Malcolm X: Make It Plain

Malcolm X was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom fifty-three years ago on February 21, 1965. In 1994, Blackside, Inc. and ROJA Productions produced a full length biography of his life for American Masters. Many of the film materials created or gathered for this production are held by the Washington University Libraries’ Film & Media Archive as part of the Henry Hampton Collection.

Malcolm X as a boy. Washington University Libraries, Henry Hampton Collection.

Blackside and ROJA produced a full portrait of the man who seemed to live several different lives in his 39 short years. Some of the roles he inhabited were that of a brilliant student, a hustler involved in various schemes and crimes, a prisoner, a devout Muslim, an electrifying public speaker, and finally a person who saw the problems of African-Americans and racism as a global human rights issue. Through all these changes the main threads of his personality remained constant as seen in his fiery intelligence, his brilliant speeches, and his refusal to bend to anyone’s will. Unfailingly honest, often shockingly so, he eventually made enemies in the Nation of Islam. Many questions surround his assassination. The only man convicted of the crime was a member of the Nation of Islam, but other groups or people may have been involved in his death as well.

The Film and Media Archive houses the full interviews from numerous people close to Malcolm X, including his wife, Betty Shabazz, one of his daughters, Attallah Shabazz, his brothers, Philbert Little, Robert Little, and Wilfred Little.  Other notable interviewees used for this series are Alex Haley, who produced Malcolm’s autobiography, The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley, poet Sonia Sanchez, and fellow activist Yuri Kochiyama. The interviews were conducted with people who knew Malcolm during every phase of his life.

Malcolm X Giving a Speech. Washington University Libraries, Henry Hampton Collection

The Film and Media Archive also has stock footage in the collection that was gathered for this production including speeches he gave at Oxford University in England, and the University of California at Berkeley, the documentary on the Nation of Islam, The Hate That Hate Produced, and numerous other stock footage clips.

Malcolm X, Betty Shabazz,, and two of their daughters with Muhammad Ali with his daughter. Washington University Libraries Henry Hampton Collection.







Malcolm X’s break with the Nation of Islam came about due to tensions of his statement about the Kennedy assassination when he made an ill-timed, inappropriate comment about violent nature of American society and how Kennedy’s death was like the “chickens coming home to roost.” He was banned from speaking publicly by the Nation of Islam for ninety days. In addition to this there had been growing resentment of Malcolm’s fame and popularity within the group for a while and some felt he was overshadowing the leader, Elijah Muhammad. The final break seemed to come when Elijah Muhammad’s extramarital affairs came to light. Malcolm announced he was disillusioned and was leaving the Nation of Islam on March 8, 1964. After that time tensions between Malcolm and group began to grow.

Towards the end of his life Malcolm X journeyed to Mecca. Traveling throughout Africa and the Middle East broadened his perspective and he began expressing a desire to work with the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, and founded an organization called the Organization of Afro-American Unity. His focus was now more international and he spoke of human rights rather than civil rights. His idea was to enlist the help of the other countries of the world and to bring his complaint about racism in America to the United Nations. This was the work he was pursuing when he was assassinated on February 21, 1965.

Clips and more information about Malcolm X: Make It Plain can be found at PBS’ site.  The full interviews from the film, as well as stock footage that was gathered in production, are held in the Film and Media Archive.

About the author

Reference and Outreach Supervisor in Special Collections.