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I Once Met: Malcolm X, by Patrick Hickman-Robertson

Blog | By Patrick Hickman-Robertson | Apr 05, 2023

Malcolm X

Arriving in Africa from Australia in 1964, I hooked up with a Peace Corps worker and parlour revolutionary from New York, known to his associates as Johnnie-the-Punk. Together we hitchhiked from the Cape to Cairo.

Johnnie-the-Punk was anti-imperialist, anti-American, anti-bourgeoisie and agin most things I held dear. It was therefore with great excitement that he read that Black Muslim leader Malcolm X was in Cairo and staying at Shepheard’s Hotel. (As you do, if you are dedicated to the overthrow of capitalist society, Shepheard’s being at that time the most luxurious and costly hotel in Africa.)

Punk was on the phone to Shepheard’s in a trice. I expected to hear a smooth, disembodied voice repeating a mantra that Mr X was unavailable or had just checked out but, much to my surprise, Punk was put through to his suite.

To my even greater surprise, another disembodied voice said that Malcolm X would be pleased to meet us for a drink that evening.

I gave the Punk a good scrubbing and forced him into an unaccustomed suit before we set out for Shepheard’s. There were several black chaps waiting in the lobby, but none looked dangerous enough to be the leader of the notorious Nation of Islam. Then a somewhat shy, diffident black man in a very elegant suit and silk tie rose from a chair and identified himself as the architect of armed revolution we were seeking. He ordered orange juice – but did not object to our indulging in something stronger.

Malcolm X explained his aims so rationally and dispassionately that he made murder and insurrection sound really quite constitutional.

The Punk was nodding his head enthusiastically at all this but looked mildly alarmed when Mr X declared that separation of the races in the United States was a cornerstone of his political philosophy.

So just like apartheid South Africa, then?

Speaking of the violent change he insisted was inevitable, Malcolm X declared, ‘If a house is rotten, what do you do? You don’t try to patch it up. You tear it down and build something better!’

Now of course this was an analogy – not a policy for urban renewal – but, with hindsight, it was an instructive one. At that time, corporations and developers were pulling down historic housing and raising concrete towers in its stead.

Eventually we largely gave up destroying heritage buildings in favour of restoring them. Similarly, the solution to the racial wrongs of the 1960s was not revolution but reform, most notably through the agency of the civil-rights movement.

Our courteous host did not live to see that more peaceful outcome. Exactly six months after our meeting in Cairo, in 1965 he was assassinated by three members of the Nation of Islam, in the Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights, Manhattan.

Patrick Hickman-Robertson