That Time the New School Snubbed Malcolm X

Malcolm_X_NYWTS_4Currently on display at the New School is an exhibition about a civil rights lecture series that was held at the university a half century ago. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the most notable participant, and days after his appearance at the school, the House of Representatives passed the Civil Rights Act. Curiously absent from the lectures, however, which featured the most prominent names in the civil right movement, was Malcolm X.

Malcolm X was the second most popular speaker at universities across the United States in 1963, so it’s unsurprising that he was invited to the self-anointed “legendary, progressive” New School that year. But shortly after his invitation was sent, it was rescinded.

Officially, the minister was disinvited due to controversial statements he made around that time. The full account of his censorship by the university is a more complicated footnote in the history of civil rights.

On August 2, 1963, the school’s dean, William Birenbaum, sent a letter to its president, Robert MacIver, about how the New School was being perceived by New York’s African-American community. At the time, African-American’s were underrepresented in the New School’s student body compared to other New York institutions like NYU and Columbia. And as Mr. Birenbaum pointed out in his letter, the institution was gaining a reputation for being disinterested in–and even hostile toward–the black community.

One idea had been proposed to solve this issue: to build a New School building in Harlem that would, presumably, attract African-American students. Mr. Birenbaum didn’t think this was a good idea. “It would be a mistake to group (in our thought) the educated or education-prone Negro adult with the large mass living in Harlem, the Bedford region of Brooklyn, and in one or two other ghettos in New York.” Yet, despite that dubious line of reasoning, he also wisely posited that a Harlem building might encourage segregation.

He thought a better idea would be to jumpstart programs to educate the existing student body about the situation of blacks in America. He recommended the creation of “programs which lend prestige and integrity to the Negro contributions in our society,” and believed those would facilitate conversations about civil rights.

A month later, Daniel S. Anthony, a New School professor, proposed a new course that would feature a series of lectures with the civil rights movement’s most notable leaders. This came three days after Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, and Anthony cited the speech as an inspiration for the course. Originally dubbed “Understanding The Negro Revolt of 1963-64” and later changed to the “American Race Crisis Lecture Series,” the class was scheduled to host a remarkable group that included Dr. King, NAACP Director Roy Wilkins, and Malcolm X. It was described as inclusive of “social scientists, civic leaders, moderate to militant activists, and artists.”

But on November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and Malcolm X made his controversial remark that Kennedy’s death was “a case of the chicken’s coming home to roost.”

Following those remarks, Mr. Birenbaum, who had recently been given the green light to Professor Anthony’s program, received a note from New School founder Alvin Johnson demanding that Malcolm X be uninvited:

I have discovered to my astonishment that in the series of lectures offered by the School I find Malcolm X of the Black Muslims, a group that are worst than any Communist group or any group of anti – integrationists. The scheduling of Malcolm X is of course a disgrace to any institution and I wish you would look up the process by which such a smear could be put on the face of the New School. His speech on Kennedy’s murder in this morning’s Times would alone be sufficient to exclude him from any decent platform.

It’s likely Mr. Birenbaum thought Mr. Johnson’s reaction was out of line. The next day, he sent Mr. Anthony a note explaining the New School founder’s request, while urging Mr. Anthony not to take action.

Nevertheless, just three days after his letter of reassurance to Mr. Anthony, Mr. Birenbaum officially reneged on his invitation to Malcolm X –not only to the scheduled lecture series but also to any future appearances at the New School. “Your personal conduct has not been in keeping with the traditions and decencies honored at The New School,” he explained.

It’s unclear what changed Mr. Birenbaum’s position. There is no documentation of further correspondence between the dean and the founder on the matter. It is worth noting, however, that on December 4, just one day prior to his disinvitation,  Malcolm X was suspended by the Nation of Islam from public speaking for a period of 90 days. Malcolm X scholar Zaheer Ali pointed out in a talk at the Schomburg Center last week that perhaps the New School decided this suspension disqualified Malcolm X from representing the Black Muslim movement for their lecture series, while adding that such an interpretation “doesn’t really hold water.” The 90 day silence would not have affected his scheduled New School appearance on March 5.

The most interesting aspect about the whole ordeal was that Professor Anthony, who both initiated the lecture series and moderated the discussions, asked many of the speakers about Malcolm X and the effects of the Black Muslim movement. Even Dr. King himself, as you can hear at The New School’s exhibit about these lectures, gave a very reasoned response that showed he respected Malcolm X and understood his ideas were important.

Malcolm X did not stay away from the lecture circuit for long. Two weeks after he’d been originally slated to speak at the New School, he spoke at Harvard.

“When you get to the racial issue in this country,” he told the audience there, “the whites lose all their intelligence.”

CORRECTION 2/28/14, 2:40 p.m.: The original version of this article misspelled the name of the former dean of the New School. It is William Birenbaum, not Birembaum.