It was April 1963, and Malcolm X, the black nationalist leader, was coming to Durham. He brought controversy with him, too.
He came to debate CORE leader Floyd McKissick Sr., an attorney and civil rights leader in Durham whose family led the charge to desegregate Durham schools. But at the last minute, the city denied use of the W.D. Hill Community Center for the debate, so another location was found.
Malcolm X was at the time a minister in the Nation of Islam, an advocate of separation of races and a critic of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others who emphasized nonviolent protests.
African-Americans should protect themselves "by any means necessary," he said.
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If he were alive today, Malcolm X would turn 93 years-old Saturday. But he was assassinated on Feb. 21, 1965, after multiple attempts on his life after he broke away from the Nation of Islam and its leader, Elijah Muhammad.
Durham City Council member DeDreana Freeman told the council last week she will re-submit a proclamation recognizing Malcolm X.
A proclamation was placed on a recent council agenda before being approved by Mayor Steve Schewel, so it was taken off. That version was criticized for noting Malcolm X's work for the Nation of Islam, which the Southern Poverty Law Center considers a hate group..
Freeman said she wasn't opposed to rewriting it, and told the council she would reintroduce a proclamation recognizing Malcolm X including the name he took later in life: El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.
Malcolm X's day in Durham
Before the debate on April 18, 1963, Malcolm X spent the day at the McKissick's law office in downtown Durham.
There he met a young NAACP and CORE leader, Walter Riley, then a high school senior married to a white Freedom Rider.
Malcolm X made an impression on Riley, who had joined the civil rights movement in Durham after happening upon a protest outside the Kress store when he was 12.
"Malcolm was dynamic in the sense that he spoke very strongly and clearly about racism, so that had meaning to me," recalled Riley in a recent phone interview.
"I remember it was in my age group that Emmett Till was killed. That was a big deal to everybody and it impacted me very much," Riley said, along with new reports about lynchings and discrimination. Riley joined a group of young NAACP members and was involved in several protests and sit-ins.
"So when I met Malcolm X I was ready for the conversation. I was not as prepared at that period for the kinds of religious positions of the Nation of Islam. ... that kind of aggressive approach to separation, but Malcolm was very appealing to me himself," Riley said.
Riley, who would moderate the debate that night, doesn't remember the specifics of the conversation, only impressions. They talked about the movement.
"Malcolm said he was not opposed to [picketing] but [was] not going to commit to being nonviolent. We would not fight back. He would not do that," Riley said. "He would not support not defending yourself when you’re under attack," he said.
Riley recalls McKissick saying the event was not a debate. "He said at the podium that they were talking, and talking about the role of black folk, and what it meant to be involved," Riley said. Malcolm X was to be introduced to the crowd first, but he deferred to McKissick, saying that as a CORE leader in the host city, McKissick should be introduced first. "He was so nice," Riley said of Malcolm X.
That wasn't the only time Malcolm X deferred to his hosts that night. The ushers were the Nation of Islam security men known as the Fruit of Islam. They separated the audience by gender and race.
"One of us said 'This is not right. I asked [a security guard] not to do it and they said this is their policy, practice and what they do. And I said, 'This is our meeting,' and they said, 'This is what we do.'"
"I went to Malcolm X and I said, 'This is not who we are, what we do. Malcolm X went over and talked to leader, and said, 'You will do it [their way]. We are in their house, their guests,' something to that extent," Riley said.
Future state senator there, too
On that day 55 years ago, there was also young Floyd McKissick Jr., now a state senator, who spent afternoons at his dad's office.
McKissick Jr. remembers bringing them cold Pepsis from the office refrigerator. He was 11 years-old. He remembers the controversy over holding the debate at W.D. Hill, in the heart of the black community, he said, and the city deciding Malcolm X was too controversial to host in a city-owned building.
"The key thing in terms of the conversation was integration vs. separatism," he said. McKissick said his father's arguments were that you can be integrated while not assimilated in white culture.
"It wasn’t about you assimilating into a white culture, it was about getting the best education you could ... They talked about schools in particular but also other things as well. It was before the Civil Rights Act passed in '64," McKissick said.
But McKissick Sr. and Malcolm X did agree on some things.
"My dad was always a champion of black economic development. On black businesses, they really were very much in sync," McKissick Jr. said.
As a civil rights attorney, McKissick Sr.'s clients included the Nation of Islam and the NAACP. McKissick Jr. listened in on his father's conversation with Malcolm X before the debate.
"They actually had a wonderful camaraderie. There was a great deal of mutual respect and camaraderie," he said.
Malcolm X Day in Durham
Freeman, who introduced the first proclamation honoring Malcolm X, said she would observe May 19, the day he was born, regardless of a proclamation. If the city does consider a revision, it would be added to the agenda for Monday's City Council meeting, which will be published Thursday.
Durham Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson said she would support a proclamation.
"People aren’t just one thing," she said. "Malcolm X was a complicated figure and did a lot of good for the civil rights movement, and he was a member of an anti-Semitic organization ... I think [it's worthwhile] pointing out he left that organization at the end of his life and was moving toward a more inclusive effort around civil rights, and I think that’s something we should highlight in a proclamation, and also his visit to Durham."
The UNC University Library blog includes clips of Daily Tar Heel and then-Durham Morning Herald coverage of the McKissick-Malcolm X debate.
Malcolm X has another connection to Durham — activist Howard Fuller founded the short-lived Malcolm X Liberation University here in 1969.
"The thing people should realize, is that after Malcolm went to Mecca, his views and his thoughts and opinions moderated a bit, and were not as much militant and separatist," McKissick Jr. said. "People tend to remember the old Malcolm, not what he was becoming."