Emory U. Displays Malcolm X Letters
By Chad Roedemeier
Associated Press Writer
Wednesday, September 8, 1999
ATLANTA (AP) -- The only known collection of Malcolm X's personal letters and notes are on display at Emory University, and many offer a glimpse of him as a typical teen-ager who liked to jitterbug, admired pretty girls and wanted to be a lawyer someday.
The writings differ from the public view of Malcolm X as a fiery orator and advocate of black nationalism.
"They are quite unique," James H. Cone of Union Theological Seminary in New York said Tuesday. Cone is the author of a 1992 book about Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The only other known personal letters written by Malcolm X are in FBI files.
The Emory collection -- mostly letters and school notebooks written from 1938 to 1955, when Malcolm X was a teen-ager and young adult -- is on long-term loan to the library.
Though not a large collection, the letters and notes could change the accepted view of Malcolm X's early years.
In his speeches and in his autobiography, the civil rights leader described himself as a smalltime hood who could barely read before he was converted to the Nation of Islam in prison.
But the early papers paint a much different picture. They show the 13- to 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.
One piece on display is a letter he wrote while in prison to half-sister Ella Collins.
"This being Easter, I thought it would be nice of me if I tried to write you a charming letter."
In another letter, 16-year-old Malcolm wrote from Boston to a friend. "Sorry I haven't gotten around to writing you sooner but I have been very busy. You know how we traveling men are. How is everything in Jackson. Boston's fine. The place is really `jumpin."'
Leroy Davis, a professor of African-American studies at Emory, said: "Just to see Malcolm's actual handwriting set off trembles." 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, Malcolm adopted "X" as his last name.
In the early 1960s he advocated black nationalism and was often followed by government agents suspicious of his motives and provocative views.
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.
Copyright 1999 The Associated Press