Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.

It all started when Malcolm Burnley '12 went digging in the John Hay Library archives for a historical narrative assignment in his creative nonfiction class. What he found catapulted him into the national spotlight — a tape of a speech given by then-Nation of Islam Minister Malcolm X  in Sayles Hall May 11, 1961. In a presentation hosted by the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society at the Hay last night, the tape's contents were heard by an audience for the first time in 50 years.

Burnley, who was enrolled in ENGL 1180J: "Tales of the Real World," said he wanted to write about a relatively recent topic so he could interview living people, rather than relying completely on "old, dusty materials," like he said many of his classmates were doing. While looking through The Herald's archives from 1961, he came across a photo of Malcolm X in Sayles Hall. 

While he found little coverage of the actual event, the photo led him to an essay titled "The Amazing Story of the Black Muslims," which was published in February 1961 in The Herald. He contacted Katharine Pierce, Pembroke College Class of  1962, and the author of the essay, which provoked Malcolm X to come to Brown.

In the essay, Pierce repeatedly refers to the Black Muslims as a "cult," draws distinctions between the Black Muslims and "true Moslems" and characterizes the movement as destructive and anti-intellectual. 

While speaking with Pierce over the phone, Burnley learned she had sent the Hay a tape the previous year containing a recording of Malcolm X's speech. With the help of Senior Library Specialists Raymond Butti and Gayle Lynch, Burnley located the tape, which was at the time shelved and uncatalogued, and the library sent it away to be digitized. 

"I thought it was one of many recordings that had been made," Pierce said of the tape, adding that she had taken it from The Herald's office as a "souvenir." 

Malcolm X's 1961 speech contains a defense of the religion and lifestyle led by Black Muslims. Following an introduction by former Herald editor-in-chief and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Richard Holbrooke '62, Malcolm X spoke about the need for racial segregation. 

 President Barnaby Keeney was initially opposed to the speech, viewing Malcolm X's ideas as too radical. He only relented when Holbrooke threatened to move The Herald off campus and out of its location in Faunce House and sever ties with the University. 

Former Rhode Island Black Heritage Society President Ray Rickman said Malcolm X gave the speech when he was "on the cusp of fame," in a society still heavily segregated. Brown was no exception. Though the University had matriculated black students since 1877, Brown was still an almost completely white institution in 1961, admitting only a very small number of black applicants, Rickman said. Students rarely ventured far from campus, Burnley said, avoiding the largely black neighborhood around Hope High School in East Providence. 

Media outlets around the world, ranging from the Wall Street Journal to the BBC, have reported on Burnley's find. Both Burnley and Pierce said they were caught off-guard by the extent of the media's interest. 

"I'm a very understated person who's not used to getting any sort of attention, so it's strange," Burnley said.

Pierce also found the attention overwhelming, calling the past week "a wild ride that most people go through their lives never experiencing." Since the story has caught fire, Burnley and Pierce have become a "joint package" of sorts, in Burnley's words, as they have appeared together in numerous interviews, including one on National Public Radio's "The Takeaway."

The tape may be the earliest existing recording of a complete Malcolm X speech and, at the very least, one of the oldest recordings of any of the speeches he gave on his 1961 tour of American universities, Rickman said. Still, even Rickman has been surprised by the flurry of media attention, relating how he was offered $50 for a seat at Thursday's event. 

Elizabeth Taylor, senior lecturer in English who teaches "Tales of the Real World," said such media attention was "rare" for her class and called Burnley "the ideal student" in terms of how he used investigative journalism techniques to find out more about Malcolm X's speech.

Burnley spoke Thursday following introductions by University Archivist Jennifer Betts, Rickman and Black Heritage Society President Joyce Stevos, who referred to members of the Society as "keepers of the story" of African-Americans  in Rhode Island. His presentation was interspersed with questions and comments from members of the audience, which included former and current members of the Nation of Islam and concluded with a more formal question and answer session. Some moments in the recording prompted noises of approval, laughter and even a few "amens" from attendees.

Burnley received multiple rounds of applause, and attendees spoke highly of the presentation. Elayne Walker-Cabral, director of the Community School at the Met School in Providence, said she would like Burnley to come speak to high school students because it would be "an opportunity for him to inspire our kids" and said the presentation made her want to "delve even deeper" into the history of the Civil Rights Movement.  

 The only official record of Malcolm X's speech exists in the audio recording and Herald articles. 

"There are stories waiting to be found," Burnley > said. Pierce added that students need to "take (their) eyes off the screen sometimes" and look through archives for valuable information.

There will be an encore of Thursday's presentation Feb. 27 at the John Hay Library. 


Powered by SNworks Solutions by The State News
All Content © 2022 The Brown Daily Herald, Inc.