In front of a rapt audience at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, Malcolm X’s third daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz, talked about witnessing the assassination of her father at Harlem’s Audubon Theatre and Ballroom on Feb. 21, 1965.
“I’m told my mother placed her entire body over my sisters and me that sunny and cold afternoon to protect us from the gunfire and to make certain that we could not see. …. Fortunately, I have no memory of that tragic moment,” Shabazz said.
So, she is pleased with the Smithsonian Channel’s one-hour documentary The Lost Tapes: Malcolm X, which tells the story of important years in the charismatic activist’s life in his own words. There’s no narrator or re-enactments—just media reports, rarely and never-seen footage—and the compelling voice of a man still seen by many as a controversial figure.
“He was such a young man with impeccable integrity, and you’ll see there is no mistaking his commitment to achieving peace and an egalitarian future for all,” Shabazz said at a recent screening of the film at the museum.
“Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the color of your skin to such an extent that you bleach to get like the white man? … Who taught you to hate yourselves from the top of your head to the soles of your feet? Who taught you to hate your own kind? … No, before you come asking Mr. Muhammad does he teach hate, you should ask yourself who taught you to hate being what God gave you?” Malcolm X once asked a cheering crowd. “I, for one, as a Muslim, believe that the white man is intelligent enough—if he were made to realize how black people really feel and how fed up we are without that old compromising sweet talk. Stop sweet-talking him. Tell him what kind of hell you’ve been catching. And let him know that if he’s not ready to clean his house up … he shouldn’t have a house. It should catch on fire and burn down.”
There is also footage of Malcolm X’s disagreement with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on how best to empower people of color—whether it should be separation from white society or nonviolent protests aimed at integration. His reaction to the firebombing of his home in 1965, with his pregnant wife and daughters inside, is included as well.
“In this film, we see the fire extinguishers … the church bombings, the lynchings. Maybe there is too much of Malcolm’s reaction, without showing what he was reacting to, that he had to give black people shock treatment” Shabazz mused. “If it’s not put in context, how can anyone say that Malcolm was violent? How can anyone say that Malcolm was anything negative and not say anything about the social climate that created this reaction?”
One of the surprising revelations in The Lost Tapes is that the increasing rift between Malcolm X and NOI leader Elijah Muhammad affected the former’s friendship with boxing legend Muhammad Ali, who was given his own Muslim name by the NOI leader—at a price.
“The Nation interfered with their friendship,” added Shabazz, who said Ali was told, “You will accept this name as long as you will no longer associate with Malcolm. … My father said I understand that’s his loyalty. … And Muhammad Ali [later] said, ‘I cannot believe that I did that and I regret that.’”
The documentary follows Malcolm X through the later part of his life and his changing philosophy after taking the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca and changing his name to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. He wrote about the revelation of sharing prayers and food with Muslims of all colors, even those with blond hair and blue eyes, and what it meant to him to his views about the strife occurring between African Americans and whites in the United States.
NMAAHC Curator Damion Thomas said he thinks Malcolm X’s legacy is important for people of today, especially in a country that is arguably more racially divided than it has been since the 1960s.