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Malcolm X Remembered
(Malcolm X Remembered by Alex Haley was originally published in the July 1992 issue of Playboy Magazine. In addition, it was also published within Alex Haley: The Playboy Interviews by Ballantine Books in July 1993.)
Malcolm X Remembered
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 first published in the July 1992 issue of Playboy. © 1992 Playboy Enterprises International, Inc. © 1993 by Ballantine Books. All Rights Reserved.)