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hindsight

Malcolm X, ex-Bostonian

How a city helped shape an iconic American figure—and why we should reclaim him

Malcolm Little at age 15 with his half sister, Ella Little-Collins (right), and two friends in Franklin Park in 1941.
Malcolm Little at age 15 with his half sister, Ella Little-Collins (right), and two friends in Franklin Park in 1941. City of Boston

In our collective memory, the 1960s flash across the screen in kaleidoscopic Technicolor, a bittersweet montage of soaring idealism, “Up, Up and Away” treacle, and savage violence. This week, on Feb. 21, we mark the 50th anniversary of one of the darkest episodes: the assassination of Malcolm X, in New York’s Audubon Ballroom, an old movie palace at 165th and Broadway.

For Americans already reeling from the assassination of a president, turmoil over civil rights, and the expansion of the Vietnam War in early 1965, this act of brutality confirmed that something was terribly wrong in the world’s wealthiest nation. It was a shocking but not unexpected end to a life that had long probed the anger that lay beneath America’s gleaming surfaces. As the most prominent spokesman for the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X had vented his rage against white America with a vitriol that troubled the mainstream, but electrified his growing audience. At the same time, he was beginning to reexamine some of his earlier views at the time he was gunned down. Indeed, his willingness to think anew was one of the reasons for the breach with the Nation of Islam that led to his murder.

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To better understand where Malcolm X was going, it helps to remember where he had been. As he explained it once to Alex Haley, the prominent African-American journalist who co-wrote his autobiography, the X in his adopted name stood for the former identities he had shed—ex-thief, ex-Christian, ex-slave name. But Malcolm X was also an ex-Bostonian. That fact is too often left out of the story, both by his admirers, for whom it is inconvenient, and by Bostonians themselves. Still, he fits here, as much a part of the city’s intellectual fabric as other dissenters against the prevailing culture, from Jonathan Edwards to Henry Thoreau to Robert Lowell.

For Malcolm X, Boston was not a random way station; it was a pivotal stage of his journey. He arrived in 1940, a fatherless teenager from Lansing, Mich., troubled and wild. Twelve years later—an eternity in his life of perpetual motion—he had gained here a sense of the world’s largeness, and of his own ability to act upon its stage. A city that loves history as much as this one should do more to recognize that fact. It will help to correct some distrust that lingers, a legacy of deep segregation and of crises like the busing troubles of the 1970s. Malcolm X’s Boston chapter confirms that this city has been black and proud for a long time.

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Malcolm Little was born in Omaha, and in addition to Boston and Lansing, he spent long periods in Detroit and New York. But his Boston period came at a crucial moment of development, and the city’s institutions, including its penal institutions, played an important role in shaping him. Upon arrival in 1940, he moved to live with his half sister, Ella Little-Collins, in Roxbury. Its streets teemed with life, and Malcolm, or “Red” as he was then known, found friends and distractions everywhere he looked, especially in Dudley Square, then a commercial hub within the Hub. He called it “downtown Roxbury,” and his autobiography, written more than two decades later, pulses with the memory of an exciting time and place: an African-American neighborhood, at the height of a global war effort, going about the business of life with unapologetic pride.

It includes what must be the best description of black Boston ever written: “I saw and met a hundred black people there whose big-city talk and ways left my mouth hanging open. I couldn’t have feigned indifference if I had tried to. I didn’t know the world contained as many Negroes as I saw thronging downtown Roxbury at night, especially on Saturdays. Neon lights, nightclubs, poolhalls, bars, the cars they drove! Restaurants made the streets smell—rich, greasy, down-home black cooking! Jukeboxes blared Erskine Hawkins, Duke Ellington, Cootie Williams, dozens of others. If somebody had told me then that some day I’d know them all personally, I’d have found it hard to believe.”

His friend Shorty summed it up: “Man, this is a swinging town if you dig it.” Malcolm did not need to be told twice. He soon was exploring the rest of the city, including what is now the Freedom Trail, where he found a monument to Crispus Attucks, the African-American victim of the Boston Massacre, that impressed him enough that he mentioned it in “The Autobiography.” Like a Dickens character, he made his way from one marginal employment to another—odd jobs in Chinatown, shining shoes for the lindy-dancers at the Roseland Ballroom on Mass. Ave., packing boxes in the old Sears building by Fenway Park—doing whatever it took to survive. That included some experience breaking and entering; his autobiography describes his living with a burglary ring outside Harvard Square. (Once, years ago, I tried to find the exact location, and discovered that the building, since torn down, had become home to a suite of Harvard faculty offices.)

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Eventually he got caught, and was offered a different form of Boston hospitality, courtesy of the old prison at Charlestown, then in its final years. But there, and in the state prisons at Concord and Norfolk, where he also did time, he became a very different person. The availability of books—these were Massachusetts penitentiaries, after all—created worlds as new and exciting as Dudley Square had been. He immersed himself in them, reading works by everyone from Herodotus to Gandhi to another African-American from Massachusetts, W.E.B. Du Bois. He read so much that he needed glasses when he came out—a permanent badge of his time in Boston. Thoreau famously spent a night in jail once, but it was essentially to make a point against war. For Malcolm X, Norfolk State Prison was his university.

In time, his reading brought him to the Nation of Islam, with some guidance from his brother Reginald. He vividly describes the spiritual conversion that followed in his autobiography. From that point on, Malcolm X did not need Boston: He had found an inner compass that would allow him to find himself, wherever he lived. But those 12 years were essential to the teenager who grew up here, and who became one of the most charismatic black leaders of the 20th century.

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By the time he left, in 1952, there was no turning back. He became Malcolm X, the ex-Bostonian, and found a larger stage in Detroit, New York, and beyond. But there are still signs of his long presence here (many of which are described in an excellent 2006 article by Kenneth J. Cooper for the Bay State Banner). The most moving local shrine is the modest house at 72 Dale St. in Roxbury where he spent many of those years with his half sister, Ella. It has been designated a landmark of sorts by the city, but is invisible to most locals, and certainly to tourists. He is vaguely present on the Freedom Trail, since local lore has it that he and Ho Chi Minh both worked at the Parker House; evidently, the kitchen was a breeding ground for revolution as well as Boston Cream Pie. But a central truth is still missing—that a great African-American neighborhood, Roxbury, gave rise to an important African-American intellectual.

This week, the anniversary tributes will bring the same bittersweet memories we apply to the decade itself. Malcolm X leaves a complex legacy. With his unflinching willingness to speak his mind, and his talent for outrageous invective, he had created nearly as many enemies in the black community as he had in mainstream America. He was killed by assailants working for his former church, the Nation of Islam, after a very public falling out with its leader, Elijah Muhammad, a year earlier. But if the tragedy was foreseeable, it was also intensified by a sense that this was a thinker who was still evolving. In the last year of his life, as he struggled with his rejection by his mentor, he grew deeper. He embraced traditional Sunni Islam, after a transformative pilgrimage to Mecca—an episode described in his autobiography, issued posthumously in 1965. He began to rethink some of his core assumptions, including a racial separatism that had awkwardly placed the Nation of Islam alongside white supremacists like the American Nazi Party. He reached out, tentatively, to the nonviolent advocates around Martin Luther King Jr., as seen in the film “Selma.” He tried to deepen African-American pride in Africa, and called for a “cultural revolution” in black studies very much like what actually happened in universities around the country in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s.

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Perhaps the 50th anniversary can bring some new thinking about how Boston can get right with Malcolm. Certainly, Boston has celebrated its iconoclasts before—the rabble-rousers who attacked British imperial privilege; the ministers and writers who lambasted slavery in the decades before the Civil War; the Irish-Americans who assaulted the citadels of entrenched power to build great political dynasties. All enliven the city’s story.

It might help if we expand our definition of Bostonian, to include those who came, saw, and left. The tradition of ex-Bostonians goes back very far, nearly to the beginning. We would have no Rhode Island or Connecticut without them. One of the greatest ex-Bostonians, Benjamin Franklin, has much in common with Malcolm X, with his tendency to get into scrapes, and his talent for self-reinvention. But “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” is more of a spiritual journey than Franklin’s autobiography, one that might have been recognized by the Puritans buried in Dudley Square as something akin to their own constant striving toward God.

That Malcolm X is as famous as he is today is because of that book, published 50 years ago, and the way it spoke to later generations—including the future president of the United States, who also spent some formative time here. “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” still speaks, and with a familiar accent. In short, it might be time for New England to reclaim this elusive, infuriating, yet essential New England writer. Reflecting on his education here, Malcolm X wrote, “All praise is due to Allah that I went to Boston when I did.”

Ted Widmer is assistant to the president for special projects at Brown University and a senior research fellow with the New America Foundation. He is an Ideas columnist.

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