Maurice Berger has a fascinating post on the NY Times Lens blog about Malcolm X’s sophisticated use of the media, particularly photography, and particularly the antagonistic white/mainstream media, to reach out to potential black constituents.
Exhibit 1–actually and unfortunately, it’s the only photo in the post–is Robert Flora’s 1963 photo for UPI, the caption for which:
Malcolm X, the nation’s number two black Muslim leader, reads a story about the Muslims in a national magazine as he sits in court with other Muslims awaiting verdict of an all-white jury deliberating the face of 14 Muslims accused of criminal assault against Los Angeles police officers.
manages to mention Muslims four times in once sentence. Impressive.
As Berger notes,
The men in the picture are focused on articles about the Nation of Islam. The Life magazine story that engrosses Malcolm, for example, was typical of the derisive coverage of the Black Muslims in the mainstream press: “The White Devil’s Day Is Almost Over: Black Muslim’s Cry Grows Louder,” screams its headline.
It only proves Berger’s astute point to point it out, but Malcolm X is anything but engrossed; he’s holding the magazine up for the photographer. Even if he were able to read at that angle–he seems to actually be looking at the paper in the hands of the man to his left–a quick search of the actual LIFE Magazine article shows there is nothing to read. The other half of the spread is a full-page shot of Elijah Muhammad, by Gordon Parks. [The cover line for the feature reads, “A Negro Photographer Shoots From The Inside – THE BLACK MUSLIMS.”]
Which, it turns out the man to Malcolm’s right is also reading. Berger doesn’t mention the headline on the paper the guy behind is very much not reading: “Seven Unarmed Negroes Shot in Cold Blood by Los Angeles Police.”
Which turns out to be Muhammad Speaks, the NOI’s newspaper. The first Google result for it appears, perfectly, in Gordon Parks’ LIFE feature. Parks was following Malcolm at the trial. Which only underscores the newspaper’s–and eventually, the magazine’s–function as a prop, intended not [necessarily, nor not solely] for the jury, but for the photographers covering the trial.
If there’s any doubt of the paper’s message-within-a-photo, here are other shots by Parks, of Malcolm X selling the paper,
and holding it up at a Black Muslim speech in Harlem. [images via Gordon Parks Foundation]
I don’t know why it has literally never occurred to me, but Berger’s account of the vehemence and derision Malcolm X received from the white establishment, and the extraordinary calculation and discipline with which Malcolm carried and presented himself, and his unfailingly calm, cool, self-assured and buttoned-down image, really jumps out at me now. Especially when it’s coupled with the terms Muslims and Black Muslims, which get repeated in the press of the day with such divisive, alienating force.
As if that was the absolute worst, scariest thing you could call someone. In 1963. In 2012, meanwhile, it’s settled into a niche birther conspiracy.
Malcolm X as Visual Strategist [nyt lens blog]