The Audubon Ballroom: Malcolm X’s Final Chapter
By E. P. |
The Audubon Ballroom, now named The Malcolm X & Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center, is located at 3940 Broadway between 165th and 166th Streets in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan in New York City. When going through the plate-glass doors, you see a full-size Malcolm X statue standing at a podium. Gold in color, the civil rights leader is standing in front of a microphone into which he is speaking. The memorial is only one floor and there are many portraits placed on the wall detailing Malcolm’s and Shabazz’s lives and history. The statue of Malcolm X is powerful because the way he is standing seems to indicate that he is speaking to a crowd. There is plenty of space in the ballroom today, where one assumes there were once many seats. The space is no longer used as a ballroom but has an all-purpose bookstore, a Chase bank, and a technology center. This location is very important to American history because this is the place where Malcolm X was assassinated. The Audubon Ballroom is the last place Malcolm X was alive.
Malcolm X is considered one of the greatest race leaders of his time. Born Malcolm Little in 1925, he decided to drop the name Little, which he thought of as his slave name, and became Malcolm X. While serving time in prison for burglary in 1946, Malcolm converted to Islam. After his release, he traveled to Detroit and met Elijah Muhammad, then the leader of the Nation of Islam, an organization mainly consisting of African Americans which taught the Islamic religion and focused on the separation of black and white racial groups in the United States. Throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, until his tragic assassination in the Audubon Ballroom in 1965, Malcolm X spoke on racial and national issues facing the Black community. He went by the motto “by any means necessary.” He wasn’t against using violence for the cause of Black freedom.
In the 1992 film Malcolm X, the well-known director Spike Lee brings Malcolm X’s life and accomplishments to the silver screen. He focuses on major events in Malcolm’s life from the beginning of adulthood until the day of his death. Played by the actor Denzel Washington, Malcolm X is a brave spokesman for the Nation of Islam. During his time in the Nation, the organization grew from 300 in 1952 to over 30,000 members by 1963 (“Malcolm X”) . In one scene in the film, a young Black man named Benjamin who admires Malcolm comes into the café where Malcolm X is sitting and drinking coffee. Benjamin is wearing khakis and a button-down shirt; he is well groomed, and as he enters. he removes his cream hat to show a sign of respect. “Well Mr. X,” He says to Malcolm, “I want to be a Muslim” (01:50:26). Benjamin respects Malcolm’s work and wants to help in the struggle to end the “Black Man’s” oppression. Malcolm answers, “Do you know what that means to be a Muslim? You should never join any organization unless you know what it’s about” (01:50:34). When Benjamin gets up to leave because he thinks Malcolm is not interested in having him join the Nation of Islam, Malcolm adds, “We can use more young warriors like yourself. Come on by the temple next Wednesday. 8 o’clock sharp” (01:51:24). As shown in this scene, Malcolm X wanted to help and inspire all he could. Instead of turning Benjamin away, he embraces him and is willing to teach him about what the Nation of Islam means and what they stand for. Malcolm X was the prime reason most new members joined the Nation during these years of civil rights struggle and Black self-assertion.
In addition to displaying Malcolm’s recruiting efforts, Spike Lee’s film also shows the separation between Malcolm and the Nation of Islam. In 1963, Malcolm X learned that the man he saw as his mentor and hero had violated everything he had been taught (“Malcolm X”). Elijah Muhammad was sleeping with young women in the Nation and having children with them. After using them for their assets, he would leave them and not take care of them or their children. In the film, you see a seated Denzel Washington talking to two fair-skinned women with children in their arms. During these meetings, Washington, playing Malcolm, reflects, “From their own mouths I heard their stories of who had fathered their children.” He goes on to say, “from their own mouths I [also] heard that the honorable Elijah Muhammad told them I was the best, the greatest minister that he ever had, and someday I would leave him and turn against him, so I was dangerous. The honorable Elijah Muhammad, by praising me to my face, was tearing me apart behind my back” (02:20:48) . Malcolm X took the teachings of the Nation very seriously. He stopped smoking, eating pork, and drinking, as a good member of the Nation. Infidelity was something that was forbidden for a leader. Not only was the “honorable” Muhammad sleeping with these women, he didn’t take care of the children he had with them. To Malcolm, this was an unacceptable and unforgivable betrayal. After learning that his “great” leader was not so honorable as he seemed, Malcolm start distancing himself from the Nation.
Malcolm X’s decision to distance himself brought him and his family into danger. The Nation started claiming he was growing disloyal. Spike Lee’s film shows the jealousy that many of the members in the Nation of Islam felt towards Malcolm. The film depicts Malcolm and his family waking up to find their house on fire. Malcolm believed that members of the Nation started the fire to threaten him. Another important scene occurs before Malcolm X’s speech at the Audubon Ballroom. In his hotel room, he receives death threats phone calls. His friends and wife try to convince him not to go to the Ballroom, but he still wants to go ahead with his speech. On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was gunned down and shot 15 times. He only managed to say his greeting before being bombarded with bullets. In the film, Malcolm X collapses backwards once he is shot and his wife runs to his side. He was taken to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital across the street, where he was pronounced dead on arrival. The film depicts the uproar that occurred during the shooting and how much it impacted the community and country. Three men were convicted of the assassination, Talmadge Hayer, Norman 3X Butler, and Thomas 15X Johnson. All three were members of the Nation of Islam.
As a New Yorker, I’ve passed the Audubon Ballroom my whole life not knowing its importance. I was born directly across the street from the Audubon Ballroom in the same hospital where Malcolm X was pronounced dead. As an African-American woman, I credit Malcolm X for helping to create some of the changes I see today. Malcolm X worked hard for these changes and made little money. Years after his death, the name of the Audubon Ballroom has itself changed, but the building is still there. The assassination was such an important event in U.S. history that when Columbia Presbyterian took over the building’s lease, they were not allowed to get rid of the museum. The memorial remains to give people like myself who were not alive when he died a feeling for Malcolm X and the power he brought to this world. February 21, 1965 will forever be an important day, one that has left its mark on American history.
Kihss, Peter. “Malcom X Shot to Death at Rally Here.” N.p., 22 Feb. 1965. Web. <https://partners.nytimes.com/library/national/race/022265race-ra.html>.
Malcolm X. Dir. Spike Lee. Prod. Spike Lee. By Spike Lee and Arnold Perl. Perf. Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Albert Hall, and Al Freeman. N.p., n.d. Web.
“Malcolm X.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television, 05 Oct. 2016. Web. 16 Dec. 2016. <http://www.biography.com/people/malcolm-x-9396195>.