Remembering Malcom X 50 years later
The controversial activist, who inspired many and infuriated others, was gunned down Feb. 21, 1965, at the Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights
Harlem was ready to explode.
It was just before midnight on April 26, 1957, and at least 4,000 protesters were massed outside the 28th Precinct stationhouse on Eighth Ave.
Hours earlier, 32-year-old Johnson Hinton and two friends had been walking along W. 125th St. when they spotted two cops beating another black man with nightsticks.
“You’re not in Alabama!” yelled Hinton and his pals. “This is New York!”
The officers turned their nightsticks on Hinton, a member of the Nation of Islam, delivering several crushing blows to his head and face.\
Hinton, despite suffering lacerations on his scalp and bleeding on the brain, was now being held inside the four-story, red-brick 28th Precinct police station.
The crowd was growing impatient. A race riot seemed imminent.
A ripple of excitement swept through the crush of people when a 6-foot-3 man in a black suit and spectacles showed up and strode inside the stationhouse. The demonstrators, many of whom were Nation of Islam members, knew exactly who he was.
The fiery head of the Nation’s new Harlem mosque, Malcolm was allowed to see Hinton. But the cops refused to return the battered man to the hospital.
Malcolm, sensing an impasse, stepped outside the stationhouse and flashed a hand signal to his Nation of Islam followers. They immediately started marching off — silent and stern — like an Army battalion having just received orders from their general.
The rest of the crowd followed.
A group of NYPD cops watched the scene in awe.
“No one man should have that much power,” one officer told Amsterdam News editor James Hicks.
Hinton was released in the morning — after the Nation paid his $2,500 bail — and taken to Harlem Hospital.
The striking show of force introduced the nation to Malcolm X.
Incendiary, influential and often polarizing, Malcolm led the black nationalist movement with a clenched fist and biting tongue.
His rejection of integration and insistence on black liberation “by any means necessary” made him a hero to large swaths of black people.
To many others, he was seen as a villain and a menace. The militant, anti-establishment rhetoric Malcolm preached sent shivers of fear down the spines of many whites and alarmed some African-Americans.
“Other black leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King included, all engaged in tailoring their language to minimize negative reactions from white America,” said Russell Adams, professor emeritus of African-American studies at Howard University. “Malcolm said in his fashion what many blacks thought and said among themselves.”
Fifty years after his assassination, Malcolm X remains one of the most controversial figures of the 20th century.
His short, turbulent life was marked by a series of remarkable transformations.
He was a pot-smoking, skirt-chasing criminal in his teens — only to reinvent himself in prison as a self-taught intellectual and deeply committed Muslim and disciple of Elijah Muhammad.
He called for racial separation and cast whites as “devils” — only to renounce the Nation of Islam years later and champion “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all people.”
Like the man, the public perception of Malcolm has also undergone a transformation.
Once viewed as a racist demagogue, Malcolm is now viewed by many as an American icon. His face even adorns a postage stamp.
How Malcolm rose from a troubled orphan to a leading civil rights figure is one of history’s more unlikely stories.
His childhood was marred by tragedy. He was born Malcolm Little in Omaha on May 19, 1925 – the fourth of Earl and Louise Little’s seven children.
Earl, an outspoken Baptist minister, served as chapter president for Marcus Garvey’s black nationalism organization. Louise worked as the chapter secretary.
The Littles settled on a piece of farmland in a mostly white neighborhood in Lansing, Mich.
The neighbors were not pleased with the new arrivals. In 1929, months after they arrived, the Littles’ house was burned to the ground by a group of white men.
Earl moved his family to East Lansing.
One day in late September 1931, he left home and never came back. The 41-year-old father’s battered body was found underneath a streetcar in what the police ruled was an accident.
Malcolm, along with his other family members, became convinced that Earl was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan.
Following Earl’s sudden death, Louise struggled to provide for the family — and began to deteriorate physically and mentally.
In December of 1938, Louise was diagnosed as mentally ill and sent to a psychiatric hospital, where she’d remain for the next 26 years.
Malcolm ended up at juvenile home in Mason, Mich. Despite his troubled upbringing, Malcolm excelled in school.
But a chat with an eighth-grade English teacher led him to drop out. Malcolm had told him he dreamed of becoming a lawyer.
“A lawyer?” Malcolm’s teacher replied. “That’s no realistic goal for a n—-r.”
Malcolm moved to Boston to live with his half-sister, Ella. He worked a series of odd jobs – on the railroad, at shoeshine stands, and in nightclubs – but couldn’t resist the pull of street life.
Malcolm bought his first “zoot suit” and “conked” his hair. His first transformation was complete: He was now a full-time hustler.
In Boston, Malcolm was known as “New York Red” for his distinctive red hair. When he traveled to New York in search of easy scores, they called him “Detroit Red.”
He had a blonde girlfriend, a wardrobe of fancy clothes and a knack for getting people whatever it was they wanted – mainly drugs, booze and girls.
“He’d get money from the women for bringing in the customer and he’d get money from the customer for taking him to the women,” Malcolm’s nephew, Rodnell Collins, said. “That was what he did. That was his hustle.”
Malcolm’s life of crime came to an abrupt end in January of 1946. The previous month, he and a motley crew of misfits launched a burglary spree in Boston.
The crew – which included his hustler pal Malcolm “Shorty” Jarvis, his white girlfriend and two of her friends – was busted after Malcolm tried to buy back a $1,000 watch from a pawnshop.
The white women received slaps on the wrist. Malcolm and “Shorty” were sentenced to eight to 10 years behind bars.
Prison would prove to be Malcolm’s salvation.
While locked up in Massachusetts, he met the man who would change his life – a former burglar named John Elton Bembry.
Bembry’s intellect inspired Malcolm. He started devouring books and memorized all the words in a prison dictionary.
In 1948, his brother Philbert sent him a letter saying the family had converted to Islam. Malcolm began corresponding with Elijah Muhammad.
Towards the end of his term, Malcolm had developed into a dazzling speaker and devoted Muslim.
“I don’t think anybody ever got more out of going to prison than I did,” he would say later.
Malcolm, after six and half years in prison, was paroled in August of 1952. He was accepted into the Nation of Islam a month later. Malcolm X was born.
His talent as an orator made him a master recruiter. He was sent up and down the East Coast, preaching a message of black empowerment and articulating the frustration of poor and working class African Americans in a way no one had done before.
“Stop sweet-talking (the white man),” Malcolm said. “Tell him how you feel. Tell him how — what kind of hell you’ve been catching and let him know that if he’s not ready to clean his house up, he shouldn’t have a house. It should catch on fire and burn down.”
Membership in the Nation began to soar – and in June 1954 Malcolm was sent to New York to run Harlem’s Mosque No. 7.
It was there that he met his future wife Betty Sanders. They would go on to have six daughters but their courtship was anything but conventional: Malcolm proposed from a payphone at a Detroit gas station.
Throughout the late 1950s, his influence grew. His aggressive oratory conflicted with the message of Martin Luther King, Jr.
“The goal of Dr. Martin Luther King is to give Negroes a chance to sit in a segregated restaurant beside the same white man who had brutalized them for 400 years,” Malcolm said in a TV interview.
In New York, Malcolm X stood on street corners and preached to anyone who would listen. On a sultry June day in 1962, a recent Manhattan transplant named Peter Bailey happened to come upon one of Malcolm’s open-air sermons.
“He was the first person I ever heard in my life who talked as much about the psychological attacks of white supremacy as the physical attacks,” said Bailey, now 76.
“By the time he finished, I was a Malcolm-ite.”
By then, Malcolm had built the Nation of Islam into a potent force with more than 50,000 members. But his bond with Elijah Muhammad started coming undone by the end of the year.
Malcolm’s unflinching devotion to Muhammad was shaken when he learned the Nation of Islam founder had committed adultery with several secretaries.
The divide between the two men widened in late 1963 after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Malcolm, defying Muhammad’s order to stay mum on Kennedy’s death, called the killing a case of “the chickens coming home to roost.”
Muhammad’s response was swift and severe: Malcolm was removed as minister of Harlem Mosque No. 7 and ordered to remain silent for 90 days.
Tensions grew worse as Muhammad feared Malcolm was going to form a new group with his budding protégé, Cassius Clay.
In March 1964, Malcolm officially left the Nation and vowed to build a “politically oriented black nationalist party.”
For Malcolm’s close observers, his departure from the Nation wasn’t a total surprise. While Muhammad instructed his followers to ignore the political structure, Malcolm had slowly started to believe civic engagement was vital in reversing the plight of blacks.
“It’s going to be the ballot or the bullet,” he said in one of his most famous speeches.
But now, Malcolm was publicly denouncing Muhammad as an adulterer and building a rival organization. Such attacks on the Nation, Malcolm knew, had put his life in danger.
Malcolm, shortly after his famed “Ballot or the Bullet” speech, left the country for a five-week tour of the Middle East and Africa. It was after he completed a pilgrimage to Mecca that he underwent his final transformation.
Malcolm returned to the U.S. with a new name – El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz – a new faith – orthodox Islam – and a new mission – to become an international champion for human rights.
He urged whites and blacks to “sit down at the same table” and “take an intelligent approach to getting the problem solved.”
It was a remarkable shift for a man who once said: “History fails to record one single instance in which the white man – as a people – did good.
They have always been devils; they always will be devils, and they are about to be destroyed.”
Malcolm’s new outlook did nothing to stem the Nation’s fury.
His home in East Elmhurst, Queens, was firebombed on Feb. 14, 1965 – an attack that nearly killed pregnant Betty and their four daughters.
Malcolm sent his family to live with close friend Tom Wallace, the brother of actress Ruby Dee, at his home in Queens.
On the night of Feb. 20, Malcolm dropped off Betty at Wallace’s place and stayed for several hours. It was close to midnight when Malcolm, his older half-sister Ella Collins and his nephew Rodnell Collins piled into his Oldsmobile for a private talk.
Malcolm was set to address a meeting of his new group – the Organization of Afro-American Unity – the next day at the Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights.
“There were things in the air,” Rodnell Collins, now 70, said.
“We really didn’t want him to go and speak the next day, but Uncle Malcolm wanted to address the believers and the community and he was just not going to turn away.”
Ella, Rodnell recalled, was pleading with Malcolm to come with her to Boston to get away from the dangers in New York.
“He had said to my mom, ‘If I run, What would I look like running from my children? What would they think of their father?’’” Rodnell recalled.
The conversation ended in the early morning hours of Feb. 21. Rodnell never saw his uncle again.
Malcolm was shot dead at the Audubon Ballroom moments after he took the stage. He was 39.
Three men were arrested in the slaying – all Nation of Islam members – but the mystery over who else was involved and who orchestrated the assassination has persisted.
At Malcolm’s funeral in Harlem, actor Ossie Davis eulogized the man he called “our shining prince.”
“They will say that he is of hate — a fanatic, a racist—who can only bring evil to the cause for which you struggle,” Davis said. “And we will answer and say to them: Did you ever talk to Brother Malcolm? Did you ever touch him, or have him smile at you?”
“Did you ever really listen to him? Did he ever do a mean thing? Was he ever himself associated with violence or any public disturbance? For if you did, you would know him. And if you knew him, you would know why we must honor him.”
Even 50 years ago, it was clear Malcolm was leaving behind a complicated legacy. But one thing beyond dispute was his bravery.
Malcolm never relented in his fight for equal rights – even when the threat of death was staring him in the eyes. “It is a time for martyrs now, and if I am to be one, it will be for the cause of brotherhood,” Malcolm said two days before his assassination. “That’s the only thing that can save this country.