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Rethinking Malcolm X

ATLANTA — Early writings by Malcolm X went on public display for the first time at Emory University here last month, offering a new glimpse of the fiery orator who advocated Black nationalism and raised government suspicion. 
The papers, which could alter Americans’ perceptions of Malcolm X, are the only known collection of his personal letters and notes, says James H. Cone of Union Theological Seminary, who has written about him and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“They are quite unique,” Cone said of the papers in a telephone interview from his office in New York. The only other known personal letters written by Malcolm X are contained in FBI files.
The Emory collection — mostly letters and school notebooks written from 1938 to 1955, when Malcolm X was a teenager and young adult — is on long-term loan to Emory from Atlanta antiques dealer Jimmy Allen and his friend, John Littlefield.
Allen and Littlefield recently bought the papers from a collector in Boston, who acquired them in 1979 from Malcolm X’s half-sister, Ella Collins. They portray him as a typical teen who jitterbugged, admired pretty girls and hoped to someday be a lawyer.
“Just to see Malcolm’s actual handwriting set off trembles,” says Leroy Davis, a professor of African American studies at Emory. “I had looked at him one way growing up and looked at him another way as a scholar. But either one of those ways was not like seeing actual material that Malcolm had written himself.”
Though not a large collection, historians contend that the letters and notes could change the accepted view of Malcolm X’s early years. In his public speeches and in his autobiography, the civil rights leader described himself as a small-time hood who could barely read before he was converted to the Nation of Islam in prison.
But the early papers paint a much different picture. They show the 13- to 15-year-old Malcolm to be an articulate student who rarely misspelled words and usually used correct grammar. In one assignment, he wrote that he wanted to be a lawyer, a district attorney or a politician.
“What’s so impressive, even when you know the basic sketch of his life, is what a remarkably poetic, expressive writing ability Malcolm has as a teenager,” says David Garrow, an Emory historian and author of a Pulitzer-prize-winning book about King.
Davis was most impressed by a pocket notebook the young Malcolm turned into a “makeshift yearbook” during his eighth-grade year at Mason High School in Michigan. It lists every student in his class with addresses, phone numbers, likes and dislikes.
“It shows he is very systematic and very disciplined with tasks he enjoyed doing even at an early age,” Davis says. “But Malcolm also writes down typical kinds of teenage things. In many ways, they are so ordinary for such an extraordinary person.”
Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Neb., in 1925. He spent a few years in a foster home in the Lansing, Mich., area after his father was murdered and his mother was put in a mental institution. After moving to Boston at age 16, he got mixed up in small-time street crime. He was sent to prison for burglary in 1946 at age 21.
During his six-year prison term, he became a disciple of Elijah Muhammad, head of the Nation of Islam. After getting out of prison in 1952, Malcolm adopted “X” as his last name because he considered Little a slave name.
In the early 1960s he advocated Black nationalism. Government agents, suspicious of his motives and provocative views at a time when the nation still was reluctant to grant African Americans even some basic civil rights, often shadowed his every move.
As the leading spokesman for the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X called for a rigid separation of Whites and Blacks. But in 1964, he made a pilgrimage to Mecca, broke with the Nation of Islam and declared himself an orthodox Muslim. He was shot and killed a year later in New York City.
In addition to the papers from his teenage years, the Emory collection includes letters Malcolm X wrote in prison before and after his conversion to Islam.
The prison letters also prove his interest in education before his religious conversion. In a 1946 letter to Collins, he reports that he is writing a book and asks her to get him transferred to another prison because “they have a fine library down there and one can learn so many more different things.”
“The notion that Malcolm needed the Nation of Islam to make something of himself is clearly overdrawn,” Garrow says.
The letters also contain some information that may not be accurate.
In one prison letter, Malcolm X wrote that Jamaican American Black nationalist Marcus Garvey once lived with his family. Davis says there is no evidence that was the case.      

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