Durham County

Malcolm X Day in Durham? Why there won’t be a proclamation

Malcolm X is shown in a 1964 portrait.
Malcolm X is shown in a 1964 portrait. AP

There won’t be a Malcolm X Day proclamation in Durham, although it was on the agenda Monday for the City Council’s next meeting.

Malcolm X was a black nationalist leader who was assassinated Feb. 21, 1965. He was born May 19, 1925.

City Manager Tom Bonfield said a proposed proclamation came through the city clerk’s office from council member DeDreana Freeman.

But Mayor Steve Schewel, who is on vacation, said he had not talked with Freeman and is “not issuing a proclamation about that.”

“I haven’t heard anything about it, I certainly wouldn’t do it,” he said. “I just — we’ve had a lot of symbolic politics lately and it’s time to take a little rest from that. I’m the one that issues proclamations.”

Schewel emailed city officials late Monday afternoon, asking them to remove the proposed proclamation from the agenda.

Policing, Israel-Palestine issue and the Council

The Malcolm X issue follows a controversial statement by the mayor and council that Durham will not engage in military-style police training with other countries.

“The council opposes international exchanges with any country in which Durham officers receive military-style training since such exchanges do not support the kind of policing we want here in the City of Durham,” according to the statement that Schewel wrote and which the council endorsed April 16, after much public comment. During the contentious meeting, a man who is a member the Nation of Islam made a comment about Jews controlling Durham.

“I’m one of those Jews, I just want you to know that,” Schewel responded at the meeting, calling the comments anti-Semitic. “I don’t appreciate it; don’t bring it in here again.”

The statement responded to a petition from Demilitarize Durham2Palestine, a collaboration of Jewish Voice for Peace, Durham for All and others who called on the city to cut any police ties with Israel. The statement included a comment from Durham Police Chief C.J. Davis stating that she does not have any plans to be involved in exchanges with Israel.

Peter Reitzes of Carrboro has criticized the City Council for that statement, which drew scorn, praise and international attention.

Reitzes and Adam Goldstein of Chapel Hill, a former Jewish Federation of Durham-Chapel Hill leader, have also singled out council member Mark-Anthony Middleton for posting a photograph of himself shaking hands with a local Nation of Islam leader who appeared on Middleton’s radio show.

“First of all, I take pictures with everyone on my radio show,” Middleton said. “If they’re suggesting that’s an endorsement of the Nation of Islam, that’s ridiculous.”

“I take pictures with everybody, really this is part of a larger narrative ... the [policing statement] vote was unanimous, but there seems to be special attention reserved for me,” Middleton said.

“Steve Schewel wrote the statement. Why is special attention reserved for me? There’s something about when black men speak up in this country — it makes people nervous. I call it the ‘uppity Negro syndrome.’ I’m the only black man on council. Sometimes when black men speak up, people get nervous,” Middleton said.

“You don’t get to Jedi mind trick someone into being an anti-Semite,” he said. Middleton also expanded on the policing statement vote, saying that his vote “was based upon Ferguson, not Israel,” and that they have not boycotted Israel.

Reitzes and Goldstein both said they did not object to a Malcolm X Day, but to mentions of the Nation of Islam in the proposed proclamation they read.

The Southern Poverty Law Center calls the Nation of Islam, led by Louis Farrakhan, a designated hate group.

Freeman said Wednesday that she submitted the Malcolm X Day proclamation and three other proclamations in March, and knows that the mayor decides which proclamations to issue. She got the text of the proclamation from a council member friend in Maine. Freeman said mentions of the Nation of Islam are just part of Malcolm X’s life history.

“We can’t just exclude parts of a person’s life because we don’t like it,” she said.

“I’m open to rewriting the proclamation. I’m not stuck on the way it was written, I just wanted to make sure we didn’t miss it like we missed Black History Month,” Freeman said. She does not see how the proclamation is related to the Council’s recent statement on policing.

Freeman said that regardless of a proclamation, the May 19 birthday of Malcolm X, also known as Malcolm Little and El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, will still arrive.

“As far as I’m concerned, the life and legacy of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz shall be celebrated in the black community, and in the community as a whole,” Freeman said.

She said that at home, she’ll talk with her children about the life and legacy of Malcolm X and what that means.

Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman, the new president of the N.C. NAACP, tells why he feels pulled by both the philosophies of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X during an interview.

Malcolm X in Durham

Malcolm X visited Durham and Chapel Hill in April 1963 to debate then-CORE leader Floyd McKissick Sr., who died in 1991.

McKissick organized the debate with Malcolm X, then a Nation of Islam minister, with McKissick arguing for integration and Malcolm X arguing for separatism, according to the UNC North Carolina Collection post written by Sarah W. Carrier, North Carolina research and instruction librarian at UNC’s Wilson Library.

Durham high school student and NAACP member Walter Riley, left, moderated the debate between attorney and civil rights activist Floyd McKissick Sr., looking at camera, and black nationalist Malcolm X, right, in Durham in 1963. Durham Herald Co. Newspaper Photograph Collection, North Carolina Collection, UNC University Libraries

Malcolm X broke from the Nation of Islam and then-leader Elijah Muhammad a few months before he was killed.

Nation of Islam is a separate group and does not encompass African-American Muslims, who belong to a variety of groups.

Durham activist Howard Fuller founded the short-lived Malcolm X Liberation University in 1969, though it only lasted a year in Durham. Fuller, then an Operation Breakthrough organizer, went on to become superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools in the 1990s and is now a professor at Marquette University.

The 2003 Malcolm X Day proclamation

The proposed proclamation mentioned Malcolm X’s early life and involvement with Nation of Islam but not his visit to Durham nor the university named for him. Regardless, Schewel said Monday he had no intent of issuing a proclamation.

Former Durham Mayor Bill Bell issued a proclamation for Malcolm X in 2003. It includes his time in the Nation of Islam as well as his resignation from it. That proclamation also said that Malcolm X “never stopped working to better himself as a converted ex-criminal through his new dedication to religion, self knowledge and his unselfish pursuit of black liberation denoting ‘true brotherhood’ until he was assassinated.”

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: 919-419-6563; @dawnbvaughan
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