“Racist black leader murdered in New York”: How did the Brazilian press report the murder of the anti-racist leader, Malcolm X in 1965?

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Note from BW of Brazil: Waking up and starting my day today, it hadn’t even occurred to me what the date was. I, like millions of other people have been watching the recent series documentary Last Dance about the last year of the Michael Jordan led Chicago Bulls championship team of 1998. As the last two episodes of the docu-series were only available on Netflix yesterday, and family obligations took up a large part of my day, it wasn’t until very late last night, May 18, that I had a chance to watch episode nine. 

Thus, waking up late today, my daily routine started late. By the time I started checking some of the messages in a few of the WhatsApp that I’m a part of, it was already 2pm in the afternoon. It was about that time when I started seeing a number of Malcolm X related material posted in the Homens Pretos (Black Men) group. The group consists of some of the most militant black Brazilian men that I know, most of whom I’ve never met personally. In this group, black Brazilian men regularly post things about the latest news and how it affects Brazil’s black community. 

Quite a few of the guys are connected to African-American social network groups and, as such, I sometimes get news on what’s going in America’s black community due to this group before any other source. Regular topics include Brazilian style racism, black social movements, Brazilian, American, African and from anywhere else there are black people. They also discuss the ideals of Pan-Africanism, leaders such as Marcus Garvey, Amilcar Cabral and Thomas Sankara, intellectuals such as Frantz Fanon and John Henrik Clarke and lastest news coming out Africa.  

After reading a translation into Portuguese of the opening of the 1992 Spike Lee directed film Malcolm X, it hit me that today was May 19th, the very day 95 years ago that Malcolm was born in the Omaha, Nebraska in the United States. As I paused to reflect for a moment on what Malcolm had meant to me in my understanding of the situation of the African Diaspora, I also thought about how black Brazilians were reflecting on this day. After all, Malcolm X has also been a huge influence on Brazilians of African descent who come to understand what it means to be black in an anti-black world. 

In the article below, Henrique Oliveira reports on how Malcolm’s assassination was reported in the Brazilian press over 55 years ago. Without even having looked into how Malcolm and his death might have been portrayed in Brazil’s media, I already knew. In a country dedicated to hiding how it treats it own black population and how it deems any black person bold enough to speak out against a racist system and who may have rejected the idea of integration of black people into the “mundo dos brancos” (white world), I would expect he would have been portrayed as “black racist” or a “radical”. I mean, that’s how Malcolm had been portrayed in the American media as it was, so one can only imagine how he would be labeled in a Brazil that wasn’t accustomed to seeing black men saying the types of things Malcolm was known for saying.

Fifty-five years after his assassination, you can even find someone like one of President Bolsonaro’s sons wearing a Martin Luther King t-shirt, but Malcolm X, a man who said and stood for things that very few whites would accept, then and now, is a man that Brazil would never stand for having masses of its black population identify with. 

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Malcolm X’s 95 years: How did the Brazilian press reflect the murder of the anti-racist leader?

On the date when one of the greatest anti-racist leaders in the world would turn 95, in an article, historian Henrique Oliveira analyzes how Brazilian newspapers reflected his violent death in a racist manner

By Henrique Oliveira

This May 19, 2020, marks the 95th birthday of Malcolm X, named Malcolm Little in 1925, in the city of Omaha, Nebraska, in the US. Malcolm was fourth among the eight children of housewife Louise and Baptist pastor Earl Little. From an early age Malcolm and his family experienced the racial terror of white supremacy. In 1926, they had to move after receiving threats and having the house burned down by members of a group called “Black Legion”, a kind of Klu Klux Klan, from the state of Nebraska. The attack was a reprisal for the sermons in favor of racial equality that his father carried out.

Malcolm’s family first fled to Wisconsin and three years later to a farm in Michigan, where the neighbors were all white and won a lawsuit that required the family to move to a region where there were only blacks. The family refused and the house was set on fire again. Malcolm’s father asked the police for help, but was eventually arrested on charges of forging the fire to defraud property insurance. In 1931, Earl Little’s body was found mutilated on the railroad tracks. Without any investigation, the authorities concluded that he committed suicide.

The racial persecution against the black activist’s family was one of the consequences of the period known as the “Red Summer”, when thousands of African Americans were killed in a wave of lynching, murders and fires in their homes, which made a large part of the population migrate to the northern US in the first decades of the 20th century.

At 17, Malcolm began to straighten his hair and dye it red. With no prospect of life given the brutality of racism, he became involved with gangs of theft, drug trafficking, prostitution and gambling and earned the nickname “Red”. His life in crime led him to ten years imprisonment in a closed regime. Inside the jail, Malcolm got to know the Nation of Islam through the texts of Elijah Muhammad, leader of the religion in the US. After serving six and a half years, the activist was released and became a member of the Nation of Islam, transforming his perception of being black, he stopped straightening his hair and adopted the X to symbolize his unknown identity, leaving behind the surname Little, which he said was given by those who enslaved his ancestors.

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“Racist black leader assassinated: NY” – February 23, 1965 edition of the newspaper Diário Carioca. (Photo: Digital Collection of National Library Newspapers and Magazines)

The murder in Brazilian newspapers

“Extremist leader” and “racist” were the terms used by Brazilian newspapers to describe Malcolm X when the activist was murdered while speaking in Harlem on February 21, 1965. When researching the digital collection of periodicals made available at the Hemeroteca Digital Brasileira, from the Digital Collection of Newspapers and Magazines of the National Library, it is possible to see how Brazilian newspapers reflected the murder of one of the greatest black anti-racist leaders of the 20th century, as well as the news was constructed permeated by racism to demoralize him.

Most of the newspapers in the digital collection, however, didn’t report the death of Malcolm X. Some because of not having editions in the period, others for not having given due importance. Although in the early decades of the 20th century, the state of São Paulo had a black press composed of publications such as O Kosmos, O Alfinete, O Propugnador, A Sentinela and O Menelik and A Rua, whose editions didn’t exceed the 1930s. The newspapers that published news regarding the murder of Malcolm X were from the states of Paraná, Rio de Janeiro and Rio Grande do Sul.

Paraná

The newspaper Correio do Paraná, which presented itself as an organ of the Liberal Paranaense Party, didn’t report the death of Malcolm X himself, but on March 3, 1961 published an article about the holding of a rally of the Nation of Islam in Chicago, with the headline: “Muçulmanos de cor realizaram comício monstro em Chicago” (Colored Muslims held monster rally in Chicago).

The article, which appears to have been translated from some American agency, says that the political-religious sect advocated the separation of whites and blacks, in addition to attacking racial integration. The text also says that the Nation of Islam concerned US police for spreading “hatred against whites” and that it was a kind of “black Klu Klux Klan”. According to the report, Malcolm X, head of the movement in New York, opened the rally and introduced Eiljah Muhammad to the public.

The newspaper Diário do Paraná published on February 23, 1965 that the murder of the activist opened a war between blacks in New York, and referred to the case as “the supporters of the black extremist leader Malcolm X murdered the day before yesterday”. The story basically focused more on the division within the black Muslim community than on the murder of the activist.

The next day, February 24, 1965, Diário do Paraná published an article by the United Press International news agency with the following title: “Followers of Malcolm X initiate reprisals against blacks of the Muslim sect”. According to the text, “apparently to avenge the murder of black racist leader Malcolm X, fires were set in two mosques”. On March 2, the same newspaper published a column on the burial of the anti-racist leader, with information about the funeral location and the non-attendance of Malcolm’s children and two brothers.

Rio de Janeiro

In the state of Rio de Janeiro, the renowned JB, Jornal do Brasil, on February 23, 1965, published an article about the arrest of Thomas Hagan as a suspect in the murder. The text had the headline “Negro preso pela morte Malcolm X” (Negro arrested for death of Malcolm X). “A 22-year-old black man, Thomas Hagan, was arrested yesterday as guilty of the murder of the extremist leader of black Muslims Malcolm X, along with five other people implicated in the crime committed Sunday at a rally.”

On February 24, 1965, JB published a column about the fires that occurred in the mosques. “Two Blacks Muslims mosques were destroyed yesterday by fires set in retaliation for the murder of the extremist black leader Malcolm X.” On the following day, February 25, the same newspaper republished a United Press International article about the threats Elijah Muhammad suffered as a result of Malcolm X’s death, with the headline “Líder dos maometanos pretos marcado para morrer amanhã” (Leader of black Mohammedans marked to die tomorrow).

JB closed the coverage of the activist’s murder on February 26 with an approach to police investigations into the existence of a suspect, in addition to police surveillance of Malcolm’s body, which had received more than 7,000 visits in the 48 hours following the murder.

The Jornal do Comércio republished an article by the Reuters news agency with the following title: “Black fanatics in the US leave cities under tension”. The news made reference to the threats Elijah Muhammad suffered from those who promised retaliation for the murder of Malcolm X. On February 23, 1965, the newspaper also republished an article by the United Press International that reflected on Malcolm’s murder, but which also spoke about the death threats that Martin Luther King suffered: “Pastor King jurado de morte e terror negro à solta no Harlem” (Pastor King sworn to death and black terror on the loose in Harlem).

According to the text, Elijah Muhammad said that “his association was innocent in the death of the racist leader Malcolm X”, that the activist “died according to his predictions for the same violence that he advocated”, and that for this reason he had been expelled from the movement when he was head of a mosque in New York. Regarding Martin Luther King, the text says he received several letters with death threats sent to leaders of the civil rights movement in Alabama.

The newspaper Correio da Manhã, in the column “International”, brought a photo of the moment when Thomas Hagan was arrested by the police after leaving the ballroom where Malcolm X was speaking when he was murdered. “New York police arrested black Thomas Hagan, 22, accused of shooting Sunday in that city, Malcolm X Earl Litter, better known as Malcolm X, a black racist leader, president – founder of Afro American Unity.”

The Ultima Hora newspaper, on page six on February 22, ran the headline “Malcolm X shot down at a rally in New York.” The report stated that “the former leader of the black Muslim sect, Malcolm X, was murdered yesterday during a rally in New York. According to one of the organizers of the meeting, three revolver bullets hit Malcolm X in the head when he delivered a speech to four hundred people.”

Rio Grande do Sul

The newspaper Diário de Notícias, on February 24, 1965, carried the headline “Incêndios em duas mesquitas nos EUA para vingar líder negro morto” (Fires in two mosques in the US to avenge dead black leader). This was yet another story whose source was United Press International, which said “apparently to avenge the murder of black racist leader Malcolm X, arson was set in two mosques in the black Muslim movement.”

For its part, the newspaper O Dia on 22 February 1965 published the headline “Assassinado o líder dos negros muçulmanos dos Estados Unidos” (Leader of black Muslims murdered in the United States), whose source was the French agency Agence France Presse (AFP), saying: “The black American leader, known for his radical position on the race issue, Malcolm X, was murdered Sunday in Harlem. Investigations continue into the death of the extreme leader of black Muslims, Malcolm X, who was killed delivering a speech.”

* Henrique Oliveira is a historian and activist of the black collective Minervino de Oliveira, in Salvador, Bahia.

Source: Alma Preta

About Marques Travae 3382 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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