Stories from Hartford's Grassroots
On the fall afternoon in 1963 when Malcolm X spoke at the University of Hartford, Trinity College student Ralph Allen was spending his 84th day in a Southern jail.
Malcolm had been to Hartford a dozen times before. He had founded Temple Number Fourteen on Main Street for the Nation of Islam, spoken at the Bushnell, given press interviews. This time, on October 29th, he was scheduled to speak at the U of H auditorium. The crowd was three times larger than the hosts expected, however, so the minister spoke to those assembled outside in the chilly autumn air. “Maybe some of what I say will make you hot,” he told his listeners.
Meanwhile, Ralph Allen was in the Americus, Georgia jail along with three other workers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). They had been registering Black voters that summer. On the evening of August 8, after a meeting at a local church, the spirit of the movement swept up several hundred young people who staged a brief march through their neighborhood. The police broke up the event, but not before injuring twenty-eight protestors. Seventy-seven were arrested. The SNCC organizers, including Allen, were charged with “incitement to insurrection.” The sedition charge did not allow for bail. And it called for the death penalty.
Most of white America did not know what to make of Malcolm X, except to fear him. The FBI had been spying on Malcolm for ten years by the time he spoke at the University of Hartford. Local reporters seemed more interested in his disagreements with other Black activists than his view of the world (which would continue to evolve after his trip to Islamic countries). Reporters were intrigued when Malcolm hinted at the Nation of Islam’s structure in New York that could produce a thousand supporters in the period of an hour. “In all oppressed societies they have a grapevine better than the recent scientific inventions,” he told the press.
Racial tensions were growing throughout the country. Medgar Evers had been murdered just months earlier. Activists like Malcolm, Medgar, and Fannie Lou Hamer made white society confront racism at every level, but they were paying a high price for the confrontation. In Hartford, Malcolm warned of the “racial bloodshed” that was coming to America.
Local activists took up the banner. “This year, Connecticut has to bow its head in shame,” a young Thirman Milner wrote, “along with Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia. A state so proud of its long history of civil rights, social justice and personal respect is marred by a cross burning on its lawn; a citizen and member of the clergy refused the use of a lake and facilities in an area where he owns property … de facto segregation in its schools and churches and discrimination in employment and housing. This is not a rundown of the South. This is Connecticut 1963.”
Support for Ralph Allen grew. Trinity College students and faculty held a protest vigil on his behalf. Voters demanded that the local Congressman get the Federal government involved. President John Kennedy, and his brother Attorney General Robert Kennedy, were doing nothing for Allen or the scores of other civil rights workers, black and white, who had been attacked by police dogs, arrested, beaten, and shot throughout 1963. The politicians denied that the issue was within federal jurisdiction. Robert Kennedy’s Justice Department did exonerate the police of brutality charges against the young Americus protestors, however. A Hartford newspaper speculated that the Kennedys were trying not to alienate Southern voters.
In a less than two months after his Hartford speech, Malcolm would be suspended by Elijah Muhammad. Soon after he would leave the Nation of Islam. By 1965 he would be dead, the victim of an assassin’s bullet.
Ralph Allen and his comrades won a federal court order in November releasing them on the grounds that the “insurrection” charges were an abuse of police power and a violation of the 1957 Civil Rights Act. Allen died in 2005. Almost twenty years later, Thirman L. Milner became the first Black mayor elected in a New England city.