Adults forget how hard certain things can hit a child. I had a strong reminder of this last night while watching the excellent and compelling Who Killed Malcolm X? on Netflix. A tip of the cap and much respect to Abdur-Rahman Muhammad for his long, tireless investigation and the important work he accomplished in the face of discouragement by virtually everyone he knew and met.
In the documentary, a black and white news clip panned past the Allied Chemical Building at the foot of Times Square. I don’t know what this building is called today, but it’s the one they drop the ball from every New Year’s Eve. I suddenly had a vivid memory, from around the time I heard the news that Malcolm X had been murdered, making me around nine years old at the time. My mother, my father, my little sister and I were walking past that building, which had a showcase at street level. We must have been strolling after seeing a Broadway show, which we did from time to time in those days.
Behind a gigantic glass window was a collection of magazines on display. The cover of one showed a black and white photo of a pile of naked, emaciated corpses, intimately entangled. It was essentially the still image of a movie clip that had caused me to sprint out of an auditorium to projectile vomit at the age of eight, or maybe seven and a half. A child never entirely gets over the shock of the first knowledge they receive of the unimaginable evil humans can be so nonchalant about participating in.
I will never forget watching the short, stocky man in the cap, impassively wheeling the giant wheelbarrow full of jiggling skin-covered skeletons, tipping the wheelbarrow to direct the skinny corpses down a chute, into an enormous mass grave. Perhaps because he knew he was being filmed, and could not resist a theatrical gesture (or maybe he’d been directed) he tossed the butt of his cigar in after the cadavers, before turning to pick up his next load. I’d seen enough, and I left the screening room, running up the aisle, through a crowd of crying teenagers in a room full of cigarette smoke.
Seeing that horrific photo in the window of the Allied Chemical Building I turned to my father. His response was something to the effect that there are “some very sick people in the world” (that phrase remains). I don’t know if he was referring to the Nazis, the publisher of the magazine with the horrific picture on its cover, the magazine’s audience or the management of the Allied Chemical Building who had decided to place that nauseating image in its ground floor window for children of all ages to see. It makes no difference, really, which very sick people he was referring to.
Around this time, in the late afternoon of February 21, 1965, I was sitting on the foot of the bed in my parents’ room, looking for something to watch on TV. The radio was also on in the room, for some reason, tuned to the news station my father always had on his alarm clock. I remember the news coming out of the radio. Malcolm X had been shot in the Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights, shot many times and killed. Even at my young age I immediately understood the terrible immensity of the moment, I was struck by the sickening thought of how violence can end a righteous debate in favor of the murderous.
My father had long been involved in what is now known as the Civil Rights Movement. He was a fierce integrationist who’d been screamed at and pelted by angry New York City parents and teachers in the first school where he spoke in support of Brown v. Board of Education, the ruling that overturned the long racist doctrine of “Separate But Equal” in racially segregated education. After the angry reaction to my father’s first speech he was accompanied by police when he went to speak to these agitated PTA groups. I learned about this only after he died, when my mother told me the story as I was working on his eulogy.
Malcolm, it turned out, had no police protection on the day of his murder, a week to the day after his home was destroyed by three molotov cocktails thrown through windows in the middle of the night (the press suggested that Malcolm himself had set his home on fire, in some kind of insane publicity stunt — what do you expect from a desperate, hyperbolic, race-baiting rabble rouser? — the mainstream media asked). The phalanx of cops who arrived after his assassination to wheel Malcolm’s dead body to the emergency room of the hospital across the street had been stationed on the other side of six lanes of Broadway that afternoon, far from the packed ballroom where the killing was done. Only one of Malcolm’s five killers was apprehended at the scene. The other four, including the man with the sawed off shotgun whose blasts the coroner ruled had caused Malcolm’s death, never even faced arrest, let alone trial. Two men who had not even been present during the execution were convicted of Malcolm’s murder and served twenty year sentences as the murder investigation was quickly wrapped up.
My father clearly admired Malcolm X. There was, as far as I could see, much to admire. Malcolm spoke clearly and forcefully, and never without wit. He talked about things nobody was allowed to speak of, calling for long-denied rights every human being should be entitled to from birth in a nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Malcolm stressed that waiting another generation or two for incremental change in an inhuman system was not an option. He fearlessly debated everyone who wanted a piece of him. Malcolm, in the last year of his life, was increasingly willing to work with anyone of good faith to advance the cause of human rights in America and worldwide. At the time of his assassination he was treated, in many countries, as an ambassador for America’s millions descended from former slaves.
At the same time, during Malcolm’s Nation of Islam years, my father often chuckled recounting Malcolm’s robotic insistence that everything he knew was the teaching of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. I recall chuckling with my father over Malcolm’s dutiful recounting of the true story of how the evil scientist Yakub had, as the Honorable Elijah Muhammad taught, created the evil White Race and set those devils upon the other races. The image works as metaphor, not as “science,” though to the faithful this is a distinction without a difference.
The larger point is that black and brown men like Malcolm, like millions of despised children born in the wrong neighborhoods today, are born facing a system of murderous injustice. It was Malcolm’s articulate struggle to fight effectively for long-denied Human Rights that inspired my father. By the time Malcolm was murdered by five Black Muslim fanatics, with the active complicity of the New York City Police, J. Edgar Hoover’s reactionary FBI and the rest of them, I was well aware of the impossible, crucial things Malcolm was attempting to do. I admired him myself. In the fifty-five years since his murder, and many books later, I admire him no less.
The lessons of his life, and the “necessity” of his killing, live on in anyone ever touched by Malcolm’s powerfully articulated efforts to change an evil system. The deepest horror to me, in our angry, divided, tribal society where even old, long-cherished friendships are in peril when politics raises its hideous head, is that human beings, capable of kindness, empathy, creating things of transcendent beauty, are unable to unite in our universal desire to live in a better, more fair world. We may argue angrily about what justice is, but we all know injustice when it is personally thrust into our faces.
We are deliberately divided about the most basic things in our lives. Living at a time when humans are unable to unite, even in our desire to continue to live on a habitable planet, I think of Malcolm’s heroic, doomed fight. Instead of concerted worldwide action toward solutions there is an angry “debate” over whether the unprecedented violence of rapid climate disruption observable by everyone, after every recent “hundred year” natural catastrophe, has anything to do with a century of increasing pollution from burning fossil fuels and cutting down the earth’s forests to graze cows for beef. The “argument” benefits only those already wealthy and powerful “persons” who profit directly from the destruction of the habitable earth.
We are not doomed to these awful fates, until we are. The horror of that magazine cover in the window of the Allied Chemical Building is no different to me now than when I was nine, no different than the public execution of Malcolm X, El-Hadj Malik El- Shabazz felt when I first learned of it. Whatever the intent of some “very sick people,” these horrors should stand for only one thing— people of good will need to stand as one against all such organized hatred and mass deception, everywhere. That as a rule we don’t is our eternal shame as humans.