|Home Page||Biography||Articles||Forewords||Text Interviews||Audio Interviews||Video Interviews||Oprah Videos||Malcolm X||Roots: The Saga of An American Family|
|Roots: The Next Generations||Roots: The Gift||Christmas Story||Queen: The Story of An American Family||Mama Flora's Family||Palmerstown USA||Stories of America|
|Alex Haley Museum||Alex Haley Memorial||Haley Heritage Square||CDF Alex Haley Farm||Alex Haley Testimonials||Press Media Kit||About Us||Resources||Quotes|
|The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley||Share:|
The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley
Biography of the American black religious leader and activist who was born Malcolm Little, published in 1965. Written by Alex Haley, who had conducted extensive audiotaped interviews with Malcolm X just before his assassination in 1965, the book gained renown as a classic work on black American experience. The Autobiography recounts the life of Malcolm X from his traumatic childhood plagued by racism to his years as a drug dealer and pimp, his conversion to the Black Muslim sect (Nation of Islam) while in prison for burglary, his subsequent years of militant activism, and his later turn in his life to more orthodox Islam.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X: (Audio Cassette)
Malcolm X • Two–Disk Special Edition • (1992)
Malcolm's story is often considered an overview of the African American experience during the turbulent years of the civil rights movement. It is an inspiring tale of redemption and overcoming, as he grows from just another street criminal to one of the most charismatic and electrifying speakers of the 20th century. It is the story of how one man, in prison and at the lowest point in his life, found the power within himself to rise out of the ashes of injustice and hatred and be something more than anyone imagined he could be. Spike Lee's epic portrayal of the life and times of the slain civil rights leader Malcolm X begins with the cross-cut imagery of the police beating of black motorist Rodney King juxtaposed with an American flag burning into the shape of the letter 'X'
Malcolm X • Cast Members
The Autobiography of Malcolm X • Reviews
"This book HITS you. It hits you while you read it, a few days after you complete it and then all through the rest of your life. From street punk to Civil Rights Icon, the life of Malcolm X is told beautifully in this powerful book. A person cannot really claim to know Malcolm X—or his or her own self—until one reads this book. Buy it, own it, add it to your personal library." - Boston, Massachusets.
"This book should be required reading for every black man in America. This book totally change my life and the way I view others. After reading this, I began to see things differently and view others with a greater respect than ever before. If you think Malcolm X was just another hate teacher or racist, then you must read this book. It will show you who the real Malcolm was and give you a greater feeling of self-respect. Read this book and get anyone you know to read it as well." - Cincinnati, Ohio.
"This book will be one of the most important book you will ever read. Before I read this book I knew little of Malcolm X, but after reading not only was I enriched, but it forced me to look at the world in a different light. Hand this book to anyone who is not living up to their full potential and you will see a change. This book was a challenge for me as it filled me with a great sorrow of what one race can do to hold down another. Do your self a great favor and read this book. It will be the greatest lesson you will ever learn for a few dollars. Malcolm X is a hero of mine and he has taught more to me then any teacher." - Redwood City, California.
"This non-fictional movie is outstanding!! It's like 3 hours long, but when you watch it, you wish it was longer. Some people may get offended, but educated ones will truly understand (mainly, because they'll watch the entire movie). The Autobiography of Malcolm X may give you more details, but it's best to watch the movie first to get a better understanding and imagination. Also, Denzel Washington plays an excellent role of Malcolm. So to sum this up, 'X' is truly an excellent choice." - Bremerton, Washington.
"There have been many engaging and watchable biography movies but most never quite achieve what I would consider greatness as a film. Malcolm X is the exception. This is both a totally engaging biographical story of a great and complicated man's epic life and a great film. Spike Lee is in top form here and so is Denzel Washington who is absolutely convincing as Malcolm X as if he has channeled Malcolm's spirit. Spike Lee brings career-best performances out of a lot of actors in this film. Don't miss it." - Atlanta, Georgia.
"Spike Lee did his absolute best with this film. With an excellent choice of Denzel Washington as Malcolm and Angela Bassett as Betty, this film truly is an inspiration to all Black and non-Black Muslims such as myself. It truly captivates the beauty of our religion and how one man truly believed in hard work and dedication. The ending was truly the most touching of all and still brings a tear to my eye even today. May the real Malcolm rest in peace. Amen." - Surrey, British Columbia.
Everything Alex Haley Mentioned About Malcolm X
This section covers everything Alex Haley mentioned about Malcolm X throughout all his combined articles, forewords, essays, audio lectures, and both his text interviews and video interviews that he delivered to and received by others. It is indeed history in the making!
Mr. Muhammad Speaks
(Reader's Digest, March 1960)
When I went to hear Mr. Muhammad, New York's 5,000-seat St. Nicholas Arena was packed. The floor was lined with standees; 1,000 of the faithful were in the basement and many more were outside. They would hear the message on loudspeakers.
The meeting was opened by Wallace D. Muhammad, one of Muhammad's six sons. Next to speak was Muhammad's tall, whip-smart assistant, a New York minister named "Malcolm X." He had been serving a sentence for larceny in the Charlestown, Massachusetts, state prison when he was converted.
"When I was a Christian I was a criminal. I was only doing what the white man taught me," Malcolm X was saying calmly, conversationally.
Suddenly, shouting rose from the audience. From the rear marched two double rows of Muslim men. Between them walked a meek-looking little man wearing a blue suit and an embroidered pillbox fez.
Malcolm X waved furiously to stop the wild ovation. Then he introduced the shy-looking little man as "the boldest black man in America ... the most powerful black man in America ... the smartest black man in America."
Adult Muslims attend classes one night a week. Men take "physical hygiene"—body-building, military drilling and judo. Selected students between 18 and 30 compose the elite corps, "Fruit of Islam," who travel in chartered buses to wherever Muhammad speaks.
"It's nothing more than you find in the YMCA, CYO, Masons or Boy Scouts," New York minister Malcolm X said of "physical hygiene." But law-enforcement officials view it differently. New York City deputy police commissioner Walter Arm points out that in emotionally tense minority communities, a Muslim interpretation of "defend yourself," backed by the well-trained "Fruit of Islam," could easily ignite a riot.
I applied through Malcolm X to interview the leader, and flew to Chicago to be available when his heavy schedule would permit an appointment. Elijah Muhammad had come a long way from Sandersville, Georgia, where, in October 1897, he was christened Elijah Poole, the son of a Baptist minister.
After an eighth-grade education, Elijah moved to Detroit where, he says, he met "Allah in Person" in 1931. This was a man named Fard Muhammad—"the first and only man born in Mecca who came to America for the express purpose of teaching the so-called Negro."
Fard Muhammad allegedly tutored Elijah, who then founded the first Temple of Islam, in Detroit. Moving later to Chicago, Elijah was arrested for lecturing against Negroes' fighting "the white man's war." Absolved of sedition but found guilty of draft-dodging, he served three years in the Federal Correction Institution at Milan, Michigan.
Released in 1946, he concentrated on grooming dedicated assistants. The staff has at its core Muhammad's six sons. A son-in-law, 210-pound Raymond Sharrieff, is "Supreme Captain" of the "Fruit of Islam." Malcolm X is an ubiquitous aide-de-camp who flies about the United States counseling city and territorial ministers, who in turn designate subordinate lieutenants, sergeants and corporals within the congregation. This deep-rooted organization gives Elijah Muhammad a control and direct power unequaled among Negro leaders.
(Excerpted from the March 1960 issue of Reader's Digest. © 1960, 2007 The Reader's Digest Association, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)
Alex Haley Interviews Malcolm X
(Playboy Magazine, May 1963)
A Candid Conversation With The Militant Major-Domo of The Black Muslims
Haley: What is the ambition of the Black Muslims?
Malcolm X: Freedom, justice and equality are our principal ambitions. And to faithfully serve and follow the Honorable Elijah Muhammad is the guiding goal of every Muslim. Mr. Muhammad teaches us the knowledge of our own selves, and of our own people. He cleans us up—morally, mentally and spiritually—and he reforms us of the vices that have blinded us here in the Western society. He stops black men from getting drunk, stops their dope addiction if they had it, stops nicotine, gambling, stealing, lying, cheating, fornication, adultery, prostitution, juvenile delinquency. I think of this whenever somebody talks about someone investigating us. Why investigate the Honorable Elijah Muhammad? They should subsidize him. He's cleaning up the mess that white men have made. He's saving the Government millions of dollars, taking black men off of welfare, showing them how to do something for themselves. And Mr. Muhammad teaches us love for our own kind. The white man has taught the black people in this country to hate themselves as inferior, to hate each other, to be divided against each other. Messenger Muhammad restores our love for our own kind, which enables us to work together in unity and harmony. He shows us how to pool our financial resources and our talents, then to work together toward a common objective. Among other things, we have small businesses in most major cities in this country, and we want to create many more. We are taught by Mr. Muhammad that it is very important to improve the black man's economy, and his thrift. But to do this, we must have land of our own. The brainwashed black man can never learn to stand on his own two feet until he is on his own. We must learn to become our own producers, manufacturers and traders; we must have industry of our own, to employ our own. The white man resists this because he wants to keep the black man under his thumb and jurisdiction in white society. He wants to keep the black man always dependent and begging—for jobs, food, clothes, shelter, education. The white man doesn't want to lose somebody to be supreme over. He wants to keep the black man where he can be watched and retarded. Mr. Muhammad teaches that as soon as we separate from the white man, we will learn that we can do without the white man just as he can do without us. The white man knows that once black men get off to themselves and learn they can do for themselves, the black man's full potential will explode and he will surpass the white man.
Haley: Do you feel that the Black Muslims' goal of obtaining "several states" is a practical vision?
Malcolm X: Well, you might consider some things practical that are really impractical. Wasn't it impractical that the Supreme Court could issue a desegregation order nine years ago and there's still only eight percent compliance? Is it practical that a hundred years after the Civil War there's not freedom for black men yet? On the record for integration you've got the President, the Congress, the Supreme Court—but show me your integration, where is it? That's practical? Mr. Muhammad teaches us to be for what's really practical—that's separation. It's more natural than integration.
Haley: In a recent interview, Negro author-lecturer Louis Lomax said, "Eighty percent, if not more, of America's 20,000,000 Negroes vibrate sympathetically with the Muslims' indictment of the white power structure. But this does not mean we agree with them in their doctrines of estrangement or with their proposed resolutions of the race problem." Does this view represent a consensus of opinion among Negroes? And if so, is it possible that your separationist and anti-Christian doctrines have the effect of alienating many of your own race?
Malcolm X: Sir, you make a mistake listening to people who tell you how much our stand alienates black men in this country. I'd guess actually we have the sympathy of 90 percent of the black people. There are 20,000,000 dormant Muslims in America. A Muslim to us is somebody who is for the black man; I don't care if he goes to the Baptist Church seven days a week. The Honorable Elijah Muhammad says that a black man is born a Muslim by nature. There are millions of Muslims not aware of it now. All of them will be Muslims when they wake up; that's what's meant by the Resurrection.
Sir, I'm going to tell you a secret: the black man is a whole lot smarter than white people think he is. The black man has survived in this country by fooling the white man. He's been dancing and grinning and white men never guessed what he was thinking. Now you'll hear the bourgeois Negroes pretending to be alienated, but they're just making the white man think they don't go for what Mr. Muhammad is saying. This Negro that will tell you he's so against us, he's just protecting the crumbs he gets from the white man's table. This kind of Negro is so busy trying to be like the white man that he doesn't know what the real masses of his own people are thinking. A fine car and house and clothes and liquor have made a lot think themselves different from their poor black brothers. But Mr. Muhammad says that Allah is going to wake up all black men to see the white man as he really is, and see what Christianity has done to them. The black masses that are waking up don't believe in Christianity anymore. All it's done for black men is help to keep them slaves. Mr. Muhammad is teaching that Christianity, as white people see it, means that whites can have their heaven here on earth, but the black man is supposed to catch his hell here. The black man is supposed to keep believing that when he dies, he'll float up to some city with golden streets and milk and honey on a cloud somewhere. Every black man in North America has heard black Christian preachers shouting about "tomorrow in good old Beulah's Land." But the thinking black masses today are interested in Muhammad's Land. The Promised Land that the Honorable Elijah Muhammad talks about is right here on this earth. Intelligent black men today are interested in a religious doctrine that offers a solution to their problems right now, right here on this earth, while they are alive.
You must understand that the Honorable Elijah Muhammad represents the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy to us. In the Old Testament, Moses lived to see his enemy, Pharaoh, drowned in the Red Sea—which in essence means that Mr. Muhammad will see the completion of his work in his lifetime, that he will live to see victory gained over his enemy.
Haley: The Old Testament connection seems tenuous. Are you referring to the Muslim judgment day which your organization's newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, calls "Armageddon" and prophesies as imminent?
Malcolm X: Armageddon deals with the final battle between God and the Devil. The Third World War is referred to as Armageddon by many white statesmen. There won't be any more war after then because there won't be any more warmongers. I don't know when Armageddon, whatever form it takes, is supposed to be. But I know the time is near when the white man will be finished. The signs are all around us. Ten years ago you couldn't have paid a Southern Negro to defy local customs. The British Lion's tail has been snatched off in black Africa. The Indonesians have booted out such would-be imperialists as the Dutch. The French, who felt for a century that Algeria was theirs, have had to run for their lives back to France. Sir, the point I make is that all over the world, the old day of standing in fear and trembling before the almighty white man is gone!
Haley: If Muslims ultimately gain control as you predict, what do you plan to do with white people?
Malcolm X: It's not a case of what would we do, it's a case of what would God do with whites. What does a judge do with the guilty? Either the guilty one repents and atones, or God executes judgment.
Haley: You refer to whites as the guilty and the enemy; you predict divine retribution against them; and you preach absolute separation from the white community. Do not these views substantiate the fact that your movement is predicated on race hatred?
Malcolm X: Sir, it's from Mr. Muhammad that the black masses are learning for the first time in 400 years the real truth of how the white man brainwashed the black man, kept him ignorant of his true history, robbed him of his self-confidence. The black masses for the first time are understanding that it's not a case of being anti-white or anti-Christian, but it's a case of seeing the true nature of the white man. We're anti-evil, anti-oppression, anti-lynching. You can't be anti- those things unless you're also anti- the oppressor and the lyncher. You can't be anti-slavery and pro-slavemaster; you can't be anti-crime and pro-criminal. In fact, Mr. Muhammad teaches that if the present generation of whites would study their own race in the light of their true history, they would be anti-white themselves.
Haley: Are you?
Malcolm X: As soon as the white man hears a black man say that he's through loving white people, then the white man accuses the black man of hating him. The Honorable Elijah Muhammad doesn't teach hate. The white man isn't important enough for the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and his followers to spend any time hating him. The white man has brainwashed himself into believing that all the black people in the world want to be cuddled up next to him. When he meets what we're talking about, he can't believe it, it takes all the wind out of him. When we tell him we don't want to be around him, we don't want to be like he is, he's staggered. It makes him re-evaluate his 300-year myth about the black man. What I want to know is how the white man, with the blood of black people dripping off his fingers, can have the audacity to be asking black people do they hate him. That takes a lot of nerve.
Haley: How do you reconcile your disavowal of hatred with the announcement you made last year that Allah had brought you "the good news" that 120 white Atlantans had just been killed in an air crash en route to America from Paris?
Malcolm X: Sir, as I see the law of justice, it says as you sow, so shall you reap. The white man has reveled as the rope snapped black men's necks. He has reveled around the lynching fire. It's only right for the black man's true God, Allah, to defend us—and for us to be joyous because our God manifests his ability to inflict pain on our enemy. We Muslims believe that the white race, which is guilty of having oppressed and exploited and enslaved our people here in America, should and will be the victims of God's divine wrath. All civilized societies in their courts of justice set a sentence of execution against those deemed to be enemies of society, such as murderers and kidnappers. The presence of 20,000,000 black people here in America is proof that Uncle Sam is guilty of kidnapping—because we didn't come here voluntarily on the Mayflower. And 400 years of lynchings condemn Uncle Sam as a murderer.
Haley: We question that all-inclusive generalization. To return to your statement about the plane crash, when Dr. Ralph Bunche heard about it, he called you "mentally depraved." What is your reaction?
Malcolm X: I know all about what Dr. Bunche said. He's always got his international mouth open. He apologized in the UN when black people protested there. You'll notice that whenever the white man lets a black man get prominent, he has a job for him. Dr. Bunche serves the white man well—he represents, speaks for and defends the white man. He does none of this for the black man. Dr. Bunche has functioned as a white man's tool, designed to influence international opinion on the Negro. The white man has Negro local tools, national tools, and Dr. Bunche is an international tool.
Haley: Dr. Bunche was only one of many prominent Negroes who deplored your statement in similar terms. What reply have you to make to these spokesmen for your own people?
Malcolm X: Go ask their opinions and you'll be able to fill your notebook with what white people want to hear Negroes say. Let's take these so-called spokesmen for the black men by types. Start with the politicians. They never attack Mr. Muhammad personally. They realize he has the sympathy of the black masses. They know they would alienate the masses whose votes they need. But the black civic leaders, they do attack Mr. Muhammad. The reason is usually that they are appointed to their positions by the white man. The white man pays them to attack us. The ones who attack Mr. Muhammad the most are the ones who earn the most. Then take the black religious leaders, they also attack Mr. Muhammad. These preachers do it out of self-defense, because they know he's waking up Negroes. No one believes what the Negro preacher preaches except those who are mentally asleep, or in the darkness of ignorance about the true situation of the black man here today in this wilderness of North America. If you will take note, sir, many so-called Negro leaders who once attacked the Honorable Elijah Muhammad don't do so anymore. And he never speaks against them in the personal sense except as a reaction if they speak against him. Islam is a religion that teaches us never to attack, never to be the aggressor—but you can waste somebody if he attacks you. These Negro leaders have become aware that whenever the Honorable Elijah Muhammad is caused by their attack to level his guns against them, they always come out on the losing end. Many have experienced this.
Haley: Do you admire and respect any other American Negro leaders—Martin Luther King, for example?
Malcolm X: I am a Muslim, sir. Muslims can see only one leader who has the qualifications necessary to unite all elements of black people in America. This is the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.
Haley: Many white religious leaders have also gone on record against the Black Muslims. Writing in the official NAACP magazine, a Catholic priest described you as "a fascist-minded hate group," and B'nai B'rith has accused you of being not only anti-Christian but anti-Semitic. Do you consider this true?
Malcolm X: Insofar as the Christian world is concerned, dictatorships have existed only in areas or countries where you have Roman Catholicism. Catholicism conditions your mind for dictators. Can you think of a single Protestant country that has ever produced a dictator?
Haley: Germany was predominantly Protestant when Hitler—
Malcolm X: Another thing to think of—in the 20th Century, the Christian Church has given us two heresies: fascism and communism.
Haley: On what grounds do you attribute these "isms" to the Christian Church?
Malcolm X: Where did fascism start? Where's the second-largest Communist party outside of Russia? The answer to both is Italy. Where is the Vatican? But let's not forget the Jew. Anybody that gives even a just criticism of the Jew is instantly labeled anti-Semite. The Jew cries louder than anybody else if anybody criticizes him. You can tell the truth about any minority in America, but make a true observation about the Jew, and if it doesn't pat him on the back, then he uses his grip on the news media to label you anti-Semite. Let me say just a word about the Jew and the black man. The Jew is always anxious to advise the black man. But they never advise him how to solve his problem the way the Jews solved their problem. The Jew never went sitting-in and crawling-in and sliding-in and freedom-riding, like he teaches and helps Negroes to do. The Jews stood up, and stood together, and they used their ultimate power, the economic weapon. That's exactly what the Honorable Elijah Muhammad is trying to teach black men to do. The Jews pooled their money and bought the hotels that barred them. They bought Atlantic City and Miami Beach and anything else they wanted. Who owns Hollywood? Who runs the garment industry, the largest industry in New York City? But the Jew that's advising the Negro joins the NAACP, CORE, the Urban League, and others. With money donations, the Jew gains control, then he sends the black man doing all this wading-in, boring-in, even burying-in—everything but buying-in. Never shows him how to set up factories and hotels. Never advises him how to own what he wants. No, when there's something worth owning, the Jew's got it. Walk up and down in any Negro ghetto in America. Ninety percent of the worthwhile businesses you see are Jew-owned. Every night they take the money out. This helps the black man's community stay a ghetto.
Haley: Isn't it true that many Gentiles have also labored with dedication to advance integration and economic improvement for the Negro, as volunteer workers for the NAACP, CORE and many other interracial agencies?
Malcolm X: A man who tosses worms in the river isn't necessarily a friend of the fish. All the fish who take him for a friend, who think the worm's got no hook in it, usually end up in the frying pan. All these things dangled before us by the white liberal posing as a friend and benefactor have turned out to be nothing but bait to make us think we're making progress. The Supreme Court decision has never been enforced. Desegregation has never taken place. The promises have never been fulfilled. We have received only tokens, substitutes, trickery and deceit.
Haley: What motives do you impute to Playboy for providing you with this opportunity for the free discussion of your views?
Malcolm X: I think you want to sell magazines. I've never seen a sincere white man, not when it comes to helping black people. Usually things like this are done by white people to benefit themselves. The white man's primary interest is not to elevate the thinking of black people, or to waken black people, or white people either. The white man is interested in the black man only to the extent that the black man is of use to him. The white man's interest is to make money, to exploit.
Haley: Is there any white man on earth whom you would concede to have the Negro's welfare genuinely at heart?
Malcolm X: I say, sir, that you can never make an intelligent judgment without evidence. If any man will study the entire history of the relationship between the white man and the black man, no evidence will be found that justifies any confidence or faith that the black man might have in the white man today.
Haley: Then you consider it impossible for the white man to be anything but an exploiter and a hypocrite in his relations with the Negro?
Malcolm X: Is it wrong to attribute a predisposition to wheat before it comes up out of the ground? Wheat's characteristics and nature make it wheat. It differs from barley because of its nature. Wheat perpetuates its own characteristics just as the white race does. White people are born devils by nature. They don't become so by deeds. If you never put popcorn in a skillet, it would still be popcorn. Put the heat to it, it will pop.
Haley: You say that white men are devils by nature. Was Christ a devil?
Malcolm X: Christ wasn't white. Christ was a black man.
Haley: On what Scripture do you base this assertion?
Malcolm X: Sir, Billy Graham has made the same statement in public. Why not ask him what Scripture he found it in? When Pope Pius XII died, Life magazine carried a picture of him in his private study kneeling before a black Christ.
Haley: Those are hardly quotations from Scripture. Was He not reviled as "King of the Jews"—a people the Black Muslims attack?
Malcolm X: Only the poor, brainwashed American Negro has been made to believe that Christ was white, to maneuver him into worshiping the white man. After becoming a Muslim in prison, I read almost everything I could put my hands on in the prison library. I began to think back on everything I had read and especially with the histories, I realized that nearly all of them read by the general public have been made into white histories. I found out that the history-whitening process either had left out great things that black men had done, or some of the great black men had gotten whitened.
Haley: Would you list a few of these men?
Malcolm X: Well, Hannibal, the most successful general that ever lived, was a black man. So was Beethoven; Beethoven's father was one of the blackamoors that hired themselves out in Europe as professional soldiers. Haydn, Beethoven's teacher, was of African descent. And Solomon. Great Biblical characters. Columbus, the discoverer of America, was a half-black man.
Haley: According to biographies considered definitive, Beethoven's father, Johann, was a court tenor in Cologne; Haydn's parents were Croatian; Columbus' parents were Italian—
Malcolm X: Whole black empires, like the Moorish, have been whitened to hide the fact that a great black empire had conquered a white empire even before America was discovered. The Moorish civilization—black Africans—conquered and ruled Spain; they kept the light burning in Southern Europe. The word "Moor" means "black," by the way. Egyptian civilization is a classic example of how the white man stole great African cultures and makes them appear today as white European. The black nation of Egypt is the only country that has a science named after its culture: Egyptology. The ancient Sumerians, a black-skinned people, occupied the Middle Eastern areas and were contemporary with the Egyptian civilization. The Incas, the Aztecs, the Mayans, all dark-skinned Indian people, had a highly developed culture here in America, in what is now Mexico and northern South America. These people had mastered agriculture at the time when European white people were still living in mud huts and eating weeds. But white children, or black children, or grownups here today in America don't get to read this in the average books they are exposed to.
Haley: Can you cite any authoritative historical documents for these observations?
Malcolm X: I can cite a great many, sir. You could start with Herodotus, the Greek historian. He outright described the Egyptians as "black, with woolly hair." And the American archaeologist and Egyptologist James Henry Breasted did the same thing. Read Pliny. Read any of the ancient Roman, Greek and, more recently, European anthropologists and archaeologists.
Haley: You seem to have based your thesis on the premise that all nonwhite races are necessarily black.
Malcolm X: Mr. Muhammad says that the red, the brown and the yellow are indeed all part of the black nation. Which means that black, brown, red, yellow, all are brothers, all are one family. The white one is a stranger. He's the odd fellow.
Haley: Since your classification of black peoples apparently includes the light-skinned Oriental, Middle Eastern and possibly even Latin races as well as the darker Indian and Negroid strains, just how do you decide how light-skinned it's permissible to be before being condemned as white? And if Caucasian whites are devils by nature, do you classify people by degrees of devilishness according to the lightness of their skin?
Malcolm X: I don't worry about these little technicalities. But I know that white society has always considered that one drop of black blood makes you black. To me, if one drop can do this, it only shows the power of one drop of black blood. And I know another thing—that Negroes who used to be light enough to pass for white have seen the handwriting on the wall and are beginning to come back and identify with their own kind. And white people who also are seeing the pendulum of time catching up with them are now trying to join with blacks, or even find traces of black blood in their own veins, hoping that it will save them from the catastrophe they see ahead. But no devil can fool God. Muslims have a little poem about them. It goes, "One drop will make you black, and will also in days to come save your soul."
Haley: As one of this vast elite, do you hold the familiar majority attitude toward minority groups—regarding the white race, in this case, as inferior in quality as well as quantity to what you call the "black nation"?
Malcolm X: Thoughtful white people know they are inferior to black people. Even Eastland knows it. Anyone who has studied the genetic phase of biology knows that white is considered recessive and black is considered dominant. When you want strong coffee, you ask for black coffee. If you want it light, you want it weak, integrated with white milk. Just like these Negroes who weaken themselves and their race by this integrating and intermixing with whites. If you want bread with no nutritional value, you ask for white bread. All the good that was in it has been bleached out of it, and it will constipate you. If you want pure flour, you ask for dark flour, whole-wheat flour. If you want pure sugar, you want dark sugar.
Haley: If all whites are devilish by nature, as you have alleged, and if black and white are essentially opposite, as you have just stated, do you view all black men—with the exception of their non-Muslim leaders—as fundamentally angelic?
Malcolm X: No, there is plenty wrong with Negroes. They have no society. They're robots, automations. No minds of their own. I hate to say that about us, but it's the truth. They are a black body with a white brain. Like the monster Frankenstein. The top part is your bourgeois Negro. He's your integrator. He's not interested in his poor black brothers. He's usually so deep in debt from trying to copy the white man's social habits that he doesn't have time to worry about nothing else. They buy the most expensive clothes and cars and eat the cheapest food. They act more like the white man than the white man does himself. These are the ones that hide their sympathy for Mr. Muhammad's teachings. It conflicts with the sources from which they get their white-man's crumbs. This class to us are the fence-sitters. They have one eye on the white man and the other eye on the Muslims. They'll jump whichever way they see the wind blowing. Then there's the middle class of the Negro masses, the ones not in the ghetto, who realize that life is a struggle, who are conscious of all the injustices being done and of the constant state of insecurity in which they live. They're ready to take some stand against everything that's against them. Now, when this group hears Mr. Muhammad's teachings, they are the ones who come forth faster and identify themselves, and take immediate steps toward trying to bring into existence what Mr. Muhammad advocates. At the bottom of the social heap is the black man in the big-city ghetto. He lives night and day with the rats and cockroaches and drowns himself with alcohol and anesthetizes himself with dope, to try and forget where and what he is. That Negro has given up all hope. He's the hardest one for us to reach, because he's the deepest in the mud. But when you get him, you've got the best kind of Muslim. Because he makes the most drastic change. He's the most fearless. He will stand the longest. He has nothing to lose, even his life, because he didn't have that in the first place. I look upon myself, sir, as a prime example of this category—and as graphic an example as you could find of the salvation of the black man.
Haley: Could you give us a brief review of the early life that led to your own "salvation"?
Malcolm X: Gladly. I was born in Omaha on May 19, 1925. My light color is the result of my mother's mother having been raped by a white man. I hate every drop of white blood in me. Before I am indicted for hate again, sir—is it wrong to hate the blood of a rapist? But to continue: My father was a militant follower of Marcus Garvey's "Back to Africa" movement. The Lansing, Michigan, equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan warned him to stop preaching Garvey's message, but he kept on and one of my earliest memories is of being snatched awake one night with a lot of screaming going on because our home was afire. But my father got louder about Garvey, and the next time he was found bludgeoned in the head, lying across streetcar tracks. He died soon and our family was in a bad way. We were so hungry we were dizzy and we had nowhere to turn. Finally the authorities came in and we children were scattered about in different places as public wards. I happened to become the ward of a white couple who ran a correctional school for white boys. This family liked me in the way they liked their house pets. They got me enrolled in an all-white school. I was popular, I played sports and everything, and studied hard, and I stayed at the head of my class through the eighth grade. That summer I was 14, but I was big enough and looked old enough to get away with telling a lie that I was 21, so I got a job working in the dining car of a train that ran between Boston and New York City.
On my layovers in New York, I'd go to Harlem. That's where I saw in the bars all these men and women with what looked like the easiest life in the world. Plenty of money, big cars, all of it. I could tell they were in the rackets and vice. I hung around those bars whenever I came in town, and I kept my ears and eyes open and my mouth shut. And they kept their eyes on me, too. Finally, one day a numbers man told me that he needed a runner, and I never caught the night train back to Boston. Right there was when I started my life in crime. I was in all of it that the white police and the gangsters left open to the black criminal, sir. I was in numbers, bootleg liquor, "hot" goods, women. I sold the bodies of black women to white men, and white women to black men. I was in dope, I was in everything evil you could name. The only thing I could say good for myself, sir, was that I did not indulge in hitting anybody over the head.
Haley: By the time you were 16, according to the record, you had several men working for you in these various enterprises. Right?
Malcolm X: Yes, sir. I turned the things I mentioned to you over to them. And I had a good working system of paying off policemen. It was here that I learned that vice and crime can only exist, at least the kind and level that I was in, to the degree that the police cooperate with it. I had several men working and I was a steerer myself. I steered white people with money from downtown to whatever kind of sin they wanted in Harlem. I didn't care what they wanted, I knew where to take them to it. And I tell you what I noticed here—that my best customers always were the officials, the top police people, businessmen, politicians and clergymen. I never forgot that. I met all levels of these white people, supplied them with everything they wanted, and I saw that they were just a filthy race of devils. But despite the fact that my own father was murdered by whites, and I had seen my people all my life brutalized by whites, I was still blind enough to mix with them and socialize with them. I thought they were gods and goddesses—until Mr. Muhammad's powerful spiritual message opened my eyes and enabled me to see them as a race of devils. Nothing had made me see the white man as he is until one word from the Honorable Elijah Muhammad opened my eyes overnight.
Haley: When did this happen?
Malcolm X: In prison. I was finally caught and spent 77 months in three different prisons. But it was the greatest thing that ever happened to me, because it was in prison that I first heard the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. His teachings were what turned me around. The first time I heard the Honorable Elijah Muhammad's statement, "The white man is the devil," it just clicked. I am a good example of why Islam is spreading so rapidly across the land. I was nothing but another convict, a semi-illiterate criminal. Mr. Muhammad's teachings were able to reach into prison, which is the level where people are considered to have fallen as low as they can go. His teachings brought me from behind prison walls and placed me on the podiums of some of the leading colleges and universities in the country. I often think, sir, that in 1946, I was sentenced to 8 to 10 years in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a common thief who had never passed the eighth grade. And the next time I went back to Cambridge was in March 1961, as a guest speaker at the Harvard Law School Forum. This is the best example of Mr. Muhammad's ability to take nothing and make something, to take nobody and make somebody.
Haley: Your rise to prominence in the Muslim organization has been so swift that a number of your own membership have hailed you as their articulate exemplar, and many anti-Muslims regard you as the real brains and power of the movement. What is your reaction to this sudden eminence?
Malcolm X: Sir, it's heresy to imply that I am in any way whatever even equal to Mr. Muhammad. No man on earth today is his equal. Whatever I am that is good, it is through what I have been taught by Mr. Muhammad.
Haley: Be that as it may, the time is near when your leader, who is 65, will have to retire from leadership of the Muslim movement. Many observers predict that when this day comes, the new Messenger of Allah in America—a role which you have called the most powerful of any black man in the world—will be Malcolm X. How do you feel about this prospect?
MALCOLM X: Sir, I can only say that God chose Mr. Muhammad as his Messenger, and Mr. Muhammad chose me and many others to help him. Only God has the say-so. But I will tell you one thing. I frankly don't believe that I or anyone else am worthy to succeed Mr. Muhammad. No one preceded him. I don't think I could make the sacrifice he has made, or set his good example. He has done more than lay down his life. But his work is already done with the seed he has planted among black people. If Mr. Muhammad and every identifiable follower he has, certainly including myself, were tomorrow removed from the scene by more of the white man's brutality, there is one thing to be sure of: Mr. Muhammad's teachings of the naked truth have fallen upon fertile soil among 20,000,000 black men here in this wilderness of North America.
Haley: Has the soil, in your opinion, been as fertile for Mr. Muhammad's teachings elsewhere in the world—among the emerging nations of black Africa, for instance?
Malcolm X: I think not only that his teachings have had considerable impact even in Africa but that the Honorable Elijah Muhammad has had a greater impact on the world than the rise of the African nations. I say this as objectively as I can, being a Muslim. Even the Christian missionaries are conceding that in black Africa, for every Christian conversion, there are two Muslim conversions.
Haley: Might conversions be even more numerous if it weren't for the somewhat strained relations which are said by several Negro writers to exist between the black people of Africa and America?
Malcolm X: Perhaps. You see, the American black man sees the African come here and live where the American black man can't. The Negro sees the African come here with a sheet on and go places where the Negro—dressed like a white man, talking like a white man, sometimes as wealthy as the white man—can't go. When I'm traveling around the country, I use my real Muslim name, Malik Shabazz. I make my hotel reservations under that name, and I always see the same thing I've just been telling you. I come to the desk and always see that "here-comes-a-Negro" look. It's kind of a reserved, coldly tolerant cordiality. But when I say "Malik Shabazz," their whole attitude changes: they snap to respect. They think I'm an African. People say what's in a name? There's a whole lot in a name. The American black man is seeing the African respected as a human being. The African gets respect because he has an identity and cultural roots. But most of all because the African owns some land. For these reasons he has his human rights recognized, and that makes his civil rights automatic.
Haley: Do you feel this is true of Negro civil and human rights in South Africa, where the doctrine of apartheid is enforced by the government of Prime Minister Verwoerd?
Malcolm X: They don't stand for anything different in South Africa than America stands for. The only difference is over there they preach as well as practice apartheid. America preaches freedom and practices slavery. America preaches integration and practices segregation. Verwoerd is an honest white man. So are the Barnetts, Faubuses, Eastlands and Rockwells. They want to keep all white people white. And we want to keep all black people black. As between the racists and the integrationists, I highly prefer the racists. I'd rather walk among rattlesnakes, whose constant rattle warns me where they are, than among those Northern snakes who grin and make you forget you're still in a snake pit. Any white man is against blacks. The entire American economy is based on white supremacy. Even the religious philosophy is, in essence, white supremacy. A white Jesus. A white Virgin. White angels. White everything. But a black Devil, of course. The "Uncle Sam" political foundation is based on white supremacy, relegating nonwhites to second-class citizenship. It goes without saying that the social philosophy is strictly white supremacist. And the educational system perpetuates white supremacy.
Haley: Are you contradicting yourself by denouncing white supremacy while praising its practitioners, since you admit that you share their goal of separation?
Malcolm X: The fact that I prefer the candor of the Southern segregationist to the hypocrisy of the Northern integrationist doesn't alter the basic immorality of white supremacy. A devil is still a devil whether he wears a bed sheet or a Brooks Brothers suit. The Honorable Elijah Muhammad teaches separation simply because any forcible attempt to integrate America completely would result in another Civil War, a catastrophic explosion among whites which would destroy America—and still not solve the problem. But Mr. Muhammad's solution of separate black and white would solve the problem neatly for both the white and black man, and America would be saved. Then the whole world would give Uncle Sam credit for being something other than a hypocrite.
Haley: Do you feel that the Administration's successful stand on the integration of James Meredith into the University of Mississippi has demonstrated that the Government—far from being hypocritical—is sympathetic with the Negro's aspirations for equality?
Malcolm X: What was accomplished? It took 15,000 troops to put Meredith in the University of Mississippi. Those troops and $3,000,000—that's what was spent—to get one Negro in. That $3,000,000 could have been used much more wisely by the Federal Government to elevate the living standards of all the Negroes in Mississippi.
Haley: Then in your view, the principle involved was not worth the expense. Yet it is a matter of record that President Kennedy, in the face of Southern opposition, championed the appointment of Dr. Robert Weaver as the first Negro Cabinet member. Does this indicate to you, as it does to many Negro leaders, that the Administration is determined to combat white supremacy?
Malcolm X: Kennedy doesn't have to fight; he's the President. He didn't have any fight replacing Ribicoff with Celebrezze. He didn't have any trouble putting Goldberg on the Supreme Court. He hasn't had any trouble getting anybody in but Weaver and Thurgood Marshall. He wasn't worried about Congressional objection when he challenged U.S. Steel. He wasn't worried about either Congressional reaction or Russian reaction or even world reaction when he blockaded Cuba. But when it comes to the rights of the Negro, who helped to put him in office, then he's afraid of little pockets of white resistance.
Haley: Has any American President, in your opinion—Lincoln, FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy—accomplished anything worthwhile for the Negro?
Malcolm X: None of them have ever done anything for Negroes. All of them have tricked the Negro, and made false promises to him at election times which they never fulfilled. Lincoln's concern wasn't freedom for the blacks but to save the Union.
Haley: Wasn't the Civil War fought to decide whether this nation could, in the words of Lincoln, "endure permanently half slave and half free"?
Malcolm X: Sir, many, many people are completely misinformed about Lincoln and the Negro. That war involved two thieves, the North and the South, fighting over the spoils. The further we get away from the actual incident, the more they are trying to make it sound as though the battle was over the black man. Lincoln said that if he could save the Union without freeing the slaves, he would. But after two years of killing and carnage he found out he would have to free the slaves. He wasn't interested in the slaves but in the Union. As for the Emancipation Proclamation, sir, it was an empty document. If it freed the slaves, why, a century later, are we still battling for civil rights?
Haley: Despite the fact that the goal of racial equality is not yet realized, many sociologists—and a number of Negro commentators—agree that no minority group on earth has made as much social, civil and economic progress as the American Negro in the past 100 years. What is your reaction to this view?
Malcolm X: Sir, I hear that everywhere almost exactly as you state it. This is one of the biggest myths that the American black man himself believes in. Every immigrant ethnic group that has come to this country is now a genuinely first-class citizen group—every one of them but the black man, who was here when they came. While everybody else is sharing the fruit, the black man is just now starting to be thrown some seeds. It is our hope that through the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, we will at last get the soil to plant the seeds in. You talk about the progress of the Negro—I'll tell you, mister, it's just because the Negro has been in America while America has gone forward that the Negro appears to have gone forward. The Negro is like a man on a luxury commuter train doing 90 miles an hour. He looks out of the window, along with all the white passengers in their Pullman chairs, and he thinks he's doing 90, too. Then he gets to the men's room and looks in the mirror—and he sees he's not really getting anywhere at all. His reflection shows a black man standing there in the white uniform of a dining-car steward. He may get on the 5:10, all right, but he sure won't be getting off at Westport.
Haley: Is there anything then, in your opinion, that could be done—by either whites or blacks—to expedite the social and economic progress of the Negro in America?
Malcolm X: First of all, the white man must finally realize that he's the one who has committed the crimes that have produced the miserable condition that our people are in. He can't hide this guilt by reviling us today because we answer his criminal acts—past and present—with extreme and uncompromising resentment. He cannot hide his guilt by accusing us, his victims, of being racists, extremists and black supremacists. The white man must realize that the sins of the fathers are about to be visited upon the heads of the children who have continued those sins, only in more sophisticated ways. Mr. Elijah Muhammad is warning this generation of white people that they, too, are also facing a time of harvest in which they will have to pay for the crime committed when their grandfathers made slaves out of us.
But there is something the white man can do to avert this fate. He must atone—and this can only be done by allowing black men, those who choose, to leave this land of bondage and go to a land of our own. But if he doesn't want a mass movement of our people away from this house of bondage, then he should separate this country. He should give us several states here on American soil, where those of us who wish to can go and set up our own government, our own economic system, our own civilization. Since we have given over 300 years of our slave labor to the white man's America, helped to build it up for him, it's only right that white America should give us everything we need in finance and materials for the next 25 years, until our own nation is able to stand on its feet. Then, if the Western Hemisphere is attacked by outside enemies, we would have both the capability and the motivation to join in defending the hemisphere, in which we would then have a sovereign stake.
The Honorable Elijah Muhammad says that the black man has served under the rule of all the other peoples of the earth at one time or another in the past. He teaches that it is now God's intention to put the black man back at the top of civilization, where he was in the beginning—before Adam, the white man, was created. The world since Adam has been white—and corrupt. The world of tomorrow will be black—and righteous. In the white world there has been nothing but slavery, suffering, death and colonialism. In the black world of tomorrow, there will be true freedom, justice and equality for all. And that day is coming—sooner than you think.
Haley: If Muslims ultimately gain control as you predict, do you plan to bestow "true freedom" on white people?
Malcolm X: It's not a case of what would we do, it's a case of what would God do with whites. What does a judge do with the guilty? Either the guilty atone, or God executes judgment.
(The above interview by Alex Haley is presented under the Creative Commons License. It was originally published in the May 1963 issue of Playboy Magazine. © 1963 Playboy Enterprises International, Inc. © 1993 by Ballantine Books. All Rights Reserved.)
Black Merchants of Hate
(The Saturday Evening Post, January 26, 1963)
Fanatic and well disciplined, Negro "Muslims" threaten to turn resentment against racial discrimination into open rebellion.
One pleasant spring evening a few years ago in New York's swarming Negro ghetto, Harlem, a policeman broke up an argument in an old, time-honored way: He clubbed one of the participants over the head and hauled him to the station. There the man was cursed, insulted and beaten until his face and body were bloody.
Up to this point the incident was not unique; police brutality, especially to Negroes, is an old story. But what happened next had never happened before, and it not only shocked the police of New York City but left a deep and lasting impression on law-enforcement officers throughout the country.
The victim of the clubbing belonged to a tightly knit Negro extremist sect known as the Black Muslims. As he was being dragged to the station, a fellow member was racing to alert his "brothers." Within minutes, over 100 sect members were lined up outside the doors of the police station. They were young and muscular, dressed uniformly in dark clothing, only a star-and-crescent ring or lapel pin breaking the black pattern. Their hair was close-cropped. They were intense, silent.
When the injured man was taken to a hospital, they followed. Soon the crowd had grown into a mob of 800, some of them teen-agers with zip guns. There were low, angry mutterings. Police were hesitant to try to disperse the mob, fearing an outbreak. "We'd better talk to Malcolm X," a policeman said.
A meeting was hastily arranged in the office of Negro newspaper editor James Hicks; present were three police officials and a tall, light-skinned Negro, Malcolm X, the sect's local leader. "That crowd's ready to explode," one police official told him. "Will you use your influence against violence?"
"Guarantee that our brother will get medical treatment," Malcolm said tersely. "Pledge that the men who beat him will be punished."
The police gave him their promise. Then, assured by Hicks that their word could be trusted, Malcolm did something which witnesses still recall with disbelief. He strode to the head of the angry, impatient mob, stood silently, and then flicked his hands. Within seconds the street was empty.
"No man," a policeman said after seeing this, "should have that much power."
Muslims stick together
Muslims pledge one tenth to one third of their income to the movement. They patronize its business or those owned by Muslims. They face east and pray to Mecca three times daily and refrain from eating pork or anything cooked with pork. They are required to attend services regularly at a Muslim "temple" or "mosque." In most temples, decorations include a painting of a Negro hung from tree limb, a replica of an American flag captioned, Slavery Suffering and Death, and an Islamic star and crescent proclaiming, Freedom, Justice, and Equality. Large letters demand, Which Will Survive the War of Armageddon?
"Shocking as this sounds to many people," says Negro scholar Dr. C. Eric Lincoln of Clark College in Atlanta, "to Negro masses who live in big-city ghettoes it has undeniable appeal."
"They are uneducated, unskilled, isolated by poverty and discrimination from the common values of society. They are strangers in their own country, shunned by successful whites and Negroes alike. They see no hope of improvement. Then they hear the voice of Elijah 'Muhammad,' challenging them to recover their self-respect, urging them to repudiate the white man's religion and culture, daring them to believe in race pride and black supremacy. And they not only listen, they act."
Perhaps typical of the Muslim leadership in terms of his background and bitterness is a lanky, energetic, good-looking man named Malcolm Little, once known in Harlem as "Big Red." One of 11 children of an uneducated Baptist preacher, Little was born in Omaha 37 years ago. He lived in crowed, crime-ridden racial ghettos in Omaha, Lansing, Michigan, Boston and New York. He has bitter memories of each.
When Malcolm was six his father, whom a group of whites considered "too aggressive in racial matters," was found under a Lansing streetcar, "his head bashed in and his body mangled. After that we almost starved."
Little left home and school after the eighth grade to become a waiter on a railroad dining car. Bored and frustrated, he soon gravitated to Harlem as a numbers runner, then a hustler of bootleg whiskey and dope. Prominent whites paid "Big Red" large fees to be squired to vice in Harlem. White police demanded bribes which he peeled from the $1,000 bankroll he always carried.
Then, in 1946, at the age of 19, he was convicted of grand larceny in Boston, and a white judge sentenced him to 10 years in prison. While in jail, he learned of Poole's doctrine. "When I heard the white man was a devil," he told us, "it clicked."
Articulate, single-minded, the fire of bitterness still burning his soul, Malcolm X travels the country—organizing, encouraging, trouble-shooting in local Muslim organizations. He appears on radio-TV interviews and speaks and debates on street corners, in Muslim temples and on college campuses. Malcolm X and his wife, a former nurse, are so dedicated to militant accomplishments of Muslim goals that they named one daughter Attila (for the leader of the Huns) and another Qubillah (after Kublai Khan). While Muhammad appears to be training his son Wallace to succeed him when he retires or dies, many Muslims feel that Malcolm is too powerful to be denied the leadership if he wants it.
But as remarkable and typical as Malcolm's transformation has been, law-enforcement officials feel that the dedicated Muslim may be a worse threat to society than the criminal. "There is no way to measure the long-term effect of the race hatred they preach," a New York police official told us.
Equally insidious, we were told repeatedly, are the results of Muslim teachings about violence. Although Muslims profess to abhor violence, pointing to their regulations against carrying weapons, they are often in the thick of it. When a riot in Los Angeles last April resulted in the gunshot death of one person and the wounding of 14 others, Muslims were involved. When twin riots partially wrecked a youth reformatory outside Washington, D.C., last summer, Muslims were prominent. Prison riots involving Muslims have broken out in California, Michigan, Maryland and elsewhere.
A look at Muslim statements shows what inspires this violence. "We must take things into our own hands," Muhammad said in one speech. "We must return to the Mosaic law of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. What does it matter if ten million of us die?"
Malcolm X is even more provocative on the subject. "If anyone attacks you," he told one audience, "lay down your life! If anyone so much as touches your finger, his place is in the graveyard!"
"I got a wire from God"
Malcolm shocked even sympathetic Negroes with a statement made last June after receiving a message that 121 white civic and cultural leaders from Atlanta had been killed in the crash of a chartered airliner outside Paris.
"I would like to announce a very beautiful thing that has just happened," he told his audience. "I got a wire from God today . . . . Somebody came and told me that He really had answered our prayers in France. He dropped an air plane out of the sky with over 120 white people on it . . . . we will continue to pray and we hope that every day another plane falls out of the sky."
(Excerpted from Black Merchants of Hate by Alex Haley and Alfred Balk. © 1963 Saturday Evening Post Society. All Rights Reserved.)
I'm Talking To You, White Man
The explosive Black Muslim rebel who defies both white and Negro leadership
tells a story that swings from violence and degradation to religion and racism.
When my mother was pregnant with me, she told me later, a party of Ku Klux Klan riders came suddenly one night, galloping on their horses around our home in Omaha, Nebr. They stopped with their upraised torches lighting all around the house to prevent any escape by my father. My mother came out of the front door. She defied them that she was alone with her three small children, and that my father was away, preaching, in Milwaukee. The Klansmen shouted threats and warnings at her that we had better get out of Omaha because the good Christian white people were not going to stand for my father's "spreading trouble" among the local "good" Negroes with the "Back To Africa" teachings of Marcus Garvey—at that time, 1925, the most controversial black man on earth.
The Klansmen spurred their horses and galloped about the house, close enough to use their gun butts to shatter all of the glass panes in the windows. Then they rode away. My father, the Rev. Earl Little, was enraged when he returned. He decided that they would wait until I was born—which would be soon—and then the family would move. I am not sure why he made this decision as he was not a frightened Negro, as most then were, and still are today. My father was a big, six-foot-four, very black man. He had only one eye. How he had lost the other one, I never have known. He was from Reynolds, Ga., where he had finished the third or maybe the fourth grade. Among himself and his six brothers he had seen four of them die of violence, three of them in the South, killed by white people, including one of them hung. What my father could not know was that of the three remaining, including himself, only one, my Uncle Jim, would die in bed, of illness. Northern white police were later going to shoot my Uncle Oscar, and my father was finally, too, going to die at white hands.
It has always stayed on my mind that I would die by violence. I have done all that I can to be prepared.
I was my father's seventh child. He had by a previous marriage three, Ella, Earl and Mary, who lived in Boston. In Philadelphia he had met and married my mother. Their first child, my oldest full brother, Wilfred, was born there. They moved from Philadelphia to Omaha, where Hilda and then Philbert were born, and then I was the next one in line.
The family waited, as my father had decided, and my mother was 28 when I was born on May 19, 1925, in an Omaha hospital. Louise Little, my mother, who was born in Grenada, in the British West Indies, looked like a white woman. Her father was white. She had black hair, and her accent did not sound like a Negro's. Of this white devil father of hers, I know nothing except her shame about it; I remember hearing her say that she was glad that she never had seen him. It was of course as a result of him that I got my reddish-brown "mariny" color of skin, and my hair of the same color. I grew up as the lightest child in our house. (Out in the world later on, in Boston and New York, I was for years insane enough to feel that it was some kind of status symbol to be light complexioned. Now, I hate every drop of that white rapist's blood that is in me.)
We next went to Lansing, Mich. A house was bought, and soon my father was doing free-lance Christian Baptist preaching in local Negro churches, and during the week he was moving about, spreading the Garvey teachings. He had begun laying the foundation for the store that he had always wanted to own when, as always, some stupid local "Uncle Tom" Negroes began funneling everything they heard to the local white people.
On the nightmare 1929 night which is the earliest vivid memory that I have, I remember being suddenly snatched awake into a nearly petrifying confusion of pistol shots and shouting and smoke and flames. My father had seen and shouted and shot at the two white men who had set fire to our house and were running away. My mother with the baby in her arms just made it into the yard before the house crashed in, showering up sparks. The police and firemen came and stood around watching the house burn the rest of the way.
I remember waking up in 1931, again to the sound of my mother's screaming. When I scrambled out, I saw the police in the living room. All of us children who were staring knew that something bad had happened to our father.
My mother said later that she was taken by the police to the hospital, and to a room where a sheet was over my father in a bed, and she wouldn't look, she was afraid to. Probably it was wise that she didn't. My father's skull, on one side, was crushed in. He had been bludgeoned with something. And his body was cut almost in half where he had been run over by the wheels of a streetcar. He had been bludgeoned by someone, and then laid across the tracks for the streetcar to run over. He lived two-and-a-half hours in that condition. (Negroes born in Georgia had to be strong just to survive.) It was morning when we children at home got the word that he was dead. I was six.
My mother was 34 years old now. She was very shook up. Some kind of a family routine got going again. And for as long as the first insurance money lasted, we did all right. When the state welfare people began coming to our house, we would come home from school sometimes and find them there talking with our mother, asking a thousand questions. They were acting and looking at her and us and around in our house in a way that had about it the feeling that we were not people. We were just things, that was all.
We swiftly began to go downhill. The physical downhill wasn't as quick as the psychic. My mother was, above everything else, a proud woman, and it took its toll on her that she was accepting charity. And her feelings communicated to us, and among us children. It didn't help any when I began to get caught stealing snacks from stores, and the welfare people began to focus on me.
It was about this time that the large, dark man from Lansing began visiting. He looked something like my father. He was single, and my mother was a woman without a man, and the state people were bugging her. The man was independent; she would have admired that. She was having a hard time with disciplining us and a big man's presence alone would help. And if she had a man to provide, it would erase the state people in general.
It went on for about a year, I guess. And then the man from Lansing jilted my mother suddenly. It was a terrible shock to her. It was the beginning of the end of reality for my mother. She began to sit around, or walk around, and talk to herself, almost as if she was unaware that we were right around there in the house, watching her. It was gradually terrifying.
The state people saw her weakening. That was when they began the definite steps to take me away from the house. They began to tell me how nice it was going to be at the nearby Gohannes's home, where the Gohannes's and their nephew, "Big Boy," and old Mrs. Adcock all had said how much they would like to have me live with them.
When finally I did go to the Gohannes's home, at least in a surface way I was glad. I would return home to visit fairly often, and saw how the state people were making plans to take over all the children. My mother talked to herself nearly all the time now. The court orders were signed, finally. They took her to the state mental hospital at Kalamazoo. My mother is still in the same hospital.
I guess I must have had some vague idea that if I weren't in school, I'd be allowed to just live at the Gohannes's and wander around town, stealing and loafing, or maybe get a job if I wanted one. But I got rocked on my heels when a state man that I hadn't seen before came and got me at the Gohannes's and took me down to court. They said I was going to the detention home. It was about 12 miles from Lansing, in Mason, Mich. I was 13 years old. The detention home was where all boys and girls on their way to reform school were held, waiting.
The lady in charge of the detention home, Mrs. Swerlin, and her husband were very good people. Her first name was Lois, and Mr. Swerlin's was Jim, I remember. She was bigger than he, a big, buxom woman. She showed me to my room—in my life, my first own room. It was in one of the dormitorylike buildings where the kids in detention were kept. I discovered next, with surprise, that I ate right at the tables with them.
Different ones of the detention home youngsters, when their dates came up, went on off to the reform school. But mine came up two or three times; it was always ignored. I saw new youngsters arrive and leave. I was glad, and grateful. I knew it was Mrs. Swerlin's doing. She finally told me one day that I was going to enter the Mason High School.
The white kids there were friendly. Somebody, including the teachers, was calling me "nigger" everywhere I turned, but it was easy to see that they didn't mean any harm. "The nigger," in fact, was extremely popular. I was unique, the only one around—you know what I mean? Every Sunday I went to Sunday school and church. There was no black church to go to, so I went to the white one.
In Mason High I was elected the class president! It shocked me. More than it did other people. I see it now. My grades were among the highest in the school. I was unique in my class, like a pink poodle. I am not going to say that I wasn't proud.
Along toward the end of that year, our father's grown daughter, Ella, by his first marriage, came from Boston to Lansing. After visiting each home where my different brothers and sisters were staying, Ella left. But she had told me to write to her, and she had suggested that I might like to spend the summer holiday visiting her in Boston. I jumped at that chance.
That summer of 1940 I caught the Greyhound bus, with my cardboard suitcase and wearing my green suit. If someone had hung the sign Hick on me, I couldn't have looked much more obvious.
Ella met me. She took me home. The house was on Waumbeck Street, in Roxbury, the Harlem of Boston. I saw, or met, I suppose a hundred people whose big-city talk and ways left my mouth hanging open. The cars they drove! I tried to describe it, when I got back to Lansing, but I couldn't. I thought constantly about all that I had seen.
One day Mrs. Swerlin called me into the living room. She said she felt there was no need for me to be at the detention home any longer. I wrote to Ella in Boston. I don't know how Ella did it, but official custody of me was transferred from Michigan to Massachusetts. The same week that I finished the eighth grade, I again caught the Greyhound bus. All praise is due to Allah! If I hadn't gone on to Boston, probably I'd still be a brainwashed black Christian.
This time I was big enough to walk around town by myself, and I just knocked myself out, gawking. Boston's downtown had the biggest stores that I ever saw, and white people's restaurants and hotels. On Massachusetts Avenue, next door to the Loew's State Theater, was the big, exciting Roseland State Ballroom. Big posters advertised the nationally famous bands, white and Negro, that had been there. I saw that Coming Next Week was Glenn Miller.
I wanted to find myself a Job to surprise Ella, to show her I could, mostly. One afternoon something told me to go inside a poolroom whose window I was looking through. Something made me decide to talk to a stubby, dark fellow who racked up the balls for the pool players, and whom I'd heard different ones call "Shorty." And one day he came outside and saw me standing there with my kinky, reddish hair and he had said, "Hi, Red." so that made me figure that he was friendly. Inconspicuously as I could, I went on to the back, where this Shorty looked up at me over an aluminum can that he was filling with the powder that pool players sprinkle over their fingers. His hair had been "conked" to make it slick and straight. I told him I'd appreciate it if he'd tell me how could somebody go about getting a job. He asked what had I ever done, and where. And that was how he learned that I'd been at Mason High. He nearly dropped the powder can. He hollered "My homeboy! Man, gimme some skin! Man, I'm from Lansing!" Pretty soon we sounded as though we had been raised in the same block, and we were reacting like long-lost brothers. "You're my homeboy—I'm going to school you to the happenings." I just had to stand up there and grin like a fool, I was so glad to hear those words.
I hung around in the back of the poolroom, and Shorty, keeping an eye on the pool games up at the tables, would run and rack balls, then come back and talk. He asked my circumstances, and I told him about Ella and all. Shorty's job—or "slave"—in the poolroom there, he said, was just to keep ends together while he learned his horn, A couple of years before he'd hit the numbers, and bought a saxophone. "Like all the cats," he told me, "I play at least a dollar a day on the full number with my main man. Soon as I hit that, I plan to organize my band, get the studs some uniforms and stuff." Before we went out he opened his saxophone case and showed the horn to me. It was gleaming brass against the green velvet, an alto sax. He said, "Keep cool, homeboy. Some of the cats will turn you up a slave."
When I got home, Ella said there had been a telephone call from somebody named Shorty. He had left a message that over at the Roseland State Ballroom, the shoeshine boy, named Freddie, was quitting that night, and Shorty had told him to hold the job for me.
The front of the ballroom was all lighted when I got there. A man at the front door was letting in members of Benny Goodman's hand. I told him I wanted to see the shoeshine boy, Freddie.
A wiry, brown-skinned, "conked" cat upstairs in the men's room greeted me. "You Shorty's homeboy?" I said I was, and he said he was a friend of Shorty's. "Good old boy," Freddie said. "He called me, he'd just heard I hit the big number, and he figured right I'd be quitting." Then he gave a demonstration in how to make the shine rag pop like a firecracker. By the close of the dance Freddie had let me shine the shoes of three or four stray drunks he talked into it, and I had practiced picking up my speed on his shoes until they looked like mirrors. After we had helped the janitors to clean up the ballroom after the dance, throwing out empty liquor bottles we found, stuff like that, Freddie was nice enough to drive me all the way home to Ella's on the "hill" in his maroon, second-hand Buick. He looked across at me. "Some hustles, now, you just got to realize you're too new for. Some cats will ask you for liquor, some more for a 'stick'—reefers. Whatever else they ask you for, you just act dumb, until you get able to dig who's a cop. You can make ten, twelve dollars a dance for yourself if you work everything right. The main thing you got to remember is that everything in the world is a hustle. OK, Red?"
In about two weeks I had found out that Freddie had done less shoeshining and towel hustling than selling liquor and reefers, and contacting white "Johns" for some Negro girls. Most of the Roseland's dances were those for whites only, and they had white bands only. The Negro dances with Negro bands were only now and then. They jam-packed that ballroom, the black chicks in real way-out silk and satin dresses and shoes, and their hair done in all kinds of styles, and the cats sharp in their "zoot" suits and crazy "conks," and everybody grinning and greased and gassed.
The first liquor I drank, my first cigarettes, even the first marijuana—reefers—I can't specifically remember. But I know they all mixed together with my first shooting craps, playing cards, and betting my dollar a day on the numbers as I started some light hanging out at night with Shorty and different ones of his friends, and, sometimes, chicks they knew. Mixed in with this time, too, was my first zoot suit and my first processing of my kinky hair to straighten it, the conk. Shorty had promised to school me in how most young cats beat the barbershops' three- and four-dollar price by making their own "congolene," and conking themselves, once they learned how.
The evening that Shorty said that we would do it at his pad, alter he got off from the poolroom, I took the little list he had printed out for me, and went to a grocery store. I got there a can of Red Devil lye, two eggs, and two medium-sized white potatoes. Then, at a drugstore near the poolroom, I asked for Vaseline; a large jar; a large jar of soap; a big comb and a fine comb; one of those rubber hoses with a metal spray head, and a rubber apron and a pair of glove.
Shorty paid six dollars a week for a room in his cousin's beat-up apartment. He peeled the potatoes and thin-sliced them down into a quart Mason fruit jar. He started stirring with a wooden spoon down among the potato slices as he gradually poured in a little over a half can of the lye. A jellylike, starchy-looking stuff resulted from the lye and potatoes, and Shorty broke in the two eggs, stirring in real fast. The congolene turned pale-yellowish. "Feel the jar," Shorty said. I cupped my hand against the outside, and snatched it away. "Damn right, it's hot, that's that lye," Shorty said. "So you know it's going to burn when I comb it in—it burns bad. But the longer you can stand it, the straighter the hair."
He made me sit down, and he tightly tied the string of the new rubber apron around my neck, and combed up my bush of hair. From the big Vaseline jar he took fingersful and massaged, hard, all through my hair and onto the scalp. He thickly Vaselined my neck, ears and forehead. "When I get to washing out your head, you got to remember that any congolene left in burns a sore."
The congolene just felt warm when Shorty started combing it in. Then, my head set afire! I gritted my teeth and tried to pull the kitchen table's sides together. The comb felt like it was raking skin off! I couldn't stand it any longer; I bolted to the wash basin. I was cursing Shorty for everything I could think of when he got the spray going and started soap-lathering my head. "The first time's always worst. You get used to it better. You took it real good, homeboy. You got a good conk."
When Shorty let me stand up and see in the mirror, my scalp still flamed, but this time not as bad; I could bear it. The mirror reflected Shorty behind me. We both were grinning and sweating. After that Vaseline, I had this thick, smooth sheen of shining red hair—real red—and straight as any white man's!
Shorty would take me to groovy, frantic scenes (parties) in different chicks' and cats' pads. With the lights and the jukebox down mellow, we "blew gage" (smoked marijuana) or "juiced back" (drank liquor). The chicks I met were fine as May wine, the cats were hip to all happenings. (That's just to give a taste of the slang that was talked by everyone whom I respected in those days.) I'd acquired the fashionable ghetto adornments, my zoot suits and a conk; I had begun drinking liquor, smoking cigarettes and reefers, and I was absorbing a lot of the "hip" dialogue.
Beacon Hill chick
I had to quit the shoeshine hustle because I liked to be on the Roseland dance floor when the bands were playing, but Ella helped me get a job as a soda jerk in the Townsend Drug Store, two blocks from her house. That was when I met my first white woman. I'm going to call her Sophia, for which I have my own private reasons. I met her at the Roseland Ballroom. When I caught this fine blonde's eyes, I just stopped. Froze! This one I'd never seen among the white girls that came to the Roseland black dances. She was giving me that "I-go-for-you" look.
She didn't dance well, at least not by Negro standards. But who cared? I could feel the staring eyes of other couples around us. We talked. I told her she was a good dancer, and asked her where she'd learned. I was trying to find out why she was there. Most white women who came to the black dances, I knew their reasons, but you didn't see her kind. She had vague answers for everything. And then I know she asked in that cool Lauren Bacall sound of hers would I like to go for a drive.
I just couldn't believe my luck. Would I? It was just too much!
For the next five years—into 1946, when I went to prison—Sophia was my main white woman. For two of the years she stayed single; for the other three she was married to a white man, for convenience, I soon found out from her, different parts of it at different times, that she was the oldest of a well-off divorced Boston woman's three daughters. Sophia would pick me up. I took her to the dances, but mostly to the bars around Roxbury. We drove all over. Sometimes it would be nearly daylight when she let me out in front of Ella's.
She was entranced with me. Automatically, I began to see less of Shorty. When I did see him and the gang, he would gibe, "Man, I had to comb the burrs out of homeboy's head; now, looka here, he's got a Beacon Hill chick."
Meanwhile I left the drugstore and soon found me a new job. I was a busboy at the Parker House. After only a few weeks, one Sunday morning I ran in to work expecting to get fired, I was so late. But the whole kitchen crew was too excited and upset to notice. I picked up their talk—Japanese planes had just bombed somewhere called Pearl Harbor.
You wouldn't have believed it was me. "Getcha goooood haaaaaman' cheeeeeese . . . sandwiches! Coffee! Candy! Cake! Ice cream!" Rocking along the tracks every other day for four hours between Boston and New York, in the coach-car aisles of the New Haven line's Yankee Clipper. An old Pullman porter, a friend of Ella's, had recommended the railroad job for me. He had told her that the war was snatching away railroad men so fast that if I could pass for 21, he could get me on. I knew that several New Haven trains ran between Boston and New York. Secretly, for years, I had wanted to visit New York City. Right there since I had been in Roxbury, I had heard so much raving about "The Big Apple," as it was called, by various kinds of people who traveled a lot, by musicians, merchant-marine sailors, chauffeurs for white families, salesmen and different hustlers.
Anyway, at the railroad-personnel hiring office down on Dover Street, a tired-acting, grayheaded, old white clerk got down to the crucial point, "Age?" When I told him "Twenty-one," he never lifted his eyes up from his pencil. And I knew I had it made.
The dining-car crew told me before we left Boston that their favorite spot in New York was a place called Small's Paradise. The cooks took me up to Harlem with them, in a cab. White New York passed by like a scenario, then almost abruptly, when we left Central Park at the upper end, at 110th Street, the people's complexion changed to Negroes. It was about five-thirty in the afternoon.
Busy Seventh Avenue ran along in front of Small's Paradise, No Negro place of business had ever impressed me so much. Around the big, luxurious-looking circular bar probably were 30 or 40 men, or mostly men, and several women, drinking and talking.
From then on, every layover night in Harlem, I explored new places. I first got a room at the Harlem YMCA because it was less than a block from Small's Paradise. Then I got a room, cheaper, at a rooming house where most of the railroad men stayed. I hung in Small's and the Braddock bar so much that the bartenders began to pour bourbon, my favorite brand of it, when they saw me. And the steady customers in both places, the hustlers in Small's and the musicians and entertainers in the Braddock, began to call me "Red," the nickname that my red conk made natural, I know.
My musical friends were of the caliber of Duke Ellington's great drummer, Sonny Greer, and that great personality with the violin, Ray Nance. Ray's the one who sang that wild "scat" style, that "bloo-blop-ble-blop-bla-bloo-blam-blam—" Remember that? And people like Cootie Williams; a little later on Pearl Bailey sang with Cootie. And Eddie (Mr. Cleanhead) Vinson; in the Braddock he'd kid me about his conk—he had nothing up there but skin. He was hitting the heights then with his Hey, Pretty Mamma, Chunk Me in Your Big Brass Bed. I knew Cy Oliver; he was married to a kind of red girl, and they lived up on "Sugar Hill." and he did a lot of arranging for Tommy Dorsey.
By that time, on the Yankee Clipper, they had a laughing bet going among the waiters that I wasn't going to last. Because I had so rapidly become such a wild young Negro. I'd come to work, loud and wild and half high off either liquor or reefers, and I'd stay that way, jamming sandwiches at people until we got to New York. Off the train I'd go through that Grand Central Station afternoon rush-hour crowd, and many people simply stopped in their tracks to watch me pass. The drape and the cut of a zoot suit showed to the best advantage if you were tall, remember—and I was over six feet. My conk was fire-red. My knob-toed, orange-colored "kickup" shoes were the Cadillacs of shoes in those days. (They made these ridiculous styles for sale only in the black ghettos where ignorant Negroes like me would pay the big-name price.) And then, between Small's Paradise, the Braddock Hotel, and other places, as much us my $20 or $25 would let me, with my increasing number or friends I drank liquor, smoked marijuana, and got a few hours' sleep before the Yankee Clipper rolled again.
What did me in was that when some passenger wrote the New Haven line a mad letter, the conductors backed it up, telling how many verbal complaints they'd had, and how many warnings I'd been given. I didn't care. Me quitting the railroad was in my mind only a matter of time anyway. And I knew that the way the Army was snatching up anybody who was warm and able to walk, all the jobs I could want were going begging.
Back in New York, stony broke, I went over to Small's Paradise. One of the bartenders called me aside and said that if I went downstairs right away to the office, I might be able to replace a day waiter who was about to go into the Army.
Ed Small and his brother, Charlie, had seen me in the place so much that it made it pretty easy. They also knew I was a railroad man, which, for a waiter, was the best kind of recommendation. It was in 1942, just past my 17th birthday.
With Small's practically in the center of everything happening, waiting tables there was Seventh Heaven seven times over! Charlie Small had told me not to be late! Why, what was he talking about? I was so anxious to be there, I'd arrive an hour early! Inside of a week I don't know who liked me most, the cooks or the bartenders. And the customers, who had seen me among them around the bar, recognizing me now in the waiter's jacket, were surprised, pleased, and they couldn't have been more friendly. Recognizing that by New York terms I still was just a hick, they began to school me. Every day I listened raptly to one or several of the customers who felt like talking—these seasoned, mature hustlers—and it all added to my "'education." Particularly, my ears absorbed like sponges when some of them in a rare burst of confidence, or a little beyond his usual number of drinks, would tell me "inside" things about the particular form of hustling that he pursued.
Plain-clothes detectives were quietly identified to me, by a nod, a wink. Knowing the law people in the area was elementary for the hustlers, and, like them, in time, I would learn to sense almost the presence of any police and agent types. And added to the civilian ones then in 1942, each of the military services had civilian-dressed "eyes" and "ears."
Every day, all of my tips—as high as $10 a day—I would gamble on the numbers, and dream of what I would do and buy as soon as I "hit." The straight number chances of hitting were a thousand-to-one, but your chances could be increased by what was called "combinating." For example, six cents would put one penny on each of the six possible combinations of three digits. Take the number 840, say. "Combinated," it would cover 840, 804, 048, 408, 480 and 084.
The daily small army of "runners" each got 10 percent of the money they turned in, along with the bet slips, to their "controllers." (And if you hit, you gave the runner a 10 percent tip.) A controller might have as many as 50 runners working for him, and the controller got 5 percent of what he turned over to the "bankers," who paid off the hits, paid off the police, and, off the balance, got rich.
I should stress that Small's wasn't any haven for criminals. I dwell upon hustlers because it was their world that fascinated me. Actually, for the night-life crowd, most of which the hustlers regarded as "square," Small's was one of the two or three most decorous night spots that Harlem had. It was formally recommended by the New York City Police Department to white people who would ask where was safe to go in Harlem.
From time to time I'd have Sophia come over from Boston to see me. She would come in on a late-afternoon train, and come to Small's and I'd introduce her around until I got off". We would make it to the Braddock Hotel bar, where she would nearly have a fit with meeting some of the "name" musicians who now would greet me like an old friend. "Hey, Red—who have we got here?" And they would make on over her. They wouldn't let me even think about paying for the drinks I ordered.
Once, when I called Sophia in Boston, she sounded funny. She said she couldn't get away until the following weekend. She told me that she had just married some well-to-do Boston white fellow. He was in the service. She went on to say she didn't mean for it to change a thing between us. I told her it made me no difference.
When I had been around Harlem long enough to show signs of permanence, it was inevitable that I was going to get a nickname that would identify me beyond any confusion with two other red conked and well-known "Reds" who were around. I had met them both. One was "St. Louis Red." a professional armed robber. When I was sent to prison, he was doing some time for trying to stick up a dining-car steward on a train between New York and Philadelphia. The other one was "Chicago Red." In a speakeasy where I was a waiter later on, he was the funniest dishwasher on this earth, and we became good buddies. Now he's making his living being funny as a nationally known stage and nightclub comedian. (I don't see any reason why old "Chicago Red" would mind me telling that he is "Redd Foxx.") Anyway, before long, it happened. Different people, knowing I was from Michigan, would ask me what city. Since most New Yorkers never had heard of hicktown Lansing, I would say "Detroit." Gradually, I began being called "Detroit Red"—and it spread, and stuck.
One afternoon in early 1943, before the regular six-o'clock Small's hustling crowd had gathered, this real Georgia-looking black soldier sat drinking at one of my tables by himself. He looked dumb and pitiful, and it was because of that why I did one of the dumbest things I ever did in those years. The next drink that I served this soldier, I bent over close wiping the table, and asked him if he wanted a woman.
I knew better. It wasn't only Small's Paradise law, it was every tavern's law, at least if it wanted to stay in business, not to get involved with anything that could be interpreted as impairing the morals of servicemen, or any kind of hustling off them. Big trouble had been caused by this for dozens of places, some even well-known places had been put off limits by the military, and some even had lost their state or city licenses.
And I had suckered myself right into the hands of one of those military "spies." Why, this black tool of the white man said he sure would like a woman, so gratefully; he even had a dumb Georgia accent! And I gave him the phone number of one of my best friends among the prostitutes at the rooming house where I lived. I gave the fellow a half hour to have gotten there, and then I telephoned. I expected what the woman said to me, that no one like that had been there.
I didn't even go back out to the bar. I just went straight to Charlie Small's office. "I just did something, Charlie," I said, "I don't know why I did it—" And I told him what I'd done.
Charlie looked at me. "I wish you hadn't done that, Red." We both knew what he meant.
When the West Indian plain-clothes detective, Charlie Barts, came in, I was wailing. When we got to the 135th Street precinct, it was busy with police in uniform. I reflected that two things were in my favor: I'd never given the police any trouble, and when that black spy soldier had tried to tip me, I had waved it away and told him I was just doing him a favor. I saw some other detectives side-mouthing with Charlie Barts, and I think that when these factors were discussed, they sort of agreed that Charlie Barts should just scare me.
Even more bitter to take than the just getting fired, they barred me out of Small's. I could understand. Even if I wasn't actually what was called "hot," I automatically was going to be under surveillance now; the brothers had to protect their business. I wasn't a qualified hustler as yet, but I surely had become schooled in their code. I was broke and on my own again, 18 years old.
Sammy, "Pretty Boy," one of the pimps, proved to be my friend in need. He put word on the "wire" for me to come over to his place. I went; I never had been there. His place seemed to me a small palace; his women really kept him in style. While we talked, about what kind of a hustle should I best get into, Sammy had the best marijuana I'd ever used. Peddling reefers, Sammy and I pretty soon agreed, was the best thing. Both Sammy and I knew some merchant seamen, and others, who could supply me with loose marijuana. And musicians, among whom I had so many good contacts, were the heaviest consistent category market for reefers—and then they also were for the heavier narcotics if I later wanted to graduate to peddling them. I had the advantage that I had been around long enough to either know, or spot on sight, most regular detectives and cops, though not the narcotics people. Sammy staked me, about $20.
I sold reefers like a wild man. Every day I cleared at least thirty or forty dollars. I felt, for the first time in my life, that great feeling of free! Suddenly, now, I was the peer of other smooth young hustlers around.
The narcotics-squad detectives didn't take long to pick up that I was selling, and different ones of them would tail me once in a while. One morning, though, I came in and found my room ransacked. It was then that I began carrying a little .25 automatic. I carried it stuck right down the center of my back, pressed under my belt. Someone had told me that the cops never hit there when they gave you any routine patting-down. I sold less than I had before because, mainly, being careful consumed so much time, it was on the wire, finally, that the narcotics squad of Harlem had me on its "special list." Now was when, every other day or so, and usually in some public place, some of them would come up, and flash the badge to search me. But I would tell them right off. loud enough for others to hear me, people standing about, that I didn't have anything on me, and I didn't want to get anything "planted" on me, and then they wouldn't, because Harlem already thought little enough of the law, and they did have to be careful that some crowd of Negroes, figuring they had witnessed a "frame," could set off even a race riot
A Boston draft board, after I didn't respond at Ella's, had contacted her, and then had contacted their New York counterpart, and, in care of Sammy, I received Uncle Sam's "Greetings." I had about 10 days to go before I was to show up at the induction center. And I went right to work. I knew I wasn't even about to get hooked into any Army!
The Army "intelligence" soldiers, those black spies in civilian clothes that hung around in different places with their ears open for the white man downtown, oh, yes, I knew right where to start dropping the word! I started dropping it around that I was frantic to join—the Japanese Army, When I sensed, knew, that I had the direct ears of some of the "spies" I would talk, and act, high and crazy I'd snatch out, and read loudly, my Greetings—to make certain they got who I was, and when I'd report downtown.
And the day I went down there—well, I costumed like a model. With my wild zoot suit and the yellow knob-toe shoes, and I frizzled my hair up into a crazy reddish bush of conk.
Let me tell you—when I went in skipping and tipping, and thrust my tattered Greetings at the reception desk's white soldier—"Crazy-O, Daddy-O, get me moving, I can't wait to get in that brown"—why I will bet you that soldier hasn't recovered from me yet. They had their wire from uptown on me, all right—I could tell from his expression when his glance at my Greetings confirmed the name to him.
"Kill up crackers"
But they still put me in the line. And I had meanwhile sized up the situation. In that big starting room were maybe 40 or 50 other planned inductees. The room had fallen vacuum-quiet, with me running my mouth a mile a minute, talking nothing but slang, I was going to fight on all fronts; I was going to be a general, man, before I got done, and such talk as that.
Most of them in there were white, of course. The tender-looking ones appeared ready to run from me. Some others had on that vinegary "here's the worst kind of nigger" look. And a few were amused at the "Harlem jigaboo" archtype.
Also amused were some of the room's maybe 10 or 12 Negroes. But the stony-faced rest of them looked as though if they were about to sign up to go off killing somebody, they would have liked to start killing me right there.
You see, why I made these Negroes really so mad was they were these integration-type Negroes. And what I was doing was confirming white people's image of Negroes right there among some of the white people that they were so anxious to get integrated with. And they knew those crackers probably would go to their graves fighting integration, after the show I was putting on.
The line moved along. Pretty soon, stripped to my shorts, I was making my eager-to-join comments in the medical examination rooms—and everybody in the white coats that I saw had 4-F in his eyes. I went all the way, though, which was longer than I had expected, before they siphoned me off. One of the white coats accompanied me around a turning hallway; I knew we were on the way to a "headshrinker,"
I must say this for that psychiatrist. He tried to be objective and professional in his manner. He sat there and doodled with his blue pencil on a tablet, listening to me spiel to him probably three or four minutes before he got a word in. His tack was quiet questions, to get at why was I so anxious. I kept jerking around, backward, as though somebody could be listening. I knew I was going to send him back to the books to figure what kind of a case I was.
Suddenly, I sprang up and peeped under both doors, the one I'd entered and another that probably was a closet. And then I bent and whispered fast in his ear, "Daddy-O, now you and me, we're from up north here, so don't you tell nobody . . . I want to get sent down South. Organize them nigger soldiers, you dig? Steal us some guns, and kill up crackers!"
A 4-F card came in the mail, and I never heard from the Army anymore.
Because of my reputation around it was easy for me to get into the numbers racket—about the only hustle left in Harlem that hadn't fallen off in business. My job now was to ride a bus across the George Washington Bridge, where a fellow who was always waiting would hand me a bag of numbers-betting slips. We didn't speak. I'd cross the street and catch the next bus back to Harlem. I never knew who that fellow was. I never knew who picked up the betting money for the slips that I picked up. In the rackets you don't ask questions. My boss, his wife and their daughter would be waiting in a room when I would arrive, just shortly before the day's first number was announced from downtown.
Our numbers-world ethics code was that I should play with a runner of my own outfit. That was how I began placing bets with "West Indian Archie." This was one of Harlem's really bad Negroes, one of those former Dutch Schultz strong-arm men who were around. It was status and class just to be known as a client of West Indian Archie.
One afternoon West Indian Archie paid me $300 out of his pocket for a 50-cent-combination bet. I was planning to go out on a date. Later, when I got to the apartment of my friend Sammy, he told me that West Indian Archie had been there, looking for me, I couldn't figure out why. Anyway, Sammy and I sniffed some cocaine to kill the time before I would go out and pick up my date. Then there was the knocking at the door. Sammy, lying on his bed in pajamas and a bathrobe, called "Who?"
When West Indian Archie answered, Sammy slid under the bed that round, two-sided shaving mirror with what little of the cocaine powder—or crystals, actually—was left, and I opened the door.
"Red—I want my money!"
"Man—what's the beef?"
West Indian Archie said he'd thought I was trying something when I'd told him I'd hit a 50-cent-combination number. But he'd gone on and paid me the $300 until he could double-check his actual written betting slips; now he thought I hadn't combinated the number I'd claimed, but another number.
"I'll give you until twelve o'clock tomorrow to get that money back." And that mad, mean West Indian put his hand behind him and pulled open the door. He backed out, and slammed it. It was a classic hustler-code impasse. The $300 wasn't the problem. I had maybe about $200 of it. But once the wire had it, any retreat by either of us was unthinkable. The wire would be awaiting the report of the big showdown. I could see people who knew me finding business elsewhere. I knew nobody wanted to be maybe caught in a crossfire.
I just stayed high for a few days, but I was scared.
Some raw kid hustler in a bar, I had to bust in his mouth. He came back, pulling a blade; I would have shot him, but somebody grabbed him. As I was known, and they feared me, they put him out, cursing that he was going to kill me.
Things were building up, closing in on me. I was trapped in cross turns. West Indian Archie gunning for me. The scared kid hustler I'd hit. The cops.
When I heard the car's horn, I was walking on St. Nicholas Avenue. But my ears were hearing a gun. I didn't dream the horn could possibly be for me.
I jerked around; I came that close to shooting. . . .
I'd scared him nearly to death.
I couldn't have been happier to see my mother! I knew Shorty had hit his number and that he was playing dates around Boston with his own band.
Inside the car he told me Sammy had telephoned how I was jammed up tight and he'd better come and get me. I didn't put up any objections to leaving town. I brought out and stuffed into the car's trunk what little stuff I cared to hang onto. Then we hit the highway and drove back to Boston. He afterward told me that through just about the whole ride back, I talked all out of my head.
My sister Ella couldn't believe how atheist, how uncouth I had become. Even Shorty, whose Boston apartment I now again shared, wasn't prepared for how I lived and thought like a predatory animal.
Sophia's being back around was one of Shorty's biggest kicks about my homecoming. It just happened that Shorty was "between" women when one night Sophia brought to the house and introduced her 17-year old sister. I never saw anything like the way that she and Shorty nearly jumped for each other. For him, she wasn't only a white girl, but a young white girl. For her, be wasn't only a Negro, but a Negro musician.
Now I knew that I'd have to have a hustle. Just satisfying my cocaine habit alone cost me about $20 a day. I guess another $5 a day could have been added for reefers and just plain tobacco.
When I opened the subject of house burglary with Shorty, he really shocked me by how quickly he agreed. Shorty wanted to bring in with us this friend of his, whom I had met, and liked, called "Sonny." He worked regularly for an employment agency that sent him to wait on tables at exclusive parties at exclusive people's homes. I felt that Shorty was absolutely right in wanting Sonny to join us in burglarizing homes. A good burglary team included a "finder"—one who locates lucrative places to rob. Then another principal need is someone able to "case" these places' physical layouts—to determine means of entry, the best getaway routes, and so forth. Sonny qualified as a two-in-one find. By being sent to work in the finest homes, he wouldn't be suspected when he sized up their loot and cased the joint, just running around looking busy with a white coat on.
Our "fence" didn't work with us directly. He had a representative, an ex-con, who dealt with me and no one else in my gang. You would be surprised how efficient we became. In no time we'd be running with the stolen loot to the parked car that took off for the "drop" previously arranged between me and the representative for the fence. We were going along fine. We'd make a good pile and then lie low a while, living it up. We'd time the burglaries so that Shorty still played with his band. Sonny never missed table-waiting at his exclusive parties.
But it's a law of nature that every criminal expects to get caught. I had put a stolen watch into a jewelry shop for its broken crystal to be replaced. It was about two days later, when I went to pick up the watch, that things fell apart. I had on my gun in the shoulder holster, under my coat. The loser of the watch, the person from whom it had been stolen, had described the repair that it needed. It was a very expensive watch, that's why I had kept it for myself. And all of the jewelers in Boston had been alerted. That's how I was arrested.
The judge gave Shorty eight to 10 years. I got 10 years. They took Shorty and me, handcuffed together, to the state prison in Charlestown. This was in February, 1946. I wasn't quite to the formal manhood age of 21.
In that Charlestown jail I found out fast you could buy drugs. But I made so much trouble and spent so much time in solitary that I sweated out all my habits "cold turkey." Many times I thought I was going to die—but even this was only part of the total transformation that was to come over me.
My brothers and sisters began sending me letters about a new, natural religion for the black man. One day Reginald wrote, "Don't eat any more pork." I tried it and did it, and for the first time in a long while I began to get a little feeling of self-respect, though I hardly knew even how to identify the feeling. Reginald wrote more, about the worship of Allah and the American teacher of Islam, the Honorable Mr. Elijah Muhammad. I learned that when Mr. Muhammad went to Detroit he actually stayed at my brother Wilfred's place. It was my sister Hilda who told me that Mr. Muhammad himself had been in prison, for draft dodging, and she suggested that I write to him. And on one visit she explained to me the key lesson of Elijah Muhammad's teachings, which I later learned was the "demonology" that every religion has. Called "Yacub's History," once it is accepted by any black man, he will never again see the white man with the same eyes.
First, the moon separated from the earth. Then, the first humans, Original Man, were a black people. They founded the Holy City Mecca.
Among this black race were 24 wise scientists. One of the scientists, at odds with the rest, created the especially strong black tribe of Shabazz, from which America's Negroes, so-called, descend.
About 6,800 years ago, when 70 percent of the people were satisfied, and 30 percent were dissatisfied, was born a "Mr. Yacub." He was born to create trouble, to break the peace, and to kill. His head was unusually large. When he was four years old, he began school, on the way to becoming highly educated.
At the age of 18, Yacub had finished all of his nation's colleges and universities. He was known as "the big-head scientist." Among many other things he had learned how to scientifically breed races.
This big-head scientist, Mr. Yacub, began preaching in the streets of Mecca, making such hosts of converts that the authorities, increasingly concerned, finally exiled him with his 59,999 followers to the island of Patmos—described in the Bible as the island where John supposedly received the message contained in Revelations in the New Testament.
Though he was a black man, Mr. Yacub, embittered toward Allah now, decided, as revenge, to create upon the earth a "devil" race—a bleached-out, white race of people!
He knew that it would take him several total color-change stages to get from black to white. Mr. Yacub began his work by setting up a birth-control law there on the island of Patmos.
There, among Mr. Yacub's 59,999 followers, every third or so child that was born would show some trace of brown. As these became adult, only brown and brown, or black and brown, were permitted to marry. As their children were born, Mr. Yacub's law dictated that, if a black child, the attending nurse or midwife should stick a needle into its brain and give the body to cremators. The mothers were told it had been an "angel baby," which had gone to heaven, to prepare a place for her.
But a brown child's mother was told to take very good care of it.
Others, assistants, were trained by Mr. Yacub to continue his objective. Mr. Yacub, when he died on the island at the age of 152, had left laws and rules for them to go by. Mr. Yacub, except in his mind, never saw the "bleached-out devil race" that his procedures created.
A 200-year span was needed to eliminate on the island of Patmos all of the black people—until only brown people remained.
The next 200 years were needed to create from the brown race the red race—with no more browns left on the island.
In another 200 years from the red race was created the yellow race.
Two hundred years later—about 6,000 years ago—at last, the white race had been created.
On the island of Patmos was nothing but these blond, pale-skinned, cold-blue-eyed devils—savages, nude and shameless; hairy, like animals, they walked on all fours and they lived in trees.
Six hundred more years passed before this race of people returned to the mainland among the natural black people.
Within six months of time through telling lies that set the black men to fighting among each other, this devil race had turned what had been a peaceful Heaven on earth into a hell torn by quarreling and fighting. Then the whites ruled.
It was written that after Yacub's bleached-white race had ruled the world for 6,000 years—down to our time—then the black original race would give birth to one whose wisdom, knowledge and power would be infinite. It was written that some of the original black people should be brought as slaves to North America—to learn to better understand, firsthand, the white devils' true nature, in modern times.
The greatest and mightiest God who appeared on the earth was Master W. D. Fard. He came from the East to the West, appearing in North America at a time when the history and the prophecy was coming to realization, as the nonwhite people all over the world began to rise.
Master W. D. Fard, in 1931, posing as a seller of silks, met, in Detroit, Mich., the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. He gave Allah's message to Elijah and Allah's divine guidance, to save "the Lost-Found Nation of Islam," the so-called Negroes, here in "this wilderness of America."
When my sister, Hilda, had finished telling me this "Yacub's History," she left. I don't know if I was able, even, to open my mouth and tell her "good-bye."
I did write to The Honorable Elijah Muhammad. He sent me a typed reply. It had an all but electrical effect on me to actually see the signature of the Messenger of Allah. He told me to have courage. He even enclosed some money for me, a five-dollar bill. Mr. Muhammad to this day sends money all over the country to prison inmates who write to him.
I began pretty soon to write to people in the hustling world that I had known, such as my close friend Sammy, the pimp, or the different dope peddlers. I told them all about Allah and Islam and Mr. Elijah Muhammad. What surely went on the Harlem and Roxbury wires was that "Detroit Red," in "stir," either was going crazy, or he was trying some "hype" to shake up the warden's office, through writing what the prison censors obviously would report.
I got frustrated at how I couldn't express what I wanted to convey in letters. When I started trying to figure what to do about that, I saw that the best thing I could get hold of was a dictionary to study, to learn some words. Probably I spent two days just uncertainly riffling through the pages of that dictionary. I never had realized there were so many words. I didn't know which words for a better vocabulary! Anyway, finally, the only way I saw to just start some kind of action, I began copying—In a couple of weeks, without having had any original intention in the world of even thinking of doing such a thing, the A section of the dictionary had filled a whole tablet, and I just naturally went on into the B's. That was the way I started copying, eventually, the entire dictionary. It went a lot faster after, through the practice. I had picked up handwriting speed.
It was inevitable, I suppose, that as my word base broadened, for the first time, I could pick up a book and actually understand what the book was saying.
I had meanwhile been transferred to Norfolk Prison Colony, a rehabilitation center for model prisoners. This was because my disposition had improved and because Ella was working for me with the authorities outside. Let me tell you something! From then until I left that prison, within its routine, in all of the free time I had, I was in the library picking up some more books.
Two other areas of experience which have been extremely formative in my life were first tasted there in prison. For one thing I had my first experiences in communicating Mr. Muhammad's teachings to some of the black prisoners. And. the other thing, when I had read enough to know something to talk with, I began to get into the weekly debating program—my baptism into public speaking.
I'd "knock out" my brother Reginald when he visited me in prison, telling him things I'd found that documented the Muslim teachings.
But Reginald, I learned later, had actually been suspended from the Nation of Islam by The Messenger Elijah Muhammad, charged with immorality. After he had learned the truth, and had accepted the truth and the laws of the Muslim, he still was reportedly carrying on improper relations with some woman of his who lived in New York. Some other Muslims who learned of it had made charges against Reginald to Mr. Muhammad in Chicago, and Mr. Muhammad had suspended Reginald.
I was in a torment. Finally, I wrote to Mr. Muhammad, trying to defend my brother, appealing for him. I told him what Reginald was to me, what my brother meant to me. I put the letter into the box for the prison censor. Then, all of the rest of that night, I prayed to Allah. I don't think that anyone ever prayed more sincerely to Allah. I prayed for some kind of relief from my terrible confusion.
It was that night, or, rather, it was the next night, I lay on my bed. And I suddenly, with a start, became aware of a man sitting beside me in my chair. He had on a dark suit, I remember. I could see him as plainly as I see anyone I look at. He wasn't black, and he wasn't white. He was light-brownskinned, an Asiatic complexion, and had oily black hair.
He just sat there. Then, as suddenly as he had come, he was gone. Later, of course, I learned that my prevision was of Master W. D. Fard, the Messiah, who had appointed Mr. Elijah Muhammad as His Last Messenger to the black people of North America.
Greater than Allah
Gradually I saw the chastisement of Allah—what Christians would call "the curse" come upon Reginald. He had begun to lose his mind—as we know it. In prison, since I had become a Muslim, I had grown a beard. He visited me, he moved nervously about in his chair; he told me that each hair of my beard was a snake. He saw snakes everywhere.
He next began to believe that he was the Messenger of Allah. He went around in the streets of Roxbury, Ella relayed to me, telling people that he had some divine power. He graduated from that to saying that he was Allah.
And, finally, he began saying that he was greater than Allah.
Authorities picked up Reginald, and he was put into an asylum, and stayed.
It was spring, 1952, when I joyously wrote to Mr. Elijah Muhammad and to my family that the Massachusetts state parole board had voted that I should be released. My record was good, and it may have helped that they knew I was a Muslim. Maybe they wanted me removed from spreading Mr. Muhammad's teachings among other Negro convicts. I was paroled into the custody of my oldest brother, Wilfred, in Detroit, who now managed a furniture store. Wilfred got the man who owned the store to sign that upon release I would immediately be given employment. Wilfred invited me to share his home and I gratefully accepted.
The furniture store that my brother Wilfred managed was right in the black ghetto of Detroit. Nothing Down advertisements drew poor Negroes into that store like flypaper! It was a shame, the way they paid probably three and four times what the furniture had cost, because they could get credit. It was the same kind of cheap, gaudy-looking junk that you can see in any of the black ghetto furniture stores today. Fabrics were stapled on the sofas. Imitation "leopard skin" bedspreads, "tiger skin" rugs, such stuff as that. I would see clumsy, calloused hands scratching the signatures on the contract, agreeing to highway-robbery interest rates in the fine print that never was read.
Mosque No. 1 in Detroit was the first mosque to be formed, back in 1931, by Master W. D. Fard and the Messenger Elijah Muhammad. I had never seen any Christian-believing Negroes conduct themselves like the Muslims who came, the individuals and the families alike. The men were quietly, tastefully dressed. The women wore ankle-length gowns, no makeup, and scarves covered their heads. The children were mannerly and neat.
On the Sunday before Labor Day in 1952 Detroit Mosque No. 1 Muslims went in a motor caravan, about 10 automobiles of us, to visit the Chicago Mosque No. 2, to hear, in person, The Messenger Elijah Muhammad.
I was unprepared, totally, for the Messenger Elijah Muhammad's physical impact upon my emotions. From the rear of Mosque No. 2 he came toward the platform. The small, brown face, the sensitive, gentle face that I had studied on photographs until I had seen it in dreams, was fixed straight ahead as the Messenger strode, encircled by the marching, strapping "Fruit of Islam" guards. The Messenger, compared to them, seemed fragile, almost tiny. He and the Fruit of Islam were dressed in dark suits, white shirts and bow lies. The Messenger wore a gold-embroidered fez. Hearing his voice, I sat leaning forward, riveted upon his words. That Sunday after the meeting Mr. Muhammad, who had been Wilfred's houseguest, invited our entire family group and minister Lemuel Hassan to be his guests for dinner at his new home.
I talked with my brother Wilfred back in Detroit. I offered my services to our mosque's minister, Lemuel Hassan. He shared my determination that we should apply the Messenger's methods in a recruitment drive. Beginning that day, every evening, straight from work at the furniture store, I went doing what we Muslims later came to call "'fishing." I knew the streets' language, and its thinking. "My man, let me pull your coat to something—"
My application had, of course, been made, and I received from Chicago my "X" during this time. The X for the Muslim was a symbol for the true African family name that he never could know; it would replace the white-slave-master name which had been imposed upon my paternal forebears by some blue-eyed devil. It meant, the receipt of my X, that in the Nation of Islam thereafter I would be known as Malcolm X.
Within a few months of our plugging away, our storefront Mosque No. 1 about tripled its membership. And we had so deeply pleased Mr. Muhammad that he paid us the honor of a personal visit. He gave me warm praise when minister Lemuel Hassan expressed how hard I had labored in the cause of Islam.
And soon after that minister Lemuel Hassan urged me to make an extemporaneous lecture to the brothers and sisters. I was hesitant—but at least I had debated in prison. I tried my best.
In the summer of 1953—all praise is due to Allah—I was named Detroit Mosque No. 1's assistant minister. Every time I could get off, I would go to Chicago and see Mr. Elijah Muhammad, He encouraged me to come when I could. I felt like, and I was treated like, another son, or another brother, by Mr. Muhammad and his dark, good wife Sister Clara Muhammad, and their children, and his dear mother, Mother Marie.
I would sit, galvanized, hearing from Mr. Muhammad's own mouth the true history of our religion, the true religion for the black man. Mr. Muhammad told me that he one evening had a revelation that Master W. D. Fard represented the fulfillment of the prophecy, that on the Last Day the Messiah would come as lighting from the East and appear in the West to resurrect the Lost Sheep and restore them forever to their own people.
In 1934, ready to leave, Master W. D. Fard called together all of his ministers. He instructed them that Mr. Elijah Muhammad was to be the Messenger to the Lost-Found Nation of Islam—who was the black man—in the wilderness of North America.
Then Master W. D. Fard disappeared without a trace.
Mr. Muhammad invited me to live at his home in Chicago while he trained me for months. Then in March, 1954, the Messenger moved me on to Philadelphia. The City of Brother Love black people reacted fast. And Philadelphia's Mosque No. 12 was established by the end of May. It had taken a little under three months.
The next month, because of that Philadelphia success, Mr. Muhammad appointed me to be the minister of Mosque No. 7—in vital New York City! It was nine years since West Indian Archie and I had been stalking the streets, momentarily expecting to try and shoot each other down like dogs.
When I got back to Harlem I quickly found out from the wire that West Indian Archie was just another penniless old man. I went to see him and he told me, "Red! I am so glad to see you!" I pressed some money on him and told him a little about the Nation of Islam. I also found out that Shorty was out of jail and had another small band. Sammy, the pimp, they told me had married a young girl, and then been found dead across his bed one morning—they said with $25,000 in his pockets.
I keep having to remind myself that then Mosque No. 7 in New York City was a little storefront. We discovered the best fishing audience of all, by far the best conditioned audience for Mr. Muhammad's teachings: the Christian churches. We went fishing fast and furiously when those little evangelical store front churches let out their 30 to 50 people on the sidewalk. "Come to hear us, brother, sister—" These congregations were usually Southern-migrant people, usually older people, who would go anywhere to hear what they called "good preaching." These were the church congregations who were always putting out little signs announcing that inside they were selling fried-chicken-and-chitterlings dinners to raise some money. And three or four nights a week they were in their storefront rehearsing for the next Sunday, I guess, shaking and rattling and rolling the Gospels with their guitars and tambourines. I knew the mosque that I could build if I could really get to those Christians.
But I knew also that our strict moral code of disciplines was what repelled them most. I fired at this point, at the reason for our code: "The white man wants black men to stay immoral, unclean and ignorant."
The code, of course, had to be explained to any who were tentatively interested in becoming Muslims. Any fornication was absolutely forbidden in the Nation of Islam. Any eating of the filthy pork, or other injurious or unhealthy foods; any use of tobacco, alcohol or narcotics. No Muslim could dance, gamble, date, attend movies, or sports, or take long vacations from work. Muslims slept no more than health required. Any domestic quarreling, any discourtesy, especially to women, was disallowed. No lying, or stealing was permitted, or no insubordination to civil authority, except on the grounds of religious obligation.
Our moral laws were policed by our Fruit of Islam—able and dedicated and trained Muslim men. Infractions resulted in suspension by Mr. Muhammad, or isolation for various periods, or even expulsion for the worst offenses, "from the only group that cares about you."
We had grown, by 1956—well, sizable. Every mosque had fished with enough success that there were far more Muslims especially in the major cities of Detroit, Chicago and New York than anyone ever would have guessed from the outside. In fact, as you know, in the really big cities you can have a very big organization that, if it makes no public show, or noise, no one will be aware that it is around.
I haven't made any mention of it before now, but I had always been so very careful to stay completely clear of any personal closeness with any of the Muslim sisters. My total commitment to Islam demanded having no other interests, especially, I felt, no women. But I hadn't been involved with many mosques where at least one single sister hadn't let out some broad hint that she thought I needed a wife.
Then this particular sister—well, in 1956, she joined Mosque No. 7. I just noticed her, not with the slightest interest, you understand. For about the next year I just noticed her. You know. It was Sister Betty X. She was tall. Brown-skinned—darker than I was. And she had brown eyes. But I didn't pay too much attention.
I knew she was a native of Detroit, and that at Tuskegee Institute down there in Alabama, she had been a student—an education major. She was in New York attending one of the big hospitals' School of Nursing. She lectured to the Muslim girls' and women's classes on hygiene and medical facts.
One day I thought it would help the women's classes if I took her—just because she happened to be an instructor—to the Museum of Natural History. I wanted to show her some museum displays having to do with the family tree of evolution that would help her in her lectures. I could show her actual proofs of Mr. Muhammad's teachings of such things as that the filthy pig is only a large rodent. The pig is a graft between a rat, cat and dog, Mr. Muhammad taught.
Then, right after that, one of the older sisters confided to me a personal problem that Sister Betty X was having. When Sister Betty X had told her foster parents, who were financing her education, that she was a Muslim, they had given her a choice: leave the Muslims, or they'd cut off her nursing-school financing.
I got to turning it over in my mind. What would happen if I just should happen, sometime, to maybe think about maybe getting married to somebody? I was so shocked, at myself, when I realized what I was thinking, I quit going anywhere around Sister Betty X, or anywhere I knew she would be. Because she sure wasn't going to have any chance to embarrass me. I had heard too many women bragging, like, "I told that chump 'Get lost!' " I'd had too much of all kinds of experience to make a man very cautious.
But I told The Honorable Elijah Muhammad, when I visited him in Chicago that month, that I was thinking about a very serious step. He smiled when he heard what it was. Mr. Muhammad said that he'd like to meet this sister.
The Nation by this time was financially able enough that the expenses could be borne for different instructor sisters, from different mosques, to be sent on a trip to Chicago to attend the Headquarters Mosque No. 2 women's classes, and, while there, to meet The Honorable Elijah Muhammad in person. Sister Betty X, of course, knew all about this, so there was nothing for her to think when it was arranged for her to go to Chicago. And like all visiting instructor sisters she was the houseguest of The Messenger and Sister Clara Muhammad.
The Honorable Elijah Muhammad told me that he thought that Sister Betty X was a fine sister, who would make a good Muslim wife. I proposed to her direct, "Look, do you want to get married?" She acted all surprised and shocked. The more I have thought about it, to this day I believe she was putting on an act. Because women know.
On the fourteenth of January, 1958, a Tuesday, we had driven out to Lansing, Mich., where my brother Philbert lived. We got the necessary blood tests, then the license. Then we went to the justice of the peace.
An old hunchbacked white devil performed the wedding. And all of the witnesses were devils. Where you are supposed to say all those "I do's," we did. They were all standing there, smiling and watching every move. The old devil said, "I pronounce you man and wife," and then, "kiss your bride."
I got her out of there. All of that Hollywood stuff! Like these women wanting men to pick them up and carry them across thresholds, and some of them weigh more than you do. I don't know how many marriage breakups aren't caused by these movie- and television-addict women expecting some bouquets and kissing and hugging and being swept out like Cinderella for dinner and dancing—then getting mad when a poor, scraggledy husband comes in tired and sweaty from working like a dog all day, looking for some food.
We lived for the next two-and-a-half years in Queens, New York, sharing a house of two small apartments with Brother John Ali and his wife. He's the national secretary in Chicago.
Attilah, our oldest daughter, was born in November, 1958. She's named for Attilah the Hun. (He sacked Rome.) Shortly after Attilah came, we moved to our present seven-room home in an all-black section of Queens.
Another girl, Quiblah (named after Emperor Kubla Khan), was born on Christmas Day of 1960. Then, Ilyasah ("Ilyas" is Arabic for Elijah) was born in July, 1962. We have just had a fourth child, who was going to be named "Lamumba," but it turned out to be another girl. And she has the feminine form, "Lamumbah," with an "h."
You know—any husband observes his wife, just like the other way around, the wife observes the husband. I guess by now I will say I love Betty. She's the only woman I ever even thought about loving. And she's one of the very few—four women—whom I have ever trusted. The thing is, Betty's a good Muslim woman and wife. You see, Islam is the only religion that gives both husband and wife a true understanding of what love is. The Western "love" concept, you take apart, it really is lust. But Islam teaches us to look into the woman, and teaches her to look into us.
During the next years, radio and television people began asking me to defend our Nation of Islam's program in "panel discussions" and "debates" against handpicked "scholars," both whites and some of those Ph.D. "house" and "yard" Negroes who had been attacking us.
Dr. C. Eric Lincoln's book about us was published amid widening controversy about us Muslims, just about the time that we were starting to put on our first big mass rallies. Now this book's title was Black Muslims in America. And we never could get that "Black Muslim" name dislodged. Later Mr. Muhammad directed that we would admit the white press. Fruit of Islam men thoroughly searched them, as everyone else was searched—their notebooks, their cameras, camera cases, and whatever else they carried. We were watched. Our telephones were tapped. If I said on my home telephone right today, "I'm going to bomb the Empire State Building," I guarantee you that in five minutes it would be surrounded. Speaking publicly, sometimes I'd guess which races in the audience were FBI or other types or agents. Both the police and the FBI intently and persistently visited and questioned us. Mr. Muhammad said, "I do not fear them, I have all that I need, the truth."
And so, by 1961, our Nation of Islam flourished. Mr. Muhammad evidenced the depth of his trust in me. In certain areas he told me to make decisions myself. "Brother Malcolm, I want you to become well known," Mr. Muhammad said to me. "But, Brother Malcolm, there is something that you need to know. You will grow to be hated when you become well known. Because usually people will get jealous of public figures." Nearly every day some attack on "the Black Muslims" appeared in newspapers. Increasingly, a focal target was something I had said, or "Malcolm X" as an individual "demagogue."
Because as the Nation of Islam's minister in New York City in 1963, I was trying to cope with the newspaper and television reporters determined to defeat Mr. Muhammad's teachings.
The New York Times reported me to be, according to a poll which the Times had made on college and university campuses, "the-second-most-sought-after" speaker at colleges and universities. The speaker ahead of me, "most-sought-after," was Sen. Barry Goldwater.
The Honorable Elijah Muhammad, each time I would go to see him in Chicago, or Phoenix, would warm me with his expressions of his approval and confidence in me. He left me in charge of the Nation of Islam's affairs when he made a pilgrimage to the Holy City, Mecca. I would have hurled myself between Mr. Muhammad and an assassin.
Now as far back as 1961, I had heard chance negative remarks concerning me, or veiled negative implications, or I noticed other early evidences of the envy and jealousy which Mr. Muhammad had prophesied. I was trying to "lake over" the Muslims. I was "taking credit for Mr. Muhammad's teaching." I was "trying to build an empire" for myself. I loved playing coast-to-coast "Mr. Big Shot." But I don't believe that any man in the Nation of Islam could have gained the international prominence that Mr. Muhammad's wings had let me gain—plus the freedom that he had granted me to take liberties and do things on my own—and still have remained as faithful and as selfless a servant as I was. Yet I was very hypersensitive to internal critics.
Also, I could not help but hear some of the hints and rumors and vicious gossip that was going around, about the moral behavior of our leader. Just to hear these stories, why, it made me spooky with fear! But the stories got worse and even people outside the Nation began to hear them. I will only note, to be as brief as possible on this and to indicate my own reactions, that Mr. Muhammad is the defendant in two paternity suits in Los Angeles. I don't know how those suits, from two girls who once were his secretaries, are going to come out, but I do know that at the time I first heard those wicked speculations about his moral life, I could not ignore them.
By late 1962, a number of Muslims were leaving Mosque No. 2 in Chicago. I learned that reliably—and the ugly rumor was spreading swiftly there among non-Muslims, as well. So some months later I sat down and I wrote to Mr. Muhammad what poison was being spread about him. He had me to fly to his new home in Phoenix to see him in April, 1963.
We embraced, as always; and almost immediately he took me outside, where we began to walk by his swimming pool. "Well, son," he said, "what is on your mind?" Plainly, frankly, pulling no punches, I told Mr. Muhammad what was being said. And without waiting for any response from him, mentioned Bible passages about the sins of David, Moses, and Noah and discussed with him about how good deeds outweighed bad, and about the fulfillment of prophecy.
"Son, I'm not surprised," Elijah Muhammad said. "You always have had such a good understanding of prophecy, and of spiritual things. You recognize that's what all of this is—prophecy. You have the kind of understanding that only an old man has.
"I'm David," he said. '"When you read about how David took another man's wife, I'm that David. You read about Noah, who got drunk, that's me. You read about Lot, who went and laid up with his own daughters, I have to fulfill all of those things."
I thought that when an epidemic is about to hit somewhere, you inoculate that community's people against exposure, so that they are prepared to resist the virus. I decided to tell six other selected East Coast Muslim officials. I never dreamed that the Chicago Muslim officials were going to make it appear that I was throwing gasoline on the fire instead of water.
I expected headlines momentarily. But I didn't expect the kind which came.
No one needs to be reminded that on November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Tex. Within hours after the assassination every Muslim minister received a directive from Mr. Muhammad—to make no remarks at all concerning the assassination. I had a previously scheduled speaking engagement in New York at the Manhattan Center. It wasn't canceled, and the question-and-answer period, someone asked me right off the bat, "What do you think about President Kennedy's assassination?"
And I said without a second thought what I honestly felt—that, as I saw it, it was a case of "the chickens coming home to roost." I said that the hate in white men had not stopped with the killing of defenseless black people, but that, allowed to spread unchecked, it had struck this country's Chief of State. Black Muslims, Malcolm X! Chickens Come Home to Roost. That was promptly in headlines and on news broadcasts. The next day, I went to Chicago, on my monthly visit to Mr. Muhammad. "That was a very bad statement," he said. "The country loved this man. The whole country is in mourning. That was very ill-timed. A statement like that can make it hard on Muslims in general. I'll have to silence you for the next ninety days—so that the Muslims everywhere can be disassociated from the blunder."
I was numb. But I told Mr. Muhammad, "Sir, I agree with you, and I submit, one-hundred-percent."
When I got back to New York, prepared to tell my Mosque No. 7 assistants that I had been suspended, or, in my case, "silenced," I learned that already they had been informed. Next, an announcement was made that I would be reinstated within 90 days, "if he submits."
This made me suspicious for the first time. I had completely submitted. But Muslims were deliberately being given the implication that I had rebelled. Three days later the first word came to me that members of Mosque No. 7 were being told, "If you knew what the Minister did, you'd go out and kill him yourself." As a one-time hustler, I sensed that once again I had to leave town fast.
I remembered Cassius Clay. We met first in 1962 at a Detroit rally for Elijah Muhammad. Today he does not share my feelings about Mr. Muhammad. But I must always be grateful to him that just at this time, when he was training in Miami to fight Sonny Liston, he invited me, Betty and the children to come there, as his guests, as a sixth-wedding anniversary present to Betty and me. Miami was Betty's first vacation since we had married. And our girls loved the heavyweight contender who romped and played with them. I was in a state of emotional shock. I made an error, I know now, in not speaking out the full truth when I was first "suspended."
What was I going to do? After the fight I returned to New York City, where I had a large, direct personal following. Each day, more of the militant, "action" brothers who had been with me in Mosque No. 7 announced their automatically irrevocable break from the Nation of Islam to come with me.
The Hotel Theresa is at the corner of 125th Street and 7th Avenue, which might be called one of the fuse boxes of Harlem. I called a press conference and made the announcement: "I am going to organize and lead a new mosque in New York City known as the Muslim Mosque, Incorporated, with temporary headquarters in the Hotel Theresa. It will be the working base for an action program designed to eliminate the political oppression, the economic exploitation, and the social degradation suffered daily by twenty-two million Afro-Americans."
There was one major thing more that I needed to do. I took a plane, to my sister Ella, in Boston. "Ella," I said, "I want to make the pilgrimage to Mecca." Ella said, "How much do you need?"
I couldn't get over what she did then. I obtained a visa to the Holy City and I left New York quietly.
As a Muslim from America, I was the center of attention in Mecca. They asked me what about the Hajj had impressed me the most. I said, "The brotherhood: The people of all races, colors, from all over the world coming together as one! It has proved to me the power of the One God."
I never would have believed possible—it shocked me when I considered it—the impact of the Muslim World's influence on my previous thinking. Many blacks would cynically accuse me of "selling out" the fight, to become an "integrationist." Nearly all whites would scoff and jeer. But I knew that there were a few who would understand, who would accept, that in the land of Muhammad and Abraham, I had been blessed with a new insight into the religion of Islam.
Before I left the Holy City I had an audience with Prince Faisal, who encouraged me to bring the truth of Islam to American Negroes. I visited Nigeria and Ghana, where I talked with cabinet officers, intellectuals, ambassadors from the rest of Africa, and many others. Everywhere the reception for the militant American Muslim Negro was tremendous. In Dakar the Senegalese at the airport stood in line to shake my hand and ask for autographs.
From Dakar, I flew to Algiers. It was Tuesday, May 19, 1964—my birthday, It was 39 years since the scene of this book's beginning, with my mother pregnant with me standing on the porch in Nebraska, as the Ku Klux Klan threatened her.
My next plane, a Pan American jet—it was Flight 115—landed in New York on May 21 at 4:25 in the afternoon. As we left the plane and filed toward Customs, I saw the crowd—probably 50 or 60 reporters and photographers. Before any press queries could be made, I told of the alteration of my attitudes about white men who practiced true brotherhood, such as I had seen during my recent pilgrimage experience among Muslims in the Holy Land.
Over a hundred speaking invitations were waiting for me, either at home, or at the Muslim Mosque, Inc. In my busy weeks abroad I had had some chance to think about the basic types of white man in America, and how they affected Negro issues, and especially politics in this election year. I had thought out what I was going to say when I began appearing at some of these speaking engagements.
They call me sometimes "the angriest Negro in America." Well, the Bible says there is a time for anger. I feel that if Negroes attack white people, then those white people should defend themselves, with arms, if necessary, if the forces of law are inadequate. And I feel that Negroes, if white people attack them, should do exactly the same thing.
Johnson and Goldwater I feel that as far as the American black man is concerned, are both just about the same. It's just a question of Johnson, the fox, or Goldwater, the wolf. "Conservatism" is only meaning "Let's keep the niggers in their place," and "Liberalism" is meaning "Let's keep the knee-grows in their place, but tell them we'll treat them a little better. Let's fool them more, with more promises." Since these are the choices, the black man in America, I think, only needs to pick which one he chooses to be eaten by, because they both will eat him.
Goldwater, I respect, as a man, because he speaks out his convictions. True convictions spoken out are rarely heard today in high-level politics. I think he's too intelligent to have risked his unpopular stand without conviction. He isn't another liberal just trying to please both racists and integrationists, smiling at one, and whispering to the other. Goldwater flatly tells the black man he's not for the black man. His policies make the black-white issue more clear-cut for the black man. So he makes the black man recognize what he has to do. The black man, if Goldwater would win, would realize that he had to fight harder; the black man would be more positive in his demands, more aggressive in his protests. The issue would be more quickly enjoined. While the black man under the liberal "fox" could keep on sitting around, begging and passive-resisting for another 100 years, waiting for "time" and for "good-will" to solve his problem.
The black man in America, when he awakens, when he becomes intellectually mature, when he becomes able to think for himself, then he will be able to make more independent choices.
I wouldn't put myself in the position of voting for either one, or of recommending to any black man to do so. I'm just talking about if America's white voters do install Goldwater, the black people will at least know what they are dealing with. They would at least know they were fighting an honestly growling wolf, rather than a fox who could have them in his stomach and half-digested before they even know what is happening.
They have called Goldwater a racist and me a racist. Once I was a racist—yes. But now I have turned my direction away from anything that's racist. So, some of the followers of Elijah Muhammad would still consider it a first-rank honor to kill me. Also I know that any day, any night, I could die at the hands of some white devil racists. At the same time, however, I can't think of any subject involving human beings today that you can divorce from the race issue. I will even go so far as to say that I dream that one day history will look upon me as having been one of the voices that perhaps helped to save America from a grave, even possibly fatal catastrophe. If the reader can understand me, if then he can multiply me by the tens of thousands, he will put down this life story with at least a better picture than he had of America's black ghettoes.
More and worse riots will erupt. The black man has seen the white man's underbelly of guilty fear. But, if through telling this story of my life, I have brought any light, if I have spread any truth then all of the credit is due to Allah. Only the mistakes have been mine.
(I'm Talking To You, White Man as told to Alex Haley is presented under the Creative Commons License. It was originally published in The Saturday Evening Post on September 12, 1964. © 1964 Saturday Evening Post Society. All Rights Reserved.)
The Malcolm X I Knew
(Saga Magazine, November 1965)
Malcolm X. and I rode downstairs in a New York Hilton Hotel elevator and outside a revolving door he handed a garage attendant his car check. As we stood chatting, a middle-aged white couple came up to also order their car, and the husband pleasantly observed to us that New York City's weather was excellent. It certainly was, replied Malcolm X. The man, with an open, sincere friendliness, introduced himself and his wife, giving their name and their Florida hometown. Malcolm X., warmly responding, shaking the man's extended hand and bowing toward his wife in a courtly manner, said, "My name's Shabazz. I'm a native of Michigan." A brief, affable conversation ensued before Malcolm X.'s blue Oldsmobile was delivered and with an exchange of smiling goodbyes, we got inside the car. Before driving away, Malcolm X. bent his head to wave again at the white couple.
But we looked into their faces suddenly now as blanched and slack as if they stared at the devil. The garage attendant obviously had identified Malcolm X. The blue Oldsmobile gunned out to the street. "I wish he hadn't done that!" Malcolm X. exclaimed bitterly.
The incident happened only a few weeks before Malcolm X.'s death. Often since I've thought how it vividly reflected the contrast between the publicly average impression of a one-track, vitriolic black demagogue and the private Malcolm X. whom I came to know during working closely with him for two years in the process of writing his autobiography that is soon to be published. That private Malcolm X. was a paradox. He was a man who had packed into his 39 years more high drama than is seen in the average ten men's lifetimes. As is now generally known, the father of the boy Malcolm was killed, supposedly by whites; the widow burdened with seven children and meager income gradually lost her mind and was institutionalized; Malcolm, as a ward of the state of Michigan, was reared by a white family through his eighth-grade year, and then went to live with his grown half-sister in Boston where he first tasted ghetto life.
Faking his age, he got a railroad dining car job, traveling to New York City, where, captivated by Harlem, he went to work there as a waiter, then he branched out into free-lance hustling, selling dope, women and engaging in various other crimes. When eventually caught and imprisoned with a ten-year sentence, Malcolm as a convict first heard the Black Muslim philosophies of Elijah Muhammad, whose convert he became, and when freed Malcolm's native talent quickly saw his rise to the Black Muslim's chief spokesman. In 1959, a television expose had thrust the militant, fiery figure into the public eye, and subsequently he had risen to national and finally international fame.
I came to know a private man of many facets. He was defiant, suspicious; he was almost incredibly self-disciplined; he was also warm, and sensitive, and he was fascinated with people. From the man who indeed gave every impression that he truly hated all white people, I watched him alter what he believed until in the end he grieved that scarcely anyone would accept his declarations that he wanted to work for the brotherhood of all men. It was hard for me to believe since his original stand had been so absolutely convincing. To a white person he would not speak a word that he considered of non-business nature. I watched him stare coldly and fold his arms when a white hand was offered to shake. I saw him turn his back and walk away from white reporters who had either asked or said something of which Malcolm X. disapproved. This was the dramatically militant personality which had captured most of Harlem's awed admiration when he led 50-odd ominously silent Black Muslim "Fruit of Islam" men to stand in ranks before a police precinct where a brother Muslim, nightsticked by a policeman, had been taken. Malcolm X. had gone into the precinct and demanded that the man be taken to Harlem Hospital, which was done, and the Black Muslims followed and stood outside the hospital, with an excited crowd swelling behind them. A high police official warned Malcolm X. that he had generated a potential riot, to which Malcolm X. replied that his men were standing perfectly disciplined. "Yes, but those others," said the official, and Malcolm X. said, "Those are your problem." Later the official told the press, "No one man should have that much power."
Negro writers—if assigned by white-owned publications—fared no better with Malcolm X. in these days. "You're another tool of the white man sent to a spy" he told me levelly when I approached him to do an article. He required me to fly to Chicago to obtain the clearance of his leader, Elijah Muhammad, and when this was gained, Malcolm X. grudgingly cooperated. After the article was published, Elijah Muhammad approved of it as having been "fair" and subsequently somewhat thawed toward me, Malcolm X. cooperated with two more articles for other publications [The Saturday Evening Post and Playboy]. It was this background of my successfully working with Malcolm X. that promoted a book publisher to ask me in 1963 if I would try to obtain the exclusive autobiography of "the angriest Negro in America," as Malcolm X. liked to term himself.
"A—book?" Malcolm X. was taken aback when I put the question to him in Harlem's Black Muslim Mosque #7 restaurant. He abruptly quit stirring cream into his coffee. ("Coffee's the only thing I like integrated" was then among his favorite expressions.) Casting me a sharp look, he said, finally, "I will have to give a book a lot of thought."
I was privately dubious if he would agree, for in the magazine interviews Malcolm X. had displayed what seemed almost a physical aversion to talking about himself, or anything else except the glories of the Black Muslim organization and its leader Elijah Muhammad. But the next weekend, I was highly surprised when Malcolm X. said simply, "I'll agree—but I don't want to get one penny from it, I don't want anybody misinterpreting my motives." Then he said, "Now, my agreement to a book is subject to Mr. Muhammad's agreement, you'll have to ask him." I flew this time to Phoenix, Arizona, where Elijah Muhammad had a summer home for the dry climate's relief of his severe bronchial condition. He said that he felt that "Allah approves," and back in New York Malcolm X. read the publisher's contract skeptically, signed it, and looked hard at me. "I want a writer—not an interpreter," he said, and I asked him to personally pledge to me a priority quota of his time for the planned 100,000-word as-told-to Autobiography Of Malcolm X." that would span his entire life.
Over the next several weeks, I became ready to return to the publisher with news that I couldn't get Malcolm X. to talk of anything but the Black Muslims and their leader. I kept trying to impress upon my subject that he was the subject, until he snapped, "Nobody puts words in my mouth." What little rapport between us had been gained with the magazine articles seemed to have evaporated. His visiting my Greenwich Village studio three or four nights a week was the only positive note there was. He was skeptical of everything. He would walk in the door saying, "Testing! Testing!" for he was convinced that the F.B.I. had my studio "bugged." Another time, he arrived about fifteen minutes earlier than he had said he would, and he met a white friend of mine leaving; he acted as if it confirmed his worst suspicions.
He would pace the floor, haranguing against whites in general and against the prominent Negroes who were attacking the Black Muslims. After having done the same thing all day, Malcolm X. was always tired when he arrived. Then my first break came one night when he was so fatigued he almost stumbled as he walked—and for some reason I followed an impulse and out of the blue I asked him if he would tell me something about his mother.
Malcolm X. stopped pacing, looking oddly at me. And incredibly to me he began to describe in an almost stream-of-consciousness manner the harrassed, distraught widow of his father trying to keep her home and children together on the outskirts of Lansing, Michigan. "—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 . . ."
From that night, Malcolm X. began volunteering to me the chronology of the boyhood years of his life, speaking grimly, as if it was a distasteful job he had contracted to do. I feared now a leaden narrative, but occasionally there would be flashes, glimpses, of some leavening lightness or humor. I remember so well, because it meant so much, the first honest laughter from Malcolm, in which I joined him. He was telling about how his older brother Philbert became a youthful boxer and he, Malcolm, envious, also signed up for an amateur bout. "I was really thirteen, but my height let me get away with claiming I was sixteen, the minimum age, and my weight of about 128 pounds got me a bantamweight classification." He recalled that he was matched with "Bill Peterson," a white novice. "The bell came, and I knew I was scared. Bill Peterson told me later on he was scared of me, too. He was so scared I was going to hurt him that he knocked me down fifty times if he did once." Humiliated, Malcolm X. trained hard for a rematch with Peterson. "This time, the bell rang, I saw a fist, then the canvas coming up, and ten seconds later the referee was saying 'Ten!' over me. I lay there, listening to the full count. I couldn't move, I'm not sure I wanted to move."
Other lightening glimpses into Malcolm X. came, such as that all of his life he had feared dogs. "Every since I can remember, if I saw a dog no bigger than your hand, it looks to me like a lion. Why, when later on I became a burglar, I wouldn't go near a house where I heard a dog." And, on the subject of burglary, "Look, I'll tell you a better thing than a dog to keep any burglars away. I'm talking from experience. Keep a light burning. And the best place is in the toilet. See, nobody could ever be sure if you were in there or not any time of the night, and a burglar knows if you are in there, you're especially quiet and you would hear the slightest unnatural noise he might make."
Malcolm X. was very difficult to keep confined to any specific area of subject. One thing mentioned would spark some other remembrance. He might mention, for instance, how pimps he had known had beaten up their women, and he would divert to his own childhood punishments. "Right then, from my mother, is where I learned one of the most important lessons, to open my mouth and be heard. Whenever my mother even started to raise her hand to hit me, I hollered so loud I alarmed the neighbors and she was so embarrassed she quit hitting me."
It would appear on some occasions that Malcolm X. suddenly realized that he might have talked for a whole hour without once having lambasted the white man, and without and other evident motivation, he would deliver a tirade. Once I asked him if in the world there was just one white person whom he favored. "None!" He was implacable. "Anytime a black man trust one, he makes a mistake—look what they have already done to us!"
Seguing on the subject of whom he trusted, Malcolm X. said he next least trusted women. "They are the quickest path to a man's ruination," and the downfalls of Adam and Samson he cited as examples. He said that he had told his wife he trusted her "only seventy-five percent." He looked at me. "You I trust twenty-five percent." I must have looked taken aback and he eased the percentage somewhat by saying, "Why, I don't even trust myself completely, I've seen too many men betray themselves." The years in crime, then in prison, then in the closely-watched Black Muslims had taken a heavy toll on Malcolm X.'s faith in the human race. Time and again when I took notes rapidly as he delivered some verbal broadside, especially if it was directed at the white race, he would glower and exclaim, "You know that devil's not going to print that!" When I reminded him that a sizeable advance had been paid by the publisher who knew Malcolm X.'s philosophies before the book was contracted, he scoffed, "You studied in school what the white man wants you taught to think about him. I studied him in the streets where you see the truth."
An overall awkward quality persisted in the interviewing with Malcolm X.'s penchant for abrupt changes of subject, and when he suggested that I might accompany him on some of his daily rounds, I jumped at the opportunity to talk with him out of the somewhat formal studio setting. It was like discovering an entirely different man on the Monday he said I could join what he called "my little rounds," explaining that he physically mingled as often as he could with the "downtrodden black man in the slums" whom he talked with "while the other so-called black leaders just talk about."
Walking in the worst blocks in Harlem, Malcolm X. would exhult to me, "These are the black people down in the gutter where I came from," and he was indeed regarded here as a symbol. He stopped and talked with dozens of individuals, usually salting his remarks with some subtle Black Muslim proselytizing. "White man wants you drunk, so he can put a club beside your head," he might tell a sodden wino, or to Negro men with shiny "conked" hair. "Brother, that white devil has taught you to hate yourself so bad that you put hot lye in your hair to look more like his hair." (Malcolm X. once had "conked" his hair with hot lye for years; one night he gave me a graphic description of the intensely painful process.) The toothy, boyish grin and the well-known repartee charmed stoopfuls of women to the point that probably they would have marched behind Malcolm X. to City Hall if he had asked them. The only ghetto residents whom Malcolm X. tended to avoid were the quasi-"sharply" dressed hustlers such as he once had been. "I know what's in their heads. They figure nobody can tell them anything, and they're so ignorant that most of them couldn't write a sentence, just like I couldn't. They're the most tragic figures in the ghetto—and the most dangerous. They've got these fifteen and twenty dollar a day dope habits, they're too 'hip' to do anything legitimate—where do you think they get their livings from? Every human being they see is prey."
One day when Malcolm X. had asked me to go with him to Philadelphia, where he was to do a radio program, we rode in the parlor car on a train ("I can get into trouble on an open coach," he had said) and soon he nudged me to notice a white-jacketed Negro porter who kept walking through the full car. "I forget his name," whispered Malcolm X., "but I used to work right on this train with him. He knows me—he's trying to make up his mind." Shortly, Malcolm leaned out in front of the oncoming porter. "Why, sure I know you!" the porter suddenly said very loudly. "You washed dishes right on this train. I was just telling some of the fellows you were here in my car. We all follow you!"
In the parlor car filled with white passengers except for the three of us, the tension was nearly physical in feeling. After a few moments, the porter returned, introducing Malcolm X. to a young white passenger, who said loudly he had studied in the Orient and now was at Columbia University. "I admire your oratorical ability, but I don't agree with everything you say," he told Malcolm X. Malcolm X. was almost benevolent in manner, "Sir, I don't believe you could search America and find two men who are in agreement on everything."
Newspapers along the length of the car had lowered to just below eye-level when another white man, an older businessmen, came and shook Malcolm X.'s hand, and suddenly seemed to forget whatever he had intended to say. "Sir, I know how you feel," Malcolm X. attempted a rescue. "It's a hard thing to speak when you are agreeing with so much that I say." The remainder of the way to New York, Malcolm X. and I were under a general open scrutiny.
It is not commonly recognized that some of Malcolm X.'s most acid attacks were made against Negroes. ("The sickest man needs the strongest medicine," is how he explained this.) His flayings of various Negro figures, and organizations, and some prevalent customs were almost daily, but generally he confined this to Negro community audiences. He rarely spoke at a Negro College without flinging into the teeth of the faculty his criticisms of "the so-called educated Negroes." He would say flatly, "You have not been in the vanguard of helping your poor, ignorant black brothers." He decried the dearth of Negro knowledge of "the great history of the black race, extending back to antiquity. Why, if I was the president of this college, I'd hock the campus if I had to, to send students to the Black Continent to dig up more artifacts that prove our great history. You're sitting here, and the white man is waking up—he's digging. Why, it's gotten so an African elephant can't stumble without falling over some white man with a spade!"
Exposed to any relatively affluent Negro audience, Malcolm X. would score them for "not supporting" the Negro organizations. "You run to the surburbs. You don't provide the help and leadership your poor brothers need, like the Jew does. However rich the Jew is, he never forgets his brothers still in the ghetto. If he can't go and help personally, or send his wife, he at least donates money. But you won't! That's why the black man's organizations are controlled by the white man today, because the white man supports them!"
Traveling about with Malcolm X., more than one time I saw him deliberately goad into anger various officials of the ranking organizations dedicated to Civil Rights. "—black bodies with white heads! The white man supports you and thus he controls you because he has your paycheck. The black man is the only group in this country who has allowed other people to be at the head of his organization!" I believe I am correct that of the major Negro leaders, the two whom Malcolm X. most admired—one openly and the other covertly—were Congressman Adam Clayton Powell and The Reverend Martin Luther King. Of Congressman Powell, Malcolm X. told me, "He hasn't let Congress make him forget what it is to get out and organize on the streets. He knows that to change the black man's situation, you've got to give him an example of standing up to the white man. Though Malcolm X. often took public digs on Dr. King, he told me "You've got to admire his coolness under fire. The only thing I wish is that his hero was some of the old labor leaders instead of Mahatma Gandhi. Look what changes King could bring! Look at how labor was being called scum, radicals and anarchists back in the Thirties, but look now, what's happened because they weren't non-violent. Today, labor has a lobby building overlooking the White House, and labor sits down with management and bargains as equals."
Malcolm X's criticisms among his own race ranged on one occasion to nearly physical assault. His car screeched to a stop one day as we drove along 136th Street, between Lenox and Seventh Avenues. Malcolm X. bounded and among about six huddled Negro teen-agers like an avenging devil. "You here shooting craps, and inside these doors whites your age are studying about you!" The teen-agers who were cowed thoroughly by the man they instantly recognized had been shooting dice against the doorway of the Countee Cullen public library branch which houses the great Schomberg Collection, the largest in the world of literature about and by Negroes. Malcolm X. was furious when he returned to the car. He said, "I just saw red when I saw that!"
Malcolm X. was deeply intrigued with centers of culture of any sort. He had a fetish for learning. Especially he favored museums, and several times we walked about in the Egyptian Room of the Metropolitan Museum. "I feel like I'm among my ancestors in here," he said. "This is black art that predates Christianity by thousands of years. If I could do it, I'd have black schoolchildren in here every day, by the busloads."
The eight-grade cessation of his own education probably was Malcolm X's bitterest single reminiscence during his narrative of his entire life story. He had been an outstanding student in the Mason, Michigan, High School, where he was the only Negro in his class, and he was elected the class president. But a class counselor—who was fond of him—advised him to forget the desire he expressed to become a lawyer, and to become a carpenter instead. "I often think about this, I guess it was the most crucial point in my life," said Malcolm X., as wistfully as he ever became. "He wasn't against me, in fact he was thinking he was helping me, because all he could see was a black boy, not a mind that wanted to develop. If he hadn't said what he did, I probably would have been a lawyer today. Because when I went to Boston, as badly as my sister Ella wanted our family to be somebody, why, Ella would have taken in washings if she'd had to, to get me in Harvard Law School and put me through there."
The eventual additional education that equipped the Malcolm X. who brilliantly debated some of America's top minds in communications and academic circles was gained through his years of reading as a convict in prisons. I think that some of the most intimate glimpses into himself that Malcolm X. ever presented were in the area of his yearning to be better formally educated. "You can believe me," he says in the last chapter of his book, "if I had the time right now, I would not be one bit ashamed to go back into any New York City public school and start where I left off at the ninth grade, and go on through to a degree. ... I would just like to study. I mean ranging study, because I have a wide-open mind ... I do believe that I might have made a good lawyer, I have always loved verbal battle, and challenge ...."
I particularly remember the occasion of Malcolm X.'s telling me this. I had accompanied him to the Kennedy Airport where he took a jet to Los Angeles. Waiting for the plane's departure, he had been talking about Shakespeare. "In my opinion, in 'Hamlet,' Shakespeare summed up this whole violence versus non-violence issue today," said Malcolm X. " 'To be or not to be, that is the question. Whether it is noble in the mind of man to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take up arms against a sea of trouble—' "
I remember that at 4 a.m. in the next morning, New York time, my telephone rang, wakening me, and Malcolm X.'s voice said "I trust you seventy percent," and he hung up. It warmed me, knowing Malcolm X. (Neither of us ever again mentioned it.)
Malcolm X.'s attitude toward white people had begun to change within himself, I believe, well before his break came with the Black Muslim organization, or his subsequent trip to Mecca, which is generally identified with his alteration of previous racist views. I feel certain that what brought about the change was his cumulative direct contact with whites, chiefly in the communications fields, and in college and university audiences, who exhibited their respect for him as a highly intelligent individual, notwithstanding his anti-white statements. He said to me once what I knew was a highly significant statement from him, speaking of four radio or television program hosts whose shows he had returned to many times, Irv Kupcinet in Chicago and in New York Barry Farber, Barry Gray and Mike Wallace. "I like them because they let me see they respect my mind," Malcolm X. told me. "The way I know that is they ask my opinion on subjects off the race issue. You see, most whites, even when they credit a Negro with some intelligence, never feel that Negro can contribute something to other areas of thought, and ideas. You just notice how rarely you will ever hear whites asking any Negroes what they think about the problem of world health, or the space race to land men on the moon."
And I saw Malcolm X. hugely enjoying question-and-answer session give and take after college lectures too many times to ever accept that he nurtured a congenital white hatred. He loved to maneuver the white students into his standard verbal traps, then to sting them with his practiced arrows. "You took away our names, gave us your names. You hear somebody say 'How are you, Murphy?' Naturally you're expecting a white man. What does some black man look like named Murphy?" He loved it when members of white student audiences stood up and managed to maneuver him into tight spots, where he had to call upon all of his arsenal of verbal dexterity to extricate himself. And the most familiar tight spot that I heard students get him into was queries, variously put, of how could he, with his mind, believe all of the things he said in the service of Elijah Muhammad? Generally, Malcolm X. would throw out a torrent of words. And I think that the time I ever saw Malcolm X. most "put down" in all of the two years that I knew him was after such a peroration of his in response to a question from a small, blonde-haired slip of a co-ed. When he finished, she stood up and said clearly, "Mr. Malcolm X., methinks you doth protest too much." Malcolm X.'s mouth worked, but no words emerged. He quickly nodded to someone else who was waving a hand to ask a question. But the girl's touché hung in the atmosphere, and he, and I, and everyone present knew it.
When I occasionally made trips involved in writing magazine assignments, Malcolm X., in open camaraderie now, would ask me always to telephone him when I would be returning to New York. If he could squeeze it into his schedule, he would meet me at the airport. And for my part, I always found myself anxious to return, for the whole sweep of the story of his life had become to me fascinating, and each next interview seemed to add some little extra.
Then once when I was thus returning, Malcolm X. asked me as we drove into New York, "Look, you get around—have you heard anything?"
I had no idea what he was getting at, and I said so, and instantly he shifted the subject, leaving me wondering. But I had learned never to press him on any issue. (Long before, some persistence of mine had prompted from him a sharp "If I want you to know something, I'll tell you.") I had learned that my best clue to whatever Malcolm X. had meant would likely reveal itself through his scribbling habit.
For months I had collected paper napkins, edges of newspapers, and other pieces of paper on which Malcolm X. compulsively scribbled as he talked, then left lying around. They had always given me clues to the stream of his thinking. Here are some examples: "Here lies a YM, killed by a BM, fighting for the WM, who killed all the RM." (A decoding 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.) Another: "The louder WM yelps, more I know I have struck a nerve." Another: "BM took 2nd-class so long WM came to accept it as air he breathes." Another: "WM so quick to tell BM 'Look what I have done for you!' No! Look what you have done to us!" Or "BM dealing with WM who put our eyes out, now condemns us because we cannot see." Or, "If BM as successful building factories as churches, what a difference today!"
I did not have to wait long before my clue came. On a paper napkin served with coffee, Malcolm X. scribbled, "My life has always been one of changes."
I knew that Malcolm X. had something in mind that was of major consequence to him. But my wildest speculation would not have anticipated what was about to happen.
It is generally well-known that Elijah Muhammad publicly announced the suspension of Malcolm X. for his having made the statement that he viewed the assassination of the late President J. F. Kennedy as "chickens coming home to roost."
Talking with me about it later, Malcolm X. ranged between bitterness and fury, which he managed to keep reasonably guarded in most of his public utterances. "I've been a street hustler," he said, the back of his neck and his whole faced flushed reddish with his anger, "I know when I'm being set up. I've said plenty of hotter things than that, and Chicago never objected. And look how the press jumps on me when every commentator in the country has said the same thing I said. Or take that book of Victor Lasky's—it has been called outright lies about Kennedy, but they made his book into a best-seller!"
Suspended from any public appearances or from any utterances in the name of the Black Muslims, Malcolm X. chafed at the bit, and it was in this time that he and his wife, "Sister Betty" and their then three children were invited by Cassius Clay to his Miami training camp for the first fight against Sonny Liston. Malcolm X. later told me that he was most grateful—it was something to do. He and Clay had met over a year before in Detroit, and Clay had become one of the few Muslims whom Malcolm X. had ever accepted as a close personal friend. Several times he had spoken of Clay to me with a warmth rare for Malcolm X. I got postal cards from Malcolm X. in Miami, and in one telephone call he told me "I'm not a betting man, but if you are put some money on Cassius, and you can get rich." I read in the papers that Malcolm X. was functioning as Clay's "spiritual advisor." I heard from a friend in Miami that the two had daily walks after Clay's training day was over. Then, the night of the gigantic upset, Malcolm X. telephoned me, his voice all but crowing, "What did I tell you?" He said that it had been probably the quietest new-champion party in history, that at that moment "Champion Cassius" was asleep on his (Malcolm X.'s) bed, "catching a nap."
Soon, Malcolm X. was squiring Clay about in New York at the United Nations and other places. I saw Malcolm X. but little during this time, but he sounded happy in his role when we talked on the telephone. Then, abruptly, something caused Clay to reject Malcolm X., transferring his total allegiance to Elijah Muhammad. I believed that the most hurt that I ever saw Malcolm X. revealed to me—aside from his suspension by the Black Muslims—was regarding Clay. "I felt like a blood big-brother to him," he said slowly. And carefully considering the words in advance, "I still do. I'm not against him. He's a fine young man. Smart. He's just let himself be used—led astray."
Malcolm X. next went to Mecca where he performed the Hajj Pilgrimage, and after visiting in some of the emerging African states, he returned to America, presenting himself as now a true orthodox Moslem. Almost with shock, I had received the letter he had written me on blue stationery containing the words so incredible for Malcolm X.: "—During the past eleven days here in the Muslim world, I have eaten from the same plate, drunk from the same glass, and slept in the same bed (or on the same rug)—while praying to the same God—with fellow Muslims, whose eyes were the bluest of blue, whose hair was the blondest of blond, and whose skin was the whitest of white, and we were truly all the same (brothers) . . . "
Another copy of the letter had been published across America. And Malcolm X., now calling himself "El Hajj El Malik El Shabazz," entered now, when I reflect upon it, the final trail of problems and harassments that would plague him to his death.
From the first stages of his interviews, he had spoken often about his anticipation of a violent death. "All of my father's brothers but one died violently," he had said. "I never expect to live to be an old man." Now, when the first death threats to him were publicly reported, one day in the Americana Hotel he leaned forward and touched the bed. "If I'm alive when this book is published, it will be a miracle," he said. "I'm not saying that in any distress. I'm just saying it like I say that's a bedspread."
Angered and goaded, Malcolm X. began to speak bitterly and accusingly in public about the "immorality" of Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm X. told me once in strictest confidence that he had been to a doctor in Long Island and asked for a brain examination, fearing for his sanity, because the shock of his "betrayal" by the Muslim leader had been so great. Later, Malcolm X. said, "You can go ahead and use that in the book, I want it to be the whole story."
Causing Malcolm X. not much less worry was the establishment of the new public image that he wanted. He had formed two new organizations, a "Muslim Mosque, Inc.", religious in nature, and an "Organization for Afro-American Unity" which offered a Black Nationalism program. But both whites and Negroes were either flatly disbelieving that Malcolm X. was any different in his beliefs, or they were confused about what he now believed. There is more than a little reason to believe that Malcolm X. himself was confused. "I am man enough to admit that I can't put my finger on exactly what my philosophy is now," he told one writer in an interview not published until after his death. "But I'm flexible."
At Kennedy Airport, waiting with me for my plane to an upstate New York city, Malcolm X. told me how he was finding that the "so-called moderate" civil-rights organizations were avoiding him as "too militant" and the "so-called militants" shunned him as "too moderate." He exclaimed, "They won't let me turn the corner! I'm caught in a trap!"
When I left Malcolm X. there to drive out of the parking lot when I went to catch my plane, we waved at each other—and it was the last time I would ever see him alive.
The "trap" that Malcolm X. was in kept closing around him tighter. He telephoned me upstate, telling me that the court had ordered him to be evicted from the home which he had occupied for years: the home legally belonged to the Black Muslim organization, which had successfully sued for its return. "My nerves are shot—my brains tired, Haley," Malcolm X. said, the first time I had heard him ever say anything like that. He said I had spoken of the quiet town where I lived; he asked if he might visit for a weekend. "Just a couple of days of peace and quiet, that's what I need." He said that he would like to read through the full book manuscript once more. I said that he knew he was most welcome to visit, but he shouldn't tax himself with another reading as only very minor editing changes had been made in the manuscript since he last read it. He said "I just want to read it again. I don't expect to be alive to read the finished book."
The weekend that Malcolm X. said he would like to come and have a restful visit was, ironically, the Saturday and Sunday of 21-22 February, 1965. The subsequent bombing of his home, and myriad other nerve-wracking complications threw his plans so askew that he couldn't make it. He telephoned me once again, that Saturday afternoon. He said he had only $150 and he wondered if the publisher could advance him a down payment for a new home for his family. "You know nobody will rent, not to me!" he tried to chuckle. I said I would have our agent check on Monday, and I would telephone him back Monday night.
But on Sunday afternoon, the killers got to Malcolm X. as he started to speak to an audience in the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. There ensued a week of the greatest news coverage of a death that America had seen since the assassination of a beloved young President. I went and I looked down upon the waxy, dead face surrounded by linen Moslem burial dress. All I could seem to think was "Well—goodbye, Malcolm!" And a policeman on guard motioned for me to move on, and I did. ~ Alex Haley.
(The Malcolm X I Knew by Alex Haley was published in the November 1965 issue of Saga Magazine. © 1965 Saga. All Rights Reserved.)
Alex Haley Interviewed By John C. Behrens
(How To Get The Most From The Interview, August 1967)
Behrens: How do you determine whether you will use a tape recorder, pencil and pad or some other method of recording the interview?
Haley: Most of the subjects I have interviewed I've been able to get on tape but some people just aren't at their best with a recorder. Others can't relax with a tape recorder on. I spent a really intensive one year and another on and off with Malcolm X in the course of writing several magazine articles and a book, and, regrettably, I do not have one millimeter of tape on him. The reason I don't is because I noticed that with other people or a recorder, he changed. One day we were talking about the Black Muslims for a piece I was doing for Reader's Digest. I watched him talking to me explaining his point of view. I wasn't taking notes, I just wanted to get the 'feel' of the man. We were interrupted by a broadcaster who came with a recorder for an interview. I was permitted to stay and I watched how Malcolm, who with me had been going on and really flowing, sat down at the mike and gave the appearance of being on and emoting for the tape. Actually, he was very carefully editing what he said and saying only about half as much of what it sounded like. His pattern was one of saying something and then almost paraphrasing what he said. I could see that he was thinking what he was going to say next. It made an impression on me so that when we got to the book—I had a year to get from him the fullest, most natural flow which, if I got the right tool—and it's true of any tool—would increase as it went on and he became more familiar with it. Malcolm had a particular caution about anything irrevocably recorded because he was one of these people who felt that a few words can mean a lot—good or bad—to other people.
Behrens: What would you say is the toughest obstacle in interviewing or the actual interview session?
Haley: The biggest problem is at the outset. It may take you two hours; it may take you two days, but there is always a point where the interview actually started. You can always look back and figure it was right there that we got this thing going. Something happened—some little incident—where this subject relaxes and you can tell it. I had interviewed Malcolm X for two months before the night I knew he was flowing and I wrote about it in the book. I asked him one question: 'Would you tell me something about your mother?' and it deflated him. From that moment forward he would tell me almost anything about himself.
(Excerpted from the interview of Alex Haley entitled How To Get The Most From The Interview which was originally published in the August 1967 issue of Writer's Digest. © 1967 F+W Media, Inc. © 1968 John C. Behrens. © 1972, 1974 Grid, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)
The Oratory Of Negro Leaders: 1900-1968
(Foreword by Alex Haley, June 1969)
There are three reasons why I am intrigued by a book on "black oratory." Black orators were major boyhood heroes of mine; they were 1930s southern black preachers. Secondly, as something of a black historian myself, I am perhaps more aware than most people of how, in this country in the last century, one or another form of black oratory has been the keel of the black experience. Thirdly, in very recent years, it has been my privilege to interview in depth, to hear and see repeatedly, the two men whose spell-binding abilities unquestionably place them first among the modern-era black orators whom Professor Boulware includes: the late Dr. Martin Luther King, of whom I wrote an in-depth magazine portrait; and the late Malcolm X, with whom I spent two years in collaboration writing The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
The white perspective toward black voices has undergone almost as vast a change. In the past, those few whites who were exposed to any black oratory at all appraised it, generally, as an amusement—with rare exceptions, such as, of course, Booker T. Washington, Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois, and a handful of others, who came to be limelight figures for whites. At best, whites considered black oratory to be a curiosity, very much as if some few simians had been trained remarkably. This is well put by my friend and colleague here at Hamilton College, Professor Charles Todd: "The black orator was regarded by most white men as someone who had accidentally stumbled onto a clever parlor trick. Today, however, the white man is no longer amused."
The amusement ceased at about the time of the Malcolm X stance of "I'm Talking To You, White Man!", along with the development of Dr. Martin Luther King's forthright brand of nonviolence.
Few will deny that black Christianity has been more fervently articulate in America than white Christianity has been—due in part to the patterns of exultant audience feedback that history's unheralded black preachers sought and demanded of their congregations. Dr. Martin Luther King, standing before three hundred thousand people drawn to the March on Washington, echoed that earlier sound in his "I Have a Dream" speech. It was a more polished performance than was ever achieved by his predecessors; nonetheless, it brought back memories of all black yesterdays, and the black dreams that filled and buoyed them. From the slave orators to Dr. King and Malcolm X, and on into the present shifting hierarchy of articulate black militants, only the words and phrases have differed, dictated by the social forces of the changing times. But through it all runs one central theme: the black man petitioning for human rights.
(Excerpted from The Oratory Of Negro Leaders: 1900-1968 by Marcus Boulware. © 1969 Negro Universities Press. All Rights Reserved.)
Making Schools Work: Strategies For Changing Education
(Foreword by Alex Haley, October 1971)
Marcus Foster urges that there be no more VIP principals within sacrosanct offices. He champions those whose open-door (and open-ear) policies obviously keep them closely attuned to whatever is going on. (In my own two years of interviewing for and writing The Autobiography of Malcolm X, I cannot remember Malcolm X ever more impassioned than when he recalled his hurt and disillusionment followed by bitterness after a white eighth-grade counselor told him that, because he was black, he should strive to be a carpenter, not a lawyer, as Malcolm wanted.) Foster bemoans the huge metropolitan high schools which may have as many as four thousand students, and he wishes particularly that he could somehow alleviate in such schools "the anonymity a child feels. . . . Anything you can do to overcome it has to be worthwhile." ~ Alex Haley.
(Excerpted from Making Schools Work: Strategies For Changing Education. © 1971 Westminster Press. All Rights Reserved.)
Alex Haley On How The Autobiography of Malcolm X Came About
(Alex Haley Speaking At UCLA, February 14, 1973)
The Physical logistics I might call it of The Autobiography of Malcolm X were that at this time I had a place—a basement place in Greenwich Village in New York. Malcolm was, in I guess it might be said about the peak of his career as a spokesman for the Nation at this time. This was about 1960, late 1961, I suppose or early '62 and he would after his very, very busy day now Malcolm would average I suppose a oh a good 12-hour workday, sometimes 14, and it was just packed up with appointments—one interleaved with another every day. And after such days, he began to come down to my place and uh he would get there about 9 in the evening. He would stay there usually until maybe 1 or 1:30 in the morning. The first couple of months we were supposed to be interviewing, of course you know, when you set out into this kind of thing, you as the writer and the subject as well, reciprocally, just by definition, are going through a kind of pageantry of saying rhetorical things to each other, when actually what you are doing is trying to feel each other and trying to get the texture of each other and trying to feel each other out and see where each other are. And this went on for maybe a week or so, the routine, and then I began to try very gently, as one should I think, to ease into what we were about—the writing of a book about him.
But all he would talk about was Mr. Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. And I guess that went on another couple of weeks in one or another form. And then I began to become a little edgy. I, as the writer, because here we have been here this long, and I haven't gotten 3 notes about Malcolm the individual. And I began then, again very gently, trying to say to him, um well the book is about you, supposedly, and I'm all in agreement with all you're saying, I just, we just need to get into you and Malcolm began to get edgy reciprocally. And it got worse and worse with each meeting, to the point that I was just about ready to go to the publisher and just say that uh I wasn't able to get through to him, and either I should be taken off and some other writer try it or something other whatever, but it obviously wasn't going to work it seemed.
And then one night, as I recall it was in the winter, in fact it sure was winter, there was snow on the ground at least knee deep in New York, and uh Malcolm had been there since about 9 as usual, and he paced, he liked to walk, he rarely sat down, and um it was a bad night in the sense that I was pretty uptight because now it was almost 2 months had passed and I just hadn't gotten anything. And so I said to him something like you know we just need something about you and he didn't want to talk about himself. And it got up to a point of you could almost feel the tension. And Malcolm was not a guy to get awfully tense with, not that he was going to do anything physical, I certainly wasn't either, but it was just a matter of Malcolm as we've see on the film, a guy you just didn't cross idly. And I knew now I was going to go the next day and tell the publisher what I had been thinking about.
And then I was just this past week I spoke in Lansing, Michigan where Malcolm lived for a time. And I had the very great pleasure of meeting for the first time Malcolm's youngest brother, Robert, and one of his sisters Yvonne. And um talking with them and they both just absolutely fascinating people and it was a tremendous experience for me because they had insights and a perspective of him that I had never been exposed to before. And um I was telling them what had happened and I wrote of it in the book, but it always sort of thrilled me to recall it um that Malcolm had on a little—he had kind of a hounds tooth um topcoat. And it was around 1:30 a quarter to in the morning I'd say, and he rather tautly was getting ready to leave. And I watched him leave and I was taut also because it wasn't working—it hadn't worked—and we started toward the door. Instead of putting the coat on he just plopped it over his arm and I was thinking—it just ran through my mind—well you know fellow put the damned coat on 'cause there's snow uh knee deep out there and besides that the coats too thin anyway even if he had on. It just, I remember that, it just ran through my mind.
And just as he opened the door, and I remember Malcolm had big feet, and he raised one foot up to step out in the snow. I will never on Earth know what put it in my head or in my mouth or whatever to say what I said then because I had never said anything like it to him or would not have thought of it, but just as he raised that foot to step out I just said rather quietly, "um Mr. Malcolm, could you tell me something about your mother?" And I likewise will never forget that that foot never touched where it had been going. It was almost as if in midair he slowly turned.
And he came back in the room and he began to walk and I suppose he made a couple of circles of sorts before he spoke at all. And when he spoke his voice was noticeably higher than I'd ever heard it before. It was just sort of it changed key. And then when he spoke he had a kind of a reverie quality to it that I had never heard before either. And he just, and I remember very well what he said, he just said uh, "it's funny that you ask me that, I can remember the kind of dresses she used to wear. They were faded and grey." And he was talking just about that cadence when normally he talked as we have seen rapidly. And then he said um, "I remember she was always bent over a stove trying to stretch what little she, we had." And at that point I would guess it was about 10 minutes after 2 in the morning and then I tell you from that time until the day broke Malcolm walked that floor and out of him that night just spilled, just tumbled, practically everything that's in the first chapter of that book that's appropriately entitled "Nightmare." ~ Alex Haley.
(Excerpted from Alex Haley Speaking At UCLA on February 14, 1973. © 1973 Social Sciences Division UCLA. All Rights Reserved.)
DM Interview: Alex Haley
(Direction Magazine, May 1973)
"I spent over 950 hours of interview time with Malcolm," Haley remembered, "before sitting down to write his life story." Haley likes to think of Malcolm as a symbol; the spirit of resentment, of rebellion, of what had been.
"What Malcolm resented about White America," Haley said, "was the way it had for years been wasting the talents and abilities of so many Black men and women."
(Excerpted from the May 1973 issue of Direction Magazine. © 1973 Direction. All Rights Reserved.)
Alex Haley On How The Epilogue To The Autobiography of Malcolm X Came About
(Alex Haley Speaking At The University of California, Riverside, April 16, 1975)
I was determined now to see if I could become a full-time, freelance writer. I moved to New York, rough, rough time, which is traditional in the writing business. And then the first major magazine assignment I got was from the Reader's Digest to do an article about the then newly emerging social phenomenon called The Nation of Islam or colloquially the Black Muslims. I had heard of them. I had heard of this individual called Malcolm X who had a general public image from the press as having a fang out of either side of his face.
When I met him at a restaurant they had up at 116th Street in Harlem, I can't say he did a whole lot to dispel the image for me—either he was very truculent, difficult. He said that he would not take the responsibility to talk with me unless I would talk first with his leader, Mr. Elijah Muhammad. Arrangements were made and I went to Chicago to talk with Mr. Muhammad with others. I went to Detroit to talk with Malcolm's brother, Minister Wilford, and some others, came back to New York to talk with Malcolm and others and finally wrote an article which appeared in the Reader's Digest titled "Mr. Muhammad Speaks." Subsequent to that with another writer, I wrote an article about them in the Saturday Evening Post. And then after that I happened to begin that feature in Playboy Magazine called "The Playboy Interviews" and I think the third subject whom I interviewed was Malcolm X.
When that interview was published, among its readers was a book publisher who asked Malcolm if he would be willing to tell his life in book length detail. Malcolm demurred about it. He finally agreed that he would if conditions of his were met and then I feel it was because circumstance had made it so that I was the Black writer with whom Malcolm most associated major magazine stories that he now asked me if I would be willing to work with him in the preparation of this book. I was pleased, honored, flattered to do so. I never had written a book before and I was just sort of anxious to try, see how it would go.
The physical logistics of The Autobiography of Malcolm X were that I had at that time a place in Greenwich Village and Malcolm X during his extremely exceeding busy days—like he did 14, 16 hour days every day—would come down to my place about 3 or 4 nights a week. He'd get there around 9 or 9:30. He would stay till 1 or 1:30 in the morning and this went on across a calendar year. I have estimated that in the course of that year we spent probably something like between 900, 950 hours in just direct Q & A sort of. And collectively across that year it was rather like plucking from a man's memory every fray, every shred, every little piece of his life that he could remember from earliest time on.
And then with all that interview material from a year of interviewing Malcolm together I moved to a little town Upstate New York, Rome, New York where I spent a second calendar year putting this material first into a very exacting chronology, taking sections by the time of it, studying them very, very intensively until I almost ingested them in a way. And then writing vicariously, first person as if I were Malcolm, I began the writing of a manuscript which hopefully would sound to readers when it was published as if Malcolm had just sat down informally across a table and tried to tell the reader his life as best as he could remember it from earliest time forward.
When I finished the manuscript of that book I went down to New York and Malcolm came down and worked for me for the better part of a week in the hotel where I was and I could see his red ballpoint pen now moving across the pages as he would want to alter this that or the other that he felt he should. And then when that process was finished across to the end of the book Malcolm said to me, "Brother I don't think I'm gonna live to read this book in print so I'd like to read through it again." And he went down to the New York Hilton Hotel. I think it was room 521. It was a small room and he stayed three days in there with the story of his life double spaced typed on paper. And then when we came out that was sent to the publisher.
Malcolm proved very prophetic because it was less than two weeks later that he was shot to death in the Audubon Ballroom of a Sunday afternoon. I was in Upstate New York when it happened. And when I first heard that it had happened someone called me after hearing a snatch of it on a radio broadcast. It just seemed to me impossible. I just didn't believe it. First of all we had worked two years that closely together that had grown to be a very close relationship between us as would be the case with any biographer and writer and a biographical subject and writer I should say. I had just talked with the man the day before. It was just impossible to believe but every phone call I got among the rash of them every radio broadcast I heard not only reaffirmed it but gave further details.
And it was very rocky, rocky night for me. The following morning I sat down at a typewriter and began the writing of the only thing I have ever written in my life in that physical manner, just dropping blank white sheets into that machine and drumming in bursts on the keyboard for maybe 30, 40 minutes at a time, get up walk around, walk out in the street a lot of this was at night, think about him, things about him, experiences with him, go back other drum bursts on the typewriter and so forth. And it took in this manner about 4 or 5 days for me finally to put together that part which now appears at the end of the book called "The Epilogue." It was just a rolling tumbling out of the mind the memories of having met and worked with this man, the anecdotes, incidents, insights into him as best I could put them together in some kind of loose chronology and then that was sent to the publisher. ~ Alex Haley.
(Excerpted from Alex Haley Speaking At UC Riverside, April 16, 1975. © 1975 Regents of the University of California. All Rights Reserved.)
The Black Scholar Interviews: Alex Haley
Black Scholar: What impressed you most in working with Malcolm X on the Autobiography? What kind of man was he?
Alex Haley: The most impressive thing is that Malcolm was the most self-disciplined person I have ever known anywhere at all. He had that metaphysical thing about the use of time. He could not bear to let a moment go by, as it was, and kept tight reign on other people; he was tight on other people but most of all on himself. I saw this over a period of years manifested in many many ways and that above all other things was the most impressive thing about him to me.
And I will tell you something else; many many people ask about Malcolm as if he had been anointed from the skies. He was awesome, but the real power of Malcolm and certainly what I came to feel, in terms of writing his book, was that Malcolm really symbolized so many many tens if not scores of thousands out there in these streets and in these prisons right this minute, who are just as articulate as Malcolm, just as clever as Malcolm, just as whatever as Malcolm. But things just didn't shake down for them in a direction, a framework which would cause them to be presented as Malcolm later became presented.
Malcolm wanted desperately to be a lawyer and somebody said that was ridiculous, for him to be a cop. Think what a hell of a lawyer Malcolm would have been. Now he did much more as what he was, but I am saying, had the course gone the other way who could have made a more natural born lawyer than a Malcolm X?
I met his wife, Betty; we used to talk on the phone a fair amount before Malcolm was killed, when he was traveling a lot. At night sometime I would call sister Betty on the phone and we would talk recipes. I used to be a cook for six years and we would swap recipes and since then I have come to know sister Betty very well. I am their oldest daughter's godfather and I think Betty is a beautiful beautiful strong woman.
All she went through, I never heard her whimper one time, not one time. When she at times had next to no money, not a peep and she, in almost a superhuman effort over the past years, just last summer or fall, got her Ph. D. Yes, she did. University of Massachusetts. I think Sociology, Child Training or something like that, but she commuted out of Mt. Vernon, New York up there and got her Ph. D. over a period of years together with raising six kids.
(Excerpted from the September 1976 issue of The Black Scholar. © 1976 Paradigm Publishers. All Rights Reserved.)
Alex Haley Interviewed By Richard Ballad
(Penthouse Magazine, December 1976)
Penthouse Interview: Alex Haley
Penthouse: Why don't we hear very much about Malcolm X anymore? Is he still important to the black community?
Haley: Well, let me begin by saying that Malcolm died tragically, but perhaps if there was a right time to go, for him, that was probably it. He no longer had his original power base with the Nation of Islam. He had made his trip to Mecca and he had come back saying, look, all white men are not devils, as the Nation of Islam insists. He tempered his approach. He was trying to strengthen his own organization at that time and wasn't doing too well. He had formed the Organization for African Unity, which, together with the Nation of Islam, was known as The Black Muslim Movement. And he had both sides hassling him, moderates and militants, each demanding to know where he stood. Things weren't going well for him.
But today, more than a decade after his death, Malcolm is very much revered, particularly by young blacks, who regard him as virtually a saint. Most whites are not aware of his lasting impact, because they are not in close contact with the black community. Martin Luther King is the image the white media remember best, and Malcolm is forgotten. But consider that The Autobiography of Malcolm X has sold close to six million copies.
(Excerpted from Penthouse Interview: Alex Haley. © 1976 FriendFinder Networks. All Rights Reserved.)
Alex Haley Interviewed By Murray Fisher
(Playboy Magazine, January 1977)
A Candid Conversation with the Author of the American Saga "Roots"
Fisher: That was the very first interview we published, in September of 1962.
Haley: With Miles Davis. Which taught me a little bit about jazz as well as journalism. But my association with Malcolm X, the second interview you assigned to me, led to my collaboration with him on my first book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I remember his telling me very calmly, as he read the finished manuscript two years later, that he'd never live to see it published—and he was right.
(Excerpted from the January 1977 Playboy interview of Alex Haley. © 1977 Playboy Enterprises International, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)
Alex Haley Tells The Story Of His Search For Roots
(A 2-LP recording of a two-hour lecture Alex Haley gave at the University of Pennsylvania in 1977)
The third interview that I did for Playboy, I believe it was third or maybe the fourth was of Malcolm X at a time when Malcolm was just coming into major prominence in the national periodicals and newspapers. When an interview of him appeared, among its readers was a book publisher who asked Malcolm if he would be willing to tell his life in book length detail. Malcolm was hesitant at first but he finally agreed that he would. And then because I believe Malcolm associated me as the black writer who probably was a affiliated more with major national magazine stories, he asked me if I would be willing to work with him on this book.
I was pleased, honored, flattered to do so. And I would spend the next two years with Malcolm X—the first year interviewing him very exhaustively, the second year taking all that the interview material putting it out first in a very exacting chronology, breaking it up into what seem to be logical chapters sections—and then studying each of those sections very intensively, and then writing vicariously the first person as if I were a he—a manuscript which hopefully would sound as if Malcolm had just sat down across a table and was trying to tell a reader his life as best he could recall it from earliest days.
When the manuscript was finished, I went back down and worked with Malcolm—I was by now living upstate New York and worked with him in a hotel—and he went across from first page to last making this event editing change with his famous ballpoint pen, and at the bottom of each page putting his MX and then he said to me I don't think I'm going to live to read this in print. Malcolm proved to be very prophetic because it was less than two weeks later he was shot to death in the Audubon Ballroom. And the following morning after that, I sat down and began the most traumatic writing I have ever done in my life—calling forth as best I could reminiscings of having met and worked with this man—anecdotes and insights into him—put together in some kind of tumbling chronology. And that is that part which now appears at the end of that book called The Epilogue and The Autobiography of Malcolm X was concluded and on its way into print.
(Excerpted from Alex Haley Tells The Story Of His Search For Roots. ℗ 1977 Warner Bros. Records Inc. All Rights Reserved.)
Alex Haley Remembers
(Essence Magazine, November 1983)
Time passes so swiftly, but I'm still astounded that it really is eighteen years since that Sunday in February 1965: Malcolm X, then thirty-nine years old and known as El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, had begun to speak in Harlem's Audubon Ballroom when suddenly gunfire erupted and he fell bleeding from multiple wounds. He was rushed to the hospital, where surgeons tried desperately to save him by opening his chest for direct manual heart massage—but soon a hospital spokesperson or somebody told the press and the swelling, weeping, almost mutinous crowd that had kept vigil, "The gentleman you know as Malcolm X is dead." Through the two years before then, I'd been privileged that Malcolm had given me about fifty lengthy and probing interviews to use as the basis of a book chronicling his life. Now and then he would comment that he wouldn't live to see the book published—and he was right.
During 1960, Reader's Digest had commissioned me to write an article about the ten hotly controversial Black Muslims. I first met Malcolm when he was their chief spokesperson. The next year I interviewed him for Playboy. The article offered a glimpse of a precocious child growing up in a small Michigan town through the Depression years who then became a teenage hustler in a Boston ghetto, moved on to Harlem and heavier crimes, was eventually arrested and convicted and served over six years in a penitentiary. By the time of his release he was an impassioned convert to the Nation of Islam, of which he ultimately became its most publicized minister and national spokesperson. A book publisher wanted me to obtain Malcolm X's full life story, and finally Malcolm agreed, while cautioning me sternly, "A writer is what I want, not an interpreter." I was elated to try my first book with a subject so obviously exciting.
Usually two nights a week, sometimes three, Malcolm would park his blue Oldsmobile somewhere near my Greenwich Village apartment. It was probably bugged by the FBI, and always Malcolm would snap, "One, two, three—testing!" when he first came in. Next he'd telephone his wife, Betty Shabazz, tell her where he was and jot down messages she gave him. Then, rather than take a seat, for the first half hour, at least, he preferred pacing the room like some caged tiger, talking nonstop about the Nation of Islam and its leader in Chicago, Elijah Muhammad. Whenever I'd gently remind him that the subject of the book was him, Malcolm's hackles would rise. One wintry midnight, however, in sheer frustration I blurted, "Mr. Malcolm, could you tell me something about your mother?" He turned, his pacing slowed, and I'll never forget the look on his face—even his voice sounded different. "It's funny you ask me that . . . I can remember her dresses, they were all faded out and gray. I remember how she bent over the stove, trying to stretch what little we had. . . ."
It was near dawn when Malcolm left for home, having spilled from his memory most of what I'd later use in the first chapter of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, appropriately titled "Nightmare." It tells the story of the small boy, Malcolm Little, one of eight children watching their mother's struggles to keep the family intact after the brutal, racially motivated murder of their father, a militantly outspoken Baptist minister and supporter of Marcus Garvey. After that session Malcolm never hesitated to relate any aspect of his later life in the most detail his memory could muster. And I find myself now experiencing a diversity of emotions as I recall random memories of that truly singular and very special human being.
I think my most indelible memory is of how ably he maintained his characteristic manner of controlled calm, when actually he lived amid a veritable cauldron of private and public pressures. Easily the source of most intense pressure was his role as the Nation of Islam's most public figure, while in fact he had been made virtually a pariah within the organization's top hierarchy. This status was due to, as Malcolm put it, "jealousies caused by others' refusal to accept that, when I did my appointed job as the Nation's spokesman, inevitably publicity would focus on me. I think Mr. Muhammad understood that, until others poisoned his mind against me." Nearly a year of our frequent interviewing had passed before he astonished me with a hint of that later public revelation.
Nonetheless, he carried on as "spokesman," maintaining such a grueling public-speaking schedule throughout the United States that some weeks he caught airplanes like taxis. And his blue Oldsmobile stayed on the go when he was in New York. There, particularly, he often faced hostile media people, and this helped him hone his verbal agility into practically an art form.
Malcolm was a master at deftly goading white verbal opponents into such a fury that they could only sputter almost incoherently. "The more the white man yelps, the more I know I have struck a nerve," Malcolm said. A hundred times, if once, I watched his face suddenly crease into a foxlike grin as an angry opponent struggled to retain composure, and then Malcolm would fire verbal missiles anew. He would turn a radio or television program to his advantage in a way he credited to the boxing ring's great Sugar Ray Robinson, who would dramatize a round's last thirty seconds. Similarly Malcolm would eye the big studio clock, and at the instant it showed thirty seconds to go, he'd pounce in and close the show with his own verbal barrage.
Malcolm was at his most merciless with any black opponent who he believed dared to publicly defend whites. His worst victim, probably, was a famed Harvard University associate professor (who was also a Ph.D.), in their widely publicized debate. The professor had been continually attacking Malcolm as a "divisive demagogue" and a "reverse racist" when Malcolm, in the debate's closing seconds, fired back, "Do you know what white racists call black Ph.D.'s?: 'Nigger!' "
But there could also be quite another side of Malcolm X. I just have to laugh, recalling one night during our interviews when he was reminiscing about his finesse as a dancer. Springing up suddenly, with one hand grabbing a radiator pipe to represent a girl, he wildly lindy-hopped for maybe a full minute before suddenly stopping. He sat down, clearly embarrassed, and was practically surly for the rest of that session.
And I remember Malcolm one time laughing so raucously that he could hardly tell me the details of how he had once been menaced in his prison cell by an armed guard and how he had struck instant terror into the man. Abruptly jerking him so close that their noses touched, Malcolm had hissed, "You put a finger on me, I'll start a rumor you're really black, just passing for white!"
And I remember a late afternoon when we happened to be interviewing in a Philadelphia hotel room. A pretty lady volunteer telephoned, then visited, bringing only half of some important typing she was doing for Malcolm and saying that he should pick up the rest at her apartment later. It was obvious to us both: she had eyes for Malcolm. He fretted and stewed and finally asked me to take a taxi and make the pickup. When I returned to my room, the phone was ringing, with Malcolm demanding, "What else did you do, because anything you did wrong was in my name." I told him that as mad as that woman had been when I turned up, there was no way anybody could have damaged his name with her.
"I must be purer than Caesar's wife," Malcolm would often say, hypersensitive that any hint of wrongdoing could so easily become gossip capable of damaging his public image and credibility. And that public presence was indeed so awesome that wherever Malcolm appeared, it was rather like witnessing a force in motion. I saw the man's impact on people many different times and ways. On one afternoon when we were driving in Harlem, Malcolm suddenly jammed on the brakes and sprang from the car. Running across the street, to the sidewalk, Malcolm crouched like an avenger over three young black men whom he'd seen shooting dice near the entrance to the Schomburg Collection of Negro Literature and History, as it was then called. "Beyond those doors is the world's greatest collection of books about black people!" he raged at the young gamblers. "Other people are in there studying your people while you're outside shooting craps!" The three practically slinked away before Malcolm's wrath. He used to exclaim, "Man, lots of times I just wish I could start back in school, from about the sixth grade. Man, I'd be the last one out of that library every night!"
Although Malcolm X was acutely aware of the physical risks he steadily faced, he was determined not to let the danger muzzle his voice or inhibit his activities. He felt that his greatest safety lay in really trusting only a few people—and those few only to certain degrees. The late author Louis Lomax and I used to laugh about how we didn't discover until much later that once Malcolm had visited and given each of us interviews in different rooms in the same hotel, with never a mention to either about the other, although he knew well that Lomax and I were good friends. When Malcolm and I began the book project, he told me candidly, "I want you to know I trust you twenty-five percent." (Much later I felt great personal gratification when he upped the trust to seventy percent.) Now or then during our interviews he'd mention some people who seemed to me quite close to him—adding a startlingly low trust percentage.
Squarely atop Malcolm's trust list was his wife, Betty Shabazz, of whom he said, "She's the only person I'd trust with my life. That means I trust her more than I do myself." He felt genuine admiration for her, even awe, along with a deep sense of guilt that, while he was so often away from home, she somehow managed to be simultaneously a homemaker, a mother of three—then four—little girls, as well as his busy secretary and telephone answering service. He made it practically a fetish never to stop without immediately telephoning his Betty, saying candidly, "If my work won't let me be there, at least she can always know where I am."
I'm fascinated by the similarities between Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that I observed. For instance, neither could have been much less concerned about acquiring material possessions, and both were obsessed with their work but felt guilty about being away from their families.
Vividly I remember Dr. King recalling among his hardest moments the feeling of mingled anger and shame he had when he and Mrs. King had to explain to their small daughter, Yolanda, that a radio ad for an event she wanted to attend was not meant for their race. Equally vividly I remember Malcolm's sadness one night when he had overlooked buying a present for his daughter, Attallah, for her fourth birthday—and how he beamed when I surprised him with my intended gift, a black walking doll, and insisted that it be his gift instead.
The two men, who pursued their widely variant philosophies (toward the same goal, I believe), met only once, briefly, with photographers recording their smiles and handshake during the 1963 March on Washington—and I smile, remembering the keen private concern each had for the other's opinion of him. I was in the midst of interviewing Malcolm for the book when I traveled to Atlanta to interview Dr. King for Playboy magazine. His ever pressured schedule meant I had to make several visits. Dr. King would always let maybe an hour pass before he'd casually ask, "By the way, what's Brother Malcolm saying about me these days?" I'd give some discreetly vague response, and then back in New York, I'd hear from Malcolm, "All right, tell me what he said about me!" to which I'd also give a vague reply. I'm convinced that privately the two men felt mutual admiration and respect. And I've surely no question that they would be pleased to no end to know that their daughters, Yolanda and Attallah, today are friends who work closely together in a theater group.
Attallah is the oldest of the quartet of daughters Malcolm and Betty had by late January 1965, and Malcolm, proud as a peacock that his Betty was yet again pregnant, yet again exulted, "That's that boy!"—one he wished for. But then, as fate chose to play its hand, seven months after Malcolm's interment in the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York, the widowed Betty Shabazz bore twin girls—whom she named Malaak and Malikah.
The young widow was caught up in a situation that bore graphic similarity to Malcolm's mother's circumstances some thirty years earlier. With six small children—and with her dynamic, outspoken controversial husband brutally murdered—Betty Shabazz, a trained nurse, set out to train and provide for those children in the very best way she could. Attallah, who was then six, remembers, "Our mother kept our home strictly private, and she kept a very low profile, which immensely helped us. We knew she was grieving and that she was working very hard—we were just too little to realize how much of either."
Actress Ruby Dee, with colleagues and friends, raised funds to aid in the down payment on a home for Betty and the children in Mount Vernon, New York. (Later, when my book Roots made it possible, I signed over to Betty Shabazz my half of the royalties on the Autobiography.) Betty and Malcolm had been determined that the girls receive an excellent education, so Betty worked to increase her own earning power by enrolling at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, to which she commuted. She won her Ph.D. with honors and later joined the faculty of Medgar Evers College of the City of the University of New York, where today she is director of institutional advancement. Through eighteen years of scrimping, sacrificing, counseling and mothering, she has raised the six daughters to be active young women, who are now pursuing a wide variety of careers.
Of the twins, aged seventeen, Malaak is a college biochemistry major, while Malikah studies architecture. At another college, an apartment is shared by Gamilah, nineteen, studying theater arts, and Ilyasah, twenty-one, majoring in biology. Qubilah, twenty-two, has lived in Paris for four years, studying and working as a journalist. And Attallah, twenty-four, does two hundred-odd theatrical performances annually with her and Yolanda King's group, Nucleus, as well as consultant work in hair care and makeup and clothes designing for private clients.
Of the daughters only Attallah has any memory of her famed father. "Ilyasah can't remember how, when our father telephoned our mother to say he was coming home, she'd always go and sit by the door to wait," says Attallah. "And then he'd put all four of us up on his two big knees and just talk and talk to us and laugh a lot. I remember just his presence was so very calming for us kids."
Malcolm X started me writing books, for which I am most grateful, and from the early days of working with him, I have tried to approach his degree of self-discipline. Looking back, I feel that Malcolm eminently succeeded in achieving a private goal that he once expressed to me: he believed that somehow, every day, he must demonstrate that only a defiant courage could break the fetters still impeding his beloved black people. ~ Alex Haley.
(Alex Haley Remembers is presented under the Creative Commons License. It was originally published within Essence in November 1983. It was published again in Malcolm X As They Knew Him. © 1983 Essence Communications Inc. © 1992 David Gallen. All Rights Reserved.)
Alex Haley Interviewed By Doug Hatcher
(A Talk With Haley, The Bowdoin Orient, October 5, 1984)
Orient: You've just jumped to something that is really the major part of what I want to ask you about: that is, your writing career. How much of an impact did Malcolm X have on your career in terms of his being not only a vehicle for furthering your career but also an impetus behind a new phase of writing for you?
Haley: It had a big, big impact in the sense that it moved me from magazine articles to world of books. It marked a transition for my career.
Orient: I know you're biased in terms of Malcolm X in the sense that you helped in writing his autobiography, but I am interested in your view of Malcolm X as compared to Dr. King.
Haley: Well, I'm not necessarily biased, at least I don't think I am. They were two people with fundamentally the same objectives who simply went about it differently. They had different perspectives. One of the things that kind of intrigues me is to reflect upon how easily either man might have been the other, given the other's background. Had Dr. King grown up in the ghetto of Roxbury, in Massachusetts, and moved from there to Harlem's ghetto, he might have been exactly as slick as Malcolm—you know, a hustler, in the world of neo-crime and what not just as quickly as Malcolm. Many, many people who are as brilliant as Dr. King are in penitentiaries today. I speak at a number of penitentiaries, and one thing that always strikes me is to realize that I am looking in the same intelligent faces I see in universities—they just happen to be in prison. And I know that Dr. King might have done that just as easily as had a Malcolm X—or a Malcolm Little as his name was—had he had the opportunity to grow up in a good high school, to go to Boston University, to study theology . . . think what a minister he would have been given his natural talent as a speaker. So it's just a question of "there but for the grace of God" in either direction. That's the way I see it, and to me that's the intrigue of them; they were really so much alike—they just happened to be of different perspectives.
Orient: Do you believe that Malcolm X was becoming less militant just prior to his assassination?
Haley: To a certain extent I think he was. He was coming about almost full circle, and yet I wouldn't say he was becoming necessarily all-that-much less militant as he was changing his perspective about the same thing. By that reasoning one could say that Dr. King was generally pictured as less militant. As a matter of fact there's a question as to which one did more. Another one of the ironies is that Dr. King, who was imaged with less militancy, as well as peace and peacefulness, was the one who was physically pushed around, who was jailed time and time again, and Malcolm X, who was imaged with violence, never spent a day in jail in that area ... He never had to do with perspective ought to be something like that of a surgeon with a patient on the operating table because you are there to do some surgery, and the best you can do is go do it and not get caught up emotionally. And it's true you ought to be able to look at your subject with a certain degree of objectivity so that you can write somewhat objectively about them.
Orient: This idea of objectivity is very evident in your epilogue (in the autobiography) where you're talking about his being murdered. Your style is very journalistic.
Haley: Well that's what it was—it was very plain that sooner or later he was going to be murdered. So you just deal with that—that's the way it is.
Orient: In Ossie Davis' essay eulogizing Malcolm, Davis says that Malcolm X was the manhood for black people, implying that he was someone to whom blacks looked—a sort of role-model. Who are black role models today for black people, or even white people.
Haley: There are a great many more today than there were at that time. You know one thing I like I think about them was that the then-President Kennedy one time called five black men together at kinds of elected officials all over the country and into the South. So you can't really anymore say that there are a few black leaders, it's just not true. There tends to be now more of a local or regional leader. There are a few who have a national stand like Rev. Jesse Jackson, but I wouldn't say that he was the Holy Grail for black people. He's there, but he's one among.
(Excerpted from A Talk With Haley By Doug Hatcher of The Bowdoin Orient. © 1984 The Bowdoin Orient. All Rights Reserved.)
Alex Haley Interviewed By Lawrence Grobel
(Brothers in the Same Ultimate Boat, 1985)
Grobel: Your next interview for Playboy, with Malcolm X, became the basis for your first book. Was he as difficult to figure out as Miles was?
Haley: Malcolm X had a fearsome image, tough guy, articulate but hard. For the first several sessions he just would not talk about himself. This was after the Playboy, interview, when we were working on his book. I was uptight because I hadn't been able to get through to him. I was ready to go to the publisher and suggest they try another writer. Malcolm kept going on about the Nation of Islam and his leader, Mr. Elijah Muhammed, and I just asked him to tell me something about his mother. At the time he was up walking—almost stalking, the way he would walk—and he stopped as if someone had jerked a string to him. He looked at me and I knew that I had touched some button within him. He began to talk again, but more slowly. And when he spoke his voice was up a notch. "It's funny you'd ask me that," he said. "I can remember the kind of dresses she used to wear. They were always faded and gray." He walked a little more. "And I remember she was always bent over the stove, trying to stretch what little we had." It was 11:30 at night and that man walked that floor until daybreak and spilling out of him came the first chapter of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. It was the memory of a little seven-year-old boy of his mother beginning to have great strain trying to hold together her brood of seven children whose father, her husband, had recently been murdered. He'd been thrown under a moving streetcar. And after that night Malcolm was never, ever reluctant to talk.
Grobel: Malcolm X felt the white man didn't want to lose somebody to be supreme over. Do you feel that's still true?
Haley: It has a good element of truth in a subliminal way. We're talking about white and black, but if you look at the women's movement, you see the same white male's resistance and phrases applied to women as to blacks. "It's okay if they stay in their place; they can work and receive less money for the same job."
Grobel: Malcolm X believed the black man survived by fooling the white man. Is this still the way it is?
Haley: It's a tactic, but so do white people survive by fooling the boss. Practically everybody does it to some degree. It's not just a black-white thing, it's a human nature thing.
Grobel: How did you feel personally when Malcolm X would say to you that "Thoughtful white people know they are inferior to black people"?
Haley: That's what he said, and what he thought. My job was to quote him. My own personal reaction to that is I am not big on saying anybody is better than somebody else. White, brown, yellow, polka dot: we are brothers in the same ultimate boat.
Grobel: Do you feel, as Marion Brando does, that Malcolm X was a great man?
Haley: Sure. The fact that you and virtually every interviewer I meet ask about him says that better than I ever could, He affected the thinking of a society. What is obscured is that he really was saying what had been taught to him by Mr. Elijah Muhammed, the leader of the Nation of Islam, or the Black Muslims locally. It's one of those vicissitudes of history that Malcolm is the one talked about, and not his teacher.
Grobel: That has something to do with you as well, don't you think?
Haley: Yeah, it does.
Grobel: How different and how similar were King and Malcolm X?
Haley: They were very, very different. They had the same objectives but their approach was very different. I've often played in my head how easily either of them might have been the other, given the other's background. If a Malcolm X had been sent to the best high school in Atlanta for blacks, if his father overlooked shepherding his son as Daddy King had, and if Malcolm X could have gone to Morehouse College in Atlanta and then to Boston College School of Theology as did Dr. King, think what a minister Malcolm would have made. Conversely, take a young Martin Luther King and put him in the streets of Roxbury, Massachusetts, selling marijuana, shining shoes, and making the rags pop so people would give him a little more money, and then to go get his graduate degree in the streets of Harlem, what a hustler he would have become!
Grobel: Did each of them influence the other?
Haley: I don't think a whole lot. Both of them were very self-sufficient forces in their own way. When I was writing The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Playboy asked me to interview Dr. King. So periodically I would go down to see him in Atlanta. Dr. King knew I was writing a book about Malcolm and he was cool about it. He would answer a half dozen questions, then he would say, "By the way, what's Brother Malcolm saying about me these days?" Then I'd get back to New York and Malcolm was much more impatient. His number one thing: "What did he say?" So though these two men were presented as adversaries, they were very much aware of each other and had a great admiration for each other under the surface.
Grobel: How did King and Malcolm X affect your own life and thinking?
Haley: Not a whole lot. I say that not meaning any disrespect or lack of reverence for either of them, but by the time I met them I had already been twenty years in the U.S. Coast Guard and been to a fair number of places and had formed my own philosophy and way of life, Also, coming from a little town called Henning in Tennessee and growing up with small-town values, you will be a pretty solid person if you retain that. I was lucky I had educated parents. My father was a college professor, my mother taught school, and they made me aware of blackness early on. My fourth birthday present was a thick slice of a tree. My grandfather owned a lumber company. Through his connections he had gotten a slice of a redwood, eighteen inches thick. On my birthday they swung open the garage door and there was this slice of tree leaning against the wall with little white markers in different places. My father took a pointer and explained to me what those markers were. how every year there was a new growth ring. He said these markers are where this tree was in size when some particular thing happened. That was the first time I ever heard the words Emancipation proclamation. The other things were like the birth of Chicken George and the founding of the college where my parents had met, and so forth. It was my first acquaintance with black history. In later years, when I was grown. my father explained to me that they had spent lots of hours trying to think how they could introduce me to blackness without making it black versus white, And I have in my mind gone back to that tree slice, because that early influence had something great to do with my deep interest in history and obvious interest in things black. The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Roots are among the most important books having to do with black things in this country. So I had my own distinct sense of blackness before I met these people. I had not had the kind of hustling in the street experience that Malcolm X had, but I don't know that I had been any less black. I was just somewhere else black.
(Excerpted from Endangered Species: Writers Talk About Their Craft, Their Visions, Their Lives. © 2001 Lawrence Grobel. All Rights Reserved.)
Alex Haley: A Synthesis of Roles
(Alex Haley Interviewed By Malcolm X: Make It Plain, October 24, 1988)
My own perception of Malcolm was one of something that bordered on fascination—really because I was looking at him and reacting to him as a subject. I was a young writer, I had been the usually requisite 15 years getting rejections slips for the most part and finally was beginning to get assignments.
And I saw him as someone who was hard to top as a subject. He was—I always like to say of Malcolm—he was just simply electrical. Everything he did almost was dramatic and it wasn't that he was trying to be, it was just the nature of him. He, in later years, I would be rather taken by a statement he would make of himself. He would say. "I am a part of all I have met." And by that he meant that all the things he had done in his earlier life had exposed him to things, had taught him skills of one another sort or had taught him traits of one another sort, all of which had synthesized into the Malcolm who became the spokesman for the nation of Islam.
Such as that here was a man who in the eighth grade in Michigan—a school where I think he was the only black in his class and one of the very few in the school—had been an outstanding straight-A student, who had been in fact the president of his class. And all the others were white in the eighth grade. Obviously he had to be exceptional to be those things. So you had that quality, which was a facet of him: the brains, the innate ability to learn and to acquire and to use and utilize knowledge.
And then you had the Malcolm who had left school and who had gone to Roxbury, Massachusetts where he had gotten his first exposure to what might loosely be called hustling. I remember him telling me with great seriousness about how he had learned at the tutoring of an older person who came from where he had come from in Michigan and who had called him homeboy. I made that chapter; the title of that chapter was Homeboy. And this man had taught him his first hustle: that to be a shoeshine boy was okay; he would get say 15 cents or maybe 20 cents per shine, but if he learned how to make the rag pop loudly—there was a way you could use the rag kind of loosely and then jerk it down on the shoe and it would make a noise—a popping noise. And people somehow liked that and they would give Malcolm as much as a quarter tip. And so he became the poppingist shoeshine boy in town and so on. And this type of thing, the hustler world, became part of him.
And then later he was into more serious things, you know, crime type things. And all of these sharpened his wits and his ability to connive and to do cunning things. And these were part of the Malcolm of 1961, 62 as well. And then finally, the ultimate thing, he was in prison and the world of the prisoner is one that is quite educational in its way. And so that was another part of him.
And so Malcolm liked to say that he, the Malcolm as of 1961, 62, and subsequently He said, "I am a part of all I have met," which was another way of saying he was a synthesis of all that he had learned in these various roles. ~ Alex Haley.
(The above interview of Alex Haley took place for Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 to 1985. On 26 January 1994, this video interview was shown within Malcolm X: Make It Plain. © 1988 Washington University Libraries. All Rights Reserved.)
Alex Haley: Driving Around Harlem
(Alex Haley Interviewed By Malcolm X: Make It Plain, October 24, 1988)
One day Malcolm said to me, "Would I like to ride with him?" Periodically he would ask me that. He had a blue Oldsmobile and he liked to drive around, just tool around in Harlem. Sounded like he called it patrolling his beat. It was among his people and he genuinely enjoyed it.
People would recognize him and they would wave. In some areas he was like Sugar Ray Robinson, driving around. And one such day, in an afternoon, we were in Harlem up in the 130ths area and all of a sudden Malcolm slapped his big foot on the brake, the car just jolted to a stop, screeched. And I said, "Oh my God," I knew we were shot, because Malcolm was a target in lots of areas.
And before I knew really what was happening he had burst out of the door, the driver's side door, and was over against near the wall of a building and he's standing like an avenging devil over three young black men who would be say 18, 19, in that area, maybe 20, and his fingers out and it was the angriest I ever saw Malcolm. He was shaking his finger at them, and he was just raging at them. He was something like, "Beyond these doors is the greatest collection of information by black people in the world and other people in there studying about you, and the best you can do is be out here shooting craps against the door. You should be ashamed of yourselves." And these young men got up and I tell you literally they went slinking away.
Now the significant part is these were young men who probably would have cut the throat of anybody else who would have dared come up and accost them in such a manner. But they recognized Malcolm and such was Malcolm's image, such was his power in the image terms, that their reaction was just to slinky away. They were embarrassed, they were guilty as charged.
And he fumed about it. He had a way of coming upon something that would really get to him and then he would just mutter and go on about it until it kind of wore down. But he was furious about that and he was also furious about anything that he came upon that he interpreted as black people, particularly younger black people, shirking opportunities to learn about themselves, about anything.
He said, "Unless we get equipped with information that is taught, we will not be able to cope in this society." That was his general thematic thing. ~ Alex Haley.
(The above interview of Alex Haley took place for Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 to 1985. On 26 January 1994, this video interview was shown within Malcolm X: Make It Plain. © 1988 Washington University Libraries. All Rights Reserved.)
Eyes On The Prize Interviews: Alex Haley
(Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 to 1985)
Editorial Notes: This October 24, 1988 Eyes on the Prize interview with Alex Haley was gathered as part of Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 to 1985 (Episode 07: The Time Has Come 1964 - 1966). The below transcript contains material that did not appear in the final program.
Interviewer: Production Team: A
Alex Haley: My perception of say, the reaction to Malcolm in the early 1960s from my experience was
Interviewer: First question's on response in 1961 to 1962.
Alex Haley: In say 1961, 1962 when I came first to know Malcolm, my perceptions from what I experienced, ah, were that say most White people, probably nearly all from the better, from the exposure I had ranged from being very, very apprehensive about Malcolm to hating Malcolm, the image of Malcolm which had been purveyed by the media, of course. And, ah, ah, that was not too far afield of probably the majority also of Black people. You know, nowadays you might hear a lot of people talking about how they followed him and so forth, but at that time again, my perception was that the large majority were frightened by the things Malcolm said. They were so, so extreme it seemed, and so radical by comparison with what others were saying. And then of course you had the people, ah, ah, not only the Nation of Islam itself who were, who, for whom he was speaking, but those who were empathetic with the nation, or were feeling that Malcolm was having the, the courage to say aloud, publicly things which they had felt or which they wished somebody would say. And so that was largely the, the Black reaction was a mixed one, you know, from ah, ah, terrified somewhere by, by what he was saying to those who cheered and applauded when his name was mentioned let alone when he came into sight.
Ah, my own perception of Malcolm was one of something that bordered on fascination really because I was looking at him and reacting to him as a subject. I was a young writer, I had been, the usually requisite 15 years getting rejections slips for the most part and finally was beginning to get assignments. And, ah, I saw him as someone who was hard to top as a subject. He was always, I like to say of Malcolm, he was just simply electrical. Everything he did almost was dramatic and it wasn't that he was trying to be, it was just the nature of him. He, in later years I, I would be rather taken by a statement he would make of himself. He would say "I am a part of all I have met." And by that he meant that all the things he had done in his earlier life had exposed him to things that taught him skills of one another sort or it had taught him traits of one another sort, all of which had synthesized into the Malcolm who became the spokesman for the Nation of Islam. Such as that, here was a man who in the eighth grade in Michigan, a school where I think he was the only Black in his class and one of the very few in the school, had been an outstanding A, straight-A student, you know, who had been in fact the president of his class. And all the others were White in the eighth grade. Obviously he had to be exceptional to be those things. So you had that quality which was a facet of him: the brains, the innate ability to learn and to acquire and to use and utilize knowledge. And then you had the Malcolm who had left school and who had gone to Roxbury, Massachusetts where he had gotten his first exposure to what might loosely be called hustling. I remember him telling me with great seriousness about how he had learned at the, the tutoring of a, a, an older person who came from where he had come from in Michigan and who had called him "Homeboy". I, I made that chapter, the title of that chapter was "Homeboy". And this man had taught him his first hustle: that to be a shoeshine boy was OK. He would get say 15 cents or maybe 20 cents per shine, but if he learned how to make the rag pop loudly, there was a way you could use the rag kind of loosely and then jerk it down on the shoe and it would make a noise, a popping noise. And people somehow liked that and they would give Malcolm as much as a quarter tip. And so he became the poppingist shoeboy, shoeshine boy in town and so on. And this type thing, the hustler world, became part of him. And then later he was into more serious things, you know, ah, ah, crime type things. And all of these sharpened his wits and his ability to connive and to do cunning things. And these were part of the Malcolm of 1961, 62 as well. And then finally, the ultimate thing, he was in prison and the world of the prisoner is one that is quite educational in its way. And so that was another part of him. And so Malcolm liked to say that he, the Malcolm as of 1961, 62, and subsequently, he said, "I am a part of all I have met," which was another way of saying he was a synthesis of all that he had learned in these various roles.
Alex Haley: Um, one cannot very well talk about Malcolm, as a matter of fact I don't think one should not talk about Malcolm without making reference to the Nation of Islam, colloquially the Black Muslims, which had brought him to public fame. Ah, he had prior to that time all the things he had done and Malcolm, it is said, and I certainly agree, lived more than the average 10 men in his few years, relatively few years, his young years. And nobody knew about him except the people right around him, you know, in, in all those earlier years. It was only via the Nation of Islam and its drama that brought Malcolm to public notice. I know that he in turn, he thought of himself totally as the embodiment of the Nation of Islam and what it could achieve. Ah, he would say, he loved to tell about how other people's lives had been changed but none so dramatically he would say, as my own. And then he would tell you about having been in prison, having been a hustler and having done this and that and the other, and he said and look at me now, you know, and, and he was now the, the epitome, if you might say that, of, of loyalty to the Nation of Islam. I guess the most graphic illustration I could give of, of that at, at least in my experience was that when I began to interview Malcolm for the book that would later be called The Autobiography of Malcolm X, [ah, the book was to be about him. It had taken a great deal of effort to get him to agree to do such a book. And he would come down to my place, I lived in Greenwich Village, at the time at 92 Grove Street off Sheridan Square. I had a basement apartment. And he would come down there and he was, he had big feet and he would pace the floor, he was like a caged tiger. And night after night after night when he'd come down, which was about twice a week that he would come 'round 9 at night,] he would talk about the greater glories of Mr. Elijah Muhammad, his leader and about the Nation of Islam, and there was nothing else he would talk about. And finally I began very delicately as I could to say to him, "Mr. Malcolm this book is to be about you so I, I, I know about them, you've told me, I've written with you about them, but we need now to go into your life." And he would always get first testy about it and then he got distinctly annoyed about it, and finally, he would get angry.
[This was over a period of weeks. And then finally, a story I can tell you that is not in this direct line but what, what, what changed that was one of the most moving experiences I ever had with Malcolm. Was one night I had been interviewing him for about two and a half months and I had come to the private thought that since I couldn't get him to say anything about himself, all he would talk about was Mr. Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, that I was going to have to go to the publisher and tell him this and say, "You know, you either need to try another writer who may be able to get through to him or you need to drop the project. If that's what decision you want to make, it was OK with me, fine, whichever." And then this night Malcolm came, I only remember that it was deep snow, knee deep snow, and Malcolm had had something happen that day that really had churned him up. He was furious and he walked the floor and he walked. And that night, late, I guess about 11 o'clock after he had walked and fumed at one or another thing, he stopped talking long enough that I said something to him. I said ah, "Mr. Malcolm, once again I must ask you, could you please say something about yourself? We have to, have to do the book about you." And then, now he just blew up. He was furious, he glared at me, he grabbed his coat. I remember it was a little houndstooth coat, gray in color, and I remember thinking that coat's too light for this weather. That was just my own thought. And he started charged toward to the door and when he got to the door and reached and got in his, the knob in his hand and started to jerk it open, I said something to him. I don't know where it came from, I certainly didn't have time to think it, and it was not the kind of thing you would ask of Malcolm, particularly an angry Malcolm. But I remember saying to him as he started to jerk the door open,] I said, "Mr. Malcolm, could you tell me something about your mother?" And I will never ever forget how he stopped almost as if he was suspended, like a marionette, [and he gave me the oddest look and he turned and he began to walk back in the reverse direction, but slowly now. And he walked around that room I suppose, the room was ob—oblong, and he must have walked say three times around the room before he spoke. And now his voice was a little bit higher of register.
Alex Haley: Ah, the words came out of my mouth, you know how sometimes you hear yourself saying something that you hadn't really thought about, it just involuntarily came. I said, "Mr. Malcolm, could you tell me something about your mother?" And he turned, he gave me a very odd look, and he began to walk in the reverse direction. And he, I had this oblong room so it gave him some walking distance. And I guess he circuited the room three times before he spoke again and this time his voice was higher of register, was kind of a stream of consciousness manner,] and he said, ["It's funny you should ask me that.] I remember the kind of dresses she used to wear, they were old and faded and gray." And then he walked some more. And he said, "I remember how she was always bent over the stove trying to stretch what little we had." And that was the beginning that night of his walking. He walked that floor until just about daybreak.
I never asked him a question, I was just taking notes furiously, I had a silent typewriter, they call them silent, they don't make too much noise, and I'm just going as fast as I could, capturing as best I could in kind of que blis form what spilled out of Malcolm X. That night he said totally involuntarily just about everything that is now in the first chapter of The Autobiography of Malcolm X in the chapter titled Nightmare. A story of a little boy, I think he was about seven at the time, ah, amidst his siblings whom his mother was trying to keep together. The father, her husband had been murdered. Ah, he was a baptist minister, he'd been thrown under a streetcar and the state now was trying to split up the family, and the mother was fighting desperately to keep her family together. And her—under the strain, her mind was beginning to, to loosen or tauten or whichever is correct. And Malcolm from years later now that night was remembering and recalling all this the way it went. He talked about each of his brothers and sisters and so on. And in subsequent years I have come to know some of them who would recall the same time and make commentary on what Malcolm said. And as a matter of fact ah, ah, about, I'd say within the past year, I met Malcolm's mother who is living up in Michigan with, ah, his sister Yvonne. And Malcolm's mother talked to me about Malcolm. And the one thing she reacted to mostly was that something I, I said Malcolm had often said that he learned early as a little boy that if something happened, he would holler immediately and he'd get more attention. And he said it was always something he'd learned, that the hinge that squeaks the loudest get the grease. And she smiled and she said "Yes, that was Malcolm, that he would holler first, more than anybody else." And then Malcolm's relationship with his mother, I should tell you also, was after that night when he talked about his mother, about two weeks later he told me he was going away for a week and that, you know, he was always going for some time to do work of the Nation of Islam. And this time when he came back, he had that patented, copyrighted Malcolm X grin. His daughter Attallah has got the same grin today. Attallah's my Goddaughter, and I was telling her not long ago in Los Angeles she grin just like her daddy. And he now grinned and said to me that he had been to Michigan and with his brother Philbert who was a minister in the Nation of Islam, they had gone to whatever institution it was where their mother had been for a long time, more than a decade, and they had undertaken the initial steps to have her brought out. And, and, it, it sort of got its genesis from him talking about it, and he later told me that he, it had been pent up in him all these years. He didn't want to think about it, he didn't, certainly didn't want to talk about it because he did not feel good about it. But he felt so great when he and his brother and others of the family came together to have their mother released.
Ah, you said the best story about Malcolm and his power upon people. I, I would say one day Malcolm said to me would I like to ride with him. Periodically he would ask me that. He had a blue Oldsmobile and, ah, he liked to drive around, just tool around in Harlem. It was not sort of like he called it patrolling his beat, it was among his people and he genuinely enjoyed it. People would recognize him and they would wave, in some areas he was like Sugar Ray Robinson driving around, you know. And one such day in an afternoon we were in Harlem up in the 130ths area and all of a sudden Malcolm slapped his big foot on the brake, the car just jolted to a stop, screeched. And I said, "Oh my God, I knew we were shot," 'cause you know, Malcolm was, was a target to, in, in lots of areas. And before I knew really what was happening he had burst out of the door, the driver's side door and was over against, near the wall of a building and he's standing like an avenging devil over three young Black men who would be say 18, 19, in that area, maybe 20, and his finger's out and it was the angriest I ever saw Malcolm. He was shaking his finger at them, and he was just raging at them. He was something like, ah, "Beyond these doors is the greatest collection of information about Black people in the world and other people and they're studying about you, and the best you can do is be out here shooting craps against the door. You should be ashamed of yourself, or yourselves." And um, these young men got up and I tell you literally they went slinking away. Now the, the significant part is, these were young men who probably would have cut the throat of anybody else who would have dared come up and accost them in such a manner. But they recognized Malcolm and such was Malcolm's image, such was his power in th—image terms, that their reaction was just to slink away. They were embarrassed, they were guilty, he, as charged. And it he fumed about it. He had a way of coming, coming up on something that would really get to him and then he would just mutter and go on about it until it kind of wore down. But he was furious about that and he was also furious, ah, about anything that he came upon that he interpreted as Black people, particularly younger Black people, shirking opportunities to learn about themselves, about anything. He said unless we get equipped with information that is taught, we will not be able to cope in this society. That was his general thematic thing.
Interviewer: Now this was at, where?
Alex Haley: At the old—I'm sorry that, that was at the Schomburg. The, the young men were shooting dice against the door of the Schomburg Library, the Countee Cullen Library which holds the Schomburg collection, that's what—which is in fact the greatest collection of Black people in existence, ah, certainly it was at that time. Hm hmm.
Interviewer: Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.
Alex Haley: It happened that, ah, when I was working with Malcolm, interviewing Malcolm for the book, I still was working for Playboy Magazine doing the interviews, you know, or some of the interviews, and they asked me if I would, see if I could do an interview with Dr. King. And I began to make connections, you know, and to make queries and over a period of time it worked out, he agreed. Now I would periodically where it had been Malcolm saying to me, "Look I'm going to be going off for a few days," and, you know, I'd say, "Fine," 'cause it would give me a chance to get my notes and stuff together. Now with great apologies, I asked Malcolm if he would mind if I was away for a few days because, ah, I had to go see Dr. King. Now people who are being interviewed for something like a biography become rather possessive of the writer. They don't say it but they feel that that writer in effect is theirs. And Malcolm reacted very, very sharply. Ah, he didn't say anything but I could s—tell that he was offended by the idea that I would even think about leaving him to go talk to Dr. King or anybody else. But there was nothing he could say, you know, and so I went. Now Dr. King already knew that I was working on Malcolm and a thing began to develop that amused me though I would never have said to either it amused me, was that when I would get to Atlanta to interview Dr. King, he would sort of fidget around for maybe 15 or 20 minutes, ah, you know, and I'd ask him this and ask him that, and we'd do a little, little talk, you know, obligatory kind of little chit chat and everything, and it would be about 15 minutes before he would finally get around in a very indirect, oblique manner as if he just happened to think of it, "Oh by the way, what's brother Malcolm saying about me these days?" he would say. And of course I would make some fuzzy answer because that was the thing to do. Then I would go back to New York. Malcolm's personality was different. He would right BAM, right off the top he'd say, "What's he saying about me?" That was it. And I was always amused by how they reacted to each other and what was each other saying about the other. And the truth of the thing was I gathered, both men had an immense respect, each for the other, but the image that had been built up around them was that they were on opposite sides. But the truth was as I came to know it they really I believe would have dearly loved to get together and just talk out, you know, tactics, strategy and so forth. Hm hmm.
Alex Haley: In the late fall of 1964 Malcolm had been to Mecca, he had been to Africa, West Africa, and he had had experiences in both places which had contributed toward his returning to this country with a new perspective and with a new message, as it were: broadly speaking, pan-Africanism. And Malcolm was personally, at least in my perception, I was still working with him of course, by this time I was writing on the book, the research largely having been done, and we would communicate, you know, I'd have questions say, ask to fill in something or something he just wanted to volunteer, things like that. Ah, and he had this sort of experience that he shared about, I remember one what he was particularly impressed with w—was that in Mecca he had found himself amidst a great majority of, y—you know, White or lighter skinned people. And I remember there was one expression of his something like, "That I set with brothers whose eyes were bluer than blue, whose skin was fairer than fair," or something of that order, "and we were all the same brothers." And then he came, he came to Africa and I remember of his numerous experiences there, he met African leaders, various ones, ah, I have subsequently met some of the people whom he contacted in his African journey: Dr. Carlos Moore from Martinique, I remember was one who, who translated for Malcolm in, in, ah, one of the countries. Carlos speaks French and other languages fluently. And then I remember the thing that hurt Malcolm so much was at some place, I don't remember which country, he had met, ah, I believe it was in Ghana, he had met ah, ah, Muhammad Ali who had earlier been almost, they had been like Muhammad Ali was like his younger brother, little brother. He was very, very proud of him. I remember Malcolm calling me from somewhere in Florida where, I believe it was in Florida, where he had, Muhammad Ali had just won one of his decisive battles and ah, Malcolm was boasting about how his little brother had done so marvelously well. And I could hear the noise in the background and Malcolm spoke to Muhammad Ali and said for him to holler something at me over the phone, which he did, you know, and so, it was kind of like you tell a melee backstage after the fight. And now he went to West Africa and in Ghana he and Muhammad Ali happened to be crisscrossing in their journeys in West Africa and now Muhammad Ali did not look in his direction though they passed right by each other, nor speak. And Malcolm was deeply hurt, wounded by that. And so he came back in a sort of down, depressed frame of mind. He was such a public figure that he couldn't show this publicly, so he would, you know, he had always the standard stock statements to make and the press was always asking him something. And he had his, ah, just a, ah, like a, a bibliography of the proper statement that would sound OK to get him by. But the bottom line truth was that Malcolm was now in a situation where he had, he and the Malcolm—he and the Nation of Islam had broken up. That had been for years his power base, that was what gave him strength. He spoke for them and they were a powerful group indeed. But now they were no longer with him, they were no longer behind him, so he's on his own. He is Malcolm X but without a structure under him. He was trying to create his own organization. I think he called it the OAAU, the Organization of Afro-American Unity. And he had a sort of an office up on the mezzanine of the Theresa Hotel. I, I have the impression that it wasn't an office for which he paid because Malcolm didn't have very much money at that time that, but it was an office I think that had been kind of donated to him. And he would go, I would go with him. He'd invite me some nights to go with him up there after we had interviewed or, or by now I was writing as I say so it wasn't so much interview, but just go with him. You know, when you're with a subject as long as I had been with him, you just kind of need to touch and be close to each other and commune, sometimes without even talking. And Malcolm had a way that I came to know, that if he was annoyed or vexed or even angry, he would seldom say it. He w—was a great believer in discipline. This was one of his keystone things for himself. Discipline, self-discipline. And he would never speak his anger but he had a way as he would quickly bite his lower lip, like that, and you could see him do it and you knew something had upset him. And I saw him numerous nights go into the office in the Theresa mezzanine and look on the desk and that lip would get bitten because now there was work that should have been done which nobody had done. Now that people who said they were with him, who somebody had said they'd come in and type or fix this or make up cards or do something, somehow something else had been of more priority that day, and so it wasn't done. And there was Malcolm. And I remember one night he and I went up there and there was something he had wanted to make announcements about but envelopes hadn't been typed, and he bit the lip. And he was supposed to sign letters or sign, it was printed, ah, fliers that he was going to mail and he was going to sign each one to give it a little personalization. So I just said to him well, well, "Mr. Malcolm why don't you just go ahead and sign them and I type pretty well, and give me the list." And so he looked at me, he gave me the list, and I sat down and typed his envelopes, typed th—the names and addresses for him. And there were little things like that, but what you saw, what I was seeing was a man who was valiant beyond belief, whose structural world was tottering and he was trying to hold it together. See what he needed, and what he wanted, and what he was trying to do was somehow to maintain a public presence, but in a manner that would not get him into difficult trouble say like with something like the government or with other strong forces until he could build up his own organization. That's what he was into. As a matter of fact when he, up to his death, that was his general, as I perceived it, his general position and effort and struggle. Hm hmm.
Interviewer: February 65?
Alex Haley: Hm hmm.
Um, in the early part of, of 1965, you know, January moving into February, Malcolm was in mounting problems. By now his biggest worry was his family. How were they, what was going to happen to them. He was the head of the family. Their home had been bombed for one thing.] And he just felt I guess as near desperate as I ever saw him because again here's the image of the fearsome, indomitable Malcolm X, but bottom line was he was a father and he was a husband and his wife and his daughters were imperiled, and what could he do about it.
Another factor, he had relatively little money. And I remember the, the exact date I can't remem—remember but it was in February of '65 that my phone rang one day and a voice came out, and I didn't know who it was. I didn't—SOUND 113]
After a period of time it had become almost a macabre experience to be in my role as biography for Malcolm because by this time I'd come to know him, you know, as more than a, an abstract subject whom you interviewed and were writing about. I knew the man now, you know, I knew his wife, Sister Betty, I knew his children, little girls. And I knew how one among numerous others things, how much he wanted a boy, and he had four girls. And coming into say spring of '65, ah, Sister Betty was pregnant again and he said, "That's that boy." And that was about the only joyous thing really happening to him at that time because around him otherwise were organizations, agencies vying for him to join them, I think everything from the Protestant Church to the most extreme radical groups there were, were kind of courting Malcolm. They, they all wanted to have his name affiliated with what they were doing. The moderates of the church groups wanted Malcolm to be an example of conversion, so to speak. And the other groups wanted him because of the very potency of his name. And I remember Malcolm crying out to me, literally crying out one night about this. He said, "I'm trying to turn the corner, but they won't let me. I'm caught in a trap." And it was because whichever way he tried to turn, somebody else wanted him somewhere else. And he was just in that middle. It went on thus until, as things worsened, one night Malcolm's home was bombed. And this was probably the thing that surfacely upset him most because this got underneath the image of Malcolm, the fearsome, the indomitable Malcolm X, this got to the father and the husband of Sister Betty and their daughters. Sister Betty as I say was pregnant. And he was just really sh—shook to pieces about that. And I remember feeling sometimes as if I wanted to hug him, I mean just, you know, go up and hug your brother or something because he was in such pressure, and yet his discipline, his image demanded that he be stoic and move on, you know. And then Saturday, one Saturday, I think it would have been the 20th of February, 1965, I was in upstate Rome, New York, this is where I was living at that time, that's where I was working. After finishing the interview process of Malcolm, I had moved upstate. I had more time, I was freer, I could write better up there because I just had fewer distractions. Also it was cheaper, I didn't have any money, you know, to be doing much in the way of rent.
And the phone rang and I picked it up, it was a morning, and, a Saturday morning as I recall, and this voice came on and asked, ah, and started talking. And I'm wondering who is it. I didn't understand, I didn't recognize the voice. And finally something he said made me realize with a great shock, my shock, that was Malcolm X. And for the first time in our whole acquaintance of years I really didn't un—didn't perceive who he was. The thing was he was under such pressure that it was as if it had constricted his vocal cords, [cords. He was ah, ah, saying to me that he wondered if I could go to the publisher and get an advance that would enable him to pay down on a house for his family. And he said something like, ah, "As you know, they have bombed us out of our home." And I told him that I was going to do everything I could do and I would go to the publisher which, ah, ah, I certainly could do and was, was planning to do, and I told him I would go on Monday, as soon as they were open and I would present this to them. And I think if I'm not mistaken he needed, he said $20,000 minimum. He, he needed, if I recall correctly he needed $20,000 minimum as a down payment. And I told him I felt pretty good that that could be had. And, and I did feel that they could do it because in, in, in an interesting way the publishers too who had first been very apprehensive about Malcolm, now I was turning in some copy and they had begun to feel less so. They were beginning to feel the drama of his life and the drama of his story. And that was Saturday and we finally wound off and, ah, said, you know, bye, see you. And I went back to doing whatever I was doing. And then the next thing I heard was Sunday, that I heard on the radio that Malcolm had been shot to death. And it was a feeling, I, I don't know how really to describe really to this day, but a feeling of great loss, a feeling of such a shame. I remember sort of, they say when you have some real emergency, your whole life will flash before you. I found myself in a vicarious way that his life sort of flashed before because I knew it, you know, I had written it, I had the chronology of his life. And I remember thinking about the little boy who had been with his mother and his siblings and she was trying to hold the family together. And then thinking about him in school as the only Black in the school, I believe it was Mason, Michigan. And then the class adviser who told him he shouldn't want to be a lawyer as he had said but that he should be a carpenter because his popularity in school indicated to him how White people would give him work, and things like that. And then he left school and went to Roxbury. It was just sort of seeing the chronology. And there he was dead, 39 years. I think that was also the, the death age of Dr. King, I believe 39. And somebody later who I think it was C. Eric Lincoln, Dr. C. Eric Lincoln told me that was also that ah, ah, the death of Christ ah, ah, was 30—age 39. And I just sort of didn't know how to feel. And I went, you know, down, of course went to New York right away and just kind of wandered around the places where we had gone together. And, ah, then I remember going to, it was funny, I couldn't get to anybody close, the wall, the bars in effect had, had gone up and, and I couldn't get to people who had been close to him. Family was in seclusion. And I went to finally to, so I bought all the papers and I listened to all the broadcasts to find out what was happening. And then finally his body had been wrapped in, in, ah, eas—eastern style, you know, eastern-religion style, and he was lying in state in a Harlem mortuary. And I remember going there and just, I just got in the line and went filing along with the other people. And there he was in the casket and I remember just kind of looking and I said sort of to myself, but to him just barely audibly, "Bye Red," 'cause he liked to be called Red by those who knew him very well. He once had been called Detroit Red and to those who were very close to him, and I had eventually had become, I never had called him Red to his face but I, I felt now I was among those close to him and so I just said, "Bye Red," and filed on past. And then I went back up to Rome and wrote as feverishly hard as I ever have in my life that part which appears at the end of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The chapter I think is titled Epilogue if I'm not mistaken. And in that I put everything that I knew or heard or whatever about Malcolm which had not been in the earlier section that he had talked about. I told things, you know, in that which, ah, I just did it in a sense of wanting to kind of share with readers. Up to my own recent visit of passing his bier and, ah, ah, then, it made the book have between two covers the account of a man's life from birth to death. And I base that on saying that as I recall the book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X begins, I started with the phrase, "When my mother was pregnant with me, comma, I was told later." And then it went on, you know, with what had happened to his father. So it went from that, when my mother was pregnant with me to him lying there in that mortuary.
There was, um, there's an expression I sometimes use about Malcolm, saying he was "As the point of the plough." Ah, but when I say it I don't mean it in the sense that he was alone, that, you know, he was not a person who did all this alone. He would be the first to say so. Ah, Malcolm was a visible person. That's why sometime back I was saying you should never talk about Malcolm without linking him, at least certainly in that phase of his life with the Nation of Islam. He himself, I don't think Malcolm uttered five sentences in the period that I first knew him without saying. "I have been taught," or, "All that I know comes from the Honorable Elijah Muhammad." And he was in fact, at least according to what he testified and said and volunteered, taught virtually everything he knew in the area he was famous for by Mr. Muhammad. And, ah, what Malcolm became was the extremely effective public figure. The man who could go out and face the microphones and face the audiences and rivet and galvanize people and make people stop and think. I remember him, not only Malcolm but Malcolm in particular I remember and then there were other, ah, Nation of Islam ministers who could do this, ah, immaculately well, ah, who could go into a group of people assembled on a Sunday afternoon, Protestant church going people. They would stand outside Baptist and Methodist churches Sunday morning and pass out cards, neatly groomed young men with their, you know, perfectly clean shirts, their hair cut short, and politely invite people, "Would you care, since you like good preaching to come over and hear ours?" And then these people who were old line members of, of Baptist and Methodist churches with southern backgrounds, the people had, ah, some of them would come to the Muslim's ah, church front, ah, storefront church and there would be Malcolm. I mean you really missed something if you never saw Malcolm operate like this. The people would file in. Here was Malcolm standing up there looking as if he was a pent-up volcano, which he was in a metaphoric sense. And on the stage with him would be something like a, a lithograph in color of Jesus Christ. And there would be a Blackboard and Malcolm would say something like, ah, "Brothers and sisters we're glad you have given up your time to come be with us this afternoon and I want to say at the first we may say things, we will say things that may not be something you ever heard before. And all we ask is not that join us or not that you agree with us, but that you go home and think about what we talk about here." And then he would say something, ah, ah, "Who is this?" pointing with a pointer at the lithograph, and you'd hear these old line Christians in the back say, "That's my Jesus, that's Jesus Christ." And Malcolm would listen to all this and then he, he would say, you know, "Isn't it interesting that this person to whom you pray, you do pray don't you?" And then you'd hear "Oh yes I do, every night," and so forth until they all agreed. And then he would say, "Isn't it interesting that this person to whom you get on your knees in your most private of sessions at night and you pray, doesn't even look like you. Your eyes are not blue, your hairs are not this color," and so on. And he was doing it in the sense of someone exhorting people to just think about it, what they were doing. And then he would say things like, "Now do we correctly understand that this, all who believe in this person are the same, that that's what he teaches, that you all the same? You and those of other race who believe in him too?" And you, you'd hear a little weaker, "Well that's what it says," and so forth. And then he'd say, "Well you know, ladies and gentlemen, we are going to be closing our little service here shortly but I'd just like to ask one thing." He said, "When you leave here, you who are equal in his sight with the others who believe in him, you go get on the subway and you go downtown and you walk around and look at the houses the other Christians live in, and the factories they own, and the businesses they own, and then you get on the subway and you come back up here to where you live and walk around and look at where you live, and what you have, and what you own. And then go home tonight brothers and sisters and think about it, if you are indeed equal in his sight." And Malcolm would quickly bring the meeting to a close. No collection. And people began to defect from the old line Protestant churches. There were churches, ah, which split. One part of the congregation went to the Nation of Islam, the other remained Baptist and Methodist, but even then kind of shakily. And so that is why I say Malcolm was the point of the plough. He and others, not just Malcolm, all, all able nation of Islam ministers could do it. Um, they were schooled in it, they picked those who were able particularly to be oratorical ah, acrobats. So it was almost oratorical can—calisthenics and would maintain an image of great cool. Nobody shouted, nobody jumped up and sc—screamed like in the churches we know about. But it was extremely effective certainly in this period of time. And Malcolm was simply the most dramatic of all that I ever saw. And then he trained many others who came more or less in his pattern. And then he was trained, all of them were trained by Mr. Elijah Muhammad.
Uh in, um, after The Autobiography of Malcolm X was published, ah, I remember one thing that happened was that, ah, the then Saturday Evening Post bought the condensation rights for the book and paid $20,000, and that meant that I got half, ah, Malcolm got half and I got half. Ah, his family got half, you know, 'cause he was gone by now. And, ah, I hadn't known there was that mon—much money in the world, $10,000 at one time. And, ah, but I had as a result of this suddenly become what's called an author. You know, you, when you're a magazine writer, you're a mag—you're a writer, but then when you get a book out, you become an author. And with that came other things like people wanted you to speak and they would actually pay you for running your mouth. They would, ah, ah, people wanted you to write things, they'd pay you more for writing the same amount you had before, you know, and that was a year I suppose around 196—66, 67 that I remember the tax thing that I had to, you know, declare was $100,000. Incredible, unbelievable. And that was the same period in which I had begun to think about the stories my grandmother used to tell me about the family.
(The above interview of Alex Haley was conducted by Blackside, Inc. on October 24, 1988 for Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 to 1985. Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection. © 1988 Washington University Libraries. All Rights Reserved.)
Alex Haley Interviewed By Roger Bishop
(Alex Haley Offers Readers A Different Kind of Christmas, December 1988)
Bishop: Before your international recognition with the publication of Roots you had achieved a distinguished career as a journalist and the author of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. You conducted the first interview with Miles Davis in the Playboy magazine interviews. You went on in that series of interviews to interview Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X which subsequently led to your authorship of his autobiography. As one who interviewed both Dr. King and Malcolm X, and grew to know the latter so well, could you speak in a general way about those two men—how they were alike and how they were different in your experience with them?
Haley: The thing that has always intrigued me about Dr. King and Malcolm was how easily either of them might have been the other. Now if you had taken Malcolm in the eighth grade, precocious youngster, living in Michigan at the time, an outstanding student in his class—sharp, articulate. If that Malcolm could have then gone to the top black high school where Dr. King went in Atlanta, and from high school to the Boston College School of Theology, think of what a minister and leader we would've had.
If Dr. King, age eighth grade, entering that high school and had instead been told, like Malcolm, it was ridiculous to think about being a lawyer, so why doesn't he become a carpenter. He was so popular in school that proves that white people would hire him to do carpentry. That's what Malcolm's class advisor told him. Had Martin Luther King, age eighth grade, gone instead to his aunt's home in Rockville, Massachusetts (suburban Boston) and learned to hustle—and was taught by a guy who called him homeboy because he was from the same area—was taught first how to hustle shinning shoes. (If you're gonna shine shoes, let the rag hang limp so it would pop louder for a quarter extra tip). Then learned how to sell marijuana and to do the things that's hustling. And when he had become a pretty able hustler, go for (what Malcolm called) his graduate studies and get on a train and make it to Harlem where he could get into crime and into this and that and the other. Dr. King would've made a tremendous hustler. And Malcolm would've made a tremendous theologian. Both of them were great powers in their own way. And so to me always the intrigue has been the two men are a case of "...but for the grace of God..." And as a matter of fact, not enough recognition is given to the fact that Malcolm was most helpful to Dr. King. The way I mean it is Malcolm scared people. And what it did was shake people enough so that when Dr. King came along, speaking of turning the other cheek and the Ghandi principles, he was a lot less threatening. So preceded by Malcolm, Dr. King went forward.
(Excerpted from Alex Haley Offers Readers A Different Kind of Christmas. © 1998 BookPage and ProMotion, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)
Alex Haley: Vicksburg, Mississippi, 1989: Angels, Legends, and Grace
(Vicksburg, Mississippi, 1989)
Alex Haley's legacy is forever tied to his legendary works—The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Roots: The Saga of an American Family, two of the most influential books on the black experience in the twentieth century. When his Autobiography of Malcolm X appeared in 1964, it transformed America's understanding of black life and culture. The book moved readers, just as Richard Wright's Native Son did when it was first published in 1940. Twenty-four years apart, Haley and Wright each parted the veil of race in America and exposed, with unvarnished clarity, angry black rage. Haley's work on Malcolm X quickly became essential reading in the 1960s for students in the Civil Rights Movement.
In 1976—twelve years after The Autobiography of Malcolm X—the release of Alex Haley's book and television miniseries Roots marked a historic moment in publishing and media history. One hundred and thirty million Americans watched the miniseries over eight nights, and the book sold six million copies during its first year of publication. The Roots television series featured LeVar Burton (Kunta Kinte), Leslie Uggams (Kizzy), and Ben Vereen (Chicken George), as well as a musical score by Quincy Jones. The series won nine Emmys and a Peabody, and the book won the Pulitzer Prize.
Alex Haley's two books reflect the Janus-faced, complex person who created them. Haley is completely absent from the pages of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. With consummate skill, he shapes his interviews with Malcolm X into a powerful, first-person narrative driven by the voice of the speaker. Roots, in contrast, wraps its story around Haley's own voice and uses his personal life as its anchor. Haley's story becomes everyman's story and achieves a rare universality in which the viewer reflects, "There, but for the grace of God, go I."—William R. Ferris
IN ALEX HALEY'S WORDS . . .
Principally, I wrote for the Reader's Digest and then I did interviews for Playboy, those two contrasting magazines, and one of the interviews was with Malcolm X. That led to writing my first book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I probably was—I like to think—a conduit, which saw the Malcolm book come into being. I'm particularly glad that the book is in existence, because, otherwise, now twenty-some years after Malcolm's death, his life without that book would be a mass of gratuitous tales, told by people who were of varying degrees of closeness to him. I've had people come up to me—grown men, who would seem to have no reason at all to be other than responsible—say something like, "Yeah, Man, I used to go to school with Red in Boston." But, actually, Malcolm never went to school in Massachusetts. You hear these things, and you realize these people really mean these things; they believe that. So the book is there, in effect out of his mouth, put down by a man in an order where it became a very readable book. But somehow if there hadn't been the book, it would just be like what happens with many figures: a confetti of stories. So I feel that one of the more important things I have been blessed to do in my life is to write that book, because Malcolm was a symbol of a lot of things.
Then I feel obviously Roots was a meant-to-be. I'm honored to have done it, to have been able, and I guess not only to have been able but to have had the combination of things that happened. It wasn't just things I did. I didn't openly at the age of twelve say I shall go forth and become a writer. I didn't do any such thing. But things happen. With both The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Roots, I hear people say—and sometimes I read—even Olympian things about the books and what they contribute, what they represent, what they mean. My instincts draw away from saying yeah, because I wrote the books. You know, I'm not bashful about that kind of thing, but just sort of reluctant to agree with the more generous things. I feel I wrote hard, I wrote well as I could, and I wrote as sincerely as I could in both cases—two different types of books—and I'm grateful, needless to say, that they both did well. Indeed, continue to do well.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X was published in 1965—and this is 1989—so we're talking about twenty-four years. My God, twenty-four years. This morning, when we were down having breakfast, a young man was sitting at the table across from us. I went up for second helpings, and he came up to tell me how much The Autobiography of Malcolm X had influenced him twenty-some years ago, which is moving. Roots, of course, generates that. People just come up and start talking—every race, every whatever. ~ Alex Haley.
William R. Ferris is an American author and scholar and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. With Judy Peiser he co-founded the Center for Southern Folklore in Memphis, Tennessee; he was the founding director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, and is co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture.
(Excerpted from Alex Haley: Vicksburg, Mississippi, 1989: Angels, Legends, and Grace, from the Fall 2008 Edition of Southern Cultures and The Storied South: Voices of Writers and Artists. © 2008 University of North Carolina Press. © 2013 William Ferris. All Rights Reserved.)
Malcolm X Remembered
(Playboy Magazine, Summer 1991)
In the summer of 1991, Playboy commissioned Alex Haley to write a memoir about Malcolm X. Haley was the idea candidate for the assignment as he had ghostwritten The Autobiography of Malcolm X and conducted Playboy's historic 1963 interview with him.
As Rappers, Historians And Spike Lee Lay Claim To The Martyred Black Leader, His Late Friend And Biographer Recalls The Man
It was a cold gray day in February 1965, and I was trudging along a grimy sidewalk in the heart of Harlem, one among 20,000 mourners who would pay their last respects to the man who lay in state on a flower-decked bier several blocks away inside the Faith Temple Church of God in Christ. The news of his assassination by at least three black gunmen during a speech at the Audubon Ballroom sent shock waves through black America, sparked threats of race rioting and rumors of conspiracy.
As I finally gazed inside the bronze coffin, I realized that I had never met anyone who had been quite so vividly alive as the man whose body now lay before me. I found myself reliving the unforgettable moment when we had met five years before.
The Lost-Found Nation of Islam, an extremist religious sect headed by Messenger Elijah Muhammad, had been winning converts in the black community for its militant embrace of racial separatism and self-reliance—and also alienating the white community with its confrontational hostility. The media had discovered the Black Muslims, and I was assigned by Reader's Digest to write an article about them. The man I would have to see was their fearsome chief of staff who called himself minister Malcolm X. I was told he didn't have an office or a listed telephone number, but that I'd probably find him at the Muslim restaurant next door to Harlem's Temple Seven.
When I walked into the restaurant and explained my business, I didn't have to wait long. Within a few moments, a tall, tightly coiled man with reddish- brown hair and skin loomed beside my table, his brown eyes skewering me from behind horn-rimmed glasses. "I am minister Malcolm X," he said coldly. "You say you are a journalist, but we both know you're nothing more than a tool for the white man, sent here to spy." It was pointless to protest, so I showed him my letter of assignment, assuring him that the piece I wrote would be balanced and objective. Laughing, he said, "No white man's promise is worth the paper it's printed on." He then told me that I would have to be personally approved by Elijah Muhammad at Muhammad's home in Chicago before he would consider extending his cooperation.
I went and apparently I passed muster, because approval was granted. My story was printed the way I wrote it, and Elijah Muhammad sent me a letter expressing his appreciation that I had kept my promise to be fair. I also received a call from Malcolm X, who seemed pleasantly surprised that I hadn't betrayed them. But when I called back several months later with a request from Playboy for an interview with him, Malcolm X was reluctant to take the spotlight. He consented only on the condition that the editors understand he would speak not as a so-called celebrity but simply as a humble witness to the wisdom of his spiritual leader. Malcolm also demanded that the magazine print whatever he said without expurgation. The editors' reply: Agreed, as long as Malcolm answered every question he was asked. Fair enough, Malcolm said, and we had a deal.
The interviews were conducted over a two-week period, mostly at a secluded table in the Muslim restaurant. Serious-looking black men with close-cropped hair and wearing white shirts and black bow ties sat at nearby tables listening intently to every word. Our talk sessions crackled like electricity as I picked my way through the minefield of Malcolm's mind, trying to ask tough questions without antagonizing him to the point of jeopardizing the interviews. I knew without asking that even the sight of a tape recorder would terminate the assignment, and the discovery of one on my person could terminate my career, so I copied down in longhand every word that Malcolm said—as fast as I could go, unable to believe what I was hearing or that Playboy would dare to print it. A typical excerpt from the transcript:
Playboy: How do you justify the announcement you made last year that Allah had brought you "the good news" that 120 white Atlantans had just been killed in an air crash en route to America from Paris?
Malcolm X: Sir, as I see the law of justice, it says as you sow, so shall you reap. The white man has reveled as the rope snapped black men's necks. He has reveled around the lynching fire. It's only right for the black man's true God, Allah, to defend us—and for us to be joyous because our God manifests his ability to inflict pain on our enemy. We Muslims believe that the white race, which is guilty of having oppressed and exploited and enslaved our people here in America, should and will be the victims of God's divine wrath.
Playboy: Then you consider it impossible for the white man to be anything but an exploiter in his relations with the Negro?
Malcolm X: White people are born devils by nature. They don't become so by deeds. If you never put popcorn in a skillet, it will still be popcorn. Put the heat to it, it will pop.
Playboy: Do you believe white people are genetically inferior to black people?
Malcolm X: Thoughtful white people know they are inferior to black people. Anyone who has studied the genetic phase of biology knows that white is considered recessive and black is considered dominant. When you want strong coffee, you ask for black coffee. If you want it light, you want it weak, integrated with white milk. Just like these Negroes who weaken themselves and their race by integrating and intermixing with whites. If you want bread with no nutritional value, you ask for white bread. All the good that was in it has been bleached out of it and it will constipate you. If you want pure flour, you ask for dark flour, whole-wheat flour. If you want pure sugar, you want dark sugar.
Playboy: If all whites are devilish by nature, do you view all black men—with the exception of their non-Muslim leaders—as fundamentally angelic?
Malcolm X: No, there is plenty wrong with Negroes. They have no society. They're robots, automatons. No minds of their own. I hate to say that, but it's the truth. They are a black body with a white brain. Like Frankenstein's monster. The top part is your bourgeois Negro. He's your integrator. He's not interested in his poor black brothers. This class to us are the fence sitters. They have one eye on the white man and the other eye on the Muslims. They'll jump whichever way they see the wind blowing.
Then there's the middle class of the Negro masses, the ones not in the ghetto, who realize that life is a struggle. They're ready to take some stand against everything that's against them.
At the bottom of the social heap is the black man in the big-city ghetto. He lives night and day with the rats and cockroaches and drowns himself with alcohol and anesthetizes himself with dope to try to forget where and what he is. That Negro has given up all hope. He's the hardest one for us to reach because he's deepest in the mud. But when you get him, you get the best kind of Muslim. Because he makes the most drastic change. He's the most fearless. He will stand the longest. He has nothing to lose, even his life, because he didn't have that in the first place. I look upon myself, sir, as a prime example of this category—and as graphic an example as you could find of the salvation of the black man.
Playboy: Is there anything, in your opinion, that could be done to expedite the social and economic progress of the Negro?
Malcolm X: First of all, the white man must finally realize that he's the one who has committed the crimes that have produced the miserable condition our people are in. Elijah Muhammad is warning this generation of white people that they, too, face a time of harvest in which they will have to pay for the crimes committed when their forefathers made slaves of us.
But there is something the white man can do to avert this fate. He must atone. This can only be done by allowing black men to leave this land of bondage and go to a land of their own. But if he doesn't want a mass movement of our people away from this house of bondage, then he should separate this country. He should give us several states here on American soil where we can set up our own government, our own economic system, our own civilization. Since we have given over 300 years of our slave labor to the white man's America, helped to build it up for him, it's only right that white America should give us everything we need in finance and materials for the next 25 years, until our own nation is able to stand on its feet. In the white world there has been nothing but slavery, suffering, death and colonialism. In the black world of tomorrow, there will be true freedom, justice and equality for all. And that day is coming, sooner than you think.
Playboy: If Muslims ultimately gain control, as you predict, do you plan to bestow "true freedom" on white people?
Malcolm X: It's not a case of what we would do, it's a case of what God would do with whites. What does a judge do with the guilty? Either the guilty atone, or God executes judgment.
The interview was incendiary stuff, but Playboy published it in May 1963, just the way Malcolm had given it to me. It was the most controversial interview that Playboy had run up to that time, and readers reacted with shock and outrage. Perhaps more importantly, the interview propelled Malcolm X—almost overnight—into the national limelight, where he proceeded to command the stage as if to the manor born.
Within months Malcolm had accepted an offer to tell his life story in a book—"to help people appreciate better how Mr. Muhammad salvages black people"—and he wanted me to help him write it. Me, not only a writer for the white press but also a practicing Christian—another Muslim anathema. Malcolm had never shown the slightest warmth toward me, nor had he volunteered a shred of information about his personal life. But perhaps after working together on a couple projects, he felt enough trust to begin telling the truth about himself.
No such luck. "I don't completely trust anyone, not even myself," he told me one night early on in the book collaboration. "You I trust about twenty-five percent." But that was before he passed a white friend of mine leaving my Greenwich Village apartment as he was coming in one evening for an interview session with me. From then on, the moment he arrived, Malcolm—convinced that the FBI was bugging us—would announce sarcastically: "Testing, one, two, three, four." He would then proceed to pace the room like a caged tiger, haranguing me nonstop for the next three or four hours while I filled my notebooks with scalding Muslim rhetoric and worshipful praise of "the Honorable Elijah Muhammad." This went on four nights a week for a month or more, with Malcolm addressing me as "Sir" and bristling with irritation whenever I tried to remind him that the book was supposed to be about him. I was almost ready to call the publisher to suggest that they either abandon the project or hire another writer, when the night arrived when we both became fed up at the same time. I had been pressing him particularly hard to open up about anything, when he threw on his coat, jerked open the front door and stormed out into the hall, his hand on the knob to slam the door shut, probably for the last time. I heard myself saying, mostly in desperation, "Mr. Malcolm, I wonder if you could tell me anything about your mother."
Malcolm stopped in his tracks and slowly came back inside. He began walking and talking almost dreamily. "It's funny you should ask me that," he said. "I remember the kind of dresses she used to wear. They were always old and gray and faded. I remember how she was always bent over the stove, trying to stretch what little we had. We stayed so hungry we were half dizzy all the time." Pure poetry. He went on that way until daybreak. I didn't have to say another word. From that night on, and for the next two years, it all came pouring out of him, the whole amazing story of his life.
In 1929, four years after Malcolm was born to Baptist minister Earl Little and his wife, Louise, the family's home in Lansing, Michigan, was burned to the ground by white racists in retaliation for Reverend Little's involvement in Marcus Garvey's pan-African black independence movement. Two years Later, Malcolm told me, Reverend Little was run over and killed in a trolley-car "accident." Mrs. Little struggled for six years to fend for herself and her eight children but finally suffered a breakdown. When she was institutionalized, the family fell apart and the children were split up.
Twelve-year-old Malcolm, living with family friends, was elected class president of his predominantly white junior high school and graduated with highest honors. But when he told a teacher he wanted to be a lawyer, the man said, "You've got to be realistic about being a nigger," and Malcolm dropped out of school.
And into a life of crime. After drifting through a series of menial jobs, he emerged with a new persona as "Detroit Red," a street hustler in Boston's black Roxbury district. From Roxbury he graduated to pimp and drug dealer in Harlem. He had moved into the big time as head of his own burglary ring, when he was arrested and sent to prison in 1946. It was during his six-year sentence that he underwent a spiritual rebirth. He gave up "the evils of tobacco, liquor, drugs, crime and the flesh of the swine" and joined the Black Muslims, abandoning his "slave name" Little and adopting a new identity as Malcolm X, minister of Islam.
He had been preaching the gospel to a rapidly multiplying flock ever since. I didn't fully grasp how many were in the flock, or how deeply they cared about Malcolm, until he began to take me along on what he called his "daily rounds" of the Harlem streets. A matinee idol, a homeboy among his own people, Malcolm strode along the sidewalks greeting everyone he met, that angry glower he wore for the cameras softening into a boyish grin. "Brother," he told a wino amiably, "Whitey likes you drunk so he'll have an excuse to put a club upside your head." Or, "Sisters," he said with courtly charm to a group of ladies sitting on a stoop, "let me ask you something. Have you ever known one white man who didn't do something to you or take something from you?"
"I sure ain't!" one of the ladies replied, and the others burst out in laughter.
I also remember passing a raggedy street musician one night who was huddled on a side street strumming on his battered old guitar and singing to himself. Recognizing Malcolm, he leaped to his feet and snapped into a respectful mock salute. "Huh-ho!" he exclaimed. "My man!"
That's the way it was everywhere we went. The people loved Malcolm. And it was obvious that the feeling was mutual.
But no one loved him more than the young black men of Harlem, who held him in awe. One of my most indelible memories of the time I spent with Malcolm was the day I was riding with him in his car and there was a screeching of brakes. Malcolm was out the door, bounding to the curb. Before I could gather my wits, he was looming over three young men who were shooting craps on the steps of the city library. Inside that library, Malcolm told them sternly, people of other races and colors were studying the Schomberg Collection, the greatest archive of black literature in the world. "They are studying about your people," Malcolm admonished, "and the best you can do is sit out here shooting craps against the door. You should be ashamed of yourselves!"
What was so impressive to me about this—knowing what I did about the Harlem street community—was that no one else could have spoken that way to those three young toughs without endangering his life. Yet they knew full well who was tongue-lashing them, and without a word they averted their eyes and slunk away as he stood glaring after them. I have often wished that more young black people would heed the message in that incident.
By this time, Malcolm had begun meeting me at J.F.K. Airport when I would arrive home from trips. He would drive me back into Manhattan, where we would continue our work on the book. Our interview sessions had reached a level of intimacy I would never have dreamed possible. There were moments of tenderness in many of the stories he told. I remember one night in particular when Malcolm laughingly recalled doing the lindy in Harlem ballrooms. He actually grabbed a wall pipe in the corner of my apartment and danced around it before regaining his composure. It was during this period that my phone rang one night at two or three a.m., and a familiar voice said, "I trust you seventy percent." And then he hung up.
Malcolm never breathed a word to me about the intense personal stress and hardships he was undergoing. Despite his passionate following in the ghetto—and perhaps because of it—Malcolm was making powerful enemies. Not just with Klansmen and neo-Nazis but with U.S. government officials who feared that his extremism might provoke the racial Armageddon he predicted would occur. But perhaps the most ominous threat of all came from those surrounding Elijah Muhammad. "Malcolm got to be a big man," Muhammad had said. "I made him big." Malcolm was not only beginning to eclipse his mentor but also to draw federal heat upon the Muslim organization. I would later find out that Muhammad had suspended Malcolm from his duties. The bitterness Malcolm felt over this rift precipitated him to question his commitment to the white-baiting separatism that made him and the Muslims a symbol of confrontational racism and hatred.
"The young whites, and blacks, too, are the only hope that America has," Malcolm said to me after an exhilarating evening of give-and-take before the white student body of a local college. Another day, in his car, we had stopped at a traffic light beside a car with a white driver who recognized Malcolm and called 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 called back sincerely, "I wish I could have a white chapter of people like you!" But as we drove away, Malcolm said to me, "Never repeat that. Mr. Muhammad would have a fit."
But the damage to their relationship was already done. Although Malcolm had avoided the press ever since his suspension, rankling with the frustration of enforced inactivity, his reputation had assumed a life of its own. I began to hear—never from him—about reports of threats on Malcolm's life.
Finally, Malcolm went to the press himself, telling the Amsterdam News that former close associates in his Harlem mosque had sent out "a special squad to try to kill me in cold blood." But he said he had learned of the plot in time and averted it by confronting his intended assassins and forcing them to back down. When I called to express my concern, Malcolm said, "I can take care of myself," explaining to me that he had a loaded rifle in his home. "Still, I'm a marked man, Haley. If I'm alive when this book comes out, it will be a miracle." Any money due him from the autobiography, he said, should go either to his wife, Betty, or to Muslim Mosque, Incorporated, a new organization he was forming. He told me he intended to waste no time drawing up a will.
Malcolm sent a note informing me that he was leaving the country for a while—"on a pilgrimage to the Holy City of Mecca." A few weeks later, I received an astonishing letter from him: "I have eaten from the same plate, drunk from the same glass, prayed to the same God, with fellow Muslims whose eyes were the bluest of blue, whose hair was the blondest of blond, whose skin was the whitest of white, and truly we were all the same."
He returned from his journey a new man with a new name, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. He had converted to true Islam and committed himself to a new cause, his nonsectarian, nonreligious Organization of Afro-American Unity. Disavowing the racism of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm embraced a deeply felt new belief in the possibility of mutual respect between blacks and whites. "My trip to Mecca opened my eyes," he told reporters at a crowded press conference. "I have adjusted my thinking to the point where I believe that whites are human beings, as long as this is borne out by their humane attitude toward Negroes." Could any whites join the OAAU? "If John Brown were alive, maybe him." But Malcolm certainly hadn't been transformed into a nonviolent moderate. Vowing to send armed guerrillas to Mississippi—or to any place where black people's lives were threatened by white bigots—he added, "As far as I'm concerned, Mississippi is anywhere south of the Canadian border."
After a second trip to Africa, Malcolm returned to announce, "I'm trying to internationalize our problem, to make the Africans feel their kinship with their blood brothers in America." I had also heard that Malcolm had urged several African heads of state to sanction the U.S. in the United Nations and to call for an international tribunal on human rights. That never came to pass, but it was becoming clear that the new Malcolm might be viewed by certain special interests as more militant and dangerous than the old one. Indeed, Malcolm thought so.
The death threats escalated into actual attempts on Malcolm's life, a succession of increasingly close calls that culminated in a high-speed chase by followers of Elijah Muhammad. According to a friend who was riding with him, Malcolm picked up his walking cane and stuck it out the car window as if it were a rifle, and the assailants fell back long enough for Malcolm to reach police protection.
Soon afterward, Malcolm and his family were asleep in their Long Island home when, at about three a.m., a Molotov cocktail was thrown through the front window and set fire to the house. He had been stalling eviction by the Muslims, who owned the house, but his pregnant wife and their three children now had to take refuge with family friends while Malcolm scrambled to cover a small down payment on another house. "All I've got is about a hundred and fifty dollars," he told me on the phone, asking if I could persuade the publisher to advance him the $4000 he needed from the projected profits from the book.
For several weeks, Malcolm had been pitching himself back into the book with a sense of urgency, reviewing the final draft of the manuscript in a race to see it finished—"before they finish me." He was tormented, but less by fear of death than by the pain of being rebuffed by his own people. "I'm still too militant for the moderates," he said, "but now I'm too moderate for the militants." He was groping for a positive new role for himself, yet he sensed he wouldn't live long enough to play it. A few days later, he told a friend, "It's a time for martyrs now. But if I'm to be one, it will be in the cause of brotherhood."
A week later, Malcolm called Betty at home to tell her that the phone in his New York hotel room had just rung, and a man he didn't know had said, "Wake up, brother," and then hung up.
"You'd better not bring the kids to that meeting today," Malcolm told his wife. He would be speaking that afternoon in the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. Betty went anyway, taking the children along, and watched in horror while four men leaped to their feet and gunned down her husband.
Malcolm was reviled as a hate-mongering demagogue and revered as a martyr to the cause of freedom. Yet, in death he "cast a spell even more far-flung and more disturbing," wrote the NAACP's Roy Wilkins, "than any he cast in life." At his funeral, Malcolm was eulogized as "our great black shining prince," and pictures of "Saint Malcolm" began to appear in homes from Harlem to the mud-and-wattle huts of Africa.
Even now, a generation later, the legend he left behind remains larger than life. Black rap groups chant his words like a litany, black teenagers wear T-shirts emblazoned with his face and black mothers name their children after him. Streets and colleges have been named in his memory. The autobiography I helped him write has become required reading in many university curriculums, more widely read by black people than any work in history other than Roots and the Bible. Even now, 27 years after Malcolm's death, people ask me as many questions about Malcolm X as they do about Kunta Kinte. And that number has risen dramatically since Spike Lee started production on a controversial 30 million dollar motion picture based in part on my story of Malcolm's life. Just the announcement of Lee's plan to shoot the film triggered threats from militant black groups. Poet Imamu Amiri Baraka derided Lee as a "buppie" and vowed not to "let Malcolm X's life be trashed to make middle-class Negroes sleep easier." But I doubt that any moviemaker in the world could either script or direct a film biography of Malcolm that would satisfy all the diverse groups that consider themselves rightful keepers of the flame.
Providentially, Malcolm lived long enough to return from Mecca with a vision of peaceful coexistence between the races—a vision he shared, ultimately, with his nonviolent counterpart, Martin Luther King. It was a vision left unfulfilled. But the things Malcolm X and Martin Luther King stood for—fierce pride, unflinching courage, absolute determination to win freedom from injustice—are as potent today as they were when both men were alive.
And now, just as John F. Kennedy once said, the torch has been passed to a new generation. Malcolm's daughter Attallah has joined with King's daughter Yolanda to form an organization called Nucleus, which travels the country showcasing programs of unity within the black community. It is a symbolic and symbiotic partnership: Malcolm was a champion of defiance, King an apostle of peace. Both men were tragically struck down and now live on in the hearts of their people, intertwined, indivisible, immortal. ~ Alex Haley.
(Malcolm X Remembered by Alex Haley is presented under the Creative Commons License. It was originally published in the July 1992 issue of Playboy. © 1992 Playboy Enterprises International, Inc. © 1993 by Ballantine Books. All Rights Reserved.)
Alex Haley Remembers Malcolm X
(An Interview With David Gallen, October 1991)
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. It was originally published in A Malcolm X Reader by Carroll and Graf Publishers, Inc. © 1994 David Gallen. All Rights Reserved.)
Now that you have read and heard everything about Malcom X by Alex Haley, go and read: The Autobiography of Malcolm X: Epilogue