In front of a rapt audience at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, Malcolm X’s third daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz, talked about witnessing the assassination of her father at Harlem’s Audubon Theatre and Ballroom on Feb. 21, 1965.
“I’m told my mother placed her entire body over my sisters and me that sunny and cold afternoon to protect us from the gunfire and to make certain that we could not see. … Fortunately, I have no memory of that tragic moment,” Shabazz said.
She added that her mother, Betty Shabazz, safeguarded the legacy of her husband for the benefit of future generations. Ilyasah Shabazz said that she and her sisters took on that mission after their mother’s death in 1997.
So she is pleased with the Smithsonian Channel’s one-hour documentary The Lost Tapes: Malcolm X, which tells the story of important years in the charismatic activist’s life in his own words. There’s no narrator or re-enactments—just media reports, rarely and never-seen footage—and the compelling voice of a man still seen by many as a controversial figure.
“He was such a young man with impeccable integrity, and you’ll see there is no mistaking his commitment to achieving peace and an egalitarian future for all,” Shabazz said at a recent screening of the film at the museum.
The film shows some of the crucial moments from Malcolm X’s later years, ranging from his work as a minister and spokesman for the Nation of Islam and its leader, Elijah Muhammad, to mesmerizing speeches in which he exhorted black people to defend themselves and be proud of their heritage.
“Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the color of your skin to such an extent that you bleach to get like the white man? … Who taught you to hate yourselves from the top of your head to the soles of your feet? Who taught you to hate your own kind? … No, before you come asking Mr. Muhammad does he teach hate, you should ask yourself who taught you to hate being what God gave you?” Malcolm X once asked a cheering crowd.
“I, for one, as a Muslim, believe that the white man is intelligent enough—if he were made to realize how black people really feel and how fed up we are, without that old compromising sweet talk,” he continued. “Stop sweet-talking him. Tell him what kind of hell you’ve been catching. And let him know that if he’s not ready to clean his house up … he shouldn’t have a house. It should catch on fire and burn down.”
There is also footage of Malcolm X’s disagreement with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on how best to empower people of color—whether it should be separation from white society or nonviolent protests aimed at integration. His reaction to the firebombing of his home in 1965, with his pregnant wife and daughters inside, is included as well.
But his daughter worries about those who might see this film as doing a disservice to her father, after an audience member questioned whether it does a good job of explaining the terrible things that were going on at the time, including the bombing deaths of the four little girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963.
“In this film, we see the fire extinguishers … the church bombings, the lynchings. Maybe there is too much of Malcolm’s reaction, without showing what he was reacting to, that he had to give black people shock treatment,” Shabazz mused. “If it’s not put in context, how can anyone say that Malcolm was violent? How can anyone say that Malcolm was anything negative and not say anything about the social climate that created this reaction?”
One of the surprising revelations in The Lost Tapes is that the increasing rift between Malcolm X and NOI leader Elijah Muhammad affected the former’s friendship with boxing legend Muhammad Ali, who was given his own Muslim name by the NOI leader—at a price.
“For Muhammad Ali to be given his name—for that to occur—he had to break his friendship with Malcolm X,” said Tom Jennings, producer of The Lost Tapes.
“The Nation interfered with their friendship,” added Shabazz, who said that Ali was told, “You will accept this name as long as you will no longer associate with Malcolm. … My father said I understand that’s his loyalty. … And Muhammad Ali [later] said, ‘I cannot believe that I did that and I regret that.’”
The documentary follows Malcolm X through the later part of his life and his changing philosophy after taking the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca and changing his name to el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz. He wrote about the revelation of sharing prayers and food with Muslims of all colors, even those with blond hair and blue eyes, and what it meant to his views about the strife occurring between African Americans and whites in the United States.
“I could see from this, that perhaps if white Americans could accept the oneness of God, then perhaps, too, they could accept in reality the oneness of Man,” Malcolm X wrote, “and cease to measure and hinder and harm others in terms of their ‘differences’ in color.”
NMAAHC Curator Damion Thomas said that he thinks Malcolm X’s legacy is important for people of today, especially in a country that is arguably more racially divided than it has been since the 1960s.
“What it says for us today is that it is important that African Americans build their own institutions, that African Americans think about how to control their own story, their own narrative and their own economic and political spaces,” Thomas said, “and I think that’s very important, self-determination and African-American empowerment.”
Shabazz added: “Let’s acknowledge that this young, compassionate man sacrificed his entire life so that we could address those issues that continue to plague us because we keep brushing them under the rug.”
Editor’s note: The Lost Tapes: Malcolm X premieres Feb. 26 on the Smithsonian Channel. You can also view the film here.