Civil Rights Historian of the West Village
By Bruce Poli
Sheridan Square, long considered the heart of the West Village, is home to three of the great community themes of civil rights.
There’s most visibly the Stonewall Inn and Stonewall National Monument—hallowed ground of the 1969 birthplace of the gay rights/LGBT movement.
There’s the mostly unrecognized statue of Philip Sheridan (in Christopher Park), the famed Civil War general renowned for the slaughter of Native Americans. His most famous quote was, “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.” How ironic that we see his statue when looking out from the door of the Stonewall Inn…and that he is the historic namesake of our iconic “progressive West Village” square. I guess he’s the Jefferson Davis of Manhattan…
And then, represented by a small GVSHP historic plaque on its façade, there is the home of Alex Haley of Roots fame (1976), also known by historians as the author of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, considered the bible of African American biographies. All of the more than fifty interviews with Malcolm Little took place at 92 Grove Street, the writing studio Haley worked in during the mid 1960s.
Malcolm would arrive for each session at 92 Grove Street around 9:00 p.m. or 10 p.m. after a long day, noted Zaheer Ali, an oral historian at the Brooklyn Historical Society. The sessions usually lasted two or three hours. Malcolm would recount the phases of his life, including witnessing racial violence as a child, enduring poverty with his family during the Great Depression, being a young man in different American cities, and serving time in prison.
This definitive story of a movement, by one if its leaders, became the touchstone of the great Negro rebellion, culminating in the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech Dr. King gave the day before his death in 1968.
In 1965, the year the biography was released and its subject assassinated, Harlem—historically considered New York City’s other “Village”—was one of the national centers of the American civil rights movement, and Malcolm X was its leading spokesman. On the corner of 135th Street and Lenox Avenue, African Americans, Malcolm X the most prominent among them, would conduct soapbox tirades promoting Black power and against the white-dominated society. He and MLK had a complex relationship and, of course, by the mid ‘60s the Reverend Elijah Mohammed’s expulsion of X from the Nation of Islam was stirring up hatred against him.
As told on his Wikipedia page, Haley had to repeatedly remind the firebrand of the book’s subject. When work on the autobiography began in early 1963, Haley grew frustrated with Malcolm’s tendency to speak only about Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. Haley reminded him that the book was supposed to be about himself, not Muhammad or the Nation of Islam, a comment which angered Malcolm. Haley eventually shifted the focus of the interviews toward the life of his subject when he asked Malcolm about his mother: “I said, ‘Mr. Malcolm, could you tell me something about your mother?’ And I will never, ever forget how he stopped almost as if he was suspended like a marionette. And he said, ‘I remember the kind of dresses she used to wear. They were old and faded and gray.’ And then he walked some more. And he said, ‘I remember how she was always bent over the stove, trying to stretch what little we had.’ And that was the beginning, that night, of his walk. And he walked that floor until just about daybreak.”
Haley completed the two-year series of interviews in his Grove Street studio—Malcolm had made endless trips from Harlem—and produced the story of the most controversially powerful civil rights leader in American history.
Time Magazine, which listed Haley’s Autobiography of Malcolm X as one of the All-Time 100 Best Non-Fiction Books, provided the following insightful analysis: “In the searing pages of this classic autobiography, originally published in 1964, Malcolm X, the Muslim leader, firebrand, and anti-integrationist, tells the extraordinary story of his life and the growth of the Black Muslim movement. His fascinating perspective on the lies and limitations of the American Dream, and the inherent racism in a society that denies its nonwhite citizens the opportunity to dream, gives extraordinary insight into the most urgent issues of our own time. The Autobiography of Malcolm X stands as the definitive statement of a movement and a man whose work was never completed but whose message is timeless. It is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand America.”
In 1977 Haley was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his 1976 Roots: The Saga of an American Family, famously adapted for the world-class television series based on his family history and translated into 30 languages. He died in 1992.
WestView News salutes Alex Haley—a Greenwich Village legend—and his great contribution to American society, culture, and civil rights history. Perhaps the area should have been named Haley Square.