On this day in 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated in the Audubon Ballroom in New York City.
In the 51 years since his death, Malcolm has become a cultural icon. He’s now in the pantheon of freedom fighters that includes Richard Allen, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela.
In 1954, Elijah Muhammad sent Malcolm to Philadelphia to establish Temple No. 12. For years, there has been confusion about where Malcolm lived during his time in Philly. His FBI file has an address provided by an informant. I recently viewed a documentary that includes a first-hand account of where Malcolm lived. In Seeds of Awakening: The Early Nation of Islam in Philadelphia, Brother Hassan recalled:
We would sit up all night. When Malcolm was here, we’d sit up all night talking. We had a Unity House, a Fruit House, on 2503 Oxford Street. A big house. That’s where Malcolm would stay and all the brothers would come.
The house is still there. It’s been owned by the same family since 1956.
In the next few weeks, we will nominate 2503 W. Oxford Street for historic designation by the Philadelphia Historical Commission. Later this year, we will submit the nomination to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
I celebrate black history 365. But outside the African American community, black history is recognized, if at all, in February, the shortest month.
The world-famous Apollo Theater has been “honoring the legacy, advancing the path” for 82 years. On Saturday, I attended their Open House Weekend, the theme of which was the arts and activism.
The event celebrated Apollo artists at the intersection of art and social justice. Artists like Billie Holiday, Sam Cooke, James Brown, B.B. King, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Public Enemy and N.W.A.
Although I’ve viewed the YouTube video countless times, hearing Lady Day sing “Strange Fruit” on the big screen with the Apollo Theater’s sound system brought an immediacy to her performance.
The program included film clips, live performances and commentary by Billy Mitchell, aka “Mr. Apollo,” and legendary radio personalities Bob Slade and Imhotep Gary Byrd. It ended with the performers and audience singing “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” like it was 1969.
I had a visceral response to news that City Councilman Mark Squilla introduced a bill that would impose new rules for a “special assembly occupancy” license. Among other things, applications for an SAO license must be approved by the Philadelphia Police Department. Promoters and venue operators would be required to provide the police department with the “full name, address and phone number of all performance acts scheduled to perform during the promoted event or special event.”
There is concern the bill is racially motivated. That it’s targeting venues that promote hip-hop artists. Capt. Francis Healy, the PPD's legal adviser, told the Philadelphia Inquirer Squilla’s bill has “nothing to do with race,” adding:
I could see where it could be [interpreted as such].
The police department has a sordid history with black musicians. During Philly’s jazz heyday, clubs were under police surveillance. Jazz venues would be raided because black and white patrons were fraternizing. In a piece for Hidden City Philadelphia, Jack McCarthy shared a news report from 1949:
A preholiday raid by… detectives… once again smacks of racial prejudice on part of the law enforcers… [The] Downbeat is the favorite hangout for the be-bop fans and is the only downtown spot which never has discriminated against Negro patronage. In fact, crowds here have been interracial in character, attracting everybody from the intelligentsia to the rabid be-bop fan.
Nat Segall, former owner of the Downbeat who originally established the room, gave it up a year ago rather than give in to certain political powers who urged he adopt a segregation policy for the room. When he refused to give in, Segall, a former musician now in the booking business, was pestered by police raids and finally sold out.
Charges of underage drinkers at the Downbeat, basis for the raid, is a weak one when you see the patronage of purity-white places… you’ll find teenagers any night of the week in practically every night club in town.
Police harassment put the legendary club out of business. Philadelphia police and federal narcotics agents hounded Billie Holiday. Indeed, Lady Day was the first casualty of the War on Drugs.
On Nov. 17, 1955, Ray Charles and his entire band were arrested on drug charges. Although the charges were later dropped, Brother Ray vowed never again to perform in Philadelphia.
Sixty years later, there are echoes of Brother Ray’s concern about the climate for musicians. As currently written, the police department would maintain a registry of performers. Musicians are posting on social media that if Squilla’s bill passes, they will skip Philly.
As a longtime voting rights activist, I want people to vote. I also want them to stay engaged beyond Election Day because that’s how you bring about change. That said, I believe one’s voting habit is no one’s business unless that person is receiving a taxpayer-funded six-figure salary to oversee elections.
Indeed, at last year’s Code for Philly Apps for Democracy Hackathon, I expressed my dismay that a team had developed an app, Social Voting, which would allow users to check to see whether their neighbors voted. Vote-shaming is of a piece with slut-shaming and fat-shaming.
Disclosing voting data sows distrust of government. If private citizens believe their voting record will be open to public scrutiny, they will be reluctant to register to vote.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day was first observed in 1986. Check out Marcus Baram's recap of how millions of Americans, led by Stevie Wonder, shamed Congress and President Ronald Reagan into showing Dr. King some love.
While I tend to fall center-right on the political spectrum, I’m sick and tired of all this bull that’s doing down.
The conference featured a who’s who of black radicals, including Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Patrice Armstead, Cornel West, Anthony Monteiro, Angela Davis, Pam Africa and Charlene Carruthers. While they all dropped knowledge, West’s remarks particularly resonated with me. He observed that gospel, blues, jazz and rhythm-and-blues are rooted in our spiritual striving.
West excoriated the black “misleadership class.” He said comparing today's leaders to leaders of the 1960s is akin to comparing Kenny G to John Coltrane.
The misleadership is in stark relief in Philadelphia where we have the spectacle of an elections chief who doesn’t show up for work and doesn’t vote.
Anthony Clark said he exercised his right not to vote. Philly’s black leaders have maintained a deafening silence about this buffoon who dishonors the sacrifices of the civil rights leaders and foot soldiers who fought for the right to vote.