the front, then, a disturbance occurred. In a sudden scuffling, a man’s voice was raised angrily, “Take your hand out of my pocket!” The entire audience was swiveling to look. “Hold it! Hold it! Don’t get excited,” Malcolm X said crisply, “Let’s cool it, brothers—”
With his own attention distracted, it is possible that he never saw the gunmen. One woman who was seated near the front says. “The commotion back there diverted me just for an instant, then I turned back to look at Malcolm X just in time to see at least three men in the front row stand and take aim and start firing simultaneously. It looked like a firing squad.” Numerous persons later said they saw two men rushing toward the stage, one with a shotgun, the other with two revolvers. Said U.P.I. reporter Stanley Scott: “Shots rang out. Men, women and children ran for cover. They stretched out on the floor and ducked under tables.” Radio Station WMCA reporter Hugh Simpson said, “Then I heard this muffled sound, I saw Malcolm hit with his hands still raised, then he fell back over the chairs behind him. Everybody was shouting. I saw one man firing a gun from under his coat behind me as I hit it [the floor], too. He was firing like he was in some Western, running backward toward the door and firing at the same time.”
The young lady who was in the backstage anteroom told me, “It sounded like an army had taken over. Somehow, I knew. I wouldn’t go and look. I wanted to remember him as he was.”
Malcolm X’s hand flew to his chest as the first of sixteen shotgun pellets or revolver slugs hit him. Then the other hand flew up. The middle finger of the left hand was bullet-shattered, and blood gushed from his goatee. He clutched his chest. His big body suddenly fell back stiffly, knocking over two chairs; his head struck the stage floor with a thud.
In the bedlam of shouting, screaming, running people, some ran toward the stage. Among them Sister Betty scrambled up from where she had thrown her body over her children, who were shrieking; she ran crying hysterically, “My husband! They’re killing my husband!” An unidentified photographer snapped shots of Malcolm X supine on the stage floor with people bent over him snatching apart his bloody shirt, loosening his tie, trying to give him mouth-to-mouth artificial respiration, first a woman, then a man. Said the woman, who identified herself only as a registered nurse, “I don’t know how I got up on the stage, but I threw myself down on who I thought was Malcolm—but it wasn’t. I was willing to die for the man, I would have taken the bullets myself; then I saw Malcolm, and the firing had stopped, and I tried to give him artificial respiration.” Then Sister Betty came through the people, herself a nurse, and people recognizing her moved back; she fell on her knees looking down on his bare, bullet-pocked chest, sobbing, “They killed him!”
Patrolman Thomas Hoy, 22, was stationed outside the Audubon Ballroom entrance. “I heard the shooting and the place exploded.” He rushed inside, he saw Malcolm X lying on the stage, and then some people chasing a man. Patrolman Hoy “grabbed the suspect.”
Louis Michaux, the owner of the Nationalist Memorial Bookstore at 125th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem, said, “I was arriving late at the meeting where Malcolm X had invited me, I met a large number of people rushing out.”
Sergeant Alvin Aronoff and Patrolman Louis Angelos happened to be cruising by in their radio car when they heard shots. “When we got there,” said Aronoff, “the crowds were pushing out and screaming ‘Malcolm’s been shot!’ and ‘Get ‘im, get ‘im, don’t let him go!'” The two policemen grabbed by the arms a Negro who was being kicked as he tried to escape. Firing a warning shot into the air, the policemen pushed the man into their police car, not wanting the angry crowd to close in, and drove him quickly to the police station.
Someone had run up to the Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital’s Vanderbilt Clinic emergency entrance at 167th Street and grabbed a poles-and-canvas stretcher and brought it back to the Audubon Ballroom stage. Malcolm X was put on the stretcher and an unidentified photographer got a macabre picture of him, with his mouth open and his teeth bared, as men rushed him up to the hospital clinic emergency entrance. A hospital spokesman said later that it was about 3:15 p.m. when Malcolm X reached a third-floor operating room. He was “either dead, or in a death-appearing state,” said the spokesman.
A team of surgeons cut through his chest to attempt to massage the heart. The effort was abandoned at 3:30 p.m.
Reporters who had descended upon the hospital office fired questions at the spokesman, who kept saying brusquely, “I don’t know.” Then he took the elevator upstairs to the emergency operating room. A small crowd of friends and Sister Betty had also pushed into the hospital office when the hospital spokesman returned. Collecting himself, he made an announcement: “The gentleman you know as Malcolm X is dead. He died from gunshot wounds. He was apparently dead before he got here. He was shot in the chest several times, and once in the cheek.”
The group filed out of the hospital office. The Negro men were visibly fighting their emotions; one kept smashing his fist into the other cupped palm. Among the women, many were openly crying.
Moments after the news flashed throughout Harlem (and throughout the entire world), a crowd began to gather outside the Hotel Theresa where Malcolm X’s OAAU had its headquarters. They learned over transistor radios that the man whom the two policemen had taken from the murder scene initially identified himself as Thomas Hagan, 22 (he was later identified as Talmadge Hayer), in whose right trousers pocket the policemen had found a .45 caliber cartridge clip containing four unused cartridges, and then at Jewish Memorial Hospital doctors had reported that Hayer had been shot in the left thigh, his forehead was bruised and his body was beaten. “If we hadn’t gotten him away, they would have kicked him to death,” Sergeant Aronoff had said, and Hayer had been taken to the Bellevue Hospital Prison Ward.
By five p.m., the crowd in front of the Theresa Hotel had been quietly, carefully dispersed, and the Black Muslim Mosque Number 7 and its restaurant around the corner, at 116th Street and Lenox Avenue, had been ordered closed as a precautionary measure, on the orders of the local 28th Precinct’s Captain Lloyd Sealy. New York City’s first Negro to command a precinct. When reporters telephoned the Black Muslim restaurant, a man’s voice stated, “No one is available to make any statement.” When the OAAU office in the Theresa Hotel was tried, the telephone kept ringing, unanswered. Precinct Captain Sealy soon appeared, walking by himself along 125th Street, swinging his nightstick and conversing with people he met.
At the 28th Precinct station house on West 123rd Street, the forty policemen who were to have gone off duty at four p.m. had been told they must remain on duty, and two full busloads of the highly trained New York City Police Tactical Patrol Force had arrived at the precinct. Various high police officials made press statements. A Tactical Patrol Force Captain, Harry Kaiser, said no unusual occurrences had been noted, and he anticipated no trouble. Deputy Police Commissioner Walter Arm said that hundreds” of extra policemen would be put into the Harlem area, including some members of the Bureau of Special Services. An Assistant Chief Inspector, Harry Taylor, speculated that the assassins had not rushed from the ballroom among the crowd, but had kept running past the stage and escaped on 165th Street. In the early evening, the police department’s Chief of Detectives Philip J. Walsh quit a vacation he was on to join the hunt for the killers, and he said he looked forward to “a long-drawn-out investigation.” Police and reporters at the shooting scene had pictures taken of the stage, with white chalk marks now circling five bullet holes in the speaker’s stand; there were other holes in the stage’s mural backdrop, indicating slugs or shotgun pellets which had either missed Malcolm X or passed through him. Police declined to discuss a rumor sweeping Harlem that they had some motion pictures which had been taken in the Audubon Ballroom as the murder took place. Another rumor that gained swift momentum was that when Sister Betty had leaned over her husband’s body, she had removed from his coat pocket a paper on which he had written the names of those he had supposedly learned were assigned to execute him.
Deputy Police Commissioner Walter Arm stressed that the department had made efforts to protect Malcolm X. Twenty different times the department had offered protection to Malcolm X or to some of his assistants, and the protection was refused, said Commissioner Arm, and seventeen times uniformed police guards had been offered for the OAAU meetings at the Audubon Ballroom, the most recent time being “last Sunday.” Asked about the pistol permit that Malcolm X had said publicly he planned to request, Commissioner Arm said that as far as he knew, Malcolm X had never actually filed a request.
A number of questions have been raised. The “suspect” arrested by Patrolman Hoy as he was being chased from the meeting has, at present writing, not been identified publicly. Deputy Police Commissioner Walter Arm’s statement that Malcolm X refused police protection conflicts directly with the statements of many of his associates that during the week preceding his assassination Malcolm X complained repeatedly that the police would not take his requests for protection seriously. Finally, although police sources said that a special detail of twenty men had been assigned to the meeting and that it had even been attended by agents of the Bureau of Special Services, these men were nowhere in evidence during or after the assassination, and Talmadge Hayer, rescued from the crowd and arrested as a suspect immediately after the assassination, was picked up by two patrolmen in a squad car cruising by.
On long-distance telephones, reporters reached the Chicago mansion headquarters of Elijah Muhammad. He would not come to the telephone, but a spokesman of his said that Muhammad “has no comment today, but he might have something to say tomorrow.” No statement could be obtained either from Malcolm X’s oldest brother, Wilfred X, the Black Muslim minister of Mosque Number 1 in Detroit. At his home, a woman told reporters that Minister Wilfred X was not there, that he had not gone to New York, and she didn’t believe he had any plans to do so. (Minister Wilfred X, reached later, said that he anticipated attending the Black Muslim convention in Chicago on the following Sunday, and regarding his brother, “My brother is dead and there is nothing we can do to bring him back.”)
As dark fell, many Negro men and women assembled before Louis Michaux’s bookstore, where most of Harlem’s Black Nationalist public activity centered. A small group of OAAU members opened their Hotel Theresa headquarters and sat in the room and would not make any statements to reporters.
The New York Daily News came onto the newsstands with its cover page devoted to “Malcolm X Murdered” over the photograph of him being borne away on the stretcher, and a sub-caption, “Gunned Down at Rally.” In Long Island, where she had been taken just after her father’s murder, six-year-old Attallah carefully wrote a letter to him, “Dear Daddy, I love you so. O dear, O dear, I wish you wasn’t dead.”
The body—still listed as “John Doe” because it had not yet been formally identified—had been moved late Sunday to the New York City Medical Examiner’s office at 520 First Avenue. The autopsy confirmed that shotgun pellet wounds in the heart had killed Malcolm X. Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Milton Helpern said that death followed the first sawed-off shotgun blast which caused thirteen wounds in the heart and chest, and he said that .38 and .45 caliber bullet wounds in the thighs and legs evidenced that Malcolm X had been shot at after he had fallen.
Monday morning the official identification was made at the Medical Examiner’s office by Sister Betty, who was accompanied by Percy Sutton, Malcolm X’s Boston half-sister Mrs. Ella Collins, and Joseph E. Hall, General Manager of the large Unity Funeral Home in Harlem. Leaving the Medical Examiner’s office at about noon to go and complete funeral arrangements, Sister Betty told reporters, “No one believed what he said. They never took him seriously, even after the bombing of our home they said he did it himself!”
At the Unity Funeral Home on the east side of Eighth Avenue between 126th and 127th streets, Sister Betty chose a six-foot-nine-inch bronze casket lined with egg-shell velvet. At her request, the funeral would be delayed until the following Saturday, five days away. The funeral home’s manager Hall announced to the press that the body would be dressed in a business suit, and it would be put on view under a glass shield from Tuesday through Friday, then the Saturday services would be at a Harlem church.
Soon posted on the funeral home’s directory was “El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.” In Brooklyn, orthodox Moslem Sheik Al-Hajh Daoud Ahmed Faisal of the Islamic Mission of America said that the delayed funeral services violated a Moslem practice that the sun should not set twice on a believer’s body, that the Koran prescribed burial inside twenty-four hours if possible, and Moslems believed that when a body grows cold the soul leaves it and when the body is put into the earth it comes alive again.
In Chicago, where policemen were watching all bus depots, railways, terminals, O’Hare Airport and highway entrances, Elijah Muhammad, under heavy guard in his three-story mansion, said, “Malcolm died according to his preaching. He seems to have taken weapons as his god. Therefore, we couldn’t tolerate a man like that. He preached war. We preach peace. We are permitted to fight if we are attacked—that’s the Scripture, the Koran, and the Bible, too. But we will never be the aggressor. I don’t have the right to be frightened, because I was chosen by Allah. If Allah gives me up to the hands of the wicked, I am satisfied. My life is in the hands of Allah.” The grounds outside the mansion were patrolled by both Chicago police and Fruit of Islam bodyguards. More of both patrolled before the University of Islam high school, and the offices of the newspaper Muhammad Speaks.
Malcolm X’s lawyer, Assemblyman Percy Sutton, said that the police now had the names of those whom Malcolm X had said planned to kill him. All over Harlem, reporters were interviewing people, and microphones were being put before the mouths of the man-in-the-street. At police precinct station houses, people being questioned were leaving by side entrances. Said Assistant Chief Inspector Joseph Coyle, in charge of Manhattan North detectives, “. . . . a well-planned conspiracy. We’re doing a screening process of the four hundred people who were in the hall at the time.” Fifty detectives were on the case, he said, and he had been in touch with police in other cities.
Harlem was mostly asleep when around the Black Muslim Mosque Number 7, on the top floor of a four-story building at 116th Street and Lenox Avenue, an explosive sound at 2:15 a.m. ripped the night. Firemen were instantly summoned by the four policemen who had been guarding the sidewalk entrance to the mosque. Within a few minutes flames burst through the building’s roof and leaped thirty feet into the air. For the next seven hours firemen would pour water into the building. On an adjacent roof they found an empty five-gallon gasoline can, a brown, gasoline-stained shopping bag, and oily rags. Southbound IRT subway service was re-routed for a while, also three bus lines. At the spectacular five-alarm fire’s height, a wall of the building collapsed; it smashed two fire engines at the curb and injured five firemen, one seriously, and also a pedestrian who had been across the street buying a newspaper. By daybreak, when the fire was declared “under control,” the Black Muslim mosque and the Gethsemane Church of God in Christ on the floor beneath it were gutted, and seven street-level stores, including the Black Muslim restaurant, were “total losses.” Fire Department sources said that replacing the ruined equipment would cost “around $50,000.” Joseph X of the Black Muslims, who once had been the immediate assistant of Malcolm X, said that Elijah Muhammad’s followers had two alternative mosques to meet in, one in Brooklyn and the other in Queens, Long Island. Both these mosques were under continuous police guard.
Across the nation in San Francisco on Tuesday afternoon two policemen discovered a fire beginning in the San Francisco Black Muslim Mosque, and quickly extinguished it. Kerosene had been splashed on the sidewalk and door and set afire.
The body of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz originally had been scheduled to go on public view at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday. Crowds stood in line behind police barricades waiting to be admitted and the policemen wherever one looked included numerous patrol cars and even sharpshooters on the roofs around the Unity Funeral Home. But the telephoned bomb threats which had begun shortly after noon made necessary two evacuations of the funeral home for bomb-squad searches, which proved futile. A search was conducted even in the 43rd Street offices of the New York Times after a man telephoned complaining of an editorial about Malcolm X and said, “Your plant will be destroyed at four o’clock.”
At the funeral home in Harlem, policemen inspected all packages and floral pieces being delivered, as well as the large handbags of women mourners. It was 6:15 p.m. when a cordon of policemen arrived flanking Sister Betty and four close relatives and friends who entered the funeral home in a glare of flashbulbs. “She’s a black Jacqueline Kennedy,” observed a white reporter. “She has class, she knows what to do and when, she handles herself beautifully.”
It was 7:10 p.m. when the family party emerged and left. After ten minutes, the first of the waiting public was admitted. Between then and an hour before midnight, two thousand people, including scores of whites, had filed past the open coffin in which the body lay dressed in a dark business suit, a white shirt and dark tie, with a small, oblong brass plate above it inscribed, “El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz—May 19, 1925—Feb. 21, 1965.”
Malcolm X followers had been canvassing with growing anxiety for a Harlem church that would accept the Saturday funeral. Officials of several churches had refused, including a spokesman for the community’s largest church, Abyssinian Baptist, of which Congressman-Reverend Adam Clayton Powell is the pastor; others which turned down requests, according to the Amsterdam News, included the Williams C.M.E. Church and The Refuge Temple of The Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Then the funeral was accepted by Bishop Alvin A. Childs for the Faith Temple, Church of God in Christ located at 147th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. The Faith Temple, a former movie theater which had been converted fifteen years previously, could seat a thousand in its auditorium and another seven hundred in its basement. Bishop Childs, who in 1964 had been elected as Harlem’s “locality mayor,” told the press that it was “as a humanitarian gesture” that he made his church available, and of Malcolm X, he said, “. . . a militant and vocal person. I did not agree with all of his philosophy, but this did not affect our friendship.” Shortly after the news became known, Bishop Childs and his wife began to receive the first of a succession of bomb threats telephoned both to the church and to their home.
Prominent Negro figures were being quoted by the various press media. The famed psychologist Dr. Kenneth B. Clark told Jet magazine, “I had a deep respect for this man. I believe that he was sincerely groping to find a place in the fight for Civil Rights, on a level where he would be respected and understood fully. I looked forward to his growth along those lines. It doesn’t matter so much about his past. It is tragic that he was cut down at the point when he seemed on the verge of achieving the position of respectability he sought.” A New York Times correspondent in a London press conference quoted the author and dramatist James Baldwin, who thought the death of Malcolm X was “a major setback for the Negro movement.” Pointing at white reporters, Baldwin accused, “You did it . . . whoever did it was formed in the crucible of the Western world, of the American Republic!” European “rape” of Africa began racial problems and was therefore the beginning of the end for Malcolm X, Baldwin said.
The bookstore owner in Harlem, Louis Michaux, a major voice in the community, told the Amsterdam News, “It’s things like the murder of Malcolm X that drive the masses closer together. He died in the same manner that Patrice Lumumba met his death in the Congo. . . . We must unite, not fight.”
“Malcolm X caused many young Negroes to take a new vision of themselves,” said Bayard Rustin, a main figure in organizing the March on Washington in 1963. A “third party” was suspected of killing Malcolm X by CORE’s National Director James Farmer, who said, “Malcolm’s murder was calculated to produce more violence and murder and vengeance killings.” A few days later, asked for his opinion of a rumor circulating about that a “Red Chinese” plot brought about the murder, Farmer said, “I would not say it is impossible.”
“For the Negroes in America, the death of Malcolm X is the most portentous event since the deportation of Marcus Garvey in the 1920’s,” said Dr. C. Eric Lincoln, author of The Black Muslims in America, who talked to the press at Brown University in Providence, R.I., where he was a visiting professor and research fellow. “I doubt there are ‘international implications’ in the slaying. The answer is closer to home. The answer is in the local struggle among contending rivals for leadership of the black masses, which are potentially the most volatile sub-group in America.” Said Roy Wilkins, Executive Secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, “Master spell-binder that he was, Malcolm X in death cast a spell more far-flung and more disturbing than any he cast in life.”
The New York City police investigators who were pursuing the case were unhappy that Malcolm’s followers had “not come forward” to aid the investigation. At police request, the press printed a telephone number, SW 5-8117, for “strictly confidential” information that anyone might offer concerning the slaying. The police had picked up and were holding Reuben Francis, described as a Malcolm X “bodyguard,” who was believed to be the person who had shot the suspected assassin Talmadge Hayer during the melee the previous Sunday at the Audubon Ballroom. Hayer remained in the Bellevue Prison Ward, awaiting surgery.
As thousands continued viewing the body of the slain Malcolm X amid intermittent new bomb threats telephoned to the funeral home, and to the Faith Temple where his funeral was scheduled for Saturday, a new organization, the Federation of Independent Political Action, threatened to picket all Harlem business establishments which would not close from Thursday afternoon until Monday morning “in tribute to Malcolm X.” The FIPA’s spokesman was Jesse Gray, the well-known rent-strike leader; Harlem pedestrians began to be handed printed sheets reading, in part, “If the stores refuse to close, they identify with our enemy—therefore we must close them—pass them by. Those that shop along 125th Street during the hours that the stores are to be closed identify with the murderous stooge that allowed the power structure to use his hands to kill Brother Malcolm.” At a late evening FIPA rally before Louis Michaux’s bookstore, Jesse Gray declared that in 1965 a Negro should run for Mayor of New York “in the name of Malcolm,” and speculated that such a candidate should receive 100,000 votes. Shortly after the FIPA rally, merchants and other members of the Uptown Chamber of Commerce met and swiftly passed a resolution urging all Harlem stores to remain open and “continue to serve their customers,” and recommendation was made that full pay be given to any store employees who might wish to attend Malcolm X’s funeral on Saturday morning. Then one after another, Harlem leaders sharply criticized the FIPA proposal as “irresponsible.” Finally, nearly all of the Harlem stores kept their doors open for business. The FIPA got together about twenty pickets who patrolled for a while before Harlem’s largest store, Blumstein’s; leading the pickets were two white men carrying signs reading “All Stores Should Close. Honor Malcolm X.”
The weather had turned very cold. Icicles hung from the collapsed roof of the fire-ruined building that had housed Black Muslim Mosque Number 7. The Amsterdam News, its offices barely a block down Eighth Avenue from the funeral home where Malcolm X’s body lay, editorialized, “Steady, Eddie!” saying that orderly tributes to Malcolm X would “confound his critics, who would like nothing better than to see black people rioting over his remains.”
The fear of serious mass rioting set off by some unpredictable spark hung steadily in the air. An increasing number of Harlem leaders declared that the principal reason for this was the downtown white press media, sensationalizing what was going on in a calm, dignified community. Finally the Harlem Ministers’ Interfaith Association would issue a formal accusation: “The screaming headlines of many of our newspapers make it seem as if all of Harlem was an armed camp, ready to explode at any moment. The vast majority of the citizens of the Harlem community is not involved in the unfortunate acts of violence that have been grossly overplayed by the press. Many times the slanting of the news is able to bring about an atmosphere through which a few depraved and reckless individuals can take advantage.”
“Malcolm X Died Broke”—that headline in Harlem’s Amsterdam News came as a shock to many in the community. Few had reflected that Malcolm X, upon becoming a Black Muslim minister, had signed an oath of poverty, so that for twelve years he never acquired anything in his own name. (Somewhere I have read that Malcolm X in his Black Muslim days received about $175 weekly to cover his living and other expenses exclusive of travel.) “He left his four daughters and pregnant wife with no insurance of any kind, no savings, and no income,” the Amsterdam News story said (and it might have added that he never drew up a will; he had made a February 26th appointment with his lawyer—five days after his death). Within the week, two groups had organized and were asking Harlemites for contributions to help Sister Betty raise and educate the children (since organized as the Malcolm X Daughters’ Fund at Harlem’s Freedom National Bank, 275 West 125th Street).
In Boston, Malcolm X’s half-sister, Mrs. Ella Mae Collins, told a news conference that she would choose the leaders of the OAAU to succeed Malcolm X. Mrs. Collins operated the Sarah A. Little School of Preparatory Arts where, she said, children were taught Arabic, Swahili, French, and Spanish. In 1959, she, too, had broken away from Elijah Muhammad’s Black Muslims, to which she had originally been converted by Malcolm X.
Far from Harlem, in lands where Malcolm X had traveled, the press had given the murder a coverage that had highly irritated the Director of the United States Information Agency, Carl T. Rowan, himself a Negro. In Washington, addressing the American Foreign Service Association, Rowan said that when he first heard of the murder, he knew it would be grossly misconstrued in some countries where people were unaware what Malcolm X represented, and he said the USIA had worked hard to inform the African press of the facts about Malcolm X and his preachments, but still there had been “a host of African reaction based on misinformation and misrepresentation.”
Said USIA Director Rowan, “Mind you, here was a Negro who preached segregation and race hatred, killed by another Negro, presumably from another organization that preaches segregation and race hatred, and neither of them representative of more than a tiny minority of the Negro population of America—” Rowan held up some foreign newspapers. “All this about an ex-convict, ex-dope peddler who became a racial fanatic,” continued Rowan. “I can only conclude that we Americans know less about what goes on in the minds of other peoples than we thought, or the need to inform is even greater than we in USIA thought it to be.”
The Daily Times of Lagos, in Nigeria, had said: “Like all mortals, Malcolm X was not without his faults . . . but that he was a dedicated and consistent disciple of the movement for the emancipation of his brethren, no one can doubt . . . Malcolm X has fought and died for what he believed to be right. He will have a place in the palace of martyrs.” The Ghanaian Times, Accra, called Malcolm X “the militant and most popular of Afro-American anti-segregationist leaders” and it added his name to “a host of Africans and Americans” ranging from John Brown to Patrice Lumumba “who were martyred in freedom’s cause.” Also in Accra, the Daily Graphic: “The assassination of Malcolm X will go down in history as the greatest blow the American integrationist movement has suffered since the shocking assassinations of Medgar Evers and John F. Kennedy.”
The Pakistan Hurriyet of Karachi said: “A great Negro leader”; the Pakistan Times said, “His death is a definite setback to the Negro movement for emancipation.” The Peking, China People’s Daily said the killing happened “because Malcolm X . . . fought for the emancipation of the 23,000,000 American Negroes.” According to correspondents’ reports, the first Algerian headline said “the Ku Klux Klan” assassinated Malcolm X; the pro-Communist Alger Republican’s editorial on the slaying accused “American Fascism,” and the Times’ Algerian correspondent said Algerians showed “signs” of raising Malcolm X to martyrdom. The U.S. Consulate in Georgetown, British Guiana, was marched on by pickets accusing “American imperialists.” Another Peking, China paper, Jenmin Jihpao, said that the death showed that “in dealing with imperialist oppressors, violence must be met with violence.” Pravda in Moscow carried only brief stories and no editorial comment, the New York Times Moscow correspondent said, and another in Poland said there was no noticeable reaction of any kind, and that “few Poles had heard of Malcolm or were interested in the racial issue.” Reportedly, the murder was only routinely reported with little special interest by the press in Cairo, Beirut, New Delhi, and Saigon. In Paris and Western Europe, the story was “essentially a one-day sensation,” with the West German press handling it “as if it were in the Chicago gangster tradition.” The New York Times said: “The London newspapers have probably played the story harder and longer than most, giving continuing emphasis to the police work on the murder. The London Times and the London Daily Telegraph both carried editorial comments, but neither treated Malcolm X as a major figure.” Also reported by the New York Times London correspondent was that “a London group calling itself the Council of African Organizations had violently attacked the United States over the murder. This group is made up of students and other unofficial African representatives here. A press release described Malcolm as a ‘leader in the struggle against American imperialism, oppression and racialism.’ It said, ‘the butchers of Patrice Lumumba are the very same monsters who have murdered Malcolm X in cold blood.'”
Friday morning New York City press headlines concerning Malcolm X’s slaying were devoted to the police department’s apprehension of a second slaying suspect. He was a stocky, round-faced, twenty-six-year-old karate expert named Norman 3X Butler, allegedly a Black Muslim, and a week later, this was followed by the arrest of Thomas 15X Johnson, also allegedly a Black Muslim. Both men had been earlier indicted in the January, 1965, shooting of Benjamin Brown, a New York City Correction Officer and a Black Muslim defector. Both men were indicted, along with Hayer, for the murder of Malcolm X on March 10.
With the news announcement of Butler’s arrest, and his at least tentative identification as a member of Elijah Muhammad’s organization, tension reached a new high among all who had any role in the feud. The Black Muslim National Convention was scheduled to begin that Friday in Chicago, to last for three days. Early Friday morning in New York at the Kennedy Airport dozens of policemen spent forty minutes searching a plane belonging to Capital Airlines, which back in December 1964 had accepted a Mosque Number 7 charter flight to Chicago and return, at a fee of $5,175.54 which the mosque had subsequently paid in increments.
Altogether, about three thousand Black Muslims from their mosques in most sizable cities were in Chicago for their annual “Saviour’s Day” convention, regarded by them as similar to the holiday of Christmas. In the order of arrival, each group from the different mosques and cities assembled outside the big sports coliseum south of Chicago’s business district, the brothers of all ages dressed in neat, dark suits and white shirts and the sisters garbed in flowing silk gowns and headdresses—and every individual was filtered through an intense security check that Chicago police sources said was unprecedented in Chicago except for a visiting President.
Searched even more closely were the relatively few non-Muslim Negroes who came to be spectators, and the press representatives both white and black. “Take off your hat, show some respect!” snapped a Black Muslim guard at a white reporter. As each person was “cleared” a Fruit of Islam man ushered him or her to a specific seat in the drafty interior of the 7500-seat coliseum. (Later, Muslim sources would blame the half-full house upon “the white man’s dividing of Negroes,” but observers who recalled the packed coliseum in 1964 said that bombing fears kept away many non-Muslim Negroes.) The audience sat lightly murmuring under the two huge hanging banners proclaiming “Welcome Elijah Muhammad—We Are Glad To Have You With Us” and “We Must Have Some Of This Land” (referring to Elijah Muhammad’s demand that “one or more states” be turned over to the “23 million so-called Negroes” in America as partial reparation for “over a century of our free blood and sweat as slaves which helped to develop this wealthy nation where still today you show us you do not wish or intend to accept us as equals”). In front of the wide, raised speaker’s platform were two nearly life-sized photographic blowups of Elijah Muhammad. Standing between the stage and the audience were Fruit of Islam guards. Others were prowling the aisles, scanning rows of faces, with intermittent peremptory demands for identification, “What mosque, brother?” Still more Fruit of Islam men were inspecting the coliseum’s vacant balcony, backstage, downstairs, and rafters and roof.
The ghost of Malcolm X was in the coliseum. First, in a high drama for the Muslims, Elijah Muhammad’s son, Wallace Delaney Muhammad, who once had sided with Malcolm X, faced the audience and begged forgiveness for his defection. Next, two brothers of Malcolm X, Wilfred and Philbert, both of them Black Muslim ministers, urged unity with Elijah Muhammad. Said Minister Wilfred X of the Detroit mosque, “We would be ignorant to get confused and go to arguing and fighting among ourselves and forget who the real enemy is.” Said Minister Philbert X, of the Lansing mosque, “Malcolm was my own blood brother, next to me . . . I was shocked. No man wants to see his own brother destroyed. But I knew that he was traveling on a very reckless and dangerous road. I made attempts to change his course. When he was living, I tried to keep him living; now that he is dead, there is nothing I can do.” Indicating the seated Elijah Muhammad, Minister Philbert X declared, “Where he leads me, I will follow”—and then he introduced the Black Muslim leader to make his address.
Only the head of Elijah Muhammad was visible above the grim-faced Fruit of Islam men in a living wall, Cassius Clay among them. Crescents, stars, moons and suns were in gold thread embroidery on the small fez that Elijah Muhammad wore. He said in his speech: “For a long time, Malcolm stood here where I stand. In those days, Malcolm was safe, Malcolm was loved. God, Himself, protected Malcolm. . . . For more than a year, Malcolm was given his freedom. He went everywhere—Asia, Europe, Africa, even to Mecca, trying to make enemies for me. He came back preaching that we should not hate the enemy. . . . He came here a few weeks ago to blast away his hate and mudslinging; everything he could think of to disgrace me. . . . We didn’t want to kill Malcolm and didn’t try to kill him. They know I didn’t harm Malcolm. They know I loved him. His foolish teaching brought him to his own end. . . . ”
Both physically and emotionally worked up, often Elijah Muhammad would begin coughing. “Take it easy! Take your time!” his audience pleaded with him. “He had no right to reject me!” Elijah Muhammad declared. “He was a star, who went astray! . . . They knew I didn’t harm Malcolm, but he tried to make war against me.” He said that Malcolm X would have been given “the most glorious of burials” if he had stayed with the Black Muslims and had died a natural death; “instead, we stand beside the grave of a hypocrite! . . . Malcolm! Who was he leading? Who was he teaching? He has no truth! We didn’t want to kill Malcolm! His foolish teaching would bring him to his own end! I am not going to let the crackpots destroy the good things Allah sent to you and me!”
Elijah Muhammad drove his frail energy to speak for about an hour and a half. He challenged any would-be assassins: “If you seek to snuff out the life of Elijah Muhammad, you are inviting your own doom! The Holy Quran tells us not to pick a fight but to defend ourselves. We will fight!” It was mid-afternoon when Elijah Muhammad turned back to his seat with some three thousand Black Muslim men, women, and children shouting “Yes, sir! . . . So sweet! . . . All praise to Muhammad!”
In the Unity Funeral Home in the Harlem community of New York City in the mid-afternoon, the public’s viewing of the body of Malcolm X was interrupted by the arrival of a party of about a dozen people whose central figure was a white-turbaned, dark-robed elderly man whose white beard fell to his chest and who carried a forked stick. When reporters rushed to attempt interviews, another man in the party waved them away, saying, “A silent tongue does not betray its owner.” The man was Sheik Ahmed Hassoun, a Sudanese, a member of the Sunni Moslems, who had taught in Mecca for thirty-five years when he had met Malcolm X there, and then had soon come to the United States to serve as Malcolm X’s spiritual advisor and to teach at the Muslim Mosque, Inc.
Sheik Hassoun prepared the body for burial in accordance with Moslem ritual. Removing the Western clothing in which the body had been on display, Sheik Hassoun washed the body with special holy oil. Then he draped the body in the traditional seven white linen shrouds, called the kafan. Only the face with its reddish mustache and goatee was left exposed. The mourners who had come with Sheik Hassoun filed to the bier and he read passages from the Koran. Then he turned to a funeral home representative: “Now the body is ready for burial.” Soon, the sheik and his retinue left, and the viewing by the public resumed. When the word spread, numbers of persons who had come before returned for another wait in the long, slowly moving line, wanting to see the Moslem burial dress.
It was late during this Friday afternoon that I got into the quietly moving line, thinking about the Malcolm X with whom I had worked closely for about two years. Blue-uniformed policemen stood at intervals watching us shuffle along within the wooden gray-painted police barricades. Just across the street several men were looking at the line from behind a large side window of the “Lone Star Barber Shop, Eddie Johns, Prop., William Ashe, Mgr.” Among the policemen were a few press representatives talking to each other to pass the time. Then we were inside the softly lit, hushed, cool, large chapel. Standing at either end of the long, handsome bronze coffin were two big, dark policemen, mostly looking straight ahead, but moving their lips when some viewer tarried. Within minutes I had reached the coffin. Under the glass lid, I glimpsed the delicate white shrouding over the chest and up like a hood about the face on which I tried to concentrate for as long as I could. All I could think was that it was he, all right—Malcolm X. “Move on”—the policeman’s voice was soft. Malcolm looked to me—just waxy and dead. The policeman’s hand was gesturing at his waist level. I thought, “Well—good-bye.” I moved on.
Twenty-two thousand people had viewed the body when the line was stopped that night for good, at eleven p.m. Quietly, between midnight and dawn, a dozen police cars flanked a hearse that went the twenty-odd blocks farther uptown to the Faith Temple. The bronze coffin was wheeled inside and placed upon a platform draped in thick dark red velvet, in front of the altar, and the coffin’s lid was reopened. As the hearse pulled away, policemen stood at posts of vigil both inside and outside Faith Temple. It was crispy cold outside.
About six a.m., people began forming a line on the east side of Amsterdam Avenue. By nine a.m., an estimated six thousand persons thronged the nearby blocks, behind police barriers, and faces were in every window of the apartment buildings across the street; some stood shivering on fire escapes. From 145th Street to 149th Street, policemen had blocked off all automobile traffic except for their own cars, the newspapers’ cars, and the equipment trucks for radio and television on-the-spot coverage. There were hundreds of policemen, some on the rooftops in the immediate area. Combing the crowd’s edges were reporters with microphones and notebooks. “He was fascinating, a remarkably fascinating man, that’s why I’m here,” a white girl in her mid-twenties told a New York Times man; and a Negro woman, “I’m paying my respects to the greatest black man in this century. He’s a black man. Don’t say colored.” Another woman, noticing steel helmets inside a television network car, laughed to the driver, “You getting ready for next summer?”
When the Faith Temple doors were opened at 9:20, a corps of OAAU members entered. Within the next quarter-hour, twenty of the men had ushered in six hundred seat-holders. Fifty press reporters, photographers and television cameramen clustered beneath religious murals to the rear of the altar, and some stood on chairs to see better. A Negro engineer monitored recording equipment between the altar and the coffin which was guarded by eight uniformed Negro policemen and two uniformed Negro policewomen. One Negro plainclothes policeman sat on either side of heavily veiled Sister Betty in the second row. The raised lid of the coffin hid the Faith Temple’s brass tithe box and candelabra; the head of the Islamic Mission of America, in Brooklyn, Sheik Al-Haj Daoud Ahmed Faisal, had counseled that any hint of Christianity in the services would make the deceased a kafir, an unbeliever. (The sheik had also dissented with the days of public exhibition of the body: “Death is a private matter between Allah and the deceased.”)
Before the services began, OAAU ushers brought in one floral wreath—a two-by-five arrangement of the Islamic Star and Crescent in white carnations against a background of red carnations.
First, the actor Ossie Davis and his wife, actress Ruby Dee, read the notes, telegrams and cables of condolence. They came from every major civil rights organization; from individual figures such as Dr. Martin Luther King; from organizations and governments abroad, such as The Africa-Pakistan-West-Indian Society of the London School of Economics, the Pan-African Congress of Southern Africa, the Nigerian Ambassador from Lagos, the President of the Republic of Ghana, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah: “The death of Malcolm X shall not have been in vain.”
Next, Omar Osman stood, a representative of the Islam Center of Switzerland and the United States: “We knew Brother Malcolm as a blood brother, particularly after his pilgrimage to Mecca last year. The highest thing that a Moslem can aspire to is to die on the battlefield and not die at his bedside—” He paused briefly to wait out the applause from among the mourners. “Those who die on the battlefield are not dead, but are alive!” The applause was louder, and cries rose, “Right! Right!” Omar Osman then critically commented upon the remarks which USIA Director Carl Rowan had made in Washington, D.C., about the foreign press reaction to the death of the deceased. From the audience then hisses rose.
Again, the actor Ossie Davis stood. His deep voice delivered the eulogy to Malcolm X which was going to cause Davis subsequently to be hailed more than ever among Negroes in Harlem:
“Here—at this final hour, in this quiet place, Harlem has come to bid farewell to one of its brightest hopes—extinguished now, and gone from us forever. . . .
Many will ask what Harlem finds to honor in this stormy, controversial and bold young captain—and we will smile. . . . They will say that he is of hate—a fanatic, a racist—who can only bring evil to the cause for which you struggle!
And we will answer and say unto them: Did you ever talk to Brother Malcolm? Did you ever touch him, or have him smile at you? Did you ever really listen to him? Did he ever do a mean thing? Was he ever himself associated with violence or any public disturbance? For if you did you would know him. And if you knew him you would know why we must honor him: Malcolm was our manhood, our living, black manhood! This was his meaning to his people. And, in honoring him, we honor the best in ourselves. . . . And we will know him then for what he was and is—a Prince—our own black shining Prince!—who didn’t hesitate to die, because he loved us so.”
Brief speeches were made by others. Then, the family, the OAAU members and other Muslims present stood and filed by the coffin to view the body for the last time. Finally, the two plainclothes policemen ushered Sister Betty to have her last sight of her husband. She leaned over, kissing the glass over him; she broke into tears. Until then almost no crying had been heard in the services, but now Sister Betty’s sobs were taken up by other women.
The services had lasted a little over an hour when the three minutes of prayers said for every Muslim who is dead were recited by Alhajj Heshaam Jaaber, of Elizabeth, New Jersey. At the phrase “Allahu Akbar”—”God is most great”—all Muslims in the audience placed their opened hands at the sides of their faces.
An official cortege, with the hearse, of three family cars, eighteen mourners’ cars, twelve police cars and six press cars—followed by about fifty other cars—briskly drove the eighteen miles out of Manhattan and along the New York Thruway, then off its Exit 7 to reach the Ferncliff Cemetery in Ardsley, N.Y. All along the route, Negroes placed their hats or hands over their hearts, paying their final respects. At each bridge crossing to Manhattan, police cars stood watch; the Westchester County police had stationed individual patrolmen at intervals en route to the cemetery.
Over the coffin, final Moslem prayers were said by Sheik Alhajj Heshaam Jaaber. The coffin was lowered into the grave, the head facing the east, in keeping with Islamic tradition. Among the mourners, the Moslems knelt beside the grave to pray with their foreheads pressed to the earth, in the Eastern manner. When the family left the gravesite, followers of Malcolm X would not let the coffin be covered by the white gravediggers who had stood a little distance away, waiting. Instead, seven OAAU men began dropping bare handfuls of earth down on the coffin; then they were given shovels and they carried dirt to fill the grave, and then mound it.
The night fell over the earthly remains of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, who had been called Malcolm X; who had been called Malcolm Little; who had been called “Big Red” and “Satan” and “Homeboy” and other names—who had been buried as a Moslem. “According to the Koran,” the New York Times reported, “the bodies of the dead remain in their graves until the last Day, the Day of Judgment. On this day of cataclysm the heavens are rent and the mountains ground to dust, the graves open and men are called to account by Allah.
“The blessed—the godfearing, the humble, the charitable, those who have suffered and been persecuted for Allah’s sake or fought in religious wars for Islam—are summoned to the Garden of Paradise.
There, according to the teaching of Mohammed, the Prophet, they live forever by flowing streams, reclining on silken cushions, and enjoying the company of dark-eyed maidens and wives of perfect purity.
The damned—the covetous, the evildoer, the follower of gods other than Allah—are sent to Eternal Fire, where they are fed boiling water and molten brass. ‘The death from which ye flee will truly overtake you,’ the Koran says. ‘Then will ye be sent back to the Knower of things secret and open, and He will tell you the truth of the things that ye did.'”
After signing the contract for this book, Malcolm X looked at me hard. “A writer is what I want, not an interpreter.” I tried to be a dispassionate chronicler. But he was the most electric personality I have ever met, and I still can’t quite conceive him dead. It still feels to me as if he has just gone into some next chapter, to be written by historians.
New York, 1965 ~ Alex Haley.
(The Autobiography of Malcolm X: Epilogue by Alex Haley is presented under the Creative Commons License. © 1965 Grove Atlantic, Inc. © 1993 Betty Shabazz, Myran Haley, Cynthia Haley, William Haley and Lydia Haley. All Rights Reserved.)