Auction of Malcolm X journals causes fury

Click to follow
The Independent US

In 1964, the radical black leader Malcolm X made two visits to Africa and the Middle East – trips that cemented a shift in his thinking away from racial separatism and towards black and white co-operation.

Three months after returning to the US, Malcolm X was assassinated – his blood spilling over the stage of New York's Audubon ballroom and his vision of inter-racial co-operation only partly articulated.

But now, four private journals that Malcolm X kept during the tumultuous final year of his life are set to be auctioned, along with more of his newly discovered writings, in a sale that has outraged his family and alarmed scholars. Experts believe these writings could change the way that history has judged one of the most influential black figures of the 20th century.

Professor Abdul Alkalimat, director of Africana Studies at Toledo University, Ohio, said: "It is shocking really. There is a principle involved."

The journals and writings form 21 lots being offered at auction in California and on the internet auction site eBay and which are expected to raise up to $500,000 (£350,000).

The sale – to take place on 20 March – has been arranged by the auction house Butterfields after it was approached by a private individual who had previously bought the papers at a self-storage centre sale. Such facilities frequently sell off the contents of storage space if the owners fail to pay their rent.

Scholars fear that the previously unknown papers, documents and personal artifacts – including Malcolm X's personal copy of the Koran – will be broken up. At the very least they believe that their contents should be copied and made available to colleges and universities, even if the original documents are sold.

David Garrow, an historian of the civil rights movement at Emory University, told The New York Times: "The quantity of this is simply mind-boggling. There are so few truly personal Malcolm documents in public archives that this apparent collection swamps the total corpus of all other materials several times over."

Malcolm X came to prominence in the late Fifties and early Sixties as a vocal and articulate member of the Nation of Islam, founded by Elijah Mohammed. The group's teachings sought racial separatism and urged a creed of personal dignity for black Muslims.

In one speech at Yale University, Malcolm X declared: "Uncle Sam is sick, because he has a black lump growing in his white body that doesn't belong there. God has ordained that surgery be performed, for if the 20-million rapidly increasing so-called negroes are not separated from the white parts of his body, it will soon cause the death and destruction of Uncle Sam."

But scholars say that in what was to be the final year of his life, Malcolm X underwent a revision in much of his thinking – breaking with Elijah Mohammed and the Nation of Islam, renouncing racialism and launching his own organisation, the Organisation of Afro-American Unity, to promote political justice for black people of all religions.

It was in this period that he travelled to Africa and the Middle East, visiting Mecca in Saudi Arabia, and meeting leaders in Kenya, Egypt, Nigeria, Senegal and Ghana.

It is the journals of these visits and his meetings with black leaders in these emerging nations which particularly interest scholars.

Professor Alkalimat, who opposes the sale after his sister discovered the lots while surfing the internet, said: "They represent the confidential exchanges between a very controversial and outspoken figure and black intellectual radical and heads of state, and give an insight into relationships between African Americans and Africa.

"Here we have a man who is known to be in transition in his thinking. Here we have documents that would help track that thinking ... talking about something in racial terms to more political.

"[These] are likely to force the rewriting of all the books. At least on the whole question of what happened during the last year of his life."

Professor Alkalimat and many other scholars would like Butterfields to make the material available before the sale, believing that Malcolm X's thoughts and writings are more important that the physical documents themselves. Others – including members of Malcolm X's family – want the sale stopped all together. Joseph Fleming, a lawyer representing several of Malcolm X's six daughters as well as the estate of his late widow, Betty Shabazz, is seeking a legal injunction to prevent the sale from taking place. He said that the family members were "appalled to see their father's legacy up for auction".

A spokesman for Butterfields said that it had no intention to make the material available prior to the sale. It claimed, however, that the buyer would most likely make such material available after the sale.

Catherine Williamson, director of the auction house's fine books and manuscripts division, said there was a plan to offer all the material for sale in one lot. If that lot was not sold, the planned sale of the 21 lots would then proceed.

She said: "Every major institution in the country was founded on a collection put together by a private collector and every responsible collector makes their material available to scholars."

Comments