By Linda Tarrant-ReidOriginally published in The Westchester County Press, April 21, 2011
I recently read about historian and scholar Manning Marable passing away, just days before the publication of his controversial book Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. Marable, a professor at Columbia University, was the author of several books on race in America. He had spent years researching and writing the Malcolm X biography using FBI and CIA documents, new interviews and recently discovered primary source material. The book has ignited a firestorm of commentary, which is not surprising considering the subject.
All of the coverage took me back to when I was a teenager in New York in the 1960s when Malcolm was holding rallies on 7th Avenue and 125th Street in front of Micheaux’s National Memorial African Bookstore. I remember Saturdays, when I worked in my father’s grocery store in New Rochelle; he would have the radio tuned to Malcolm’s rally. My one vivid recollection is of a broadcast in which Malcolm described black separatism and how the black man was like strong black coffee and when you add milk to coffee it weakens it. My Dad respected Malcolm X and his call for self-determination and the self-sufficiency of the black race. My father would buy Muhammad Speaks every Saturday and give the Muslim brothers a space in his store to sell their bean pies. As a product of the south, my dad understood the importance of not relying on anyone, except perhaps his family to achieve his goals.
Malcolm’s black nationalist rhetoric did not strike a chord with my teen-aged self. It made me uncomfortable, maybe because what he was saying was too close to some truths I was just beginning to take in. I had dismissed him as a hot-headed radical who chided the leaders of the civil rights movement as being Uncle Toms because of their more measured approach to breaking down barriers. It, of course, was more complicated than that. I hadn’t really embraced the civil rights strategy of passive resistance either.
As I matured and learned more about both approaches to our struggle for independence, I began to appreciate the Malcolms and the Martins. I also discovered that sometimes what you read is not necessarily how it really is. The media had set Malcolm and Martin against each other – the raving radical and the peaceful preacher. It sold newspapers and increased Nielsen ratings. Malcolm X definitely voiced his disapproval of the integrationist philosophy of the Civil Rights Movement, but he did become more open in later years, especially after his break from the Nation of Islam and his hajj or spiritual journey to Mecca in April of 1964. Malcolm formed The Muslim Mosque Inc. in March before he traveled to Mecca and the Organization for Afro-American Unity in June after his return to the United States. These organizations were pivotal in advancing his political agenda.
Prior to that, there was evidence of Malcolm’s expanding perspective when he reached out to the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement in a letter to Whitney Young of the Urban League. Dated July 31, 1963, Malcolm invited Young and black leaders including Dr. King, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., James Farmer, A. Philip Randolph, Ralph Bunche, James Forman and others to speak at a rally in August at 116th Street and Lenox Avenue. The purpose was to form a “United Front”. Malcolm urged the leaders to “submerge our ‘minor differences’ in order to seek a common solution to a common problem posed by a common enemy.”
Almost a year later, June 1964, Malcolm sent Dr. King a telegram while he was jailed in St. Augustine, Florida for attempting to integrate a whites-only motel and restaurant. Malcolm wrote: “We have been witnessing with great concern the vicious attack of the white races against our poor defenseless people there in St. Augustine. If the Federal Government will not send troops for your aid, just say the word and we will immediately dispatch some [of] our brothers there to organize self-defense units…”.
Malcolm X’s evolution from Black Nationalist to Pan-Africanist to human rights activist was fraught with incredible personal challenges. Writers and historians will be revisiting and revising the narrative of Malcolm X’s life as more and more research is made available through his personal papers, undiscovered archival material, and accounts from new . It is up to each of us to read carefully these accounts and take from them what we can.
For me, Malcolm X’s contribution to the history of black America is immeasurable. Revisions to Malcolm’s personal history may be interesting to some, but it should not detract from his legacy. What matters is Malcolm’s tremendous personal sacrifice, his advocacy of self-determination for African Americans, and his fight for human rights on a global level.