A Charlestonian Remembers Malcolm X

Malcolm X

(l-r) Damon Fordham and James Campbell

By Professor Damon L. Fordham, M.A.

It is an interesting fact that most history is never recorded in books.

Many people go through life with fascinating experiences, but those experiences are not often preserved so that future generations may learn from them.

This was why it was so important that Mr. James Campbell, a retired educator and native Charlestonian who is now in his 90th year, shared his experiences with the legendary freedom fighter Malcolm X at a recent program held at the Avery Research Center for African–American History and Culture.

Mr. Campbell, who was with a theater company as well as a teacher in New York in the 1950s and 60s, recalled. “I’ve seen a lot of demonstrating.

I’ve seen a lot of emotional gymnastics. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet a lot of agents for change. I have met Nelson Mandela and Paul Robeson. I consider myself fortunate and am having this occasion filmed to keep and share with my family.”

“As time when on, many of us in the New York area noticed that Malcolm X spoke less of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad’s teachings, and this was crystallized in his famous Grass Roots Speech in 1963. When Malcolm split with Mr. Muhammad, I went to a meeting organized by Malcolm across from Abyssinian Baptist Church, and this was where we met. The political aspect of this appealed to me as I was not religious. I expressed my interest in working with his educational committee. A young journalist named Lynne Shifflett was there and was very professional. She paired me with an educator from Queens, NY named Herman Ferguson. We formed this Liberation School in the model of African Liberation Schools. The focus was more on making a fairer economic structure for oppressed people as opposed to educating people to get jobs in the existing system.”

“We reached out to the Harlem Street Speakers, such as Queen Mother Moore, James Lawson, Edward “Pork Chop” Davis, and bookstore owners Richard B. Moore and Lewis Micheaux. I went to a printer to print diplomas for the school; they had the names of slave rebel leaders from Herbert Aptheker’s book “American Negro Slave Rebellions,” and room for Malcolm to sign his name. When Malcolm heard this, he gave his famous laugh and said, “That’s what I want.” During the Liberation School sessions, Malcolm would often come in the back of the room and just sit and listen.”

“The Saturday before he was assassinated in 1965, I spent twenty minutes conversing with Malcolm X. I walked into the office and his secretary, Sara Mitchell, said he was in. After discussing business, I asked about his wife and daughters, and he said they were with various people after his house was bombed. While many of the people that he left behind in the Nation of Islam were responsible for the climate that killed Malcolm, both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were killed for their attempts to change society. The last three years of Malcolm X’s life, as was the case with Dr. King, were the most important of Malcolm’s life, as his thoughts were really evolving and he was constantly learning.”

“There is a pattern to capsulize Malcolm X into simply being about Black Nationalism. He was bigger than that. I saw in him the bigger picture of radicalism that our youth are asking for today with the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements. Our problem since the 60s is that we canonize these leaders and human beings through assassination. We do them a disservice when we deny them their humanity. Isham Jabbar, one of Malcolm’s teachers, once told Malcolm, “If you want to find the truth, you may have to give up your life.”

Mr. Campbell has donated his papers and other items relating to Malcolm X to The Avery Research Center at 125 Bull Street in downtown Charleston, so that locals may get a closer understanding of the truth behind Malcolm X.

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