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Malcolm X: Make it Plain

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On the 80th anniversary of Malcolm X’s birthday, we broadcast excerpts of the documentary, “Malcolm X: Make it Plain,” produced and directed by Orlando Bagwell. It includes rare archival footage of Malcolm X, as well as interviews with such figures as John Henrik Clarke, Maya Angelou, Ossie Davis, and much more. [includes rush transcript]

  • Malcolm X: Make it Plain, documentary produced and directed by Orlando Bagwell and aired on the PBS series American Experience.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn to portions of a documentary called Malcolm X: Make it Plain, produced and directed by Orlando Bagwell, which aired on the PBS series, “American Experience.”

MALCOLM X: Who taught you to hate the color of your skin? Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the shape of your nose and the shape of your lips? Who taught you to hate yourself from the top of your head to the soles of your feet? Who taught you to hate your own kind? Who taught you to hate the race that you belong to so much so that you don’t want to be around each other? You know. Before you come asking Mr. Muhammad does he teach hate, you should ask yourself who taught you to hate being what God made you.

OSSIE DAVIS: Most of us blacks — or Negroes, as he called us — really thought we were free without being aware that in our subconscious all those chains we thought had been struck off were still there, and there were many ways where what really motivated us was our desire to be loved by the white man. Malcolm meant to lance that sense of inferiority. He knew it would be painful. He knew that people could kill you because of it, but he dared to take that risk.

JOHN HENRIK CLARKE: He was saying something over and above that of any other leader of that day. While the other leaders were begging for entry into the house of their oppressor, he was telling you to build your own house.

SONIA SANCHEZ: He expelled fear for African Americans. He said, “I will speak out loud what we’ve been thinking,” and he said, “You’ll see. People will hear it, and they will not do anything to us necessarily. Okay, but I will now speak it for the masses of people.” When he said it in a very strong fashion, in this very manly fashion, in this fashion that says, “I am not afraid to say what you’ve been thinking all these years,” that’s why we loved him. He said it out loud, not behind closed doors. He took on America for us.

MALCOLM X: And I, for one, as a Muslim believe that the white man is intelligent enough. If he were made to realize how black people really feel and how fed up we are without that old compromising sweet talk, why you’re the one that make it hard for yourself. The white man believes you when you go to him with that old sweet talk, 'cause you've been sweet-talking him ever since he brought you here. Stop sweet-talking him. Tell him how you feel. Tell him how — what kind of hell you’ve been catching, and let him know that if he’s ready to clean his house up, if he’s not ready to clean his house up, he shouldn’t have a house. It should catch on fire and burn down.

NARRATOR: On these Harlem street corners for most of this century, black people had celebrated their culture and argued the question of race in America. It was here that Malcolm first joined the street orators who gave voice to Harlem’s hope and its anger.

LEWIS MICHAUX: I’ve taught nationalism and that means that I want to go out of this white man’s country because integration will never happen. You’ll never, as long as you live, integrate into the white man’s system.

WILLIAM DeFOSSETT: 125th Street and Seventh Avenue was the center of activity among the black street orators. When Malcolm arrived, technically, he had no corner, so he established his base, you might say, in front of Elder Michaux’s bookstore.

MAYA ANGELOU: When Malcolm would ascend the little platform, he didn’t — he couldn’t talk for the first four of five minutes. The people would be making such a praise shout to him, and he would stand there, taking his due. And then he would open his mouth.

MALCOLM X: They call Mr. Muhammad a hate-teacher, because he makes you hate dope and alcohol. They call Mr. Muhammad a black supremacist, because he teaches you and me not only that we’re as good as the white man, but better than the white man, yes, better than the white man. You are better than the white man, and that’s not saying anything. That’s not saying — you know we’re just to be equal with him. Who is he to be equal with? You look at his skin. You can’t compare your skin with his skin. Why, your skin look like gold beside his skin.

There was a time when we used to drool in the mouth over white people. We thought they were pretty 'cause we were blind, we were dumb. We couldn't see them as they are. But since the Honorable Elijah Muhammad has come and taught us the religion of Islam, which has cleaned us up and made us so we can see for ourselves, now we can see that old pale thing to look exactly as he looks: nothing but a old, pale thing.

PETER BAILEY: I came away from that rally feeling that with him, once you heard him speak, you never went back to where you were before. You had to, even if you kept your position, you had to rethink it.

PETER GOLDMAN: We weren’t accustomed to being told that we were devils and that we were oppressors up here in our wonderful northern cities. He was speaking for a silent mass of black people and sang it out front on the devil’s own airwaves, and that was an act of war.

SONIA SANCHEZ: When he came off the stage, I jumped off the island, walked up to him, and of course, when I got to him, the bodyguards, you know, moved in front, and he just pushed them away. And I went in front of them and extended my hand and said, “I like some of what you said. I didn’t agree with what — all that you said, but I liked some of what you said.” And he looked at me, held my hand in a very gentle fashion and says, “One day you will, Sister. One day you will, Sister.” And he smiled.

NARRATOR: To make his message clear, Malcolm used his own life as a lesson for all black Americans. He preached it in fables and parables, and later, in writing his autobiography with Alex Haley, he sought some control over how his life would be interpreted in the future.

ALEX HALEY: I would be rather taken by a statement he would make of himself. He would say, “I am a part of all I have met,” and by that he meant that all the things he had done in his earlier life had exposed him to things, had taught him skills of one or another sort, all of which had synthesized into the Malcolm who became the spokesman for the Nation of Islam.

MR. HURLBURT: You were born in Omaha, is that right?

MALCOLM X: Yes, sir.

MR. HURLBURT: And you left — your family left Omaha when you were about one year old?

MALCOLM X: I imagine about a year old.

MR. HURLBURT: And why did they leave Omaha?

MALCOLM X: Well, to my understanding the Ku Klux Klan burned down one of their homes in Omaha. There’s a lot of Ku Klux Klan—

MR. HURLBURT: This made your family feel very unhappy, I’m sure.

MALCOLM X: Well, insecure, if not unhappy.

MR. HURLBURT: So you must have a somewhat prejudiced point of view, a personally prejudiced point of view. In other words, you cannot look at this in a broad, academic sort of way, really, can you?

MALCOLM X: I think that’s incorrect, because despite the fact that that happened in Omaha, and then when we moved to Lansing, Michigan, our home was burned down again. In fact, my father was killed by the Ku Klux Klan, and despite all of that, no one was more thoroughly integrated with whites than I. No one has lived more so in the society of whites than I.

WILFRED LITTLE: We was the only black children in the neighborhood, but on the back of our property, we had a wooded area, so the white kids would all come over to our house, and they’d go back and play in the woods. So Malcolm would say, “Well, let’s go play Robin Hood.” Well, so we’d go back there to play Robin Hood. Robin Hood was Malcolm, and these white kids would go along with it.

NARRATOR: Malcolm said he was the lightest skinned of the seven children born to Earl and Louise Little, a reminder, he said, of the white man who had raped his mother’s mother. In 1929, when Malcolm was four years old, his father, a carpenter and preacher, moved the family to Lansing, Michigan.

CYRIL McGUIRE: Lansing was a small town, and the west side was the side of town that blacks lived on. Malcolm and his family lived outside of the city, and they had a four-acre parcel with a small house on it, so they were sort of considered as farmers.

NARRATOR: Three months after the Littles moved in, white neighbors took legal action to evict them. A county judge ruled that the farm property was restricted to whites only. But Earl Little refused to move. Here in Michigan, Ku Klux Klan membership was at least 70,000, five times more than in Mississippi. For Malcolm’s family, white hostility was a fact of life.

WILFRED LITTLE: Everybody was asleep in our house and, all of a sudden, we heard a big boom. And when we woke up, fire was everywhere, and everybody was running into the walls and into each other, you know.

PHILBERT LITTLE: Well, what I recall about that was my mother telling us to, “Get up, get up, get up, the house is on fire,” and to get out. That’s what I actually recall.

WILFRED LITTLE: I could hear my mother yelling, I hear my father yelling. And so they made sure they got us all rounded up and got us out.

PHILBERT LITTLE: The house burned down to the ground. No fire wagon came, nothing, and we were burned out.

NARRATOR: Malcolm’s father, Earl Little, accused local whites of setting the fire. The police accused Earl and arrested him on suspicion of arson. The charges were later dropped.

WILFRED LITTLE: In the city where we grew up, whites would refer to us as “those uppity niggers” or “those smart niggers that live out south of town.” In those days, whenever a white person referred to you as a “smart nigger,” that was their way of saying, “This is a nigger you have to watch, because he’s not dumb.”

PHILBERT LITTLE: Our father was independent. He didn’t want anybody to feed him. He wanted to raise his own food. He didn’t want anybody to exercise authority over his children. He wanted to exercise the authority, and he did.

WILFRED LITTLE: He was always speaking in terms of Marcus Garvey’s way of thinking and trying to get black people to organize themselves, not to cause any trouble, but just to do — to work in unity with each other toward improving their conditions. But in those days if you did that, you were still considered a troublemaker.

NARRATOR: In the 1920s Marcus Garvey, a black nationalist, preached that black Americans should build a nation independent of white society. With membership in the hundreds of thousands, Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association sought closer ties with African countries. The UNIA had its own flag, its own national anthem and an African legion pledged to defend black people at home and abroad. The U.S. Bureau of Investigation labeled Garvey, “one of the prominent Negro agitators.” The federal government deported him in 1927, but Malcolm’s parents remained Garveyites. Earl recruited new members. Louise wrote for the Garvey newspaper.

PHILBERT LITTLE: My mother is the one who would read to us the Garvey paper, which was called The Negro World. She also would talk to us about ourself as being independent. We shouldn’t be calling ourself “Negroes,” or “niggers” and that we were black people and that we should be proud to call ourself black people.

PANELIST: What is your real name?

MALCOLM X: Malcolm. Malcolm X.

PANELIST: Is that your legal name?

MALCOLM X: As far as I’m concerned, it’s my legal name.

PANELIST: Would you mind telling me what your father’s last name was?

MALCOLM X: My father didn’t know his last name. My father got his last name from his grandfather, and his grandfather got it from his grandfather, who got it from the slavemaster. The real names of our people were destroyed—

PANELIST: Well, was there any—

MALCOLM X: —during slavery.

PANELIST: Was there any line, any point in the genealogy of your family when you did have to use a last name, and if so, what was it?

MALCOLM X: The last name of my forefathers—


MALCOLM X: —-was taken from them when they were brought to America and made slaves, and then the name of the slavemaster was given, which we refuse, we reject that name today and refuse to—-

PANELIST: You mean, you won’t even tell me what your father’s supposed last name was or gifted last name was?

MALCOLM X: I never acknowledge it whatsoever.

AMY GOODMAN: Documentary, Malcolm X: Make it Plain, produced and directed by Orlando Bagwell. It is narrated by Alfre Woodard.


AMY GOODMAN: Malcolm X was born 80 years ago today, May 19, 1925. We are spending the hour looking at his life, as we return to the documentary, Malcolm X: Make it Plain, produced and directed by Orlando Bagwell.

NARRATOR: In April 1964, Malcolm traveled to Saudi Arabia. For some time, he had been studying Orthodox Islam. Now he arrived in Jiddah, on his way to perform the Hajj, a pilgrimage required of all Muslims. Members of the Saudi royal family helped him gain entry to the holy city of Mecca.

MOHMAED AL-FAYSAL: My first impression of him was an eye-opener, because I saw a different person totally. I didn’t see the fiery fire breather. I saw a very timid, almost shy man.

AHMED OSMAN: When a person performs a Hajj, there are certain rituals through which he has to go. All people have to dress in the same simple way, and as such, you cannot distinguish during the Hajj any people on account of their status, on account of their national origin. It is a demonstration of human brotherhood.

MOHMAED AL-FAYSAL: Everybody was in this white garb, the rich, the poor, the powerful, the weak, the sick, everybody. And they were all intermingled, and I think that had such a profound impact on Malcolm.

YURI KOCHIYAMA: “Greetings from the holiest and most sacred city on earth. I often think of the warm friendliness of your wonderful family. Brother Malcolm.”

GLORIA RICHARDSON: “Greetings from the ancient land of Arabia. Allah has blessed me to visit the holy city of Mecca where I witnessed pilgrims of all colors [and 'all colors' is underlined] from all parts of this earth, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood like I have never seen before. It is truly a sight to behold. El-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz.” And I guess maybe he thought I wouldn’t know who that was, so in parentheses, he has “Malcolm X.”

NARRATOR: Malcolm’s letters to his followers made news back in America and raised the question, “Had he changed his position on race?”

REPORTER: He does speak of brotherhood, the brotherhood of all races, colors and so on in the holy land.

JAMES SHABAZZ: He says, “There were tens of thousands of pilgrims from all over the world, they were of all colors from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans but were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe could never exist between the white and the non-white.

REPORTER: But he has backtracked a little from the position that all white men are devils, if he is saying that —

JAMES SHABAZZ: I wouldn’t say that he has backtracked. One can make an adjustment in one’s direction without it being backwards. If when you say he has backtracked, it seems as though that you imply you would prefer that he would call white people devils, and not to call them devils that he is going in the wrong direction.

REPORTER: Nobody likes to be called a devil.

JAMES SHABAZZ: Then you wouldn’t consider it a backtrack if he stopped calling white people devils, then, would you?

NARRATOR: After his pilgrimage, Malcolm spent three weeks in Africa. On May 21, two days after his 39th birthday, he returned to New York.

REPORTER: Malcolm, have your experiences with white-skinned Muslims in Africa and the Middle East made you feel that relations between Negroes and whites who are not Muslims is any more possible?

MALCOLM X: When I was in — on the pilgrimage, I had close contact with Muslims whose skin within America would be classified as white and with Muslims who themselves would be classified as white in America, but these particular Muslims didn’t call themselves white. They looked upon themselves at human beings, as part of the human family and therefore they looked upon all other segments of the human family as part of that same family. Now, they had a different look or different air or different attitude than that which is reflected in the attitude of the man in America who calls himself white. So, I said that if Islam had done this — done that for them, perhaps if the white men in America would study Islam, perhaps it could do the same thing for him.

REPORTER: Malcolm, just — are you prepared to go into the United Nations at this point and ask that charges be brought against the United States for its treatment of American Negroes?

MALCOLM X: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Please. The audience will have to be quiet. Yes. As I pointed out, when I was doing my traveling that nations look — African nations and Asian nations and Latin American nations look very hypocritical when they stand up in the United Nations condemning the racist practices of South Africa and that which is practiced by Portugal and Angola and saying nothing in the U.N. about the racist practices that are manifest every day against Negroes in this society.

NARRATOR: As media attention increasingly focused on Malcolm, the Nation of Islam stepped up its attacks and filed eviction papers to force him from his home.

PETER GOLDMAN: Malcolm, in the spring and early summer of 1964, was in a desperate situation with the Nation of Islam. And the one weapon he had left was his knowledge of the messenger’s indiscretions with various women who were working for him as secretaries. He called one guy at the New York Herald Tribune and tried to interest him in the story. It was considered libelous, so they wouldn’t do it.

NARRATOR: When Malcolm appeared in court to challenge the eviction proceedings, he used the trial to reveal the private affairs of Elijah Muhammad.

REPORTER: Why are they threatening your life?

MALCOLM X: Well, primarily because they’re afraid that I will tell the real reason that they have been — that I’m out of the Black Muslim Movement, which I never told, I kept to myself. But the real reason is that Elijah Muhammad, the head of the movement is the father of eight children by six different teenage girls, different — six different teenage girls who were his private personal secretaries.

WALLACE D. MUHAMMAD: That was a serious thing, most serious thing, and to charge the Honorable Elijah Muhammad with such would be really to take your own life — take your life into your own hands, you know? You would be risking your life. I’m just being plain — I’m being open and plain with you. It would really mean that you — somebody might kill you in the Nation of Islam.

REPORTER: Are you not perhaps afraid of what might happen to you as a result of making these revelations?

MALCOLM X: Oh, yes. I probably am a dead man already.

REPORTER: What do you mean?

MALCOLM X: Well, when you know — when you understand the makeup of the Muslim movement and the psychology of the Muslim movement, as long as any — I myself, by having confidence in the leader of the Muslim movement, if someone came to me and I had no knowledge whatsoever of what had taken place, and they told me what I’m saying, I would kill them myself. The only thing that would prevent me from killing someone who made a statement like this, they would have to be able to let me know that it’s true. Now if anyone had come to me other than Mr. Muhammad’s son, I never would have believed it even enough to look into it. But I had been around him so closely, I had seen indications of it — of its — of the reality of it, but my religious sincerity made me block it out of my mind.

NARRATOR: At the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, Malcolm announced the formation of a political group, modeled after the Organization of African Unity overseas.

PETER BAILEY: Brother Malcolm formed the Organization of Afro-American Unity, for those of us who were interested in his political, economic and cultural programs. I think he was aware that there were people out there, you know, from his travels around, that there were people out there who wanted to work with him, but who were not prepared to become Muslims in order to do so.

MALCOLM X: One of the first things that the independent African nations did was to form an organization called the Organization of African Unity. This Organization of Afro-American Unity, which has the same aim and objective to fight whoever gets in our way, to bring about the complete independence of people of African descent here in the Western Hemisphere, and first here in the United States, and bring about the freedom of these people by any means necessary.

NARRATOR: In July 1964, Malcolm was invited to join heads of state from Africa and the Middle East at the Organization of African Unity conference in Cairo, Egypt.

JOHN HENRIK CLARKE: Malcolm X saw no contradiction between the African fight and the black American fight in the United States. He felt one was an extension of the other, and you can draw support from one to enhance the other.

AHMED OSMAN: In the 1960s, Africans had a lot of misgivings about American foreign policy in Africa, because, unfortunately, at that time the American foreign policy was supportive of the colonial policies of countries like Belgium. And the only voice which was echoing the desperation of Africans in the United States was that of Malcolm.

MOHMAED AL-FAYSAL: And there were many Americans who came, but none — none, without exception, who had the impact that Malcolm had. The man of a message, and the message was not to America only.

REPORTER: Malcolm, what is your. Purpose here?

MALCOLM X: Well, my purpose here is to remind the African heads of state that there are 22 million of us in America who are also of African descent, and to remind them also that we are the victims of America’s colonialism or American imperialism, and that our problem is not an American problem, it’s a human problem. It’s not a Negro problem, it’s a problem of humanity. It’s not a problem of civil rights, but a problem of human rights.

NARRATOR: Malcolm traveled to14 African nations and met with 11 heads of state. U.S. intelligence agencies followed him from country to country. In Nigeria, he was given the name, Omawale, “the son returns.”

ATTALLAH SHABAZZ: When my father was abroad, we had a world map on the living room wall, and any time you got a little lonesome and wondered where Daddy was, we’d run over to that map, and “Where is he now?” And he’s in Cairo, which is the capital of Egypt, and he’s over here with Nkrumah and he’s over — so there was a different kind of passage that we maintained when he was abroad.

NARRATOR: Malcolm returned in late November 1964. He resumed the weekly OAAU rallies at the Audubon Ballroom and continued his collaboration with Alex Haley on his autobiography.

YVONNE LITTLE: He said, “You know, I’m writing this book, and I don’t really know about doing this book.” He had some problems with the family having to be subjected to what — the things that he would say. I said, “Malcolm, you know what? None of us are going to ever amount to anything until we get our mother out of Kalamazoo.” It had preyed on my mind for years, and I didn’t talk about it, but it was eating away. And he looked at me like, “I’m glad you said that 'cause it's been bothering me, too.” And he said, “Vonnie. Promise. I’ll do something.” And the next thing — Malcolm never got back to me. The next thing I knew, I got a call. My mother was in Lansing at my brother Philbert’s.

ALEX HALEY: Then he later told me that it had been pent up in him all these years. He didn’t want to think about it. He certainly didn’t want to talk about it, because he did not feel good about it. But he felt so great when he and his brother came together to have their mother released.

AMY GOODMAN: Alex Haley in Orlando Bagwell’s documentary, Malcolm X: Make it Plain. As we turn now to the events leading up to Malcolm X’s assassination.

GENE ROBERTS: My name is Gene Roberts, and I was assigned by the New York City Police Department to infiltrate Malcolm’s organization, report back membership, names, weapons, if any. And I attended meetings and was part of the security on occasions. And at this particular meeting, I was standing up front along with about four or five others guys, other members, and I heard a commotion in the middle to my right. I started for the commotion and I see this young fellow come down the middle aisle and then slip into about the second or third row and take a seat. And he was wearing a blue suit, a white shirt and red tie, which is basically the uniform for the members of the Nation of Islam. So after the meeting, I reported back to the department that I felt I had just saw a dry run on Malcolm’s life and when that was going to go down I wasn’t sure.

NARRATOR: Malcolm did not expect to live another week. He promised to reveal the names of those plotting his death at next Sunday’s meeting at the Audubon Ballroom.

BETTY SHABAZZ: The night before, he had said he didn’t think it would be a good idea for us to come to the Audubon, and then the next day, he called and said that we could come. And I was very happy, you know, that I could go because I had not seen him in 24 hours.

ATTALLAH SHABAZZ: When my mother received the call from my father for us to all get together and come down to the Audubon, I knew that was different. That was a rhythm change by that time, with all of the things that were going on. And all the while, it was still an exciting venture to get ready and go see Daddy. And we got there. He was late, and we sat at a booth stage right, downstage right.

GENE ROBERTS: Malcolm came in, and I escorted him from about the middle of the ballroom to the wings backstage. When I got there, I had noticed there were some people already present, and there was three people sitting on the first row. They were sitting there, reading newspapers. Nobody’s paying them any mind. And Malcolm was still in the back. Benjamin Goodman came out, and he opened up the meeting.

BENJAMIN 2X: I opened up for him, and he had set down behind me, and he said, “Make it plain.” “Make it plain” is the code word that he used for us to bring him forward. So, anyway, I did. I brought Minister Malcolm forward. He didn’t like a lot of icing, you know, “Here’s Minister Malcolm, the great,” and all that. He didn’t like that. Just plain, you know.

GENE ROBERTS: Then I heard a lot of shots, and I looked up, and these three that were sitting across the front are now working their way from Malcolm’s right to Malcolm’s left, shooting at him.

BETTY SHABAZZ: I saw my husband falling back. Falling back. He didn’t bend. He just fell straight. And then I tried to — I forgot my children. I tried to get to him.

ATTALLAH SHABAZZ: I was facing the assassins, so I saw them stand up and take my father’s life, an image that — I wondered if I could have prevented it.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of the documentary Malcolm X: Make it Plain, produced and directed by Orlando Bagwell. It was narrated by Alfre Woodard. And that does it for today’s broadcast. Malcolm X would have been 80 years old today. He was assassinated when he was 39 years old.

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