Read Alex Haley Online

Authors: Robert J. Norrell

Alex Haley (9 page)

On December 1, 1963, Malcolm gave the first speech by an NOI leader since the Kennedy assassination. Muhammad had warned Malcolm not to criticize Kennedy, because the Messenger knew how popular the president was among blacks. The title of Malcolm's speech was “God's Judgment of White America,” and in it, he called the president's assassination an instance of “the chickens coming home to roost” for a nation perpetuating violence in Vietnam. The remark defied Muhammad's order and provided a sensational example of Malcolm and the NOI's anti-American views. Malcolm's defiance proved to Muhammad's inner circle that he wanted to replace the Messenger. Muhammad suspended Malcolm from his position as minister.
28

Haley was brought closer to the strife within the NOI when, in February 1964,
Playboy
assigned him to interview the boxer Cassius Clay. Haley asked Malcolm to help arrange the interview, a natural request after Malcolm had spent several days at Clay's Miami training camp and then more time giving the boxer a tour of Harlem. Clay was a member, or was soon to be a member, of the Nation. To Haley's surprise, Malcolm replied, “I think you better ask somebody else to do that.” Elijah Muhammad, fearing that the boxer and Malcolm would align in a competing Muslim organization, soon announced that Clay needed a Muslim name and ordained him Muhammad Ali. Haley's interview focused mainly on Ali's boxing career; the fighter proudly discussed his psychological warfare against Sonny Liston. He dwelt on his calculated effort to become a celebrity. “People can't stand a blowhard, but they'll always listen to him,” he said. Ali spoke of his pride in being a Muslim but said little about Malcolm X. Haley believed, as did Malcolm, that Ali had betrayed Malcolm out of fear of Elijah Muhammad and his inner circle. “You just don't buck Mr. Muhammad and get away with it,” Ali said. “I don't want to talk about [Malcolm] no more.” Haley showed Malcolm the notes he had taken in the interview. Malcolm's hurt feelings were clear on his face and in his voice. Malcolm said he felt “like a blood big-brother to him. . . . He's a fine young man. Smart. He's just let himself be used, led astray.”
29

During the first days of 1964, Malcolm let Haley know that he, Malcolm, was in danger of being killed. Haley considered what that meant for the book. Malcolm had final approval of the manuscript. Who would give it if he was dead? Reynolds and McCormick worried that if Malcolm was assassinated the autobiography's sales would be reduced. In early February they pressed Haley for a new completion date. “I can have it all in by March 31,” he replied. That was a ridiculously optimistic prediction: He had just received comments on what would be the sixth chapter of eighteen in the final version of the autobiography—with directions for a total rewrite. He was less than a third of the way through the book, but he began to produce chapters at a quicker pace, and in March 1964 he settled into a Manhattan hotel, where he said he would stay until he was finished.
30

In February he explained to McCormick and Reynolds his plans for an afterword to the autobiography. “I plan to look at America and at the society which has produced the Black Muslims, [and] I plan to hit very hard, speaking from the point of view of the Negro who has tried to do all of the things that are held up as the pathway to enjoying the American Dream, and who (if not I personally, so many are) so often gets dissolusioned [
sic
] and disappointed.” But rather than producing book copy, he sent long letters that described unwritten chapters and exulted over the power of the narrative. “We have here a book that, when it gets to the public, is going to run away from everything else.” In late March, he wrote. “
Think
of this book's dramatic impact wherever books are read. Paul,
think
of the bidding for rights.” He still had more than half of the book to write, but he promised that it would be finished in three weeks.
31

Haley shaped
The Autobiography
into a powerful narrative. With his arrival in Boston as a teenager, Malcolm had become a prolific petty criminal. Malcolm “conked” his hair, “the emblem of his shame that he is black.” He thought it was a sign of strength and status to scare whites. He became a procurer of drugs and prostitutes for white men, whose bad morals he later came to see as the source of all evil, including that done by blacks. Malcolm's misogyny was put on parade: white women were a status symbol to black men, and black men typically preferred them. White women were practical: they lusted after black men but had no intentions of having real relationships with them. But Malcolm himself had a lasting attachment to one white woman, whom he gave the pseudonym “Sophia.” He had a long friendship with a Jewish man, “Hymie.” Still, he held that whites could not see blacks as real people. Blacks functioned as “both servants and psychologists, aware that white people are so obsessed with their own importance that they will pay liberally, even dearly, for the impression of being catered to and entertained.” In prison, Malcolm embarked on an impressive program of self-education. He read widely in the classics and in the new anthropology on the origins of man. While he was there, his brother told him about the Nation of Islam. Prison officials allowed him to write to Elijah Muhammad, because, Malcolm said, they knew the white man was the devil and felt guilt. The Nation of Islam brought him joy and self-justification. He embraced Elijah Muhammad's explanation that his imprisonment was the fault of the white devil and not the result of his own criminal behavior.

* * *

In March 1964 Malcolm faced up to the fact that he had no future in the NOI. He had begun discussing the Messenger's immorality with other NOI ministers, which his protégé Louis X (later Louis Farrakhan) reportedly passed on to the Chicago headquarters. On March 8, Malcolm went to M. S. Handler's home and told the reporter that he was leaving the NOI and creating a new organization, Muslim Mosque, Inc. Handler's story in the next day's
Times
reported that Malcolm was creating a black nationalist political party through which he intended to turn blacks from nonviolence to self-defense against white supremacy. “I remain a Muslim,” Malcolm declared, “but the main emphasis of the new movement will be black nationalism as a political concept and form of social action against the oppressors.” He said the NOI was “too narrowly sectarian and too inhibited” to advance blacks' cause and that he was prepared “to cooperate in local civil rights actions in the South and elsewhere and shall do so because every campaign for specific objectives can only heighten the political consciousness of the Negroes and intensify their identification against white society.” Though he said he was not encouraging people to leave the NOI, he explained that Elijah Muhammad had kept him from participating in civil rights protests and that that was “going to be different now . . . I'm going to join in the fight wherever Negroes ask for my help.” He especially intended to speak frequently on college campuses, because “white students are more attuned to the times than their parents and realize that something is fundamentally wrong in this country.” He finally opened up about the hostility toward him in the NOI. “Envy blinds men and makes it impossible for them to think clearly. This is what happened.”
32

Once the break was made, Malcolm moved forward with his new approach. He met with civil rights activists and discussed efforts to desegregate schools in northern states. He gave a speech, “The Ballot or the Bullet,” which displayed a much greater commitment on his part to voting rights than he had expressed before. In late March he went to Washington to observe the filibuster that southern senators were carrying out to thwart the omnibus civil rights bill that President Lyndon Johnson and Vice President Hubert Humphrey were pushing. There in the gallery of the Senate, Malcolm met Martin Luther King Jr. for the first and only time. The two shook hands, looking for all the world like the image of a new, united black front.
33

In hindsight, Malcolm's departure from the NOI marked a historic turn in the black freedom movement. Unburdened of the baggage of a secretive, corrupt sect, he could become the voice of a more militant approach toward white racist society. But he could also shed the anti-white racism that was central to the NOI. He had a huge, ready audience among young people, black and white, and among the dispossessed in American inner cities. He pointed black thought in the direction that would be manifest in the Black Power movement and other black liberation efforts in the coming years. Haley joined with a number of black admirers who believed that Malcolm's intelligence and eloquence would no longer be wasted in defense of a racist sect but applied to the cause of reforming American race relations. Malcolm's ability to promote assertions of black manhood surpassed that of Martin Luther King Jr., his admirers believed, and that was the next necessary step for lifting blacks in America.
34

* * *

Haley was caught unprepared for the rapid changes in Malcolm's life, but he made adjustments. Through Haley, Malcolm asked Doubleday to make his new organization the beneficiary of book royalties. In the event of his death, payments should go to his wife, Betty. He opened up to Haley about the internal workings of the NOI. Malcolm came close to tears as he said to Haley, “We had the
best
organization the black man's ever had—
niggers
ruined it!” It was the only time Haley ever heard Malcolm use the racial epithet.
35

Malcolm's rejection of the Nation of Islam undermined Haley's narrative. Up to this point, Malcolm's story was about his descent into criminality, his re-education in prison, and his redemption under the tutelage of Elijah Muhammad. Now the Messenger was no longer his redeemer but a false teacher and a corrupt fraud. The abrupt revision of Malcolm's anti-white opinions prompted Paul Reynolds to advise Haley about rewriting the manuscript: “I think you're going to have to make it a little clearer that this is the past, when he was hating all whites.”

Haley dreaded the thought of redoing Malcolm's character—and his book. He raised the problem with Malcolm, who had thought about it. “There are a lot of things I could say that went through my mind at times even then, things I saw and heard, but I threw them out of my mind,” he said. He had decided against revising the book, saying, “I'm going to let it stand the way I've told it.” If he did not see it immediately, Haley eventually realized that Malcolm's transformation put a sweeping curve in the book's narrative arc. The new turn would eventually account for much of its popularity. On March 26, Haley got a note from Malcolm that read, “There is a chance I may make a quick trip to several very important countries in Africa, including a pilgrimage to the Muslim Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina.” Haley soon began to receive letters signed El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. His new name meant “Malcolm of the tribe of Shabazz has made the journey to Mecca.”
36

5

Marked Man

In April and May 1964, Malcolm visited Cairo, Jeddah, Mecca, Khartoum, Nairobi, Lagos, Accra, and Algiers. He met many white Muslims, including one in Jedda who had given Malcolm his hotel suite, even though he had heard negative things about him from the American press. This man's generosity and openness prompted an epiphany: “It was when I first began to perceive that ‘white man,' as was commonly used, means complexion only secondarily; primarily it described attitudes and actions. . . . But in the Muslim world, I had seen that men with white complexions were more genuinely brotherly than anyone had ever been.” M. S. Handler reported that in Mecca Malcolm had “eaten from the same plate, drank from the same glass, slept on the same bed or rug, while praying to the same God” with Muslims “whose skin was the whitest of white, whose eyes were the bluest of blue.” This had forced Malcolm to alter “my own thought-pattern, and to toss aside some of my previous conclusions.”
1

On May 21 a crowd of supporters at New York's Kennedy Airport greeted Malcolm, who had grown a beard on his trip, perhaps to emphasize the point that the journey had changed him. He and Betty, now pregnant with the couple's fourth child, picked up Haley and drove him to the Hotel Theresa in Harlem, where a large crowd of reporters and photographers was waiting. Haley and M. S. Handler sat together and listened in amazement to Malcolm's response to the question of whether he no longer thought all whites were evil. “
True,
Sir! My trip to Mecca has opened my eyes. I no longer subscribe to racism. I have adjusted my thinking to the point where I believe that whites are human beings as long as this is borne out by their humane attitude toward Negroes.” Handler, taking notes furiously, muttered over and over, “Incredible, incredible.” During a long question-and-answer period, Malcolm was supremely confident, often flashing a big smile to the room. “He had never been in better form,” wrote Haley.
2

Haley took a room at a hotel in the city in order to finish his interviews with Malcolm. They had little time alone. The room turned into a communications center for Malcolm to take calls from Africa and the Middle East, American and British newspapers and television, and his allies among American Muslims. Reporters and Muslim supporters often showed up, and Haley sometimes had to vacate the room for Malcolm to deal with sensitive matters.

Malcolm offered thoughts that he had earlier kept to himself. When he read a passage of the manuscript that described how he had intimidated his burglary ring by aiming a gun at his own head in a game of Russian roulette, he admitted to Haley that he “palmed the bullet.” When Haley offered to change the manuscript, Malcolm decided to leave it as it was written. “Too many people would be so quick to say that's what I'm doing today, bluffing.” Malcolm revealed guilt about how he had treated the middle-class black woman called Laura, who adored him despite his frequent callousness. “That was a smart girl, a
good
girl,” he said. “She tried her best to make something out of me, and look what I started her into—dope and prostitution. I wrecked that girl.” Malcolm objected to Haley's portrayal of his relationship with Elijah Muhammad as being like that between a father and son. When Haley reminded Malcolm of their earlier agreement not to change the already-written chapters, Malcolm replied, “Whose book is this?” He soon called Haley, apologized, and said that the chapters should stand as they were originally written. At this point, in mid-1964, Malcolm may have decided that he would have to trust Haley to finish the book on his own terms, because he already believed that he would not live to see its completion. The book continued to evolve. By June 1964 Haley had decided to scrap the three essay chapters in which Malcolm laid out his black nationalist views. The essays included Malcolm's harsh judgments about the March on Washington and his accusations of corruption among the main civil rights organizations. These sections came to be known as the “missing chapters” of the autobiography.
3

Haley left out some events that were now embarrassing to Malcolm. In January 1961 Malcolm had met in Atlanta with Ku Klux Klan representatives. At that time FBI informants reported that Malcolm told the Klansmen that “his people wanted complete segregation from the white race.” He also said that “the Jew is behind the integration movement, using the Negro as a tool.” Later, at a Nation of Islam rally in Washington, D.C., Malcolm received American Nazi Party visitors and introduced their leader, George Lincoln Rockwell, to the audience. Perhaps these connections were so unsavory that he chose not to remember them. Haley had gained access to FBI sources through Alfred Balk and surely knew of the meetings with the Klan and the Nazis. But he also understood that nearly all Americans would have disapproved if they knew of it, and thus the knowledge would undermine Malcolm's critique of white America.
4

The Autobiography of Malcolm X
must then be understood as the
creation
of its subject's life, not a factual recounting of it. That can be said of all autobiographies. Malcolm, Haley, and his editors collaborated on an interesting narrative, but also one that would not repel readers.

Malcolm's life moved rapidly into new chapters. In June 1964 he created the Organization of Afro-American Unity, a name he borrowed from the Organization of African Unity, just created among postcolonial states in Africa. It was to be his vehicle for civil rights activism—at last an answer to critics who said he only talked and did not act. (“I'm going to join in the fight wherever Negroes ask for my help.”) The new organization intended to send “armed guerrillas” to Mississippi and anywhere else white bigots threatened black people's lives.

Despite all the interruptions, Haley made progress on the book. In mid-May he assured McCormick that, with little more than half the book written, he was doing what was “needed for me to do to get this book headed for the presses at last, thence to the Best-Seller lists for, by golly,
I
predict,
months:
(I was born an optimist.)” On June 14 Haley assured McCormick that the final chapter would be in his hands by the end of the week. It was not.
5

As Haley wrote feverishly, Malcolm sent him notes. His life was changing so quickly that he feared that today's views would soon be out of date. “So I would advise you to rush it on out as soon as possible,” he wrote. Malcolm continued to receive threats from the NOI, and he confessed to Haley that he felt like a “marked man.” In late June Haley wrote Malcolm a long letter begging him to be careful, to think of his children, his wife, and his sister Ella, all of whom loved him deeply. “Think of those followers ready to lay down their
lives
if you are harmed,” Haley wrote. “Think of the
millions
of black people in America who respect and heed you. Think of the influence of your image and utterances among even
more millions
of white people, to make
them
see, many for the first time, the condition of the black people.” Haley exhorted him, “Hell, think of
me!
. . . I never have had a close friend die.” Was it not time, Haley asked, for Malcolm to undertake his hegira
,
referring to the prophet Muhammad's departure from Mecca in 622
CE
, an exodus prompted by threats to his life from religious opponents? When Malcolm returned, his autobiography would be published, and it would give him “a greater voice as a single man than the entire Nation of Islam ever had collectively.” Malcolm took his friend's advice. In early July he returned to Africa for what would be a four-month trip. For the most part, he was out of touch with Haley.
6

* * *

Haley's work on the book mostly stopped then. Though far from finished with the autobiography, he turned to other writing projects out of financial need. Both Nan and Julie constantly required money. The Internal Revenue Service had billed him for unpaid taxes regularly since 1961, and the interest and penalties mounted constantly. He had spent $1,500 living at a Manhattan hotel as he worked on the book in the spring of 1964. His finances improved when Reynolds got a $20,000 advance on the serial rights for the autobiography from the
Saturday Evening Post.
Once that was shared with Doubleday and Malcolm, Haley still had far less money than he needed, but he believed that his financial difficulties were only a temporary situation, which would end when the autobiography made him wealthy. “It's sweltering here—but no matter,” he told Reynolds from upstate New York in late June, “it won't be when, a year hence, I'll have myself some cool beach summer workplace.”
7

For Haley, the easiest way to address his financial woes was to get more publishing contracts. He now suggested to Reynolds a self-help book for white Americans: “If we could presume to divine white America's mass subconscious concerns, I think we would emerge with something approximating ‘How to Co-Exist with Negroes.'” Whites would find in it “a non-challenging, palatable, at times even pleasant menu of things they hadn't known concerning Negroes. Many
little
things, that can make such difference to Negroes.” Haley's hopeful assumption was that with the current racial tensions, whites were ready to be educated. Reynolds was dismissive. He could not see whites rushing to buy the book. Undaunted, Haley had an idea for a musical about black life, which he called “The Way.” In 1961 Haley had gotten to know Lena Horne, who had starred in
Cabin in the Sky,
and Haley's musical bore some similarities to that film. Haley's musical would be set in a cosmetics factory run by a black executive who was surrounded by several stereotyped characters, including a hipster, a white racist, and a black racist. Alternating black and white choruses would sing “Camptown Races,” with the black group performing spirituals in black dialect. Reynolds called the idea “very, very interesting.”
8

Without Reynolds's knowledge, Haley had proposed articles for
Life
and the
Saturday Evening Post.
When he found out, Reynolds warned Haley that he might hurt his relationship with
Reader's Digest,
which was still paying him a $300-a-month retainer. Reynolds wanted all queries to magazines to come to him first, even if Haley had a prior relationship with an editor. With regard to
Reader's Digest,
Reynolds wrote,”I always thought these regular monthly payments, even though they were small, were helpful. We are fairly close to the Digest. DeWitt Wallace [publisher of
Reader's Digest
]
came to dinner at our house last Saturday evening.” Haley replied that he believed he should dissolve the
Reader's Digest
arrangement. He had researched and written a lot of articles that the magazine did not, in the end, decide to publish. Charles Ferguson at the
Digest
was always complimentary of Haley's work, and Wallace noted how high Haley's stories rated on their reader-interest polls. But of every four articles he wrote, three were rejected somewhere in the editorial pipeline. Articles were returned with comments he did not understand. “A couple of re-writes were successful, but most weren't,” Haley noted. “Each represented, at the least, a lost month of work.”

Haley appreciated how much the
Digest
staff had helped him: “I enjoyed the Digest people, the camaraderie of the organization, the warmth of everyone, the niceness one wouldn't expect (such as Mr. Wallace and Mrs. Wallace sent a $100 check to Julie and me as a wedding present).” He enjoyed the perks of working for the
Digest:
“The flying around the country first-class on Digest assignments, expenses paid, being wined and dined by subjects of pieces.” But gossip going around New York had gotten back to him: “I attended one function where a friend introduced me to a personage, somewhat in his cups, who amiably chuckled, ‘Oh, yes, you're the Reader's Digest fellow who flies around interviewing people and nothing ever happens.' That got to me.”
9

Haley had greater ambitions now. “Another factor, extraneous to the Digest, yet affecting the feeling that I have,” he told Reynolds, was that “now I have tasted books.” He reminded Reynolds of the inscription under Irving Wallace's portrait in the agent's office: “To Paul, who said ‘Write books.'” The book he was thinking about was the one he now called “Before This Anger” about black-white relations in the South of the 1930s. He felt “the strength of my position as a Negro,” one not given to violent protest, but who “can say powerful things of a nature that people will think about.” In this spirit, Haley wrote an article for the
New York Times
on the stereotype of “Uncle Tom.” A well-informed and sophisticated analysis, it explained how the image of Uncle Tom had become detached from Harriet Beecher Stowe's conception of her character.
10

But his real specialty as a writer now lay in examining the black anger embodied in Malcolm. The summer of 1964 brought a release of some of that anger, even as the most far-reaching civil rights bill in American history was passed. As before, blacks' anger was fueled in part by violence against them, most notably that arising from the Mississippi Summer project, the effort of civil rights organizations to send hundreds of mostly white workers to the Magnolia State. Three of them—a young black man, James Chaney, and two whites, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman—were murdered there. The summer also brought the first season of the 1960s' urban race riots, the most prominent of which occurred in Harlem in mid-July after a policeman shot and killed an unarmed fifteen-year-old black boy. Six days of looting shook New York City, and disorder soon spread to Rochester, Philadelphia, and several New Jersey cities. The 1964 riots seemed to confirm that black anger was rising. White opposition to the civil rights movement was also growing. In September the
New York Times
reported poll findings that most white New Yorkers believed the civil rights movement “had gone too far,” that blacks wanted “everything on a silver platter.” The
Times
concluded that a white “backlash” was underway.
11

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