Malcolmology 101, #13: Fidel Castro in Harlem

Malcolm’s exposure to post-colonial and third world revolutionaries continued the year after his trip to the Middle East, but this time it was a domestic affair. Fidel Castro, premier of the new Cuban regime, was attending the United Nations General Assembly in September 1960 when he and his entourage became incensed over the bill at New York’s Shelburne Hotel. Castro proposed that his delegation would sleep in Central Park: “We are mountain people. We are used to sleeping in the open air.” Malcolm quickly saw an opportunity as a member of Harlem’s welcoming committee which invited Castro to stay at Harlem’s Hotel Theresa, just blocks from Mosque 7 and the Shabazz luncheonette. The two men met at slightly past midnight in the Cuban premier’s suite. Castro’s move to Harlem was clearly a political one, and many criticized him for such obvious pandering. Likewise, Malcolm’s late-night meeting with the Cuban revolutionary also seemed tactical and was met by criticism, yet unlike Castro, his critics were largely internal.

The meeting itself lasted less than an hour and, although details are sketchy, was attended by Amsterdam News journalist James Booker and staff photographer Carl Nesfield, who captured the meeting. Malcolm was accompanied by Captain Joseph and John Ali according to another black journalist allowed to attend, Ralph Matthews. Close assistant Benjamin Karim later claimed that Malcolm tried to “fish” Castro to the NOI. In general, though, Malcolm tried to remain non-committal in his support of Castro or the Cuban regime, and reportedly turned down an offer to visit Cuba. However, although this may have been an attempt to uphold the NOI’s policy of political disengagement, his order that the Fruit of Islam be deployed on 24-hour alert to “assist Castro in the event of any anti-Castro demonstrations” implied that he still viewed the meeting as an opportunity to bolster the NOI’s domestic and international reputation. By the time the Castro had left, Malcolm X remained the only U.S. leader with whom the premier had met during his visit. Cubans too saw that possibilities of joining forces with black militant groups in the U.S. and quickly renamed Havana’s pricey Riveria Hotel in honor of the Hotel Theresa. Conversely, Elijah Muhammad saw the entire event as a charade and unnecessary public display of partisanship. Although strong discord between Muhammad, his family, and Malcolm X was still several years away, the meeting with Castro was another early warning sign of conflicting political strategy between Muhammad and the soon-to-be-named National Spokesman of the NOI. 

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