Why you should care

Because words and deeds can live on in curious and beautiful ways. 

Between iPhone videos and live tweeting, it’s hard to imagine almost any happening going unrecorded — let alone a speech by a prominent American leader.

Which is perhaps why a group of Barnard professors thought they’d easily locate the text of Malcolm X’s last public speech, delivered at their college this week 50 years ago. They dispatched students to scour the archives. They interviewed alumnae, now in their 60s and 70s, who’d attended. Eight departments planned for a big commemoration of the event this past Wednesday, by which time, the scholars hoped, they’d have the full speech in hand. “But that didn’t prove to be the case,” says Jennie Kassanoff, an English professor.

What they found instead were fragments of text and video — ABC had raw footage from an interview with Malcolm X just before his speech — and fragments of memories too. The speech, entitled “The Black Revolution and Its Effect Upon the Negro of the Western Hemisphere,” connected the struggle for civil rights with a worldwide struggle against oppression. “We are today seeing a global rebellion of the oppressed against the oppressor, the exploited against the exploiter,” Malcolm said, according to reports in the Columbia Daily Spectator and the Barnard Bulletin, the two student newspapers. “No matter where the black man is, he will never be respected until Africa is a world power.”

Worth noting: Malcolm spoke that night to an almost wholly white audience. Barnard had only 16 black students back then, thanks to a quota that dictated four students be admitted each year. Some 1,500 people had gathered for the Barnard speech, filling LeFrak Gymnasium to capacity, with students and even professors sitting on the floor. Armed police officers watched from the running track above the gym.

Malcolm X’s home in Queens had been firebombed days before, and his wife and four kids were in hiding. He’d been receiving death threats from former allies angry over his decision to break from the Nation of Islam. He appeared relaxed when he stepped out of his limousine — the ABC footage shows him laughing and smiling — but during his speech, he said he’d “rather be dead than have somebody deprive me of my rights.” Three days later, on Feb. 21, he was assassinated in Harlem.

Malcolm X galvanized a giant auditorium of mostly white students that night.

Jane Relin was the 19-year-old sophomore who’d invited Malcolm X to speak. She was a white chemistry major from Rochester, New York, who was not, as she tells it, all that politicized. Race relations, she said this week, “seemed to be the biggest issue of the day, and an issue I didn’t know enough about.” She had spent a few days during her sophomore year at Talladega College, in Alabama, as part of a north-south exchange program, and, upon her return, wrote Malcolm X’s secretary asking if he would speak at her college. She didn’t really expect he’d take her up on it.

Barnard’s board of trustees was not pleased. They reprimanded Relin and the other organizers for bringing such a divisive figure to campus without prior approval, according to Relin. She remembers telling the board that “to have a good liberal arts education, we ought to learn about other people’s points of view,” she says. “They bought it.”

Although Congress had passed a battery of civil rights legislation the year before, the movement was in many ways just beginning in 1965, according to Relin. Students in the north were just waking up. And there’s little doubt that Malcolm X galvanized a giant auditorium of mostly white students that night. “He was mesmerizing,” recalls Ellen Wolkin Friedman, another Barnard student who helped plan the speech. “I sort of expected that he would be confrontational … but he wasn’t.”

We can’t go back to the text to know for sure, of course, but the professors haven’t given up. They plan to keep searching for Malcolm X’s last speech and to continue compiling former students’ memories of it. Fifty years after his assassination, some version of his message remains — at least for Relin, Friedman and the 300 others, black and white both, who gathered this week to commemorate it.

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