Alex Haley Remembers Malcolm X: An Interview With David Gallen was originally published within A Malcolm X Reader in October of 1991.)
Malcolm X was born hungry, and he grew up on the streets. Odd jobs and petty crime took him from Detroit to New York to Boston to a Massachusetts state prison. He was not yet twenty, but the journey that Malcolm Little had begun would take him eventually from incarceration to martyrdom. A convert to Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam, Brother Malcolm would rise quickly in the Black Muslim ranks. He would spellbind thousands at NOI rallies. He would lecture at universities. He would debate at Oxford and travel in Africa. He would speak to the plight of twenty-two million African Americans. He would live dangerously, as he put it, and before he was forty he would be dead.
Alex Haley was writing a Reader’s Digest piece on the Nation of Islam entitled: Mr. Muhammad Speaks when he first became acquainted with Malcolm X. He was then commissioned to do a Playboy interview with “the militant major-domo of the Black Muslims,” as the magazine tagged Malcolm in its May 1963 issue.
The following year Haley and Malcolm began their collaboration on The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which has never been out of print since its publication in 1965. As Malcolm himself had predicted, he did not live to see the book in print.
In October 1991, just a few months before Haley’s death, David Gallen spoke at length with him about his association with Malcolm X. Over a period of two years, in more than fifty interviews, Haley had had the opportunity to observe Malcolm outside the public arena, away from the rally podium and the microphone, and to appreciate the more private man. He generously shared his recollections of that time.
Alex Haley Remembers Malcolm X: An Interview With David Gallen
David Gallen: Did you first meet Malcolm when you were doing your piece for Reader’s Digest?
Alex Haley: Yes, that was the initial meeting. I was very surprised when I was given the assignment of writing about the very controversial Nation of Islam—or more colloquially, Black Muslims,—by the arch-conservative Reader’s Digest. But the Digest editors wrote me a letter in which they said we would like you to do a piece in which you say what is said against this organization and, in fairness, what they say of themselves. I took that letter to Malcolm X at the Nation of Islam restaurant in Harlem on, I think it was, 116th Street and 7th Avenue.
David Gallen: What were your initial impressions of him?
Alex Haley: My first impressions of Malcolm were that he was cagey and wary and suspicious of me. He did not do anything to soften that impression. I think his first statement to me was, “I suppose you know that we know you are a spy for the white man who has come here under the disguise of wanting to write an article about us.” I showed him the letter from the Reader’s Digest and he said, “Well, you should certainly know that nothing the white man writes and signs is worth the paper it is written on.” Then he asked if I didn’t know anything about the treaties the Indians had signed long years before.
David Gallen: Was Malcolm what you had expected him to be?
Alex Haley: To some degree; I say that because I hadn’t really known what to expect. I had heard of their leader, Elijah Muhammad, who was kind of mysterious, and of his minister, Brother Malcolm, who was most articulate, even eloquent, as an orator who spoke the cause of the Nation of Islam most ably.
David Gallen: Did he say or do anything that stands out particularly vividly when you were interviewing him for the Digest?
Alex Haley: One thing that would qualify there is that he told me right up front that he would not talk to me, that he would not take that responsibility, since I was obviously a spy and that I would have to get the approval of his leader, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, which meant that I would have to go to Chicago to meet with him. I asked him if he would arrange this, and he said he would. So I called the Digest and told them I would have to make the trip; they approved the travel. Then I called back Malcolm X. It was arranged, and I went to Chicago and spent, I think, two days there. I visited two or three times with Mr. Muhammad, who never directly questioned me; he would just obliquely talk about this, that, or the other. Finally he indicated that I should go back to New York, which I did. By this time, he had, of course, called Malcolm and indicated that he felt it would be okay for him to talk with me. And Malcolm did begin to talk with me cagily, reluctantly. He seemed sometimes awed when I would ask him questions. Every other sentence would contain “I was taught this by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad,” or something like that.
David Gallen: Did you have much contact with Malcolm between the time you were doing the Reader’s Digest piece and your 1963 Playboy interview with him?
Alex Haley: Not very much. I would guess we probably came into actual contact maybe three or four times, usually by chance, when we would happen to be at some event at the same time, probably because we both knew Louis Lomax, who was a very aggressive kind of journalist, a black fellow. Malcolm enjoyed Louis Lomax; he used to get a twinkle in his eye when he would say about Lomax, “Every time I see him, he’s hurrying somewhere; he’s either into something or on to something.” Lomax was, always looking to see if he couldn’t find an angle to make a story that would get media attention. Louis Lomax was involved in early television; he was a colleague of Mike Wallace. Lomax was in contact with Malcolm more in fact than I was. But Lomax was usually the reason I happened to be at some occasion, and Malcolm also came there, and of course Malcolm and I would speak, though we often didn’t know what to speak of.
David Gallen: Did he seem any different to you during the Playboy interview with him?
Alex Haley: I would say he seemed somewhat more familiar, that was about all, simply because we had had these fleeting kinds of contacts. Also, I should say that after the Reader’s Digest piece came out, I received a letter from Mr. Muhammad—a copy had gone to Malcolm as well—and the letter commended me because in fact the article had been as the letter had said it would be, and Mr. Muhammad repeated, “So you did say what others say against us, but you also did say what we said of ourselves.” That approval from Mr. Muhammad served to improve relations somewhat with Malcolm.
David Gallen: Had his racial, political, and religious beliefs changed in any way?
Alex Haley: Not visibly; up to this point, no. He was still the spokesman for the Nation of Islam by the time I was doing the Playboy interview, and the Playboy interview reflects that.
David Gallen: Had he changed in his attitude towards you? Did he treat you differently? Did you begin to feel that he trusted you?
Alex Haley: Well, he changed his attitude towards me—somewhat. It was simply the fact that he, I think, trusted me a little more. I would never say that he trusted a lot, certainly not at this point, but he did think I was not trying to undo him or double-cross him, and probably one reason he thought that was because I wasn’t.
David Gallen: In what year and month did you and Malcolm begin to collaborate on the book? Who was the publisher that suggested you do an autobiography with Malcolm? What was the modus operandi for your collaboration? When did Malcolm last proofread the manuscript for the autobiography?
Alex Haley: I can’t answer that specifically. It would probably have been, I would say, 1962. I’m guessing, because I know we spoke for two years, and I worked one of the two years interviewing him. Malcolm would come down to my place in Greenwich Village. I was in 92 Grove Street, off Sheridan Square. He would come down there about twice a week, at night. He would get there say about nine o’clock, after his busy day. He would instantly pick up my phone and call his wife; he would sort of review the day with her and say little pleasantries to her and ask about the children. And then he would stay with me until about eleven-thirty, something of that nature, when again he would call his wife and tell her that he was on the way to traveling home in the blue Oldsmobile. But that would have probably been, I’m guessing, in 1962, because I know I spent two years with him, one year interviewing, one year writing. The book was published in 1965, and given the fact that it takes nine months to publish, they must have had the manuscript in 1964. So I’m guessing again, but I think I’m correct: 1962.
The publisher that suggested I do the autobiography with Malcolm was Doubleday. The editor was the venerable, Ken McCormick—he is an editor emeritus now—who’s beloved across the whole of publishing. It was he who read the Playboy interview and who somehow got in touch with Malcolm X and took to him the question if he would be willing to tell his life, his own personal story, at book length. Malcolm demurred for some time, then finally agreed that he would, but with lots of stipulations. One was that the money, his money, whatever he got, would go to the Nation of Islam, I think. And then Malcolm asked that I write the book. The reason was, he said, that he had studied what I had written, and of course we had shared two experiences, one with Reader’s Digest and the other with Playboy, so he kind of knew me by now. He said, “I checked through your work and I think, one, you can write and secondly I don’t believe you are the kind of writer who would try to get in my story and try to out-Malcolm me.” In any event, he asked me, and I was pleased, honored, flattered to take the job.
I had never done a book. I was intimidated by the idea of doing a book. I was very familiar with writing articles, though, because I’d been doing them for years. How I was able to deal with it finally was after a great number of interviews with Malcolm, when I was separating the material into chronological order, it occurred to me that each section was like a magazine article. And so I sort of saw the book in terms of successive magazine articles that would flow together. That was how I came to conceive of the chapters for the book.
As for the modus operandi for our collaboration, I think I told you he would come down to the house about twice each week and we would work together. One thing that is kind of interesting is that I have a friend, George Sims. We grew up together in Henning, Tennessee, our hometown. George has all his life been a heavy reader. As a kid, he used to read the labels on tin cans. George and I got back in contact again after World War Two. We met one day, quite by accident, in the New York Public Library, after not having seen each other for a couple of decades. Little by little, when I began to get more and better writing assignments, I got George to become a researcher for me. George is a great . . . not a scholar, but a buff on Shakespeare. Well, nobody knew it, certainly I didn’t know it and George didn’t know it, but so was Malcolm. One night he just kind of dropped something like “Didn’t Shakespeare say it?”—or whatever it was—and George, well, he rose to that like a trout to a fly and said something like Shakespeare also said whatever. And George and Malcolm were suddenly almost like bonded in their love for Shakespeare. And it got to be after that that almost every night that Malcolm would come down to my place—sometimes he’d had a day that just left him angry as he could be, and he was uptight and he was mad—he and George would get into something about Shakespeare or some of the other people way back in literature and that would temper Malcolm. His anger would kind of go away and he would become more, I guess, more malleable, from an interviewer’s point of view. And after he had talked long enough, I would say, “Look, fellas, you know we got to talk about Mr. Malcolm here,” and then I would start questioning him. But that little session they would have at the outset of Malcolm’s arrival each evening was most helpful; it just kind of cleared the air and eased what might otherwise have been a lot of tension.
We had an agreement, and it was certainly kept, that nothing would be in the book he did not want in the book, and that anything he wanted to be in the book would be in the book. I would go through three to four drafts, and when I thought it was okay, I would give it to him. He would read it and go over it and the next time he would come back he would bring it with him. Then we would go over it together, and if there was something he wanted to change we would do so. This wasn’t always just done flatly; sometimes I’d challenge him about a particular event, how he remembered it, but nothing serious. And what he wanted ultimately was dealt with, and then, and only then, would he put his MX at the bottom of the page, and it was those manuscripts that went to the publisher, those with his MX at the bottom of each page.
David Gallen: Were there any events while you were working together that caused him to trust you more fully? What were they? When did he start to be more open with you? How did your feelings change towards him?
Alex Haley: I can think of one thing that maybe made him a little bit more warm toward me. Naturally, I had a little list of dates for this and that and the other, and my basic notes. And one day I happened to come upon the fact that the next day was his eldest daughter Attallah’s birthday, and I just knew Malcolm, as busy as he was and as guilty as he was about not spending much time with his family and what not—he just felt awful about that, and he practically revered his wife, Sister Betty, and she just went on taking care of things at home while he was away—I just knew he’d forget. So that afternoon before the day I knew was the birthday for Attallah, I just went uptown and I bought a large brown doll with all kinds of little froufrou around her frock, with ruffles and frills and so forth, and I put it into a closet. And Malcolm came that night and we had our regular interview, and when he was getting ready to leave, I just sort of quietly said—I just went to the closet and I said—”You know, Brother Malcolm, I just happened to be looking at my notes and I noticed that tomorrow is the birthday for Attallah, and I know as busy as you are you just simply haven’t had time to stop and pick her up something. I knew you’d want to; so I got this for you,” and then I handed him the doll. That was as close as I ever saw Malcolm to tears, when he took the doll. He didn’t say much of anything, but I knew he was deeply moved. And then he went on out.
Sometimes later Sister Betty was on the phone. She and I used to talk sometimes on the phone at night when Malcolm was traveling. He permitted that; we didn’t do that till he said it was all right for us to do so. We would talk on the phone, we would exchange recipes—things like that. I used to be a cook, and Sister Betty is a good cook. And she told me one night how much Attallah liked the doll, and in subsequent years Attallah herself has told me how much she enjoyed it. As a matter of fact, she still has it, she told me. Attallah is my godchild.
David Gallen: What were Malcolm’s feelings regarding himself and his own significance?
Alex Haley: I think that Malcolm was embarrassed, genuinely embarrassed, by a lot of his prominence in media. I know he was discomfited by it because—I didn’t know this until later—his prominence in the media was what some others in the movement were using to undermine him with Mr. Elijah Muhammad. You know, things were said, so I later heard and learned; they were saying things to Mr. Muhammad like Malcolm, it seemed, wanted to take over the organization, that his picture was in the paper more than the leader’s was. And this was very, very true. It was also true that it was Malcolm’s job; he was the one who spoke for the organization, who represented the organization. He took on the interviews and all these kinds of things that hardly anyone else within the organization would have been able to take on, and do, I would imagine—certainly not in the way he did—but it was, as I said, discomfiting to him. He was frustrated by the fact that he was expected to be the vibrant, vocal spokesman and that it was causing him to be cut away at, defiled even, chewed away, by those who were envious or jealous of his prominence. So he had a lot of bitterness about this thing of being out there in the public eye as much as he was.
David Gallen: Were you surprised when he told you, “I don’t want anything in this book to make it sound that I think I’m somebody important”?
Alex Haley: No, not at all. That’s exactly what he said numerous times in different ways, and that’s what he manifested in his actions. He would have liked, I think, to have been much less prominent than he was, if he could have gotten the message across some other kind of way.
David Gallen: Was Malcolm a very different person away from the microphone? How?
Alex Haley: Not a whole lot, not a whole lot. Somewhat; we all are somewhat different away from the microphone. But Malcolm was always ready to take the microphone on issues about black people. He lived, at least in my experience, very close to the microphone in such instances and was ready always to leap to the defense of the black people.
David Gallen: How would you describe Malcolm’s personality?
Alex Haley: He was sincere, he was sensitive, he was loyal. I would say he was all three of those things. I genuinely feel that he never pursued any of the numerous opportunities he might have in order to gain for himself what he would have regarded as carnal enclosure, or something like that. God knows that there were enough young ladies and old ones, and older ones as well. They took every opportunity to get his attention and Malcolm made a great point of avoiding anything he thought might be suspicious—he had no part of that.
David Gallen:What events do you remember that might illustrate his sincerity and loyalty?
Alex Haley: Well, I guess none would be better than how he would stay up so late night after night, how he would go out and try to help recruit somebody who was teetering, some Christian black, a Baptist or Catholic or Methodist, who was teetering on the edge of leaving their church to come to the Nation of Islam. Malcolm would go visit these people late at night—I know I said late; I’m not talking eleven or twelve, but you know, eight-thirty, nine o’clock—and he would tell me often about how he had done that. This would, of course, be on the nights he was not with me. It’s just one example that he really cared about the individuals he was talking to, trying to guide them to the light of Islam, and he would speak of them in such a warm way.
David Gallen: Were you surprised that he was so touched when a young black couple named their child Malcolm after him?
Alex Haley: No, no. That was the Malcolm that would be touched. Very much so.
David Gallen: Did Malcolm change significantly during the period you were working together?
Alex Haley: Absolutely. Malcolm almost went full-circle in his thirty-nine years. I didn’t know him all those years before, but from what he told me I could piece together an idea of what his earlier life had been like. And yes, he did change. Very much so. Probably the greatest change was brought to my attention when he went to Mecca. He sent to me a card on which he had written in fine handwriting: “Dear Alex Haley: I have eaten from the same plate with fellow Muslims whose eyes were bluer than blue, whose hair was blond, blonder than blond, whose skin was whiter than white, and we were all the same.” I don’t think anything I ever saw or heard connected with him gave me the feeling or impact that that did of how much he had changed, because that would not have been the Malcolm I had known earlier. There is no way he ever would have written or thought or felt that earlier. So he was changing very much.
David Gallen: Did he ever regret any statements he had made as a member of the NOI?
Alex Haley: I would say yes; there’s one that comes to mind: There was this young white lady who came to him at the Muslim’s restaurant and asked him something like what could she do for him and his cause, and all he said was “Nothing.” She turned away, weakened, and left. But Malcolm worried about it; he played it back and wished it had been played differently.
David Gallen: Was Malcolm very upset when he was suspended by the NOI, or did he view this turn of events as a possibility to move forward and to accomplish more for his people without the restrictions of the NOI?
Alex Haley: Yes, extremely upset. I didn’t know he was in trouble with the NOI until the split became public knowledge. He had never breathed a word of it to me, and I was pretty close to him—which gave me good sense of Malcolm’s self-discipline. He wouldn’t tell even those close to him things that were going on and were wrecking him, anguishing him. I don’t know that he saw this as an opportunity to move forward. It became an opportunity for him to create his own organization. That was the OAAU, the Organization of Afro-American Unity. It was never able to grow, certainly not as he had hoped it would grow, but he had had to create some organization of his own, because his power base was gone. This power base had been the Nation of Islam.
David Gallen: What character traits in other people were most important to Malcolm?
Alex Haley: The first thing that comes to mind is punctuality. I don’t know anybody who was so time-conscious as Malcolm. If you had an appointment with him at ten o’clock or two o’clock or six o’clock or whenever, please be there at that time. He had kind of out-of-the-ordinary, almost hyper responses to people who were late. If you were late, you were exhibiting a whole lot of negative things in his view: that you were not to be trusted; that you did not really care seriously; that you were not serious at all. That would be the first thing. Other things would be standard, like people who told the truth and who didn’t try to double-cross you, but the most conspicuous thing was his acute sense of time, I would say.
David Gallen: Whom among his friends and associates did he most respect, and why?
Alex Haley: I would say there wasn’t really anyone as close to him as Mr. Muhammad, whom he revered, absolutely adulated. There were two other people that he highly respected during this period of time. One of them was a young fellow who had been a folk singer or a popular singer [Gene Louis Walcott] and had become a member of the Nation of Islam and was very popular and highly liked. Malcolm called him “my little brother,” and this young man said he was Malcolm’s little brother. They both were most fond of each other, and this was Louis Farrakhan, as he is known today, and I think that is what he was termed then, although he was probably called Louis X or had a number of Xs, I don’t know how many, but that is one person he was really close to. And Malcolm was very proud of being the big brother, so to speak, of little brother Farrakhan. And similarly, there was another young fellow who got to know Malcolm and vice versa, and they just had a marvelous attachment to each other and that was the young Cassius Clay. I remember Malcolm being there when Cassius Clay fought Sonny Liston way back. Cassius wasn’t going to have it any other way. Malcolm called me before the fight and said it was sure to be one of the greatest upsets in modem times, or something like that. And afterwards he called me back, and you could hear all this whooping and hollering going on in the background of the dressing room. Malcolm could not have been higher in his life than when he and Cassius Clay were so close as they were. And then they fell out, when Malcolm was ejected from the Nation of Islam. Cassius Clay stayed with the Messenger, Mr. Muhammad. I know that one of the most down experiences in Malcolm’s life was subsequent to when he went on a trip to Mecca; he was coming back, I think, too happy, and he was in some airport in one of the African countries. He was walking through the airport; he turned left, and then saw that there was Muhammad Ali—Cassius had changed his name—and they came towards each other and their eyes met, and Malcolm saw Muhammad Ali look away from him and walk past him without speaking, and that just ripped Malcolm up and down. I don’t think he ever got over the hurt of that.
David Gallen: What was it like to walk through the streets of Harlem with Malcolm? How did people respond to him, and he to them?
Alex Haley: Exciting, to say the very least. Exciting, for several reasons. He was dangerous to be around, because so many people would bother him. Also the thing that happens when you are with a star—I used to experience this when interviewing major personalities for Playboy; their presence generates energy and excitement in the people around them—would happen with Malcolm. People would come and bow before him, people would shake his hand, people would smile broadly; there was every kind of approval, adulation, admiration.
One day, I recall, we were in his car riding the streets of Harlem. Malcolm liked to move around from street to street in the car; he’d say, “I’m just making my little daily rounds,” that was his expression. And this day, all of a sudden, he slammed on the brakes. The car screeched, jerked to a stop; I was sure somebody had hit us. By the time I got my wits together Malcolm was out on the driver’s side and he was standing like an avenging devil; there were three young men who had been shooting craps, and he was just staring them down. He said, “Other people are in their pajamas studying you and your people, trying to learn more about them. That [the Countee Cullen Library] which houses the Schomburg Collection is the greatest repository of information about the black man in existence, and what you are doing? The best you can do is to be out here down on your knees shooting craps against the door.” They were young street men—nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, that age range—and just about anyone else who dared interrupt them so rudely like that would have had some severe physical problems, I would suspect. But not Malcolm; because of his charisma, because of the power of his image. Those young men went slinking away because it was Malcolm who talked to them like that. And I have often thought of that; I have often thought about how young black people talk, you know, this or that about Malcolm. But you don’t hear much about the deep, feverent thing he had about young black people who had educated themselves.
I remember one time we were all on a train, a pullman, going, I think from Washington back to New York, or maybe it was the other way around. I remember how, when we walked in, people just froze and Malcolm said to me out of the corner of his mouth, “Take a deep breath. They don’t know what to say. They are scared in the presence of a proud black man,”—things like that. I remember also there were black porters, and finally, one of them, a man in his fifties, a very dignified man, very deliberately walked up to Malcolm, stuck out his hand, shook hands with Mr. Malcolm, and said, “I’m glad to have you in my car, and I want to say if you need anything, please buzz me,” or something like that. Malcolm stood up and said, “Well, I appreciate your saying this, and if I do I certainly will, but at the moment I am most comfortable.” But everybody else in there was like a wind-up toy, the tension was so great. After a while, as we rolled along, a young white man got up and walked over and stuck out his hand at Malcolm. He said something like, “I don’t agree with everything you say, but I do want to say I appreciate the courage you’ve shown for your people.” And Malcolm said something like, “No people have ever achieved any gain unless they have fought for their rights.” Then he brought up the American Revolution, that if the colonists had not fought for their rights, this country wouldn’t he here. It was never dull traveling with Malcolm.
David Gallen: Do you think Malcolm ever truly hated all white people?
Alex Haley: No, I don’t think so. I know he cared for individual white people. He would talk nostalgically of people he had known in Mason, Michigan, where he was a student, and you couldn’t detect anger in his memory of students and teachers alike, but you could detect care. And there were people like M.S. Handler of The New York Times. Malcolm really, really cared about this man, and respected him and admired him. He enjoyed Mike Wallace, too; he enjoyed the verbal sparring that they would have from time to time. Malcolm appreciated Mike Wallace’s brain, his cleverness. And there were others. Malcolm really rather looked forward to his next jousting with them. He had a professional respect for them, a professional debator’s respect for them.
David Gallen: Did Malcolm ever speak to you about the death threats made on him?
Alex Haley: Yes, he did. He would speak of them rather matter-of-factly. He would just say, “Brother, I don’t think I’m going to live to read this book in print.” There were times he described, like the time he had been in Los Angeles, in a car with some brothers, and they came to some kind of tunnel. That’s when they saw another car behind them, in which they knew were people who were enemies—they were all members of the Nation of Islam but they were all anti-him—and as this other car drew closer Malcolm took his cane—he had a cane, a walking cane—and he slipped that cane out of the back window and worked it from behind so that it looked like a rifle barrel. And the other car fell back rapidly, and they got away without difficulty.
David Gallen: Did he look more tired as you neared the end of the book?
Alex Haley: Of course he did, because he was under just insane pressure.
David Gallen: Did he seem distracted or preoccupied? Did he feel he was nearing the end of his life?
Alex Haley: Yes, same reason, same thing. He didn’t ever say to me that he was nearing the end of his life, but I would imagine that, yes, he probably felt that he was.
David Gallen: When was the last time you saw Malcolm? The last time you spoke with him? What did he say?
Alex Haley: I don’t remember when I last saw Malcolm, not specifically, but I do remember the last time I spoke with him. It was the Saturday before his death. His home had been bombed. He called, and it was the first time in all our acquaintance that I did not understand, I did not recognize, his voice when he called. You know how you know the voices of people you know, but he sounded like someone that was under a deep, heavy cold, and now I’m pretty sure that it was stress to some degree. He tried to make something jocular of it. He said something like, “You know, nobody would lend me a penny. Nobody would make me a loan in a bank. Nobody would write any insurance on me.” And he said that his house had been bombed—I knew that—and he said that he had nowhere for his wife and children to go. And he adored, I couldn’t overstate how much he adored, his wife and children, and how guilty he felt that he wasn’t doing the things he should, that he wasn’t able materially to give them the things he would have liked to. When he called me this day, he said that his home had been bombed and he had to get some place for his family to live. And then in this heavy, heavy, strained voice he asked if I would go to the publisher, if I would go back to Ken McCormick and ask him if it was possible that Doubleday might advance, I think it was twenty thousand dollars, so he could get a home, and that was when he said, “You know, nobody, no bank, would make me a loan.” And nobody would write insurance on him. I told him I would do the best I could, and he just said, you know, “I’d appreciate it if you would do that.” And that was the last time I spoke with Malcolm, because the next day he was shot to death in the Audubon Ballroom.
David Gallen: What do you think is Malcolm’s legacy to young people today?
Alex Haley: I would say that Malcolm today offers to young blacks a clean, stellar, solid, articulate, courageous black image—or role model, if you will. He is clean, as the expressions goes. His image is unsullied. So now he comes more to the fore than ever. He is embraced by those who were in many cases not yet born when he was around. He is hailed for the things he said. You see his face on sweatshirts, you see his words on T-shirts—words like “By any means necessary.” That was one of his master lines; it’s up to you to interpret it as you have your own feeling about what he meant, but all he said was “By any means necessary.” He was a master of that sort of statement. Interesting thing: Malcolm X was synonymous with violence in the public view, that was his image, whereas Dr. King was imaged as the man of peace, Ghandi’s follower, when in fact, it was Dr. King, the man of peace, who met the water hoses and the dogs and the sheriffs, and who spent time in all the jails, while Malcolm, the man associated with violence, never got a scratch. He was adroit in his way of fighting the black battle. He made tremendous impressions, but never at the cost of personal or physical confrontations. He used lines like “By any means necessary” and got people excited so that they would follow him and join the Nation of Islam.
David Gallen: What do your readers most ask about Malcolm?
Alex Haley: That’s easy. They come to me and say, “Tell me, what he was really like?” I’ve heard that hundreds of times, and my answer is the truth: Everything I know about Malcolm is in that book, The Autobiography, particularly in the afterword. After he was killed, for the next five days writing was my dirge as I tried to put down everything I knew or had heard having to do with him, so that the book would hold between its two covers the life of one man. The book began when Malcolm was not yet born; I think it started something like, “When my mother was pregnant with me . . .” And in the afterword I recounted how he was assassinated and described his funeral services. I’m proud of the ending now. Endings are important for a writer; you have to find what works, what sentences to use. But I am so glad that I wrote what I did—something, I think, like what he would have wanted me to write of him—and now I leave him to the scholars and I leave him in the hands of the young people, the students, some of whom will become scholars, and I just feel good that I was able to write his life as he would have it written, from his own words, because otherwise the true story of his life would have been lost in apocrypha. ~ Alex Haley.
(Alex Haley Remembers Malcolm X: An Interview With David Gallen is presented under the Creative Commons License. A Malcolm X Reader was published by Carroll and Graf Publishers, Inc. © 1994 David Gallen. All Rights Reserved.)