"It was almost like he was forecasting his death." That's how Constance Mitchell describes Malcolm X in his last Rochester speech. It was held on February 16 at CornHillMethodistChurch in 1965, just five days before the civil rights leader also known as El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz was assassinated.
Mitchell and Malcolm X become close friends after she saw him speak at the University of Rochester in 1962. At the time, Mitchell was a member of the Monroe County Board of Supervisors --- predecessor of the CountyLegislature --- representing the Third Ward (the Corn Hill neighborhood and adjacent areas). She'd witnessed the 1964 riots and a community desperately trying to piece itself together in their aftermath. She'd seen the problems the African-American community was having with the police and the educational system. And she maintained a correspondence with Malcolm X --- "this very warm person who really had a tremendous sense of humor" --- through it all.
City Newspaper recently interviewed Mitchell, now 76 and living in Chili, about the development of her relationship with Malcolm, his talk at Corn Hill Methodist, and the ever-changing state of race relations in Rochester. Following is an edited transcript of Mitchell's recollections.
"I first met Malcolm X in 1962. Dr. Freddie Thomas had invited me to go out to the University of Rochester to listen to him. I had been reading about the man, and talking to Freddie about him.
"When we arrived, it was all students. We sat down in front. When Malcolm finished speaking, he asked for the two people down front to stay behind. We knew what he was talking about, because I think we were the only two blacks besides the janitor who were in the audience.
"So we stayed afterwards, and we got to talking and asking him questions. Finally, the janitor came and said he had to close the auditorium. So I invited Malcolm to my home. We had this feeling that we wanted to hear more.
"I was living in Corn Hill, and we had a huge living room. Our house used to be like the old neighborhood command house; it was where everybody came to meet and talk. When I got home, I called some people to ask if they wanted to come and hear Brother Malcolm. Within an hour the living room was packed. And we stayed up all night long listening to him. That's how I got to know him.
"I think it was one of the most wonderful evenings I've had. Within that room, you had people who had PhDs, you had people who only had an elementary school education. You had scientists and you had garbage collectors; white and black. We had people sitting on the floor because we'd run out of chairs. We listened, we asked questions, and we listened some more. It was a night of dialogue and learning.
"Malcolm spoke mainly about race relations in this country. He had nothing against Dr. King, but he was clear that Dr. King had a different philosophy, the non-violent movement. And 99 percent of us in that room were very active in the Civil Rights Movement. My husband and I went to Selma. But Malcolm didn't believe in turning the other cheek. He just didn't think it would get us what we were looking for. Everything that we've fought for and won in this country has been fought for and won through violence, he said. He was talking about how the India movement can't happen here, referring to Mahatma Ghandi. He also felt very strongly that the only way our people would be free was through education.
"Every time Malcolm came back, he got with us and we sat down and talked. When he was away, I would keep in touch with him by mail. He had even written from Mecca. [All of the correspondence between Mitchell and Malcolm X was stolen from the Mitchell home the night before the family moved from Corn Hill to the 19th Ward.]
"When Malcolm spoke at Corn Hill Methodist, it was almost like he was forecasting his death. He spoke about the problems he had with the Muslims and the problems he was having with the government. But he felt his problems were really more with the Muslims than with the government. He thought that if the government was out to get him, it wouldn't have allowed him to go out to Mecca and come back into the country.
"It was a fascinating speech. And I don't think any of us realized at the time that we had a prophet in our midst, Because he forecast a lot of what has taken place in this country within the last 25 or 30 years.
"He talked about the problems we were having with Russia at the time, that Russia was the enemy but before it was all over Russia and the US would become bosom buddies. He talked about the fighting in the Middle East and the problems we were going to have with uprisings. He talked about mass media. He had insight into many things that were about to take place not only in this country, but around the world.
"Malcolm was really two different people. He was the fiery person you saw in public, but privately he was this very warm person who really had a tremendous sense of humor. We often laughed and kidded. He didn't drink and he didn't smoke. At the time, most of us took a drink and we also smoked. We laughed about how we liked pork. So I don't think there was anyone in that room he could have converted to become a Muslim. And we talked about that. He was a believer, and I don't think we had become believers.
"I'm originally from New Rochelle, New York. And I knew he once worked as a bartender in Harlem. I used to say how weird it was that this man, a former bartender, is now spouting off all this wisdom. I attribute a lot of that to the reading he did while he was in prison.
"I didn't see Malcolm as a radical. I was even cautioned by close associates that I would get a stigma attached to me by connecting to Brother Malcolm. But I just couldn't see it. I listened to the man, and what he was saying was so believable.
"I think there were many people who feared Malcolm. But I think there were also a lot of people who were trying to understand what he was all about. And I don't think that was a novelty. I think many people were sincere in their efforts to understand him. As the years went on after his death, several people who felt he was too radical realized that he wasn't.
"At the time of Malcolm's Corn Hill Methodist speech, people in Rochester were searching and really trying to find a way to rebuild this city. They wanted to bring about many of the changes that needed to take place. We had loads of problems with education. We had problems with the police department at that time. We had all the social ills that go with cities. But I think what you had in Rochesterwas an understanding among the people who came to the table. People wanted to sit down and try to bring about some solutions to the problems we had within this community.
"I'll be honest with you. I lived in the city for 51 years. I've been in Chili now for four years. It's hard for me to pinpoint where we are right now when it comes to race relations, because the whole drug scene has destroyed our communities. It's a fulltime job with the drugs in our community. That's the battle that has to be fought. And the whole educational problem is still there. But I think Mayor Bill Johnson has served as a catalyst for bringing together the diverse groups that make up the city of Rochester. Whenever someone is elected, especially a minority or African American, people expect them to be a miracle worker.
"There are a lot of things that still need to be done, and a lot of them we simply can't do because we don't have the money. One of the problems I foresee with the upcoming mayoral election is racial polarization. I think we're headed in that direction. And that's really sad. I'd hate to see what this campaign can do to this community. And that scares me to death, because I think we can set back all the good will that has taken place over the years."
Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School will remember Malcolm X 40 years after his assassination with a symposium on Saturday, February 19, in the Strong Hall Auditorium, 1100 South Goodman Street, from 2 to 4 p.m. Symposium presenter Minister Franklin Florence organized the visit by Malcolm X to Rochester on February 16, 1965. Free. 271-1320 x250.