Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little on this day, 19th May 1925.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X, written by him with Alex Haley, was published shortly after his assassination in 1965. Much of the book concerns his involvement with, and later break from the Nation of Islam. But the earlier part of the book contains some fascinating memories of nightlife in Boston and New York in the early 1940s.
In Boston, Malcolm worked as a shoeshine boy at the Roseland Ballroom and was clearly a big fan of the music played there. He talks approvingly of seeing Peggy Lee, Benny Gordman, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and many others, and recalled the fierce dancing competitions:
'"Showtime" people would start hollering about the last hour of the dance. Then a couple of dozen really wild couples would stay on the floor, the girls changing to low-white sneakers. The band now would really be blasting, and all the other dancers would form a clapping, shouting circle to watch that wild competition as it began, covering only a quarter or so of the ballroom floor. The band, the spectators and the dancers would be making the Roseland Ballroom feel like a big rocking ship. The spotlight would be turning, pink, yellow, green, and blue, picking up the couples lindy-hopping as if they had gone mad'.
Before long, he was a zoot suit wearing dancer himself (and indeed had progressed from shining the musicians' shoes to dealing them 'reefers'), and describes with evident relish lindy-hopping to Duke Ellington: 'Laura's feet were flying: I had her in the air, down, sideways, around: backwards, up again, down, whirling... Laura inspired me to drive to new heights. Her hair was all over her face, it was running sweat, and I couldn't believe her strength. The crowd was shouting and stomping'.
Still for all its liberation, nightlife was completely racialized. At the Roseland, some white dancers attended the black dances, but no black people were allowed to dance at the white dances, even if the music was provided by black musicians. Moving to New York, black Harlem had been catering since the 1920s for wealthier whites looking for thrills but not genuine social equality. I was surprised to read the word 'hippies'' dates back to that period: 'A few of the white men around Harlem, younger ones whom we called 'hippies', acted more Negro than Negroes. This particular one talked more 'hip' than we did'.
During the war, resentment against racist treatment grew. 'During World War II, Mayor LaGuardia officially closed the Savoy Ballroom. Harlem said the real reason was to stop Negroes from dancing with white women. Harlem said no one dragged the white women in there'. In his recent biography, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (2011), Manning Marable provides some background:
'Since its grand opening in 1926, the Savoy, located on Lenox Avenue between 140th and 141st streets, had quickly become the most significant cultural institution of Harlem. The great ballroom contained two large bandstands, richly carpeted lounges, and mirrored walls. During its heyday, about seven hundred thousand customers visited each year... In a period when downtown hotels and dancehalls still remained racially segregated, the Savoy was the centre for interracial dancing and entertainment. On April 22nd 1943, the Savoy was padlocked by the NYPD, on the grounds that servicemen had been solicited by prostitutes there. New York City's Bureau of Social Hygiene cited evidence that, over a nine-month period, 164 individuals has "met the source of their [venereal] diseases at the Savoy Ballroom". These alleged cases all came from armed services or coast guard personnel. Bureau officials offered absolutely no explanation as to how they had determined that the servicemen contracted diseases specifically from Savoy hookers... The Savoy remained closed throughout the summer of 1943' (it reopened in October).
During the period of the closure there there was a major riot in Harlem on 1 August 1943 after a black soldier was shot by a white policeman. 6 people died and 600 were arrested.
Marable reveals an interesting detail that Malcolm does not mention in the Autobiography - that under the stage name Jack Carlton, he performed as a bar entertainer at the Lobster Pond nightclub on 42nd street in 1944, dancing and sometimes playing the drums on stage.
Sadly it was another ballroom, the Audobon in Harlem, where Malcolm was murdered in February 1965 as he rose to speak at a public meeting there.
There's a great recreation of the Lindy Hop scene at the Roseland Ballroom in Spike Lee's film Malcolm X (1992).