Malcolm X's Unlikely Washington Connections

Malcolm X traveled widely in the early 1960s, but Washington was the site of two seemingly unlikely connections for him. (Photo source: Library of Congress.)
Malcolm X traveled widely in the early 1960s, but Washington was the site of two seemingly unlikely connections for him. (Photo source: Library of Congress.)

In the early 1960s, Malcolm X traveled widely preaching black separatism on behalf of the Nation of Islam and – after splitting from the group in 1964 – promoting a more moderate vision for American race relations. So, it's no surprise that he came to the nation's capital on a number of occasions.

In fact, D.C. was the site of the only known in-person meeting between Malcolm and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which was significant considering the two leaders' very public differences on approaches to the civil rights movement. Malcolm once called King "Rev. Dr. Chicken-wing" in a not-so-subtle critique of non-violent civil disobedience.

But when both were in town on March 26, 1964 during the Congressional debate over the proposed Civil Rights Act they staged a made-for-the-cameras meeting in the U.S. Capitol. As Garrett Febler, who worked with Manning Marable on his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Malcolm, told The Washington Post: “Malcolm was pushed out awkwardly by an associate from behind a pillar. Standing in front of King, whom he had described as an ‘Uncle Tom,’ Malcolm shook hands with King before the press.”

But, as strange as the photo-op with King seemed at the time, Malcolm made headlines with an even more unlikely connection in Washington a few years earlier.

On June 25, 1961, the Nation of Islam held a rally for Black Muslims at Washington's Uline Arena.[1] The headline speaker was supposed to be Elijah Muhummad but a bout with bronchitis kept him away. So, the NOI went to plan B. “Taking as his theme Muhammad's pre-announced speech, 'Separation or Death,' Malcolm X, a tall, lean, dynamic speaker, hit hard at the 'so-called Negro' in America who has been 'brainwashed' into a desire for integration.”

From the podium, Malcolm preached, “We are not for integration. We are not for segregation. But what?” The crowd shouted, “Separation!”[2]

Malcolm continued, “America is the last bulwark of white supremacy. Forced integration will not work. We are fed up with segregation. What we want now is immediate separation... The white man is captain of his own ship. All we want to do is get out of your ship and into our own. If we stay here any longer we're liable to capsize your boat.”[3]

The message resonated with the spectators, most of whom had traveled to Washington from other parts of the country. Despite the near capacity crowd, the appeal of the event was somewhat muted in the local community, as the Washington Afro-American observed: “The rally apparently made no impact on Washington's colored population since at least half of the audience ere [sic] followers of the Muslim movement.”[4]

George Lincoln Rockwell, shown here in 1951, founded the American Nazi Party in Arlington, Virginia and forged an odd alliance with Black Muslims in the early 1960s. (Photo source: Wikipedia)
George Lincoln Rockwell, shown here in 1951, founded the American Nazi Party in Arlington, Virginia and forged an odd alliance with Black Muslims in the early 1960s. (Photo source: Wikipedia)

There was, however, one prominent – if also surprising – attendee from the local community. George Lincoln Rockwell, whose American Nazi Party operated out of a home in Arlington, made the short trip to the rally with about 20 of his storm troopers.

Most might assume that Nazis showing up at a rally for 8,000 blacks would do so with the intent to protest or demonstrate... or worse. But when the group arrived at Uline, they were escorted to prime seats close to the stage. (See photo on RareHistoricalPhotos.com)

As Malcolm X addressed the crowd, Rockwell applauded enthusiastically. When the black leader called for the crowd to fill collection buckets “for separation,” Rockwell pulled out his wallet.

From the stage, Malcolm announced gifts as they came in, “$20 from who? George Lincoln Rockwell! Good to have it!”

The crowd erupted in applause. Malcolm joked, “We got $20 from George Lincoln Rockwell and you got the biggest hand you ever got didn't you, Mr. Rockwell?” More applause. Check out the video of the exchange below.

Not surprisingly, the assembled press wondered about Rockwell's motivations. The Nazi leader told them that he considered Muslims to be “black Nazis” and that he thought that with a separate society for Black Muslims “Muhammad has the answer for my people”.[5] (It probably goes without saying that by “his people,” he meant whites.) Rockwell's only qualm was the location for the proposed black separatist society: ‘‘They want a chunk of America and I prefer that they go to Africa.”[6]

Rockwell's involvement with the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X was not limited to the Uline rally. He and the ANP attended a number of other NOI events in 1961 and 1962 and even addressed the crowd on occasion. As he recounted in his Rockwell Report newsletter, “On February 25, 1962, I stood up in full Nazi uniform before 12,500 Black Muslims and gave an all-out speech calling for the geographical separation o f the races, with America's 'foreign aid' going to our own Negro people rather than to Red and 'neutralist' nations which hate us, shoot up and imprison our citizens and spit in our faces. Again and again my speech was interrupted by applause and cheers from these thousands of Black men and women.”[7]

For his part, Malcolm X grew increasingly uncomfortable with the NOI's relationship with the Nazis. After breaking with Elijah Muhummad and making a pilgrimage to Mecca, Malcolm began to consider new avenues toward black advancement in America. On February 16, 1965, he announced he had “shifted my attack to Rockwell and the Klan,” because he had seen the NOI make agreements with white supremacists, which were not in the best interests of blacks in America.[8] Five days later, he was assassinated by Nation of Islam gunmen at Harlem's Audubon Ballroom.

Footnotes

  1. ^ Stone, Chuck, "'8,000 turn out to hear Muslims, " Washington Afro American, 27 Jun 1961: 1,8.
  2. ^ Johnson, Haynes, “Prophet Stays Home: U.S. Muslims Rally for Eijah [sic],” The Evening Star, 26 Jun 1961: A-1, A-6.
  3. ^ Johnson, Haynes, “Prophet Stays Home: U.S. Muslims Rally for Eijah [sic],” The Evening Star, 26 Jun 1961: A-1, A-6.
  4. ^ Johnson, Haynes, “Prophet Stays Home: U.S. Muslims Rally for Eijah [sic],” The Evening Star, 26 Jun 1961: A-1, A-6.
  5. ^ Stone, Chuck, "'8,000 turn out to hear Muslims, " Washington Afro American, 27 Jun 1961: 1,8.
  6. ^ "George Lincoln Rockwell and members of the American Nazi Party attend a Nation of Islam summit, 1961" Rare Historical Photos website. Posted 5 Dec 2013. Accessed 21 Feb 2015.
  7. ^ Malcolmology 101, #14: The NOI and George Lincoln Rockwell,” A Life of Reinvention: Malcolm X website. Posted 7 Mar 2011. Accessed 21 Feb 2015.
  8. ^ “Malcolm Accuses Muslims of Blaze; They Point to Him,” New York Times, 16 Feb 1965: 18.