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Critical Essay by Marcus H. Boulware
SOURCE: "Minister Malcolm Orator Profundo," in Negro History Bulletin, Vol. 30, No. 7, November, 1967, pp. 12-14.
In the following essay, Boulware delineates Malcolm X's career as an orator and religious and social leader, complimenting his achievements and declaring: "People enjoyed his speaking whether or not they agreed with him, because he made speaking an appealing art."
The expanding prestige and stature of the Black Muslim movement attracted hundreds of adherents, and many of them were brilliant like the late Malcolm Little whose pseudonym was "Malcolm X." Opponents labelled him protestor, panelist, Muslim minister, and orator profundo. Numerous articles have been written about this dazzling figure who was often identified as a smooth, oily ex-convict. In his early career as a Black Muslim, Malcolm X is worthy of comparison with Plato and Aristotle of the Greeks—though his teachings were somewhat orthodox. It was rumored that Minister Malcolm X was next in line for the office of the Messenger of Allah.
At the acme of his career, Malcolm X, who split with the Black Muslims and launched his own faction, was assassinated speaking from the stage of a Harlem ballroom in mid-afternoon on February 21, 1965. It was reported that his slaying was the outgrowth of revenge by active members of the Black Muslim sect. At the trial in January, 1966, the government claimed three men stationed themselves in the audience, two started a fight to distract attention, while Thomas "15 X" Johnson shot Malcolm in the chest with a sawed-off shot gun. Then the other two men rushed to the stage and fired bullets into the prone body of Malcolm X. Before the perpetrators could escape, one was shot in the leg by an adherent of Malcolm's faction and taken into custody by the police. The other two men were arrested later.
The public remembers the late Minister Malcolm as an eloquent Muslim minister and philosopher whose trail led from a dingy prison cell to the Mount of Olives, while at the same time, he developed himself into an eloquent orator and street-corner spell-binder. People enjoyed his speaking whether or not they agreed with him, because he made speaking an appealing art. His oratorical skill was a favorite with audiences at street corners, but this did not mean that he did not have hostile listeners in his audiences. The orator's vocal style of delivery caught the fancy of numerous "avenue hangbys" who often followed him to his several speaking stations.
Like every human being, Malcolm X made mistakes and often turned his ears away from wisdom's good counsel. His courageous character led him to speak his mind in a vocabulary which the government interpreted as being treason. Unfortunately he was arrested and placed in prison. From then on, his critics never failed to forget his early career as a Harlem hoodlum nor his nickname "Big Red." In defense of himself as a youth, Malcolm X attributed his youthful delinquent habits to white people who made it difficult for a black man to earn honestly a decent living.
During his adolescent years, Malcolm became the product of the forces that molded him belatedly into a Muslim minister of the upper echelon. His life was a paradox that had to be resolved by him alone. He was born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1925 but his family moved to Michigan. Because his father was a radical exponent of Marcus Garvey, the Ku Klux Klan drove his family to Boston by a circuitous route. There the family joined the Islamic religion. Young Malcolm never recovered fully from the tragical experiences suffered from watching his home go up in smoke, allegedly the device of a revengeful Klan. His life, therefore, was a shortchanged existence.
Malcolm's life did not follow the fairy tale "happy ever after" ending, nor was it the typical success story "from rags to riches." When he was in prison in 1947, he met Elijah Muhammad from whom he learned about the religion of Islam. Then the spirit carried him upon the Mount where he made the most important decision of his life. When he descended the Mount of Temptation with the devil, there was no doubt about the work he must do. The wrestle with his unconscious mind restored his morale and gave him a new commitment for living, and the mountain experience reconstructed his integrity and manliness. However, his struggles to eke out a living during his youth and his term in prison left him without humanity for Caucasians.
Malcolm was a doer of the word, and he was effective as an organizer and speaker in the Black Muslim movement. His speaking activities were not limited to Temples and street-corner audiences, but he also spoke to audiences at colleges and universities and was a participant in radio and television discussions. He supplemented his eighth-grade education with extensive reading after affiliating with the Black Muslims. This general reading background greatly enlarged his vocabulary and refined his language style. In short, Minister Malcolm made an impression upon all whom he met. On Friday, May, 1963, he was interviewed by James Baldwin on a television broadcast. He made manifest how conversant he was with the aims and purposes of the Black Muslim movement as it was related to world issues.
The writer who viewed this telecast noticed that Malcolm X, a confrère of Elijah Muhammad, excelled in the rapid-fire "give-and-take" of formal discussion. His diction and vocabulary were superb: It should be added that Minister Malcolm was interviewed more than any other Negro leader during 1961 to 1963. All of the programmed interviews featuring Malcolm X revealed his personal magnetism as an orator, and he displayed a graceful vocal inflection appropriate to the meaning of what was said.
Both in speaking and writing, Malcolm opposed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the host of guerrilla chiefs who advocated non-violence as the proper approach to a solution of the racial problem in the United States. He frequently said, "We are never the aggressor. We will not attack anyone, but teach our people if anyone attacks you, lay down your life!" Every Muslim is counseled never to start a fight, never to look for trouble, never to stir up confusion. These statements, and others like them, often created enemies for Malcolm and this is traceable to the tone of voice employed.
Opposition to Malcolm's statements by whites resulted in name calling. C. Eric Lincoln, an authority on the Black Muslim movement, said that Malcolm wouldn't restrain himself and made utterances like this statement: "Get the white man's foot off my neck, his hands out of my pockets, and his carcass off my back. I sleep in my own bed without fear, and can look straight into his cold blue eyes and call him a liar everytime he parts his lips." Many times in speaking, Malcolm called Caucasians a devil, and he did not pass up critical Negro leaders either. Once he called Ralph Bunche "the George Washington of Israel," Thurgood Marshall a "20th century Uncle Tom." He considered the Negro race "the ugly American" for being a good Uncle Tom. He scored Martin Luther King as "the Other Cheek Man," and subtly suggested the phrase "Galavanting Harlem Politico" as a sobriquet for Congressman Adam Clayton Powell.
In telecast interviews Malcolm X maintained an atmosphere of self-assurance, displayed dignified gestures, and attended to proper platform trivia. Tall and trim for his 40-odd years, the Muslim Minister sometimes wore a beard and the goatee of an Ivory Tower professor. In the refining fires, he learned to play this platform role. Yet, he no doubt did his best Muslim proselyting with soap-box oratory and in meeting the challenges he faced from hecklers. His effectiveness was engendered by his marvelous mental powers, his storehouse of words, his simple and lucid vocabulary, and his ability to make his audiences go home and think about his messages.
As a popular television orator, Malcolm X had the dynamics to compel people to listen. The way he carried himself behind the lectern gave his hearers an artistic experience. If one made allowances for people's dislike of all Black Muslims and the orator's ostentation of himself, the hostility he created cannot be wholly palliated. His speeches redeemed souls, but, withal of a vain orator. In spite of themselves, certain orthodox Negro leaders were impelled to hear him with thunderous approbation. This was true even when his oral discourses abound in cajolery, impetuosity, invective, and violent sarcasm—together with all that was magnificent in eloquence.
The Minister's foundation for eloquent speaking was found in his poetical faculty for setting prose to music. The soul and breath of all speaking were striking simplicity and concreteness made luminous. The Minister of Allah had good voice control, talked within a narrow band of natural pitch range in order to have great reserve whenever he needed it. Many times as a young public speaker, it was his honey-toned voice that enabled him to cope with the harassment of the rabble, as well as control his temper.
What nobler tribute could there be paid an orator than passing on to his reward while he commanded the ears and hearts of eager hearers? When the fatal shot rang out, Malcolm's talents were soaring on the climax of his address. His language was bold, fierce and strong, complementing a full round voice flowing melodiously on the atmospheric breeze. While Martin Luther King gives us poetry, Malcolm gave us prose.
"Mr. Muslim" was an active, vigorous orator who sometimes pounded the lectern softly with a clinched fist. His marvelous vocal mechanism was at its full perfection and flexible strength when he lay down his life at the hands of evil ones. Black Muslims, attending that fatal meeting when Malcolm was shot down in the theater, were compelled to surrender themselves to the magnetic pull of his proselyting rhetoric. Persons hostile to the pleas of Malcolm X were nevertheless dazzled by his persuasive language. The three perpetrators upon his life resisted his persuasion, but they can never forget his dedicated passion which was silenced when the sawed-off shotgun went off bang! Then, are there any persons who can truthfully deny that he was indeed "the called of Allah", a sobriquet he bore to the end of his natural life?
This section contains 1,702 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)