Pulitzer Winner Tamara Payne on the Life and Legacy of Malcolm X

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This week on The Learning Curve, guest cohosts Alisha Searcy and Mariam Memarsadeghi interview award-winning biographer Tamara Payne about the life and legacy of Malcolm X. She discussed how her father, Les Payne, embarked on the biography, and offers insight into Malcolm Little’s early life and education, the influences of racism and Pan-Africanism on the Little family, and how Malcolm Little became Malcolm X and rose within the ranks of the Nation of Islam. Tamara traces Malcolm X’s experiences during the civil rights movement, his break with the Nation of Islam, pilgrimage to Mecca, his autobiography, the dynamics leading to his assassination, and the ongoing debate over his legacy. Ms. Payne concludes the interview with a reading from The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X.

Stories of the Week
Alisha highlights New Hampshire’s recent bipartisan bill promoting civics education, and Mariam talked about Michael Bloomberg’s WSJ op-ed on holding politicians accountable for neglecting our nation’s education system.


Tamara Payne served as the principal researcher and co-author on The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X, which won the Pulitzer Prize in Biography and the National Book Award for Nonfiction, was long-listed for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction, and was named a best book of the year by The New York Times, The Washington Post, and many other publications. Les Payne, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who served as an editor and columnist at Newsday, worked on The Dead Are Arising for nearly 30 years. Tamara, his daughter, completed the book after he died in 2018.

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[00:00:00] Alicia: Welcome back to Learning Curve Podcast. I am your guest host again, Alicia Thomas Searcy, and happy to be joined today by Maryam Ammar Siddiqui. Welcome. 

[00:00:34] Mariam: Thank you so much. It’s such a pleasure to be with you 

[00:00:36] Alicia: today. You too. And I am fascinated by your history and honored to co host with you. Why don’t you introduce yourself to the audience?

[00:00:44] Alicia:

[00:00:45] Mariam: am originally from Iran and I’m an activist for democracy in my homeland. I came to the United States when I was seven years old and for a couple of decades now have been focused on providing civic education opportunities to [00:01:00] people living inside Iran using the internet and particularly social media.

[00:01:05] Alicia: I love that and fascinated by that. Looking forward to learning more about you. And I think it’s quite appropriate, your background, as we jump into the stories of the week. 

[00:01:15] Alicia: So my story of the week comes from Seacoast Online. It’s a story entitled civics in education for young students will begin in New Hampshire this fall. And Miriam, given your background, I know this must be exciting for you to, to know that a bipartisan bill has passed in the legislature and it’s waiting the governor’s signature and it will completely change the way New Hampshire students.

[00:01:40] Alicia: Learn about the nation’s founding principles and how state and federal governments operate. And so the current education requirements mandate a half a year of civics for high school students. And so when this bill gets signed, it’s also going to require elementary and middle school students in public and non public schools to [00:02:00] receive civics education as well.

[00:02:02] Alicia: Why do I care about this? Number one, we should know about our country and our history. who we are, how we got to where we are as Americans, right? I find it interesting that to become a citizen of this country, you have to take a citizenship test. And I wonder how many Americans could actually pass this test.

[00:02:21] Alicia: And actually one of the tools that’s going to be used is that test. And so. I’ll also tell you that one of the reasons I’m excited about this is I’m a former state legislator, and I love my 56, 000 constituents that I had, but I have to tell you there was always one or two in the grocery store who would say, Hey, when are you going back to DC?

[00:02:44] Alicia: Because I didn’t realize that I was in the state legislature. And so I don’t blame the people. I blame our education system for focusing more on teaching us skills, right? Instead of the content of what we need to learn about our [00:03:00] history, about founding principles, frankly, the good and the bad and the ugly of our history.

[00:03:05] Alicia: And so kudos to the state of New Hampshire for leading the way for having students who will become active citizens, right? And it’s not even just learning about the history, but it’s getting them engaged. It’s, teaching them about voting and having programs in place where they’re engaging other nonprofits who are also involved in the school systems who are helping young people to engage in the process.

[00:03:29] Alicia: So I’m excited. I wish that every state replicates this, including the great state of Georgia, where I live. 

[00:03:35] Mariam: Yes. Yes. And you know, this is an incredible country for so many reasons. And my hope is that New Hampshire does this and does this well and becomes a model, as you said, for the rest of the country.

[00:03:49] Mariam: Because what I find is so often nowadays, especially students, K through 12 university don’t have a sense for why America [00:04:00] is a free country and has an exceptional history. We need to do much more and much better at teaching Children not just how to read and do math, but to understand what freedom.

[00:04:14] Mariam: What constitutes freedom? My story is an op ed actually in the wall street journal by Michael Bloomberg, the , philanthropist and former mayor of New York city. Uh, His op ed is called politicians should pay for ignoring America’s education crisis. Both parties focus on votes instead of solutions such as tutoring, summer resonated with me because Bloomberg cites.

[00:04:40] Mariam: the data. Reading scores for eighth graders have fallen to their lowest level in two decades. For math, it’s at a three decade low. And there’s more and more data in, in the op ed. I’m so glad the Wall Street Journal ran it , with the numbers to show that, look, you know, there are no excuses. We’re not measuring up.

[00:04:59] Mariam: We’re not measuring [00:05:00] up worldwide. We’re not measuring up to what We used to be in here. We know we’re a country that is always progressing in terms of technology and economic innovation, all of that. And yet here, our schools are failing our children and Bloomberg to his credit blames, both Republicans and Democrats.

[00:05:17] Mariam: The Republicans are. Spending their time trying to remove books from school libraries, he says, in the middle of a literacy crisis. You can’t make this stuff up. And Democrats have been just as derelict for years. They have been throwing money at the problem with no plan for actually solving it. I mean, his focus on the lack of accountability I thought was a right on point.

[00:05:39] Mariam: So, If we don’t take it seriously, if we don’t take our education system seriously and how we’re failing our, our children, we, we won’t have the kind of future as a, country that we have had as a past, as a, as our history. We will no longer be that inspiration to the rest of the world if we don’t [00:06:00] provide equal opportunity to really excel to all our students 

[00:06:04] Alicia: nationwide.

[00:06:06] Alicia: Agreed. I love this story as well. And I, you know, Bloomberg is one of those people that literally puts his money where his mouth is. Yeah. And as a former elected and a candidate for state school superintendent, I couldn’t agree more. That both parties, frankly, have not done what we need to do to address the education ills in our country.

[00:06:29] Alicia: And I think it’s a statewide issue, it’s a national issue, it’s an international issue. And we need more stories like this. we need more philanthropy like his to push not just politicians, but educators, parents, anybody who cares about education to get the results that kids deserve in this country.

[00:06:49] Alicia: It’s a great story. Yeah. Thank you, Miriam, for that story. So after the break, we have Tamara Payne, Pulitzer prize winner and biographer of [00:07:00] Malcolm X.

[00:07:22] Alicia: We are elated and honored to have on with us Tamara Payne. Tamara Payne served as a principal researcher and co author on The Dead Are Rising, The Life of Malcolm X, which won the Pulitzer Prize in Biography and the National Book Award for Nonfiction, was long listed for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction, and was named a best book of the year by the New York Times, the Washington Post and many other publications.

[00:07:50] Alicia: Les Payne, her late father, a Pulitzer prize winning journalist who served as an editor and columnist at Newsday, worked on The Dead [00:08:00] Are Rising for nearly 30 years. Tamara, his daughter, completed the book after he died in 2018. Tamara, thank you for joining us. It’s an honor to have you today. Thank you for 

[00:08:12] Tamara: having me on.

[00:08:12] Tamara: It’s a pleasure to be here. So 

[00:08:14] Alicia: I want to jump right in. Your father, less pain. And you spent 30 years researching and writing the definitive award winning biography. The dead are rising the life of Malcolm X. Would you start by briefly telling our listeners about your father, his career in journalism and how he embarked on writing about this important, controversial American 

[00:08:37] Tamara: Malcolm X?

[00:08:38] Tamara: Thank you. Yeah, my father. Les Payne, he was born in 1941 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, around 12 years of age, his family moved up to Hartford, Connecticut, where he attended middle school, high school, and eventually graduated from the University of Connecticut of Storrs. And then ended up going into because of the draft, the war the [00:09:00] Vietnam War.

[00:09:01] Tamara: And while serving there, he was an information officer under General Westmoreland. And it was in this assignment where he… Became aware and started began to understand the power of journalism. He had escorted a journalist from the Washington Post. I believe his name is Jesse Lewis around the base that he was on.

[00:09:20] Tamara: and this story that appeared in the series that Washington Post printed was talking, had explained that there were Confederate flags emblazoned on the base trucks. And President Johnson at the time read this and called up General Westmoreland at 3 a. m. Saigon time, chewed him out, and told him to remove those flags.

[00:09:41] Tamara: And from this incident, my father began to understand the power of revealed facts reported by a free press that is protected by a U. S. Constitution. And it’s a free press That is determined to inform the public about what is going on in the world. And this is so important even today as we see the attacks going [00:10:00] on with the media.

[00:10:01] Tamara: But just that is where he really started to understand the power of journalism and reporting. So after he gets out of the leaves Vietnam. He ends up working at he’s hired at Newsday, Long Island Daily newspaper. And he begins writing stories. He’s reporting on local issues for Long Island, Long Island politics, but also he begins to write stories like on the migrant workers in 72, 73, he’s working on a story. He’s a member of a three man team, investigative reporting team that traces and follows heroin because heroin addiction was a problem particularly on Long Island with teenagers. They decided to follow how heroin from the poppy fields of Turkey through the French connection into the veins of, young teenagers in the United States and for this work.

[00:10:48] Tamara: They won a Pulitzer prize. that’s where he gets the title of Pulitzer prize winning journalist. And he just continues thriving in this career of, of, that he has fallen in love [00:11:00] with. And he’s very passionate about informing people so that people can make informed decisions.

[00:11:05] Tamara: And then he goes on to become an editor and he also has hot, you know, trains other journalists, but he also is a syndicated columnist. But when in 1990, he, it’s his view on Malcolm X he admired Malcolm X. He read his speeches, read the autobiography when it came out and would reread it every few years.

[00:11:23] Tamara: While I was growing up, he would play Malcolm X’s speeches and so He had admiration for Malcolm X. He actually also saw Malcolm speak in 1963 when he was a junior in, in college but he felt, after the autobiography that there wasn’t anything else to say about Malcolm except to continue to learn from his speeches because Malcolm’s analysis of what was going on in America during the sixties and, throughout his life was so well.

[00:11:48] Tamara: So critical and spot on and, also offering possible solutions of how to respond to this problem of racism in America. but he didn’t believe that we needed to write a another biography of Malcolm [00:12:00] until he met one of his brothers. and it was during this meeting that he hears his brother and, and he listens to these stories about what it was like growing up in the house, in the little household of child of Louise and Earl Little, this dynamic, these dynamic parents.

[00:12:15] Tamara: who were followers of Marcus Garvey and just instilling different values into their children. So, it was these stories and where my father’s journalism senses were pricked. And he decided to pursue this, journey of finding out more about who Malcolm was. In the context of his family and the times that he was born into because up until then, Malcolm really had been presented to us in a vacuum and as angry as if for no reason.

[00:12:44] Tamara: And so, my father wants to provide more of a context. 

[00:12:47] Alicia: Thank you for that. Very helpful insight. And so you mentioned his parents, Louise and Earl Little, we’re talking about Malcolm now. And so to help us have a [00:13:00] fuller context Malcolm Little’s family, early life, education and his era. Could you talk more about Louise and his father, Earl, and their experiences dealing with racism in Lansing, Michigan in the 20s, and include Perhaps how they became even admirers of the Pan African Garvey.

[00:13:19] Tamara: I’ll start with Earl, for example, he was born in Georgia , you know, and he was part of a large family, a farmer family. And he had very strong opinions about how to be treated and respected. And and this in, in Georgia at that time was. You know, it was going to be really tough.

[00:13:36] Tamara: And we’re talking about the beginning of the 20th century. He was born in 1890, but, these were tough times for Black people. it’s after slavery, but we also have now the sharecropping. And and also, they were farmers, and he also developed skills as, as a carpenter.

[00:13:52] Tamara: And he also had the skill of, his father was a preacher, so he also You know, like his father, he had the gift of talking, [00:14:00] of telling stories, but because of, his disposition of dealing with life in Georgia, you know, it made it very difficult for him because white people, did not look kindly on proud black people, especially proud black men.

[00:14:15] Tamara: And so… Earl was convinced by his parents to kind of leave Georgia, and he went up north, and he would go to Philadelphia, he went to New York, and he ended up also going to Montreal, it was in Montreal where he met Louise, immigrated. to Canada and was staying with her uncle, and they met at a UNIA, which is the Universal Negro Improvement Association, which is Marcus Garvey’s organization.

[00:14:39] Tamara: And they were attracted to Marcus Garvey’s organization because of the tenets of self reliance, pride in being black, and you know, linking up with with other black people in the diaspora. But so they, that’s where they met. And that’s eventually they married and went on to have Children.

[00:14:57] Tamara: And they started moving out from [00:15:00] Philadelphia, and then they went off to Omaha, Nebraska, and they were really wherever they went. There were as members organizers of the U. N. I. A. organization. They were organizing towns as they you know, as they wherever they move, they were organizing black families.

[00:15:14] Tamara: They were organizing communities, setting up businesses, setting up farming. to grow their own foods and being self reliant and building their businesses. So this is what they were doing. And Louise Little also, she had her own business of being a seamstress and making clothes. And she also was into gardening and understood plants and, and Earl grew their food and also was building their homes that they moved into.

[00:15:38] Tamara: So. this is kind of what their lives were. And, but the environment that they’re doing this in is very antagonistic to them doing this with other black people. They were seen as a threat to communities because they’re organizing black people to be self reliant. and this was seen as a threat and they were receiving, they received death [00:16:00] threats.

[00:16:00] Tamara: They were told to move on. They were told that. they weren’t considered, they’re called good black people so this is what their lifestyles were. And when you get to Michigan and Lansing in particular this is where you find this interesting, where they’re buying land that there’s exclusive covenants on the land where they, black people aren’t, can own it, but they can’t live on it.

[00:16:22] Tamara: And in one of the properties that they they’re on. they’re sued to get off this land and when they didn’t get off fast enough and they were evicted by their neighbors who filed suit and the house was set on fire and, these were some of the things that they, they were dealing with and then eventually we also have Earl dies.

[00:16:42] Tamara: Later on and then we look at what we see is now you have Earl, who’s the main breadwinner, who is who’s kind of the leader and of the family. And now he’s gone. And what does this do to the family? And this really sets the family down a road that [00:17:00] separates them. The children are separated and sent off to different homes.

[00:17:04] Tamara: Malcolm ends up going to a correctional home in Mason. because of his behavior. again, it raises the question, not simply of, okay, Malcolm in this time, yes, he is becoming more delinquent, but he is also becoming delinquent at a time when he loses his father. this is what we mean by looking at Malcolm in the context of his family and the importance of these roles of these people who formed him.

[00:17:29] Alicia: Again, very helpful. And so we know during that time Malcolm has a variety of jobs. He’s living with his half sister in Boston. He also got involved with street life as you kind of alluded to. He got into some trouble hustling crime and ended up in prison eventually. And so would you talk about those Boston years and include his conversion to the nation of Islam during that time in prison in Massachusetts?

[00:17:54] Tamara: Malcolm is kind of flourishing in Mason. he’s going to school with white [00:18:00] students and, and he even becomes class president. But then the local family there, who was friends of his mother, they wanted to take him in, and Malcolm really had issues, and meanwhile he had also been petitioning his sister Ella, his half sister Ella, who is his half sister by his father from another previous marriage if he could visit her and stay with her in Boston, and she, takes him in in Boston.

[00:18:23] Tamara: So she provides him home in Boston. She has very strict rules. She wants him to go to school. She wants him to, finish school, but also to, you know, become an upstanding citizen in black Boston. But You know, he gets into other, you know, he, he has had, at this point, a big, huge disappointment in Mason when he mentions to a teacher that he wants to become a lawyer, and the, and the teacher counsels him that, that would not be a good career for Black people, it’s not a realistic career for Black people, and that he should think about something else, like becoming a carpenter, and so, this kind of sets him against continuing with his [00:19:00] education, and at that time.

[00:19:01] Tamara: So when he goes to Boston, you know, he’s interested in doing other things and he gets caught. He meets this man named Malcolm Jarvis, who is depicted as shorty in the movie. I’m sure everybody has seen and come fast friends and, he’s a musician, and they go to clubs and he also gets a job on the railroad and he starts to, on the railroad, he’s like a porter and he’s selling sandwiches and he’s going from Washington, D.

[00:19:28] Tamara: C. up to Boston. So he’s learning about Philadelphia, Washington, D. C., New York, and all the towns in between. And he finds that he has fallen in love with New York and particularly Harlem. And when he loses the job on the railroads, he, goes to Harlem and that’s where he, he has to survive. And, and it’s, this is again, tough times and World War II is looming over everybody.

[00:19:52] Tamara: And, and so, these are tough times and people, everybody’s suffering and hustling. and I also want to say that during this [00:20:00] time when Earl passes away and Malcolm goes to Mason, he’s also getting in trouble. We’re also in the time. In American history of the Great Depression, and now in Harlem, you know, we’re still coming in and out of that, starting to come out of that.

[00:20:14] Tamara: But then we’re going into war, world War ii. And so Malcolm actually goes into the draft and convinces them that he’s too crazy to go and be drafted. And they, they don’t take him in, but he continues to work at different places. In fact one of the places he works is Jimmy Chicken Shack.

[00:20:31] Tamara: But he’s mainly a waiter, washing dishes, Jimmy’s chicken shack, he works there with actually Red Fox, who later on becomes Fred Sanford of Sanford and Son and they’re buddies, and he was, you know, Red Fox was at that time, John Sanford, and he was focused on becoming a comedian, but they were friends.

[00:20:49] Tamara: And they worked as dishwashers together at Jimmy’s Chicken Shack. 

[00:20:53] Alicia: A little fun fact there. And I think that context is really helpful to understand what’s happening with the family, what’s happening in the [00:21:00] world at the time. And this has nothing to do with this interview, but I think it’s important for all of us to remember the things we say to children when they tell us their dreams, right?

[00:21:11] Alicia: Mm hmm. So wanted to be a lawyer, but was discouraged by an adult. And so how disappointing and frustrating that is. I have one more question for you before I turned over to Miriam. So he’s in prison. He then gets paroled. He connects with Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the nation of Islam.

[00:21:31] Alicia: Can you talk about Malcolm X’s rise within the nation of Islam and how his success at recruitment and establishing temples across the country happened. 

[00:21:43] Tamara: Oh, sure. Now, all along, Malcolm’s this really bright child. In fact, all of his siblings, they’re very intelligent and bright. And, Louise, their mother at home, like she had them reading newspapers and books and she was checking over their homework.

[00:21:59] Tamara: So I mean, Malcolm [00:22:00] was, you know, he was a reader and even in prison, he, he reads everything. he can get his hands on. And so while he’s in prison, Wilfred one of the brothers my father spoke with and who I met who was wonderful man. He comes across, he’s in Michigan living just outside of Detroit and he, he’s looking to join an organization, build up his community.

[00:22:23] Tamara: he’s probably recently married and he comes across the nation of Islam and he sees The diamond in the rough here. He sees the value in them. He sees that what he connects with the nation of Islam at that point is how they are building up their community, building up their and starting businesses and looking to build up schools.

[00:22:45] Tamara: and he’s, attracted to that and he finds and it connects with them because this is what his parents were doing is as organized for the for Marcus Carvey’s movement, the U. N. I. A. And it’s not surprising because after, people leave the U. N. I. A. It’s where do they go and they start [00:23:00] their own movement.

[00:23:00] Tamara: So, these tenants, you know, they go into other movements, you know, that exist in black communities throughout the country. So we do make those connections in our book, particularly with the more science temple as well as the nation of Islam. And so. He joins the Nation of Islam, Wilfred does, and he brings his siblings into it.

[00:23:19] Tamara: He also, makes a point, he gets to meet Elijah Muhammad, and he talks to Elijah Muhammad about different ways of marketing, basically. That’s not what they called it at the time, but marketing the nation of Islam and their tenants. He says, you have a really good organization here, but, you have to put out better literature about it.

[00:23:41] Tamara: And, he gets involved with that and then he gets siblings involved with that. But also while doing that, he’s talking with Elijah Muhammad. He’s telling him about Malcolm, who’s, who is in jail. And while Malcolm’s in jail, he’s also He’s reading. He’s, self reading on his own, but he’s also debating.

[00:23:58] Tamara: And you know, he’s on the [00:24:00] debate team and he’s doing all these other things at the same time. but, what we find here in this Part of the story is that, Malcolm was never left alone. His family was always thinking of him, and they were connecting with him, and they continued to, visit him and write letters to him.

[00:24:17] Tamara: And there were times when Malcolm was shut down because he hated the idea of being in jail and he was in the beginning. But eventually he, got over that and, and he continued talking with them. And when this Nation of Islam entered the picture for them and Wilford’s like, you know, we really need to get him more involved with this.

[00:24:35] Tamara: And they talked to him about it. And, and the other thing is they also had to tell him things that he’s doing. Smoking, stop smoking, stop eating pork no alcohol. And, you know, and Malcolm already in jail, you know, he’s, already getting into his discipline. And so this is very helpful to him and gives him a reason to continue and focus.

[00:24:56] Tamara: And so there’s that connection. I just think it’s so important to understand that [00:25:00] Malcolm’s family never gave up on him. But when he comes out of prison he’s a member of the Nation of Islam. He meets Elijah Muhammad and, he’s so thankful because now this whole organization, it’s, not only is it a community fund, but with the discipline and their tenants. He connects with that and he’s, he wants to go full throttle in promoting this organization and growing this organization with black people not just in Michigan, but through all over the country. And so he, he just has these great ideas. Now he’s been reading a lot.

[00:25:32] Tamara: He has this big ideas and Elijah Muhammad. his idea of the Nation of Islam at the time was they wanted to live separate. they didn’t want to vote. they didn’t want to participate in the elections. They didn’t want to participate in the civil rights movement that was growing.

[00:25:47] Tamara: They just wanted to live separately and they didn’t want to be bothered with white people. And we also need to understand Elijah Muhammad’s from Georgia. So these experiences have formed him and this is the imprint on Elijah Muhammad. [00:26:00] So, already we see like Malcolm has these big ideas and he, he starts to grow the nation and he’s kind of like, On one hand, he’s a shot into the vein, but it’s like adrenaline and people, you know, who’ve been there a long time, they’re used to doing things a certain way.

[00:26:16] Tamara: , they’re not into Malcolm’s speed and his youthful energy and they felt threatened by it. And so, and it’s because a lot of them were not as educated. They were more blue collar workers. And so you, you get into the Malcolm was about getting more educated people into the organization and growing their membership that way.

[00:26:35] Tamara: there was a conflict here with the membership. But um, early on, you know, this is what Malcolm was facing. He was very excited about growing it. And there were people in the Midwest, Michigan and Chicago, who just were like, you have to slow down. And Malcolm wanted to go full steam ahead.

[00:26:51] Tamara: So Malcolm gets sat down. and then Elijah Muhammad gives him the opportunity to go out to the east, to the northeast. And he’s [00:27:00] like, pick any temple in the northeast and I’ll let you grow. So he goes to Boston and there he said, because he knows Boston, he understands Boston, he, vibes much better here.

[00:27:12] Tamara: so. That’s how he starts to grow. And he ends up growing the temples. I mean, Boston was already founded, but he also grew, he started a temple in Hartford. Harlem was already in existence, but he basically in the Northeast, he was going into these different temples and speaking and checking in on them and, making sure that people were following the rules of the nation of Islam.

[00:27:34] Tamara: And he was there, he, eventually became the national spokesman. I also want to bring up Hartford because my father, as I had mentioned earlier, he grew up in Hartford. and what we found, when we found out that Malcolm had Basically built, you know, started the temple in Hartford. We were really excited because we wanted to know what that was like.

[00:27:51] Tamara: And also because my father, like Malcolm, felt very comfortable in, in, Boston. My father felt very comfortable about talking about Hartford. And Hartford was [00:28:00] not necessarily a town people know about. Hartford, Connecticut, I’m speaking of. And I mean, it should. It’s an important town. And, it is very important.

[00:28:09] Tamara: And it’s the capital of Connecticut. But it’s, he just felt really comfortable, you know, talking about Hartford. And so when you look at that particular part of the book, you get to see really incredible storytelling about what goes on there. it’s at a time he starts building up.

[00:28:26] Tamara: meetings in the mid fifties, mid to late fifties, 56, and he’s growing the membership there. And it’s just I just advise people to read the book to experience that. Fantastic. 

[00:28:38] Mariam: Tamara Payne, it’s an honor to be with you. This is Miriam. My question, my first question to you is about the civil rights movement in the fifties and sixties.

[00:28:48] Mariam: Malcolm became an increasingly controversial figure, including because of his criticism of MLK, integration, nonviolence, and the 1963 March on [00:29:00] Washington. Could you discuss Malcolm X’s more incendiary comments about MLK, about white people, other religions, JFK’s death, et cetera, as well as why, as your book reveals, he had a secret meeting with the Ku Klux Klan in early 1961.

[00:29:18] Tamara: Yeah. Again, To me, it’s also about context. I mean, we have to look at the context of what was going on in this country. Why was Martin Luther King even, you know, in the fifties organizing a bus boycott and igniting the civil rights movement? Because, it was in the South, they were called these Jim Crow laws and separate but equal.

[00:29:39] Tamara: and black people have this getting, if they were gonna get on the bus, they had to sit in the back. And if there were no seats, they had to give up their seats to white people. And there are other laws that were just as, , crazy if they were on a sidewalk and the white person’s walking by, you and they didn’t move out of the way and the white person hit them, they had no real recourse judiciously.[00:30:00]

[00:30:00] Tamara: And so, You have Martin Luther King, who’s who’s going up against this system of the of laws as well as our voting rights. And just to have our civil rights recognized in this country. And so Malcolm, who’s a member of the Nation of Islam, under Elijah Muhammad’s leadership, they’re not cooperating and participating in that.

[00:30:21] Tamara: They want to live separate. They’re not apart. They don’t want segregation. They want it to be separate, period. Elijah Muhammad often talked about having a separate state that had access to water and where they could have their own farms and their own laws and it’s just their own black state.

[00:30:36] Tamara: and this is what Malcolm was, preaching in, the Nation of Islam and, pushing forth. so what happens is, like, Malcolm is trying to promote the Nation of Islam and grow the membership, especially among educated Black people. And he’s coming up against Martin Luther King, who is also educated, and he, he’s gotta hold on middle class and, and educated Black people.

[00:30:58] Tamara: But. Malcolm is up against [00:31:00] that. So he’s using the language and the tenets of the Nation of Islam against Martin Luther King. And so, yes Nation of Islam want a separate and so, yes, those, these remarks become more incendiary. But also, the media also plays a role in this as far as, when Malcolm, he’s saying he would, his language against Martin Luther King in particular was about turning the other cheek and this nonviolence.

[00:31:22] Tamara: And he’s like, we’re living in violent times, when people, when the clans marching into your, your community, turning the other cheek is not the response that you should have. I mean, Malcolm had this saying where he would say that you have to speak the language of the people you’re, you’re around.

[00:31:37] Tamara: you can’t bring a knife to a, gunfight. so turning the other cheek did not make sense. And so he preached against that. But he wasn’t about starting and initiating violence. What he was saying was self defense. And the media took this to mean that Malcolm was talking about starting up violence against white people.

[00:31:55] Tamara: And this was, you know, this was building up as a threat against white America. And [00:32:00] so, that’s where you have this thing with the media playing its role of pitting these two against each other. Even though a part of it is that they were against each other. But the other thing is that…

[00:32:09] Tamara: When you misconstrue Malcolm’s language about self defense, it, it really becomes problematic when we look back on this, cause he’s not talking about starting up violence, he’s talking about self defense, and look, I mean, we have So many examples in Malcolm’s life where he sees this violence is initiated against him, and you cannot not respond to this, in violence.

[00:32:32] Tamara: I mean, we open our book with the Klan riding in on his home in Omaha, Nebraska. He’s, and his mother is pregnant with him. So, the thing about the clan meeting now, and again, Malcolm is at this point, nation is becoming the national spokesperson for the nation of Islam.

[00:32:48] Tamara: He’s representing Elijah Muhammad and this thing even about blue eyed devils. And this is all language that was already implemented by the nation of Islam, [00:33:00] but it is also language that was used. , for membership in order to develop self pride because of the sheer antagonism just to their existence in so many of their communities, especially when mixed with white people.

[00:33:15] Tamara: So, this language, is used to help them develop self as a counter rejection. And that’s the other point about this language. But when we get to 1961 it’s an interesting thing. And I’ll set it up about the Klan. Malcolm is visiting their temple in Georgia, Atlanta, Georgia.

[00:33:34] Tamara: The minister of that temple is Jeremiah X. Who later becomes Jeremiah Shabazz and Malcolm is visiting, giving a speech and preaching. And while he’s preaching the clan, the local clan chapter sends a telegram to them saying that we’d like to meet. we find you interesting, we’d like to meet and see what we can do together.

[00:33:54] Tamara: They read this telegram, but they can’t answer because they’re not the leaders of the nation. They have to go back to [00:34:00] Elijah Muhammad. He tells them basically that He wants to continue building his temples in the South. He also wants to set up businesses and he also knows that the Klan members, they are the policemen, they are the real estate brokers, they are the lawyers.

[00:34:15] Tamara: And so he feels that you can’t do anything in the South unless you have some kind of relationship with Klan members. So he wants to find out, he wants to hear what they have to say and see if they can work anything out and what they want to do as far as their business and see if they can help each other out.

[00:34:30] Tamara: This sets against… Malcolm is definitely against this, but he is a spokesperson. He doesn’t want to just not be a part of this. He wants to see how this meeting goes down. he goes into the meeting and he represents, but Malcolm really, just wants to tell the clan members where to go.

[00:34:49] Tamara: And he wants to have a really a confrontation, but Elijah Muhammad tells him, no, we don’t want that. And so Malcolm goes into this meeting and. We go into great details of this meeting because one [00:35:00] of the people we were able to interview. is Jeremiah Shabazz, who gave us the internal details of the meeting was held in his home.

[00:35:07] Tamara: And we spoke with him and his wife, and they gave us a rundown of what happened. And I’ll leave people to read that in the book also. Okay, 

[00:35:16] Mariam: great. Alright. In 1964, March 1964, Malcolm X broke. with the Nation of Islam over his concerns about the private life of Elijah Muhammad. Would you talk about Malcolm’s break with the Nation of Islam, the dynamics that led to his February 1965 assassination, as well as his pilgrimage to Mecca?

[00:35:38] Tamara: I’ve kind of already alluded to that Malcolm, when he first joined the Nation of Islam, particularly, you know, in the Midwest, that he was kind of running faster than everybody else was really going. So people in the Midwest kind of had a different view of Malcolm. There was a lot of envy and jealousy.

[00:35:54] Tamara: and they also would say rumors that he was trying to take over the nation because I’m [00:36:00] from Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm, his view was, I’m representing Elijah Muhammad. I believe in him as our leader. , and yes, he does hear these rumors about the infidelity of Elijah Muhammad with these young secretaries who are underage.

[00:36:15] Tamara: Some of them are underage. And my thing is on this particular instance of the split is that it’s more than just this. It is also what I was talking about from the Klan meeting. Malcolm, in the Klan meeting, he starts to realize that Elijah Muhammad may not believe as much as he himself believes in what they were doing, the work that they were doing.

[00:36:40] Tamara: And he starts to see a lot of discrepancies and contradictions in Elijah Muhammad. He had been, but it really starts to bare fruit at that point. And so this is what really what’s starting the rift. And then what you also have is that the nation of Islam has also been infiltrated by the FBI and you have people who are going to [00:37:00] these meetings and J Edgar Hoover has put them as a organization to watch and as enemy of the state.

[00:37:06] Tamara: And he is interested in having a split between Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X. So what he’s, how does he do that? He has informants who pose as members and they’re continuing with these rumors and, strengthening these rumors. so you have all of these forces. it’s a few things, not simply that.

[00:37:26] Tamara: Elijah Muhammad’s had infidelities. we really spent a lot of time talking about that and building this up in the book. so Malcolm gives a speech here up here in Harlem and during the speech he is told not to say assassination of president Kennedy, John F.

[00:37:42] Tamara: Kennedy. He was assassinated in 1963 in November and Malcolm’s giving a speech and, and Elijah Muhammad is. telling him don’t speak, say anything about this the assassination. And, during the speech, Malcolm does not, but during a question and answer, a reporter asked him about it. And he says that he sees [00:38:00] this as a chickens coming home to roost, which is, he kind of sees it as karma, basically, of United States involvement in what they’re doing is, as being bad.

[00:38:09] Tamara: And, This is kind of the chickens coming home to roost. And so this is a blatant going against Elijah Muhammad’s orders. so there are repercussions for that. So he gets sat down by Elijah Muhammad, he is suspended. But, as I said, already talked about the rumors,

[00:38:26] Tamara: the, there’s this, and the environment now in the nation is being turned against Malcolm, and he’s considered enemy number one, and eventually, finally, to gain back control, I mean, Elijah Muhammad, he’s trying to remain in control, but how do you deal with, somebody who’s gone against him?

[00:38:43] Tamara: He has to make an example of him and he has turned his enemy number one. So he hands down a kill order basically, eventually. so he basically, he’s kicked out. He’s, expelled from the Nation of Islam and now Malcolm is without an organization and his life [00:39:00] is being threatened by an organization he helped to build.

[00:39:02] Tamara: and the kill order has been, and Malcolm knows this. He understands the Nation, how it works. He understands all the workings internally of it. And he knows that this is going on. But, now that he’s out, he also feels freer to go on with his ideas of how to deal with… racism in America.

[00:39:21] Tamara: And so one of the things he does is he’s speaking with a lot of people. He’s speaking with civil rights leaders. He’s speaking with people like Harry Belafonte, Otis Davis, Ruby Dee. He’s going to these different meetings. And one of these meetings in 1964, after he was expelled, he comes up with this idea of expanding the fight for civil rights.

[00:39:41] Tamara: to human rights. And in doing that, this gives him an international edge. And again, this is inclusive of his roots in Marcus Garvey, of going to Africa, but also going to the Middle East for his Hajj. He makes his Hajj, he commits to Sunni Islam, and also [00:40:00] at this time, he’s, realizing that what the Nation of Islam was teaching as Islam was not true Islam, and, he becomes exposed to that, and that’s why he’s, he’s pursuing this full throttle to join Sunni Islam to travel to Africa, to have an impact on discussions about how Black people and, and people.

[00:40:22] Tamara: in America and black people in Africa can, can link up. and what’s happening at this time is that you have different countries that are coming out from under colonial rule and setting up their own governments. And so he’s connecting up with this this is the direction he’s moving him.

[00:40:37] Tamara: And also he’s going to Africa to learn about what’s going on there. So. 

[00:40:40] Mariam: It’s fascinating. Published in October 1965, the autobiography of Malcolm X was written in collaboration with the journalist Alex Haley. The book outlines Malcolm’s spiritual conversion, philosophy of black pride, black nationalism, and pan-Africanism.

[00:40:59] Mariam: Could you [00:41:00] discuss this widely important and influential book and how it’s Posthumous publication shaped Malcolm X’s public reputation. 

[00:41:09] Tamara: I think the publication of the autobiography is really important. I mean, on the one hand, I think it’s important to understand originally the autobiography was not going to be an autobiography.

[00:41:18] Tamara: It was going to be probably more of what we call a memoir, which is about the teachings of Elijah Muhammad. But because he left the nation of Islam while doing this project and because he knew his time was running out too, but he also had a lot to say, so he was going to, he was going to…

[00:41:34] Tamara: Turn this into a teaching point about his life and what he what he saw is the fight for black people in America and linking up with black people all over the world and fighting for human rights. And so he really used this to lay this out. With the help of Alex Haley. and they’re, you know, and I’ll just leave it at that as far as what, that book was.

[00:41:54] Tamara: But I think in coming on by such an important book, the document in that he’s, he’s killed in February, 1965, [00:42:00] while trying to set up these different organizations and continue doing the work of exposing black Americans to Islam, but also linking up with the continent. and African Americans with the continent.

[00:42:13] Tamara: and how do you do that? And that’s where he, his work was left off. And also just dealing with the internalization of how black people internalize American racism against ourselves and our self-hatred and how we get in our own ways of being productive and effective people in this, in this country.

[00:42:29] Tamara: So, you know, it’s, so important. But what really is also important is that, people in Africa, as they’re coming out from under colonial rule, and they read this, I mean, they’re connecting with this. People in the Middle East are reading this. People in, in Europe who are dealing with racism and oppression in, in European countries, you know, they’re reading this and they’re seeing their fight, injustice that they’ve experienced and they see Malcolm talking about and they connect with that.

[00:42:52] Tamara: So this really solidifies Malcolm on an international level and just makes him even larger than one, more larger than he [00:43:00] was on when he was here. Right, right. 

[00:43:03] Mariam: Last question. Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam. Challenge to American liberal democracy with his message of racial separation and provocative calls for achieving equality by any means necessary.

[00:43:17] Mariam: As he said, including through violence remains hotly debated even today. Would you share your own thoughts on Malcolm X’s enduring legacy in the 21st century? 

[00:43:28] Tamara: When we look at what Malcolm was saying in 1965 Looking at voting. And we see it actually happening, right? We talk about how did Biden get into office?

[00:43:40] Tamara: He got into office with the black vote and was voting as a block. And he talked about that in 1965 with the ballot, the bullet. when he talked about the different wars that are going to be coming up throughout the world, especially after, these countries in Africa free themselves when he went to the Middle East, I mean, the thing, he talked about [00:44:00] these things that were happening and they came to fruition.

[00:44:02] Tamara: I mean, and it was just really amazing how he was able to predict all of that and understand. He had an enormous understanding of what was going on in the world then that A lot of people probably didn’t see at that point, but have just gone on to happen. And so that’s why you find people, his message is so clear and his analysis is so spot on that people still turning to him to understand How did he do that?

[00:44:29] Tamara: How did he explain this? But then how did he arrive at this at this thing? And we tried in our book to really show you who this person was in the context of the times and his family and the enormous work that went into bringing us such a mind. and to help us. So I think Malcolm is, is hugely important.

[00:44:47] Tamara: And I still think people are using him for their own personal gains and particularly the, by any means necessary. and as far as this thing again about violence Malcolm never said by any means necessary, do you [00:45:00] just pick a gun and start shooting people? He was talking about by any means necessary that you have the right to protect yourself, the right to protect your rights.

[00:45:09] Mariam: Fascinating discussion. Thank you so much. The book is monumental and it’s a riveting read. I recommend it to anyone interested in American history really. 

[00:45:20] Alicia: Thank you. Absolutely. We would love for you to read a paragraph from your book if you’re willing to do that. One of your 

[00:45:28] Tamara: favorites.

[00:45:29] Tamara: Okay. This comes from the chapter, The Anchor is Lost.

[00:45:33] Tamara: The Story of Little Black Samba published in 1899 by The British writer, Helen Bannerman, was a standard children’s reader at Pleasant Grove. The illustrations of the dark Indian child caused derisive snickering among whites, but the slur, along with unrestrained banding about of the term n*****, [00:46:00] repulsed the little children who were taught at home to disparage such put-downs of the Black race.

[00:46:28] Tamara: As the taunts escalated, it was their mother, Louise, who conditioned Malcolm and his siblings not to overreact to the racial slurs. We didn’t like to be called a n*****, Wilfred said, but we would try [00:47:00] to downplay it. My mother always told us that you can handle racial slurs in a way where you can make them continue or you can let them think they’re not hurting you.

[00:47:10] Tamara: She would give an example. If you’re throwing darts at a dartboard, there’s a satisfaction you get when you hit the target. When you miss it, you get another feeling. Well, she said, it’s the same way with white people. When they’re throwing darts at you by the things they say and do. But if they don’t hit the target, then they won’t get that satisfaction.

[00:47:32] Tamara: And eventually, they’ll quit. And usually, that’s the way it works. This psychological training for resistance to racial provocation was conditioned into the behavior of young Malcolm and his siblings. The behavior earned grudging respect among a growing number of whites in their, neighborhood despite, and in some cases, because of their adherence to Garveyism.

[00:47:55] Tamara: Our attitude made a difference in how they dealt with us. Compared to some of the [00:48:00] other Negroes, said Wilfred when white people found out that you don’t have that inferiority complex, they deal with you at that level. It makes a difference. A lot of our problems we bring on ourselves by our own inferiority feelings.

[00:48:14] Tamara: If you acted like you were inferior, that’s the way they related to you. If you didn’t act like you were inferior, then they would be forced to treat you as an equal. And this is the way we were. It was upon this rock that the social perspective of young Malcolm was built. And he would carry throughout his life his family-groomed sense of equanimity.

[00:48:35] Tamara: The Garveyite struggle of his parents formed the foundation for what, after years of evasive wandering, he would manage to fashion into his life’s work and ultimately his legacy. 

[00:48:47] Alicia: Thank you for sharing that. Tamra Payne Pulitzer Prize winner, biographer of Malcolm X. Thank you so much for joining us on the Learning Curve.

[00:48:55] Alicia: I think we’ve absolutely learned a lot and appreciate the perspective that you’ve [00:49:00] provided today. 

[00:49:01] Tamara: Thank you for having me.

[00:49:18] Alicia: So Miriam, this week’s Tweet of the Week comes from U. S. News Education. It says certificate programs prepare students for technical or skill-based jobs in everything from real estate to nursing to web development and more. A certificate can be earned by completing courses at a community college, technical school or private company.

[00:49:37] Alicia: And so it talks about what is a certificate program. Why is this exciting? Because we are finally figuring out that not every kid is going to college and it’s exposing students to so many opportunities in certificate programs and careers. And so kudos, right, that we are having these conversations and that we are exposing kids to all kinds of [00:50:00] opportunities.

[00:50:00] Alicia: Post-high school graduation. So next week’s guests, we’re going to have Professor Manisha Sinha. She’s from the University of Connecticut and she’s the author of the book, the slaves cause a history of abolition. Miriam, it was so great to have you on this week. Co-hosting with me. I hope you enjoyed your experience.

[00:50:19] Alicia:

[00:50:19] Mariam: loved it, Alicia. Thank you so much. 

[00:50:21] Alicia: Great. Well, I will look forward to being on with you again sometime in the future. How about that? 

[00:50:26] Tamara: Awesome.