The Legacies Of Black Icons Sam Cooke, Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay) And Malcolm X
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. The film "One Night In Miami" is an imagined account of the evening in 1964 in which Sam Cooke, Jim Brown, Malcolm X and Cassius Clay have gathered to celebrate Clay's victory over Sonny Liston to become the world heavyweight boxing champion. The four were friends and did spend that evening together, but their conversations are fictional. In the film, there's a contentious exchange between Malcolm X and Sam Cooke as Malcolm castigates Cooke for not singing songs that directly promote Black Power. When Cooke announces he's preparing for his show at the Copacabana, where Black audiences have not been welcome in the past, Malcolm calls him out. Leslie Odom Jr. plays Sam Cooke. Kingsley Ben-Adir plays Malcolm.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI")
KINGSLEY BEN-ADIR: (As Malcolm X) What kind of message are you sending, though, by doing one show for white folks and a completely different show for Black folks, Sam? No, listen to me. You performing in places where the only Black people not onstage are the ones serving the food.
LESLIE ODOM JR: (As Sam Cooke) Don't you think I know that? I can't tell you how many times I wanted to reach out and punch somebody. But you...
BEN-ADIR: (As Malcolm X) Then, then, then, then strike with the weapon that you have, man - your voice. Black people, we standing up. We speaking out. Sam, you have possibly one of the most effective, beautiful outlets of us all. You're not using it to help the cause, brother.
ODOM: (As Sam Cooke) The hell I'm not. I got the masters to my songs. I started a label. I'm producing tons of Black artists. Don't you think my determining my creative and business destiny is every bit as inspiring to people as you standing up on a podium trying to piss them off?
DAVIES: "One Night In Miami" has been nominated for two Golden Globe Awards, one for Regina King, who directed the film, and the other for Leslie Odom Jr., who co-starred as Sam Cooke. On today's FRESH AIR, we're going to listen back to three FRESH AIR interviews about figures depicted in the film. Jonathan Eig is the author of a noted biography of Muhammad Ali, who was known as Cassius Clay before he joined the Nation of Islam. And also from our archives, an interview with Alex Haley, who co-authored "The Autobiography Of Malcolm X."
We'll begin by hearing about singer, songwriter and civil rights activist Sam Cooke. Cooke was a major pop star with crossover appeal, best known for his hits from the '50s and '60s, including "You Send Me," "Wonderful World" and "Chain Gang." Long before it was common, he was producing his own records and started his own record label. And beginning in the late 1950s, he refused to perform before segregated audiences.
Before he sang soul music, Cooke sang gospel. When he crossed over, his success encouraged other gospel singers to try secular music, as well, including Aretha Franklin. In 2005, Terry interviewed Peter Guralnick, whose biography of Sam Cooke is titled "Dream Boogie." They started with one of Cooke's biggest hits.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU SEND ME")
SAM COOKE: (Singing) Darling, you send me. I know you send me. Darling, you send me - honest you do, honest you do, honest you do. Whoa. You thrill me. I know you, you, you thrill me. Darling, you, you, you thrill - honest you do. At first, I thought it was infatuation, but, ooh, it's lasted so long. Now I find myself wanting to marry you and take you home. Whoa. You, you, you send me.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS: Peter Guralnick, welcome back to FRESH AIR. This is the song that Sam Cooke crossed over with from gospel to pop. What did it mean to Cooke to cross over and to have a No. 1 song on the pop charts?
PETER GURALNICK: For - it meant tremendous fear and tremendous relief. I mean, the greatest barrier to Sam Cooke, crossing over, was not so much a religious concern. He never left the church. He never left gospel music. He continued to sing gospel music until the day he died and to write gospel songs. So it really wasn't a matter of challenging his faith. And he had been brought up by his father to look for the opportunity. I mean, he was - his father was a member of a striving generation, part of the Great Migration to Chicago and someone who really taught his children to get ahead, that you didn't - whether you made your living by singing or shining shoes, that had nothing to do with your dedication to God. Sam's father, incidentally, was a minister, the Reverend Charles Cook in the Church of Christ (Holiness).
But for Sam, the great fear was that he wouldn't succeed. He knew what he had in gospel music. He had come up against an economic wall. He'd come up against a wall in terms of the success that he could see for himself, and he didn't want to stop with that wall. He - from Sam's point of view, there was no end to his ambition.
But at the same time, there was that kind of fear that any of us might feel, that, what if I do this and I don't succeed? And the great fear was that if he didn't succeed, if he failed in the pop - in pop music, that he would never be able to go back to gospel. He would never be accepted again.
GROSS: Peter, how do you think Sam Cooke's gospel singing compared to his pop singing?
GURALNICK: I think it compared - in some ways, it compared very directly. In other ways, it contrasted. I think the comparison is that Sam learned - he was inclined very early on, and he learned very early on that his strength, his mark was really in lowering the volume. And that was the basis for Sam's gospel style, was this kind of crooning style. It was a seductive style. That was what he brought to pop music. That's what I think is so extraordinary about his transition to pop music. And it was what both Bumps Blackwell, his producer, and what J.W. Alexander and what this deejay in Newark who managed Roy Hamilton, Bill Cook all saw in him. They saw the potential for a teenage singing idol.
J.W. Alexander felt that this was - Sam was the first Black performer, rhythm and blues performer who had the potential to really be a matinee idol for teenagers, Black and white, and for whom the category didn't have to exist. It just depended, to some extent, on Sam's looks because he was an extraordinarily good-looking man. But it also depended on the manner of his singing, which was not challenging and was not threatening and didn't require a tremendous adjustment on the part of a white audience to what he was presented.
GROSS: Another way in which Sam Cooke was groundbreaking is that he co-founded and co-owned a record label, a record label that he started with his friend and business partner J.W. Alexander. Why did he want that?
GURALNICK: He - it really stemmed from an innate sense of Black pride and self-determination, which was something - he was a student of Black history at a time when the term didn't exist. He was someone who had been brought up by his father to believe that you should respect yourself most of all - never allow anyone to disrespect you but respect yourself most of all. He realized very early on the same thing that many performers, both Black and white, recognized, which is that he did not own the fruits of his own labor, that other people were making money off of his creative endeavor and that, in fact, the - particularly with respect to songwriting, that this was really where the money was and where the money still is today in the music business is both in writing and publishing songs.
GROSS: One of Sam Cooke's greatest records was released on an album very late in his life, and it was released posthumously as a single, and the song is "A Change Is Gonna Come." This is a song that he wrote. And before we actually hear it, what inspired this song, and what was the change of direction it represented in his music?
GURALNICK: What inspired the song "A Change Is Gonna Come" was really everything that was going on in this country, in Sam's consciousness at that time, with respect to the racial situation, with respect to the civil rights movement, with respect to the sit-ins. Specifically, Sam was inspired - he was on tour in North Carolina in the spring of 1963, and he and J.W. Alexander spoke with the student sit-ins and spoke quite extensively, and that was something which was very memorable for him.
Within a couple of months of that, J.W. Alexander gave him the Bob Dylan album that had "Blowin' In The Wind" on it, and Sam responded extremely - very directly to that song and told J.W. what a great song it was, but it should have been written by a Black man. It shouldn't - you know, it wasn't that he - he was very admiring of Bob Dylan, as he was of the Rolling Stones, of The Animals. I mean, his ears were wide open, and he heard new sounds.
And he talked to Bobby Womack quite a bit about the way in which someone like Dylan put a song across. Bobby Womack said, that's terrible; that guy can't sing. And Bobby said, listen to the words. Listen to the way he puts the songs across. Listen to the credibility he has. Listen to the way in which an audience will respond to it. He said, that's the future. In any case, Sam - "Blowin' In The Wind" was unquestionably influential. I think there's no doubt that the Birmingham demonstrations and then the - in the spring of '63 and then the March on Washington meant an enormous amount to him.
And right in the wake of that, Sam had his own - well, he had many moments. I mean, he couldn't escape the moments, all through - no African American could escape an awareness of the racial situation every minute of every day. But Sam's experience in Shreveport, when he got turned away from the motel and refused to back down, was an enormously traumatic event, just as it had been in 1949 when in Memphis, he got picked up by the police for going into a whites-only park, and he got cuffed around by them and spoke of it till the end of his life. So that humiliation and that indignation - he wrote "Change Is Gonna Come," I would say, within a month or a month or so.
What scared Sam the most about the song was it came to him almost unannounced. It came to him in a dream. And this is what he told everybody. He played the song for his wife, Barbara, for J.W. Alexander, for Bobby Womack, for Leroy Crume from the Soul Stirrers, and told them all essentially the same thing, which was that the song had just come to him. It had come to him unannounced. Unlike other songs, which he worked on, this song simply presented itself in its complete form. And it scared him. He didn't know where it was coming from.
And he and Bobby Womack talked about it, and his feeling was it felt like death. And I can't really interpret what that means. I mean, I don't know whether it was the sense that he was not in control of what he was saying. It's such a - it's a beautifully written and a beautifully crafted song, both the melody and the lyrics. And it's typical of Sam in the sense that, rather than being yoked to a specific event, it starts from a generality, from a saying, that can apply - a change is going to come - that can apply to almost anything. And it's the reason, I think, that the song has continued to have currency all these years.
GROSS: Do you think that if Sam Cooke had lived, that "A Change Is Gonna Come" would have been the start of a new direction for him, a new, more socially engaged type of song?
GURALNICK: You know, I think he really intended to go in every direction at once. And I think one of those directions would have been, you know, a more socially conscious one. And the fact that in that same year, in 1964, he started the first of what were intended to be a series of soul stations. He called it Soul Station No. 1, which were kind of neighborhood storefront locations which would offer talented but sort of disaffected Black youth the opportunity to come in, to try out, to rehearse, along with the idea of doing some things that were more socially conscious. He had committed to doing a concert, civil rights concert, for Dr. Martin Luther King.
But at the same time, he also intended - he had just signed a movie contract. He intended to go to Las Vegas. All of these things, in a sense, for most people would be - would cancel each other out. And you would tend to think, well, if he goes in that direction, he can't possibly go in this other direction. That means he won't do this thing. But in Sam's mind, I think, he believed he could do it all; he could appeal to everyone across the board, and he was not inclined to limit himself in any way.
GROSS: Peter Guralnick, thank you so much for talking with us about Sam Cooke.
GURALNICK: Well, thank you. I really enjoyed it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A CHANGE IS GONNA COME")
COOKE: (Singing) I was born by the river in a little tent. Oh, and just like the river, I've been running ever since. It's been a long, a long time coming. But I know a change gon' come. Oh, yes it will. It's been too hard living, but I'm afraid to die 'cause I don't know what's up there beyond the sky. It's been a long, a long time coming. But I know a change gon' come. Oh, yes it will.
DAVIES: Peter Guralnick's biography of Sam Cooke is titled "Dream Boogie." His latest book, an anthology of essays about influential figures in American music, is "Looking To Get Lost." After a short break, we'll hear from Jonathan Eig on Muhammad Ali. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening to interviews from our archives about three of the four men depicted in the film "One Night In Miami." It's an imagined account of the evening in 1964 in which Sam Cooke, Malcolm X, Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali - then known as Cassius Clay - gathered to celebrate his first win over Sonny Liston. Next, we'll hear parts of my 2017 interview with Jonathan Eig about parts of his biography of Muhammad Ali, called "Ali: A Life," in which he writes about Ali's association with the Nation of Islam.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
DAVIES: Talk a bit about his perceptions of race and how - you know, how the Nation of Islam appealed to him.
JONATHAN EIG: Well, Ali was the same age as Emmett Till. And everybody knew what had happened to Emmett Till for speaking back, giving sass, to a white woman. He was, you know, killed brutally, and the killers got away with it. And Ali's father was a race man. He was a Garveyite who believed that Black people were never going to get a fair deal in this country. They'd have to go back to Africa if they were ever going to have a fair shake. And Ali grew up steeped in that kind of thinking and talking.
I found the letter that he wrote when he first explained why he became a Muslim, why he got interested in the Nation of Islam. And it wasn't really about the religion; it was about the cultural issues. He bought into this. He loved this idea that Black people could take responsibility for their own lives. And I think this - for somebody who is boxing, who is having the opportunity to build his own life, to - through discipline, through training, hard work and getting the ability to be treated as an equal, at least in the boxing ring, the Nation of Islam really struck a chord with him.
DAVIES: The leader, of course, was Elijah Muhammad. But a rising star within the Nation of Islam was Malcolm X, who, you know, wrote that famous autobiography, later had a falling out with the leadership of the Nation of Islam and was murdered. He became close to Ali. What was their relationship?
EIG: Ali and Malcolm X were like little brother and big brother. Malcolm was this very charismatic, brilliant man who had, you know, also come from humble beginnings and taught himself and very much lived the ethos of the Nation of Islam when it came to self-improvement. And he was also a big boxing fan, so he loved hanging around Ali. Ali was just this unbelievable personality. Everybody just loved being in his presence.
One of his first girlfriends told me that it was impossible not to have fun. It was impossible to be in a bad mood when you were in the room with Ali. So he and Malcolm really hit it off, and I think Malcolm became a real mentor to him and taught him that the philosophy that Elijah Muhammad was teaching was a really powerful one and that it - that Ali could go into the ring believing that he had Allah on his side, that he was - had a calling, that he was doing something much bigger than boxing here, that he had an opportunity to really change the world if he was successful.
DAVIES: So in 1964, as this huge showdown approaches, Sonny Liston, the heavyweight champion, huge favorite in the fight, and Cassius Clay promising to knock him out - Clay had become closer to the Nation of Islam. How well known was this, and did it affect the promotion of the fight?
EIG: There were rumors all over the place by the time of the fight that Ali was about to join this group that Americans - that white Americans perceived as a terrorist organization. And the FBI was already keeping tabs on him. The FBI was already using Angelo Dundee, Ali's trainer, as an informant to find out who was coming around.
So Ali wasn't talking about it. They asked him not to talk about it. They asked Malcolm X to leave Miami, the promoters of the fight, because they felt like it was bad for business, that it was hurting ticket sales, that nobody really knew who to root for anymore because Sonny Liston is this ogre, and now, Ali, the fresh, young face, he might be more hated than Sonny Liston because of his association with the Nation of Islam and his bad sportsmanship and his constant yapping. So they kept it pretty quiet or tried to anyway, at least until the fight could get over with.
DAVIES: Muhammad Ali faces a tough decision because his friend Malcolm X splits with Elijah Muhammad, who is the leader of the Nation of Islam. What did Muhammad Ali do in this circumstance?
EIG: You know, it was an important crossroads in Ali's life, but it was not a difficult decision for him. In fact, because he was so fiercely loyal to Elijah Muhammad, that he would do anything for the messenger, as he called him. And when Elijah Muhammad broke with Malcolm X - Malcolm X had been in a long-running feud with Elijah Muhammad. He'd been suspended from the Nation of Islam. He had accused Elijah Muhammad of having all these affairs with his secretaries and impregnating them. And there were some who felt like Elijah Muhammad had suggested that it would be OK if Malcolm X were assassinated.
But Ali did not struggle with this decision at all, and he was actually quite cold toward Malcolm and said that he thought Malcolm deserved to die before the assassination. So at one point, Malcolm's wife approached Ali and said, please help me do something; there have been attempts on Malcolm's life already. And Ali brushed her off.
DAVIES: Jonathan Eig's biography of Muhammad Ali is "Ali: A Life." We'll hear more of that interview after a break, along with part of Terry's interview with Alex Haley, co-author of "The Autobiography Of Malcolm X." Also, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews the new biopic about Billie Holiday on Hulu. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. On today's show, we're listening to interviews from our archives about three of the four men portrayed in the new film "One Night In Miami." It's an imagined account of the evening in 1964 in which Sam Cooke, Malcolm X, Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali - then known as Cassius Clay - gathered to celebrate his first win over Sonny Liston. Let's get back to my 2017 interview with Jonathan Eig, whose biography of Ali is "Ali: A Life." When we left off, he'd described Ali's upset win over Liston and his association with the Nation of Islam.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
DAVIES: So Muhammad Ali has a second fight with Sonny Liston, takes him out in one round. There's controversy about it. But he's then on top of the world. I mean, he is the heavyweight champion and a national celebrity. And he runs into a problem with his draft status. I mean, the Vietnam War was beginning to heat up. What happens to Ali with the draft board?
EIG: Ali is on top of the world. He's the heavyweight champ. He's making money very quickly. He's buying all the cars he wants. And life is looking good. You know, he's still wildly unpopular as a result of his association with the Nation of Islam. Reporters are refusing to call him Muhammad Ali. They almost all still refer to him as Cassius Clay as if he had no choice in his name. They were going to call him what they wanted to call him. And then he gets even more unpopular when he says he doesn't want to serve if he's drafted in Vietnam.
First he says he just doesn't want to go. And it's really interesting. I found a tape of Ali watching himself on TV. There's this great reporter named Jack Olsen from Sports Illustrated who just kept the tape recorder running for hours and hours. And his tapes are archived now. And you can listen - you can watch Ali - you can listen to Ali as he's watching himself on TV. And his initial comments are, I just don't want to go, you know? Send some other athletes over there. Send some football players. I'm making a lot of money right now. And the government's taken a lot of that money in taxes. And they can use my taxes to buy all the bomber jets they want and all the tanks they want. And they can go over there and kill all the Vietnamese they want. Just don't send me. I don't want to go.
And then he starts to evolve on that position. And he says, well, I'm opposed to this because I'm treated like a second-class citizen in this country. Black people, why should we go fight for our country when we're treated like second-class citizens? And why should we go over there and kill some dark-skinned Asians when dark-skinned people here are suffering? And black people are dying in these hugely disproportionate numbers in the war. Why should I be a part of that? So now he's beginning to make it a political argument.
And then after a little more time goes by and he speaks to Elijah Muhammad about this, then he begins to say, well, it's also a religious issue, that I'm a conscientious objector because my faith says that we don't fight in wars, in earthly wars. So it's really interesting to see his position evolve. But no matter how it evolves, he just becomes more and more unpopular, more hated. I think he may be the most hated man in America at this point.
DAVIES: And it really - it froze his career, right? I mean, his title was stripped. He was - state boxing councils refused to let him compete. He was essentially on ice, right?
EIG: That's right. And that's another way in which he was treated differently. There's nothing that says that a convicted felon cannot box. There are plenty of convicted felons in the boxing ring. Most states allow them to box. So he should have been allowed to box while his case was on appeal. And he was not. He was denied a license. And he was stripped of his heavyweight crown. He gave up 3 1/2 years of his prime career when he was at his peak as an athlete and his peak as a money earner because he was a political symbol, I think.
DAVIES: You know, you're right that in 1965, he was probably the most hated man in America or at least in white America. And then by the '70s, it all began to change. Why?
EIG: It's fascinating to see this happen. And, you know, we forget sometimes that Ali was so deeply hated because the Ali of the '70s is very different. When he comes back from his exile, first of all, the war is wildly unpopular. And when he began his protest, there was still, you know, very strong support for the war in Vietnam. But by 1971, people can say, wow, Ali was right. That war has been a disaster. No wonder he didn't want to fight over there. He also has suffered. He's given up 3 1/2 years of his career and millions of dollars. And then he comes back to the ring. And he fights Joe Frazier. And he gets whooped.
I mean, Frazier knocks him on his butt with his vicious left hook. Ali gets up. He keeps fighting. This is one of the greatest and most vicious fights in boxing history. And Ali loses. But he stays on his feet. He survives this thing. And, I think, then, you begin to see him as a martyr, as a hero, as somebody who gets knocked down and keeps coming back. And he's got to start earning his way back toward another shot at the heavyweight championship. And this is when you begin to see the public attitude changing. There's a - you can't deny some of your admiration for this guy's toughness.
DAVIES: Jonathan Eig's biography of Muhammad Ali is "Ali: A Life." After a short break, we'll hear part of Terry's interview with Alex Haley, co-author of "The Autobiography Of Malcolm X." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARVIN GAYE'S "INNER CITY BLUES")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Today we're listening to past interviews about three of the four men portrayed in the new film "One Night In Miami," an account of the evening in 1964 in which Sam Cooke, Malcolm X, Jim Brown and Cassius Clay gathered to celebrate his first win over Sonny Liston. Next, we'll hear part of Terry's interview with Alex Haley, co-author of "The Autobiography Of Malcolm X." Haley's book "Roots," which traced his family back six generations to West Africa, won the Pulitzer Prize and was also the subject of a popular TV series in 1977.
Haley grew up in a small town in Tennessee and spent 20 years in the Coast Guard before he began writing. In the early '60s, Haley wrote a magazine article about Malcolm X. Later, when a publisher approached Malcolm X about writing his autobiography, he turned to Haley to write the book. Haley spent a year interviewing him for his autobiography. Malcolm X was murdered before the book was published in 1965. Terry spoke with Alex Haley in 1985. She asked him if the differences in politics and background between him and Malcolm X ever got in the way.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
ALEX HALEY: Our backgrounds were very different. You know, I was and I am a Methodist. And I'm from Henning, Tenn. And Malcolm was a Muslim. And he was from a variety of places. And his background had included what is colloquially called life in the streets and things like that. And I just simply hadn't been exposed to that. So in terms of things like, you know, that Malcolm had experienced, I was as square as a block. But I was a grown man. I was reasonably experienced. And I was, hopefully, a writer.
GROSS: Did he get impatient with you?
HALEY: About what?
GROSS: About being different from him...
HALEY: Oh, no, no, no.
GROSS: ...About being, quote, "square" and not being exposed to - no?
HALEY: Oh, no, no. It would sometimes amuse him when I didn't know this, that or the other. The only time I ever saw Malcolm angry, really angry - and that was a fearsome sight to see because he was generally very contained. He might be furious, but you'd never know it, oftentimes. We were in his car once up in Harlem. And at this time, things had begun to get pretty taut around him and his life. He was not a person, he used to say to himself, upon whom anybody would do well to write an insurance policy. And so when you rode with him as his passenger, you tended to be a little light in the seat, you know? And then we were driving along. And he was doing a - not all that rapidly.
But all of a sudden, he hit the brake. And the car just jolted to a stop. And before I know anything, Malcolm has flung open his door. And he's out of the car. And by the time I registered what was happening, I didn't know what on Earth was the provocation for this. I didn't know if somebody was trying to shoot him or shoot us or what. But no, it wasn't that at all. He sprang out. And there were three young men bent over on their knees, shooting craps up against the door. And it happened that - I hadn't - it didn't register to me, but he knew it. That was the door of the Countee Cullen Library in Harlem, within which was the Schomburg collection, the greatest extent collection about - material about Black people.
And Malcolm was over these people like - I think I wrote like an avenging angel. He was furious. And he was just grading out something like - he said, inside these doors is the greatest collection in existence on Black people and other people in there studying about you and your people. And the best you can do is sit out here and shoot craps up against the door. And it has to be said for him that such was his personality, such was his impact that these three young men - I'd say they were, you know, early 20s or something like that and street guys, I would guess.
They might have - I don't - I hate to think what they might have done to somebody else who dared come up on them like that. But once they recognized it was Malcolm, they almost skulked away. How furious he got about the fact that these young men were not seizing an opportunity better to educate themselves about their own people, about whatever. He used to often say he wished he could start all over academically. And he used to say, I would - they would have to - every night, they'd have to put me out of the library when they had to close it, you know?
GROSS: You spent a year interviewing him. Was he hard to interview?
HALEY: You asked the perfect thing not knowing you asked it to get me to tell you the thing I wanted to tell you to begin with about when I told you Malcolm got irritated at me. After the assignment had come to write a book about himself, we made an agreement, he and I, that he would come down to my little place. I had a place at the time in Greenwich Village at 92 Grove Street in the basement. And he faithfully began to come down about three nights a week. He'd get there 9:30-something after his busy, busy day. And I would interview him, at least that was the intent. Malcolm was not somebody you interviewed. You tended to listen for two hours as he would talk.
And it went on. And he didn't talk about himself. All he would talk about was Mr. Muhammad, his leader, and about the Nation of Islam, his organization. And by the time he'd done that for about a month, I begin to say to him, Mr. Malcolm, I know both. Fine. But this book is to be about you. And we have to know something about you. And he began to get peeved and then irritated. And finally, we were in the second, by which time I had begun to get also peeved in another direction. And I had begun to think that I, really, in fairness, had to go to the publisher and say, I'm not being able to get through to him. And you may have to get somebody else to write or whatever you want to do. And that's only fair. Sometimes that happens, just chemistry.
And then this night, it was cold. The snow was knee deep in New York. I don't know what had happened to Malcolm that day. And I'm uptight internally. And he's uptight. He came down that night. And he was just absolutely, again, furious. I don't know what had happened to him that day. He stalked the floor. And I remember that - I knew it's like a desperate try. I've got to get this man to talk about himself. And so once again - it was maybe about 11 o'clock at night - I tried. I said, Mr. Malcolm, we've got to have something about you. And he just - he reacted with just - he snatched his coat up, glared at me and started out. I remember he snatched the door open. And I remember seeing how the snow had drifted up over the doorjamb. You know how to do that?
And why I said to him what I said, I will never know. I didn't think it. It was one of those situations, Terry, where you hear yourself saying something. You don't know where the words come - I don't know. I wouldn't have consciously asked a Malcolm X that. But I heard myself say to him, very quietly, Mr. Malcolm, could you tell me something about your mother? And I remember looking at him as almost as if he were marionette on a string. He just kind of stopped. And I remember he closed the door. And he turned around, that I can remember. I don't remember him looking directly at me. But he began to walk. And he walked more slowly than before. And I guess he made a round of the room.
Before then, he spoke. And his voice was kind of higher register than he normally spoke. And he said, it's funny you should ask me that. And then he walked a little more. And then he said, I remember how she was always bent over the stove trying to stretch what little we had. And then he walks some more. And he said, and I remember the kind of dresses she wore. They were faded and gray. And that man, I tell you, Terry, he walked that floor from then, about 11:30, maybe, until the day broke. And out of him that night, that morning, spilled, tumbled - I don't think I asked a - I wouldn't have asked a question.
All I'm doing is taking notes as hard as I can. Out of him spilled and tumbled the essence of what is now in the first chapter of "The Autobiography Of Malcolm X" titled appropriately "Nightmare" - the story of the little boy who was about 7 in the household with his mother with - I believe there were a total of seven children. And the mother was trying the best she could to hold them together, to feed them, to care for them, to just generally be the family elder for them, with their father, the minister, recently murdered, thrown under a streetcar, you know. And that's - that was the most dramatic moment I remember. And from that point, he never hesitated to talk about any aspect of his life once that was opened.
GROSS: How do you think it affected him to, in a structured way, go through his - the whole past that he had, that he could remember, you know, to give it to you for your book? Because that's - it's like being in therapy to go through your past in such detail. I mean, it might...
HALEY: Well, I think it...
GROSS: I assume it be similar to be, like - being in therapy.
HALEY: I probably - I think it probably was for him, you know. I know one thing, the thing I just now was telling you about. A few weeks after that, he told me he'd be away, and he went away for a while. I didn't ask him where. You didn't ask him where he was going. And when he came back, he was smiles, unusually so. And then he told me that he had been to Michigan, where he had gotten together with his brother, Philbert. And his brother - Philbert, his brother was a minister in the Nation of Islam. And they had gone together to the institution, where their mother had been for quite a long time. I don't know. Was it 10, 15 years? And they had taken the first steps to have their mother released into the custody - she would be in the home of the brother Philbert. And Malcolm was beaming.
And I remember he said that he had kept locked up in himself the memory of what he told me that night because he just didn't want to deal with it, didn't want to face it, didn't want to think about it. But that once he had opened it, then he knew he had to go back and get - see his mother and help his mother and so forth. And I was - I look back at the incident, and I could not be more certain about the fact that I didn't know - I had no idea when I asked him that question that it would evoke such a response, and I didn't even realize that I was asking that question, not in a conscious way. Many things - now and then, some things will happen in writing that kind of get you in a - you don't know where it came from, and you don't question it. It just happened.
DAVIES: Terry Gross speaking with Alex Haley in 1985. Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews the new Billie Holiday biopic on Hulu. This is FRESH AIR.
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