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.
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The Harlem visit occurred after I entered military service in late 1961 as the Berlin crisis loomed. I found myself stationed at a major recruiting center in lower Manhattan, and decided one weekend to drop by Malcolm's eatery.Skip to next paragraph
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Malcolm greeted me with a broad smile, admitting his surprise at seeing me in an Army uniform. He even seemed glad to see me. Then a strange thing happened. The Black Muslims were holding a food bazaar that afternoon, and Malcolm planned to attend and address it.
"Hey, would you like to come along?" he asked.
Assassins would gun Malcolm down there in early 1965 as he addressed a weekly meeting of his Organization of Afro-American Unity. He had founded the OAAU in 1964 after breaking away from the Nation of Islam. The break caused a bitter rift with Farrakhan, who branded him a traitor. Some, including Malcolm's widow, accused Farrakhan of hatching the assassination plot. He denied this but admitted much later that his sermons' hostile tone could have egged on the group in Newark, N.J., that was blamed for the fatal shooting.
"I may have been complicit in words that I spoke," he told a "60 Minutes" interviewer in May 2000.
But only amity and the aroma of baked goods prevailed as we entered the ballroom in 1962. We walked together past display tables of homemade foods and handicrafts. Members of Malcolm's Harlem Temple No. 7 had prepared the wares for sale. The minister greeted each vendor warmly. No one seemed bothered to see a young uniformed soldier at his side. Nor did it faze Malcolm.
Weeks later I attended a Black Muslim street rally in Harlem Square – my first chance to see Malcolm show off his fiery oratorical flair. A master of rhetoric, he focused not on "white devils" but influential black Americans who failed to combat racism. His remarks prompted heavy applause from followers and bystanders alike.
I saw Malcolm X only once after that. My military duty ended and I returned to Boston and an editing role in the Monitor newsroom. Meanwhile, Malcolm had founded the OAAU and made a pilgrimage to Mecca. It mellowed him, and changed his approach to battling for civil rights in the United States. But Louis Farrakhan hadn't changed. This "quiet" partner of our first interview now viewed Malcolm as a turncoat.
I had barely settled into my new desk job when the shocking news of the Audubon Ballroom tragedy reached me. Like many others, I felt a sense of bereavement – the loss of a thoughtful friend.
Looking back, I recall Malcolm's disarming smile as a highlight of our unexpected and all-too-brief bond. It revealed a man who had learned to transcend his rage and channel it productively where it belonged.