July and August 2018 – Every Thursday
Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. State Office Building
163 West 125th Street
New York, NY
More Info: https://summerstageinharlem.org/
July and August 2018 – Every Thursday
Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. State Office Building
163 West 125th Street
New York, NY
More Info: https://summerstageinharlem.org/
Garbage bags and seedlings in hand, schoolchildren and good Samaritans gathered on Saturday morning along the medians of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard in Central Harlem. Their goal: to make the green spaces in the middle of the street as beautiful as those on Park Avenue.
The event was the work of Marie Littlejohn, the president of the Friends of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard Malls, who led the assembled planters with a bright smile and a passion for the local community.
Littlejohn, who has dedicated herself to the avenue, its history, and the people who live around it, has watched her neighborhood change since she moved here in 1983.
“I moved to Harlem in large part because though it is a large community, it is still a community,” she said. “Even the street people look out for you and make sure you are safe. That is one of the reasons I have become an advocate, because I would like to preserve that sense of community. If you have a community, children are safe, and there is a connectedness.”
When she first arrived in the neighborhood, she started planting with the Friends, getting more involved over the years to attain her current role as president.
The work on Adam Clayton Powell, she said, is not just about making the street look nicer—it’s also a critical part of preserving history.
“Most people don’t even know who Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. was,” she said. “That really disturbs me, because he was one of the greatest politicians ever.”
Powell represented Harlem in Congress between 1945 and 1971. The first African-American congressman in the state, Powell was the neighborhood’s best-recognized politician—that is, until he was defeated by a state representative named Charles Rangel.
Littlejohn said Powell’s legacy deserved recognition.
“This is a boulevard in his name that I feel should be maintained and is a way to keep a past about our history in its forefront,” she said.
The Friends have raised money to purchase plants and organize activities—including an annual Christmas tree lighting—with local sororities, fraternities, youth groups, families, and businesses.
Now, the medians along Adam Clayton Powell are among the few in the city maintained solely by community members. So are Park Avenue’s, which are supported by The Fund for Park Avenue, with an annual budget of over $1 million. Littlejohn declined to detail the budget of her group, but stressed that it was built on local fundraising.
Littlejohn also observed that the project has strengthened the community’s bond.
“I remember how, once, a bus driver stopped and yelled ‘Thank you!’ as we were planting,” she said. “At first, people were also concerned that the bulbs would be stolen. That hasn’t happened. I think that people really do appreciate what we’re doing. I hear comments all the time from people who like it and from children who can say, ‘I did that!’”
Littlejohn, though unassuming in appearance, exudes an aura of confidence that reflects her natural disposition for leadership in the community. She’s retired, but she still serves on the Harlem Hospital Advisory Board, regularly attends Community Board 10 meetings, and remains an active member in her service-oriented sorority and church community.
Littlejohn said that as Harlem continues to change, with rising rents and a higher profile in the city, the work the community is doing will become even more important in maintaining the neighborhood’s identity.
“I think the world has, all of a sudden, discovered Harlem, and so everyone is rushing to take stakes,” she said. “Progress is not going to be stopped, so I think it is important—and I’m not sure that it is being done—that we preserve what we have as we continue to move forwards.”
“We need to know and remember our past so that we can continue to build on it,” she said.
HARLEM — Crooner Tony Bennett will join Rev. Al Sharpton Thursday afternoon for a Harlem rally against gun violence.
Organized by a coalition of New York-based groups along with former law enforcement members from Newtown, Conn., the rally aims to encourage the rest of the country to adopt the NY SAFE Act.
The act, signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in January in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, introduced new gun regulations, along with mental health and background checks for gun buyers.
The rally will also call attention to recent police shootings like the one that killed Bronx teen Ramarley Graham last year, said Ronnie Sykes, the rally’s promoter.
The rally will start on 124th Street near Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard at 4:30 p.m. with a procession in memory of gun violence victims. It’s organized by groups including New York Voices Against Gun Violence, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, the Brady Campaign, Harlem Mothers S.A.V.E. and New Yorkers Against Gun Violence.
Also in attendance will be Darren Wagner, former sheriff of Newtown, Conn.; Jackie Rowe Adams of Harlem Mothers S.A.V.E. and Leah Gunn Barrett of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence.
Read more: http://www.dnainfo.com/new-york/20130320/central-harlem/tony-bennett-al-sharpton-march-against-gun-violence-harlem#ixzz2OTuKufu4
Jews fled to the Bronx, Brooklyn and the Upper West Side. By 1930, 5,000 Jewish residents remained of the hundreds of thousands who had lived in Harlem.
So when the broker from a short-term apartment rental agency in Manhattan clarified that the listing for “a luxurious and spacious, yet affordable apartment, 15 minutes from Central Park and a quick subway ride to Grand Central” was in East Harlem, I nixed it.
We would be arriving from Jerusalem, meeting up with our Sabra son, who is in the States for a post-doc stint, and his family. How could I tell them we were staying in Harlem?
A young American house-guest assured me that East Harlem – alternatively called Spanish Harlem or Il Barrio – is now hip and popular. I typed “synagogue” and “Harlem” into a search engine and found the Old Broadway Synagogue on 125th Street. After correspondence, my husband, Gerald Schroeder, was invited to give the sermon there about science and Torah.
WE ARRIVE in Harlem. The apartment turns out to be roomy and convenient. The young moms with strollers on the street are smiling and helpful. The only problem is noisy late-night street partying at the 24/7 McDonald’s across the street. By the second night, I sleep through it.
Comes Shabbat, and on a sunny, late autumn morning, we walk toward the Old Broadway Synagogue. Congregation president Paul Radensky has sent walking directions. Red and yellow trees surprise us along the busy city streets. New Yorkers are in the midst of a planting an additional million trees in their city. They reached 500,000 in October, right here in Harlem, with the planting of a pin oak. The greening initiative is supported by Jewish singer and actress Bette Midler, a Harlem resident. Former president Bill Clinton has his offices here. Harlem’s main streets, squares and playgrounds bear the names of famous black Americans: Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X.
Ironically the decades of neglect in Harlem meant that some of the finest townhouses were never replaced by high rises. Ubiquitous for-sale signs announce luxury condos. City demographers say the black population in Harlem has been shrinking for half a century; in the last decade, white, Asian and Puerto Rican residents have been moving in. Chain stores like Marshall’s, Starbucks, and Cohen’s Optical line the main streets, along with pushcart vendors selling incense, “I Love Harlem” T-shirts and CDs of reggae music.
Amid the festivity, a middle-aged man is hawking tickets to a new show at the Apollo Theater. This is where famed black singers and musicians performed when white stages were not welcoming. Ella Fitzgerald, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and dozens of other megastars got their break at the Apollo, a club owned by Jews.
TWO DECADES before Lady Ella sang “A Tisket, a Tasket” at the Apollo, a Ukrainian-born cantor named Yossele Rosenblatt revolutionized Jewish cantorial music at the neighborhood’s Ohab Tzedek synagogue. Rosenblatt introduced tearful sounds – krechts, as they’re called in Yiddish – before an adoring congregation. As the Roaring Twenties opened, Harlem was the third largest Jewish community in the world, after the Lower East Side and Warsaw, Poland. Between 175,000 and 200,000 Jews lived here. More than 100 synagogues and Torah study centers flourished. Perhaps my own grandparents lived right in East Harlem with the other Jewish factory workers. I’d never thought of it.
Jewish Harlem was never romanticized like the Lower East Side, even though Broadway composer Richard Rodgers and radio/TV show creator Gertrude Edelstein, who wrote The Goldbergs, lived in Harlem; the beloved Goldbergs lived in the Bronx.
What happened to the rich Jewish life in Harlem? Black Americans moved to New York City from the south, seeking inexpensive housing in the northern part of the city. The Depression shriveled economic opportunity. Unemployment and crime escalated.
Jews fled to the Bronx, Brooklyn and the Upper West Side. By 1930, only 5,000 Jewish residents remained of the hundreds of thousands who had lived in Harlem.
Although the majority of property owners in the neighborhood were now black, Jewish business owners, landlords and shopkeepers who had remained there became the target of frustrated, poverty-stricken residents. Three years before Kristallnacht, rioters smashed windows and looted Jewish shops in Harlem. One by one, the great synagogues of Harlem became churches. Today, Ohab Tzedek is the Baptist Temple Church. Other churches retained their stained-glass windows and women’s galleries. Only Old Broadway Synagogue has remained. It began as a minyan meeting in storefronts, and just as the tides were changing in the Jewish community in 1921, it inaugurated its building.
Despite the touted gentrification of the area, as we walk to synagogue, a parade of men and women marches down 125th Street carrying a banner calling for the end of neighborhood shootings. A well-dressed, middle-aged woman is preaching at the corner of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. State Office Building Plaza about the destruction of the Israelites. Turns out she’s reading our own Isaiah. Gwendolyn Pratt says she’s answering a calling to wake up the people of the neighborhood. I invite her to the synagogue lecture.
The stained-glass windows with the Star of David on Old Broadway Street are a welcome sight. The windows, boarded up after the brick-throwing in the violent 1960s, have been restored with a grant from New York Landmarks Conservancy. Congregants step out of the sanctuary to meet us. Coffee and tea are waiting in the women’s gallery.
The wooden pews are old and unvarnished, the ceiling peeling. About 30 men and women have come to Shabbat services, two-thirds of them Caucasian, one-third black. The man leading the prayer service isn’t Rosenblatt, but has a melodious voice. The only unusual touch in this standard Orthodox Shabbat service is that after the misheberach for sick Jewish men and women, prayers for the ill among non-Jews are elicited as well.
Says Radensky, “We are in much better shape than we were a few years ago. The Jewish population in the neighborhood is growing. I suspect that most of the Jews in the neighborhood are young and not connected Jewishly, and if they are, they are largely not connected to Orthodox Judaism. But I think the prospects are good that more religious Jews will move in over time.”
After services, everyone takes part in spicy vegetarian cholent and Middle Eastern salads while they hear about Torah and science. A Saturday night program is announced: An Israeli musician, originally from Ethiopia, will perform together with local talent. We say the Grace after Meals, introducing it with Psalm 126, “Shir Hama’alot.” It was Rosenblatt’s most famous piece, a runner-up to “Hatikva” as our national anthem. “Those who tearfully sow, will reap in glad song. He who bears the measure of seeds, walk along weeping, but will return in exultation, a bearer of his sheaves.”
I think of the ebb and surge of the tides of Jewish history, not only in Europe, but here, in the most Jewish of all Diaspora cities. The liquor store near our apartment already has five different kosher wines, a sure sign that the Jews are moving back. Harlem will be Jewish again, but the shadows of the past are not easily banished, at least not for this short-term tenant from Jerusalem.
The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel Director of Public Relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.
Manning Marable was a leading historian of black history and author of “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention,” a long-awaited biography on Malcolm X released this year. In one of his writings called “Anything’s Possible,” Marable examines the history of Harlem and its evolution to an African-American mecca.
Dating back to 1914 and the migration of blacks from the south, Harlem was home to over 50,000 blacks. By 1930, that number had grown to well over 200,000. With the growing number of people came the establishment and migration of churches, like the Abyssinian Baptist Church. The associations that came to Harlem gathered around West 135th and 125th streets, even though businesses in the area were not black-owned at the time.
Major political movements spread through Harlem, building a spirit of empowerment. Among those was Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. Over 25,000 blacks marched down Harlem streets in 1920 in African colors to uphold Garvey’s message. Also with the movement came the tradition of soapboxing. Marable wrote that black socialist and orator Hubert H. Harrison began this tradition. On 135th or 125th, you could find a passionate standing on a soapbox or ladder, preaching their political agenda. Many were followers of the Nation of Islam. Following Harrison was A. Phillip Randolph, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and Marcus Garvey.
Marable stressed the birth of political mobilization and the Harlem tradition of empowering blacks to take action in the community. Though Harlem is no longer the largest black city in New York, its power through political culture and activism reaches beyond other cities. Launching leaders like former famor David Dinkins, Rep. Charles Rangel, Rev. Calvin Butts and Malcolm X, Harlem linked the rest of the world to the black power movement.
According to the late, great Manning Marable, Harlem is where differences are negotiated.
By: Erica Taylor, The Tom Joyner Morning Show
Quiet as it’s kept, a number of the brightest lights of the Harlem Renaissance fell along the LGBT rainbow spectrum.?
Next month’s National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, N.C., features a play called Knock Me a Kiss. It dramatizes a black wedding of the early 20th century — the 1928 marriage of Harlem Renaissance poet laureate Countee Cullen and Nina Yolande Du Bois, the daughter of W.E.B.
Despite a lavish event — she had 16 bridesmaids! — the marriage was short-lived. Three months after the wedding, Cullen sailed to Paris with his best man, and bride and groom officially split up shortly after.
Quiet as it’s kept, along with Cullen, a number of the brightest lights of the Harlem Renaissance fell somewhere along the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rainbow spectrum. It actually isn’t that quiet. Claude McKay, Wallace Thurman, Alain Locke, Richard Bruce Nugent, Angelina Weld Grimké, Alice Dunbar-Nelson and Langston Hughes, all luminaries of the New Negro literary movement, have been identified as anywhere from openly gay (Nugent) to sexually ambiguous or mysterious (Hughes). In a 1993 essay, “The Black Man’s Burden,” Henry Louis Gates Jr., The Root‘s editor-in-chief, notes that the Renaissance “was surely as gay as it was black.”
In the last few decades, a number of authors and filmmakers have revised the revisionist history of the period and unlocked history’s closet. The book Gay Voices of the Harlem Renaissance (2003), by A.B. Christa Schwarz, puts the life and work of Cullen, McKay, Nugent and Hughes in an LGBT context.
That same year, Anthony Mackie starred in the film Brother to Brother, a fever dream that linked present-day Harlem to its lyrical Renaissance past through the eyes of a young black man struggling with his sexuality. The movie won a Special Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. Next month Cleis Press will re-release Black Like Us: A Century of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual African-American Fiction, which includes a meaty section on the Renaissance.
“As Gay as It Was Black”
The Harlem of the 1920s, which produced a flowering of art, music and writing, was indisputably gay. Being “in the life” was part of the landscape of the community. The 1983 essay “T’Aint Nobody’s Bizness: Homosexuality in 1920’s Harlem,” by Eric Garber, puts it in sharp focus:
At the beginning of the twentieth century, a homosexual subculture, uniquely Afro-American in substance, began to take shape in New York’s Harlem. Throughout the so- called Harlem Renaissance period, roughly 1920 to 1935, black lesbians and gay men were meeting each other [on] street corners, socializing in cabarets and rent parties, and worshiping in church on Sundays, creating a language, a social structure, and a complex network of institutions.
Nugent, known as the “perfumed orchid of the New Negro Movement,” didn’t hide his sexuality either in life or in print. He contributed the blatantly homoerotic short story “Smoke, Lilies and Jade” to the black literary journal Fire!! in 1926. Speaking about the LGBT presence in Harlem, Nugent noted, “You did what you wanted to. Nobody was in the closet. There wasn’t any closet.”
Everybody who was anybody — gay and straight, black and white, uptown and downtown — knew about the infamous homosexual haunt the Clam House on 133rd Street. Bawdy blues singer Gladys Bentley presided over the raucous fun, all 250 pounds of her cross-dressed in tux and top hat.
A’Lelia Walker, the Joy Goddess of the Harlem Renaissance and daughter of Madam C.J., was especially fond of homosexuals, notes award-winning author David Levering Lewis in his book When Harlem Was in Vogue. Anyone who voiced disapproval risked being uninvited from her lavish and legendary parties.
But gayest of all: the Hamilton Lodge drag ball held every year on 155th Street. Several thousand came to gawk at the cross-dressing extravaganza as hundreds of mainly working-class young men showed up in over-the-top drag.
An Invisible Life?
Despite this kind of freedom and pageantry, homosexuality wasn’t universally accepted. Harlem’s most powerful minister, Adam Clayton Powell, pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church until 1937, campaigned against what he saw as the growing scourge of sexual perversion and moral degeneracy. And the annual Hamilton Lodge event was openly referred to as the “parade of the pansies,” “dance of the fairies” and “faggots’ ball.”
Against this complicated landscape, some claim that scholars of the New Negro Movement have erased the LGBT history of the Renaissance in biographies and textbooks. In Gay Voices of the Harlem Renaissance, author Schwarz explains that historians either deliberately or inadvertently sidelined the link between the Harlem Renaissance and homosexuality.
In a 2001 essay ” ‘Outing’ Alain L. Locke,” biographer Leonard Harris accused some scholars of obscuring Locke’s gay life, leading to the false idea that “Locke’s sexuality was irrelevant to his intellectual and personal history.” Locke, the first black Rhodes scholar, is often called the father of the Harlem Renaissance. And when the groundbreaking 1989 film Looking for Langston was released to critical acclaim, the Langston Hughes estate did its best to shut it down. Directed by Isaac Julien, the lyrical film is a gay love letter to Hughes and the Renaissance.
Du Bois was, at best, naive about homosexuality. He blamed the breakup of his daughter’s marriage to her troublesome personality rather than his son-in-law’s sexuality. But his thinking about LGBT issues apparently changed. Du Bois fired his friend and protégé Augustus Dill, the business manager of the NAACP’s magazine, the Crisis, after Dill was arrested for a homosexual encounter in 1928 — a move that Du Bois said he regretted. “I had no concept of homosexuality,” Du Bois wrote in his autobiography, ” … and spent heavy days regretting my act.”
The past isn’t the present, and it would be unfair to slap a 21st-century out-and-proud frame around 20th-century Harlem. Plus, to borrow the words of Renaissance writer Jessie Redmon Fauset, there is confusion: Many of the New Negros who are now identified as gay had spouses of the opposite sex.
Some were bisexual, while others, like Cullen, lived double lives. After his failed marriage, Cullen wed again. Wallace Thurman, author of the novels The Blacker the Berry and Infants of the Spring, was arrested in 1925 for having sex with a man. Thurman married a woman three years later, but the relationship lasted only six months.
The writer Alice Dunbar-Nelson kept a foot in both worlds, according to her diary. After the breakup of her marriage to the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, she remarried in 1916, creating what Gloria Hull, the editor of Give Us Each Day: The Diary of Alice Dunbar-Nelson, calls “a good professional union.” According to Hull, Dunbar-Nelson’s diary reveals that “the author remained sexually available to women, as did any number of married black women club members.”
The overtly same-sex longings of Renaissance playwright and poet Angelina Weld Grimké can be found in her correspondence with her friend Mamie Burrill. In a letter, she wrote, “Oh Mamie if you only knew how my heart overflows with love for you and how it yearns and pants for one more glimpse of your lovely face.” Weld signed the letter, “Your passionate lover.”
The 1931 novel Strange Brother, by Blaire Niles, sums up the period’s complicated social geography best: “In Harlem I found courage and joy and tolerance,” notes one gay character. “I can be myself there … They all know about me, and I don’t have to lie.”
Linda Villarosa is the director of the journalism program at the City College of New York and is contributing to a documentary about HIV/AIDS in black America for PBS.
I recently read about historian and scholar Manning Marable passing away, just days before the publication of his controversial book, “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.” The book has ignited a firestorm of commentary, which is not surprising.
The coverage took me back to when I was a teenager in New York in the 1960s when Malcolm was holding Harlem rallies in front of Micheaux’s National Memorial African Bookstore. Saturdays, when I worked in my father’s grocery store in New Rochelle, the radio would be tuned to Malcolm’s rally. I vividly recall a broadcast in which Malcolm described Black separatism and how the Black man was like strong black coffee; and when you add milk to coffee, it weakens it.
Respected his call
My father would buy a Muhammad Speaks newspaper every Saturday and give the Muslim brothers a space in his store to sell their bean pies. My dad understood the importance of not relying on anyone –– except perhaps his family – to achieve his goals.
Malcolm’s Black Nationalist rhetoric did not strike a chord with my teenaged self. It made me uncomfortable – maybe because what he was saying was too close to some truths I was just beginning to take in. I had dismissed him as a hotheaded radical who chided the leaders of the civil rights movement as being Uncle Toms because of their more measured approach to breaking down barriers.
As I matured and learned more, I began to appreciate the Malcolms and the Martins. I also discovered that sometimes what you read is not necessarily how it really is. The media had set Malcolm and Martin against each other – the raving radical and the peaceful preacher. It sold newspapers and increased Nielsen ratings.
Malcolm X voiced his disapproval of the integrationist philosophy of the civil rights movement, but he did become more open in later years, especially after his break from the Nation of Islam and his journey to Mecca in April 1964.
Prior to that, there was evidence of Malcolm’s expanding perspective when he reached out in a letter to Whitney Young of the Urban League. Dated July 31, 1963, Malcolm invited Young and Black leaders including Dr. King, U.S. Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., James Farmer, A. Philip Randolph, Ralph Bunche, James Forman and others to speak at a Harlem rally in August. The purpose was to form a “United Front.” Malcolm urged the leaders to “submerge our ‘minor differences’ in order to seek a common solution to a common problem posed by a common enemy.”
Almost a year later, he sent Dr. King a telegram while MLK was jailed in St. Augustine, Fla. for attempting to integrate a Whites-only motel and restaurant. Malcolm wrote, “We have been witnessing with great concern the vicious attack of the white races against our poor defenseless people there in St. Augustine. If the Federal Government will not send troops for your aid, just say the word and we will immediately dispatch some [of] our brothers there to organize self-defense units…”.
More to come
Writers and historians will be revisiting and revising the narrative of Malcolm X’s life as more research is made available through his personal papers, undiscovered archival material, and accounts from new sources. It is up to each of us to read carefully these accounts and take from them what we can.
Malcolm X’s contribution to the history of Black America is immeasurable. Revisions to Malcolm’s personal history may be interesting, but it should not detract from his legacy. What matters is Malcolm’s tremendous personal sacrifice, his advocacy of self-determination for African-Americans, and his fight for global human rights.
Linda Tarrant-Reid is an author, historian and photographer. This commentary was originally published in The Westchester County Press.
Malcolm Little had a tragic childhood. His father, Earl, died in 1931 in a streetcar accident that was quite possibly racially motivated. In 1939, when Malcolm was 14, his mother, Louise, was taken away and confined to a mental hospital. The boy soon found himself in a foster home. By the time he had relocated to Massachusetts in 1941, his jagged spiral had begun. For several years he roamed, wolf-like, between Detroit, Washington, D.C., Harlem and Boston. His activities varied: selling dope, pimping, breaking into homes, hawking snacks on trains. In 1946, the doors of the Charlestown (Mass.) State Prison clanged behind Malcolm Little, putting an end to the foolishness. He would remain there six years.
The reinvention of Malcolm Little – soon to become Malcolm X – began behind bars. “I don’t think anybody ever got more out of going to prison than I did,” he confided. Shortly after being freed, he became a rising star in the Nation of Islam, sent by its leader, Elijah Muhammad, up and down the East Coast to open mosques. Malcolm imbued blacks with pride and offered an ultimatum to white America: Either “the ballot or the bullet” would transform American injustice. After hearing him, many blacks, fed up with living under the American system of apartheid, joined the Nation.
But Malcolm X uncovered proof that Elijah Muhammad had impregnated at least half a dozen young Muslim women. Malcolm’s decision to confront Muhammad set in motion their inevitable and dangerous split. Nation of Islam members believed Malcolm had been usurping Muhammad’s popularity and plotting his own rise; Muhammad himself believed Malcolm was cozying up to mainstream civil rights leaders. Malcolm’s celebrated visit to Mecca, which forced him to rethink his separatist leanings, further antagonized many Nation members. He had embarked on the path that led to his murder by Nation of Islam members on Feb. 21, 1965, at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem.
Malcolm X’s life has inspired filmmakers, writers, painters, rappers and dramatists, yet much about his murder has remained a mystery. Now we have Manning Marable’s “Malcolm X,” a groundbreaking piece of work. Marable, a historian who died on the eve of this book’s publication, convinced people who had been silent for decades to sit for interviews. He also drew upon oral histories, dusty police reports and FBI and CIA documents. The result is not just a biography, but also a history of Muslims in America and a sweeping account of one man’s transformation – and of the conspiracy, abetted by police inattention, that took his tumultuous life. The tension toward book’s end – when Malcolm was trying to figure out who might murder him – is so gripping it nearly soaks through the pages.
At first, Elijah Muhammad saw Malcolm X as a gifted disciple with great potential and self-discipline. But Muhammad prided himself on getting the Nation to look inward. In contrast, political currents intrigued Malcolm, who particularly admired Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. “Elijah Muhammad,” writes Marable, “could maintain his personal authority only by forcing followers away from the outside world; Malcolm knew that the Nation’s future growth depended on its being immersed in the black community’s struggles of daily existence.” Bypassing traditional civil rights leaders and often deriding them as “Uncle Toms,” Malcolm appealed to urban blacks in the ghetto. He warned in a 1957 speech that if the “Negro intelligentsia” didn’t do something about blacks being murdered in the South by white supremacists and discriminated against in the North by business owners, “the little man in the street will henceforth begin to take matters into his own hands.” Soon the FBI and the New York police were tracking Malcolm’s movements and placing undercover agents inside the Nation.
Two incidents, in addition to Elijah Muhammad’s infidelities, exacerbated the split with Malcolm X. The first came in 1962, when Ronald Stokes, an unarmed Muslim who was a friend of Malcolm’s, was shot and killed by Los Angeles policemen in a parking lot. Malcolm wanted revenge, but Muhammad urged against it. Malcolm eventually joined with L.A. civil rights leaders to protest police brutality, a move that infuriated Muhammad. The second, more serious incident came in the aftermath of President Kennedy’s assassination. Malcolm tried to blame the killing on U.S. military violence abroad. Muhammad was livid. He believed that the authorities would strike back at black Muslims, particularly those in prison, for Malcolm’s words. He suspended Malcolm, and the suspension led to a convulsive split, with Malcolm eventually forming his own organizations.
Marable persuasively shows us the tightrope that Malcolm walked in the early 1960s. He would belittle civil rights leaders but also, after breaking with the Nation, would seek common ground with them. Marable does not shy from Malcolm X’s repugnant statements and actions, such as dismissing well-meaning whites who wanted to join his crusade; and his bizarre negotiations with the Ku Klux Klan, in 1961, to buy land for blacks to live on.
Malcolm had also begun working on his autobiography with Alex Haley, one of the few black writers able to get assignments from mainstream magazines. (One must not forget that at the time of Malcolm’s struggles, the fields of law, medicine, journalism, university teaching, banking, finance and many others were difficult for American blacks to penetrate.) The scenes of Haley and Malcolm sitting in Haley’s New York apartment – two black cats from different sides of the political divide – are priceless: Though glum about death threats and the safety of his family, Malcolm rises and jitterbugs to show Haley what he was like when he was known as Detroit Red. Marable challenges Malcolm’s autobiography but offers no real surprises.
Marable works the reinvention motif into the book with authority. He accentuates Malcolm’s fabled and life-changing journey to Mecca. “Malcolm was quick to credit Islam with the power to transform whites into nonracists,” Marable writes. “This revelation reinforced Malcolm’s new-found decision to separate himself completely from the Nation of Islam, not simply from its leadership, but from its theology.”
Toward the end, many Nation of Islam members had ceased calling him “Brother Malcolm”; Malcolm X was now “a heretic.” His house in Queens was firebombed. His murder was plotted – though not with the approval of Elijah Muhammad, Marable points out – a year in advance. Marable examines the evidence against a number of suspects and abettors, including informers, inefficient NYPD officials and the murderers themselves. This is tragic and shocking material: Some of the killers apparently remain at large while two of the convicted may have been innocent.
My only criticism is that Marable did not tell us enough about Malcolm’s family in the years following his death. That family has suffered much pain. In 1995, Qubilah, one of Malcolm’s daughters, was charged with hiring a hit man to murder Louis Farrakhan, who had sided with Muhammad during the Malcolm contretemps. The case fell apart in court. Malcolm’s widow, Betty Shabazz, died in 1997 from injuries suffered in a house fire set by her grandson Malcolm, Qubilah’s son.
It will be difficult for anyone to better this book. It goes deeper and richer than a mere homage to Malcolm X. It is a work of art, a feast that combines genres skillfully: biography, true-crime, political commentary.
It gives us Malcolm X in full gallop, a man who died for his belief in freedom, a man whom Marable calls the “fountainhead” of the black power movement in America.
Potential shut down of the government as a result of the fight between Congress and the White House over proposed spending cuts and deficit reduction. Mexico’s narco-terrorists still killing Americans with impunity. Libya in civil war; demonstrations continuing in Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, and now, Iraq; gasoline prices rising; and, 9%+ unemployment persists.
Labor unrest in Wisconsin on a scale not seen in decades. Bush, Clinton to Chair New “National Institute for Civil Discourse” at the University of Arizona following the tragic shootings of Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford’s and others in Tucson.
In a previous blog, “Reflections On the Revolution in Egypt“, some readers were critical about my citing the legacies of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr.Martin Luther King, Jr. in connection with the successful non-violent protests and subsequent removal of Hosni Mubarak from power. These readers criticized me for associating, what they called “race”, to the demonstrations in Cairo; when in their opinion, “race” was not an or the issue.
Such comments, presumably, were in response to several quotations cited by me from speeches of Dr. King, America’s most prominent African-American, relevant to the success of non-violent disobedience in Tahrir Square.
I probably run the risk of provoking such criticism again. In commemoration of “Black History Month”, I want to share my thoughts about the historical influence of major black religious figures on the movement for freedom and participatory democracy, without regard to race or color, in our own country.
What’s the relevance or connection? The movement for transformative change of those institutions and policies in our country supporting racial segregation was fueled by young people with core values and ideals of freedom and democracy. The same core values for participatory democracy and equal access to opportunity motivating the youth in the Middle East.
Black and white young people, principally college students, in the late 50s and 1960s in our country did not have the benefit of instant communication with one another by use of the internet and companion social network technologies of Facebook, Twitter, and smart phones. The tools of communication they had were only television, radio, and next-day newspaper reports by journalists on the scene reporting their stories.
The determination and persistence of their non-violent peaceful protests opposing racial segregation or the War in Vietnam were influenced by the religious teachings of their “elders”: persons who formed the basis or backbone of the protest religious theology. A theology that constituted the philosophical foundation of the non-violent Civil Rights Movement in our country.
As our nation commemorates Black History Month, it is fitting that we pay tribute to contributions of such “elders” to our own nation’s struggle for participatory democracy and the influence such philosophy and political doctrines had not only on the youth in our country, but also on those university students, especially English speaking and reading young people, in the Arab world.
Bishop Richard Allen
Widely considered to be the “Father of the Black Church”, Richard Allen (1760-1831) founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME).
Born into slavery in Philadelphia, Allen was allowed to buy his freedom at the age of 20. Ordained a Methodist minister in 1784, he became increasingly put off by the racist segregation of the white Methodist community. He responded by founding the AME, first as a local congregation and then uniting with a group of churches from surrounding cities to form the first black denomination in the United States. Elected as the institution’s first Bishop, Allen was a major influence in the development of black cultural identity and an inspiration for future generations of leaders who would use the church as major force for organization and unification in the black community.
Bishop William J. Seymour
From 1906 to 1909, William J. Seymour preached his radical form of Christianity from a run-down building in Los Angeles. His church was the host to thousands of visiting ministers, many of whom incorporated Seymour’s teachings about experiencing the Holy Spirit when they returned to their own congregations. The event became known as the Azusa Street Revival and is largely credited as the origin point for the modern Pentecostal or charismatic movement.
Called to the clergy at age 16, James Cone (born 1938) has dedicated his life to confronting racism in the United States through his experiences in ministry, education, and authorship. His work largely focused on analyzing the compatibility of Christianity with the multiple philosophies of the black civil rights movement.
“For me, the burning theological question was, how I can reconcile Christianity and Black Power, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s idea of nonviolence, and Malcolm X’s ‘by any means necessary’ philosophy?” — Black Theology and Black Power by James H. Cone
In 1970, Cone published his landmark work, A Black Theology of Liberation, taking a radical new look at Christianity through the pained lens of the oppressed black community in America.
The long-time Dean of Chapels and Theology at Morehouse College and Boston University, Howard Thurman (1899-1981) was a major proponent of nonviolent protest as a primary tactic in the movement for black civil rights. While leading a delegation to South Asia in 1936, Thurman spoke at length with Mahatma Gandhi about his experiences with nonviolence. This conversation would have a strong influence on Thurman’s work for the entirety of his career. His seminal work, the 1949 book Jesus and the Disinherited, would be a major influence Martin Luther King, Jr. and other black religious leaders.
Benjamin Elijah Mays
An ordained Baptist minister, Benjamin Elijah Mays (1894-1984) was a career educator, serving at various times as a Professor at South Carolina State College, Dean of the Howard University School of Religion, and President of Morehouse College. He also served as the first black president of the Atlanta school board.
Mays was a frequent and vocal critic of segregation and racism in America. He was an important early mentor to many of the civil rights leaders who were products of the black colleges including Martin Luther King, Jr. Additionally, his written work and widespread respect in the academic community helped to coalesce support for the civil rights movement among the nation’s intellectual elite.
Thomas A. Dorsey
Thomas Dorsey (1901-1960) was an American pianist, arranger and composer who is considered to be one of the most important figures in the development and popularization of Gospel Music.
A prolific composer, Dorsey spent his early career playing and singing the blues. However, after undergoing a spiritual conversion and experiencing the tragic death of his wife and child, Dorsey forsook popular music and focused his work on religious music like the song, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” He toured for many years with Mahalia Jackson and penned hits that would usher in the popularity of many of the era’s biggest stars including Sister Rosetta Thorpe and Elvis Presley.
Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.
In Black Power Between Heaven and Hell, Tony Chapelle wrote, “Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was the equivalent of the rap group Public Enemy, the protest politician Jesse Jackson, and the Congressional Black Caucus all in one.”
Powell (1908-1972) was born in New Haven, Conn. to a minister, who headed the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, N.Y., a church he would lead himself beginning in 1937.
In 1945, Powell was elected as a Democrat to the House of Representatives, representing the 22nd congressional district, which included Harlem. He was the first black Congressman from New York, and, as one of only two black Congressmen at the time, Powell challenged the informal ban on black representatives using Capitol facilities by taking black constituents to dine with him in the “whites only” House restaurant.
Mordecai Johnson (1890-1976) was the first black president of Howard University where he served for 34 years. Prior to his career in education, Johnson studied at Harvard and Rochester Theological Seminary where he was the first black graduate.
During his time at the head of Howard, Johnson was renowned for amassing an esteemed faculty of African-American scholars. The NAACP also awarded Johnson its highest honor for his ability to secure federal and private funding for the construction of new buildings and to secure the long-term financial security of the school. He also was known for frequently using his leadership position as a platform to speak out against racism, segregation and discrimination.
Alexander Crummell (1819-1898) was an American scholar, an Episcopalian minister, and founder of the American Negro Academy, the first major learned society for black Americans. He was also an early advocate of African-American self-help.
Education — progressive education — was an important part of Crummell’s youth. Born to the son of an African prince and a free mother, he attended an interracial school, an institute run by abolitionists and had private tutors. In 1839, Crummell was denied admission to the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church because of his race, so he studied theology privately and became an ordained Episcopalian minister in the Diocese of Massachusetts in 1844 at the age of 25.
In 1873, after spending some 20 years in Liberia as a missionary, Crummell came to Washington, D.C., where he was appointed “missionary at large of the colored people.” Seven years later, he founded and served as the first pastor of Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church. Crummell, whose vision was that the black church should be a place not only of worship but also of social service, encouraged black ministers in Washington to establish charitable institutions for their race.
Late in life, he taught at Howard University and founded the American Negro Academy, which promoted the publication of scholarly work dealing with African-American culture and history. Crummell emphasized African-American self-help and the need for practical education — and he did this independent of Booker T. Washington.
Dr. Patrick L. Cooney and Henry W. Powell, in The Life and Times of the Prophet Vernon Johns: The Father of the Civil Rights Movement, wrote that the three greatest pushes for civil rights in the U.S. — Adam Clayton Powell Jr.’s campaign against Jim Crow in the North, the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education and MLK’s fight against segregation in the South — were all influenced by one person: Vernon Johns.
Johns (1892-1965) was Dr. King’s predecessor as pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. and was a mentor of Ralph Abernathy, Wyatt Walker and others in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. His whole demeanor reflected his fight against class inequality in both the black and white communities.
Johns thought that whoever controlled the money controlled the overall society. From this insight, based this on teachings from the bible, the pastor stressed that blacks needed to own more businesses. He’s quoted as saying, “I noticed that some of you noted that I had neglected to wear shoe strings. Well, I’ll start wearing them when Negroes start producing them.”
Martin Luther King Jr.
What more can be said about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? Person of the year in 1963, Time Magazine also included MLK (1929-1968) in the top 10 people of the century.
Ordained as a Baptist minister in 1948, King soon attended a lecture on the life of Mahatma Gandhi and was inspired to delve deeper in the Indian social philosopher’s teachings. In February of 1959, Dr. King and his wife visited India, where they studied Mahatma Gandhi’s methods of nonviolent protest.
Gunnar Jahn, Chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, presenting the Nobel Prize to Dr. King in 1964, said:
“[Martin Luther King] is the first person in the Western world to have shown us that a struggle can be waged without violence. He is the first to make the message of brotherly love a reality in the course of his struggle, and he has brought this message to all men, to all nations and races.Today we pay tribute to Martin Luther King, the man who has never abandoned his faith in the unarmed struggle he is waging, who has suffered for his faith, who has been imprisoned on many occasions, whose home has been subject to bomb attacks, whose life and the lives of his family have been threatened, and who nevertheless has never faltered.”
In the course of about 12 years, from 1956 to April 4, 1968, with the exception of Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, MLK may have done more to achieve racial, social, political justice and equality in America, than any other event or person in American history.