Remembering a conversation with Malcolm X

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

An op-ed column in the Hartford Courant in November 1992

I haven’t been to see Spike Lee’s film about Malcolm X, the firebrand Black Muslim leader of the 1960s. I’ll go; but first, I’ve been dusting off my own memories.

I had a telephone interview with Malcolm in Hartford in 1963, one of the few he granted. I came away from that interview, and from his public appearance at the Bushnell Memorial that June evening, with a mixture of admiration and dismay.

Malcolm was an angry man — but with good reason: America was only beginning to correct the long subjugation of black Americans.

Young people today cannot imagine the progress made in 30 years — not progress enough, but a remarkable change. Young black Americans, especially, need to understand the sacrifices and heroism of those who came before them.

Malcolm preached separatism while another prominent black leader, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., preached reconciliation. Both would soon fall to assassins’ bullets.

I was a young reporter for The Hartford Times, at work on a project that would be published that November as “The Negro in Hartford.” I knew Thomas J. X., the minister of the Hartford mosque. When Malcolm’s public address was announced, I assumed he would stay with Thomas J.; I telephoned there.

It was an unusual interview. I introduced myself, and asked for Malcolm X. The man at the phone asked what questions I would put if Malcolm would speak with me. I framed my first question; he responded that if Malcolm were available, he would answer thus-and-so.

I asked a series of questions; each time, I was told what Malcolm would say if he came to the phone. It became increasingly clear that it was Malcolm himself; there was never any hesitation, no consulting with some other person in the room.

I knew, and he knew that I knew.

Malcolm was not as unbending as his reputation had it. He evidently respected King. I think he saw his own role as abetting King’s work — by making sure reconciliation did not come too easily, and did not gloss over hard truths.

He preached anger and separatism, but not violent revolution; and his first call was for individual moral commitment by his black listeners.

To my lasting regret, I did not publish an account of that interview; the circumstances were too ambiguous.

That evening, I reported on his public address at the Bushnell. I’ve gone back to microfilm news files to refresh my memory. He didn’t draw a large audience: about 800 people, half of them white liberals. King, a year earlier, had drawn a capacity crowd of 3,300. More than 2,000 had demonstrated for civil rights on the state Capitol lawn only the previous month.

Although his appearance was sponsored by a black Christian group, Malcolm scorned its ministers, calling them Uncle Toms.

He accused the whites in his audience of favoring desegregation to keep Negroes dependent. (This was before “blacks” or “African-Americans” came into vogue.)

At the same time, he criticized as inadequate the desegregation efforts of President John F. Kennedy, who also would soon fall to an assassin’s bullet.

The microfilm refreshes my memory of an agonizing time in American society.

JFK was pleading for civil-rights laws; but it would take the legislative skills of his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, to win their adoption.

Connecticut was beginning to realize that segregation wasn’t just a phenomenon of the South. The state education commissioner was addressing racial isolation in city schools.

The city’s police chief was meeting with the NAACP to discuss discriminatory police practices.

Gov. John N. Dempsey had called the General Assembly into special session to put teeth into laws guaranteeing fair access to housing.

Malcolm was determined not to let white society off the hook too easily — and he was right.

I preferred then, and prefer now, King’s nonviolent, conciliatory approach. But social change is often made meaningful because firebrands insist that problems not be swept under a rug of good feelings.

We’ve come a long way since 1963; but we need the Malcolms to remind us how far we still must go.



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