Malcolm X in Brooklyn

This post is part of our online forum,” Remembering Malcolm,” edited by Garrett Felber.

Malcolm X Mural near 256 Malcolm X Boulevard, Brooklyn, NY. Photo: Zaheer Ali.

In his eloquent and moving eulogy for Malcolm X, Ossie Davis declared Malcolm one of Harlem’s “brightest hopes.” “Harlem is where he worked and where he struggled and fought,” Davis explained. From Malcolm’s arrival in Harlem as a minister of the Nation of Islam’s (NOI) Mosque No. 7 in 1954, to his 1964 establishment of the Organization of Afro-American Unity—which he led until his death in 1965—his ten-year-plus history in Harlem warranted the affinity Harlemites felt for him. Though Malcolm was born in Omaha, grew up in Lansing, achieved some street credibility as Detroit Red while in Boston, and ended up living in Queens, it was Harlem that ultimately became known as his “home of homes.”

But while Harlem could rightfully claim Malcolm, it did not contain him. Certainly, one of Malcolm X’s enduring legacies is his effort to internationalize the Black freedom struggle by linking it to Third World anti-colonial movements. Beyond that were the ways Malcolm localized the struggle through his efforts to locate sites of organizing and activism in American cities and communities. During his service as a minister in the Nation of Islam from 1952-1963, Malcolm traveled throughout the country establishing mosques, prison ministries, and access to media outlets; and he helped to incubate businesses and educational programs. Linked together, this network of institutions and initiatives constituted a map of Black activity that transcended Harlem. They critically countered the meaning, as well as the spiritual and material impact, of racial segregation.

In New York City, a critical link in that network was to be found in Brooklyn. By the late 1950s, Brooklyn’s Black population had tripled since the prior decade, and its Black community was quickly on its way to eclipsing Harlem as the population epicenter of Black New York. Yet, like many urban areas, Brooklyn’s Black residents were concentrated in one neighborhood, Bedford-Stuyvesant, where according to Brian Purnell, “government policies, banking regulations, and the discrimination schemes of white homeowners’ associations turned Bedford-Stuyvesant into a racially segregated, socially isolated, overcrowded increasingly poor community.”

Against the stigmatization caused by racial segregation, Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam sought to redefine the community through the creation of ritual, political, social, and economic spaces that provided opportunities for Black agency. This counter-hegemonic geography was key to understanding the Black nationalism that Malcolm subscribed to both during and after his time in the Nation of Islam. Frequently accused of being segregationist, Malcolm delineated the difference between segregation and separation in a speech at Michigan State University on January 23, 1963:

[S]egregation, as we’re taught by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, means that which is forced upon inferiors by superiors. A segregated community is a Negro community.… Which means it’s regulated from the outside by outsiders. The white man has all of the businesses in the Negro community. He runs the politics of the Negro community. He controls all the civic organizations in the Negro community. This is a segregated community. We don’t go for segregation. We go for separation. Separation is when you have your own. You control your own economy; you control your own politics; you control your own society; you control your own everything.

It is an argument that Malcolm would make again on April 3, 1964, one month after leaving the Nation of Islam, in his “Ballot or the Bullet” speech, where he defined the philosophy of Black nationalism as community control of its politics, economics, and society.

Malcolm’s segregation vs. separation formulation finds a close parallel in Michel de Certeau’s notion of place vs. space in The Practice of Everyday Life: “In contradistinction to the place, [space] has thus none of the univocity or stability of a ‘proper.’ In short, space is practiced place. Thus the street geometrically defined by urban planning is transformed into a space by walkers.” Segregation, therefore, was a prescription of place, while separation was a transformation of that place into spaces defined by people’s activity.

In Brooklyn, as they did in major cities throughout the United States, NOI members transformed places into spaces in which they lived, worked, prayed, organized, and engaged in politics and commerce. They altered the very landscape of the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant itself through their very presence with signage that introduced Muslim terminology and NOI-inspired nomenclature like “mosque” and “Shabazz” (“Shabazz” as taught by the NOI was the name of the ancestral tribe of Black people in America). And the location of these sites in close proximity to other institutions, and along major corridors of traffic, suggested a kinship between these Muslims spaces and places they occupied. The following map highlights some of these sites, coded by categories as mosque meetings, Muslim-owned businesses, and sites of protest and conflict.

Map of Nation of Islam-related sites in Brooklyn, c. 1963. Credit: Zaheer Ali.

A close study of these sites is key to understanding Malcolm X’s and the NOI’s spatial legacy, including how local conditions placed different activists and their communities into shared spaces that offered the potential for the exchange and critique of ideas. For example, one of the earliest forays into Brooklyn by the Muslims under Malcolm X’s leadership was a “Moslem Dinner and Surprise Program” held on January 31, 1959, at Siloam Presbyterian Church in Bedford-Stuyvesant. While it was likely a transactional occupation of space in exchange for a rental fee, the selection of Siloam was noteworthy (as was Siloam’s decision to rent or provide space for the Muslims). Siloam Presbyterian is a historic Black church founded by the Reverend James Gloucester, a leading Black abolitionist, in 1849; and by the 1950s, it had grown into one of the largest Presbyterian congregations under the leadership of the Reverend Milton Galamison, who would go on to lead several major civil rights demonstrations in New York City. This was not a marginal congregation or a storefront church; and by allowing the Nation of Islam to hold an event there, the church’s leadership situated the Muslims if even momentarily in a place encoded by a tradition that shared the NOI’s commitment to anti-racist work. The relationship between Galamison and Malcolm would be more than spatially coincidental—five years later in 1964, Malcolm would express support for Galamison’s school boycott movement, and on the day Malcolm X was assassinated, it was Galamison who was the expected guest speaker at the Audubon Ballroom.

Malcolm X at Brooklyn CORE demonstration at SUNY Downstate. Credit: Bob Adelman.

Among the many NOI sites in Brooklyn, it is the network of commercial establishments that drew the most striking geography. All the businesses featured in this community re-mapping were very much an extension of the NOI’s histories, ideologies, and theologies. They were establishments whose markets were the result of segregation, yes (de Certeau’s prescribed places); but they were also markets driven by the demands of the community itself (spaces redefined by practice): dry cleaners for the NOI uniforms that men and women wore, barbershops for the men who kept their hair closely-cropped military-style, and food establishments that adhered to Islamic dietary law. In this oral history interview, one of the grocery store’s proprietors, Harvey (Sims) Muhammad describes how the chain of grocery stores situated in the heart of the Black community introduced into that geography NOI dietary restrictions and the store’s name, “Shabazz,” given by Malcolm.

In addition to his impact on Brooklyn’s religious and commercial landscape, Malcolm’s presence was felt among Brooklyn political activists as well. In the summer of 1963, Malcolm X and the Muslims selling the Muhammad Speaks newspaper regularly attended Brooklyn CORE’s protest of racial discrimination in the construction trades related to the building of the state-funded SUNY Downstate Medical Center. While Malcolm and the Muslims did not participate in the demonstrations, their presence brought them into proximity with those who did. One of those demonstrators was a young Sonny Carson, who considered his encounter with Malcolm X a turning point in his own commitment to community activism. Over twenty years later, on Friday, August 30, 1985, Sonny Carson would lead members of the Committee to Honor Black Heroes in a ceremony to celebrate the renaming of Reid Avenue in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, to “Malcolm X Boulevard.” Joining them were Malcolm X’s widow Dr. Betty Shabazz, former Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton, and City Councilman Enoch Williams, who had sponsored the bill for the street’s renaming. Signed into law by Mayor Ed Koch, the naming of Brooklyn’s Malcolm X Boulevard came nearly two years before Harlem’s Lenox Avenue would receive the same treatment. Once a plotter of spaces, Malcolm X had now become a place unto his own.

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Zaheer Ali

Zaheer Ali is the Oral Historian at Brooklyn Historical Society, and an adjunct lecturer at New York University's Paul McGhee Division. Formerly, he served as Project Manager of Columbia University's Malcolm X Project, and as a researcher on the late Manning Marable's Pulitzer Prize-winning Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (2011). Follow him on Twitter @zaheerali.