John F. Kennedy was assassinated in the early afternoon of Friday, November 22, 1963. When Elijah Muhammad was told, he was taken aback. He had frequently warned Malcolm of criticizing Kennedy, knowing of the president’s considerable popularity with black Americans, and now he took steps to ensure that the NOI would not be caught in the storm of anger and disbelief that was already roiling the nation. He released a short statement expressing shock “over the loss of our president,” and then arranged for his next column in Muhammad Speaks to be moved to the front page alongside a photo of Kennedy. He informed all NOI ministers to say nothing in public, going so far as to have one of his sons call Malcolm so he could dictate over the phone what he wanted his national minister to say if questioned about the assassination. With the stakes high and Malcolm already bridling at Chicago’s attempts to control him, Muhammad would leave nothing to chance.
Yet fate interceded when the Messenger was forced to cancel a long-planned speaking engagement at the Manhattan Center in midtown New York City on December 1. The Nation could not get out of its rental agreement, so Malcolm was selected as a substitute speaker for what would be the first major speech delivered by an NOI leader since the assassination. To make certain that the public program was handled properly, John Ali flew from Chicago to help out, and the decision was made to allow all reporters, including whites, to cover the speech. Malcolm’s advertised title, “God’s Judgment of White America,” was deliberately provocative, but he, Ali, and all the other NOI officials involved knew of Muhammad’s instruction to avoid any references to Kennedy.
The talk was an important one for Malcolm, and he prepared carefully, first drafting a detailed outline of the key issues he wanted to cover, then typing out the actual lecture he planned to deliver. The lecture reflected the two divergent realms of black consciousness that Malcolm occupied: the spiritual domain of the Nation of Islam and the political worlds of black nationalism, Pan-Africanism, and Third World revolution. He was sufficiently astute to express the obligatory remarks of homage to Elijah Muhammad, but also clearly visible was the militant political language of “Message to the Grassroots,” along with calls for a black global revolution and the destruction of white power. He knew that John Ali would be in the audience and would immediately report back to Muhammad with a negative review of the speech. By choosing to be provocative, Malcolm would push the NOI toward a more militant posture.
An audience of about seven hundred attended, a majority of them congregants of Mosque No. 7, but a significant minority were non-Muslim blacks. Captain Joseph had ordered Larry 4X to serve on Malcolm’s security detail; as instructed, he drove out to the minister’s home in Queens and tailed Malcolm’s Oldsmobile on its way to the Manhattan Center. Once Malcolm was secure in the building, Larry directed other Fruit of Islam to bar any whites, except reporters, from entering.
“God’s Judgment of White America” began with a sophisticated argument about political economies. “The Honorable Elijah Muhammad teaches us . . . it was the evil of slavery that caused the downfall and destruction of ancient Egypt and Babylon, and of ancient Greece, as well as ancient Rome,” Malcolm told his audience. In similar fashion, colonialism contributed to “the collapse of the white nations in present-day Europe as world powers.” The exploitation of African Americans will, in turn, “bring white America to her hour of judgment, to her downfall as a respected nation.” Malcolm’s core argument was that America, like the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome, was in moral decline. The greatest example of its moral bankruptcy, Malcolm argued, was its hypocrisy. “White America pretends to ask herself, ‘What do these Negroes want?’ White America knows that four hundred years of cruel bondage has made these twenty-two million ex-slaves too (mentally) [Malcolm’s parentheses] blind to see what they really want.”
“God’s Judgment” made an effort to put the NOI’s religious practices and beliefs within the larger Muslim world. Malcolm explained that Elijah Muhammad’s “divine mission” was essentially that of a modern prophet, not unlike “Noah, Moses, and Daniel. He is a warrior to our white oppressor, but a savior to the oppressed.” This claim that Elijah merited the status of prophet directly contradicted orthodox Islam’s interpretation of Muhammad of the Qur’an as being the Seal of the Prophets. Despite this deviation, Malcolm insisted that “the Honorable Elijah Muhammad teaches us not only the principles of Muslim belief but the principles of Muslim practice.” Nation of Islam members, he insisted, adhered to the five pillars of Islam, including prayer five times daily, tithing, fasting, and making “the pilgrimage to the Holy City, Mecca, at least [once] during our lifetime.” He observed that Elijah and two of his sons had visited Mecca in 1959, adding that “others of his followers have been making [the Mecca pilgrimage] since then.” He deliberately avoided presenting Islam as a black religion, portraying it as a faith with an emancipatory message for African Americans.
There was an urgent emphasis on the coming apocalypse, which, while part of the Nation of Islam’s theology, was merged into a political jeremiad of destruction. A Muslim world could not come into existence unless God himself destroyed “this evil Western world, the white world, a wicked world, ruled by a race of devils, that preaches falsehood, practices slavery, and thrives on indecency and immorality.” America had now reached “that great Doomsday, the final hour,” where all the wicked would perish and only those who believed in Allah as God and who affirmed Islam as their faith would be saved.
Midway through this apocalyptic vision, however, Malcolm did an about-face, turning from eschatology to racial politics. He accused the government of “trying to trick her twenty-two million ex-slaves with promises she never intends to keep.” To retain power, liberals and conservatives alike cynically manipulate civil rights issues and Negro leaders who align themselves with white liberals “sell out our people for just a few crumbs of token recognition and token gains.” He equated the approximately three million blacks who were registered to vote as of 1960 with the “black bourgeoisie,” “who have been educated to think as patriotic ‘individualists’ with no racial pride, and who therefore look forward hopefully to the future integrated-intermarried [Malcolm’s emphasis] society promised them by white liberals and the Negro ‘leaders.’ ” But no racial progress was possible so long as those in power listened to this “white-minded minority” of Negro leaders and registered voters. “The white man should try to learn what the black masses want . . . by listening to the man who speaks for the black masses of America”—that is, Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm’s attempt to make the Messenger a black working-class hero and to equate bourgeois status with the act of voter registration were clever, if fraudulent. He certainly was aware that in 1963 millions of African Americans who wanted to vote were being denied franchisement, through harassment, intimidation, and murder, as in the case of Medgar Evers. The overwhelming majority were demanding access to public accommodations and full voting rights, issues that had nothing to do with upward class mobility or a lack of “racial pride.” This was Malcolm’s easy way to attack middle-class blacks.
Finally, he argued that it was the U.S. government and white liberals that controlled the Negro revolution. But far greater was the “black revolution . . . the struggle of the nonwhites of this earth against their white oppressors.” Black revolutionaries had already “swept white supremacy” out of Asia and Africa, and were about to do so in Latin America. “Revolutions,” Malcolm explained, “are based on land [Malcolm’s emphasis]. Revolutionaries are the landless against the landlord.” In an obvious reference to King, he echoed his language from “Grassroots”: “Revolutions are never peaceful, never loving, never nonviolent. Nor are they compromising. Revolutions are destructive and bloody.” The apocalypse would come about through the black masses and the wretched of the earth seizing the citadels of power. It was a powerful vision, but not one that Elijah Muhammad had in mind.
Throughout his speech, Malcolm had been careful to avoid references to the late president, but in the question and answer session following the talk, his sense of humor and his tendency to banter with representatives of the press got the better of him. When asked about the assassination, he initially charged that the media had tried to trap the Nation of Islam into making a “fanatic, inflexibly dogmatic statement.” What the press wanted from the Muslims, he declared, was a remark like “Hooray, hooray! I’m glad he got it!” Members of the audience laughed and applauded, and the crowd’s encouragement led Malcolm down the path from which Elijah Muhammad had tried to steer him. Now he was fired up, finally unmuzzled, and the criticism began to flow freely. Kennedy had been “twiddling his thumbs” when South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu were murdered recently. The Dallas assassination, Malcolm said, was an instance of “the chickens coming home to roost.” America had fomented violence, so it was not a surprise that the president had become a victim.
Had Malcolm stopped there, he might have escaped unscathed, or at least invited less trouble than would soon unfold for him. These comments, while certainly offensive, could at least be understood in the context of previous speeches and the generally understood opinions of the Nation of Islam. But then he added, with a rhetorical flourish, “Being an old farm boy myself, chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad; they’ve always made me glad.” There was further laughter and applause by audience members, but this extra sentence condemned him as gleeful and celebratory over the president’s death. When the FBI later noted the speech in a report, it characterized the “chickens” remarks as suggesting that the assassination brought Malcolm pleasure, which, if not quite the thrust of his much quoted phrase, was certainly the sentiment driven home by the “old farm boy” quip that followed.
Though the comments would almost instantly cause a furor outside the Manhattan Center, inside the reaction was almost entirely the opposite. “The crowd just started applauding,” remembered Larry 4X. “When he made the statement, I didn’t think anything about it.” Herman Ferguson, the assistant school principal who had arranged Malcolm’s Thanksgiving speech in Queens the previous month, was also in attendance, and saw little to get agitated about: “It was an innocuous comment, and nobody paid any particular attention to it.”
Nobody, perhaps, except for John Ali and Captain Joseph, who had been standing only a few feet away from Malcolm as he delivered his remarks. Ali was livid, and within moments he was searching for a phone to call Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm had challenged a direct order, jeopardizing the interests of the Nation. The comments would certainly intensify the scrutiny of the FBI and local law enforcement, making it harder for the Nation to operate without being hassled, and the blowback threatened to bring a halt to the recruitment gains made over the last five years. Chicago headquarters had other worries as well. By now there were hundreds of Muslims inside federal and state prisons, all of them vulnerable to harassment and physical abuse. If correction officials believed that the Black Muslims celebrated Kennedy’s murder, these Muslim prisoners could become targets for retribution. Finally, Ali probably raised with Elijah Muhammad what would have been, for him, the disturbing second half of Malcolm’s address. The news of Malcolm’s speech wounded the Messenger. His most trusted minister had directly disobeyed him; challenged, he would have no choice but to push back hard. Yet it undoubtedly also gave comfort to Malcolm’s enemies within the Nation: here was a chance for Sharrieff, Ali, Elijah, Jr., Herbert Muhammad, and others to freeze Malcolm out. His inflammatory statement had given them a wedge by which he might be forced from the Nation of Islam. They counseled Muhammad immediately to establish a public distance between Malcolm and the Nation. By disciplining the Nation’s national spokesman, Elijah Muhammad would reassert his personal authority throughout the sect. And if Malcolm chose to challenge him, he would give Ali and others sufficient reason to push for his expulsion.
The next day, Monday, December 2, Malcolm flew to Chicago for his regular monthly meeting with Muhammad. That morning, the New York Times headlined its story “Malcolm X Scores U.S. and Kennedy: Likens Slaying to ‘Chickens Coming Home to Roost.’” When he arrived, as customary the two men embraced, but Malcolm immediately sensed that something was wrong. “That was a very bad statement,” Muhammad told him. “The president of the country is our president, too.” This was an odd formulation, given that NOI members had been discouraged from voting in elections. Muhammad then told Malcolm that he was suspended for the next ninety days, during which time he would be removed from his post as minister of Mosque No. 7. Though he would not be allowed to preach or even enter the mosque, he was expected to continue performing the administrative tasks of the minister—approving invoices, answering correspondence, and maintaining records. Marilyn E.X., his secretary, would continue working for him.
The gears turned quickly to spread news of the punishment. Late that afternoon, as Malcolm was returning to the Chicago airport to fly back to New York City, Ali and his aides contacted press organizations throughout the country about Malcolm’s “silencing.” In a widely circulated telegram to media outlets, the NOI stated, “Minister Malcolm did not speak for Muhammad or the Nation of Islam or any of Mr. Muhammad’s followers. . . . The correct statement on the death of the President is: ‘We with the world are very shocked at the assassination of President Kennedy.’” An Amsterdam News reporter reached Malcolm at his home and asked for a comment. Technically his “silence” should have meant that he had no direct contact with the media, but instead, in a small act of defiance, he responded, saying, “Yes, I’m wrong. I disobeyed Muhammad’s order. He was justified 100 percent. I agree I need to withdraw from public appearance.” The news about Malcolm’s suspension from the Nation of Islam was widely covered in the white press. The Los Angeles Times story, for example, was titled “Malcolm X Hit for Glee Over Kennedy Death.” Newsweekspeculated that the suspension had left Malcolm “only with his intramural duties as New York’s Muslim minister—and even that job reportedly was in doubt.ʺ
When Mosque No. 7 learned about Malcolm’s ninety-day suspension, there was uncertainty but not panic. Putting individuals “out of the mosque” for disciplinary reasons was routine. Veteran members could recall Captain Joseph being ousted from his privileged post as head of the Fruit of Islam back in 1956. Nearly everyone assumed that the minister would simply acquiesce to the decision and three months later resume his customary role. Much continued as it had before. Larry 4X continued to make sure that Malcolm received his office mail. “He would go to the restaurant, he would talk to the staff,” recalled Larry, “but he would make no public speeches.”
Yet during the initial days of the suspension, many mosque members were unsure about the boundaries that should be set for the minister. James 67X was at the speakerʹs rostrum, opening a meeting at the mosque, when Malcolm walked through the double-door entrance at the back of the hall only to have Captain Joseph quickly step forward and block him. “Malcolm had to turn around and go back out,” recalled James, “and I said, ‘Oh-oh, something funny is going on.’ ”
By this time James was the mosque’s circulation manager for Muhammad Speaks, responsible for managing thousands of dollars in revenue each week. His close working relationship with Malcolm had let him see just how great a toll the internal tumult had taken. In the fall of 1963, he had sensed that Malcolm was physically and mentally exhausted, and took it upon himself to write a letter to Muhammad, requesting leave for the minister. He wrote a second letter to Captain Joseph, who treated it with ridicule. Now he found it difficult to get further details on what was happening with Malcolm. He and other office staff were simply told that the minister had been expelled for only ninety days; no mosque member in good standing was permitted to speak to him. “At first,” said James, “I figured, well, Mr. Muhammad is making an astute political move.” But within several weeks, James began hearing complaints about Malcolm. Some said, “Big Red, yeah, he never was with the Messenger.” Others blamed him for the public fiascos with the American Nazi Party.
The situation was extremely difficult for Betty, too. As of January 1964, she was three months pregnant with their fourth child. Her husband was increasingly the object of ridicule and open condemnation, but as a Muslim in good standing she was expected to attend mosque functions, making it hard to avoid awkward situations. All the warnings she had given Malcolm about reckoning his future beyond the Nation seemed prophetic, and any hesitation he may have shown now about distancing himself financially or otherwise surely heightened the tension between them. But there was no way for Malcolm to shield his wife from the gathering storm, or the consequences when his salary stopped.
On December 6, the New York Times ran a story, “Malcolm Expected to Be Replaced.” The news, surely generated by a leak from those closest to Muhammad, surprised not just Malcolm and his family, but his supporters as well. The Times indicated that sources close to the Black Muslims had confirmed that Elijah Muhammad had already selected a successor for Mosque No. 7. The most likely candidates were Muhammad’s youngest son, Akbar Muhammad; Jeremiah X, minister of the Atlanta and Birmingham mosques; and Washington, D.C., minister Lonnie X. Sources to the Times also indicated that “Malcolm had become ‘so powerful’ that he had emerged as a ‘personality,’ rather than as a spokesman for the movement.ʺ The story was most striking in its detail, which confirmed that it had come from close to up high: the naming of specific ministers in key positions could have been authorized only by either the Nation’s secretariat in Chicago or Captain Joseph. Asked for a comment, Malcolm denied the rumors. “I am the minister of the mosque,” he insisted, “and I shall be carrying out my responsibilities for the mosque whatever they may entail. I will just exclude public speaking engagements.” Technically, his statement represented a violation of Elijah Muhammad’s silencing order. But no further action was taken against him for the time being.
To his critics inside the Nation, Malcolm was simply going through the motions, only appearing to be contrite. He had informed Mosque No. 7 officials that he had begun working on a manuscript based on the wisdom expressed by Elijah Muhammad during their many dinner conversations over the years, yet beyond making rough outlines, Malcolm never really worked on the project. Instead, he continued to express himself in the national press, against Muhammad’s order. In the Chicago Defender, for instance, he blasted black Republican Jackie Robinson for negative comments he had made against Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and the Nation of Islam. Dripping with satire, his polemic ridiculed the former baseball great as someone who never knows “what is going on in the Negro community until the white man tells you.” He accused Robinson of attempting to influence blacks into supporting New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, asking, “Just who are you playing ball for today, good friend?” He also warned Robinson that if he ever dared to exhibit the militant courage of a Medgar Evers, “the same whites whom you now take to be your friends will be the first to put the bullet or the dagger in your back, just as they put it in the back of Medgar Evers.” Further, Elijah Muhammad probably was not pleased when the Amsterdam News reported that Doubleday was planning to publish Malcolm’s autobiography. Muhammad reaffirmed to the press that his troublesome deputy still retained the title of minister, “but he will not be permitted to speak in public.”
Malcolm felt almost completely adrift. After years of traveling cross-country to make speeches and organize the Nation’s affairs, he now found himself saddled with a new and oddly unpleasant burden: free time. To keep occupied, he answered letters. To an African-American student at Colgate University who had expressed interest in starting an Islamic society on campus, he explained that while the acquisition of knowledge was commendable, to be useful, education had to be culturally relevant. “Our cultural roots must be restored before life (incentive) can flow into us; because just as a tree without roots is dead, a people without cultural roots are automatically dead.”
The best evidence of Malcolm’s state of mind is in an interview he gave to Louis Lomax, in which he vigorously denied implying “that Kennedy’s death was a reason for rejoicing.” His central point was that the president’s assassination “was the result of a long line of violent acts, the culmination of hate and suspicion and doubt in this country.” Muhammad “had warned me not to say anything about the death of the president, and I omitted any references to that tragedy in my main speech.” While he accepted his suspension, he assured the journalist that “I don’t think it will be permanent.” Most significantly, when Lomax inquired about “differences” that were rumored to exist between himself and Muhammad, Malcolm snapped, “It’s a lie. . . . How could there be any difference between the Messenger and me? I am his slave, his servant, his son. He is the leader, the only spokesman for the Black Muslims.”
Elijah Muhammad was at first satisfied with the general reaction to Malcolm’s suspension. In telephone conversations recorded by the FBI, he described his punishment of Malcolm as an act of parental authority: “Papa” had to discipline the child, who would receive even more censure “if he sticks out his lip and starts popping off.” But as the Kennedy controversy faded from the headlines, Elijah was confronted with other concerns. The continued shunning of the Nation’s golden child led many to believe that the Kennedy statement was only a pretense for punishment, and that this was simply the long-awaited showdown between Malcolm and the NOI secretariat in Chicago over the future direction of the Nation of Islam. The major issue, however, was the continuing rumors of Muhammad’s sexual infidelities, which had only grown more widespread. Muhammad now knew that Malcolm had told Louis X and other ministers, with Malcolm explaining his course of action as an attempt to control sentiments among the rank and file. But John Ali, Sharrieff, and others told Muhammad that Malcolm had deliberately spread this information to undermine him and argued that Malcolm’s actions were destroying confidence in Muhammad and in the Nation. They were helped along by the FBI, which had tracked the dissension with interest and now moved with a new series of planted letters meant to corroborate Malcolm’s supposed rumormongering.
This constant drumbeat of derision had its desired effect. Sometime in mid-December 1963, Muhammad decided not to return Malcolm to his position in Mosque No. 7. He had permitted Malcolm to become too powerful. By publicly humiliating him, he could reclaim his supremacy over the sect in such a manner that no other minister would dare challenge him. Although the Chicago officials wanted to expel Malcolm and his supporters outright, it is unlikely that Elijah shared their views, at least at that time. Keeping Malcolm within the sect but muzzled and stripped of his offices seemed a more effective demonstration of the Messengerʹs power. He would eliminate Malcolm’s institutional base but leave him in place as the national minister to work in a lower-profile administrative capacity. Malcolm, for his part, still clung to the hope that Muhammad would eventually reinstate him. By the end of 1963, both men stood at the precipice, but neither believed that a total split was inevitable.
The new year, however, saw the situation continue to worsen. On January 2, 1964, Muhammad phoned Malcolm to discuss the suspension; Sharrieff and Ali were probably listening in. Malcolm, he said, had discussed his conduct with NOI ministers in a manner that was highly irresponsible. Charges of extramarital affairs and out-of-wedlock children were akin to a “fire” that could devastate the Nation. A second concern for Muhammad was the continuing rivalry between his family and Malcolm. Malcolm offered no opposition or rebuttal. Even when Muhammad hinted that his suspension could continue indefinitely, Malcolm replied calmly that he had profited from his mentorʹs advice and actions, adding that he was praying to atone for his errors.
Perhaps Malcolm failed to express his remorse sufficiently, for it was after this phone call that Muhammad concluded the time had come to strip him of all authority. The next day, Joseph was informed that a new minister would replace Malcolm at Mosque No. 7 ; however, the decision-making authority in running the mosque would now be Joseph’s. On January 5, Muhammad promoted James 3X (McGregor) Shabazz, the head of Newark’s mosque, as the new minister. Malcolm was ordered to fly to Phoenix for a judicial hearing, at which Elijah Muhammad, Ali, and Sharrieff were all present. It was probably only at this formal session that Malcolm finally grasped what was happening to him. He confessed to the “court” that he had revealed details about Muhammad’s private life to Captain Joseph and to a handful of NOI ministers, and went on to plead for the opportunity to continue to serve Muhammad. But he also insisted upon the right to a judicial hearing before members of his own mosque, a right that had been long established for those accused of violations in the Nation. Muhammad’s response was “Go back and put out the fire you started.” Henceforth, Malcolm was to be quarantined: no member in good standing was permitted to speak to him or to interact with him in any manner. As Peter Goldman astutely observed, “For a faithful Muslim, this order was tantamount to being forced to the edge of that grave the rest of us call the world. The evidence soon accumulated that somebody in the Nation had another, less metaphorical grave in mind.”
As the weeks lurched forward, the Nation boiled over with enmity toward Malcolm, spurred on by John Ali and Raymond Sharrieff, who used their positions at the top of the NOI hierarchy to trigger a cascade of invective down through the ranks. Gross rumors of Malcolm’s disloyalty to Muhammad swept through the Nation, at first whispered at MGT meetings or discussed among the Fruit, yet eventually declaimed openly by ministers, even by James 3X Shabazz from Malcolm’s own former pulpit. Not long after returning from Phoenix, Malcolm and NOI member Charles 37X Morris were walking along Amsterdam Avenue in Harlem when they encountered a young Muslim brother on the sidewalk staring at them. His fists were clenched and he appeared ready to hurl himself at them. Mosque No. 7 officials had told the angry young Fruit, “If you knew what Malcolm had said about the Dear Holy Apostle, you’d kill him yourself.” Charles defiantly told the young man to go back to the mosque official and ask why he didn’t do his own killing. The moment passed without further incident, but it illustrated all too plainly that hundreds of Nation of Islam members were being made to view Malcolm as the enemy of their sect. The degree of anger and hatred generated by the anti-Malcolm campaign would make it almost impossible for the minister to return, even with Muhammad’s permission. Malcolm desperately tried to maintain a routine, a pattern of work and responsibility, to keep his bearings. On January 14, he met with Alex Haley to work on the Autobiography. Their session lasted over seven hours, deep into the night. As he worked with Haley to shape the story of his past, he found the shape of his present was changing too quickly to pin down.
Since Cassius Clay had walked into the Students’ Luncheonette in Detroit and into Malcolm’s life, his reputation had continued to grow; after knocking out Archie Moore in July 1962, he proceeded to put down three more fighters, remaining undefeated and earning himself a title shot against the much favored heavyweight champion Sonny Liston. While training for the fight in Miami in the winter of 1963, Clay invited Malcolm and his family down to his camp in Miami Beach for a vacation. Grateful for the chance to escape New York, Malcolm accepted, and on January 15 he, Betty, and their three daughters flew south. His trip, and the fight, mustered little attention from Muhammad. Although the Chicago headquarters appreciated the young boxerʹs interest in the Nation of Islam, the Messenger made it known that he disapproved of the sport as a profession. Beyond this, NOI leaders were convinced that the loudmouthed Clay had no chance to defeat Liston, who had just annihilated the former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson. Publicly embracing him, they believed, would bring only embarrassment after his all but certain loss. But Malcolm, who had developed a solid friendship with Clay, possessed a surer sense of the boxerʹs skills. He also saw that Cassius was intelligent and possessed the charisma that could attract young blacks to Islam. And it probably occurred to him that, in the event of a showdown with the Chicago leaders, having Clay on his side was a plus.
The Miami Beach excursion was the one and only vacation that Betty and Malcolm would ever share. Malcolm’s family was probably surprised when the young boxer himself met them at the Miami airport. This unexpected encounter was relayed to the local FBI office by an informant. Apparently, the Bureau had not yet established any connections between Clay and black separatists, and the FBI office in Miami found itself sufficiently nonplussed that it failed to forward the information to Washington, D.C., until January 21. For several days, the family did mostly tourist things: lounging at the beach, taking photos, buying postcards. Malcolm was able to set aside informal time with Clay, building up the young fighterʹs confidence. He also tried to use the trip as an opportunity to recraft his image, perhaps realizing finally the need to start presenting himself independent of the Nation. In a notebook he kept of the trip, he drafted several paragraphs about his family’s visit to Clay’s training camp that were designed to be the basis for a feature news story, “Malcolm X, the Family Man.” Most of his notes were captions designed to accompany photographs he had taken. One note indicated that he and Betty were celebrating their sixth wedding anniversary on the trip, that they were the parents of three daughters and were expecting their fourth child that June. This attempt to moderate his public image proved successful. The Chicago Defender published a beautiful portrait of the family, with Clay at the right, holding the couple’s youngest daughter, Ilyasah. A similar photograph was published in the Amsterdam News, and together they would mark the first time Malcolm presented his family to the public. They represented the beginning of what would prove to be Malcolm’s final reinvention, one that would culminate a few months later during his trip to Mecca for the hajj.
Betty and the children returned home on January 19, but Malcolm lingered to spend more time alone with Cassius Clay. A few days later, when Malcolm flew back to New York, Clay went with him. He did not bother to ask his trainer, Angelo Dundee, for permission to leave, and though it is unheard of for a boxer to break camp one month before a championship fight, Dundee did not try to stop him. Arriving in New York on January 21, Clay finally discovered a city big enough to hold his outsized personality. He and Malcolm set about touring Harlem and other sights of the city, and Clay attended an NOI rally held at the Rockland Palace, though Malcolm stayed away, observing his suspension. Afterward Clay returned to Miami and resumed training.
It was not long before news of Clay’s and Malcolm’s relationship made its way into the press. On January 25, the Amsterdam News noted Malcolm’s vacation in Florida with his family “as the guests of heavyweight boxer Cassius Clay.” The publicity caused great difficulties in Clay’s fight camp in Miami. As his fame had grown in the boxing world, the question of his involvement with the Nation had dogged him. With the sect identified primarily with antagonistic feelings toward whites, his affiliation threatened to damage him professionally, and so he had come to dance around the issue when questioned about it by the press. But now, in the days leading up to the Liston fight, Malcolm’s influence pushed him closer to open support. The Amsterdam News reported Clay’s twenty-minute-long remarks at the Rockland Palace: “I’m a race man, and every time I go to a Muslim meeting I get inspired.” On February 3, the Louisville Courier-Journal published an interview with Clay in which he all but admitted membership in the Nation. “Sure I talked to the Muslims and I’m going back again,” he declared. “Integration is wrong. The white people don’t want integration, I don’t want integration. I don’t believe in forcing it, and the Muslims don’t believe in it. So what’s wrong with the Muslims?”
Throughout most of February Malcolm continued to appeal to Muhammad for reinstatement, but to no avail. He was now forced to consider emergency household issues. The Nation paid out a household stipend to its ministers to provide food, clothing, and household items. For Malcolm this amounted to about $150 per month. He was still considered a minister and technically could claim the stipend, but if fully stripped of his title he would have no monthly income and no claim on his family’s East Elmhurst home. According to an estimate by James 67X, from 1960 to 1963 Malcolm also received an expense account from the Nation of about $3,000 per month, covering his travel, hotel accommodations, meals, and incidental expenses. For Malcolm to exert the impact on the national media that he had in the early 1960s, a considerable investment by the Nation was required. For example, whenever he traveled to a city with a Nation of Islam mosque, local leaders were expected to take off from work and make automobiles, drivers, and security personnel available. If his itinerary involved a locale with no NOI presence, he frequently traveled with one or more FOI security members. His secretary at the mosque handled his routine correspondence. It was this elaborate infrastructure that helped turn a prominent local leader into a national figure. The question Malcolm now confronted was, what would happen if all this was taken away? What financial resources could he provide for Betty and the children? He had virtually no savings, and no insurance. He had even arranged for his future book royalties to go to the Nation. His faith in the Nation of Islam had been complete and unquestioning, leaving him no fallback, no path of escape if it turned out to be misplaced.
It was this position of vulnerability that forced Malcolm to plead to Muhammad to allow him to be reinstated, in any capacity. In a notebook he kept during the last two weeks of January, he tried to work out his thoughts on the best way to present his case to Muhammad. “Had no bad motive. Had good intention,” he wrote.
Feeling innocent, have felt extremely persecuted. Have felt lied about. Unjustly and unnecessarily . . . forced to find some way to defend myself, to retaliate against those enemies without hurting you. . . . If I’m wrong in these feelings and conclusions, I’m at least being truthful and not hypocritical, chance to serve Allah and you . . .
As my last letter stated: 1. I believe in Our Savior, you and your program. 2. I know only what you taught me. 3. And am only what you have made me. 4. I have never exalted myself above you. 5. I have never acted independently. I made a serious mistake by not coming straight to you—and that mistake, led to my making others. I am sincerely sorry and pray to Allah for forgiveness, and I ask you to pray to Allah for my forgiveness. I cannot be an enemy to you without being an enemy to myself. I cannot speak against you without speaking against myself.
Between January and late February, he wrote Muhammad a series of letters requesting reinstatement, appealing to their close personal relationship and casting the Chicago leadership as jealous and bent on driving them apart. The “others,” he wrote, leaving no question as to whom he meant, desired the end of their partnership “because they know Allah has blessed me to be your best representative as well as your best defender. . . . The only ones there who may think against you are the ones that are not really with you themselves. This is a dangerous position to be in, because it only adds division upon division.” Few of these letters have survived; there is also a good chance that Muhammad never read them, because his access to correspondence with Nation officials was controlled by Ali and his aides.
Yet as his suspension persisted and Muhammad seemed unsympathetic, Malcolm eventually came to believe he had misjudged the situation. For all his difficulties with Chicago, he finally began to see that the real problem was not with John Ali or Raymond Sharrieff, but with Muhammad himself. In his diary, Malcolm drafted a four-item critique of Elijah Muhammad that had been suggested by Wallace: “1. John not to blame[,] you behind all John’s moves,” he wrote in his notebook. “2. You use John. 3. You not interested in Muslims, but self. 4. You use money to control all those around you.” Malcolm observed that he and Wallace shared extensive common ground in their complaints about the Nation’s leadership. Under the heading “Wallace’s analysis of [Mosque] No. 2,” Malcolm noted: “1. Chi[cago] officials scared and had changed (agreed). 2. Cold, impersonal, inconsiderate & hard on members (agreed). 3. Force & authority instead of instructions (agreed). 4. Protecting self, not you or the nation (agreed).” He complained to Wallace that under Joseph’s influence the FOI had been turned into an internal surveillance system. “Joseph had become a cop, and ceased being a bro (two-thirds a cop) same situation everywhere. Captains have become anti-Minister.”
These notebook fragments are significant in explaining the differences that led to Malcolm’s split from the sect, and subsequently to his assassination. Most of Muhammad’s family and the Chicago secretariat opposed Malcolm for two basic reasons. First, they were convinced that he coveted the Messengerʹs position: that once Elijah was incapacitated, or dead, Malcolm would easily take command. Their material benefits derived from being the “royal family” would abruptly end. But equally important was the second reason: Malcolm’s militant politics of 1962-63 represented a radical break with the Nation of Islam’s apolitical black nationalism. Herbert Muhammad had already barred any publicity in Muhammad Speaks related to Malcolm one full year prior to the official silencing. To ensure that Chicago maintained tight control, officials increasingly deployed the Fruit of Islam as a surveillance and intimidation unit. As Malcolm noted, Joseph had “become a cop,” not a brother, a not so subtle reference to the beatings he inflicted. But Muhammad’s family totally misread Malcolm’s motives. He never saw himself as the heir apparent; if anyone should be groomed for the Messengerʹs role, Malcolm believed, it was Wallace. He preferred the itinerant life of an evangelist. He respected and loved Wallace and would have supported him as the successor had the Messenger died. Malcolm’s tragic mistake was believing that his militant political aims—the creation of an all-inclusive black united front against U.S. racism—could be constructed with the full participation of the Nation of Islam. The Nation was prepared to undergo Islamization, but it wasn’t ready for civil rights demonstrations, Third World revolution, or Pan-Africanism. It was politics, not personalities, that severed Malcolm’s relationship with the Nation of Islam.
Only in February 1964 was Malcolm emotionally prepared to contemplate the possibility of life after the Nation of Islam. Politically, he would have to relate to a range of activist organizations, from the NAACP to the socialist left, in an entirely new way. Like many Harlemites, he respected the antiracist political work the Communist Party had done over four decades. But dialogue with them was difficult: they were atheists and, even worse, staunch integrationists. Their key theoreticians on race, notably James E. Jackson and Claude Lightfoot, had examined the Black Muslim phenomenon, characterizing black nationalism as a “conditioned reflex to white chauvinism”: a response to Jim Crow, job discrimination, and the social isolation of the ghetto. However, the Black Muslim emphasis on the teaching of Negro history and culture, and its opposition to drugs, alcoholism, and black-on-black crime, were all positive contributions to the black community. So, on balance, while the communists vigorously disagreed with the sect’s tenets, they favored what Lightfoot called “united front” coalitions on a case-by-case basis. There is evidence that Malcolm may have met with the leaders of the Communist Party’s Harlem branch in mid-February. However, there were no subsequent sessions, even after Malcolm had established the Organization of Afro-American Unity.
Part of Malcolm’s inner turmoil over these months was caused by doubts about his faith. Leaving the Nation of Islam meant much more than departing a religious cult; he would be abandoning an entire spiritual geography. At many NOI lectures, a display about the future of black identity was depicted on a blackboard. On one side of the board was drawn the American flag, accompanied by a Christian cross and the words “Slavery,” “Suffering,” and “Death.” On the other was depicted the Muslim Crescent, with the words “Islam,” “Freedom,” “Justice,” and “Equality.” Beneath both sets of symbols and words was a question: “Which will survive the War of Armageddon? ʺ The Nation of Islam’s purpose here was twofold. First, Muhammad preached that not only was Islam the “natural religion” of all blacks, but it was only through the knowledge of Islam that African Americans could achieve their goals. Second, the Nation of Islam argued that Americanism and Christianity had brought blacks only slavery and social death. Thus the Nation presented to its converts a comprehensive global system of race, “pitting black Islam against white Christianity in a worldwide and historic struggle.” The essential tenets for the Nation’s religious remapping of the world rested on Yacub’s History—that whites were the devil, that Wallace D. Fard Muhammad was God in person, and that Elijah Muhammad had indeed been chosen by that God to represent his interests on earth. Despite Malcolm’s support for the Nation’s moves toward Islamization, as late as December 1963 he agreed with Yacub’s History and embraced the notion that Muhammad’s contacts with Fard were with Allah in human form. In his interview with Lomax in late December 1963, he insisted vigorously that Elijah had talked with God personally. When Wallace Muhammad in early 1964 expressed his belief that Fard was neither Allah nor God, Malcolm dissented.
Yet if Elijah Muhammad’s greatest sin was not in impregnating his subordinates but in fraudulently representing himself as Allah’s Messenger, then the Fard narrative was a myth. Were Yacub’s History also false, then people of European descent were not devils to be fought against, but individuals who could oppose racism. Even at the level of NOI class instruction, a new religious remapping of the world based on orthodox Islam would not necessarily stigmatize or isolate the United States because of its history of slavery and racial discrimination. Instead of a bloody jihad, a holy Armageddon, perhaps America could experience a nonviolent, bloodless revolution. At some point, Malcolm must have pondered the unthinkable: it was possible to be black, a Muslim, and an American.
There were also the practical implications of leaving the Nation. Without its backing, Malcolm would lack the financial means to travel across the country, to hold press conferences or give public speeches. He recognized that if he was to continue as a public figure, he would need to establish a secular organization, dedicated to his own political ideals and staffed by devoted assistants. With such a group, he could negotiate new relationships with civil rights organizations and their leaders.
By the time Malcolm returned to Miami Beach only a few days before the Clay-Liston fight, wild rumors were swirling. Publicity about Clay’s NOI affiliations had swept through Miami, pleasing no one except perhaps Malcolm. The fight’s promoter, Bill MacDonald, had to gross $800,000 to break even, and the stories were turning off white fans and depressing the box office. Days before the fight, scheduled for February 25, less than one half of the Miami Convention Hall’s 15,744 seats had been sold. When Malcolm returned to Miami to rejoin Clay’s entourage, MacDonald threatened to cancel. A compromise was reached when Malcolm agreed to maintain a lower profile, at least until the night of the fight. In return, the Muslim minister would receive celebrity treatment and a ringside view—seat 7, his favorite number.
Malcolm primarily saw his role as Clay’s spiritual mentor. No one gave the brash pretender any chance of winning. Yet Malcolm reassured Clay that his impending victory had been prophesied centuries earlier. Clay’s win, he predicted, would not only be a triumph for the Nation of Islam, but for seven hundred million Muslims across the globe. But Malcolm’s continuing fascination with Clay, and the outcome of this particular bout, was at least in part influenced by his problematic status inside the Nation. The fight would be held only one day prior to the annual Saviourʹs Day convention, and here Malcolm saw an opportunity. He contacted Chicago headquarters and offered a deal: he would accompany Clay, once victorious over Liston, directly to Chicago to appear at the convention, in return for his full reinstatement. Chicago rejected the offer, in part because officials still doubted Clay’s boxing abilities, but primarily because by late February they had no intention of allowing Malcolm back in.
On fight night, Malcolm wandered through the crowd at ease, secure in his knowledge that both he and Clay would soon be vindicated by victory. Shortly before the bout he retired to the dressing room to join Clay, whose Muslim entourage—stocked mostly by minor flunkies sent from Chicago—was fueling the fighterʹs paranoia over the rumors and threats of violence against him that had been circulating in the last twenty-four hours. Cutting through this, Malcolm took Clay and his brother, Rudy, aside and led them in prayer. Then he returned to the arena and settled into his ringside seat, not too far from football legend Jim Brown and singer Sam Cooke. Soon the fighters emerged, and ring announcer Frank Wyman’s booming voice filled the room as he introduced them, starting with Clay. Then, finally, the bell loosed them from their corners.
Clay’s match strategy was to take the fight to Liston in the initial rounds, coast during the third, fourth, and fifth, then fight “full steam” from the sixth through the ninth, with any luck scoring a knockout. Liston, big but slow, would tire early, making him vulnerable after about the fifth round. All of Clay’s and Angelo Dundee’s plans ended up being correct tactically, except for one near mishap. In a moment of desperation, one of Liston’s handlers rubbed some ointment on the boxer’s gloves, blinding Clay for an entire round. With his eyes blazing, Clay kept dancing across the ring, just outside Liston’s lumbering reach. In the sixth round, as his eyes began to clear, Clay destroyed Liston with multiple jabs and combinations. By the end of its three minutes, Liston was exhausted, unable even to raise his arms to defend himself. At the start of the seventh round he squatted sadly on his corner stool, refusing to come out. Stunned, Clay ran around the ring, yelling hysterically: “I am the greatest thing that ever lived! I don’t have a mark on my face, and I upset Sonny Liston, and I just turned twenty-two years old. I must be the greatest! I showed the world! I talk to God every day! I’m the king of the world!”
Cheering from his ringside seat, Malcolm experienced a sweetness unlike any he had felt in some time. He had prepared a victory party in his room back at the Hampton House motel in one of Miami’s black neighborhoods, and just after midnight Clay arrived for the festivities. In keeping with the Muslims’ sober image, celebrants were given bowls of ice cream. The next day, Clay confirmed his membership in the Nation of Islam, and despite the speaking ban Malcolm explained to the press why the new convert’s triumph held political as well as religious significance, giving a sage assessment of Clay’s still forming legacy: “Clay is the finest Negro athlete I have ever known, the man who will mean more to his people than any athlete before him. He is more than Jackie Robinson was, because Robinson is the white man’s hero. The white press wanted him to lose. They wanted him to lose because he is a Muslim. You notice nobody cares about the religion of other athletes. But their prejudice against Clay blinded them to his ability.”
Clay’s victory caught the Nation’s leadership off guard. They had never given a thought that he might win, and with Malcolm now standing proudly at his side before the entire country, he had instantly become another point of leverage from which Malcolm must be separated. The day after the fight, Clay duly flew to Chicago to attend the Saviourʹs Day convention, where he finally threw off the ambiguity of previous statements and officially announced his membership in the Nation of Islam. Without missing a beat, Elijah Muhammad embraced his new convert, claiming that Clay’s triumph was the work of both Allah and his Messenger. Despite this public declaration, Clay continued to view Malcolm as his prime mentor. On March 1 he drove to New York City, rented two three-room suites in the Hotel Theresa, and immediately contacted Malcolm. Accompanying him was his brother, Rudy, and an entourage of six. Malcolm relished Clay’s time in the spotlight and astutely played the press for maximum advantage. On March 4 the two men went on a two-hour tour of the United Nations. At an impromptu press gathering, Clay surprised reporters by claiming that he intended to “live forever” in New York. “I’m so popular I need a big town so all the people who want to watch me can do it,” Clay explained. When asked whether he had played any role in the heavyweight champ’s decision to relocate to New York City, Malcolm replied, “He’s got a mind of his own.” For several days, in fact, he and Clay had been talking about the advantages of moving to New York. Malcolm even drove Clay out to Queens, looking at houses near his East Elmhurst home.
The prospect that Clay might move to New York City, in part under the influence of Malcolm, infuriated the Nation’s Chicago headquarters. But far more threatening were two press reports. On March 2, the Chicago Tribune noted that “Clay, recently crowned heavyweight champion of the world, arrived in Harlem unexpectedly yesterday for a secret conference with Malcolm X.ʺ That same day, the Chicago Defender broke the news that the two men were planning to launch a new, rival organization to the Nation of Islam. This series of events and reports finally ended any faint possibility of Malcolm’s readmission into the Nation. By this time, the Chicago headquarters recognized how seriously mistaken it had been in its handling of Clay. Permitting him to travel to New York and to continue his public affiliation with Malcolm undermined the Nation of Islam’s authority. What truly frightened Muhammad and his lieutenants was that Clay and Malcolm were popular and had national audiences in their own right; the duo might easily split the Nation into warring factions. Was this Malcolm’s intention, to use his close relationship with Clay either to reform the Nation from within or to establish a new Muslim movement outside of the Nation? During these chaotic days, Malcolm was largely unsure himself. But from the vantage point of Chicago headquarters, there could be no doubt: Clay was the Nation of Islam’s prized property and had to be retained. Malcolm X was the enemy.
It took Malcolm longer than might be expected to see just how serious Chicago was, and to what lengths it would go in attacking him. As late as February 22 an article appeared in the Amsterdam News quoting sources close to Malcolm as saying that he expected to “return in full swing” on March 1. Yet all around him, the anger toward him driven by Chicago spread throughout the mosque’s membership, poisoning any idea that his future efforts might be tied to the Nation, or that post-Nation life would be easy. James 67X and Reuben X Francis, another FOI lieutenant loyal to Malcolm, were employed as waiters at the Mosque No. 7 luncheonette, and by early February the dinerʹs boss, Charles 24X, had begun slandering Malcolm in public. “This business came about,” remembered James, “talking about ʹOh, don’t call him Malcolm, call him Red; oh, let’s kill Malcolm.ʹ . . . I was sitting in the restaurant at the time, so I figured that Joseph was doing this to try to find out which way I would bend.” James still considered himself a loyal follower of Elijah Muhammad. “I was with Mr. Muhammad 100 percent,” he explained. “But when they started talking about killing Malcolm, I said, ‘Well, if they’d kill Malcolm, they’ll kill me.’ ”
A turning point came when John Ali visited the mosque and announced that Chicago was “getting letters from the East Coast threatening to take the Little Lamb’s life.” James phoned Malcolm’s home again, warning Betty to “tell my big brother [to] be very careful.” Subsequently, he and Malcolm talked on the phone, and James told him, “They’re talking about killing you.” Malcolm laughed. “Listen, brother,” he said. “I’m no Sunday Muslim. I put in twelve years of my life into the Nation. . . . If somebody tried to do me some harm the Nation would raise up against them.” Malcolm simply didn’t grasp that John Ali and other NOI officials were laying the groundwork for his permanent expulsion or assassination. But he asked James to see him later that evening. “Well, I thought, because I said I ain’t supposed to be talking to this guy,” James grumbled, but nevertheless agreed. To avoid any possibility of detection, they arranged to meet at the corner of East 116th Street and Second Avenue “in the middle of the night.”
Malcolm picked up James and drove west to Morningside Park, pulling his blue Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight to the curb between West 113th and West 114th streets. In the dark car, Malcolm finally began to talk, unburdening himself. “I didn’t argue with him,” James recalled. “I just listened. . . . He talked about corruption in the Nation and a whole bunch of other stuff.” James had already heard about Muhammad’s extramarital relationships, and wasn’t dismayed. When Malcolm brought up Muhammad’s out-of-wedlock children, James explained, “Not to be coarse, I said, ‘So Mr. Muhammad’s been getting some nookie.’ I mean, that’s part of power, you know? . . . So that kind of puzzled me. So I said, ‘Islamic leader, there is a philosophical concept of polygamy.’” But Malcolm just talked on, justifying his actions and explaining how he might be readmitted to the Nation. James was stunned. It was obvious to him that Malcolm didn’t comprehend his dire situation. “My position was very simple. I said, ‘They’re talking about killing you.’ ” This time he ensured he would not be misunderstood, repeating, “‘Look, brother, you were seen in favor by Mr. Muhammad. And I hope you will return to his favor. [But] no, you’re not going back in the Nation. People are talking about killing you.’ ”
Malcolm finally fell silent. James realized that he had to decide, then and there, whether he would leave the Nation of Islam with Malcolm. Against his better judgment, he said, “Listen, I don’t know what your plans are. But I will help you for a year.” He had only one condition: “Don’t chump me off. Don’t tell me something that’s not true, or tell me something that is true that’s not. . . . I’m not asking what you’re going to do, how you’re going to do it, just don’t lie to me.” Malcolm took James back to his apartment building, and drove off into the darkness.
Sometime in late February, Captain Joseph contacted a Fruit member named Anas Luqman, James 67Xʹs roommate, to arrange a private meeting. Luqman had joined the Nation only a few years earlier, but his navy training and considerable skill as a martial artist had landed him an important role in the Fruit of Islam. Partnered with Thomas 15X Johnson and several others, he served as part of a top security squad whose purpose, he later explained, was finding an “inconspicuous way of dissolving a bad situation.” The squad members avoided using guns and strove for discretion. “You had to know how to do it another way,” he recalled, “because we didn’t want to upset the general public any more than necessary.” Luqman found Malcolm extremely impressive, and disliked and distrusted Joseph in equal measure. A private meeting with the FOI captain sounded unappealing, but Luqman agreed to meet him outside the NOI restaurant. At the rendezvous Joseph immediately made plain his purpose. He knew about Luqman’s naval training and had somehow gathered the impression that he had experience with ballistics, which was not the case. He gave Luqman a direct order: “Plant a bomb in [Malcolm’s] ’63 Oldsmobile that will take care of him.” The command was highly unusual in that it violated routine protocol for carrying out disciplinary matters. Luqman knew that Joseph never gave direct orders to FOI members; he only dictated instructions to individual lieutenants, who served as buffers between Joseph and those who carried out the mission. “There were no witnesses. Joseph wasn’t stupid. He had me by myself, outside, and that’s the way it was.”
After the two men parted, Luqman felt uneasy. He had joined the Nation not for its spiritual agenda but for its principled positions on race—the emphasis on land ownership, business development, and black solidarity. He had cheered Malcolm’s decision to protest the harassment and jailing of Muhammad Speaks salesmen, even participating in the Times Square demonstration of January 1963. By late that year he was growing impatient with the Nation of Islam’s gradualism, and now he was being asked to execute the one man in the organization who might push black politics forward. It was too much, he thought, “I got to break with all of them.” Out of loyalty to Malcolm, Luqman went and told him about Joseph’s order. In retrospect, it seems likely that the FOI captain did not intend to kill Malcolm at this time, but to lay a trap for him and Luqman. “Joseph was as slick as goose grease, man,” recalled James 67X. “He was no fool. Joseph told me once, ‘Generals come and generals go, but J. Edgar Hoover—he been there all the time. He ain’t been removed.’ ” Joseph already sensed where Luqman’s loyalties lay, that he would surely tell Malcolm about the car bomb. If Malcolm still intended to remain in the Nation, security protocol required him to report the alleged plot to Chicago. If he did not report it, he must be planning to leave.
Around this same period, Malcolm met with his old friend and protégé Louis X for the final time. By now, after Louis had reported back to Muhammad Malcolm’s discussion of his affairs, it had become clear that Louis’s loyalty to Elijah Muhammad was paramount. Still, though their friendship had been severely strained, the feelings between them persisted. Louis was asked to speak in Malcolm’s place on several Sundays during his suspension, and when Louis came down from Boston, he met with Malcolm despite the prohibition against contacting a member under sanctions. Malcolm even drove him to the mosque to deliver the Sunday speeches.
Farrakhan later came to interpret Malcolm’s split with the Nation of Islam in somewhat unusual terms: he believed that Elijah Muhammad had been testing Malcolm for leadership, and that he had failed that test. But by the time of their final meeting, Louis had already been chosen by Muhammad as Malcolm’s replacement speaker for the 1964 Saviourʹs Day, and the Boston minister was clearly being groomed to assume a significant leadership role, probably Malcolm’s. If his mentor had failed a test, it would be one that he himself would soon pass. He also believed that Muhammad’s impregnation of Evelyn Williams was a major source of Malcolm’s anger. After learning about the pregnancy, Farrakhan recalled, “Malcolm began speaking less and less about the teachings [of Elijah Muhammad and] became more and more political.”
On their last outing together, Farrakhan remembered, they cruised the city late into the night in Malcolm’s automobile.
He told me of his love for Evelyn and he was going to bring her to New York. I said, “Brother, please don’t do that, you would really hurt Betty if you did that.” I said, “It’s best that you leave Evelyn where she is.” We had that type of conversation. And he sat with me and he said, “Brother, my enemies will one day be your enemies.” He named people that I would have to look out for in the Nation. And then he said these words to me: “I wish it was you being an example for me, rather than me being an example for you.” That’s the last conversation that I held with my brother.
Malcolm not only foresaw Louis taking his place as the major national spokesman of the Nation, he predicted the hatred and hostility of Captain Joseph, Raymond Sharrieff, and other NOI leaders toward him. But what Farrakhan could not have anticipated was that, in little more than a decade, he too would be cast out.
Late in the evening of March 6, an audiotaped broadcast of an Elijah Muhammad address was aired on WWRL radio in New York City as well as on a Chicago radio station. Muhammad’s immediate purpose was to secure Cassius Clay’s continued allegiance. In doing so, he would take away Malcolm’s last chip. “This Clay name has no divine meaning,” Muhammad announced. “I hope he will accept being called by a better name. Muhammad Ali is what I will give to him as long as he believes in Allah and follows me.” Malcolm heard Muhammad’s address over his car radio and was stunned. Malcolm’s response was “That’s a political move! He did it to prevent him from coming with me.” NOI representatives were already meeting with Ali at the Hotel Theresa. Among the prized items they promised to deliver him was a wife, and if he desired, it could be one of the Messengerʹs own granddaughters. Malcolm had actually discouraged Ali from leaving the Nation, perhaps thinking the young boxer might be more inclined to join him if he wasn’t pressured. Within a few days, Ali chose to side with Muhammad. In an interview with Alex Haley, he admitted that one factor in his calculation was fear. “You don’t just buck Mr. Muhammad and get away with it,” he told Haley, and of Malcolm he said, “I don’t want to talk about him no more.” On March 10, the New York Times reported that “the twenty-two-year-old heavyweight champion indicated that he would remain with the Black Muslim sect headed by Elijah Muhammad and would not join with Malcolm X.ʺ By March 21, the Pittsburgh Courier announced that “the all-out efforts of Malcolm X . . . to ‘sell’ himself, and a brand new program, the ‘Black Mosque’ to heavyweight boxing champion Cassius X Clay, has completely failed.”
Malcolm’s entire life seemed to be spinning out of control. On March 6 he was pulled over by the police while speeding over New York’s Triborough Bridge and given a ticket. The day before, he had received a letter from Muhammad, indicating that he was suspended indefinitely. This, combined with Muhammad Ali’s siding with Muhammad, left Malcolm stranded. His monthly household stipend would be cut off. Speakerʹs fees from colleges and public lectures could provide a modest stream of revenue, and he could draw a bit more of his book advance from Doubleday if necessary, but he could not afford to delay his decision to break from the organization any longer.
On March 8 he drove to the home of New York Times reporter M. S. Handler, and in the presence of Handlerʹs wife, announced his decision to leave the Nation. Handlerʹs story, “Malcolm X Splits with Muhammad,” appeared the following day. Initially, he went out of his way to avoid confrontation with the Nation of Islam. “I want it clearly understood that my advice to all Muslims is that they stay in the Nation of Islam under the spiritual guidance of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad,” he declared. “It is not my desire to encourage any of them to follow me.” Malcolm suggested that his departure from the sect was inspired by a desire to help promote the Nation’s agenda. “I have reached the conclusion that I can best spread Mr. Muhammad’s message by staying out of the Nation of Islam and continuing to work on my own among America’s 22 million non-Muslim Negroes.” He offered an olive branch to his critics in the civil rights movement, affirming his commitment “to cooperate in local civil rights actions in the South and elsewhere.” To secular black nationalists and independent activists, he declared his support for building “a politically oriented black nationalist party” that would “seek to convert the Negro population from nonviolence to active self-defense against white supremacists in all parts of the country.” Mindful of his need for funds, he also announced, “I shall also accept all important speaking engagements at colleges and universities.”
If Malcolm had left matters there, Muhammad and the NOI officials might not have retaliated with the degree of viciousness they did. But much like his “chickens” comment, he was incapable of pulling himself back from the brink. When Handler inquired about the reasons for his departure, the minister replied, “Envy blinds men and makes it impossible for them to think clearly. This is what happened.” Malcolm accused the Nation of Islam of restricting his political independence and involvement inside the civil rights movement. “It is going to be different now,” he vowed. “I’m going to join in the fight wherever Negroes ask for my help.” These comments almost certainly guaranteed an escalation of polemical, and possibly physical, attacks against him.
Malcolm may have discouraged members from leaving the Nation, in part, to reduce the level of criticism against him. But from a practical standpoint, it was clear that he had not thought things through, because many members were already in the process of leaving. First, there was a cadre of lieutenants and confidants—James 67X Warden, Charles 37X Morris (also called Charles Kenyatta), Anas Luqman, Reuben X Francis, and many others—who were leaving the Nation primarily out of personal loyalty to Malcolm. Because of their past extensive involvement in the sect—for example, their knowledge of the pipe squads’ brutal activities—their lives were also in jeopardy. Another group included NOI members who were disgusted by the diatribes against Malcolm that they had heard at Mosque No. 7 and the restaurant for several months, and who believed that the minister should have been afforded his right to defend himself before the entire congregation. After Malcolm’s ouster, there was a handful of Original People, perhaps a dozen, who bravely defended their former minister inside the mosque. It is impossible to know exactly how many Muslims left Mosque No. 7 in March and April during the controversy over Malcolm, but it is likely that no more than two hundred members in good standing quit the sect: less than 5 percent of all mosque congregants.
Some of those who left to join Malcolm were longtime members. But a surprising number were new converts who knew little about the sources of tension between the NOIʹs rival factions. One of these was William 64X George. William had been an inmate at Rikers Island when another prisoner recruited him to the Nation. In June 1963, he formally joined Mosque No. 7. He quit the Nation for two major reasons. In early 1964 the NOI began making increased demands on FOI members to sell thousands of Muhammad Speaks. William was instructed to sell a minimum of 150 copies each week, representing hundreds of dollars. Second, he was concerned about the threatening talk led by Captain Joseph and Mosque No. 7’s acting minister, James 3X Shabazz, describing Malcolm as a “hypocrite, and that he should be killed.” In April, William left the sect and would soon join Malcolm’s group, becoming one of his key security men.
On March 9, Malcolm and a small cadre of supporters held a meeting at 23-11 Ninety-seventh Street in Queens. It was decided to incorporate under the name Muslim Mosque, Incorporated (MMI), with Malcolm, journalist Earl Grant, and James 67X elected as its trustees to serve until the first Sunday of March 1965, at which time a second election would be held. Muslim Mosque, Inc., was designed to offer African-American Muslims a spiritual alternative to the Nation of Islam. James, who had been designated as MMIʹs vice president, had advised Malcolm to encourage “those who are in the mosque to stay in the mosque” at MMIʹs initial press conference, which would be held on March 12. James later estimated that the core of MMIʹs dedicated activists had never been larger than fifty, all of whom had been former NOI members. But the act of incorporating MMI, viewed from the NOI, was seen as a deliberate provocation. Later that day, Malcolm did several interviews, including one with reporter Joe Durso of New York’s WNDT, Channel 13. On March 10, Malcolm received a certified letter from the Nation, requesting that he and his family vacate their East Elmhurst, Queens, home. One month later, Maceo X, Mosque No. 7’s secretary, would file a lawsuit in Queens Civil Court to have Malcolm evicted.
On March 11, Malcolm sent a telegram to Elijah Muhammad, outlining some of the reasons for his public departure. The contents were published in the Amsterdam News along with an interview with Malcolm. He also held a press conference at the Park Sheraton hotel in Manhattan the next morning. There, before a group of reporters and supporters, he read his March 11 telegram, again explaining his reasons for leaving the Nation. Malcolm stated that his new headquarters would be at the Hotel Theresa and he revealed his intention to open a new mosque. Sympathetic whites could donate funds to assist his new movement, but they would never be permitted to join because “when whites join an organization they usually take control of it.” Although he had pledged to cooperate with civil rights groups, much of his language at the conference seemed to revel in apocalyptic violence. “Negroes on the mass level,” he predicted, were now ready to start “self-defense” efforts, rejecting nonviolence as a strategy. “There will be more violence than ever this year. . . . White people will be shocked when they discover that the passive little Negro they had known turns out to be a roaring lion. The whites had better understand this while there is still time.”
The press conference was a disaster at nearly every level. Somehow Malcolm had raised the money to rent the posh Tapestry Suite at the Sheraton, but it left MMI without financial resources. Handlerʹs follow-up article in the Times mentioned that despite Malcolm’s earlier statement “that he would not seek to take members away from Elijah Muhammad’s movement,” there was every indication that he intended to launch a rival organization. And to civil rights leaders still committed to racial integration and nonviolence, Malcolm’s predictions of blood in the streets reconfirmed his reputation for nihilism and violence. Instead of broadening his potential base, his immediate actions following his break from Muhammad only isolated him further.
It is highly unlikely that Malcolm consulted Betty about his decision to leave the Nation; he still saw her largely as a passive observer. “I never had a moment’s question that Betty, after initial amazement, would change her thinking to join mine,” Malcolm would later explain. As he made grand pronouncements of his intentions, his wife worried about practical problems. A fourth child was well on the way. How would their household survive financially? Betty feared, correctly, that they would soon be evicted from their home. She also detected her husband’s ambivalence about Elijah Muhammad and the Nation—throughout most of March he continued to praise the Nation of Islam’s program. “The final cord,” Betty would later observe, “had yet to be broken.”