Sunday marked the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X, who was killed at the age of 39 by members of the Nation of Islam, for whom he had been a spokesperson and leader.
Like many African-American men, Malcolm Little suffered police harassment as a youth while peddling reefers in Harlem to make ends meet. His struggle with authorities led to his time in prison, where he became a devotee of Elijah Muhammad, changed his name to Malcolm X, and eventually became a lifelong crusader for African-American rights.
Little grew up in foster homes around Lansing, Michigan after his father, a Baptist Minister and organizer for Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, was brutally murdered when Malcolm was six years old.
He graduated from junior high at the top of his class, but when a favorite teacher told him his dream of becoming a lawyer was “no realistic goal for a nigger,” Malcolm lost interest in his studies and was sent to reform school. As a teenager in Boston, he worked as a shoeshine boy at the Roseland Ballroom where he heard jazz bands of the day like Benny Goodman and Lionel Hampton playing “Flying Home.”
In The Autobiography of Malcolm X, he wrote he enjoyed smoking marijuana and jitterbugging in Zoot suits and being taken to “groovy, frantic scenes in different chicks’ and cats’ pads, where with the lights and juke down mellow, everybody blew gage and juiced back and jumped. I met chicks who were as fine as May wine, and cats who were hip to all happenings.”
Malcolm soon took off to work for the railroad, selling sandwiches. He excelled at his job for which he would show up “loud and wild and half-high on liquor and reefers.” He was given the New York route, which took him to Harlem. There he “drank liquor, smoked marijuana, painted the big Apple red with increasing numbers of friends.” He writes of “my reefers keeping me sky-high” and feeling “that marijuana glow where the world relaxes.”
After he lost his bartending job in New York for connecting an undercover cop with a prostitute, Malcolm turned to “peddling reefers.” Some merchant seamen he knew supplied him with “gunja and kisca smuggled in from Africa and Persia,” and “musicians, among whom I had so many good contacts, were the heaviest consistent market for reefers.” On his first night, he was able to pay back the friend who had staked his business.
“In every band, at least half of the musicians smoked reefers,” he wrote. “I’m not going to list names; I’d have to include some of those most prominent then in popular music.” Malcolm was soon making $50-$60 a day. “And I didn’t sell and run, because my customers were my friends. Often I’d smoke along with them. None of them stayed any more high than I did.”
Soon, however, he attracted the attention of police, and after trying to peddle his wares in poorer neighborhoods, he jumped back on the railroad, selling pot in small towns where he would find the Black neighborhoods by looking for a Lincoln High School.
Back in New York, he turned to armed robbery, using cocaine to hype him up for his jobs. He smoked opium to come down and was smoking reefer “by the ounce.” In 1946 he was convicted of burglary and sentenced to 10 years (he served 7). In prison he spent much of his time high on nutmeg or reefer until his family got him placed in an experimental prison where he read up on history and was introduced to Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam.
After his parole in 1952, he became one of the Nation’s leaders and chief spokesmen as Malcolm X. For nearly a dozen years, he was the public face of the Nation of Islam, but ultimately broke with Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965 by three members of the NOI.
“When a person places the proper value on freedom, there is nothing under the sun that he will not do to acquire that freedom,” he said.
Sadly, despite gains made by African-American rights activists like Malcolm X, young black men continue to be thrown into prison in wildly disproportionate numbers for drug crimes. February is Black History Month, a good time to celebrate the gains made by the civil rights community, but also a good time to assess the work that still needs to be done. Until America’s racist drug laws are abolished forever, Malcolm X’s dream of freedom will never be fully realized.
Read more about Malcolm X.
Ellen Komp is an activist and writer who manages the website VeryImportantPotheads.com.