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Malcolm X: A side rarely seen

A chance interview with Malcolm X showed a leader who had learned to use his anger only when it was needed.

By Lyn ShepardContributor / November 29, 2011



Half a century ago the New England News editor of The Christian Science Monitor, Robert Hallett, summoned me – a 21-year-old copy boy at the time – to his desk.

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"Shep," he said, "we have two visitors here eager to discuss their story. Could you talk to them?"

I readily agreed and introduced myself to the tall men cloaked in elegant black overcoats. They both headed temples of the separatist Nation of Islam – in Boston and in the Harlem neighborhood of New York – but I knew little about them. I suggested interviewing them after my work shift ended. Thus began a remarkable series of events.

One of the pair intrigued me especially. A former inmate, he had risen upon his release to become a firebrand leader of the fast-growing Black Muslim movement.

Ironically, the minister of Harlem's Temple of Islam, born with what he called the "slave name" Malcolm Little, had grown up in my hometown of Lansing, Mich. Yet that bit of shared history trickled out only a few years later.

Malcolm's companion, known then as Louis X, remained silent during the interview. Minister Louis's "slave name" had been Louis Eugene Walcott. He would play a crucial role in Malcolm's life – first as his protégé, later as an embittered rival.

A gifted musician, the man now known as Louis Farrakhan composed an opera titled ORGENA ("A Negro" spelled backward) staged in Boston, where I saw it during the early 1960s. It recalled the enslavement of Africans and their forced resettlement in Colonial America. Farrakhan, a talented violinist who attended the prestigious Boston Latin School and graduated from Boston English High School, seemed to view Malcolm as a big brother.

Malcolm X may have cultivated contacts with others in the mainstream American press, but his polite 1961 outreach toward the Monitor could also have been one of a kind. As expected, he spoke with wit and cutting sarcasm in responding to tough inquiries. But he could also dodge uncomfortable questions, parrying with an enigmatic "Those who know don't say. And those who say don't know."

I submitted my story on the Black Muslims, which ran a week later. An editor deleted Malcolm's harsh invective, but my first Monitor story appeared otherwise intact. That pleased me. A few years later Malcolm told me at his family's vegetarian restaurant in Harlem that my story had been fair to him and his movement. I took that as outright praise.

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