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.

Malcolm X’s fiery public image was far from view when he reached out to a young Monitor reporter.

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.

"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.

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.

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.

Since I had the time, I immediately told him "Sure," and we soon walked north up Lenox Avenue (now Malcolm X Boulevard) to the Washington Heights bazaar site – the Audubon Ballroom.

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.

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