Stories from Hartford's Grassroots
On a warm summer day in 1955, fifteen domestic workers– maids, cooks and chauffeurs– packed into a small apartment in a Hartford public housing project. It was a Thursday, the one day of the week they were granted off by their employers.
They came to hear a trim young man, thirty years old, dressed in a coat and tie. He was Malcolm X, formerly Malcolm Little, a small-time criminal who remade himself into a minister for the Nation of Islam (NOI). Malcolm had just established a house of worship in Springfield Massachusetts. He was about to do the same in Atlanta, Georgia.
But he stopped in Hartford because a woman who had traveled to hear Malcolm speak in Springfield was so impressed that she invited him to speak in her city. This he did, talking to working class members of the Black community who made up the majority of the NOI around the country.
The Hartford group soon grew to forty people, and by 1956, Malcolm X had founded Temple No. 14 in the city’s north end at 2118 Main Street. He spoke to new recruits about the religious tenets of the NOI, but his topics also extended to the international stage and the organic links between Black populations everywhere: “The Black man is rising up all over the world and now countries are starting to think before starting a war,” he told the mosque crowd.
Many of these uprisings had been taking place in Africa: Ethiopia, Kenya, Algeria. Malcolm wove the stories of Black struggles against white racism at home with the fight against white colonialism abroad.
He returned to Hartford at least twice in January, 1957. By this time, the FBI and its local office in New Haven was tracking and recording his every move. The bureau files that have been publicly released provide the most accurate record of Malcolm’s itinerary.
Temple No. 14 was so active that on April 28, 1957, Nation of Islam members from Hartford were asked to join Malcolm in Harlem. He organized a show of force in response to the beating of a local Muslim who had witnessed police attacking another man on the street. When the witness tried to stop it, he too was severely beaten by the cops and hospitalized. Militant protests against police brutality were rare; this one elevated Malcolm as a national figure.
On November 16, 1958, the first child of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz was born in New York. Three days later he was on the road again to Hartford. An informant spied on the meeting for the FBI. “There was no talk of violence,” according to the report. In fact, when Malcolm read to the crowd about the treatment of Blacks during slavery, the informant reported that it “made his own blood boil.”
Temple 14 moved to 1097 Main Street, where Malcolm spoke in August, 1959: “We do not advocate violence but we do not turn the other cheek either,” he told his listeners. “When you kill a snake, that is not hate. You are merely protecting yourself.” The next month he narrated a home movie about his first trip to Africa for the Hartford temple members.
All during this period Malcolm was tailed by police and federal agents: Detroit, New Jersey, Florida. Malcolm spoke and the FBI followed him: Chicago, Boston, Cleveland. He knew he was being watched. In answer to a question about the Vietnam draft, Malcolm replied that he wouldn’t tell anyone to become a conscientious objector because he knew the government was listening. He would, however, personally refuse to be drafted, Malcolm declared.
In June 1961 Malcolm was back in Hartford for a week, conducting local press interviews and drumming up support for an upcoming NOI Freedom Rally in Washington D.C. “If Pharoah had listened to Moses when he said ‘Let My People Go,’ he could have saved himself and his people,” Minister Malcolm told the news media. “We believe Uncle Sam is in the same position today.”
Although Malcolm X spent a lot of time in Hartford, he also accepted invitations to speak at Connecticut college campuses. He addressed Wesleyan University in February, 1962. An informant reported “there was no disorder whatsoever and he was well-received by the students.” He was also invited to speak at the University of Bridgeport.
The Nation of Islam’s mission was to create a separate, Black-controlled community within the United States. Malcolm expounded on this theme at Wesleyan: “The masses of negroes do not want to integrate. We are just as opposed to segregation as the most staunch integrationist. Muslims are proposing separation, not segregation… For the Muslim the solution is for the Negro to stand up for himself, to stop trying to get whites to give him things, and to build what he wants for himself.”
On July 23, 1962 he visited the Hartford mosque at its new location at 38 Albany Avenue, above a luncheonette. Once again he challenged the civil rights movement’s campaign for an integrated society: “Integration is just another form of hypocrisy. Negroes make chumps of themselves calling themselves Americans…the Black man in this country doesn’t have a nationality. It sounds good in principle but it doesn’t work in practice. You can’t say that’s my house when you haven’t even been let in yet. Our aim is not violence but freedom, justice, and equality for the Black man in America…neither segregation nor integration can provide this.”
Listening to Malcolm X was often a transforming moment for African Americans, and sometimes for whites as well. It was on June 5, 1963 that Malcolm spoke to his largest Hartford crowd, 800 people at the Bushnell Memorial Hall. The event was sponsored by the University of Hartford. According to African American writer J.K. Obatala, the speech was the moment when he was inspired to travel to Ghana, his ancestral homeland. “It takes a trip to Africa to realize how American we are,” Obatala wrote.
Journalist Les Payne, whose family had moved from Alabama to Hartford, was a UConn student at the time. At the Bushnell, Malcolm excoriated the state’s de facto segregation in housing and education. The UConn class of 1960 had graduated only three Black students. When Payne was at UConn, there were ten thousand students, but only sixty of them were Black. He relates the Bushnell speech in an essay entitled “The Night I Stopped Being a Negro.”
For this trip Malcolm stayed at the home of Thomas J. X, leader of the Hartford mosque. Newspaper reporter Don Noel spoke to Malcolm by phone at the local minister’s home. Noel, who is white, later wrote that he preferred Dr. Martin Luther King’s approach to end racism, “but social change is often made meaningful because firebrands insist that problems not be swept under a rug of good feelings.” Noel’s liberal view contrasted with a newspaper’s obituary for Malcolm in 1965, which called him “the prophet of race war and violence.”
Only four months later, on October 29th, Malcolm X spoke to 700 at the University of Hartford. The speech was moved outside to accommodate the overflow crowd. It was a chilly autumn afternoon, which inspired Malcolm to quip “maybe what I say will make you hot.” In contrast, a representative of Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) gave a talk that same day which attracted only thirty people.
In 1963 the freedom struggle was burning hot; racist forces in the South were carrying on a terror campaign of intimidation and violence. In June, Mississippi civil rights organizer Medgar Evers had been murdered in his front yard. (Meredith’s killer was not prosecuted and convicted until 1994.) Hartford reporters, however, seemed more interested in Malcolm’s disagreements with other national Black leaders. Malcolm warned of “racial bloodshed” that was coming to America.
He was assassinated in Harlem on February 21, 1965, three months before his 40th birthday. Thousands of pages of FBI files on Malcolm are still classified, so we may never know the entire extent of the forces that conspired to murder him.
Most of white America did not know what to make of Malcolm X, except to fear him. During his short life, he did his best to tell the truth despite the consequences. He challenged the racist political, economic, and cultural institutions of the United States.
Maybe that’s why the white community in the 1950s and 1960s was so terrified of this convict-turned-leader. Like Nat Turner before him, and the Black Panthers after his death, Malcolm defied all the stereotypes of how oppressed people should behave in the quest for their own liberation.