Honoring Malcolm X on His Birthday

On Feb. 21, 1965, Malcom X was assassinated at the Audubon ballroom in Harlem. On what would have been his 80th birthday, Allison Keyes reports on a new exhibit on the civil rights leader and the opening of the Malcom X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center on the site of the Audubon.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

On February 21st, 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. His daughters and pregnant wife were there. Today, on what would have been his 80th birthday, the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center opens on the site of the Audubon. And, in honor of his birthday, Harlem's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture premieres the exhibit Malcolm X: A Search For Truth. NPR's Allison Keyes has more.

ALLISON KEYES reporting:

Organizers say this exhibit gives people a comprehensive view of Malcolm X from his perspective, such as his speech he gave upon returning to the US from Mecca in May of 1964.

(Soundbite of speech)

MALCOLM X: When I was in--on the pilgrimage, I had close contact with Muslims, whose skin would, in America, be classified as white. They looked upon themselves as human beings, and, therefore, they looked upon all other segments of the human family as part of that same family.

KEYES: Recordings of rallies, sermons and rare radio broadcasts are only some of the items on exhibit here. Hanging on the dark salmon-colored walls are pictures of Malcolm X's parents, images of him smiling at Harlem's Hotel Theresa, and a colored photo of him praying in Cairo. The memorabilia comes from the family's collection, as well as Washington University, and the Charles H. Wright Museum in Detroit. Many of the more than 250 pieces here have never been displayed. Schomburg Center director Howard Dobson says the collection has a staggering historic value.

Mr. HOWARD DOBSON (Schomburg Center Director): It allowed the public to, in some respects, see Malcolm through his own eyes and through his own voice, and through his own writing.

(Soundbite of recording)

Unidentified Man: Malcolm ...(unintelligible) prepared to go into the United Nations at this point and ask that charges be brought against the United States for its treatment of American Negroes?

MALCOLM X: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Please.

(Soundbite of applause)

KEYES: Ilyasah Shabazz, one of Malcolm X's six daughters, says this collection allows people to see her father's evolution.

Ms. ILYASAH SHABAZZ: What's really important is we never focused on the climate in which he lived. And it seems that he was always shown in a very antagonistic manner without why he was angry, why he was upset, why he was so emotional, and I think when we put it all in perspective, that what you cannot help but to appreciate and to admire--his integrity, his passion and his--the quest for justice and for freedom for all of us.

KEYES: The exhibit features tidbits such as love letters from Malcolm X to his wife, his eighth-grade opinion notebook where classmates described him as `swell' and `tall, dark and handsome,' and excerpts from many speeches and appearances.

(Soundbite of speech)

MALCOLM X: The Constitution was written by whites for the benefit for whites. It was never written for the benefits of blacks, and...

KEYES: It also includes somber pieces, like a photo of Betty Shabazz draped in a black veil at Malcolm X's burial, and the shell casings from the shotgun that killed him. His daughter, Malaak Shabazz, says going through all the material was enlightening and reinforced what her mother taught her.

Ms. MALAAK SHABAZZ: You know, I'm the youngest. I was born after. I hear that all the time, you know, `She doesn't know her father.' I know my father better than most people because I had the best teacher, my mother. We spoke about my father in the present tense in the house.

Ms. I. SHABAZZ: We grew up not knowing about Malcolm X, the icon. We grew up knowing about Daddy, the humanitarian, the husband.

KEYES: The Schomburg's Howard Dobson says he hopes the exhibit not only sparks a new thirst for knowledge about Malcolm X, who was misinterpreted by many during his life, but also serves as an example to young African-American men who may be on the wrong path. Ilyasah Shabazz agrees.

Ms. I. SHABAZZ: A lot of young men are searching for an identity, and for something positive, rather all the negative images that are out there, and I think that our father's life defines that.

KEYES: Dobson says less than 1 percent of the total collection is on view, and that the materials will be available for study by scholars this fall. The exhibit closes December 31st. Allison Keyes, NPR News, New York.

CHIDEYA: This is NPR News.

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