By Eric Seiverling
He was assassinated in 1965, but Malcolm X’s legacy of fighting for racial equality still endures today, as evidenced by the large crowd who gathered at Pittsburgh’s Senator John Heinz History Center to view the private premier screening of the documentary “The Lost Tapes: Malcolm X” on Wed., Feb. 7.
A partnership between the history center, Smithsonian Channel, and Comcast NBC Universal, the documentary presents entirely through speeches, newscasts, and rare archival footage – including newsman Gene Simpson’s live, on-air reporting of his assassination – Malcolm X’s willingness to put his life at risk to bring change and equality to black America.
The documentary will premier nation-wide on the Smithsonian Channel at 8 p.m., Mon., Feb. 26. Launched in 2007, the Smithsonian Channel reaches approximately 33 million households
Produced by the Los Angeles-based documentary company 1895 Films, the “Lost Tapes” series eschews narration in favor of news archives and home media. Other topics explored by the series include Martin Luther King, Jr., the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Patty Hearst.
“It’s very immersive storytelling,” Smithsonian Channel Executive Producer John Cavanagh said of the film’s format of being free of narration. “People become engaged in the film. It’s impossible to listen to Malcolm X speak and not feel engaged. We uncovered a lot of Malcolm X tapes and news footage and we realized there was a story here that was too good to pass up. He’s still relevant today.”
Born in 1925, Malcolm X became a minister, human rights activist, and prominent black nationalist leader who became a spokesperson for the Nation of Islam in the 1950s and 1960s.
A high school dropout, Malcolm X was arrested on charges of larceny and sentenced to 10 years in prison in 1946. While incarcerated, Malcolm X continued his education and converted to the Nation of Islam before his release from prison in 1952.
Under Malcolm X, the Nation of Islam grew from a mere 400 members in 1952 to 40,000 members by 1960.
Malcolm X broke free from the Nation of Islam shortly before his assassination on Feb. 21, 1965 at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan, where he was preparing to speak.
Prior to the film’s screening, opening remarks were made by Samuel Black, director of the history center’s African American Program, and Lisa Birmingham, vice president, external and government affairs for Comcast’s Keystone Region.
“We’re excited to help celebrate Black History Month,” Birmingham said. “It’s become a highlight for us here in Pittsburgh. We like to connect with people and inspire positive growth.”
After the documentary’s screening, author and historian Herb Boyd joined Cavanagh for a panel discussion, where Boyd recounted his growing up with Malcolm X in Michigan in the 1950s and being inspired by the late minister.
Books edited by Boyd include “The Diary of Malcolm X,” and “By Any Means Necessary: Malcolm X Real, Not Reinvented.”
“He was everything to me,” Boyd told the crowd. “He was like a big brother to me. Whenever he came to speak, I was in the front row.”
Boyd was also asked about his recollection of Malcolm X’s assassination.
“My whole world was shattered,” Boyd said solemnly. “My whole disposition was torn apart.”
Even though his assassination occurred more than 50 years ago, Malcolm X’s messages are not lost on today’s younger generation.
“His philosophy about life really connects with me,” said Samson Johnson, 25, before viewing the film. “He had a positive message about equal rights. He gave people hope. I feel like I can do things, too.”