In Cairo, an Expatriate Black American Recalls Malcolm X
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WHEN Malcolm X made his third and last visit to Cairo in 1964, he was alone. Besieged at home by the Nation of Islam, the extremist black Muslim group that he had broken with, he was to spend almost two months in Cairo before embarking on a lengthy journey through Africa.Skip to next paragraph
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He arrived in Cairo without fanfare. But when word spread, young black Americans keen to speak with a representative of the struggle they'd left behind, sought him out. Many of them were former members of the Nation of Islam, weary of its anti-white racism and failure to play an active role in the struggle for black rights. Before Malcolm X left the city, they had agreed to establish a chapter of his new group, the Organization of African-American Unity.
In the early 1960s, young black men from cities like Chicago and Philadelphia made their way to Egypt, many of them seeking not only African but also Islamic identities. The Egyptian government provided meager scholarships to Al Azhar Islamic University. One of those blacks was Akhbar Muhammad, the son of the Nation of Islam's leader, Elijah Muhammad. For most of the students, living allowances were negligible. Some, in order to make ends meet, played gigs in Cairo jazz clubs.
One of those expatriates still lives in Cairo. David Du Bois is a visiting professor of journalism and Afro-American studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, but resides for most of the year in his adopted home of Egypt. He is author of the novel, And Bid Him Sing," a story of black American exiles in Cairo in the mid-1960s.
In 1960, Mr. Du Bois arrived in Egypt as a traveler. Later he became a journalist. He was following in the path of his grandparents, missionaries in Liberia, and his parents: His father was the revered black rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois, one of the first names in the Pan-African movement.
Du Bois recalled his reactions after arriving by boat in the port city of Alexandria: "I fell in love with Egypt. I got here and discovered that everybody looked like me, and I looked like everybody else. I was accepted as a human being without any reference to the color of my skin. It was an overwhelming experience. I found myself invisible."
Unlike other black expatriates he befriended in Cairo, Du Bois was not religious. Many were new arrivals who came to study Islam at Al Azhar. As Du Bois now says: "They came here in search both of their African and Islamic roots, but they approached Egypt as an African country."
He met several times with Malcolm X and remembers a "calm and cool" figure.
When asked by Du Bois if people needed religion, Malcolm X replied that religion - whether Islam or Christianity - was a means of putting "blinders" on the minds of those who might otherwise stray from good and moral lives.
Malcolm X, traveling without any administrative support, took up offers of help from the sympathetic expatriate community. When he wasn't meeting with African heads of state, days were spent in conference with senior officials of the Al Azhar Islamic Center, who are authorities of Sunni Islam. It was here that Malcolm X sought official consent for his break-away movement and support for himself as a genuine minister of Islam.
It is apparent that there was distrust at first, that he was considered a "pseudo Islamic leader," but in the end, Al Azhar Islamic Center supported his movement. One person quoted at the time said, "They saw the possibility of him bringing people to Sunni Islam." Today, Al Azhar pragmatically describes Malcolm X as "an Islamic reformer."
From Cairo, the activist set off on a several-month trip through Africa. In later years there were questions about how Malcolm X had funded his extensive travels. According to Du Bois, there was no mystery: He had been given a multiple-destination ticket by the Egyptian government.
Du Bois has no doubts about the impact Malcolm X's time in Africa had on the evolution of his politics: "The important thing to an African-American is the mass accumulation of human beings of color, in which white folks are a minority - a precise and distinct minority; the brotherhood, the oneness of experience."
When asked what might have become of Malcolm as a leader of black Americans, Du Bois referred to recently released information gathered by the FBI. According to a transcript of FBI telephone taps, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had tried to reach Malcolm before he left on that last visit to Cairo. Dr. King expressed his desire to speak with Malcolm about his plan to recruit African support for a UN resolution condemning the United States government's violation of black human rights. At the Organization of African-American Unity summit, Malcolm X actively lobbied for such support, but in the end he failed.
Within months of his return to the US, Malcolm X was dead, killed by assassins linked to the Nation of Islam.
Du Bois says of the FBI report, "It tells me that if Malcolm had lived, there would inevitably have been a coming together of him and Martin Luther King on this single issue. It would have had an overwhelming impact on both the American black community and the government's response to the two men. It would have been a powerhouse."
He continues: "The tragedy of Malcolm X's life is to be found in the provincialism of America and Americans. His trip to Mecca, his trips around Africa, opened up a whole vision, a whole potential ... both in terms of religion and things that were important to him in his struggle for black Americans," says Du Bois. "And nobody understood, nobody had a clue what he was talking about."