We are living in a world today of great changes. Those who can conform to the changes have a bright future. But those who build dykes and dams to stem these changing tides will only be drowned in a flood of their own making. We must learn to face facts, especially the facts of these changing times. This is the era, an era of change. Doors that were once closed to some of us are now opening. And doors once open to others are now closing.
- Malcolm X, 1961, Brown University.
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Two adventures spawned from two school assignments — 50 years apart.
In 1961, Brown Student Katharine Pierce took a Religious Studies course on Islam that inspired her to investigate the story of The Black Muslims. Her piece was published in the Brown Daily Herald and spurred a visit from Malcolm X.
In 2011, Brown Student Malcolm Burnley took a Non-Fiction Writing course that led him to University Archives where he discovered an old yellowed copy of the Brown Daily Herald that featured a black and white photo of Malcolm X, mid-speech. This eventually led Burnley to Pierce, who had the audio of the speech.
The rest, you could say, is history.
And I don’t think you came here for me to convert you into being a Muslim, nor do I think that you think you’ve come here to convert me back into being a Christian. When Eisenhower and Khrushev sat down to talk to each other, Ike wasn’t trying to make Khrushev a capitalist nor was Khrushev trying to make Eisenhower a communist. … So they talked. And we feel it is the same way with you this evening.
It was the height of the Cold War, just a month after the Bay of Pigs Invasion, and Malcolm X’s speech on May 11th, 1961 reflects a global scope with clear religious themes.
Among the earliest of his college talks, his speech at Brown came as a defense and representation of the Nation of Islam’s separatist stance. Two months earlier, he spoke at Harvard University much more aggresively about Black Separatism. And earlier that year, he was set to speak at the University of California Berkeley only to be banned by the University’s administration upon arrival. He may not have even made it through Brown’s gates if it weren’t for the efforts that came from Katharine Pierce and Richard Holbrooke, the Herald’s 19-year old editor and future US diplomat.
If Berkeley shut him out, what about Brown? Pierce was amazed that he was able to come.
But just to set the context, Brown was a much more conservative campus than Berkeley and so it was amazing that he came at all, but I think that affected the tenor of the whole trip. It was a conservative time and a conservative place.
But Malcolm X’s visit to Brown did not come without resistance. Richard Holbrooke, who published Pierce’s piece on Black Muslims, was adamant about changing the scope of the Herald to cover important national issues such as race relations. In Malcolm Burnley’s research, he found an editorial in which Holbrooke wrote, “the enduring domestic crisis of the sixties remains as it was in the late 1950’s, the racial conflict. It cannot be ignored. We should make an extra effort to try to understand the powerful and complex forces at work on the various groups seeking a solution.” Burnley explains how Holbrooke fought to make the Malcolm X visit a reality.
President Barnaby Keeney and Dean Charles Watts II were the two head members of the administration absolutely flat-out refused. They thought Malcolm X were too radical, they didnt want him to speak, they feared that there might be a disturbance, violence, or just bring bad publicity to campus. Holbrooke then butted heads with them and said that he would move the Brown Daily Herald off campus…threatened to become more critical of the University… University eventually consented. He won.
This was 1961, when Malcolm X had not yet shifted from the Nation of Islam. And while his speech is strongly rooted in the religion, the broad qualities of his content reveals ideology and positions that are credited to his transformation in later years.
No, we are not anti-white. But we don’t have time for the white man. The white man is on top already, the white man is the boss already. The white man has economic security already. He has first-class citizenship already. So you are wasting your time talking to the white man. We are working on our own people. First things first, we look upon the so-called Negro in America as a sick man, and what do I mean by a sick man? If a man has forgotten his name, you call him a sick man… So this is amnesia. And when a man doesn’t know himself, he doesn’t know what belongs to him. He could be the richest man on Earth but by having lost his identity he will walk around like a pauper. So here we have the black man in America wearing the names of their former slavemaster as we’ve been taught by the Honorable Elijiah Muhammad. So by suffering a form of amnesia they don’t have a name of their own so they’ve taken your name, they don’t know their language so they’ve taken your language, they don’t have a history of their own so they let them tell you what their history is; and that is in essence that you found him in the jungle somewhere with a spear chasing white people in a cannibalistic way (laughter from audience) to try to give the impression that white meat is the only good meat to eat (raucous laughter from Malcolm and audience).
There were 900 people in the crowd — mostly white students who attended Brown, with a portion of the crowd being Black Muslims who trained in from Boston. Yet, as Burnley says, Malcolm X’s appearance has been strikingly absent from records and besides a few hundred words in the Herald, it seems this moment in history was all but forgotten. In an interview, almnus Prentice Bowsher told Burnley, “Malcolm’s presence at Brown was like a thunderstorm, which drenched everyone while he was overhead.” But he added, “He came out of nowhere, and disappeared into nowhere.” But Katherine Pierce doesn’t even recall a great excitement from the general student body or news sources.
Where were the news stories at the time? We were on, what, page 25 of the Providence Journal? But it faded away so quickly, the story. Probably because it was close to the end of the year, I mean, I think commencement was the end of May so people were very concerned with their lives. But I dont remember any great excitement on the wider campus. I mean, at the Brown Daily Herald, we were just stunned and fascinated…So we were very much caught up with what was happening to us, but I dont remember the campus was particularly interested. As you know, it wasn’t listed in the Brown Calendar, not listed as an event for that week.
Fortunately, with these unique twist of events, two students Katharine Pierce and Malcolm Burnley, separated by 50 years, have united to put the pieces together. While great significance of these series of events lies in the fact that this occurence diminished from consciousness, perhaps greater significance can be made with its re-emergence.