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.”)
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.
Malcolm X, Self-Respect, and Growing up Racist
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.
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.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.
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.
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
In 1965 Malcolm X delivered a speech at Corn Hill Methodist Church entitled, “Not Just an American Problem, but a World Problem.”
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.)
Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.
— Malcolm X