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Abby Zimet: Freedom Reads. Books Are a Lifeline To a Still-Flawed World

On Feb. 21, 1965, Malcolm X – former inmate, fierce civil rights warrior, “one of the greatest leaders this country has ever seen” and for what he proudly deemed Afro-Americans “our own black shining prince” – was assassinated while giving a speech at New York City’s Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. He was just 39. Malcolm had become a key figure in the fight for civil rights in part through his fiery oratory, famously insisting, “We declare our right on this earth to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day…by any means necessary.” Clear-eyed, he knew the harsh realities of a country where, “We are brutalized because we are black people in America.” “I’m not an American. I’m one of 22 million black people who are the victims of Americanism,” he said in a 1964 speech. “I speak as a victim of America’s so-called democracy. You and I have never seem democracy; all we’ve seen is hypocrisy…We don’t see any American dream; we’ve experienced only the American nightmare.” Often, he referenced not just the physical but psychic pain inflicted by our racism. “America’s greatest crime against the black man was not slavery or lynching, but (teaching him) to wear a mask of self-hate and self-doubt,” he said. “They cripple the bird’s wing, and then condemn it for not flying as fast as they.”

A year before he was killed, Malcolm left the Nation of Islam amidst differences with its leader Elijah Muhammad, and founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), a secular, Pan African group that held weekly meetings at the ballroom. After the split, Nation of Islam members grew to view him as a traitor; a week before the murder, Malcolm’s house was firebombed as he slept inside with his wife and daughters. On Feb. 21, 1965, he had just begun a speech about OAUU in the 2nd-floor ballroom when he was hit by 21 shots. Today, after a years-long battle, part of the Audubon now houses the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center. Opened in 2005, the Center serves as both a living memorial and meeting place that supports activism, radical scholarship and community programs, from arts productions to Colin Kaepernick’s Know-Your-Rights camps for young people; Monday night, it hosted a 57th commemoration with a keynote speech by Dr. Cornell West. At his funeral, Malcolm’s friend and fellow-activist Ossie Davis offered a stirring, now-famous eulogy – here’s Spike Lee’s version – for “one of (Harlem’s) brightest hopes…this stormy, controversial, bold young captain…our own black shining prince, who did not hesitate to die because he loved us so.” His spirit lives on, says his daughter Ilyasah Shabazz, an author and activist who was three when her father was killed, because, “He spoke truth, and truth is timeless.”

Decades later, though, the truth about his death remains murky. His descendants have called for a federal investigation of his murder and a possible cover-up – “We want to know who killed our father, to set the record straight” – after November’s stunning exonerations of two men who spent a combined 42 years in some of New York’s worst prisons for a crime they didn’t commit, thus rewriting the history of one of the most notorious murders of an oft-bloody civil rights era. A judge threw out the convictions of Muhammad Aziz and Khalil Islam, held for 20 and 22 years respectively, after an investigation by D.A. Cyrus Vance and lawyers from the Innocence Project found the FBI and NYPD withheld vital evidence during trial. Both men have now filed civil lawsuits against the city and state. The probe, in turn, came after the release of a documentary and an award-winning biography that raised key questions about the case – longtime questions that echoed the men’s own appeals and claims of innocence. Aziz was released in 1985; Islam was freed in 1987, and died in 2009 at age 74. Both saw their marriages fall apart – Aziz had six children, Islam had three – as they spent the primes of their lives behind bars, victims of the same racist injustice Malcolm X long and passionately denounced. Aziz was 26 when he went to prison; he was 83 when his name was at long last cleared. “We live in a time of the manifestation of all defects,” he says today. “America’s not the place people thought it was.”

That was a lesson learned early by Malcolm Little, a hustler and burglar who in the 1940s landed in prison; it became an improbable place of intellectual and spiritual conversion he later describes in The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Vital to the process were books, and “the new vistas (they) opened to me…It was in prison that reading changed forever the course of my life.” To honor his belief in that transformative power, poet, lawyer, MacArthur “genius grant” recipient and former inmate Reginald Betts just put the first of a planned 500-plus prison Freedom Libraries in what’s believed to be Malcolm’s former cell at MCI-Norfolk in Massachusetts. Betts began his non-profit Freedom Reads –“Freedom begins with a book” – to “counter what prison does to the spirit.” Betts knows: He did eight years, starting at age 16, for a car-jacking; his salvation was an unknown person who slipped Dudley Randall’s The Black Poets under his cell door: “When you’re trapped in a cell, literally, words are your only lifeline.” When he got out, he became a poet, got a law degree from Yale, and began working to reform U.S. prisons, where two million people – one of 5 inmates worldwide – fester in “a deeply, deeply, deeply brutal existence.” Seeking to offer a sense of possibility, his first micro-library – funded with a $5 million grant from the Andrew Mellon Foundation – has standard prison fare (like Malcolm’s memoir) along with Dickens, Steinbeck, Woolf, Fanon, Atwood, with about a fifth in Spanish. The idea to use Malcolm’s cell came from MCI’s superintendent, who’s worked in prisons 25 years and, like inmates, “never seen anything beautiful here.” Now, they do. “These books can become a part of their life for as long as they have to be there,” says Betts. “Also, the books can become a conduit for them not having to be there.”

“The greatest miracle Christianity has achieved in America is that the black man in white Christian hands has not grown violent. It is a miracle that 22 million black people have not rrisen up against their oppressors – in which they would have been justified by all moral criteria, and even by the democratic tradition. It is a miracle that a nation of black people has so fervently continued to believe in a turn-the-other-cheek and heaven-for-you-after-you-die philosphy. It is a miracle that American black people have remained a peaceful people, while catching all the centuries of hell that they have caught here in white man’s heaven.” – The Autobiography of Malcolm X. 

“One day, may we all meet together in the light of understanding.” – The Autobiography of Malcolm X. 


Abby Zimet

Abby Zimet has written Common Dreams’ Further column since 2008. A longtime, award-winning journalist, she moved to the Maine woods in the early 70s, where she spent a dozen years building a house, hauling water and writing before moving to Portland. Having come of political age during the Vietnam War, she has long been involved in women’s, labor, anti-war, social justice and refugee rights issues.

First published in Common Dreams.

2 comments on “Abby Zimet: Freedom Reads. Books Are a Lifeline To a Still-Flawed World

  1. Emily Stuck
    March 3, 2022

    There’s a typo in the first sentence saying he was assassinated in 2022. This confused me very much.

    Liked by 1 person

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