It wasn’t his espousal of the teachings of the vain and corrupt Elijah Muhammad that made my father interested in Malcolm X, of course, it was everything else. At the time Malcolm was on the scene, shit was jumping off big-time in the Civil Rights movement my father was part of. The need for radical social change had become urgent to millions of Americans. The pendulum was still swinging toward hope and mercy, but it was poised to swing back toward intolerance and blame. Malcolm was a compelling spokesman for the cause of human equality by the time he was marked for death.
For most of his public career Malcolm prefaced his pronouncements with “as the Honorable Elijah Muhammad teaches,” although this became harder and harder for him to say as time went on. My father always wryly added “as the Honorable Elijah Muhammad teaches” when telling some Malcolm anecdote, like his description of the mad scientist Yakub who created the race of white devils six thousand years ago. Malcolm chafed more and more in the straitjacket the self-important Elijah Muhammad tried to keep him in. It’s not hard to figure out why, if you do the simple arithmetic.
Elijah Muhammad, a halting reader with a fourth-grade education, was a convert to a religion whose religious books he could not read. He knew a single phrase of Arabic, the greeting “peace be unto you”. He learned the simplified, idiosyncratic black nationalist Islam he taught from a mysterious drifter named Wallace Fard. My father chuckled as he described the sci-fi aspects of the white looking Fard’s black-pride version of Islam with its blue-eyed white devils. It is probably worth keeping in mind that Fard’s theology is no stranger than the creation myths and miraculous visions at the core of many other religions.
Wallace Fard arrived in Detroit in 1931 leading a small, secretive sect called The Nation of Islam. To his black converts he preached racial separation and self-reliance, along with his esoteric brand of Islam. Fard taught that blacks were the original and superior race, and that they had been ruthlessly subjugated for 6,000 years by the evil white race created by the big-headed scientist Yakub in a centuries-long genetic experiment gone terribly wrong. These mutant whites would be forced from power when death rained down from the Mother Ship to destroy Yakub’s hideous experiment, according to all-merciful Allah’s plan.
Elijah Muhammad served as Fard’s Top Minister from 1931 until Fard disappeared without a trace in 1934. To Elijah Muhammad, Fard’s most ardent follower and heir apparent, his master’s mysterious disappearance was the final proof that Fard had been the incarnation of Allah. For the rest of his life Elijah Muhammad remained a disciple of Fard, holding himself out as the Messenger of Allah, someone who personally knew and spoke to Allah. He soon discovered that his deep faith imbued him with new-found business abilities and he built up the Nation of Islam, making it a financially viable entity in multiple sites.
Its message of submission to a God who loved blacks and would deliver them from the white devils all around exerted a powerful attraction for members of a despised race who could find discipline, pride, and fellowship in an organization that preached all these things. As sad as it may look in my capsule summary here, as fatal as its internal politics would prove to be to the evolving Malcolm, Malcolm often credited Elijah Muhammad with saving his life when he was in prison. Many other members could say the same thing.
Malcolm’s faith, study and transformation into a Minister of the Nation of Islam undoubtedly did save him. He went from an enraged inmate to a committed leader of Black Muslims, a man ready to do anything necessary to change the world. And, crucially, The Nation of Islam gave him a platform from which to do it.
The Nation of Islam gained much wider membership once Malcolm X came into the fold and became its charismatic, telegenic face. He joined and became a minister after corresponding with the Messenger from prison and converting to Islam It was Minister Malcolm’s charisma, bearing and organizational talents that allowed the small sect to grow into a fairly large national movement with storefront mosques in thirty cities.
Elijah Muhammad preached a strict code of discipline and morality, with serious beatings and even death for violators. A Muslim must not drink, smoke, steal, covet, commit adultery. The Messenger, although he succeeded in keeping it quiet for many years, had impregnated as many as seven young assistants over the years. Young women he then expelled and banished as fornicators and adulterers. He also lived the life of a pasha on the backs of his mostly poor followers. His followers were forced to pay higher and higher dues to finance the lavish lifestyles of the Messenger and his sons.
Elijah Muhammad also seemed to have had no coherent plan or vision, beyond demanding strict obedience to his interpretation of Allah’s will until the Mother Ship arrived, as prophesied, and blacks would once again rule the earth, after learning discipline and self-sufficiency.
Even while Malcolm was giving all credit to the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, and his pronouncements were faithfully bound by his master’s world view, even while forcefully expressing ideas that he would recoil at later in his life, his fierce intelligence and skill as a speaker were always apparent. His poise and cool under fire were as undeniable as his charisma. He was the image of a man of integrity in complete control of his life, no matter what anyone had to say against him. My father identified with all of these things big time.
Irv was a natural public speaker who could improvise a moving funeral oration with seeming ease. He would gauge his audience and make adjustments on the fly, like Malcolm. They both knew how to get the tears to flow and when it was time for quick laugh to break the tension, to reset the pace.
Malcolm was a tall, good-looking man with an electric, camera-ready smile or a convincingly implacable expression, depending on the needs of the moment. My father, oddly enough, to think about it, was a tall, good-looking man in his day too. He was self-effacing about his looks, particularly as he gained weight once he had a family on his shoulders and indulged his bad eating habits. He more than once told someone over the phone who asked what he looked like that most women compared him to Rock Hudson. He’d give a mild chuckle afterwards.
The photos of him as a young man show a confident looking man with thick black hair and nice features. Rock Hudson was not a ridiculous stretch, or sometimes it was Cary Grant, though my father always made the comparisons with characteristic self-mockery.
But the main thing I think my father identified with in Malcolm was the rage, and the ability to intellectually channel that rage into an articulate, undeniable argument. Both men did this somewhat destructively at times, though Malcolm and his views continued to evolve, while the cornerstone of my father’s belief, and what doomed him to his miserable final years, was that people could not evolve. But there was a similarity in their techniques, skill sets and basic beliefs and my father enjoyed watching the masterful Malcolm X at work.
My father admired Malcolm for the same basic reason he loved Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce — their audacity and unflinching honesty in presenting important things most people didn’t want to look at. The facts, Malcolm kept saying, look at the plain facts in front of you. Go to the home of the average white person, look at their lives, then to the home of the average black person, look at their lives. What is mysterious about the claim that America is a deeply racist country?
Martin Luther King was arrested on the eve of the 1960 presidential election for sitting at a segregated lunch counter. For this crime he was taken to a jail deep in the backwoods of some redneck state. The law in those days was that the states had the right to deal with their Negroes however they pleased. The Fourteenth Amendment, which guaranteed American citizens federal protection from arbitrary and hateful state laws, had not been enforced in almost ninety years by then. As the Supreme Court said, when they put the Fourteenth Amendment into a deep sleep a decade after the end of the Civil War,”the Negro’s day as the special favorite of the law is at an end.”
Nixon, on hearing of King’s arrest and the move to a rural prison where King might be killed, apparently appealed directly to Ike about it. Ike was probably playing golf and told Nixon they’d talk about it another time, maybe. Few people ever learned of Nixon’s prompt, unsuccessful behind the scenes attempts to get King out of jail.
Candidate JFK called King’s wife, Correta Scott King, and expressed his concerns. The phone call made the news, King was soon released from jail. King thanked presidential candidate JFK on TV.
Some say that phone call to King’s wife won the 1960 election for JFK, who got the almost unanimous vote of those blacks who got to cast a ballot, along with those votes from the cemetery in Illinois. JFK was elected by a razor thin margin of 120,000 votes nationwide. He likely would have won in a landslide if the Voting Rights Act signed by Lyndon Johnson a few years later, which ended most of the shenanigans that prevented many blacks from voting in many states, had been in effect in 1960.
The Voting Rights Act, by the way, that the Supreme Court ruled recently is unnecessary to enforce. The 5-4 Majority held that federal oversight of fair elections is no longer needed even for states with the most egregious histories of racism. The Majority wrote that even if these new laws made it virtually impossible for many poor people, old people, college kids, non-white people, to assemble the required three forms of acceptable ID documentation the laws now require for all voters, there was no Constitutional violation of the rights of citizenship involved.
In the country where my father and Malcolm were born, those who were not “white”, or not “normal” got what they got and, you know, shut up about it. I was born into the same country, almost sixty years ago, more than thirty years after my father and Malcolm were born into it. During my childhood, blacks could still be killed with impunity in many of the states that now vote solidly Red in national elections, states that still lead the nation in executions and deaths by firearms. It was not only in the former Confederacy that blacks were treated as second and third class citizens. Our unbroken history of racism is part of the unthinkable underside of the American Dream that was always there and that now intrudes on the sleep of more and more Americans as time goes by.
As I said, the sickening injustice of it burned my father, the thought that even someone as mild-mannered, and upright-seeming as the pious, eloquent and nonviolent Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King could be trussed up and taken to some holding cell for possible lynching merely for having the temerity to sit at a lunch counter where people their fellow citizens called niggers were not allowed to sit. What? Does it even sound possible that someone could be arrested for that in America?
It burned Malcolm, too, obviously. King was risking his life to get the legal right to sit at a lunch counter with white racists who hated him? What? That symbolic act was worth being burned alive for? What is worth dying for, Malcolm X said, is fighting for the right to be a full human being. Or, as it was commonly phrased in those days, the right to be a man.
It seems like an abstraction, perhaps, fighting for the right to be a human being. Being denied the right to be a man is no abstraction for a boy growing up in a town, like Lansing, Michigan, like Peekskill, New York, where the Klan has the final word on whether you and your father will walk down a given street or, perhaps, if you insist, we’ll beat the shit out of the two of you and burn your fucking house down in the middle of the night instead, how about that? “Your choice, sir,” they’d say with a smile.
I feel my blood percolating as I try to write this entry. You know, we’ve come so far, in the more than 150 years since all Americans recognized the unalienable truth of Jefferson’s words that “all men are created equal”. In the more than 150 years since the bloody war to free the slaves ended, Lincoln was slaughtered, and the Constitution was amended to ensure freedom for all Americans.
Malcolm X told Alex Haley, while pacing that small room in which Haley interviewed the doomed Muslim, that being dissatisfied with grudging progress for the Black Man was like being called ungrateful when a knife was pulled partially out of one’s back. “The knife is shoved in ten inches and the man pulls it out four inches and says ‘that’s much better, isn’t it’? Well, you could see it that way, unless the knife is still stuck six inches deep into YOUR body.”
As far as my father saw it, visiting high schools where blacks and whites were squaring off to kill each other near the sites of recent race riots, where the edict of 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education to end inequality of education by integrating the schools was proceeding with “all deliberate” snail-like speed, Malcolm was simply putting the plain facts out there, as simply and straightforwardly as possible. Something had to be done about it, and he was going to keep putting himself front and center in the struggle to do it.
In 1964 the school I went to in Queens was integrated for the first time, after a fierce battle among parents and teachers during which my mother and her friends were called Nigger Lovers and, slightly more amusingly, Commies. I recall one of my teachers, a haughty, opinionated francophile named Harriet Bluming, loudly and repeatedly expressing her racist view, in the cafeteria of our school, that newly arrived Negro kids misbehaving in the lunchroom would grow up to be on Welfare and blaming white people for all their problems. Some of the young Negros snarled back at her, but she gave them no quarter.
Meanwhile, as Bluming tongue lashed the unruly Negro ten year-olds, down in Mississippi, leftist lawyers from New York were making successful arguments that the never repealed 1872 Ku Klux Klan Act gave the federal government the right to enforce the law when a gang of men, including local law enforcement, hauled three Civil Rights workers off a state road and murdered them in the woods of Mississippi. The good whites of Mississippi resented this unjustifiable intrusion on “States’ Rights”, of course, but the Fourteenth Amendment was enforced for the first time in almost a century. It would be used in every Civil Rights case that followed.
When my father had a black colleague over at the house in 1964 it was considered a radical thing to do. Our neighbors were shocked to see a Negro laughing and coming in and out of the house. We integrated Pastrami King after my graduation from sixth grade a few years later, with the family of a brown-skinned classmate I was friendly with. Posing with his arm around his colleague and friend Gladys in a photo I have, at some dinner where my father wore a tuxedo and has a black hand gripped in his other hand, was, tame as it seems now, something of a radical act in those days.
Now, fifty years later, when we are a post-racial nation, as many “color-blind” whites like to insist we are, these things are still not natural for most Americans. The younger generations, it’s true, are more tolerant, much more inter-racial, but millions of Americans in the second half of their lives– not that much.
How was it possible for an elected official to yell “you lie!” at the President of the United States during a nationally televised presidential address a few years ago? Because the president was, a, well, he was, possibly a secret Muslim, not definitely a US citizen, a kind of socialist, a fascist, a man who cheated to become president, you know, an illegitimate president who came to office by a kind of fraud or shady electoral subterfuge, in a much different and more dangerous way than any recent predecessor, he was a different, a less respectable kind of president, he lacked the pedigree, he was….
“Christ,” says the skeleton of Malcolm X, “say the word. The word is nigger. ‘The president is a nigger’ is what he actually dog whistled.”
And as such, and being politically inexperienced, he had to be very careful, our first Black president, our post-racial president. Very careful, you understand. He had to remain supremely dignified, more so than Jackie Robinson, even. A hard slide into a foul-mouthed bench jockey playing shortstop was out of the question. Our post-racial president walked with that heavy burden on his back, the weight of hundreds of years of racism, de jure and de facto. He did a pretty good job, considering his hands and feet were tied for much of his first term, and for his second term.
And my father, choked as a boy on his family’s poverty, on being in a tiny, powerless minority of Jews in a town where the opinions of the Klan were much more universally respected than any others, identified 100% with the choking rage of another boy, born into poverty, part of a despised minority that could be beaten or killed with impunity, whose first memory was the Klan setting fire to his childhood home. 2016, gentle reader, almost a century of bold progress, and I am choking on the same goddamned things that choked them.