Alex Haley, Watts & Malcolm X

The week-long Watts Riots began on this day in 1965, and Alex Haley was born on this day in 1921. Haley’s roots as a writer were in journalism, first in the Coast Guard and then for Playboy, where he did the magazine’s first interview and went on to do some of the most important interviews of the sixties, many of them featuring a discussion of America’s racial problems. Haley’s interview with Martin Luther King, Jr., published seven months before Watts, contains this forewarning from King about the consequences of preaching violence:

And in his litany of articulating the despair of the Negro without offering any positive , creative alternative, I feel that Malcolm has done himself and our people a great disservice. Fiery, demagogic oratory in the black ghettos, urging Negroes to arm themselves and prepare to engage violence, as he has done, can reap nothing but grief.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Haley’s first book, was published six months after Watts. In his Epilogue, Haley describes his subject as an angry, driven, and exhausted man. He rarely spoke personally for their first month of meetings, his conversation directed only to his cause, even his non-stop doodling on nearby napkins and scraps of paper reflecting his commitments — “Here lies a YM [Yellow Man], killed by a BM [Black Man], fighting for the WM [White Man], who killed all the RM [Red Men].” But Haley also saw glimpses of another sort of man, this one triggered by memories of Harlem:

One night, suddenly, wildly, he jumped up from his chair and, incredibly, the fearsome black demagogue was scat-singing and popping his fingers, “re-bop-de-bop-blap-blam — ” and then grabbing a vertical pipe with one hand (as the girl partner) he went jubilantly lindy-hopping around, his coattail and the long legs and the big feet flying as they had in those Harlem days. And then almost as suddenly, Malcolm X caught himself and sat back down….


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.