The recording was forgotten, and so, too, was the odd twist of history that brought together Malcolm X and a bespectacled Brown University student fated to become one of the US’ top diplomats.
The audiotape of Malcolm X’s 1961 address in Providence, Rhode Island, might never have surfaced at all if 22-year-old Brown University student Malcolm Burnley hadn’t stumbled across a reference to it in an old student newspaper. He found the recording of the little-remembered visit gathering dust in the university archives.
“No one had listened to this in 50 years,” Burnley said. “There aren’t many recordings of him before 1962, and this is a unique speech — it’s not like others he had given before.”
In the May 11, 1961, speech delivered to a mostly white audience of students and some residents, Malcolm X combines blistering humor and reason to argue that blacks should not look to integrate into white society, but instead must forge their own identities and culture.
At the time, Malcolm X, 35, was a loyal supporter of the Nation of Islam, a black separatist movement. He would be assassinated four years later after leaving the group and crafting his own more global, spiritual ideology.
The legacy of slavery and racism, he told the crowd of 800, “has made the 20 million black people in this country a dead people. Dead economically, dead mentally, dead spiritually. Dead morally and otherwise. Integration will not bring a man back from the grave.”
The rediscovery of the speech could be the whole story, but -Burnley found the young students in the crowd that night proved to be just as fascinating.
Malcolm X was prompted to come to Brown by an article about the growing Black Muslim movement published in the Brown Daily Herald. The article by Katharine Pierce, a young student at Pembroke College, then the women’s college at Brown, was first written for a religious studies class. It caught the eye of the student paper’s editor, Richard Holbrooke.
Holbrooke would become a leading US diplomat, serving as US ambassador to Germany soon after that nation’s reunification, ambassador to the UN and US President Barack Obama’s special adviser on Pakistan and Afghanistan before his death in 2010 at age 69.
However, in 1961, Holbrooke was 20, and eager to use the student newspaper to examine race relations — an unusual interest on an elite Ivy League campus with only a handful of black students.
Pierce’s article ran in the newspaper’s magazine and made her the first woman whose name was featured on the newspaper’s masthead.
Somehow, the article made its way to Malcolm X. His staff and Holbrooke worked out details of the visit weeks in advance. Campus officials were wary: Malcolm X had been banned from the University of California-Berkeley and Queens College in New York City.
Tickets — US$0.50 — for the Brown speech sold quickly. About 800 people filled the venue, the 19th-century, Romanesque Sayles Hall, meant to hold about 500.
Pierce introduced Malcolm X and recalls him vividly.
“He came surrounded by a security detail,” she said. “You got the sense — this is an important person. He was handsome, absolutely charismatic. I was just bewildered that my class paper could have led to something like this.”
In his speech, Malcolm X outlined Black Muslims’ beliefs and argued that black Americans could not wait for white Americans to offer them equality.