Malcolm X, Self-Respect, and Growing up Racist

ALL PHOTOS COURTESY FRANKLIN FLORENCE PAPERS, DEPARTMENT OF RARE BOOKS & SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, UNIVERSITY OF ROCHESTER LIBRARY. - Malcolm X

Malcolm X speaking at the Corn Hill Methodist Church, 2/16/65, COURTESY FRANKLIN FLORENCE PAPERS, DEPARTMENT OF RARE BOOKS & SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, UNIVERSITY OF ROCHESTER LIBRARY.

From 51 years ago when Malcolm X was assassinated 5 days after his prophecy in Rochester. And his Speech to Mississippi Youth

The passing last month of Constance Mitchell, the first African-American woman to be elected in Monroe County, reminded us of her rich and longstanding friendship with Malcolm X.  Tragically, Mitchell saw Malcolm for the final time on February 16th, 1965 when he stayed at her home after speaking at the Corn Hill Methodist Church five days before his assassination in Harlem.

As seen in 51 years ago when Malcolm X was assassinated 5 days after his prophecy in Rochester. And his Speech to Mississippi Youth, I first learned about the relationship when interviewing Mitchell for a Black History Month Democrat and Chronicle Guest Essay.

With much warmth in her voice, Mitchell talked about a longstanding correspondence between she and Malcolm. In the days before email, they frequently exchanged letters as Mitchell kept Malcolm appraised of events in Rochester, especially after the July 1964 riots. When in town, Malcolm stayed at her and her husband John’s home on 3 or 4 occasions.

During that research — rifling through the clipping files in the RPL’s Local History Room in the old days before the D & C archives were digitalized — I found the headline of Malcolm’s dark prophesy: Marked for Death, Says Malcolm X.

(Note: the caption to Peter Hickey’s photo, “Former Muslim Malcolm X . . . tabbed for elimination?,” is also prophetic but odd. Late in his life, Malcolm did renounce the Nation of Islam, instead embracing Sunni Islam, but Malcolm was hardly a “former Muslim.”)

Caption: Democrat and Chronicle, 2/22/65. From 51 years ago when Malcolm X was assassinated 5 days after his prophecy in Rochester. And his Speech to Mississippi Youth

Caption: “Former Muslim Malcolm X . . . tabbed for elimination?” Democrat and Chronicle, 2/17/65. From 51 years ago when Malcolm X was assassinated 5 days after his prophecy in Rochester. And his Speech to Mississippi Youth

Mitchell’s passing and accounts of her and John’s friendship with Malcolm inspired George Cassidy Payne to visit the original remains of the Corn Hill Methodist Church where Malcolm spoke, and to reflect upon how Malcolm’s life and teachings influenced him when growing up in northern New York.

Original remains of the Corn Hill Methodist Church

Original remains of the Corn Hill Methodist Church

Malcolm X, Self-Respect, and Growing up Racist

George Cassidy Payne

At the age of 12, I was in 6th grade. The year was 1992 and Spike Lee came out with the film Malcolm X.  People all over the country and world were wearing the X on tee-shirts, baseball hats, and other clothing items. The X was everywhere: on coffee mugs, posters, and on anything else where a dollar could be made. And people were not just hawking Malcolm X merchandise, they were also talking about his ideas. Television programs were running Malcolm X retrospectives, and journalists were writing stories about his relevance for the time.  I remember all of this not just because I was swept up in the craze of a marketing bonanza, but because the style and substance of Malcolm X made an everlasting impression on my way of thinking about the world.

Let me be absolutely clear. I did not understand Malcolm X as a 12 year old. I do not claim to fully understand him today. All I know is that I connected, on a primordial level, with his spirit of defiance, courage, militant discipline, self- respect, self-composure, and fearless dedication to a cause. When I heard Malcolm X speak on these special television programs — and through Denzel Washington’s remarkable performance in Lee’s masterpiece — there was something about his tone that made me know what a man with integrity sounds like.

Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

Truth be told, I shouldn’t have admired him.  For starters, I grew up in a town in Lewis County, on the edge of the southwestern Adirondacks, in a place with literally more cows than people. The town I grew up in was so implicitly racist that hardly anyone living there knew what true racism even meant.  When my parents moved there in the early 80s, black people were still referred to as colored folk! Even in the Clinton era, as I was observing the world through my 12 year old eyes, it was a town that only knew black people as outsiders and temporary residents of the military housing complex operated by Ft. Drum, which was 45 minutes away on the outskirts of the gigantic metropolis of Watertown, NY!  Everyone in my town knew the housing complex as 801.

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Plaque at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial of Greater Rochester, Highland Park, describing Malcolm X’s assassination. [Photo: David Kramer]

Given the social conditions in which I was raised, all things considered, I shouldn’t have been attracted to the teachings of Malcolm X. As I said, everything about my early educational environment — except the positive influence of my two progressive Christian parents — dictated that I would distrust him. And here is the irony. I was racist. As a 12 year old in 6th grade growing up in Lowville, NY, I was racist. I may not have known to what extent or why I came to be that way, but looking back at this time in my life, it is clear to me that I possessed a racist worldview. During me early teenage years, on Halloween my friends would go N-word knocking (i.e, going up to random houses, knocking and then running away). At my school, racist slurs in the JV locker room went unquestioned, and teachers would tell racist jokes without feeling an ounce of shame. There was absolutely no one that I knew who was openly challenging the inherent racist power structures of the town itself. If I had any personal contact whatsoever with black people, it was through my random and often awkward associations with kids from 801.

Yet, Malcolm X came to me as a prophet. I was white. I was 12. I was in 6th grade. I was wearing the X hat. I was laughing at racist jokes. I was clueless. I was a product of my ignorant environment. Still, even at the tender age of 12, I could tell that Malcolm X knew something essential that I didn’t. Without ever being to Lowville, he knew that my environment was debased, degraded, and disrespected thoroughly by the disease of racism. It would take at least 20 years for me to even come close to grappling with the implications of that reality. But Malcolm X told me what I would soon find out. Little did I know then just how right he was about the history of my country, the real issues facing the world, and my own naive participation in a fundamentally unjust system.

Malcolm X speaking in Corn Hill in 1965 (Democrat and Chronicle file photo)

Malcolm X speaking in Corn Hill in 1965 (Democrat and Chronicle file photo)

This photo montage captures an architectural reminder of Malcolm X’s last public speech in Rochester before he was assassinated in Harlem five days later. I have lived in Rochester off and on since 2000. To know that this is a city that Malcolm not only visited but spent time teaching in, makes me feel like I can still learn from him in an intimate way. I realize now, as a 37 year old, that I have been learning from Malcolm X since 1992. Back then I didn’t have a brain capable of understanding what he wanted to teach me.  But I have developed the ability to better understand his political worldview. I have also developed an understanding about who I am as a human being because of his life. Any white supremacy that remains entrenched inside of my heart is a noxious byproduct of a genetically and environmentally inculcated ignorance: it belongs back in Lowville; it belongs back at 801; it belongs back in 6th grade; it belongs to a time in my life when I was so young and stupid that I didn’t have the capacity to know what dignity and loyalty to self really meant. But I felt it. I felt dignity when Malcolm X spoke.

First edition, October 29, 1965, Grove Press (Wikipedia)

First edition, October 29, 1965, Grove Press (Wikipedia)

Today, when I listen to Malcolm on YouTube, or read his speeches, I know that what I am experiencing is the physical and spiritual sensation of what self-respect feels like. He may have changed viewpoints and positions over the span of his public ministry, but he never changed his intractable sense of self-respect: it was immovable; it took a bullet to end it. But there was not one frightened bone in his body when that bullet entered. Even at the age of 12, in a small and oblivious upstate New York village nestled in the shadow of Tug Hill, I understood that this man knew me better than I knew myself. He knew the person I could become if racism was eradicated from my mind.

In the Autobiography of Malcolm X, he wrote: 

My trip to Mecca has opened my eyes. I no longer subscribe to racism. I have adjusted my thinking to the point where I believe that whites are human beings…as long as this is borne out by their humane attitude toward Negroes.” He went on to say, “I am not a racist. I’m not condemning whites for being whites, but for their deeds. I condemn what whites collectively have done to our people collectively.

Photography and text by George Cassidy Payne

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The original remains of the Corn Hill Methodist Church in Rochester. This was the site of Malcolm X’s last public speech before he was killed in Harlem 5 days later. In his address, Malcolm said, “Any kind of movement for freedom of black people based solely within the confines of America is absolutely doomed to fail.”

In 1965 Malcolm X delivered a speech at Corn Hill Methodist Church entitled, “Not Just an American Problem, but a World Problem.”

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The original remains of the Corn Hill Methodist Church in Rochester. This was the site of Malcolm X’s last public speech before he was killed in Harlem 5 days later. In his address, Malcolm said, “Any kind of movement for freedom of black people based solely within the confines of America is absolutely doomed to fail.”

Democrat and Chronicle, Jan 28, 1963

Democrat and Chronicle, Jan 28, 1963

On February 16, 1965, Malcolm X visited Corn Hill Methodist Church, Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, and the Manger Hotel (for a press conference). It was not his first time in Rochester.  In January 1963, Malcolm spoke at the UR, and later in the year met with local law enforcement about abuse towards Muslims in Rochester. (Editor’s note: For perhaps the definitive study of Malcolm’s ties with Rochester, see Dr. Laura Warren Hill’s  “There Is a Malcolm for Me”, Black Perspectives.)

Photo from Malcolm's Dr. Laura Warren Hill’s “There Is a Malcolm for Me”

In the afternoon of February 16th, 1965, Malcolm was invited to speak on the subject of world religions at the Colgate Rochester Divinity School. Photo from Laura Warren Hill’s “There Is a Malcolm for Me.”

 

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Today, the building is still used as an active house of worship.

Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.

— Malcolm X

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The original church doors? Could Malcolm X have walked through this entrance before or after he gave his final public speech?

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Sidewalk inscription found in the Ralph Avery Mall in the Corn Hill Neighborhood. This quote by Picasso makes me think about Malcolm X, his courage and purpose.


SEE ALSO

51 years ago when Malcolm X was assassinated 5 days after his prophecy in Rochester. And his Speech to Mississippi Youth

SEE ALSO

Revisiting Rochester black history

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  1. Phil Ghyzel
    Reply

    I’m big on equality, not big on self loathing, or everything always being my fault because the world is imperfect. If we want to move forward we should look to building a future that works for everyone. If we wallow in everything is racist we get nowhere.

  2. George
    Reply

    Phil, your response is a classic example of white people refusing to even have an open discussion about race, racism, or their own history with race and the systems that created inequality and social injustice in the country. What you refer to as self- loathing, I call self- introspection.

    Everything is not personally your fault, but as a white citizen in America you are responsible for the faults of slavery, Jim Crow, extermination campaigns, lynching, school segregation, and the state of many inner cities in our nation. We all are responsible. To deny any responsibility is not a sign of your hope for building a future that works for everyone. It is simply a retreat from confronting the hidden and not so hidden biases and prejudices in our society-ones which corrupt every area of local, state. and federal governance. I can bore you with empirical evidence if you request.

  3. Anonymous
    Reply

    Phil..if at some point in your life, you were able to look at yourself and determine, in a moment of rare but painful objectivity, that you were self-absorbed, or untruthful, or lacking drive (or whatever), would that be so terrible? Obviously, the answer is no. In fact, that sort of self-check and desire to right what is wrong in ourselves is the ONLY thing that leads to growth and positive change. Seeing ones own racism, biases and prejudices is no different. It is a form of deep personal work that, if recognized and addressed, has the potential to make a person better, but there seems to be more resistance to this type of deep work (like what your comment implies) because this racism and prejudice is SO deeply embedded in the American culture and psyche. It’s hard to look within at the ugly that is there, but thankfully (miraculously) millions of white Americans are doing just that. At libraries around the country, there are waitlists for the book, White Fragility. That gives me hope. We can’t expect to move forward effectively without looking at the culural mindsets that got us to where we are presently. And it doesn’t have to be seen as self-loathing. One can look at oneself, with the intention to learn, correct and improve, with kindness and patience. Unfortunately, that isn’t taught in schools, and is rarely taught in homes.

    • Philip Ghyzel
      Reply

      Perhaps it is you who is self absorbed. I work for a successful company that operates in most major US metropolitan areas. Our employees reflect the demographics of those areas. We work together in relative harmony to serve our customers. By doing that well, we cause our company to be successful and enable it to provide us with good pay, benefits, and work rules. We constantly try to improve and grow. Grievances are addressed, but not endlessly dwelt upon. Bigotry and intolerance of any kind isn’t tolerated. That is a better way to move forward. Many people of all ethnicities are building better lives for themselves under this model.
      Are modern Jews responsible for the slaughter of the people of Jericho? Are modern Japanese responsible for the horrors inflicted by imperial Japan on China, Korea, and others? Are People of African descent responsible for their ancestors selling rival tribesman into slavery. Where does collective guilt end? My ancestors emigrated to upstate NY in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They were mostly farmers. They were members of the Dutch Reform Church. Historically that church was a leader in the abolitionist movement. No one is guilty of things they didn’t do and had no control over.
      Well meaning government programs to attempt to address the greivances of slavery and racism seem to me to be abject failures. Unless of course the real goal was to create a permanent underclass. Great society programs incentivized out of wedlock birth. This disaster destroyed the Black traditional family as the norm. It did a lot of damage to plenty of other families as well, but hit blacks hardest.
      Me not feeling guilty about things I didn’t do and had no control over is not society’s big problem.

      • Anonymous
        Reply

        In no way did I call you self-absorbed. If you read my comment again, you might see that that was one of several random non-race related examples of traits that one might identify in themselves as needing to be tweaked/challenged, but your reaction helps to explain your general defensiveness.

        You mentioned folks just wanting to live their lives, and not have to think of this stuff so much. This is a point on which we have some common-ground. I would posit to you that non-white people also just want to live their lives, WITHOUT the hassle of dealing with micro-aggressions that often arise when dealing with white people in everyday situations….white people who are so racially-illiterate, that they offend people of color, if and when they do come in contact with them. What might those micro-aggressions be? Expressions of fear, condescending communication, outright profiling. All of the above happens (and more), and it happens frequently. Why does it happen? Because most white people have very little meaningful exposure to people of color, and in place of that exposure, many have deep-seated stereotypes. I know this because I’ve lived it. Many times over.

        Your career and ancestral information is interesting and all, as well as your views on how government has disenfranchised people, but what I’m speaking of, since my first comment, is concerning your personal, internal, often-times subconscious attitude towards people considered “other.” Just like anything that’s deep within a person, it takes a real objective view of oneself to see what’s really there….the kind of looking at oneself that George explains in his piece. Given your complete misinterpretation to my mention of self-absorbed, you don’t seem like the type that will readily self-analyze, let alone look at yourself regarding your personal feelings towards non-white people…..and that’s okay. It’s hard, challenging work, and it’s reserved for the most socially and emotionally-mature. Millions of other white people are putting aside their typical defensiveness and finding it necessary and fruitful to do the work of looking within at their biases and personal racism, and that’s what matters to me. Have a great night!

        • Philip Ghyzel
          Reply

          In my approach, people move forward, living their lives and looking to a better future by working for it, despite our differences. We all get slighted (have micro aggressions directed toward us) from time to time, So, what do we do about it. When I’m my better, more rational self, I let it go. When I’m more stressed, it might lead to road rage. Very occasionally, the road rage comes out, and after the fact I regret it.
          My general point is that no one is guilty of the sins of others, unless they had a reasonable way to prevent them. I acknowledge there is tremendous injustice in the world, I just don’t think white Americans are particularly more guilty of perpetrating it than anyone else.
          To move forward we need to give each other the benefit of the doubt. In my professional career, I work routinely and frequently with people of all ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, and gender identities. My customers are also wildly diverse. I can’t do my job if I’m wasting my time judging people on anything other than job performance. I give people around me a presumption of competence and good will. The vast majority don’t disappoint. When they do, it doesn’t seem to break down on race or gender lines.
          I question the value of calling society racist. Biases are certainly out there, but dwelling on it doesn’t help anyone. I think society is trying to be better, but it is a highly imperfect human endeavor. It is easy to point out flaws. Bias and prejudice are present in all segments of society, and throughout humanity. It’s the human condition.
          In teaching a person that society is rigged against them, you give that person an excuse. That excuse allows that person to not try as hard, since it’s rigged anyway, making failure more likely. Who does that help? Those who hold on to grievance, instead of seeking opportunity are dooming themselves to failure. Don’t enable it.

  4. Philip Ghyzel
    Reply

    There is so much injustice in the world that it is impossible to address all past grievance. Those of you who want to spend time casting blame will not make anything better. Most people just want to live their lives. Government attempts to correct your grievances have destroyed the black family. It’s the grievance culture you are promoting that makes things worse for everyone, especially those you think you are helping.

  5. George
    Reply

    Thank you, Phil. I appreciate your perspective. I also value your own personal experiences which led you to hold the views you are sharing. I’m wondering if you have come across the scholarship of Robin Diangelo. She writes about white fragility and the standard responses white people have when the topic of race and racism is brought up in conversation. Here are some of the patent responses whites give when they are receiving feedback:

    I marched in the 60s
    I took this in college
    The real oppression is class
    You misunderstand me
    Your’re playing the race card
    If you knew me or understood me you would know I can’t be racist.
    This conversation is not welcoming
    You are making me feel guilty
    This is political correctness
    The problem is your tone
    I am/ I know what it is to be oppressed
    I was a minority in Japan
    I am not racist because I live near people of color
    I am not racist because I work with people of color

    Do any of these responses sound familiar to you?

    • Anonymous
      Reply

      George, I don’t want to spend too much time focusing on what folks are not doing, without letting you know how much I appreciate what you have done, and are doing. Good on you for all of the difficult but meaningful work you’ve taken part in, to unpack your own biases. Prejudice and racism is the inheritance of just about all white Americans, to varying degrees, and it requires being racially and emotional astute to unpack that stuff, as you’ve done. So thank you. Keep up the great work. You are stronger and better for all of it, as I’m sure you know.

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