malcolm x and russian roulette -- 7/18/22

Today's selection -- from The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X by Les Payne and Tamara Payne. In 1945, in a tightening job market, 20-year-old Malcolm X turned to crime:
 "As the job market tightened with soldiers returning from the war, Negroes were increasingly constrained by the racist hiring practices so widespread in the 1940s. With Malcolm's low-paying day jobs not much of a help with the rent, especially given his demands for cigarettes and reefer, and his occasional dabbling with powdered cocaine, he set about planning his own criminal enterprise. Gambling-house job offers had come his way, but, he dismissed them, as he had pimp­ing, as too much of a drain on his temperament and lifestyle. Already the quintet had become something of a gang. So Malcolm settled on organizing a burglary ring, relying initially on the contacts that Frank Cooper (Rudy) had in wealthy communities. Malcolm was thrilled that Cooper, no stranger to hustling, was eager to get on board with such an operation.

Malcolm X at a 1964 press conference

"When Malcolm approached Jarvis with the vague outlines of his plan to field a burglary team, he found his longtime friend and roommate surprisingly willing. Almost immediately agreeing, Jarvis noticed that Malcolm was stepping up attempts to establish control for himself as the unquestioned leader of the ring.
'In any organization,' Malcolm wrote, 'someone must be the boss.' Once when Cooper, Jarvis, and the three women gathered in Jarvis's apartment to discuss the nascent burglary operation, Mal­colm staged a rogue Russian roulette stunt. Emptying the chamber of his revolver, he replaced one bullet, spun the cylinder and, accord­ing to his account, placed the muzzle of the pistol to his head. In what he described as a test 'to see how much guts all of you have,' he dramatically pulled the trigger. 'We all heard it click.' His two bud­dies and the women grew livid with concern and begged their friend to stop. Instead, according to the Autobiography, Malcolm pulled the trigger a second time, as hysteria fluttered about the room. Then finally, with the odds one in three for a bullet being discharged into his head from the five-round cylinder, Malcolm wrote that he pulled the trigger a third time. 'I'm doing this, showing you I'm not afraid to die. Never cross a man not afraid to die ... now let's get to work.' Heroics aside, Malcolm said later that he had palmed the lone bullet seemingly loaded into the roulette pistol.

"While not doubting that Malcolm pocketed the ammunition, Jarvis disclosed a totally different account of the Russian roulette incident. With emotions surfacing even decades later, Jarvis detailed what happened that night 'in my house.' Yes, he confirmed, Malcolm seemingly loaded a lone bullet in the chamber, placed it to his head, and clicked the trigger. 'He called himself being cute in front of the girls. He said, "See, I know what I'm doing." Then, he spun the cyl­inder without looking and pointed the gun at me,' some three feet away. 'Beatrice got scared. He pointed the gun at me and pulled the trigger -- and it clicked!

"'Man, was I mad. Mad! I reached in my hip pocket and I come up with a .38. I put it right into his --' said Jarvis, breaking off in emo­tions. '"Man, I'll tell you something, you ever do that to me again, I'll blow your brains out." I wasn't joking. And he took one look in my face and he knew I meant business.' Jarvis's version is in keeping with the provocative Malcolm of childhood, who recklessly pushed brother Philbert and others to the extreme limits of their tolerance. And although a drug-high Malcolm might exhibit a willingness to die, his dealings with Officer Knapp in Lansing revealed the sober Malcolm would more likely demonstrate bravery not as a readiness to die but as a willingness to kill. In any case, the roulette game required yet another silent truce in the contentious relationship of Malcolm and Jarvis, who continued as fast friends. Neither Jarvis nor Cooper 'ever mentioned it,' Malcolm wrote of the Russian rou­lette ordeal. 'They thought I was crazy. They were afraid of me.' As for the girls, the incident -- in a foreshadowing of terror tactics to come -- was said to have imbued in Beatrice and her sister a deep respect and awe, if not total loyalty, toward Malcolm."



Les Payne and Tamara Payne


The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X


W.W. Norton & Company


Copyright 2020 by the Estate of Les Payne


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment