Malcolm X, in the Days Before the Assassination
Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
February 25, 1965, Vol. X, No. 19
Malcolm X: The Complexity Of a Man in the Jungle
The following article was written by Marlene Nadle for The Voice shortly prior to the assassination of Malcolm X. It is based on hours of interviewing Malcolm X at his Hotel Theresa office and attendance at rallies at the Audubon Ballroom and Manhattan Center.
The article is presented exactly as it was originally written. No attempt has been made to make it conform to the events of Sunday at the Audubon Ballroom.
By Marlene Nadle
Malcolm X has three faces. One is turned toward Africa, one toward Harlem, and one toward Washington.
His masks are more numerous. They are juggled by both the actor and his audience. He's a charismatic leader. Then a cartoon figure waving a rifle. He's a racist. Then a Black National gone white. A symbol of hope and Father Divine. An anti-semite and a preacher of brotherhood. An extremist and a man to move the Movement.
In Harlem the people watch the performance.
The black politicians mark the trickle of converts going through the glass doors of the Organization of Afro-American Unity he formed after the split with the Black Muslims in March, 1964. they wait to see if it signals a flood, now that the gates are open to non-Muslims, and now that a separate black state is no longer the destination.
The politicians will not completely associate themselves with him. Nor will they disassociate themselves. The untested potential of Malcolm X keeps people like Adam Clayton Powell careful friends.
A cross-section of Harlem comes to measure the man and his methods on Sunday nights at Audubon Ballroom. Seated on 500 wooden folding chairs are the disinherited people who never had any hope or answers and those, whether Nationalist or non-violent activist, who have run out of both. There are children looking for pride, and there are many older church-goers who, unlike Mahalia Jackson, can't sing, "I found the answer, I learned to pray."
In the bars and grills -- Small's and Jock's and the Shalimar on Seventh Avenue, the Palm's and Frank's on 125th Street -- the debate goes on.
"Malcolm is a genius," said a man at the bar in the Shalimar. "All he cares about is Malcolm X and money."
"Malcolm is a creation of the white press," said a doctor in Frank's.
"Malcolm is a genius," said a lawyer in the back room at Jock's. "He is the most brilliant speaker I have ever heard."
"Malcolm X is a loser," said another man at Jock's. "He'll have to do a lot better than he's doing if he wants to make it in Harlem."
Down the street from Jock's in his Hotel Theresa headquarters, sat the subject of the debate. With hislong frame hunched over a phone in his closet-like inner office, Malcolm made arrangements to speak at Harlem Hospital. He fumbled through the pockets of his dark three-button suit, through his vest and his attache case looking for his pen. Then, hanging up, he pressed his fingers against his eyes and rested.
Remembering the interviewer he apologized and said, "I usually try and get four hours sleep at night. Last night I didn't make it."
The young executive in charge of revolution complained about the pace. About days that too often ran fro 9 a.m. to 5 a.m.
Then the mutual testing began. With a half-smile Malcolm said, "A lot of people have warned me about the Village Voice. It's supposed to be a liberal paper, but they say it is very narrow."
"Some people on the staff think you're a con man," I said, and waited for the reaction.
It exploded out of the chair. Now on his feet, he said, "If I wanted to be just a con man, I wouldn't be fool enough to try it on these streets where people are looking for my life, where I can't walk around after dark. If I wanted power, I could have gone anywhere in the world. They offered me jobs in all the African countries.
"Muhammed is the man, with his house in Phoenix, his $200 suits, and his harem. He didn't believe in the black state or in getting anything for the people. That's why I got out."
Do you feel a distorted image of you was created by the press?
"It was created by them and me. The reporters came with preconceived answers to their questions. They were looking for sensationalism, for something that would sell papers, and I gave it to them. If they had asked probing intelligent questions, they would have gotten different answers."
Why encourage the distortion?
"It's useful. The only person who can organize the man in the streets is the one who is unacceptable to the white community. They don't trust the other kind. They don't know how controls his actions."
The man in the street is the one Malcolm has described as living on the bottom of the social heap. The one who has given up all hope, all ambition, all plans. The one who says, like the old blues song, "I've been down so long till down don't bother me."
Did he plan to use hate to organize the people?
"I won't permit you to call it hate. Let's say I'm going to create an awareness of what has been done to them. This awareness will produce an abundance of energy, both negative and positive, that an then be channeled constructively."
Like the trade-union organizer, Malcolm wants to aggravate the people's frustration and discontent until anger overcomes apathy and they act on their own behalf. This will be done primarily by attacking the whites' treatment of Negroes.
The Jew would seem to be an inevitable scapegoat for his attack. For the Jew, like the policeman, is a visible white in the life of the ghetto. Harlem sees them both not only in terms of their own deeds or misdeeds, but as walking symbols of all whites. It's easy to stir a black audience on both subjects. And stir them is what Malcolm wants to do.
"The greatest mistake of the Movement," he said, "has been trying to organize a sleeping people around specific goals. You have to wake the people up first then you'll get action."
Wake them up to their exploitation?
"No, to their humanity, their own worth, and to their heritage. The biggest difference between the parallel oppression of the Jew and the Negro is that the Jew never lost his pride in being a Jew. He never ceased to be a man. He knew he had made a significant contribution to the world, and his sense of his own value gave him the courage to fight back. It enabled him to act and think independently, unlike our people and our leaders."
To compensate for the pride and heritage that was aborted by slavery, on almost all occasions, but especially at his Sunday meetings, Malcolm assumes the role of teacher.
Unwinding himself from a hand microphone, without any formal introduction, he comes before his class at the Audubon Ballroom. He chats and kids with them for a while and then gets on with the lessons.
He shows them films of Africa he took on his trip last summer. He tells them, "We have got to get over the brainwashing we had. No matter how much of an Africanist we are, it is hard for us to think of Africa as anything but a place for Tarzan. Look at these films and get out of your mind what the Man put in it."
Narrating from a chair in the first row, he points out the beaches and skyscraping cities and says, "They told us there was nothing but jungle over there. Why, the only jungle I ever saw was right here in New York City."
He reads them an article about James Farmer in the U.S. News and World Report. He attacks the magazine for being anti-black like all the press, but he tells his pupils to read it. "Read everything," he said. "You never know where you're going to get an idea. We have to learn how to think. We have to use our heads as well as our bodies in a revolution."
He urges them to watch the kinds of books being used in the schools. "If when we were coming up," he said, "we had a better idea of Africa and our past, we would think for ourselves."
He closes the meeting with the announcement that child-care classes are going to be taught at the OAAU office.
Before this black audience, Malcolm has a different sound. The extensive vocabulary, the precise grammar, the level resonant voice go. Even the rhythm changes.
Was it deliberate? I asked him. "Sure," he said. "Different audiences have different rhythms. You have to be able to play them, if you don't want to put the people to sleep."
...The people he feels that can best help are the students, both black and white. But he considers all militants whites possible allies.
He qualifies the possibility. And woven into the qualifications are the threads of the emotions running through Harlem.
"If we are going to work together, the blacks must take the lead in their own fight. In phase one, the whites led. We're going into phase two now."
"This phase will be full of rebellion and hostility. Blacks will fight whites for the right to make decisions that affect the struggle in order to arrive at their manhood and self-respect."
"The hostility is good," Malcolm said. "It's been bottled up too long. When we stop always saying yes to Mr. Charlie and turning the hate against ourselves, we will begin to be free."
...It's over the tactics of violence vs. non-violence -- or, as Malcolm puts it, self-defense vs. masochism -- that he and other civil-rights leaders disagree. This difference is what has prevented the unity that he feels is one of the keys to the struggle.
"It's not that there is no desire for unity, or that it is impossible, or that they might not agree with me behind closed doors. It's because most of the organizations are dependent on white money and they are afraid to lose it.
"I spent almost a year not attacking them, saying let's get together, let's do something. But they're too scared. I guess I will have to go to the people first and let the leaders fall in behind them."
...As we spoke and drank the coffee he ordered, it became clear that there is one feature common to all Malcolm's masks. It's determination. Determination to solve the problems of his people at whatever cost. To smash through the deafness of the white world. To force into actions and words the range that is churning in the guts of the blacks.
On the train I rode downtown, that black rage broke free in one drunken Negro. He spit his anguish and obscenities into emotionless white faces.
For endless blocks the drunk shrieked against the sound of the subway, "You're full of shit! You're all full of shit! You're killing me! You mothers! You're killing me!"
That rage is what Malcolm wants to shape into a weapon to be used against the continued moral, spiritual, physical, political, cultural, and economic strangulation of the blacks.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956. Go here to see this article as it originally appeared in print.]
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in New York, delivered to your inbox.