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Sat February 4, 2012
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Lost Malcolm X Speech Heard Again 50 Years Later

Originally published on Sat February 4, 2012 3:57 pm

Last semester, Brown senior Malcolm Burnley took a narrative writing course. One of the assignments was to write a fictional story based on something true — and that true event had to be found inside the university archives.

"So I went to the archives and started flipping through dusty compilations of student newspapers, and there was this old black-and-white photo of when Malcolm X came to speak," Burnley says. "There was one short article that corresponded to it, and very little else."

Malcolm X came to speak at Brown University in Providence, R.I., on May 11, 1961. Burnley noticed that at the end of the article, there was a brief mention of another article — also from the Brown student newspaper — written by a senior named Katharine Pierce. Her article was the reason Malcolm X wanted to visit Brown.

He tracked down Pierce's phone number and gave her a call. "I immediately started asking her what she remembered about provoking Malcolm X to come."

It had been 50 years since Malcolm X's speech at Brown, but Pierce slowly started to remember how it all happened.

"I just felt that integration was a greater path," Pierce says, "more reasonable and a greater path for success."

Today, Pierce lives about an hour north of New York City. In 1961, she believed the Nation of Islam's message of separation of the races was destructive, so she wrote a detailed critique. Somehow, it caught the attention of the Nation of Islam. Two weeks after the piece was published in the Brown Daily Herald, representatives called.

"They said that Malcolm X wanted to come to Brown and defend his views, because Katharine's essay was so critical of the organization," Burnley says.

"Well, I think we were quite astonished," Pierce laughs.

Help From A Diplomatic Legend-To-Be

The editor of the student paper was a 19-year-old named Richard Holbrooke. Yes, the Richard Holbrooke — the late legendary diplomat.

Holbrooke and his staff agreed that they should have Malcolm X come to the school, Burnley says. The problem was convincing the school.

The university was worried about possible violence and about upsetting the NAACP, which had pressured other universities — including the University of California, Berkeley and Howard, one of the oldest historically black universities in America — to keep Malcolm X from speaking that year.

Holbrooke met with the university's president, Barnaby Keeney, at least six times. Holbrooke's widow, Kati Marton, recalls that her husband was convincing.

"Richard, as usual, said, 'What have we got to be afraid of? It's better that we let him speak, and it's better that the students make up their own minds than if we shut him out.' "

According to Burnley, Holbrooke took a hard line with the administration. If they didn't agree to allow Malcolm X to speak at Brown, Holbrooke would move the student newspaper off-campus — and break its ties to Brown.

"But in typical Holbrooke fashion, he prevailed," Marton says. "He used to recall walking with Malcolm X and his gigantic bodyguards from Richard's office in the Brown Daily Herald to the auditorium, where the students waited."

"That walk left a deep impression on Richard who, even as a 19-year-old, was already a budding historian," she says.

A Riveting Speech

Pierce unearthed a recording of that night — a recording she kept in a box in her attic. It's an extraordinary historical record — an early window into Malcolm X's evolving views and the future diplomat who would bring him to campus.

"Tonight, we present two different viewpoints on the American Negro and his future," said the young Holbrooke as the event began.

The audience wasn't all students and faculty. Malcolm X and his entourage purchased 200 tickets for Nation of Islam members to ride down from Boston and attend the speech. "At several points, you hear raucous applause, clearly from the Nation of Islam members," Burnley says.

Pierce was allowed to make a brief statement before Malcolm X spoke.

"For those of us who feel that the Negro is an integral part of our culture, and who advocate for integration because we believe in the equality of all men, the Black Muslims are an indication of the fact that we have not done enough acting to make our position acceptable to the Negro dissatisfied with his present situation."

A few minutes later, Pierce introduced the main speaker.

Malcolm X was originally supposed to debate a representative from the NAACP. But at the last minute, that representative, Herbert Wright, had backed out, so Malcolm X had hurriedly prepared a speech for the evening.

"He reveals a lot of his ideology and positions that are dated to years later in his life," Burnley says.

"So the question today is: Is the Honorable Elijah Muhammad a bona fide religious leader and are his followers a bona fide religious group? And this is a question that America has got to come face-to-face with."

At other points, Burnley says, Malcolm X plays to the white audience. He even gets them laughing with a joke about where black people are found.

"They don't have a history of their own, so they let them tell you what their history is; and that is in essence that you found him in the jungle somewhere with a spear, chasing white people in a cannibalistic way to try to give the impression that white meat is the only good meat to eat."

The audience gasped when Malcolm X admitted some previous vices.

"No follower of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad partakes of any alcoholic beverage, reefer or tobacco, which is prevalent in the Negro communities across the country, even right here in the city of Providence. I myself was one of the foremost practicers or doers of everything that I've mentioned here so far; now I'm telling you the truth, and the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad stopped me from doing these things overnight."

"At several points, he references the 725,000,000 Muslims across the world versus the 20,000,000 so-called negroes, was his quote, in America," Burnley says. "The Nation of Islam refused the term 'negro.' They said it was kind of the white man's classification of black Americans, so that's why he said 'so-called negroes.' "

"There are 20 million so-called 'negroes' here in America. Twenty million ex-slaves. Twenty million second-class citizens. No matter what other classification you try to put on them, you can't deny that we are ex-slaves. You can not deny that we are second-class citizens. And the fact that we are second-class citizens means someone has done us an injustice and deprived us of that which is ours by right."

Burnley interviewed dozens of people who witnessed the speech. They all recalled being riveted — even if they didn't agree — by what Malcolm X had to say.

"He read his audience very, very well as a fine public speaker does," Pierce says.

"We who follow the Honorable Elijah Muhammad feel when you try to pass integration laws here in America, forcing white people to pretend they are accepting black people, you are making white people act in a hypocritical way. However, we feel that when you can change both of them and they come together voluntarily, without force or without pressure, then automatically you are furthering brotherhood and bringing about better relationships between the two races."

A Dialogue Begins Again

The entire speech lasted just under an hour. Afterward, Burnley says, Malcolm X invited students to come talk to him in the student lounge.

"At that point, he conducted an interview with these young white students," Burnley continues. "He was willing to greet them more intimately and in private, and obviously he was seeking publicity.

"He wanted to be as well-known as possible, but I don't know — it definitely is a gesture to make towards young white students, who, by all accounts, he wouldn't really want to have anything to do with, but he was willing to greet them and talk to them in private."

Burnley did eventually write a narrative account of the incident for his class assignment. He's also writing a much longer version.

Marton, Holbrooke's widow, says her husband spoke often about the story, though it's unclear whether he ever wrote it down. Holbrooke was planning to write his memoirs at the time of his death in December 2010.

As for Brown University?

"In my research, there is no mention in the university calendar for that year or in President Keeney's notes of Malcolm X coming. It's essentially just been whitewashed from the university records," Burnley says.

But, he adds, that is about to change.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

Our next story came to us from Malcolm Burnley. He's a senior at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. And last semester, he took a narrative writing course, and one of the assignments was to write a fictional story based on something true, but that true event had to be found inside the university archives.

MALCOLM BURNLEY: So I went to the archives and started flipping through dusty compilations of student newspapers, and there was this old black and white photo of when Malcolm X came to speak, but there was one short article that corresponded to it and very little else.

RAZ: May 11, 1961, Malcolm X came to speak at Brown University. And Malcolm Burnley noticed that at the end of that story, there was a brief mention of another article, also from the Brown student newspaper, this one written by a senior named Katharine Pierce. And her essay was the reason Malcolm X wanted to visit Brown.

BURNLEY: So I immediately started asking her what she remembered about provoking Malcolm X to come, as the paper said, and she slowly started remembering the story of what happened.

KATHARINE PIERCE: I just felt that integration was a better path, more reasonable and with a greater chance of success.

RAZ: That is Katharine Pierce. Today, she lives about an hour north of New York City. When she was a student in 1961, she believed the Nation of Islam's message of separation of the races was destructive. So she wrote a detailed critique, and somehow, it caught the attention of the Nation of Islam.

BURNLEY: Then about two weeks after, representatives of the Nation of Islam called the Brown Daily Herald. They said that Malcolm X wanted to come to Brown to defend his views because Katharine's essay was so critical of the organization.

PIERCE: Well, I think we were quite astonished.

RAZ: The editor of the student newspaper was a 19-year-old named Richard Holbrooke. Yes, that Richard Holbrooke, the late legendary diplomat.

BURNLEY: Holbrooke and his staff agreed with the Nation of Islam that they would like to have Malcolm here, but then the trick was convincing the university administration.

RAZ: The university was worried - worried about possible violence, worried about upsetting the NAACP, which had pressured other universities, including UC Berkeley and Howard, the historically black university, to prevent Malcolm X from speaking on their campuses that year. Holbrooke met Brown president Barnaby Keeney at least six times to try and convince him.

KATI MARTON: Richard, as usual, said, what have we got to be afraid of? It's better that we let him speak, and it's better that the students make up their own minds than that we shut him out.

RAZ: Kati Marton is Richard Holbrooke's widow. According to Malcolm Burnley, Holbrooke took a hard line with the administration. If they didn't agree to allow Malcolm X to speak at Brown, Holbrooke would move the student newspaper off campus and break its ties to the university.

MARTON: But in typical Holbrooke fashion, he prevailed. He used to recall walking with Malcolm X and his gigantic bodyguards from Richard's office in the Brown Daily Herald to the auditorium where the students waited. And that walk left a deep impression on Richard who, even as a 19-year-old, was already a budding historian.

RAZ: Katharine Pierce, who wrote the essay that prompted the visit, recently unearthed a recording of that night, a recording she kept in a box in her attic for 50 years. This is the first time it has ever been broadcast, an extraordinary historical record, an early window into Malcolm X's evolving views and the young future diplomat who would bring him to campus. Here, then, is 19-year-old Richard Holbrooke.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: On behalf of the Brown Daily Herald, I welcome you all to Sayles Hall. Tonight, we present two different viewpoints on the American Negro and his future.

BURNLEY: Malcolm X and his entourage purchased 200 tickets for Nation of Islam members from Boston to train down. So you can hear in the audience, there is between 100 and 200 Nation of Islam members in attendance.

RAZ: Katharine Pierce was allowed to make a brief statement right after Richard Holbrooke.

PIERCE: For those of us who feel that the Negro is an integral part of our culture and who advocate for integration because we believe in the equality of all men, the Black Muslims are an indication of the fact that we have not done enough acting to make our position acceptable to the Negro dissatisfied with his present situation.

RAZ: And a few minutes later, she introduced the main speaker.

PIERCE: I now turn the platform over to Minister Malcolm X Shabazz.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

MALCOLM X: Mr. Moderator, Ms. Pierce, and to the Brown Daily Herald, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters - that takes in everybody.

RAZ: Malcolm X was supposed to debate a representative from the NAACP that night. He was representing the Nation of Islam, of course, and its leader, Elijah Muhammad. But in the last minute, the NAACP representative Herbert Wright backed out.

BURNLEY: So kind of on the fly, Malcolm had to prepare a speech for that evening, and he reveals a lot of his ideology and positions that are dated to years later in his life.

MALCOLM X: So the question today is, is the Honorable Elijah Muhammad a bona fide religious leader, and are his followers a bona fide religious group? And this is a question that America has got to come face-to-face with.

BURNLEY: At several points, you hear raucous applause, clearly from the Nation of Islam members, based on the point that Malcolm X makes.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

BURNLEY: And other points you hear, he kind of plays to the white audience and he gets them laughing.

MALCOLM X: They don't have a history of their own, so they let you tell them what their history is, and that, in essence, is that you found him in the jungle someplace with a spear chasing white people in a cannibalistic way to try and give the impression that white meat is the only good meat to eat.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BURNLEY: And you also hear gasps at certain points in the recording at a few moments.

MALCOLM X: No follower of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad partakes of any alcoholic beverage, narcotic, reefers or tobacco, which is prevalent in the Negro communities across the country, even right here in the city of Providence. He has reformed us of these things, and we used to do all of them abundantly. I myself was one of the foremost practicers or doers of everything that I've mentioned here so far and the teaching - I'm telling you the truth - and the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad stopped me from doing these things overnight.

BURNLEY: At several points, he references the 725 million Muslims across the world versus the 20 million so-called Negroes in America.

MALCOLM X: There are 20 million so-called Negroes here in America, 20 million ex-slaves, 20 million second-class citizens. No matter what other classification you try and put on them, you can't deny that we are ex-slaves. You can't deny that we are second-class citizens.

BURNLEY: And the Nation of Islam refused the term Negro. They said it was the white man's classification of black Americans. So that's why he said so-called Negro.

RAZ: Malcolm Burnley interviewed dozens of people who witnessed the speech that night, and they all recalled being riveted, even if they didn't agree with what Malcolm X had to say. Here's Katharine Pierce again.

PIERCE: He read his audience very, very well, as a fine public speaker does.

MALCOLM X: And we who follow the Honorable Elijah Muhammad feel that when you try and pass integration laws here in America, forcing white people to pretend that they are accepting black people, what you are doing is making white people act in a hypocritical way. However, we feel that when you can change both of them and they come together voluntarily, without force or without pressure, then automatically, you are furthering brotherhood and bringing about better relationship between the two races.

RAZ: The entire speech lasted just under one hour.

BURNLEY: It began at about 8 p.m. And after the Q&A, it extended until about 10:30, but afterwards, Malcolm X actually went to the student lounge, and he invited any of the students who wanted to talk with him more to come and speak with him. And at that point, he conducted an interview with these white - young white students. He was willing to greet them more intimately and in private. And, obviously, he was seeking publicity, and he wanted to be as well known as possible. But, I don't know, it definitely is a gesture to make towards young white students who by all accounts he wouldn't really want to have anything to do with, but he was willing to greet them and talk to them in private.

RAZ: Malcolm Burnley did eventually write that narrative account of the incident for his class assignment. He's also writing a much longer version. Though Kati Marton says her husband, Richard Holbrooke, spoke often about the story, it's unclear whether he ever wrote it down. Holbrooke was planning to write his memoirs at the time of his death in December 2010. The journalist George Packer is working on a biography right now. And as for Brown University?

BURNLEY: In my research, there is no mention in the university calendar for that year or in President Keeney's notes of Malcolm X coming. It's essentially just been whitewashed from the university records.

RAZ: But as Malcolm Burnley reports, that's now about to change.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Check out our weekly podcast, the Best of WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. You can find it at iTunes or npr.org/weekendatc. We post a new episode every Sunday night. For audio outtakes from interviews and so on from this program, you could follow me on Twitter @nprguyraz. We're back with a whole new hour of radio tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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