7 November 2007...4:15 pm

A Pillar Of Salt

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“Make it plain” was what Malcolm X said when he was ready to go on stage. On January 24th, 1965, he said “make it plain” and then he took the podium at the Audubon Theater in Harlem to give a speech entitled “On Afro-American History,” and then he said:

It seems that during the month of January it doesn’t snow or rain or hail or get bad in any way weather-wise until Saturday night, and it stays like that Saturday through Sunday, and then the sun comes back out on Monday—it seems.

But since I was a little boy I learned that one of the things that make you grow into manhood are tests and trials and tribulations. If you can come through the snow and the rain and the sleet, you know you can make it easily when the sun is out and everything is right.

So I’m happy to see that those of you who are here tonight don’t let anything get in your way, that is, weatherwise.

An astute meteorological analysis; Malcolm was, shall we say, weatherwise?

Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X, and two of their daughters

In a 1992 piece for Essence, his wife, Dr. Betty Shabazz, remembered the first time she saw him, at an earlier lecture in Harlem:

I looked over and saw this man on the extreme right aisle sort of galloping to the podium. He was tall, he was thin, and the way he was galloping it looked as though he was going someplace much more important than the podium.

Have you ever seen people who are going someplace and you just know they are focused? Well, he got to the podium–and I sat up straight.

with Abdul Rahman Babu in Dar-es-Salaam, 1964

Shabazz, who had recently come to New York for school after growing up in Detroit, was oddly impressed by the quality of local cuisine here; she praised one of her Brooklyn hostesses for using “corn oil [and] margarine.” She thought Malcolm needed feeding:

He took off his glasses to clean them as he talked. I looked up at him and thought, Oh, my God–hurry up, please put your glasses back on! You know, I wanted to hold something in front of him so no one else could see what I saw: his face, his eyes, his hair were all the same color.

I remember thinking, My God, this man is totally malnourished. He needs some liver, some spinach, some beets and broccoli…

When he put his glasses back on, those dark-rimmed glasses, he looked a little better.

We understand, Betty. We have fallen hard for dark-rimmed glasses, too.


During the January 24th speech, Malcolm read a telegram he’d recently sent to George Lincoln Rockwell, then leader of the American Nazi party. It is all one sentence:

This is to warn you that I am no longer held in check from fighting white supremacists by Elijah Muhammad’s separationist Black Muslim movement, and that if your present racist agitation against our people there in Alabama causes physical harm to Reverend King or any other Black Americans who are only attempting to enjoy their rights as free human beings, that you and your Ku Klux Klan friends will be met with maximum physical retaliation from those of us who are not handcuffed by the disarming philosophy of nonviolence, and who believe in asserting our right of self-defense—by any means necessary.

This was met with sustained applause.

Shabazz and Coretta Scott King

Later in the evening, Malcolm pondered a slightly more obscure question from an audience member:

It is true that they used to have special Black slaves that they called bucks, I think, whose job was to do nothing but breed. I see a lot of them, I think, around Harlem now.

The night of his assassination in the Audubon–a month after the “On Afro-American History” speech–Shabazz and three of the couple’s daughters were sitting in a small booth, stage right.

the X children, in class with Shaykh-‘Allama Al-Hajj Ahmad Tawfiq

When the shooting started, Shabazz threw herself over her children and yelled “they’re killing my husband!” She was not entirely surprised.

In the months leading up to his death, Malcolm had grown increasingly paranoid; he was prevented from entering France for a pre-scheduled public appearance, and he told Benjamin Kareem, his assistant minister, that he’d been denied a life insurance policy.

When he warned Betty about his fears, he would tell her to “remember Lot’s wife.” In Genesis, she had become a pillar of salt after turning around to look at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The specific applicability of this cautionary tale is lost on me. “Don’t look back,” Shabazz remembers him telling her, “and don’t cry.”

Shabazz and her children

Malcolm was a protective guy. He and Betty had begun dating with the utmost propriety; summer vacation came, and she left New York for Detroit, to stay with her parents.

Malcolm had brothers in Detroit. He told me he wanted me to call one of his brothers, whose number he gave me, saying his brother would take me out to dinner. Then Malcolm said, “I want you to make me a promise.”


“That you will leave my brother as you found him.”

I thought to myself, Oh, my, this is strange, but I said to Malcolm, “I sure will, sir.” I was a little bit on the green side at that time.

Shabazz with Carol Brown, the first recipient of a Malcolm X Scholarship

She continues:

Well, after I got home and went to church the next Sunday with my folks, I called up Malcolm’s brother after Sunday dinner. I told him I was from New York and his brother had given me his number to call.

“I wonder why he told you to call me,” he said.

“Well, I don’t know,” I said. “But he did. So, how are you?”

“I’m married.”

Shabazz leaves her husband’s funeral, 1965

In “On Afro-American History,” Malcolm discusses the loss of African languages to slaves, stolen and deposited on U.S. plantations:

If you’ll notice, the natural tongue that one speaks is referred to as one’s mother tongue—mother tongue. And the natural intelligence that a person has before he goes to school is called mother wit. Not father wit—it’s called mother wit because everything a child knows before it gets to school, it learns from its mother, not its father.

And if it never goes to school, whatever native intelligence it has, it got it primarily from its mother, not its father; so it’s called mother wit. And the mother is also the one who teaches the child how to speak its language, so that the natural tongue is called the mother tongue.

Whenever you find as many people as we who aren’t able to speak any mother tongue, why, that’s evidence right there something was done to our mother. Something had to have happened to her.

Shabazz, who died in a fire in 1997, left her husband three times during their seven year marriage:

I started traveling and doing curriculum development and setting up classes for the women at the various mosques. I really wanted to work, though Malcolm didn’t want me to, but he agreed to let me do this volunteer work–organizing the women’s classes.

I used to beg. “Oh, please,” I’d say. “I want to work. I want to work.” And he would take that to mean I was unhappy, that maybe I didn’t love him.

“You want to do what?” he would say whenever I said I wanted to work. “Here, read these three books and give me a report. I’ll need the first one tonight.”

at home in Queens with Quiblah and Attallah, 1962

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