Lost Malcolm X Speech Heard Again 50 Years Later Brown University senior Malcolm Burnley was working on a class assignment in the library archives last fall when he made a startling discovery: a forgotten speech that Malcolm X, the Muslim minister and human rights activist, had made to the university in 1961.
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Lost Malcolm X Speech Heard Again 50 Years Later

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Lost Malcolm X Speech Heard Again 50 Years Later

Lost Malcolm X Speech Heard Again 50 Years Later

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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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