By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
The temperature was below freezing. It was one of those Chicago winter days when the sky comes up slate gray and the sun never appears.
I was one of a group of reporters and photographers who were all huddled against the wind at the entrance to the old Chicago Coliseum. We were waiting for the doors to open so we could get inside to cover the Black Muslim convention.
For blocks around, the streets were lined with police cars. Trouble was anticipated. Threats had been made to assassinate Elijah Muhammad, the Black Muslim leader.
Just the week before, Malcolm X had been shot to death while speaking to his followers in the Audubon Ballroom in New York's Harlem.
"You reporters who go inside the Coliseum today will be on your own," the police commander said through his bullhorn. "There will be no police presence inside. The Black Muslims have demanded they be allowed to police the hall themselves."
I could hear people all around me begin to moan. The hostility of the Black Muslims toward the press was well-known. It was an easy thing to cover the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We were all on the same side. But the Black Muslims were a different breed of cat. They went out of their way to show their hostility.
Malcolm X had once been Elijah Muhammad's right-hand man and his baddest dude. But they broke after Malcolm publicly accused Elijah of molesting young girls and of using money raised from his followers to live in luxury in his mansion on Chicago's South Side.
The charges Malcolm X made about Elijah were true. It was just not the politically correct thing to say at the time.
After Malcolm's death, threats had been coming out of New York all week. Old Elijah, it was promised, was going to be shot the same way Malcolm X was if he dared to show his face at this convention. Back then, in February 1965, we didn't know who had killed Malcolm X. But Malcolm's followers blamed it on Elijah. They were right. Eventually, three of Elijah's followers were convicted of using a sawed-off shotgun and two pistols to do the job.
I was pretty new in the business. In those days, I believed that when threats were made, they would probably be carried out. I know better now.
The Black Muslims assigned to guard the Coliseum certainly believed the threats. They were both angry and frightened. I have always found this to be a volatile combination. They acted as though they believed one of us white newspaper reporters had actually been hired to kill Elijah. They put each of us through a thorough body search before allowing us inside the building.
Many of the reporters refused to be searched. They remained outside the building with the police.
The search was harder on the photographers. They had to open up their camera bags. Some of them lost rolls of film. Several claimed that cameras were stolen. Those were not friendly times.
Once inside, we were hustled into a roped-off area. It consisted of half a dozen rows just below the speaker's platform. I felt like we had been placed in a pen. I soon understood why.
One of the first speakers was Louis Farrakhan, then on the rise as Malcolm X's replacement.
"You see the white devils of the press down here before me," Farrakhan said. "In their midst is a black traitor who has betrayed us this past week. He is responsible for a series of lies in the Chicago Daily News."
The Daily News had sent a black reporter underground. He had written an explanatory series about the Black Muslims. They didn't think the series was favorable. They were right. It wasn't. But there wasn't much favorable to say about Elijah Muhammad and his Black Muslims in those days. The crowd went wild. People began rushing toward us. I couldn't believe this was happening. Suddenly, a group of black security men grabbed the black reporter and hustled him out of the building to safety.
They never intended to hurt him. They merely wanted to arouse the crowd. Farrakhan had been Malcolm's prot‚g‚. It was he who had sent the message to temples all around the country:
"The die is set, and Malcolm shall not escape . . . such a man as Malcolm is worthy of death."
The crowd was stimulated. It applauded mightily as the so-called Fruit of Islam, the security guards for Elijah Muhammad, marched down the center aisle.
Each man was more than six feet tall. Each wore a scowl, a dark suit and a pillbox hat. They all lined up across the front of the stage to provide a target that would take the bullet for Elijah. One of the guards, I noticed with surprise, was Muhammad Ali. Old Elijah appeared moments later. He was so tiny, it was hard to see him behind the speaker's platform and the microphone.
"He tried to make war against me," Elijah Muhammad said. "Malcolm got what he was preaching."
He spoke for two hours. He castigated Malcolm X as a traitor. And then he talked about spaceships that would eventually transport black people to safety. There was a lot of talk about blue-eyed devils.