Radical leaders Malcolm X, Douglas, Cleaver embraced reading as a privilege

Katie Greenwald

“Wealth without education is crippled,” former slave Frederick Douglas once said.

Professor William B. Allen from Michigan State agreed last night in a speech about the importance of libraries and education in black history.

Allen was brought to the university by Libraries and Media Services for Black History Month and spoke to a small but interested group about radical leaders who gained education through reading.

After a brief mention of George Washington, he spoke of Frederick Douglas, Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver — who were all black leaders.

Douglas, a slave who was deprived of education, taught himself to read. He read spelling books, newspapers and loose Bible leaves found in the gutter.

“He gave literal meaning to the word ‘pocket library,’” Allen said.

Douglas inspired others and soon day schools, night schools and Sunday schools were overflowing with black students, Allen said.

“The ex-slaves grasped every chance so greedily that the Jim Crow Laws were the only thing that could snatch it away from them,” Allen said.

He said the Jim Crow Laws were even more devastating than slavery because some of the law’s ideals are still around today.

“We suffer today by a burden in our minds, the decedents of America’s former slaves are incapable of any accomplishment on their own,” Allen said.

Along with Douglas, Malcolm X was a radical leader who taught himself to read. He had a trying childhood that lead to an adult life full of crime, which sent him to prison.

“I have never been so truly free in my life,” Malcolm X said about his stay in prison.

He learned to read in prison after meeting a fellow inmate who “commanded respect with his words,” Allen said, quoting Malcolm X.

In the 1990s, Allen attempted to install a learning program from James Madison College into the local prison.

At that time he learned most of the educational tools had been taken out of prisons because people viewed learning as a privilege and didn’t think prisoners should have privileges. Allen said many tools have since been returned to prisons. Allen said learning is a necessity, not a privilege.

“I would rather serve (prisoners) books than food,” Allen said. “I wouldn’t mind them starving to death as long as they were learning.”

Another radical leader who learned to read in prison was Eldridge Cleaver. Allen admitted that at first he gave little respect to Cleaver as a leader because he was a violent man who was convicted of rape.

He said he later realized that Cleaver had changed through reading.

“Through reading, I was amazed to find out how ignorant other people are,” Cleaver once said. “Instead of simply reacting, I could act.”

Allen said Washington could purchase a library, Douglas was not aloud to enter one by the laws of slavery and Malcolm X and Cleaver both learned to read through the libraries in prison.

Though they learned under different means, they all changed the face of black history.

Contact student finance reporter Katie Greenwald at [email protected].