Sunday, March 29, 2009

Pages From History: Malcolm X When He Came To Ghana In 1964


New African, May 2005
by Duodu, Cameron

Forty years ago, the African-American civil rights leader, Malcolm X, was assassinated in New York. Here, Cameron Duodu takes us through memory lane, to when Malcolm X came to Ghana and had lunch with him in his home in Accra. After Malcolm had talked about his future plans over lunch, Duodu reveals, "I said to him: Brother Malcolm, they will kill you! He didn't answer, but I was sure the thought had crossed his mind. His silence meant that he was prepared to pay the price for his beliefs." This is a collector's item.

I cannot believe that it is already 40 years since Malcolm X, the African-American civil rights leader, died. But it is true - he was gunned down on 21 February 1965, as he addressed a meeting in the Audubohn Ballroom in Manhattan, New York. He had attained worldwide fame at the time of his death. Yet he was only 39 years old. What could he have achieved had he been allowed to live longer?

Personally, I am still traumatised by Malcolm's murder. For in May 1964 - a few months before he died - he had been my luncheon guest at my home in Accra, Ghana.

At the time, Ghana was at a most interesting point in its political development. Seven years had passed since the country achieved its independence, and President Kwame Nkrumah had definitely decided that his government was going to be a "socialist" one. But what brand of socialism were we to adopt? This was the subject of a heated debate inside and outside Nkrumah's Convention People's Party (CPP).

The CPP was a nationalist movement, which had wrested power from the British colonialists by mobilising almost the entire population against imperialist rule. So although Nkrumah and a few of the CPP leaders were socialists, or even Marxists, there were also many in the party who possessed what the Marxists would call a "bourgeois" outlook on life.

These people attempted to make socialism acceptable to Ghanaians by likening it to African communalism. The most banal articulation of this position was made by Krobo Edusei, Nkrumah's former minister of the interior. Krobo had been a strong propagandist for the CPP, especially in Asante, where a powerful movement opposed to Nkrumah and calling for the establishment of a federal government in Ghana, had nearly derailed the struggle for independence. When Nkrumah and his ideologues decided to introduce socialist propaganda into their speeches, Krobo Edusei also jumped on the bandwagon, for, he claimed, socialism only meant, in Twi (his language) "Dt bi ma minni hi (you eat some [of the money] and let me too eat some of it).

Well, the Marxists weren't buying that and Krobo Edusei and several of the leaders of the pre-independence CPP lost influence in the party.

But even those who were true socialists were divided by ideology. Some advocated scientific socialism and wanted Ghana to become a Soviet-style country. Others were wary of developments in Eastern Europe and wanted to follow the Chinese pattern of socialism.

Yet others were pure Marxists who regarded both Eastern Europe and China as mere followers of the state-capitalism route, and not the path to true socialism. Then there were those who wanted to create a brand new "African socialism". So Accra was seething with debate.

The Ghana Press Club was the centre of some of these debates and when Malcolm X arrived in Ghana and was brought there by an African-American writer and very good friend of mine, Julian Mayfield, with the intention of getting him to address us, there was immediate murmuring against the idea.

"The man is a racist. We don't want any racist ideas," someone said.

"Marx said religion is the opium of the masses," another interjected. "We have enough problems without having to add those of so-called 'Black Muslims' to our own."

At that time, there was quite a large colony of Africa-Americans in Ghana and some were sitting with us as this debate occurred. This embarrassed me, for Ghanaians are known for their hospitality and it seemed to me odd that we should seem to be refusing a hearing to one of our brothers from the US who was a guest in our country. So I intervened:

"Listen guys," I said, "we are supposed to be newsmen, are we not? Let me tell you, Malcolm X is big news indeed wherever he goes. Do you realise that Playboy magazine gave him about 20 pages worth of space when it interviewed him recently? Plaboy, which I am sure many of us regard as a frivolous magazine devoted to publishing centrefolds of beautiful nude girls, thought him worthy of that much space, how much more we serious journalists? Can't we at least give the man a hearing? Do we want to give the impression that Playboy has a better news sense than us?" That killed the murmuring stone dead and within a short time, Malcolm was talking to us.

The man was impressive, both as regards physical presence and oratorical prowess. Physically, he was tall and handsome and his skin colour showed that he had inherited the best of both the black and white worlds. No one could accuse him of mindless racism, for he indisputably belonged to both the black and white races - if they exist.

But striking though his physique was, it was when he opened his mouth that his personality shone through. He had a deep voice, and through preaching at mosques, he had acquired a modulation of tone that was absolutely musical. Unlike many African-Americans, he had managed to discard the twangy accent and swallowing of words that often makes it difficult for non-Americans to catch what they are saying. Malcolm's diction was quite clear, and this, added to the obvious sincerity with which he spoke (an almost beatific intensity settled on his face when he got going) gave his discourse a magnetic quality.

We sat mesmerised as he sketched out in detail for us, the struggles that African-Americans faced in the US, and warned us to be wary of the US government, which condoned the maltreatment of our brothers in the US, yet came down to us in Africa, grinning at us as if it was our greatest friend.

Malcolm developed his arguments for us in full in a speech he gave at the Great Hall in the University of Ghana. The place was packed and he skillfully elucidated every aspect of the life that blacks were constrained to live in the US and explained why, when we met them in Africa, they sometimes surprised us with their actions.

We should not blame African-Americans if they did not rise to our expectations because, he said: "We have no roots - we are the only people who do not have a language of our own. Our slave master took out our tongue when he took us away from you. So we speak with our slave masters voice. How can someone looking just like you but speaking with another person's tongue make sense to you?"

Malcolm continued: "The American Negro' is the only American who brings America first when he wants to name himself. We have Polish Americans, Italian Americans, Irish Americans. They all put their ancestry first before America. Only the American Negro' mentions America first. That shows you that he has no sense of identity. And you in Africa have to understand that and help him get his identity back.

"The strange thing is that although the 'American Negro' puts America first, America always puts him last. They send us to World War II, and we're the best soldiers they've got. They send us to Korea and we're the best soldiers they've got. They send us to Vietnam and we're still the best soldiers they've got. But when we come back home after fighting their wars, they tell us we're not fit to ride with them on the same side of the bus; we must sit at the back of the bus! We are fit to die for America but not fit to sit with America in the same bus."

And then he added: "Mind you, I have not come here to condemn America. But if what I say condemns America, then America stands condemned!"

There were wild cheers!

Malcolm also talked about the emphasis that the world press constantly placed on the Holocaust in Germany, in which six million Jews were killed. Why wasn't a similar fuss made about the 20m Africans who had died on the high seas after being seized as slaves in Africa and put in horrible ships bound for North America and the Caribbean

"I am sometimes asked why I don't talk about the Holocaust but only about Africans who were killed during the slave trade," Malcolm said. "If I don't talk about the Holocaust, it's because after I've wept for the 20m Africans, I have no tears left."

Malcolm stressed that it was important that Africans should get together with their "22m black brothers in America. We should not allow the white man to use us against each other. The white man would send African-Americans to Africa and give them assignments that would hurt Africa, but because they had a black skin, we wouldn't realise they were dangerous.

"Similarly, the white man could send Africans to America who would carry the message that Africans have no memory of their brothers who were carted off as slaves, and that the Africans and the American blacks therefore had nothing in common. But we're one people, divided by the effects of the white man's wickedness towards us - slavery and colonialism."

That was Malcolm's public message. When he was brought to my house by Julian Mayfield, he revealed to me his future plans.

He told me that his recent pilgrimage to Mecca had shown him that the people in the world who were against racial discrimination far outnumbered the racists. He had seen in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, people whose skin was every bit as white as that of white Americans, but these people were completely opposed to racial discrimination and would fight alongside the blacks against it.

So when he got back to America, he would start a new organisation to be called the Organisation of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), which would work closely with its near-namesake, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). Just as the OAU contained both white and Arab Africans as well as black Africans, the OAAU would seek coalitions with all areas of the world where the people, irrespective of their colour, were opposed to racial discrimination and imperialist domination.

The OAAU would establish fraternal relations with the Arab League and with the Afro-Asian People's Solidarity Organisation. The African-Americans would keep these organisations informed of what the American government was doing, or not doing, about racial discrimination in the US, and in that way, the US government would not be able to lie to the rest of the world that it wanted friendly relations with all peoples, irrespective of colour- the message the US State Department sought to convey to the world.

In the immediate future, the OAAU would seek the assistance of its friends in the UN to lay a complaint against the US, for its violation of the human rights of African-Americans. I could see immediately that with his charismatic personality, Malcolm X could bring this off. Such a magical coalition of forces around the globe could embarrass the US tremendously, and I was convinced that that he would never be allowed by the US government to put his plan into action. So I said to him: "Brother Malcolm, they will kill you!" He didn't answer, but I was sure the thought had crossed his mind. His silence meant that he was prepared to pay the price for his beliefs.

Who killed Malcolm X in the Audubon Ballroom on 21 February 1965? There is no doubt that the evil deed was done by black men who had somehow managed to get to the hall carrying guns, past the bodyguards Malcolm had employed.

The speculation is that these bodyguards, whom Malcolm took with him when he broke away from Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam, were bribed by Elijah Muhammad's followers to assassinate Malcolm.

But evidence has emerged that the FBI had infiltrated Malcolms entourage, and may well have sown the seed amongst its black agents close to Malcolm, so that if Malcolm were to be assassinated, the Nation of Islam would be blamed.

Certainly the FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover, targeted the relatively more meek Martin Luther King and would have been totally hostile to the "fiery" Malcolm X.

The police were able to retrieve from the scene of the assassination a sawn-off, 12-gauge shotgun and over 30 cartridges from a .45 pistol, as well as a 9-millimeter automatic, possibly a Luger. The Luger was never found.

The initial report made by the New York City police, and local newspapers, stated that two men were arrested and taken to the police station. Later, that report disappeared and its existence was vehemently denied by the police, who stated that a Talmadge Hayer was the only person arrested after the shooting.

One Gene Roberts, an undercover agent of an organisation known as Boss, was known to have been present at the Audubohn but faded from the entire scenario. It was suspected that he was the second man detained and was quickly and quietly released to protect his cover as an undercover operative for Boss. Just who Gene Roberts was has never been found out. Boss was so secretive an agency that even the police were not aware of the organization and its agents.

Three men were eventually tried for the murder - Talmadge Hayer, Butler and Johnson. During the trial, Hayer confessed to having fired shots from the .45 into Malcolm's body, yet he testified that Butler and Johnson were not present at the assassination and were not involved in the shooting. All three men were, however, accused, tried and convicted.

It is still widely believed that Hayer, with four other men, (not including Butler and Johnson) actively took part in the assassination. It is still not known to this day who those four suspected assassins were and how they vanished from the scene.

Karl Evanzz, a staff writer for The Washington Post, researched more than 300,000 pages of declassified FBI and CIA documents for his book, The Judas Factor. He concluded that Malcolm X was set up for the assassination by a former friend of his, John Ali, who was an agent/informer for a secret US intelligence agency. Malcolm had previously commented that Ali had been responsible for his ouster from the Nation of Islam. Ali eventually rose to the position of national secretary of the Nation of Islam.

Declassified documents have now revealed that the US government and law enforcement agencies planted infiltrators in Malcolm's OAAU, the Nation of Islam and almost all of the other civil rights movement organisations. Some of these agent/informers were highly placed. Their assignments were not only to report on all of their activities, plans and members, but to create disruption, distrust and to frighten away supporters.

Apparently, at the time of the assassination, fear had been growing, amongst secret US government agencies (which tapped the telephone conversations of Dr Martin Luther King) that Malcolm X was gaining the support of Dr King to make the struggles of African-Americans an international issue by presenting a petition of human rights violations to a Conference of the International Court of Justice at The Hague. Malcolm's assassination took place just two weeks before this conference.

But suspicion also reigned that Louis Farrakhan, who had risen to be spokesman for Elijah Muhammad in the Nation of Islam, in place of Malcolm X, masterminded the assassination, having been accused of writing the following words in the Muslim newspaper, Muhammad Speaks: "Only those who wish to be led to hell, or to their doom, will follow Malcolm. The die is set, and Malcolm shall not escape, especially after such evil, foolish talk about his benefactor. Such a man is worthy of death."

Farrakhan has denied writing this, however, and he later declared his love for Malcolm X in the following words: "He was my mentor, my teacher, a marvelous example to me of what a man should be." Indeed, Farrakhan eventually made a public apology to Malcolms late wife, Betty Shabazz.

Whatever the truth about his murder, there is no doubt that in death, Malcolm X has achieved almost as much as if he were alive, or probably more than he could have achieved. From baseball caps and T-shirts marked "X", worn by the cool youngsters of America and the world, to films by Spike Lee and others, the Malcolm X brand is one that just keeps growing and growing, year after year. His explanation of why he called himself "X" - because he said his surname was an "unknown factor", taken not from his ancestors' names but from that of his ancestors' slave masters - still makes perfect sense to the youth of today.

Would Condoleezza Rice or Colin Powell have got their positions in the American government if Malcolm X had never lived? We cannot know. What is indisputable is that even though he lived in an age when there was neither CNN nor the internet, Malcolm X reached so many people with his simple message that we can only marvel at what he achieved. My own abiding tribute to him is that he was a wonderfully generous man. On his way from Africa back to the US, he stopped over in Switzerland in transit. Although he had very little time on his hands, he managed to write a postcard to me. In red ink, he had written:

Mr Cameron Duodu

Your Brothers in Harlem remember you.

Malcolm X

And in his autobiography, which was written with Alex Haley (the author of Roots), he took the trouble to mention my name as one of the journalists he met in Ghana.

I was impressed that my surname, which is often misspelt even by those who work regularly with me, was correctly spelt in his book: The Autobiography of Malcolm X (Penguin Books ISBN 0-14-002824-2). Full marks, Brother Malcolm; full marks.

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