How the ‘White’ News Media Distorted Malcolm X and His Message

A Video Case Study

By Paul Lee, Director
Best Efforts, Inc.

Twelve years ago, I wrote the following essay on how most of the Western broadcast news media consciously, willfully and, in my view, maliciously used selective editing to make the brilliant, exceptionally sincere African American freedom fighter Malcolm X look like a monster, as he often put it.  

I used for my case study one the investigative programs produced by the widely respected British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).   (Other BBC programs were fairer to Malcolm X.)

Conscious Misrepresentation

I built my study around a half-dozen BBC clips of a late June 1964 New York organizational rally that Malcolm X held exactly one month after his return from his historic religious pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.

The date is important because the United Kingdom’s national broadcaster well knew that, by this time, Malcolm X had publicly repudiated the belief that its shameful editing suggested that he continued to espouse — namely, racism.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, the “Beeb” also deliberately perpetuated a popular fiction that, since around 1960, had helped news media purveyors gin up their print circulation and broadcast ratings:   that Malcolm X advocated indiscriminate violence against “white” people — simply becausethey were “white.”

Terminology

(As the son of a microbiologist father and a physician mother, it is impossible for me to swallow, and would be irresponsible for me to perpetuate, the dangerous, unscientific notion of “racial” differentiation in reference to the single human race.  

(This sadly enduring fiction is the root of, and justification for, the lethal economic, political and psychological reality of racism.   That’s why I qualify all “racial” terms by enclosing them within quotation marks.)

Stymied

I’d hoped to post my composite video of these clips and my analysis of it on YouTube.com.   However, to my great frustration, I couldn’t because that social media platform limits its descriptions to 5,000 characters.  

Moreover, its descriptions don’t allow for footnotes, which I considered essential because I wanted to fully document my assertions about this type of news media malfeasance, which non-“white” peoples are very familiar with.

Last week, I chanced upon my old essay on an external hard drive and thought that it was still worthwhile.   However, I was no more capable of sharing it now, in the form that I originally conceived it, than I was a dozen years ago.

New Opportunity

Enter Kristin Cleage, my spiritual big sister, who moderates this wonderful family history blog.  

When I asked her if she might consider posting the video and my essay, even though it wasn’t directly related to her family, she readily agreed.

(Perhaps she did so because her late father, Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman, formerly the Rev. Albert B. Cleage, Jr., founder of the Shrines of the Black Madonna of the Pan African Orthodox Christian Church [PAOCC], suffered precisely the same kind of news media demonization.)

I asked Kristin to post my essay as I’d written it in 2010.   However, since, in the intervening years, eight of the video links had expired, I needed to replace them.   I was blessed to do so with one exception — an old BBC Web page.  

I pray that what you’re about to read justifies Kristin’s great generosity. — PL.

Composite video of Malcolm X’s speech at a Muslim Mosque, Inc. (MMI) rally in the Rose Ballroom of the Audubon Ballroom, 3940 Broadway at 166th Street, Washington Heights, N. Y., on June 21, 1964.

Six video excerpts have recently been made available online, but they are out of their original sequence. 1   The writer did his best to restore their proper order, using a nearly complete audiotape of the speech as a guide. 2

Becoming His Own Man

After Malcolm X felt compelled to break with Elijah Muhammad’s religiously sectarian, “race”-centered Nation of Islam (NOI) on March 8, 1964, he formed the Muslim Mosque, Inc. (MMI), a black nationalist group, which had a version of the NOI’s Islam as its “religious base.” 3

Two months later, following Malcolm X’s historic hajj, or religious pilgrimage, to the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia, where he rejected the NOI’s racism and abandoned its belief in separate “black” states as the solution to the African American problem, he made a tour of several West African nations, most of them newly independent.   

While visiting Accra, Ghana, he and a group of “Afro-American” expatriates established a nonreligious, pan-Africanist group, which, after its New York branch was founded at the Audubon Ballroom on June 28, 1964, became known as the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU). 4

The OAAU sought to create a “united black front” of all civil-rights organizations 5 and unite “black” people in the Western hemisphere with “black” people in Africa and throughout the world.   

Upon Malcolm X’s return to the U. S., the MMI embraced traditional (Sunni) Islam.

Rose Ballroom

From March 15, 1964, until Feb. 21, 1965, when Malcolm X was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom by a six-man 6 “special squad” of NOI members from Newark and Paterson, N. J., 18 of the 21 public rallies of the MMI and the OAAU addressed by Malcolm X were held at the Audubon 7 — all but one in the large Grand Ballroom.    That exception was the rally held at the smaller, adjacent Rose Ballroom, on June 21, 1964, featured in the BBC video.

On the afternoon of Malcolm X’s final rally, two New York City patrolmen were secreted in this ballroom in case of trouble.   When the shots that killed Malcolm X rang out, they alerted a nearby police detail by walkie-talkie. 8

Twenty years later, the Rose Ballroom had a brief rebirth and become internationally famous, if unrecognized, when it was used as “The Magic Club” in pop singer Madonna’s first major movie, Desperately Seeking Susan (1985).  9

A clip of the redressed ballroom could be seen on YouTube.com here:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OWRqJA31H_E

How the ‘White’ News Media Distorted Malcolm X and His Message

The Rose Ballroom rally was filmed by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) for a program titled Enquiry:   The Angry Ghettos, which was broadcast at Britain on July 15, 1964. 10

However, how the BBC used what it filmed is illustrative of how the “white” news media, particularly in the U. S. and Britain, often distorted Malcolm X and his message through selective editing.

Malcolm X spoke for over an hour, but the BBC broadcast a little more than two minutes of his remarks — surely a small fraction of what it filmed.   When one compares the nearly complete audio recording with the BBC excerpts, two things emerge.

Firstly, it’s clear that the BBC excerpts were chosen for their shock value, highlighting Malcolm X’s criticisms of “whites” and his comments on violence.

Edited in this way, the excerpts suggest that, despite Malcolm X’s recent philosophical evolution — which made worldwide print and broadcast news, including at Britain — he was still the two-dimensional caricature advocating hatred of and violence against “whites” that the Western news media had portrayed him as when he was still the NOI’s national representative and New York minister.

Violence

For example, in the BBC excerpts, Malcolm X speaks of striking “blows” and “taking action — any kind of action,” and talks metaphorically of African Americans burning down the “house” if they were denied their “equal share.”

However, because this excerpt was ripped out of context, the viewer has no way of knowing that Malcolm X was speaking of striking blows and taking action against oppression, in whatever forms it might present itself, not of physically attacking “whites.”   He added that such blows should be “intelligently directed.”

To the extent that Malcolm X ever spoke of the latter, he was advocating self-defense — armed, if necessary — against violent “white” racists.   On those rare occasions when he suggested retaliatory violence, it was in instances where the governmental or police were “unwilling or unable” to respond to racist attacks on “black” life and property.

Also, during the question and answer period, which the BBC filmed portions of, Malcolm X did speak of violent threats, but, in this case, he was referring to the NOI’s threats against him. 11

Moreover, Malcolm X strongly condemned a new state “anti-Negro law,” 12 which he believed would give the New York City Police Department encouragement and sanction to inflict even more brutality upon African Americans than it was already doing.   But none of this appears in the BBC excerpts.  

Hatred

Similarly, in the BBC excerpts, Malcolm X speaks of “the man that kidnapped and brought us here, who made a slave out of us, who hung us on trees, who raped our mothers.”   Again, wrenched out of context, this comment seems like a racist attack on “whites.”

However, the BBC almost certainly filmed, but apparently chose not to use the remark that almost immediately followed this, which is one of the clearest statements of Malcolm X’s mature, Sunni Islamic philosophy — based on judging deeds, not “race”:

“So, one of the things that we don’t want to do is fall into that trap where they can call us racists.   I’m not a racist myself.   I don’t endorse or practice anything that anyone can classify as racism.   No. …   If someone treats us all right, we treat them all right.   But if they don’t treat us all right, we don’t treat them all right.  That’s not racism.” 13

Also in the BBC excerpts, Malcolm X declares, “anyone — anyone — who stands in the way of your and my freedom, our human dignity, is a cold-blooded, blue-eyed enemy.”  

This secular appropriation of the NOI’s famous theological characterization of “white” people as “blue-eyed devils” was not an expression of racism, but rather an attempt to galvanize African Americans against the “white” power structure.  

Saying ‘No’ to Mr. Charlie

Such comments also served as a cathartic release for the pent-up frustrations and anger of African Americans, which were often turned inward into self-destruction or outward into hurting one another.

Malcolm X hoped that, once this “abundance of energy, both negative and positive,” was released, it could “then be channel constructively,” as he told a reporter for The Village Voice newspaper the month before he was assassinated.

“‘The greatest mistake of the Movement,’” he continued in a now-classic exchange, “‘has been trying to organize a sleeping people around specific goals.   You have to wake people up first, then you’ll get action.’

“Wake them up to their exploitation?”

“‘No, to their humanity, to their own worth, and to their heritage.   The biggest difference between the parallel oppression of the Jew and the Negro is that the Jew never lost his pride in being a Jew.   He never ceased to be a man.   He knew that he had made a significant contribution to the world, and his sense of his own value gave him the courage to fight back.   It enabled him to act and think independently, unlike our people and our leaders.’”

“The hostility is good,” Malcolm X said at another point.   “It’s been bottled up too long.   When we stop always saying yes to Mr. Charlie and turning the hate against ourselves, we will begin to be free.” 14   (African Americans in urban centers used the term “Mr. Charlie” interchangeably with “The Man,” denoting powerful “whites” or the “white” power structure.)

Such a rhetorical approach was neither novel nor foreign.    Like leaders of social movements around the world — including at Britain — Malcolm X was willing and able to “use a negative attack to produce a positive goal.” 15

Angry Man

Secondly, Malcolm X’s speech was liberally sprinkled with his characteristic use of humor and examples his deep interest in and grasp of history and world affairs.  

Although viewers of the BBC excerpts would never know it, Malcolm X discussed the history of modern China and India, delivered an exceptionally sophisticated analysis of the civil-rights movement and its relationship to the administration of the martyred President John F. Kennedy and offered life wisdom, such as the following:

“We [African Americans] need brotherhood.   You can never have brotherhood without love; you can never have love without patience; and you can never have patience without understanding.” 16

Even if the BBC’s chief interest was in presenting Malcolm X as an example of the growing militancy among African Americans, it could have done so without flattening his persona into that of an angry man 17 — period.  

The BBC’s New York film crew and the program’s producers and director had footage demonstrating that Malcolm X was more than a convenient boogie-man, more than just a “militant” stick figure.  

In fact, he was no less charismatic, charming and compelling than, for example, Jack Kennedy.   Yet the Western news media always seemed to capture these qualities in Kennedy, no matter how short or angled its presentations of the “news” were.

But the BBC did more than cheat its viewers of a greater appreciation of other facets of Malcolm X.   By stripping the speech excerpts of their broader social context, which Malcolm X articulated in other parts of his talk that were filmed, the BBC also removed the reasons why he and millions of other African Americans were angry and becoming more militant, thus subordinating causes to effects.

Anticipation

But Malcolm X, who approved the BBC’s filming of the rally, seems to have anticipated the likely outcome.   During the question period, he announced that the following week’s rally would unveil a new organization (the OAAU) and asked the audience to help promote it, explaining his reason thusly:

“I might say [that] the reason we’re asking you to spread the word is we have found that whenever we send any kind of [news] release to the press, weekly or daily, concerning our — any upcoming meeting that we’re going to have, nothing is said.”   [Man in audience:   “That’s right.”]  

“However, the press will sneak in here and try and get a few words that we say so that they can blow it up and dis — distort it and blow it up.  They use it [access] that way.” 18

Missed Opportunity

Thus, the BBC had, and threw way, a rare opportunity to not only show the growing militancy of African Americans, but also to fairly portray one of the “militant” wing of the movement’s most mature and visionary leaders, one of the few who might have been capable of turning the anger of the “ghettos” toward “constructive” purposes.

Four days after the BBC program The Angry Ghettos aired, the Harlem tinderbox finally exploded, soon to be followed by other “black” communities in the first of a series of urban uprisings that would characterize that and the next four summers.  

By chance, Malcolm X was at Cairo, Egypt, where he had gone a week before to warn a summit conference of African heads of state of a coming “blood bath” in the U. S.   Before he had a chance to try to channel this “abundance of energy” in advance of the next summer, he was slain by an NOI hit squad in the Audubon’s Grand Ballroom.

2022 Postscript

When I wrote my case study 12 years ago, the only visual evidence of Malcolm X’s June 21, 1964, Muslim Mosque, Inc., rally that I knew of were the six BBC video clips.

The Bee Man

However, a few years ago, I was delighted to discover on Getty Images, the giant British-U.S. visual media company, seven still photographs that were shot for Time Life by the late Burt Shavitz. 

If his name sounds familiar, it’s because he later became a successful beekeeper and businessman, who created the popular Burt’s Bees line of personal care products.

For the now-defunct PIX, Inc., Shavitz had shot Malcolm X when he was still the Nation of Islam’s national representative and Harlem minister, addressing an outdoor rally in front of the Stephen Foster Homes at Lenox Avenue between 115th and 116th streets on July 13, 1963:

https://historical.ha.com/itm/books/prints-and-leaves/-malcolm-x-burt-shavitz-photographer-black-and-white-photographic-print-depicting-malcom-x-photo-by-burt-s-bees-founder/a/201533-92375.s

Shavitz would later memorialize Malcolm X’s Harlem funeral on Feb. 27, 1965 (Phyllis Austin, Queen Bee:   Roxanne Quimby, Burt’s Bees, and Her Quest for a New National Park [Thomaston, Maine.   Tilbury House, 2015]; sadly, no images of this are available online).

Posterity

Like the BBC, neither Time Life nor Getty Images had any idea where or precisely when Shavitz’s 1964 photos were taken, but, significantly, they showed Malcolm X displaying a range of emotions, including one of him laughing.

However, for some reason/s, Time Life last year stopped using Getty Images as a vendor for its vast offerings, so Shavitz’s photos of this rally are no longer available there.

Fortunately, “twixnmix,” a blogger on the tumblr.com microblogging and social networking site, posted and, in the process, preserved for posterity all of them, which you could see here: twixmix Malcolm photos.

Copyright © 2010 and 2022 by Paul Lee


  1. Thought Equity Motion, a video content provider, is marketing the BBC videos on its Web site.   Specifically, the six parts could be found here:
    Malcolm X speaks to audience about autonomy and retaliation during speech about Black Nationalism New York; 1964 (Core Number: LGF5323D)
    Malcolm X speaks to audience about Black Nationalism and rights in America New York; 1964 (Core Number: LGF5323D)
    Malcolm X highlights the need for Black people in America to organise themselves into action ‘by any means necessary’ during speech to audience New York; 1964 (Core Number: LGF5323D)
    Malcolm X speaks to audience about Black Nationalism New York; 1964 (Core Number: LGF5323D)
    Malcolm X speaks to audience about need for Black Nationalism in America New York; 1964 (Core Number: LGF5323D)[]
  2. The audiotape is in the archives of Best Efforts, Inc. (BEI), a professional research and consulting service specializing in the recovery, preservation and promotion of global “black” history and culture, which is directed by the writer.  The audiotape ends during the question period.   Since I could not match two of the video excerpts (parts 3 and 6) to the audiotape, I assumed that they occurred during the question period.    Therefore, along Part 2, which is silent, I attached them to the end of the composite video.[]
  3. Malcolm X news statement, delivered at the Park Sheraton Hotel, New York City, March 12, 1964, in George Breitman, ed., Malcolm X Speaks:   Selected Speeches and Statements (New York:   Grove-Evergreen Black Cat, 1965), p. 21.   The NOI-like “base” was intended to provide “the spiritual force necessary to rid our people of the vices that destroy the moral fiber of our community.”   Despite this, Malcolm X wanted the MMI “to provide for the active participation of all Negroes, despite their religious or non-religious beliefs” (Ibid.).   However, he soon discovered that its religious name alienated those who were not interested in Islam or religion.[]
  4. With only one exception, all of the biographers, writers and editors on Malcolm X have missed the fact that the OAAU was founded at Ghana, not New York, despite the fact that Malcolm X explicitly said so in his “Last Message” to Detroit a week before his assassination.   In discussing his meetings with “Afro-Americans” who were working in government or business at various West African nations, he said:    “…when I went through one country in particular [Nigeria], I heard a lot of their complaints [about supporting the African American struggle] and I didn’t make any move on them, but when I got to another country [Ghana], I found the Afro-Americans there were making the same complaints.   So we sat down and talked and we organized a branch, in this particular country, a branch of the OAAU, Organization of Afro-American Unity, and that one was the only one in existence at that time.”

    Malcolm X’s speech at Detroit’s riverfront Ford Auditorium on Feb. 14, 1965, was tape-recorded by Milton Henry, who posthumously released a lightly edited version of it as a long-playing record, The Last Message (Discos Hablando, undated), now available on several sites, including “Malcolm X:   A Research Site”:   http://www.brothermalcolm.net/aug04index.html.

    At least three separate transcripts, none of them complete or wholly faithful, are available in print or online, only the first of which was based on the unedited tape:   Breitman, pp. 157-77 at 159; Steve Clark, ed., February 1965:   The Final Speeches (New York:   Pathfinder, 1992), pp. 75-105 at 78; and Noaman Ali, ed., “After the Bombing/Speech at Ford Auditorium,” on Ali’s site, http://www.malcolm-x.org/speeches/spc_021465.htm [May 2010][Expired link replaced].   Ali’s transcript is mostly based on Clark’s.   It was Clark who noted, “The first branch of the OAAU was organized in Ghana…” (Clark, p. 276, n. 45).[]

  5. The most extensive treatment of these efforts, which were initiated by Malcolm X in earnest at a “secret summit,” as this writer’s calls it, at the home of Juanita Poitier, the estranged wife of famed actor Sidney Poitier, on June 15, 1964, are in an unpublished article and several unpublished email letter-essays by this writer:   Paul Lee, “More than a eulogy:   Ossie Davis and Malcolm X,” a memorial submitted to, but declined by, The Michigan Citizen (Detroit) on Feb. 7, 2005; Lee email letter to Queen Mother Osun Dara Nefertiti-El, “What REAL Atonement Looks Like,” Oct. 19, 2005, 11:04 PM; Lee email letter to Peter Goldman, cc’d to Taylor Branch and Silas Norman, “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. & Malcolm  X:   The Lost Opportunities,” April 12, 2006, 2:49 PM; and Lee email letter to Louis A. DeCaro, Jr., “Capt. John Brown and Ol’ John Killens,” May 6, 2009, 9:39 PM

    Background on Malcolm X’s more modest efforts to forge a “united black front” during his tenure in the NOI — which were limited by Elijah Muhammad’s conservatism — could be found in Lee email letter to Goldman, “A Hot September:   The Nucleus of Black Unity,” March 15, 2006, 5:28 PM.[]

  6. Malcolm X’s best biographer, former Newsweek writer and editor Peter Goldman, was the first published author to note that a sixth man was a part of the five-man team that actually assassinated Malcolm X.   He acted as a decoy to distract the attention of Malcolm X’s bodyguards.   The New York City Police Department identified him as a lieutenant of the New Jersey Fruit of Islam (FOI), the NOI’s all-male “class,” which served as the group’s security force (Peter Goldman, The Death and Life of Malcolm X, 2d ed. [Urbana:   U of Illinois P, 1974, 1979], pp. 270, 294, 316).   In fact, he was the minister of Muhammad’s Mosque No. 80, Plainfield, N. J. (Paul Lee email letter to Peter Goldman, “Setting Conspiracy Nonsense to Rest,” April 24, 2010, 1:54 AM.[]
  7. The three public rallies addressed by Malcolm X that were not held at the Audubon Ballroom were as follows: March 15, 1964 (Dawn Casino, Harlem); March 22, 1964 (Rockland Palace, Harlem); and, apparently, May 31, 1964 (Tuscan Ballroom, also known as Tuscan Hall). All of the organizational rallies addressed by Malcolm X were held on Sunday except one (Feb. 15, 1965; it was held on a Monday because Malcolm X had committed himself to address a Detroit meeting sponsored by his dear friend attorney Milton R. Henry). All of these rallies were held in the evening, usually at 8:00 p. m., except one (Feb. 21, 1965, scheduled for 2:00 p. m., it didn’t begin until shortly after 3:00 p. m., when Malcolm X was assassinated. A handful of OAAU rallies were held, also at the Audubon, during Malcolm X’s 18-week tour abroad from July-November 1964, but were only sparsely attended.[]
  8. Goldman, p. 269. The patrolmen were John Carroll and Gilbert Henry.[]
  9. Richard Alleman, New York:   The Movie Lover’s Guide:   The Ultimate Insider Tour of  Movie New York (New York:   Random House, 2005), p. 380.) []
  10. Cited in description of “Malcolm X launches the Organisation of Afro-American Unity 1964,” Clip 5248, on the BBC’s “Learning Zone”:   http://www.bbc.co.uk/learningzone/clips/malcolm-x-launches-the-organisation-of-afro-american-unity-1964/5248.html [May 2010]. [Link expired.][]
  11. Indeed, in light of the tension between himself and the NOI, which considered him an apostate and the “Chief Hypocrite” (a brand that, as he well understood, made his life expendable to the NOI faithful), Malcolm X titled the topic of the rally “Brotherhood and the Importance of It In the Harlem Area.”[]
  12. The act that Malcolm X referred to was the “Stop-and-Frisk” statute, which was signed into law in early March 1964 and became active on July 1, 1964.   It granted police the right to stop persons upon reasonable suspicion of felonious conduct (Richard H. Kuh, “Reflections on New York’s ‘Stop-and-Frisk’ Law and Its Claimed Unconstitutionality,” The Journal of Law, Criminality & Police Science 56 [1965], p. 32).   It was related to the “No-knock” or “Knock-Not” statute, a warrant that allowed police to enter a property without knocking or identifying themselves as police.   Both statutes, which quickly became infamous among African Americans, were part of the New York Code of Criminal Procedure.[]
  13. Audiotape of Malcolm X speech, “Brotherhood and the Importance of It In the Harlem Area,” Audubon Ballroom, New York, June 21, 1964, BEI Archives.[]
  14. Marlene Nadle, “Malcolm X:   The Complexity Of a Man in the Jungle,” The Village Voice (New York), Feb. 25, 1965, pp. 1, 6 and 19 at 6.   This article has been reprinted and excerpted in several collections, but all have taken some liberties in editing it, which is why I quoted from the original article.[]
  15. Ibid.   Nadle added:   “To a white ear the attacks will sound like the rantings of a racist.   “I care about all people,” Malcolm X told Nadle, “but especially about black people.    I’m a Muslim.   My religion teaches me brotherhood, but doesn’t make me a fool.”[]
  16. Malcolm X speech, “Brotherhood and the Importance of It In the Harlem Area,” Audubon Ballroom, New York, June 21, 1964, BEI Archives.[]
  17. This term harkens back to “God’s Angry Men,” a column that Malcolm X wrote in 1957-58 for three African-American newspapers:   The Los Angeles Herald-Dispatch, New York Amsterdam News and The Westchester Observer (Westchester County, N. Y.).[]
  18. Audiotape of Malcolm X speech, “Brotherhood and the Importance of It In the Harlem Area.” []

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