(The following piece was written by Stephanie Jones, a University of San Francisco Senior and an intern at the Freedom Archives.)
How many times have you heard the “I Have a Dream” speech? How many pictures of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X have you seen? Growing up hearing the speeches of these men, more specifically Dr. King, I am no stranger to the idea that civil rights were, and perhaps are, a sensitive issue within the United States. The stories told of the rights leaders above, as well as others such as Che Guevara have always given me the image of these men are greater than human – heroes; men who died for doing what was right of course. But with this title of hero, they were more than human to me.
Last week I listened to a panel discussion of race in the United States in the middle of the civil rights movement. The panel had various key figures of the movement including James Farmer, the Director of CORE at the time, and Malcolm X. Before I even began the tape I was excited because although I had heard Malcolm X speak a little, I am ashamed to say, the greatest influence on my image of him was Denzel Washington’s portrayal of him in the film, Malcolm X. Aside from my excitement about hearing him, I selected the tape with hopes of finding useful material in my search for quotes regarding race relations throughout the world.
The panel discussion began with speeches from the participants, one discussing problems he has encountered with the government, others talking about the success of the bus boycotts in Montgomery. While I anxiously awaited Malcolm X’s speech, as I assume the rest of the crowd did, I listened to the other speaker give real, but uplifting speeches about the hopes for the future while being supported by the crowd through applause.
Unlike the other speakers, when Malcolm X took the podium, the crowd was silent … I could almost feel the crowds anticipation through the tape. His speech was not unlike the other presenters, discussing the need for change, but more some reason his voice connected in a different way. I was unable to pinpoint exactly what this was until the crowd began to applaud him or the second or third time and he silenced them. Never in my life have I heard a speaker silence a crowd in this manner – as if he had no patience for the praise they were giving him … that is was more important for them to hear him, really hear what he was saying. It was this that distinguished him. His speech was not a speech, I would label it more as a call to action. His disregard for the praise (he without a doubt deserved at the time) was shocking but essential. He was not asking for action, or attention, or respect – he was demanding it.
After his speech, the preliminary part of the panel was over, and the panel fielded questions from the audience. Although other panel members received some questions, the focus was without a doubt on Mr. X. In this discussion, the hero, in the film, in the speeches I had heard before this tape, and in the images I had seen, became human. This was the most exciting part of this tape to me. His responses to the questions were unscripted and uncontrolled; his anger came bursting through the headphones, and with each response he once again demanded. His tone was unlike any other speaker in its urgency and rhetoric.
While many people did not agree with what he was saying, everyone that addressed him did so with a respect that you could hear in their voices. Listening to this man’s unscripted response to question after question with an unwavering tone, confidence, and message was heroic, as I had imaged before, but also human … which I think was the most amazing part.