One of the most iconic figures in American history was born on this day 90 years ago. The legacy of Malcolm X is one that has grown stronger over the years, inspiring generations with his sharp insight and rapid growth on a personal level. Malcolm is often seen as the ideological opposite of Martin Luther King, Jr., a contrast which does not really capture the complexity of the two. Just as King was moving in a different direction in his last few years, Malcolm was always reexamining himself, too. Malcolm in some ways pushed this country to accept the demands of the Civil Rights Movement, or instead face the truths he spoke of. In doing so, he drew the attention of many Black icons. Some disagreed with him, but most respected him and what he stood for.
It is well known that Malcolm was friends with the likes of Muhammad Ali, Gordon Parks and James Baldwin, and had briefly met King. But how many other Black icons crossed paths with him? In honor of Malcolm’s birthday, The Urban Daily researched some of the Black celebrities who mentioned encountering the man. Here are 10 of those stories.
Rosa Parks actually identified with Malcolm as much as she did with King. While she supported non-violent tactics, she admired how Malcolm took pride in being Black. In fact, she considered him to be one of her personal heroes. Malcolm also saw her as courageous and praised her in speeches as an inspirational activist.
Their last encounter would be on February 14, 1965, at an event in Detroit for the Afro-American Broadcasting Association. Despite having his home firebombed that day, Malcolm still traveled to the Motor City and delivered what is now known as his “Last Speech.” Parks was honored at the event for her dedication to activism, and she spoke with Malcolm afterward. A week later, Malcolm would be assassinated.
John Coltrane never met Malcolm, but he did see him speak once. In a rare interview which recently resurfaced, Coltrane acknowledged that he attended a speech Malcolm gave in 1965 and admired what he said. When asked if there was a parallel between jazz and Black nationalism, Coltrane shied away from the question and said jazz encompassed many different kinds of struggles. He was not averse to social causes though, as his song “Alabama” was written about the four black girls killed in the church bombing of 1963.
Contrary to the popular perspective of Maya Angelou, she was very active in the Civil Rights Movement and came to be friends with Martin and Malcolm. She met Malcolm in 1964 when she was living in Ghana with Black-American expats, including the likes of W.E.B. DuBois. (DuBois passed away in 1963 though, so he and Malcolm never crossed paths in Ghana). By that point she was disillusioned with the Civil Rights Movement, but it was Malcolm who convinced her that she should not give up on activism. He often sought the counsel of people like Angelou after leaving the Nation of Islam.
They stayed in touch, and she became convinced he could bring people of the diaspora together through his new organization. She returned to the U.S. in 1965 to start working on his Organization of Afro-American Unity. Sadly, Malcolm was killed before they could set his plans in motion. His death devastated her, and she spent some time traveling before moving to California to focus on writing.
Nina Simone was neighbors with Betty Shabazz and Malcolm’s family. The new documentary on Simone, which is coming to Netflix, mentions her connection to Malcolm. They lived near each other in Mount Vernon, a suburb where many well-to-do Blacks presided. She came to know his family there and would have gatherings with them. Simone’s birthday falls on February 21st, the day he was assassinated. In a story from the Amsterdam News on April 17th, 1965, after Malcolm was killed she performed at the Apollo Theater in a benefit for his family.
In his early days when Malcolm would criticize Black civil rights leaders, he often brought up those in interracial marriages and labeled them as false representatives of Black people. On several occasions he mentioned the playright behind “A Raisin In The Sun,” Lorraine Hansberry, as one such example. According to Ossie Davis, Hansberry was so furious about this she cornered Malcolm at a party, and in a rare instance he was speechless after she checked him. The two made up though and would remain friends.
Hansberry and Malcolm both share today, May 19th, as their birthdays. Even though they only knew each other for a short time, when Hansberry died Malcolm attended her funeral. Many other Black icons were also present, and Martin Luther King had a representative speak for him at the funeral. This was in January of 1965, a month before Malcolm’s death.
Sam Cooke was friends with Muhammad Ali, but had encountered Malcolm X before he knew the boxer. Cooke first met Malcolm in Harlem at a performance at the Apollo Theater. The three of them became friends during a stay at Harlem’s Hotel Theresa in 1963, and Cooke came to admire them. Cooke saw in them the same sense of self-determination he had as a Black musician who owned the rights to his music.
After Ali had fought Sunny Liston, the three shared a hotel room with football player Jim Brown, where they had a private celebration. A recent play called One Night In Miami imagined what the four of them would have talked about, and how they would have related to each other based on their viewpoints and experiences. Shortly after this historic encounter, Ali would announce to the world that he had joined the Nation of Islam. He would also make a song with Cooke, who was killed later that year.
The two icons surprisingly never met, but came very close to doing so. Paul Robeson and Malcolm both attended Lorraine Hansberry’s funeral, with Robeson speaking at it. While the two did not cross paths there, according to an Amsterdam News story from May 1, 1965, Malcolm asked Ossie Davis to help organize a meeting with Robeson. Unfortunately, Malcolm was killed before he had a chance to meet Robeson.
Eartha Kitt encountered Malcolm on several occasions. They once spoke at a rally in Harlem co-organized by Jackie Robinson after the Birmingham church bombing of 1963. She describes in an interview with the First Amendment Center that she and Malcolm would debate their differences in ideology. She was trying to persuade him to align with the Civil Rights Movement, a position Malcolm was considering in the final year of his life. The last time she saw him was several days before he was killed.
The “Sanford & Son” comedian knew Malcolm as a teen, and they briefly mention each other in their autobiographies. In their days as hustlers the two worked at the same Harlem restaurant as dishwashers. Redd Foxx was nicknamed “Chicago Red” and Malcolm “Detroit Red,” based on their hair color and hometowns. (Malcolm was from Lansing, but used Detroit as more people knew that city.) The two were struggling at the time and stayed on a rooftop each night, using newspapers as their beds. They would cross paths again in the ’60s after becoming legends.
Although this seems like an obvious connection, Malcolm did inspire the Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael to pursue a more radial direction. Carmichael and students at Howard University once had Malcolm debate the activist Bayard Rustin at the campus. Malcolm accepted the challenge and would win this 1962 debate. Before the marches in Selma, Carmichael and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had Malcolm come to the city to speak.
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