Malcolm X receiving gift from restaurant employee at 22 West on 135th street in Harlem after the birth of his fourth daughter, Gamilah Lamumah, on July 5, 1964.
Originally uploaded by Pan-African News Wire Photo File.
Ebony, Feb, 1993 [Originally published September 1964,
pp. 38-40, 42, 44-46]
Mystery of Malcolm X - Interview
Hans J. Massaquoi
Forwarded by Paul Lee
Shortly before his death, enigmatic leader revealed
his changed views on race and the liberation struggle
A HEAVY, dark-blue sedan stops at the curb on Seventh
Avenue [on Sunday, July 5, 1964 -- PL] where a small
group of men, women and children stands in sullen
silence around a pile of shabby furniture--the worldly
possessions of a family without a home. The scene is a
familiar one for that part of Harlem where poverty has
forced thousands of human beings to co-exist with
evictions, hunger and rats. It is a familiar and hated
as the patrols of White rookie cops who casually
saunter by, their billy clubs twirling with suggestive
At the sight of the driver, the expressions of
hopeless rage on the faces of the little crowd melt
into broad, deferential smiles. "Salaam aleikum,
Brother Malcolm." "Salaam aleikum."
With a wide, good-natured grin that bares a flawless
set of large teeth, the reddish complexioned,
scholarly looking man behind the wheel returns the
Muslim greeting. With deep-set, penetrating eyes
behind a pair of horn-rimmed glasses he surveys the
familiar scene. His voice sounds reassuring as he
reminds the people to attend "a very important meeting
tonight." After another exchange of "salaams," he
pulls from the curb and is soon swallowed up by the
dense traffic and the glare of the sun.
Around the nation, the name Malcolm X triggers mixed
emotions, but among the dispossessed masses of Harlem,
it inspires devotion and hope. Since his ouster from
the Black Muslim cult early this year--ostensibly for
calling President Kennedy's assassination a case of
"chickens coming home to roost"--he has pitted his own
prestige against that of his former chief, Elijah
Muhammad, in building a following of his own. In the
process, he has ripped the Black Muslim movement into
two hostile camps whose bloody encounters have become
the order of the day. Purged from the No. 2 spot he
used to occupy in the Black Muslim hierarchy, he is
now reaching for higher stakes-- participation in the
The entry of the firebrand advocate of bloody
retaliation into the rights struggle which, as far as
Blacks are concerned, has been largely non-violent, is
viewed by many Blacks and Whites with grave concern.
But in Harlem's tenements, where the pacific voice of
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is but a whisper, the new
power bid of Malcolm X is welcome news.
Minutes after leaving the eviction site, Brother
Malcolm--as he prefers to be called--turns up at a
small restaurant on West 135th Street. There is
nothing about his ingratiatingly polite demeanor, or
his loose-jointed six-foot-three frame to betray that
it is he who suggests taking on Mississippi's Ku Klux
Klan with armed guerrillas. His impeccable seer-sucker
suit and brief case make him a dead ringer for an
up-and-coming attorney, certainly not for a man about
to enter a revolt.
With gangling, yet purposeful strides, Brother Malcolm
walks to the rear of the narrow room where he joins a
Black reporter. Between sips of coffee and incessant
doodling he ponders the reporter's questions, then
lets loose with a barrage of replies.
"Is it true," the reporter wants to know, "that since
your recent pilgrimage to Mecca you no longer hold to
your earlier belief that all Whites are evil?"
Malcolm X looks thoughtfully at his large expressive
hands. "True--my trip to Mecca has opened my eyes. I
no longer subscribe to racism. I have adjusted my
thinking to the point where I believe Whites are human
beings--as long as this is borne out by their humane
attitude toward Negroes."
"Were you serious when you proposed to send armed
guerrillas into Mississippi to protect civil rights
"Dead serious. We will not only send them to
Mississippi, but to any place where Black people's
lives are threatened by White bigots. As far as I am
concerned, Mississippi is anywhere south of the
"How do you intend to carry out these plans?"
With my new Organization of Afro-American Unity, a
non-religious and non-sectarian group organized to
unite Afro-Americans for a constructive program toward
attainment of human rights."
"How strong, would you say, is your group at this
Again that ingratiating smile. "I'm not saying. You
know, the strongest part of the tree is the root. Once
you expose the root, the tree dies. You never expose
"Are you prepared to cooperate with other civil rights
"We will cooperate with any group that is for Black."
"Will you accept White members in your new
Malcolm X stiffens. "Definitely not." Then, after a
characteristic tuck at a stray whisker in his
reddish-blond moustache, he adds: "If John Brown were
still alive, we might accept him. But I'm definitely
not interested in non-violent Whites or non-violent
Blacks. If you show me a non-violent Negro, I'll show
you a Negro whose reflexes don't work, one who needs
Now the reporter wants to know whether Malcolm X
suggests using violence. The benign expression
vanishes and his eyes become fierce. "We don't
advocate violence, but non-violent tactics based
solely on morality can only succeed when you are
dealing with a basically moral people," he explains.
"A man who oppresses another man because of his color
is not moral. It is the duty of every Afro-American to
protect himself against mass murderers, bombers,
lynchers, floggers, brutalizers and exploiters. If the
government is unable or unwilling to protect us, we
reserve our right as citizens to defend ourselves by
whatever means necessary. A man with a rifle or club
can only be stopped by a person armed with a rifle or
club." The last two sentences are accompanied by a
staccato of thrusts with his ballpoint pen.
"Is it true that you were ousted by the Black Muslims
because of disparaging remarks about President
"That wasn't the reason at all. I was quoted out of
context, but I have made stronger statements before
and nobody objected. The real reason was jealousy of
my growing influence and my objections to a breakdown
of morality." He refers to the paternity suits filed
by two women in Los Angeles against 67-year-old Elijah
Muhammad in which they charge the cult leader with
having fathered their children while working for him
"What future do you foresee for the Black Muslim
"None. The only thing that held the movement together
was the image of mortality reflected by Mr. Muhammad."
Malcolm X pointedly omits "the honorable," a standard
prefix in his references to his former chief before
the break. "The Black Muslim movement will crumble,"
he continues, "because the organization is held
together by coercion, by a Gestapo-type police force
within its own ranks."
Malcolm looks at his wrist watch and rises. The
interview has come to an end.
Paradoxically, despite the flood of pronouncements
that pours from his lips, Malcolm X has remained an
enigma to the public, perhaps even to himself. Is he a
charlatan or savior, an opportunist or sincere leader
dedicated to the liberation of his race? Is he a
genius or a slickster with a gift for eloquence? Is
his power real or imagined by a sensation-mongering
press? Almost everybody ventures to guess, but nobody
To gauge Malcolm X, the man, requires an intimate
knowledge of the forces that shaped him--klan
brutality, hunger, slums, alcohol, dope, prostitution
and, finally, rehabilitation through Elijah Muhammad's
message of a pro-Black Allah. Above all, it calls for
an acquaintance with the Black Muslim movement which
he helped create and which, in turn, created him. It
is that group of people whose misery has caused them
to accept the rigid disciplines laid down by Elijah
Muhammad in order to escape the frustrations inherent
in being Black in White, race-conscious U.S.A. Their
utopian goal of building a separate state within the
boundaries of the United States has drawn
condescending smiles from both Whites and
integration-minded Blacks alike. But their militant
assertion to engage the "White devils" in a mortal
battle if attacked has not. It has made Whites uneasy
and struck a chord of empathy among Blacks throughout
the nation in all walks of life.
The man who became the most articulate proponent of
this militancy, who for 12 years spread Elijah
Muhammad's incendiary prophecy of doom for the White
race and salvation for Blacks, is Malcolm X. He was
born 39 years ago in Omaha, Neb., and given the name
Malcolm Little. His father, the Rev. Earl Little, an
obscure Baptist preacher, spent more time recruiting
followers for Marcus Garvey's back-to-Africa movement
than for Jesus Christ. There were 10 children (six
boys and four girls) in the Little clan.
Malcolm's opinion of "White devils" was formed early
in life, partially by events that occurred even before
he was born. "My father was the color of this," he
recalls, pointing to his Black shoes, "and my mother,
whose mother was raped by a White man, was light
enough to pass for White. I hate every drop of White
blood in me because it is the blood of a rapist."
He had hardly learned to walk when he heard his
mother's vivid accounts of being victimized by the Ku
Klux Klan. "My father was away on an organizing trip
and my mother was pregnant with me when klansmen on
horseback came looking for him in the middle of the
night. Before they left, they smashed every window in
The Rev. Little took the klan's "hint," and as soon as
Malcolm was born, he moved with his family to
Milwaukee, Wis., and resumed his organizing
activities. Before long he had made enough enemies
among Whites to find it advisable to skip town again.
This time, the Littles moved to Lansing, Mich., into
an all-White neighborhood. "We hadn't lived there a
year," Malcolm remembers, "when our home was burned to
the ground. Luckily we got out." The worst was yet to
come. Two years after the fire, the Rev. Little was
found bludgeoned to death under a street car. The
killing, Malcolm says, was officially listed as a
traffic accident. "I was only six years at the time,
but I had already learned that being a Negro in this
country was a liability."
When he was 11 years old, Malcolm, "dizzy from hunger
most of the time" ran away from home. Already, the
major portion of his formal education--most of it in
an all-White country school--was a matter of the past.
He tramped to Mason, Mich., where he moved in with a
sympathetic Black family. "Soon I was wayward and on
the way to reform school," he recalls. But fate
intervened in the form of a "White devil" in the guise
of a kind lady, the director of the detention home to
which he had been sent. "That woman liked me and let
me stay in her home with her family," Malcolm says.
"But she liked me like one likes a canary or
chihuahua--not like a human being." Tired of being a
White woman's "mascot," little Malcolm skipped town.
Somehow, he made it to the Boston home of a
half-sister, who promptly enrolled him in the eighth
grade of an all-boys school. "In those days," says
Malcolm, "I was very interested in little girls. So
when I looked around in my class and all I saw was
boys, I just walked out. I haven't been back to school
Malcolm began to roam the streets of Boston, finally
landed a job on the railroad by putting up his age. He
was 15 years old at the time, but "looked big and old
enough to pass for 21." Starting as a handyman in the
commissary, he eventually advanced to fourth cook--"a
euphemism for dishwasher." In that capacity he made
runs on the Colonial between Boston and Washington,
D.C., and later on the Yankee Clipper to New York. The
cooks and waiters he met on his runs took a liking to
the lanky, sandy-haired youth and treated him like a
peer. "That grew me up real fast," says Malcolm,
"because in those days, railroad men were about the
hippest people in town." During stops in New York, he
discovered and explored a strange and fascinating
world--Harlem. "Within a year on the road I had grown
so wild that waiters made bets that I wouldn't live
another year," he says.
Frequently neglecting his duties, he was fired from
his job. He no longer needed or, for that matter,
wanted one, because now he was a "man with
connections" on the way to the big time. The "big
time" was night clubs, bars and dance halls and his
"connections" were barkeeps, waiters, street walkers,
dope peddlers and pimps. "Anywhere there was a dance,"
he says, "I was there. I practically lived in night
clubs." At 18 Malcolm Little had become "Big Red." His
philosophy at the time: "The only thing that is wrong
is what you are caught doing wrong."
Although Harlem remained his regular beat, he still
traveled a great deal, using his void railroad pass
instead of money. "I could jive any train conductor
into letting me on," he says. "I had a jungle mind and
everything I did was done by instinct to survive."
He started smoking reefers and finally sold them. His
"jungle mind" did not let him stop there. "I knew all
the important and respected White people downtown.
They used to come to Harlem to get their kicks. Most
of them wanted Negro women and to get high; I got them
whatever they wanted. I used to sell Black women to
White men and White women to Black men," he admits.
Sensing the status value of "having" a White woman in
those days, he made sure to keep a liberal supply for
himself. "My respect for White people--particularly
White women--dropped lower and lower as I watched how
they carried on. Black women had to get drunk to do
what White women did sober."
Toward the end of 1945, Malcolm went to Boston. There,
easy money, and with it his luck, ran out. "I needed
some cash real bad," he remembers, "so I went to work
with my integrated burglar gang, including a woman.
One day, I took an expensive, stolen gold watch to a
jewelry store to have the crystal repaired. When I
went to pick it up, there was a cop waiting for me to
arrest me. I always carried a gun, but something told
me not to use it. That saved my life, for as we
reached the street, I saw that the place was
surrounded by cops. Had I used the gun, I would never
have left that store alive."
Malcolm was convicted for burglary and got eight to
ten years in the Charlestown State Prison in Boston.
When the judge sentenced him, he recalls, he cracked:
"This will teach you to stay away from White girls."
It not only taught him to stay away from White girls,
but from White people, period.
After a year in Charlestown State, he was transferred
to the Concord (Mass.) Reformatory and, after another
year, to the Norfolk (Mass.) Prison Colony. Even in
prison, he continued to stay "high" on dope and booze.
"You know," he says, "you can get anything in prison
that you can get in the streets if you know how to
operate." A cum laude graduate of Harlem's vice dens,
Malcolm knew "how to operate." The person he credits
with helping him "come down and get out of the fog bag
I was in" was a fellow prisoner--an atheist
intellectual. "At the time, the extent of my reading
was cowboy books," Malcolm admits. "This guy started
me reading serious books--you know, books with
intellectual vitamins." Soon Malcolm became the most
frequent visitor to the prison library, devouring
volume after volume, from Shakespeare to Hegel and
Kant. He beefed up his reading with correspondence
courses in English and German and by attending prison
school, a facility most prisioners patronized merely
to break the monotony of the cell. But Malcolm was a
serious student. "Language became an obsession with
me," he remembers. "I began to realize the meaning and
the power of words."
While in jail, Malcolm kept corresponding with his
brothers, Philbert and Reginald. Both had become
converts of Elijah Muhammad's Black Muslim cult. His
eldest brother, Reginald, wrote him that if he ever
wanted to get out of jail, he should "stop smoking and
eating hog." Having always looked up to his brother,
Malcolm took his advice. Within a year, after serving
77 months--just seven months short of seven
years--Malcolm was paroled.
The year was 1952 and Malcolm went to Detroit to live
with Philbert and Reginald. Eventually he, too, joined
the Black Muslims at Detroit Mosque No. 1.
Like all practicing Black Muslims, Malcolm shed his
"slave name," Little, and substituted it with an "X"
(for exslave). Along with his name, he shed his
vices--alcohol, nicotine, dope, women and "hog."
Obediently he prayed five times daily facing Mecca and
observed Elijah Muhammad's dictates of keeping "a
clean body, a clean mind, clean speech and a clean
home." The transformation was complete. The "Christian
sinner" Malcolm Little alias Big Red had become the
ascetic Black Muslim Malcolm X.
"When I joined, I don't think there were more than 400
Black Muslims in the entire country--most of them
older people," Malcolm X maintains. "At that time, Mr.
Muhammad stayed pretty much in the background. Many of
the brothers couldn't even pronounce his name. Instead
of revering him, they all prayed for the return of
Wallace Fard (an itinerate silk peddler who started
the movement in 1932 and mysteriously disappeared in
Malcolm X changed all that. "Mr. Muhammad agreed to
let me present him as the prophet and messenger of
Allah. I personally believed in Mr. Muhammad because
my brother Reginald believed in him and I believed in
Reginald. Soon the people I talked to believed in Mr.
For 12 years, Malcolm X talked, honing his natural
gift for oratory and debate to the keenness of a
switchblade knife. Aided by a computer-like brain that
can store and recall at will volumes of encyclopaedic
facts, he slashed at White racism, taking on everyone
from "Uncle Tom Negroes" to the U.S. Government.
Wherever he talked, new Black Muslim temples sprang up
while already existing ones increased their
memberships. To be sure, not all of his converts
comprehended his mystic teachings of Black Islam, but
his provocative demands for "back pay for 400 years of
slave labor" made sense to all.
Today, many of his explosive statements have been
modified. He even concedes that his one-time perennial
target--the NAACP--"is doing some good." He makesit
abundantly clear that he still hates, but says that
his hatred is now confined to those who hate Blacks.
Until put to a real test, the true intentions of
Malcolm X--like the man himself--will remain shrouded
in speculation and mystery. Only one thing is clear:
neither the Black Muslim movement without him, nor the
Civil Rights Movement with him will ever be the same.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Johnson Publishing Co.
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group