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More than a eulogy

By Paul Lee
Special to the Michigan Citizen

Part II of II


On March 8, 1964, Malcolm X announced his break with Elijah Muhammad’s race-centered, religiously sectarian Nation of Islam (NOI) and, four days later, proclaimed the formation of the Muslim Mosque, Inc. (MMI), which, despite its religious name, was intended to be an inclusive Black nationalist group.

A month later, he made his hajj, or religious pilgrimage, to the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia, where he formally embraced traditional Sunni Islam and dramatically renounced the NOI’s racism in a series of letters to family, friends, supporters and, not unimportantly, journalists.

While touring several newly independent West and North African nations on his way home, Malcolm X also wrote to Ossie Davis, the African American actor, playwright, producer and social activist, which set the stage for Davis to render his greatest service to his friend.

United Black front

In a heartfelt letter from Algiers, Algeria, on May 19, 1964 — his 39th birthday — Malcolm X wrote:

“My journey is almost ended, and I have a much broader scope than when I started out, which I believe will add new life and dimension to our struggle for freedom and honor and dignity in the States. I am writing these things so that you will know for a fact the tremendous sympathy and support we have among the African States for our Human Rights struggle. The main thing is that we keep a United Front wherein our most valuable time and energy will not be wasted fighting each other.”

Malcolm X had given practical expression to the idea of a “United Front” during his visit to the West African nation of Ghana in mid-May, where he founded with African American and African Caribbean expatriates what would later be called the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU).

This effort coincided with an idea that Davis’s wife, Ruby Dee, an actor, screenwriter and social activist in her own right, had been discussing with Juanita Poitier, the estranged wife of famed actor Sidney Poitier.

Dee, one of the greatest unsung beauties and actors of the modern stage and screen, was perhaps even more of an activist than her husband. Although small and delicate, she was a spitfire with large, searching eyes, framed by high cheekbones and balanced by full lips, which she deftly used to convey subtlety or drama — both in her creative and activist roles.

Secret summit

In “With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together,” Dee’s 1989 joint memoir with Davis, she recalled her conversations with Juanita Poitier: “The two of us talked about organizing a summit where all the prominent Black leaders in the Struggle could meet in an informal atmosphere, talk, map strategy without press participation, without cameras — let down our hair.”

“We made the arrangements and carefully invited possible participants,” which included the “Big Six” mainstream civil-rights leaders and several artist-activist friends.

Davis, in his 1989 interview with Blackside for the PBS civil rights series “Eyes on the Prize II,” recalled that the purpose of the summit was “for the regular civil rights leaders to meet with Malcolm X to work out the differences between us so we could come from that meeting with a common platform.”

It took place at the Poitier estate at Pleasantville, N.Y., on June 13, 1964 (although, according to Dee, Juanita Poitier later guessed that it was “in August/late summer 1964” and Davis misremembered it in his Blackside interview as being “in early 1965.”)

Part of the Struggle

Davis told Blackside: “A. Philip Randolph was there, Whitney Young was there, Dorothy Height was there” — referring to the president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), the executive secretary of the National Urban League (NUL) and the president of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), respectively — “Malcolm X was there, several others.

“Martin Luther King,” president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), “couldn’t make it, but he sent a representative” — attorney Clarence Jones, who was also represented King and had become friendly with Malcolm X.

Also, James Forman, executive secretary of the militant Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), was reported to have attended, as did unidentified representatives of Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) national director James L. Farmer, Jr., and National Associated for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) executive secretary Roy Wilkins.

Davis told Blackside, “[W]e spent that day discussing Malcolm’s philosophy, the mistakes he made, what he wanted to do now and how he could get on board the people’s struggle that was taking place.”

“You know, he moved, he grew, he developed. And, at that meeting, we saw that Malcolm was truly dedicated to the progress of black people and to the point where he was prepared to modify even his philosophy to the best of his ability, to take back what he had said against the white folks, although he did say, you know, ‘I do not think all white folks are evil now, but some of you are, and I’m going to keep on at it until you, whoever you are, grant us the respect that we’re due as fellow human beings.’”

A contemporary account of Davis’ enthusiastic view of the summit was preserved by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which was wiretapping the home and office phones of Clarence Jones on the grounds that he was serving as an intermediary between Dr. King and Stanley Levison, his closest adviser, who FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover charged — but never proved — was a secret member of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA).

An appeal to the world

According to the wiretap log, Jones called Davis at 9:25 p. m. that same evening. Jones opined that, “reflecting on today’s conference the most important thing discussed was MALCOLM X’s idea that we internationalize the question of civil rights and bring it before the United Nations.”

In Jones’ view, Malcolm X had the “best ideas” of all those discussed.

Davis amplified Jones’ comments, observing that Malcolm X’s idea was to bring the question of U.S. racism “before the whole world.”

On July 9, 1964, Malcolm X departed on a tour of Britain, the so-called Middle East, Africa, Switzerland and France to “internationalize” the African American freedom struggle and seek support for it, particularly among the newly independent African nations.

Malcolm X told his wife, Betty Shabazz, that he expected to be gone from three to five weeks. As it turned out, he didn’t return for nearly five months, until Nov. 24, 1964.

Reaching out

Partly due to the length of Malcolm X’s second tour abroad that year, his “united black front” efforts made little concrete progress, even though he followed up the secret summit with meetings with and messages to mainstream civil rights leaders.

For example, a week and a half after the Pleasantville meeting, Malcolm X attended the NAACP’s 55th annual convention at the Statler Hilton Hotel, Washington, D.C., on June 26, escorted by his attorney, Percy E. Sutton, a former president of the group’s New York branch.

Malcolm X spoke with Roy Wilkins and was photographed chatting with board of directors chairman Stephen G. Spottswood, who was also the bishop of the Fourth Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ) church.

On June 30, Malcolm X sent supportive telegrams to the voter registration campaigns of Dr. King at St. Augustine, Fla., and Jim Forman at Philadelphia, Miss., offering in both cases to give the racist Ku Klux Klan and other white terrorists “a taste of their own medicine.”

Last rites

The Davis-Dee memoir is silent on their contacts with Malcolm X after his return to the U.S.

However, all three attended the funeral of African American playwright Lorraine Hansberry at Harlem’s Presbyterian Church of the Master on Jan. 16, 1965, where an ailing, increasingly reclusive Paul Robeson, the great black singer, actor and activist, delivered the eulogy.

In a salute to Robeson on April 22, 1965, almost precisely two months after Malcolm X’s assassination, Davis recalled that, at Hansberry’s funeral, Malcolm X asked Davis to arrange a meeting with Robeson, who he had long admired. However, it was decided to put off the meeting to a less stressful time.

On Feb. 2, 1965, Malcolm X and Davis saw each other for the last time when they appeared on David Susskind’s late-night New York television talk show, “Hotline,” on WPIX.

On the weekend of Feb. 12-14, Malcolm X and Davis were scheduled to share a panel with Democratic socialist Michael Harrington at a civil-rights conference organized by four Massachusetts colleges. Davis addressed the opening, but Malcolm X was unable to attend because he had extended his final visit to Britain.

At Mount Holyoke in South Hadley on Feb. 12, Davis publicly followed up on his and Malcolm X’s secret united-front efforts by politely urging his friend and Dr. King to become “bedfellows.” The two leaders had long sparred over their philosophical and tactical differences, although Dr. King’s criticisms being more measured and less personal.

“Let them work out a joint program of action,” the Boston Globe reported Davis as advising, “in which each will agree to form an alliance, or a coalition, based on an agreement not to fight each other.”

Davis was apparently unaware of the olive branch that Malcolm X extended to Dr. King during a visit to Selma, Ala., on Feb. 4, which was communicated through Dr. King’s wife, Coretta.

On Feb. 14, the day after Malcolm X’s return, his Queens, N.Y., home was firebombed by the NOI. Miraculously, he, his pregnant wife and their four young daughters managed to escape. Dee’s brother Tommy, who left the NOI to join Malcolm X’s MMI, took them in.

A week later, Malcolm X was assassinated by a joint NOI “special squad” from the Newark and Patterson, N. J., mosques.

Six days after this, on Feb. 27, Davis performed his final service for his martyred friend, eulogizing him at Harlem’s Faith Temple Church of God in Christ as “a Prince — our own Black shining Prince! — who didn’t hesitate to die, because he loved us so.”

For their kind and expert assistance, I would like to thank Sala Andaiye (Adams); LaNesha DeBardelaben, Jahra McKinney and Katy Schroeder, Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History; Elizabeth Clemens, Walter P. Reuther Library; Peter Goldman; Earl Grant; H.R. Lewis; Tehuti Kambui; the staff of the Washington University Film & Media Archive, which provided accurate transcriptions from Ossie Davis’ Blackside interview; and Kristin Cleage Williams. — PL.

Copyright © 2005, 2012 by Paul Lee

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