The cover must have shocked more than one reader. The Saturday Evening Post had become known for its cover art, by Norman Rockwell and others, which showed an idealized America. But on September 12, 1964, the cover showed the face of Malcolm X — the radical leader who promoted black power and armed resistance to the status quo.
He had emerged as an important public figure during that year’s wave of angry politics. Just that summer, race riots had erupted in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Jersey City. And as a spokesman for black discontent Malcolm X was, according to the September issue’s accompanying editorial, partially to blame: “The militant hatred he [Malcolm X] preaches was behind some of the violence of the summer riots.”
The editorial expressed no high regard for Malcolm X or the Nation of Islam, which had shaped his militant philosophy. Malcolm X might justify his message of violent resistance because he grew up in a violent world, the editors wrote, but it was the same cruel, unjust world that produced non-violent civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“America may consider itself lucky,” the editorial continued, “that in a large poll which The New York Times took in Harlem — by coincidence, just before the riots — King had more than 12 times as many followers as Malcolm X. We say lucky, because this fact shows more patience, forbearance, and trust among Negroes than their past treatment has justified.”
But how long could patience endure before more Americans adopted Malcolm X’s attitude? “The persecuted, neglected, mistreated minority … are equally taxed in all respects, [but] still do not get equal representation, politically or otherwise,” the editorial added. “Taxation without representation is still tyranny, and until all Americans join in providing every citizen with the rights of citizenship, we shall be lucky if Malcolm X is not succeeded by even weirder and more virulent extremists.”
The editorial accompanied a shortened version of Malcolm X’s then unpublished autobiography. The excerpt, provocatively titled “I’m Talking to You, White Man,” gave an account of losing a father to violence and a mother to insanity, drifting into crime and drugs, finding faith in prison through the Nation of Islam and its leader Elijah Muhammad, and taking his spiritual journey even farther.
Readers might have been angered to read Malcolm X’s belief that a mad scientist created the white race. And they might have been irritated to read his response to President Kennedy’s assassination, which started his separation from his mentor Muhammad. Malcolm X had called the president’s murder a case of “the chickens coming home to roost.”
“I said that the hate in white men had not stopped with the killing of defenseless black people, but that, allowed to spread unchecked, it had struck this country’s Chief of State.”
His comment made headlines, of course. Nation of Islam director Muhammad thought the comment was harsh and likely to make life “hard on Muslims in general.” Malcolm agreed to refrain from making any comments for 90 days. But the incident caused a rift in the Nation of Islam community. Soon Malcolm X announced he would open his own mosque in New York City.
However, the excerpt also included another memorable comment, in its conclusion. After returning from a pilgrimage to Mecca, Malcolm X was asked what had most impressed him. He replied, “The brotherhood: The people of all races, colors, from all over the world coming together as one! It has proved to me the power of the One God.”
As a result of what he had seen in the Holy Land, he wrote, “I have turned my direction away from anything that’s racist.” But, in consequence of renouncing racism, “some of the followers of Elijah Muhammad would still consider it a first-rank honor to kill me.”
He had long anticipated a violent death for himself. Earlier in his memoirs, he wrote, “It has always stayed on my mind that I would die by violence. I have done all that I can to be prepared.” And on February 21, 1965, that death came for him. While giving a speech in New York, Malcolm X was gunned down by three members of the Nation of Islam.
At the time of his death, Doubleday & Co. had been preparing to publish the full-length version of his autobiography. His murder caused them to panic. Not knowing whether employees would be at risk after publishing the autobiography, the company pulled the book from production. Grove Press released it later that year. The book has remained in print for 50 years, with millions of copies sold.
Publishing the memoirs of Malcolm X was a bold move for the Post. It marked how far the Post had departed from its 1950s attitude and contents. But the editors believed the magazine should reflect American society. While they didn’t endorse his solution to the problem, they honored his perception and portrayal of it.
Had he lived, Malcolm X would have turned 90 this coming May — a not impossibly old age. We can only guess how he would have developed as a leader. Had he survived the shooting, though, a long life might have been unlikely for him. Even a leader as conciliatory as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t survive those turbulent years. Neither man lived to see his 40th birthday.