Early Letters Give New Picture of Malcolm X Teen Writes about Girls, Dancing, Becoming Lawyer

By Roedemeier, Chad | The Florida Times Union, September 8, 1999 | Go to article overview

Early Letters Give New Picture of Malcolm X Teen Writes about Girls, Dancing, Becoming Lawyer


Roedemeier, Chad, The Florida Times Union


ATLANTA -- Rare letters and notes written by a young Malcolm X give almost no hint of the radical civil rights leader he would become. Instead, they portray a typical teenager who liked to jitterbug, admired pretty girls and wanted to be a lawyer someday.

The papers, which went on display yesterday at Emory University's Woodruff Library, are the only known collection of Malcolm X's personal letters and notes, said James H. Cone of Union Theological Seminary in New York, the author of a 1992 book about Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

"They are quite unique," said Cone. The only other known personal letters written by Malcolm X are in FBI files, he said.

The Emory collection -- mostly letters and school notebooks written from 1938 to 1955, when Malcolm X was a teenager and young adult -- is on long-term loan to the library from Atlanta antiques dealer Jimmy Allen and his friend, John Littlefield. Allen and Littlefield recently bought the papers from a collector in Boston, who acquired them in 1979 from Malcolm X's half-sister, Ella Collins.

"Just to see Malcolm's actual handwriting set off trembles," said Leroy Davis, a professor of African-American studies at Emory. "I had looked at him one way growing up and looked at him another way as a scholar. But either one of those ways was not like seeing actual material that Malcolm had written himself."

Though not a large collection, the letters and notes could change the accepted view of Malcolm X's early years.

In his public speeches and in his autobiography, the civil rights leader described himself as a small-time hood who could barely read before he was converted to the Nation of Islam in prison.

But the papers paint a much different picture. They show the 13to 15-year-old Malcolm to be an articulate student who rarely misspelled words and usually used correct grammar. In one assignment, he wrote that he wanted to be a lawyer, a district attorney or a politician.

"What's so impressive, even when you know the basic sketch of his life, is what a remarkably poetic, expressive writing ability Malcolm has as a teenager," said David Garrow, an Emory historian and author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about King.

Davis was most impressed by a pocket notebook the young Malcolm turned into a "makeshift yearbook" during his eighthgrade year at Mason High School in Michigan. It lists every student in his class with their addresses, phone numbers, likes and dislikes.

"It shows he is very systematic and very disciplined with tasks he enjoyed doing even at an early age," Davis said. "But Malcolm also writes down typical kinds of teenage things. In many ways, they are so ordinary for such an extraordinary person."

Malcolm X was born Malcolm "Harpy" Little in Omaha, Neb., in 1925. He spent a few years in a foster home in the Lansing, Mich., area after his father was murdered and his mother was put in a mental institution. After moving to Boston at age 16, he got mixed up in smalltime street crime. He was sent to prison for burglary in 1946 at age 21.

During his six-year prison term, he became a disciple of Elijah Muhammad, head of the Nation of Islam. After getting out of prison in 1952, Malcolm adopted "X" as his last name because he considered Little a "slave name."

As the leading spokesman for the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X called for a rigid separation of whites and blacks. But in 1964, he broke with the Nation of Islam, made a pilgrimage to Mecca and declared himself an orthodox Muslim. He was shot and killed a year later in New York City.

In addition to the papers from his teenage years, the Emory collection includes letters Malcolm X wrote in prison before and after his conversion to Islam.

"The notion that Malcolm needed the Nation of Islam to make something of himself is clearly overdrawn," Garrow said.

The letters also contain some information that may not be accurate. …

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