Interview with Alex Haley

February 65?


Hm hmm.

Um, in the early part of, of 1965, you know, January moving into February, Malcolm was in mounting problems. By now his biggest worry was his family. How were they, what was going to happen to them. He was the head of the family. Their home had been bombed for one thing.] And he just felt I guess as near desperate as I ever saw him because again here's the image of the fearsome, indomitable Malcolm X, but bottom line was he was a father and he was a husband and his wife and his daughters were imperiled, and what could he do about it**. Another factor, he had relatively little money. And I remember the, the exact date I can't remem--remember but it was in February of '65 that my phone rang one day and a voice came out, and I didn't know who it was. I didn't--

SOUND 113]

After a period of time it had become almost a macabre experience to be in my role as biography for Malcolm because by this time I'd come to know him, you know, as more than a, an abstract subject whom you interviewed and were writing about. I knew the man now, you know, I knew his wife, Sister Betty, I knew his children, little girls. And I knew how one among numerous others things, how much he wanted a boy, and he had four girls. And coming into say spring of '65, ah, Sister Betty was pregnant again and he said, "That's that boy." And that was about the only joyous thing really happening to him at that time because around him otherwise were organizations, agencies vying for him to join them, I think everything from the Protestant Church to the most extreme radical groups there were, were kind of courting Malcolm. They, they all wanted to have his name affiliated with what they were doing. The moderates of the church groups wanted Malcolm to be an example of conversion, so to speak. And the other groups wanted him because of the very potency of his name. And I remember Malcolm crying out to me, literally crying out one night about this. He said, "I'm trying to turn the corner, but they won't let me. I'm caught in a trap." And it was because whichever way he tried to turn, somebody else wanted him somewhere else. And he was just in that middle. It went on thus until, as things worsened, one night Malcolm's home was bombed. And this was probably the thing that surfacely upset him most because this got underneath the image of Malcolm, the fearsome, the indomitable Malcolm X, this got to the father and the husband of Sister Betty and their daughters. Sister Betty as I say was pregnant. And he was just really sh--shook to pieces about that. And I remember feeling sometimes as if I wanted to hug him, I mean just, you know, go up and hug your brother or something because he was in such pressure, and yet his discipline, his image demanded that he be stoic and move on, you know. And then Saturday, one Saturday, I think it would have been the 20th of February, 1965, I was in upstate Rome, New York, this is where I was living at that time, that's where I was working. After finishing the interview process of Malcolm, I had moved upstate. I had more time, I was freer, I could write better up there because I just had fewer distractions. Also it was cheaper, I didn't have any money, you know, to be doing much in the way of rent. And the phone rang and I picked it up, it was a morning, and, a Saturday morning as I recall, and this voice came on and asked, ah, and started talking. And I'm wondering who is it. I didn't understand, I didn't recognize the voice. And finally something he said made me realize with a great shock, my shock, that was Malcolm X. And for the first time in our whole acquaintance of years I really didn't un--didn't perceive who he was. The thing was he was under such pressure that it was as if it had constricted his vocal cords, [cords. He was ah, ah, saying to me that he wondered if I could go to the publisher and get an advance that would enable him to pay down on a house for his family. And he said something like, ah, "As you know, they have bombed us out of our home." And I told him that I was going to do everything I could do and I would go to the publisher which, ah, ah, I certainly could do and was, was planning to do, and I told him I would go on Monday, as soon as they were open and I would present this to them. And I think if I'm not mistaken he needed, he said $20,000 minimum. He, he needed, if I recall correctly he needed $20,000 minimum as a down payment. And I told him I felt pretty good that that could be had. And, and I did feel that they could do it because in, in, in an interesting way the publishers too who had first been very apprehensive about Malcolm, now I was turning in some copy and they had begun to feel less so. They were beginning to feel the drama of his life and the drama of his story. And that was Saturday and we finally wound off and, ah, said, you know, bye, see you. And I went back to doing whatever I was doing. And then the next thing I heard was Sunday, that I heard on the radio that Malcolm had been shot to death. And it was a feeling, I, I don't know how really to describe really to this day, but a feeling of great loss, a feeling of such a shame. I remember sort of, they say when you have some real emergency, your whole life will flash before you. I found myself in a vicarious way that his life sort of flashed before because I knew it, you know, I had written it, I had the chronology of his life. And I remember thinking about the little boy who had been with his mother and his siblings and she was trying to hold the family together. And then thinking about him in school as the only Black in the school, I believe it was Mason, Michigan. And then the class adviser who told him he shouldn't want to be a lawyer as he had said but that he should be a carpenter because his popularity in school indicated to him how White people would give him work, and things like that. And then he left school and went to Roxbury. It was just sort of seeing the chronology. And there he was dead, 39 years. I think that was also the, the death age of Dr. King, I believe 39. And somebody later who I think it was C. Eric Lincoln, Dr. C. Eric Lincoln told me that was also that ah, ah, the death of Christ ah, ah, was 30--age 39. And I just sort of didn't know how to feel. And I went, you know, down, of course went to New York right away and just kind of wandered around the places where we had gone together. And, ah, then I remember going to, it was funny, I couldn't get to anybody close, the wall, the bars in effect had, had gone up and, and I couldn't get to people who had been close to him. Family was in seclusion. And I went to finally to, so I bought all the papers and I listened to all the broadcasts to find out what was happening. And then finally his body had been wrapped in, in, ah, eas--eastern style, you know, eastern-religion style, and he was lying in state in a Harlem mortuary. And I remember going there and just, I just got in the line and went filing along with the other people. And there he was in the casket and I remember just kind of looking and I said sort of to myself, but to him just barely audibly, "Bye Red," 'cause he liked to be called Red by those who knew him very well. He once had been called Detroit Red and to those who were very close to him, and I had eventually had become, I never had called him Red to his face but I, I felt now I was among those close to him and so I just said, "Bye Red," and filed on past. And then I went back up to Rome and wrote as feverishly hard as I ever have in my life that part which appears at the end of the autobiography of Malcolm X. The chapter I think is titled "Epilogue" if I'm not mistaken. And in that I put everything that I knew or heard or whatever about Malcolm which had not been in the earlier section that he had talked about. I told things, you know, in that which, ah, I just did it in a sense of wanting to kind of share with readers. Up to my own recent visit of passing his bier and, ah, ah, then, it made the book have between two covers the account of a man's life from birth to death. And I base that on saying that as I recall the book, "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" begins, I started with the phrase, "When my mother was pregnant with me, comma, I was told later." And then it went on, you know, with what had happened to his father. So it went from that, when my mother was pregnant with me to him lying there in that mortuary.**

There was, um, there's an expression I sometimes use about Malcolm, saying he was "As the point of the plough." Ah, but when I say it I don't mean it in the sense that he was alone, that, you know, he was not a person who did all this alone. He would be the first to say so. Ah, Malcolm was a visible person. That's why sometime back I was saying you should never talk about Malcolm without linking him, at least certainly in that phase of his life with the Nation of Islam. He himself, I don't think Malcolm uttered five sentences in the period that I first knew him without saying. "I have been taught," or, "All that I know comes from the Honorable Elijah Muhammad." And he was in fact, at least according to what he testified and said and volunteered, taught virtually everything he knew in the area he was famous for by Mr. Muhammad. And, ah, what Malcolm became was the extremely effective public figure. The man who could go out and face the microphones and face the audiences and rivet and galvanize people and make people stop and think. I remember him, not only Malcolm but Malcolm in particular I remember and then there were other, ah, Nation of Islam ministers who could do this, ah, immaculately well, ah, who could go into a group of people assembled on a Sunday afternoon, Protestant church going people. They would stand outside Baptist and Methodist churches Sunday morning and pass out cards, neatly groomed young men with their, you know, perfectly clean shirts, their hair cut short, and politely invite people, "Would you care, since you like good preaching to come over and hear ours?" And then these people who were old line members of, of Baptist and Methodist churches with southern backgrounds, the people had, ah, some of them would come to the Muslim's ah, church front, ah, storefront church and there would be Malcolm. I mean you really missed something if you never saw Malcolm operate like this. The people would file in. Here was Malcolm standing up there looking as if he was a pent-up volcano, which he was in a metaphoric sense. And on the stage with him would be something like a, a lithograph in color of Jesus Christ. And there would be a Blackboard and Malcolm would say something like, ah, "Brothers and sisters we're glad you have given up your time to come be with us this afternoon and I want to say at the first we may say things, we will say things that may not be something you ever heard before. And all we ask is not that join us or not that you agree with us, but that you go home and think about what we talk about here." And then he would say something, ah, ah, "Who is this?" pointing with a pointer at the lithograph, and you'd hear these old line Christians in the back say, "That's my Jesus, that's Jesus Christ." And Malcolm would listen to all this and then he, he would say, you know, "Isn't it interesting that this person to whom you pray, you do pray don't you?" And then you'd hear "Oh yes I do, every night," and so forth until they all agreed. And then he would say, "Isn't it interesting that this person to whom you get on your knees in your most private of sessions at night and you pray, doesn't even look like you. Your eyes are not blue, your hairs are not this color," and so on. And he was doing it in the sense of someone exhorting people to just think about it, what they were doing. And then he would say things like, "Now do we correctly understand that this, all who believe in this person are the same, that that's what he teaches, that you all the same? You and those of other race who believe in him too?" And you, you'd hear a little weaker, "Well that's what it says," and so forth. And then he'd say, "Well you know, ladies and gentlemen, we are going to be closing our little service here shortly but I'd just like to ask one thing." He said, "When you leave here, you who are equal in his sight with the others who believe in him, you go get on the subway and you go downtown and you walk around and look at the houses the other Christians live in, and the factories they own, and the businesses they own, and then you get on the subway and you come back up here to where you live and walk around and look at where you live, and what you have, and what you own. And then go home tonight brothers and sisters and think about it, if you are indeed equal in his sight." And Malcolm would quickly bring the meeting to a close. No collection. And people began to defect from the old line Protestant churches. There were churches, ah, which split. One part of the congregation went to the Nation of Islam, the other remained Baptist and Methodist, but even then kind of shakily. And so that is why I say Malcolm was the point of the plough. He and others, not just Malcolm, all, all able nation of Islam ministers could do it. Um, they were schooled in it, they picked those who were able particularly to be oratorical ah, acrobats. So it was almost oratorical can--calisthentics and would maintain an image of great cool. Nobody shouted, nobody jumped up and sc--screamed like in the churches we know about. But it was extremely effective certainly in this period of time. And Malcolm was simply the most dramatic of all that I ever saw. And then he trained many others who came more or less in his pattern. And then he was trained, all of them were trained by Mr. Elijah Muhammad.

Uh in, um, after "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" was published, ah, I remember one thing that happened was that, ah, the then Saturday Evening Post bought the condensation rights for the book and paid $20,000, and that meant that I got half, ah, Malcolm got half and I got half. Ah, his family got half, you know, 'cause he was gone by now. And, ah, I hadn't known there was that mon--much money in the world, $10,000 at one time. And, ah, but I had as a result of this suddenly become what's called an author. You know, you, when you're a magazine writer, you're a mag--you're a writer, but then when you get a book out, you become an author. And with that came other things like people wanted you to speak and they would actually pay you for running your mouth. They would, ah, ah, people wanted you to write things, they'd pay you more for writing the same amount you had before, you know, and that was a year I suppose around 196--66, 67 that I remember the tax thing that I had to, you know, declare was $100,000. Incredible, unbelievable. And that was the same period in which I had begun to think about the stories my grandmother used to tell me about the family. Ah, how, how graphically I remember. When I was about, spe--ah, specifically when I was six years old, my grandmother, my maternal grandmother had my, my grandfather had died. Her grief was, she was just inconsolable. And she had called, written letters to her sisters to come and visit. This is Henning, Tennessee, at the time population about 475. And 5 sisters came from places which sounded so exotic to a little boy from Henning, Tennessee: St. Louis; Dyersburg, Tennessee; Inkster, Michigan; places like that. And these sisters gathered, it was the first time they'd been together since they were girls in some place called Alamance County, North Carolina that my grandmother used to talk about. And, ah, I remember that i--in the evenings after all day visiting or working in the garden or crocheting or something, they would gather on the front porch. It was about as dusk deepened into early night, there were thick honeysuckle vines all around the front porch, and all over the honeysuckle vines were lightning bugs, as we call 'em, flicking on. You know what lightning bugs are. And ah, ah, the first thing they would do, it would take them about five minutes to get to rocking together. They were all in rocking chairs, you know, and you don't just sit down on the rocking chair and start rocking, you have to kind of get it adjusted just right and the cadence just right. And when they had a kind of a synthesis of rocking, there in the early night, on the front porch, everyone of them would run her hand down in the pocket of her apron and everyone would come up with that inevitable little can of Sweet Garrett's Snuff, and they'd load up these lower lips. And then they would start taking little practice shots out over the honeysuckle. The champion I remember my great Aunt Liz came from a little place called Wewoka, Oklahoma. She'd been teaching a long time. Aunt Liz could drop a lightning bug at four yards when she felt like it. And they would just talk about family, preceding family. I didn't really realize it was my own ancestors they were talking about, I heard them, they talked about this, when I first heard about Chicken George was on that front porch. Chicken George was their grandpa, their daddy was Tom Murray who was a Blacksmith. Their mother was Arrena Murray. The father of their father, father of Tom was Chicken George and Chicken George's mother had been Miss Kizzy and Miss Kizzy's father had been this mysterious African. And they talked, every night they talked some more of this story. And I learned it, I heard it, without awareness I was learning. You know what? I learned that story very much as I was hearing and learning other stories in a different context in Sunday school.