Read Alex Haley Online

Authors: Robert J. Norrell

Alex Haley (10 page)

The
Times
asked Haley to do a piece on the aftermath of the Harlem riot. “They wanted a piece wherein Harlem's ‘responsible' citizens would condemn the riots,” he told Reynolds. He had asked many “such citizenry, who didn't condemn them as the
Times
desired.” The
Times
turned down the article he submitted and assigned the piece to another writer, whose interviews in Harlem got the same undesirable answers.
12

In August Haley met with McCormick and his young assistant Lisa Drew to talk about “Before This Anger.” The book was similar to the project he had previously named “Henning, U.S.A.” It would be about the South in the 1930s, when blacks and whites enjoyed friendly, peaceful relations. He discussed it in the context of the riots that had been dominating newspaper headlines the past few weeks, especially in New York. McCormick liked the idea because of the contrast with the present day. He took extensive notes at the meeting: “A book Southerners will read with appreciation. Told in terms of people . . . A book that exposes the warmth and love of the south.” Doubleday offered a modest $5,000 advance, which hardly solved his financial problems, but it gave focus to what he would write next.
13

Playboy
assigned him to
interview Martin Luther King Jr., which proved more difficult than any interview he had undertaken. King was reluctant to appear in a publication considered salacious and immoral. Even when he was persuaded that
Playboy
would reach an audience that could help his cause, his busy schedule made it extremely difficult to meet with Haley. During September 1964 Haley hung around Atlanta for a week before he got his first few minutes with King. Haley's approach was respectful and unchallenging. When asked about the Black Muslims, King suggested that the black man in Harlem embraced black nationalism because he had seen so little racial progress in his environment, whereas black southerners by 1964 believed that they were moving toward racial justice. King asked Haley off the record, “Well, what's Brother Malcolm saying about me these days?” King told others that when Malcolm “starts talking about all that's been done to us, I get a twinge of hate, of identification with him.” When Haley next saw Malcolm, he asked Haley about his interview with King, “What did he say about me?”
14

* * *

While Haley was in Atlanta pursuing King, the
Saturday Evening Post
ran excerpts of the autobiography under the title “I'm Talking to You, White Man.” The magazine
sent a photographer to Cairo to take color pictures of Malcolm, and the photography on both the cover and inside the magazine made the long excerpt almost as compelling visually as it was narratively. Though Malcolm had left the United States before the riots began in mid-July, he knew about them. “More and worse riots will erupt,” Malcolm predicted. He accepted the reality of violence with near complacency. The followers of Elijah Muhammad would “consider it a first-rank honor to kill me,” he said, adding that “any day, any night, I could die at the hands of some white devil racists.” Malcolm insisted that he had rejected racism and was working to purge America and the world of it. “I dream that one day history will look upon me as having been one of the voices that perhaps helped to save America from a grave, even possibly fatal catastrophe.” The
Post
carried a harsh editorial that read in part, “If Malcolm X were not a Negro, his autobiography would be little more than a journal of abnormal psychology, the story of a burglar, dope pusher, addict and jailbird—with a family history of insanity—who acquires messianic delusions and sets forth to preach an upside-down religion of ‘brotherly' hatred.” Malcolm, in the editors' view, preached hatred that “unquestionably . . . was behind some of the violence of the summer riots in the North.” His followers, the Black Muslims, according to the editorial, represented a “sort of Negro Ku Klux Klan.” Malcolm was incensed at the
Post
's characterization and furious that there was no recognition of how he had changed.
15

He had not changed in every way. Malcolm sent word that he favored Barry Goldwater in the presidential race, because the Republican nominee “flatly tells the black man he's not for the black man.” If Goldwater was elected, blacks would protest more aggressively, whereas if the “liberal fox” Lyndon Johnson won the White House, blacks would “keep on sitting around, begging and passive-resisting for another 100 years, waiting for ‘time' and for ‘good-will' to solve his problems.”
16

By the fall of 1964, Reynolds and McCormick were nervous because the autobiography was not finished. Haley blamed the delay on Malcolm's long absence and promised that it would finally be submitted by the end of January 1965. Then he took off in mid-October to begin research on “Before This Anger.” George Haley was campaigning for the Kansas state senate as a Republican, and Alex went to Kansas City to write speeches for George and orchestrate last-minute politicking to secure him votes from overwhelmingly Democratic black voters. Haley's travel began just days after Julie gave birth to their daughter, Cynthia, his third child; he left mother and child in an upstate New York hospital. He was a proud father—from afar. He returned to his new family on Election Day, just in time to vote for Lyndon Johnson.

Contrary to what Haley had hoped, the hostility to Malcolm inside the Nation of Islam escalated in his absence. The sect took legal action to remove him from the house that it had provided him. Elijah Muhammad's representatives in New York publicly called Malcolm a “self-serving hypocrite consumed by a passion for personal power.” Malcolm wrote from Mecca that he now rejected the Nation as a pseudoreligion and that he would not rest “until I have undone the harm I did to so many well-meaning, innocent Negroes who through my own evangelistic zeal” had embraced the Nation “even more fanatically and more blindly than I did.”
17

On November 24, 1964, on Malcolm's return from Africa and the Middle East, Haley met him at Kennedy Airport. There, in addition to supporters holding a banner that read “Welcome Home, Malcolm,” were black plainclothes policemen taking photographs of everyone in the crowd to identify both Malcolm's followers and potential attackers. Malcolm and Haley met privately to talk about the Muslim leader's experiences abroad. “I was trying to internationalize our problem,” he said, “to make the Africans feel their
kinship
with us Afro-Americans. I made them
think
about it, that they are our blood brothers, and we all came from the same foreparents.” Malcolm now embodied the black nationalist desire for connection among all peoples of African heritage.
18

Malcolm's life returned to the chaotic state it was in before he left. He was fighting the eviction from his house. People on Harlem streets were criticizing his new organization, the OAAU, for its failure to
do
anything. Armed men now suddenly appeared near him in public places, which forced Malcolm to travel with large contingents of bodyguards. During what little time he had to work with Haley on the book, Malcolm was not “his old assured self.” He resented the fact that much of the media still treated him as a dangerous advocate of black violence and did not take seriously the threats on his life. He said, “No group in the United States is more able to carry out” a death threat than the Black Muslims. “I know because I taught them myself.”
19

For Christmas 1964 Haley bought “walking” dolls for Malcolm's two oldest daughters, Attallah and Qubilah. Malcolm was touched by the writer's thoughtfulness. “Well, what do you know about that!” he said, as he made the dolls walk. Then he confessed that he had never bought any of his children a present. “That's not good, I know it. I've always been too
busy.
” Malcolm asked Haley to be the godfather of six-year-old Attallah. Haley nicknamed Attallah “Little Red” because of her strong resemblance to her father, “Big Red.” He would become something of a father figure to Attallah after Malcolm died, even paying for her college education.
20

In early January 1965, Malcolm picked Haley up at Kennedy Airport on the writer's return from George Haley's inauguration as a Kansas state senator. The two men sat in Malcolm's Oldsmobile in the airport parking lot. Tell George, Malcolm said, that “he and all the other moderate Negroes who are getting somewhere need to always remember that it was us extremists who made it possible.” Malcolm was still frustrated that the media would not relinquish his “old ‘hate' and ‘violence' image.” The main civil rights organizations dismissed him as too militant and the “so-called militants” as too moderate. “They won't let me turn the corner.” Haley and Malcolm then turned to personal matters. Haley sent his regards to Betty, and the men discussed the imminent arrival of Malcolm's fifth child. “This one will be the boy,” he said smiling. “If not, the
next
one!” It was the last time Haley saw his friend alive.

* * *

During the early days of 1965, groups of Black Muslim men stalked Malcolm X in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. Malcolm spoke on a Chicago television show about the NOI's determination to kill him. Indeed, in Chicago, fifteen NOI men with guns were waiting for Malcolm at his hotel, but Chicago police warned them away. On February 14 Malcolm's home in Queens was firebombed. He and his family escaped without injury, but he was badly shaken. On February 18 Malcolm told an interviewer, “I'm a marked man.” When Malcolm and Haley spoke on the telephone, Malcolm said, “Haley, my nerves are shot, my brain's tired.” Malcolm wanted to visit Haley in upstate New York during the third weekend of the month to read the manuscript one more time. “Just a couple of days of peace and quiet, that's what I need.”
21

Even as the walls seemed to be closing in on Malcolm X, he continued to revise his views about race relations. In mid-January he declared publicly that “when you are dealing with humanity as a family there's no question of integration or intermarriage. It's just one human being marrying another human being.” He worked to connect to the mainstream civil rights movement, traveling to Selma, Alabama, in late January to speak to activists in the midst of a voting-rights protest that would culminate in the massive march later that spring.
22

In late January, still with no final manuscript, Paul Reynolds wrote to Haley, “I'm really getting a little worried over this, worried about it for you and your career.” Again, Haley promised that the book would be finished in a few days. Then, as if to exasperate Reynolds on purpose, Haley sent him a treatment of his musical, “The Way.” On Saturday, February 20, Malcolm called Haley to ask about the manuscript. Haley told him the final draft would go to Doubleday at the end of the following week, on or about February 26. Malcolm postponed his visit to Haley's home until after the weekend.
23

On Sunday, February 21, Malcolm had just come to the podium of Harlem's Audubon Ballroom, where he often spoke, when a commotion distracted the audience and three gunmen rose and shot Malcolm many times with a shotgun and pistols. He died almost immediately. One of the assassins, Talmadge Hayer, was caught by the crowd at the scene. The other shooters escaped, but witnesses identified two of them as Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson, and they were apprehended. All three were convicted of the murder, but Butler and Johnson were innocent. Hayer later named four men from the Nation of Islam's Newark mosque who, he said, were involved in the shooting. Subsequent inquiry suggested that Hayer was telling the truth.

Haley told Reynolds he expected that they would soon hear from Betty Shabazz that she needed money. The book was Malcolm X's sole financial legacy to his widow and his four, soon to be five, daughters. “I'm just glad that it's ready for press now at a peak of interest for what will be international large sales, and paperback, and all. I'm just glad that it isn't a ‘little' book, but one that can well really provide for his family as he would have wanted.” In fact, the book was nowhere near ready for the press.
24

For the week after Malcolm's assassination, New York City was in a state of turmoil. On Monday, February 22, the
New York Times
reported that the murder was “an example of the mounting pattern of violence in the Black Muslim movement,” quoting a Malcolm loyalist as predicting “probable violence between Negro factions, and upon whites, in the wake of Malcolm's death.” That day's editorial page carried the prediction that “this murder could easily touch off a war of vengeance of the kind [Malcolm X] himself fomented.” The FBI heard many reports that “war was being declared between the NOI and Malcolm's followers.” The next day, February 23, arsonists destroyed Mosque No. 7, Malcolm's original NOI temple. Hundreds of city police patrolled Harlem, on alert for a possible shooting war between the NOI and Malcolm's followers. Harlem residents were incensed because “the screaming headlines of many of our newspapers make it seem as if all of Harlem is an armed camp, ready to explode at any moment,” when in fact few residents had responded violently.
25

On Friday, February 26, Doubleday announced that it was canceling publication of
The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
Nelson Doubleday Jr., the owner, worried that a war between Black Muslims and Malcolm's followers could spill into the three Doubleday bookstores in Manhattan and others around the country. Ken McCormick objected strongly, but the owner prevailed. It was a unique event: Lisa Drew, McCormick's assistant at the time, said that up until then, no book had ever been canceled because of considerations originating outside the publishing house. Haley and Reynolds must have been shocked, but their responses went unrecorded.
26

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