Malcolm stirred the pot

Baltimore Glimpses

December 01, 1992|By GILBERT SANDLER

AUG. 3, 1963, was a hot day in Baltimore, with the temperature in the 90s. But more than hot, the city was tense, restless. On June 11, in Cambridge, on the Eastern Shore, blacks and whites had clashed, and it had taken state police and the National Guard to restore order. On July 4, that same hot summer, whites had joined blacks in a protest march to desegregate Gwynn Oak Park.

This was the same summer Malcolm X was preaching militant black nationalism, developing enthusiastic followings wherever he spoke.

Only days after the Cambridge and the Gwynn Oak confrontations, on Aug. 3, 1963, Malcolm X came to Baltimore to speak. He would be the guest of Isaiah Karriem, the Baltimore Black Muslim minister. Karriem had invited Malcolm to his Wilson Street mosque to comment on the local situation.

Malcolm was interviewed that day by a reporter from the Afro-American:

Reporter to Malcolm: "Are you familiar with the Gwynn Oak Amusement Park here? About 300 demonstrators, mostly white, were jailed for protesting segregation in the park. Many leading clergy participated. Now the park will be integrated. Your comment?"

Malcolm surprised the reporter. He was clearly unsympathetic to the effort. He declared strongly that in light of blacks' need for jobs and education, spending their energy to desegregate an amusement park was a waste.

"Black people," he said, "have been amused long enough. Those white liberals have blacks barking up the wrong tree. I don't make any distinction between white clergymen and white racketeers. You can throw in the pope, too. Imagine trying to get in a park when you can't even pay your rent."

That wasn't Malcolm's first visit to Baltimore. The previous spring he had engaged a white professor at Morgan State College in a 2 1/2 -hour debate, in which the Black Muslim labeled white men as "the devils," castigated those blacks who had chosen to associate with whites, derided the Civil War and the 1954 Supreme Court desegregation decision and called President Kennedy "a political hypocrite of the worst order."

Malcolm was in Baltimore at least one other time -- unnoticed and unreported, according to Louis Omar, a Baltimorean who traveled with Malcolm in the 1950s. Malcolm and his party appeared at Muhammad's Temple on Wilson Street in 1958 (the same mosque Malcolm was to visit five years later).

"We had a very big crowd that night," Mr. Omar recalls. "You couldn't find a place to sit or stand, inside or outside. The Muslim faithful had come to Baltimore and to this church -- actually we were opening the church as a Muslim temple -- from New York, Philadelphia and from all the little towns in Virginia. We thought the opening of the temple in Baltimore, and Malcolm's message that night, were well received.

"But in those days in Baltimore, Malcolm X was not news, and his appearance here created little stir."

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