Like Malcolm: Remembering Jesse Long Bey
Historian Paul Lee brings his perspective on the life of Jesse Long-Bey.
He had an unusual advantage as an editor — namely, the perspective of one of society’s throwaways, an ex-convict who’d done hard time.
Of course, Malcolm X had the same experience. Like Malcolm X, Jesse was forever marked by his time in prison. In his posthumously published autobiography, Malcolm X observed through Alex Haley, his ghostwriter:
“Any person who claims to have deep feeling for other human beings should think a long, long time before he votes to have other men kept behind bars — caged. I am not saying there shouldn’t be prisons, but there shouldn’t be bars. … He will never forget. He never will get completely over the memory of the bars.
“After he gets out, his mind tries to erase the experience, but he can’t. I’ve talked with numerous former convicts. It has been very interesting to me to find that all of our minds had blotted away many details of years in prison. But in every case, he will tell you that he can’t forget those bars.”
However, like Malcolm X, who went to prison as Malcolm Little, Jesse didn’t merely serve the time, but he “made the time serve him,” as Malcolm’s older brother Wilfred Little Shabazz had advised him to do when he was incarcerated in 1945.
During his six-and-a-half years in three Massachusetts prisons, Malcolm X became an autodidact, or self-educated scholar. He was fortunate that at least one of these institutions, the Norfolk Prison Colony, had an exceptional library.
There, with state-imposed time and the new focus that accepting the “race”-first religious teachings of Nation of Islam (NOI) leader Elijah Muhammad had given him, Malcolm X evolved a course of study that, in both range and depth, would be the envy of any graduate student, even in this supposed Information Age.
Prison U. S. A.
Jesse did the same thing. However, unlike Malcolm X, Jesse had the benefit of the rich, potent literature that was inspired by the Black Power movement and codified by the Black Studies movement — which, in turn, Malcolm X had helped to give birth to.
Therefore, even better than the incarcerated Malcolm Little, the caged Jesse understood, and could document, what the mature Malcolm X meant when he told the Northern Negro Grass Roots Leadership Conference at Detroit’s historic King Solomon Baptist church on Nov. 10, 1963: “Don’t be shocked when I say I was in prison. You’re still in prison. That’s what America means: prison.”
Like Jesse, Malcolm X became editor after his release from prison in 1953. In May 1960, as minister of the NOI’s Muhammad’s Temple of Islam No. 7, he published and edited, out of the basement of his his Queens, N.Y. home, “Mr. Muhammad Speaks.” It was renamed “Muhammad Speaks” after it was moved to the Nation of Islam’s Chicago headquarters in 1962.
As editors, both Jesse and Malcolm X had a keen understanding of this country’s many hypocrisies, and the toll that they take on human lives, including the innocent who are born into it. Both were also passionate about exposing this culture’s lies — to afflict the comfortable and free the afflicted.
I’m sorry, but I can’t offer anymore because I’m crying. Jesse was more than my editor, more than a friend, more than a brother. He was a comrade in our ongoing fight for freedom, justice and dignity. Such people are simply not expendable, particularly now that, in this city and state, our fight is becoming more protracted.
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