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New Malcolm X Biography Offers Insight into His Split with Nation of Islam & Assassination

Web ExclusiveDecember 02, 2020
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In Part 2 of our extended interview with Tamara Payne, co-author of a major new biography of Malcolm X, The Dead Are Arising, with her late father Les Payne, she shares new details the award-winning book reveals about the death of Malcolm X’s father, how he started to split from the Nation of Islam after they considered collaborating with the Ku Klux Klan to fight integration and destroy Martin Luther King Jr., what the FBI knew about threats to assassinate both men, and the research they did into how Malcolm X was ultimately killed.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we bring you Part 2 of our look at The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X. It just won the National Book Award. The book is based on decades of research by the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Les Payne. He died in 2018. The book reveals new details about Malcolm’s assassination and other key parts of Malcolm’s life, including a secret 1961 meeting he had with the Ku Klux Klan and the mysterious death of his father in 1931.

For more, we’re joined by Les Payne’s daughter and co-author, Tamara Payne, co-author of The Dead Are Arising. She helped research the book and finished it after Les Payne’s death. She’s joining us from her home in New York City.

It’s great to have you with us. Thank you for staying for Part 2 of this conversation, Tami. Why don’t we go back to Earl Little, Malcolm X’s father, and how he died, and what Malcolm X believed happened to him and the stories that were told after?

TAMARA PAYNE: Earl Little died in a — it was an accident. He slipped and fell on tracks for a streetcar in Lansing, and he was run over by the streetcar. He was running back to get his coat. And, you know, there were witnesses to that, and Dad was able to speak with them, as well as — and he started by speaking with one of Malcolm’s friends, who he was becoming more kind of like — missing school with, John Davis Jr., who led us to people who were there, who gave Dad the account of what happened, because they were actually on the scene. And also we went by the death certificate, as well as Wilfred’s story. He wasn’t there when his father died, but he was there — he was 12 years old, and he was there when the police came and told his mother that they needed her to go down and identify the body. And he also had seen his father’s body. He didn’t go with his mother at that point, but he did see his father’s body. And he said that it was in a terrible condition. He had been run over. And so, that’s where we got the story from, and we went by the reports we were able to find also, as well as interviewing people who were actually on the scene.

But let’s also understand that why Malcolm would believe that the Black Legion, who was the local chapter of the KKK, would be involved with his father’s death would be because they were having issues. They were on a property — they had bought property that, in the clause, in the deed clause, it said that Black people should not own it. They could not own it. And that’s a legal thing. And they had bought that property. So, the neighbors who did not want the Littles on that property, they moved to have them evicted. And the Littles were evicted, and then they were also burned out of the house. So, there are already tensions going on.

And so, to hear — and then there were people who were just kind of boastfully talking about people taking credit for, you know, Earl Little’s passing, his death. And so, Malcolm is hearing that, and he was 6 years old. And if people are saying that, it can have an effect on you. And it’s not really different from what we hear today. I mean, these things kind of happen today. If we don’t verify some of this information, it just sounds very much — like, if we think even about QAnon, for example. You know, you have a lot of people who are believing what these conspiracy theories are, and they’re not really checking it out, and people start believing this wholeheartedly. And Malcolm believed that. But Wilfred also said that the family understood what happened, and they did not believe that. But he said that Malcolm definitely played that up. He definitely believed it. And, you know, he said that they had talked about it. They couldn’t shake Malcolm from believing that, either.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to an interview Malcolm did in the ’60s, where he briefly talked about his childhood. He was questioned by the Chicago reporter Jim Hurlbut.

JIM HURLBUT: You were born in Omaha, is that right?

MALCOLM X: Yes, sir.

JIM HURLBUT: And you left — your family left Omaha when you were about 1 year old.

MALCOLM X: I imagine about a year old.

JIM HURLBUT: And why did they leave Omaha?

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

JIM HURLBUT: This made your family feel very unhappy, I’m sure.

MALCOLM X: Well, insecure, if not unhappy.

JIM HURLBUT: 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.

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.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Malcolm X being interviewed in the 1960s. If you, Tami, could talk more about his childhood and who his parents were, before his father died, talking about their Garveyite philosophy, who Marcus Garvey was, how that influenced him and them?

TAMARA PAYNE: Well, his parents met in Montreal at a Garvey meeting, a Universal Negro Improvement Association, or UNIA, meeting in Montreal. And they met, and they were — so they were attracted to the Garvey movement, the group. And they were members. And they were attracted to each other, and they got married, and they settled in Philadelphia. And they were members of the organization. And what they liked about it is — you know, Earl was kind of, in a way, run out of Georgia and, really, told by his father, “You should leave,” because Earl was very proud, very strong-willed, and he did not respond well to Jim Crow South environment. And, you know, he was confronting white people all the time. And this was problematic for his family, so even his father was saying, “You know, maybe you should leave the South. Maybe you should not be down here.” And so Earl left. And, you know, he went up to Philadelphia. He went up to Montreal. He was working. He was a carpenter. And so, he met Louise Langdon in Montreal. They got married. They started having kids.

And what they were attracted to was this — you know, what Marcus Garvey was preaching and what his whole movement was about, which was about pride in being Black and being accepted who we are and rising up to thrive as Black people and embracing us and not excusing it, not shying away from it, not accepting what the society was trying to have us believe, that we cannot compete, we cannot succeed, and providing a society and thriving in their own communities, like Black communities, build up your own businesses. And Earl also — what he and Louise would do, they would move — they moved out to Omaha to start setting up other chapters of the UNIA. And she worked, you know, as a recording secretary. She wrote some articles in the newspaper. He was organizing other Black families, and he would go not just in the towns that they were in, but to other towns not far away. And so, he was organizing.

And let’s also understand, like, Louise was more educated than Earl was. But Earl was very charismatic, and he was very good at relating to people and organizing. And Louise was more educated, in that she was more interested in helping her children and conditioning them into accepting their Blackness. She did not accept “Negro.” She did not want them to accept being called “Negro.” She always referred to themselves as Blacks. She spent time singing to them in French, but she also spent a lot more time conditioning them. And when they would come home and talk about — when they lived in Lansing, for example, talking about how white kids would chide them and call them out of their names and use the N-word, calling them “nigger,” and they would complain about that, and she would tell them and train them on how to deal with that and how to not internalize that, but also not — you know, you have to fight everybody every time somebody says that, but can also let them know that they’re not getting to you, because that is not who you are, that is really a reflection on them. And so, she really imbued them with that, their Blackness, their pride. And Earl showed them — he helped them with their work ethic. He would get up early. He would set up the household, wake everybody up, set up, get everybody started with their chores. And, you know, it was a hard work. These two people, Earl and Louise, were very hard-working people and supportive of their family and very strong-willed and very close-knit with their kids.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Tami, one of the fascinating parts of the book is not only the detailed and the rich family history and the family’s imprint on Malcolm, but also the way that Les was able to put what was happening to the family in the context of all of the ideological battles that were going on in the Black community. There’s a lot of discussion of the battles between, for instance, the Garveyites, W.E.B. Du Bois, William Monroe Trotter, and then, obviously, the rise of the Nation of Islam and Elijah Muhammad. Can you talk about how your father was able to begin to unravel this influence on the thought of Malcolm, as well?

TAMARA PAYNE: I think it’s really important to also look at generation who Dad is. I mean, he grew up in Jim Crow South. He moved up to Hartford, Connecticut, with his family at the age of 12. He went to college. He served in the Army. He became a journalist and rose to the highest ranks in journalism. So, all those experiences and all his career experiences, they’re part of his mechanism for processing information.

And his interest in telling Malcolm’s story is not just to talk about his family and how they impacted him and influenced him and shaped him, but also to talk about their environment that they were living in. And it was an environment that they did not create. And so, in doing that, he’s also saying, “Look, we didn’t create this environment, but then Black people have different thoughts. We’re not a monolith.” And he’s showing the different aspects and the different ways that Black people — where he talked — you know, we have Ida B. Wells also. I mean, he didn’t really talk a lot about her in this book, but, you know, she was also in the — she was one of the founding members of the NAACP, along with W.E.B. Du Bois. And all of these factors were important, you know, because that was going on at that time, and these were the ideologies that were affecting Black people.

So, it wasn’t about who was right or wrong, but like just knowing that this is the environment that we come from. And it’s important to know that this is our history and for young people today to understand, you know, what was going and what, in real time, was kind of — and in the sense of how it impacted Malcolm’s life, what was going on in that environment. And hopefully, when they’re reading this, when people read this, they’re going to go and look even more into what these philosophies and movements were about.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk a little bit about how — when the book delves into a Malcolm’s role within the Nation of Islam, he obviously became one of the main organizers, expanding the reach of the Nation of Islam, along with Jeremiah X, who worked in the South. Talk about his relation — his moving into the Nation of Islam and then his relationship with Elijah Muhammad.

TAMARA PAYNE: Well, I think it’s also important to understand that it was his family that moved into the Nation of Islam. It was Wilfred who actually was the first member of the family to join the Nation of Islam, who was attracted to the Garveyite characteristics of the Nation. And he felt that that was something that he and his family could work with, because it was very similar to what they grew up with in their home. And so, he branched that out. He got all of his siblings to join. Philbert also joined, and Reginald and even his sisters, although we found out that they didn’t really stay too long because they didn’t like how women were treated so much. But Malcolm, you know, he was in jail when that was happening. And so, it was the family that was extending, you know, and telling him about this organization that they had joined and “new religion,” he called it, they called it. And so, they brought him into it.

And when he came out, it was a place — it was an environment that he pivoted into, because he wasn’t trying to, you know, continue with the criminal life. And so, he’s smart. He’s already studying and working hard, you know, and debating and reading a lot in jail. And so, he’s not so much expending physical energy, but he’s spending intellectual energy. And when he’s coming out, he’s also — this gives him a place and people to exercise those talents, to reach out to people. And he also — the kind of people that he was really attracting were college-educated Black people, as opposed to just blue-collar Black people. And he could relate to both. And he really was bringing in people who were college-educated, who were reading.

And that kind of set up a rift already within the membership at that time, when he first joined the Nation of Islam, and it affected him as a leader, too, because people started rumors about him and how he wasn’t effective, because the some of the older members had felt threatened by his energy and how he was working it, and they were trying to get Elijah Muhammad to, you know, put him out. And Elijah did sit him down, because he realized that Malcolm wasn’t a good fit in the Detroit area, which is where he was. So he sends him out to the Northeast. And he says, you know, “Pick someplace that you would want to start with.” And he started in Boston.

And again, he fit in. He knew Boston. And again, he went after college-educated Black people. And, you know, he was just bringing in that energy. And he was also — as a personality, he was very disciplined, whereas other people who might join, you know, the tenets, they may not be able to, cold turkey, quit smoking and drinking and partying and drugs, as well as eating pork. But he was very committed and very disciplined about that, and he really was stringent on that. And that didn’t rub the people the right way, particularly in the Midwest. But it kind of came out differently in the Northeast, and he flourished there. And —


TAMARA PAYNE: — he grew. Sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the meeting, the secret meeting, that Elijah Muhammad pushed Malcolm X to have with the Ku Klux Klan? And this also dovetails with Marcus Garvey, who was seen very much as a Black separatist, the Back-to-Africa movement, who also had some collaboration with the Klan, because they both believed in African Americans being separate. But if you can talk about how Malcolm felt about this?

TAMARA PAYNE: Malcolm, as you played in the clip, I mean, he has bad relations and ideas and thoughts towards the Klan. So, when the Klan reaches — he’s visiting Atlanta. Minister Jeremiah is the head of that temple in Atlanta. Malcolm is visiting and is speaking to the congregation there. This telegram comes in from the Klan saying that they would like to meet. And, you know, of course, Malcolm looks at this as an opportunity for them to have a confrontation, and he wants to kind of have more of a face-off. But he’s not the head of the Nation. Neither is Jeremiah. And they have to follow protocol. And they go to Chicago, meet with Elijah Muhammad and explain to him what’s going on.

And Elijah gives them marching orders that he wants to have a meeting. He agrees to the meeting, but he wants to, you know, see if they could help him acquire land, and if not help him acquire land, you know, because he knew that the Klan, particularly in Atlanta, in Georgia, you know, were an intricate part of that society, and to leave their members alone when they’re conducting their business.

And Malcolm, you know, he didn’t feel right, because he felt that this was developing a holy alliance — an unholy alliance with the KKK. And he didn’t — he was not comfortable with that. And this also is kind of where Malcolm starts to see, you know, that he doesn’t agree with everything that Elijah Muhammad is doing. And it is the beginning, I believe, of Malcolm shifting and outgrowing the Nation, and eventually we see him splitting.

But yeah, they go and have the meeting. And I think it’s also interesting and important to understand that, you know, you have — the Klan is threatened by Martin Luther King and his civil rights groups, because they’re attacking the superstructure of racism, and the Klan wants to uphold it. They want to uphold, you know, the superstructure so they can protect their superiority and keep life as it is, because they don’t want to compete with Black people. They don’t want to live among Black people. And Martin Luther King and his company are challenging that and succeeding. And they’re threatened by that. So they want to stop that. And they see that the Nation, although Black, they don’t seem to want to be part of this integration thing. So they want to see if they can have an alliance with the Nation of Islam. They want to see what they could do, what what they had in common. And they had that meeting.

And that meeting was — you know, I think it’s really important to read the details of this in the book, because what you find, not just where the positions of all these groups are, but also that the Klan’s real thing is they want to figure out a way to go after King, you know, and trying to use anything that they can to do that.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And one of the things that you — one of the themes throughout the book is the degree to which law enforcement, specifically the FBI, knew about all of this. Not only did they have, as you mention in the book, over 2,000 FBI agents within the KKK, so that they had a good sense of — or informants — of everything the KKK was doing, but also in the Nation of Islam, as well. Could you talk about J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI’s constant campaign?

TAMARA PAYNE: J. Edgar Hoover was threatened by these guys. He didn’t want Black solidarity. And so, he wanted — he was developing a campaign to go after King. He was developing a campaign to disrupt the Nation of Islam. You know, Black solidarity and Black people rising up and thriving and competing with white people and coming out of this false sense of inferiority that has been instilled with the status quo of the country, you know, was not in J. Edgar Hoover’s plan. So, he upset it. And he developed these different plans of how to disrupt, how to infiltrate. And these practices are still practiced today.

AMY GOODMAN: Just to follow up with what you said before, Tamara, that they were interested in the FBI — the Klan was interested in going after King and using Malcolm X to do that. Explain.

TAMARA PAYNE: Because they felt — well, not necessarily using Malcolm X, but using the Nation of Islam, because the Nation of Islam was not interested in integration. So, if they could use the Nation of Islam as, “Hey, these are good Black people that don’t want to upset the status quo. What’s wrong with King and them?” and figuring out ways that they can use them, maybe have them spy on them, spy on Malcolm for them. And these are things that are laid out further in the chapter. And, you know, this is what the Klan was trying to plan. They were trying to see how far they can go with this, because they clearly were threatened by Martin Luther King, and they wanted to do him harm. But again, for me, now here’s — I mean, what’s ironic about all of this is that the KKK is infiltrated by the FBI, as is the Klan — I mean, as is the Nation of Islam, as is Martin Luther King’s groups.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You also talk about — in detail, about the assassination of Malcolm in the Audubon Ballroom in 1965. Talk about how you and your father put together this account. He also interviewed two of the men in prison, unjustly convicted of the assassination?

TAMARA PAYNE: I mean, again, this is Dad being — you know, being a journalist to his core. And, you know, this was groundbreaking work at the time, to find these people, to find out what the real plan was, how — you know, like, to be in real time and to see how the Nation had turned against Malcolm, but then, how did that happen, you know? And what was the breakdown? How was the organization run? You know, did the direction to kill Malcolm really come from Elijah Muhammad? And this was all part of Dad’s need to know and investigate this and clarify that, you know, clarify how this played out. And then, how the culture of this?

And he does this through talking with — you know, we started with Jeremiah Shabazz, who was also part of that, part of the background and the planning of that. We talked with other people. We talked with, you know, Thomas Johnson and Norman Butler, and just finding out what everybody’s roles were and finding out this information, and even talking with people in Newark. Dad was investigating this to find out as much as he could to solve what really happened. And as a journalist, he went with, with as far as he could, as what he could prove. He wasn’t going to sit here and speculate, because we’ve been speculating for years, but now it’s time to see if we can get as close — get as much of this information out as possible.

And look, it’s not final. We have people who are still talking about bringing out pictures of some of the killers that did not serve time in jail for this assassination. But they also have passed on. But this information, we have a need to know, to understand, you know, how this blew up and how — and this is the information that we need to know to understand what the roles people had in this and how it played out, and not to just sit there and come up with theories based on suppositions and assumptions, if we can nail it as much as we can. And I’m not saying we — we didn’t nail everything, but we nailed — he nailed a lot. He nailed a lot of the information. And he can put that in the book because he could stand by that. But if you’re not going to — he wasn’t going to sit there and just say, “Well, I think, and I suppose.” That’s not what he would do as a journalist.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to end with the words of Malcolm X himself, and this was Malcolm X right after his house was firebombed, speaking a week before he was assassinated.

MALCOLM X: My house was bombed. It was bombed by the Black Muslim movement upon the orders of Elijah Muhammad. Now, they had come around to — they had planned to do it from the front and the back so that I couldn’t get out. They had — they covered the front completely, the front door. Then they had come to the back. But instead of getting directly in back of the house and throwing it this way, they stood at a 45-degree angle and tossed it at the window, so it glanced and went on to the ground. And the fire hit the window, and it woke up my second-oldest baby. And then it — but the fire burned on the outside of the house. But had that fire — had that one gone through that window, it would have fallen on a 6-year-old girl, a 4-year-old girl and a 2-year-old girl. And I’m going to tell you, if it had done it, I’d taken my rifle and gone after anybody in sight. I would not wait. And I say that because of this: The police know the criminal operation of the Black Muslim movement, because they have thoroughly infiltrated it.

AMY GOODMAN: And that was Malcolm X a few days before he was assassinated, February 21st, 1965. Tamara Payne, we want to thank you so much for spending this time with us. Tamara Payne is the daughter of the late Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Les Payne. They co-authored the book The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X. The book, based on decades of research by Les Payne, just won the National Book Award for Nonfiction.

To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks so much for joining us.

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