When Martin Luther King, Jr., moved to Boston in 1951 to study for his graduate degree in philosophy, Malcolm X was voraciously reading books in the Charlestown State Prison as he finished up his six-year sentence for burglary.
As young men, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were shaped by two different Bostons in ways later manifested at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and its aftermath.
Martin was the son of a well-to-do Atlanta minister, and for four years Boston for him was a genteel city of concerts and teas, sermons and classes, tailored suits and highbrow discussions about Gandhi and Spinoza. He owned his own Chevrolet, matriculated at Boston University and consulted renowned philosophers Paul Tillich and Reinold Neibuhr for advice about his dissertation.
Malcolm matriculated in Boston’s streets, nightclubs and prisons during the dozen years he lived there on and off. Parentless and poor, the 15-year-old first moved to the Roxbury section of Boston in 1941 to stay with his older half-sister, the formidable Ella Little Collins. She saw theft as her only way to make it into the black bourgeoisie, and over 20 years she was arrested 21 times, but convicted only once. Her rebellious little brother took from her a lesson about evading personal responsibility. He dropped out of ninth grade after one day, smoked pot, hustled, stole, ran numbers and seduced loose women.
By 1963, the ex-con and the former graduate student were known throughout the world: Martin for preaching nonviolence and integration, Malcolm for preaching separatism and self-defense. Where Martin said he had a dream for America, Malcolm said he saw an American nightmare.
In the few years they had left after the March on Washington, the two men were coming closer – certainly not to each other, but to the same views and strategies. Malcolm left the Nation of Islam, repudiated his earlier racism and advocated a program of economic advancement. Martin increasingly embraced the labor movement as a force for the economic justice required for social justice. Many forget he died while supporting a sanitation workers’ strike.
Malcolm X Meets the Cradle of Jazz
In February 1941, Malcolm X, still known as Malcolm Little at that point, rode the Greyhound bus from Lansing, Mich., to Boston. He wore a too-small dark green suit and a light green topcoat. He moved in with his older half sister at 72 Dale St. in Roxbury – a block from what is now Martin Luther King Boulevard and three miles from what would be Martin’s apartment at 397 Massachusetts Ave. in the South End.
Malcolm’s mother had been committed to an insane asylum in Kalamazoo. His father, a Baptist lay preacher, was killed by a streetcar when Malcolm was six. Though Earl Little’s death was ruled an accident, Malcolm believed his father had been pushed in front of the oncoming trolley by white racists. Earl was a follower of Marcus Garvey, leader of the black separatist and Pan-Africanism movement. So was his half-sister Ella.
Boston made an enormous impression on the small-town boy from Michigan.
“I didn’t know the world contained as many Negroes as I saw thronging downtown Roxbury at night, especially on Saturdays,” Malcolm X wrote in his 1964 autobiography. “Neon lights, nightclubs, poolhalls [sic], bars, the cars they drove! Restaurants made the streets smell-rich, greasy, down-home black cooking. Jukeboxes blared Erskine Hawkins, Duke Ellington, Cootie Williams, dozens of others.”
Ella had offered to take him in and enrolled him in a private boys’ academy in downtown Boston. On his first day he realized there were no girls and decided to end his formal education. Soon he met his mentor in the ways of the underworld, Malcolm “Shorty” Jarvis, a trumpet player who introduced him to Boston’s nightclub scene, pointing out gamblers and pimps.
Jazz writer Nat Hentoff was a high school student who haunted the jazz clubs at the same time Malcolm did; later, they became friends in New York City. Hentoff described Boston as a cradle of homegrown jazz in a 2001 Boston Globe article.
“The stretch of Mass. Ave. between Huntington and Columbus was, by the late '40s, Boston's answer to 52nd Street in Manhattan — with not only the Roseland, but the Savoy Café, the Hi-Hat, Wally's, and a handful of smaller clubs,” wrote Hentoff.
Both local and touring musicians would also play the RKO Boston Theater, the Ken Club on Warrenton Street, the Copley Terrace on Huntington Avenue, Storyville in Kenmore Square and the Savoy Café on Massachusetts Avenue, near Symphony Hall and across the street from Martin Luther King’s apartment.
Malcolm conked his hair, bought a zoot suit and learned how to hustle and dance. He was setting himself apart from African-American strivers like the preacher’s son from Atlanta. As biographer Manning Marable wrote, Malcolm had adopted “the various symbols of the cultural war waged between oppressed urban black youth and the black bourgeoisie.”
The “M” in Martin
Martin Luther King Jr. was 22 when he arrived in Boston in 1951, the son of a well-to-do Baptist pastor. He too had skipped ninth grade – but because he was such a precocious student. He went right to the tenth and, right after 11th grade, enrolled in Morehouse College at age 15. He had graduated in 1948 with a degree in sociology and then received a bachelor of Divinity degree from Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pa.
King adopted an elite persona as he moved between his classes, the library and his Massachusetts Avenue apartment. In Parting the Waters, Taylor Branch writes: “King continued to wear tailored suits whenever he stepped out of his apartment, and he worked consciously to develop habits befitting an intellectual. Doodling on the back of a notebook, he practiced increasingly ornate signatures, until the “g” in King looped all the way back to the “M” in Martin. Like many of the other students, he tamped, smoked, and fiddled with a pipe almost constantly, spoke with an air of detached reserve, and developed the far-off look of a philosopher.”
Martin was influenced by his advisor, theologian Howard Thurman, the first black dean of a predominately white university. He listened to Thurman’s sermons at the University’s Marsh Chapel. Thurman, who had visited Mohandas Gandhi in India, educated his young student in the mahatma’s philosophy of nonviolent protest.
Martin surrounded himself with books and pursued an elegant social life. His goal was to find the proper wife for an ambitious Baptist minister. One of his friends called him “the most eligible and popular bachelor in town.” His dating began to affect his grades.
Martin wooed Coretta Scott, an Antioch College graduate who was studying to become a classical singer at the New England Conservatory of Music. He treated her to concerts and the theater and showered her with poetic prose. In a letter written in 1952, he wrote “My life without you is like a year without a spring time which comes to give illumination and heat to the atmosphere saturated by the dark cold breeze of winter.”
They wed in 1953, and moved into a new apartment in Boston. They didn’t stay long. In September 1954 he became the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. Nine months later, he would be awarded his Ph.D. from Boston University, and soon after that he would be plunged into the civil rights movement.
Menial Jobs, Prison – and Then the Turnaround
Malcolm would get a series of menial jobs in Boston: as a soda jerk, as a warehouse worker at a South Boston wallpaper company, at a Sears Roebuck warehouse in the Fenway, as a waiter at the posh Parker House. When the United States entered World War II, jobs opened up on the railroad, and Malcolm was hired as a fourth-class cook. He traveled to Washington, D.C., and to New York, where he fell in love with Harlem. By 1943 he had moved there, supporting himself with petty crime: dealing drugs, gambling and stealing. He drifted back and forth between Boston, New York and his family in Lansing for the next few years.
Finally, in 1946 he was arrested for burglary. He had dropped off a stolen watch for repair at a Roxbury jewelry store. Detectives were waiting for him when he came to pick it up. He was convicted of larceny, breaking and entering, and carrying a weapon. The court sentenced him to the notorious Charlestown prison for six to eight years of hard labor.
Charlestown State Prison is now the site of Bunker Hill Community College. It was where Sacco and Vanzetti were executed. Malcolm was incensed about his imprisonment, and his cellmates called him “Satan.” He furiously paced his tiny cell, insulted the guards, ranted profanely and got high on ground nutmeg.
And then Malcolm Little started to turn his life around. A fellow inmate persuaded him to begin formal study through correspondence courses. Malcolm threw himself into his self-education. Prison officials, noting his good behavior, moved him to a slightly better institution, the Massachusetts Reformatory at Concord. By then, he’d convinced Ella of the sincerity of his good intentions. She began a successful letter-writing campaign to move him to a far more humane facility: the Norfolk Prison Colony, where he was able to read extensively in the prison library and practice his debating skills with other inmates.
Prodded by his family, Malcolm became a follower of the Nation of Islam, a new movement that preached self-reliance and Pan-Africanism. He was released from prison in 1952 and moved to Detroit, joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Malcolm X.