Michael X

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Michael de Freitas
Michael X.jpg
Michael X posing in front of the poster for the film Khartoum
Born 1933
Trinidad and Tobago
Died 16 May 1975
Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago
Cause of death
execution by hanging
Occupation Activist
Political party
Black Liberation Army

Michael X (1933 – 16 May 1975), born Michael de Freitas in Trinidad and Tobago to a Portuguese father and a Bajan-born mother, was a self-styled black revolutionary and civil rights activist in 1960s London. He was also known as Michael Abdul Malik and Abdul Malik. Convicted of murder in 1972, Michael X was executed by hanging in 1975 in Port of Spain's Royal Jail.

Biography[edit]

Michael de Freitas was born in Trinidad to "an Obeah-practising black woman from Barbados and an absent Portuguese father from St Kitts".[1] Encouraged by his mother to pass for white, "Red Mike" was a headstrong youth and was expelled from school at the age of 14.[1] In 1957, he emigrated to the United Kingdom, where he settled in London and worked as an enforcer and frontman for the slum landlord Peter Rachman.[2]

By the mid-1960s he had renamed himself "Michael X" and became a well-known exponent of Black Power in London. Writing in The Observer in 1965, Colin McGlashan called him "the authentic voice of black bitterness."[3]

In 1965, under the name Abdul Malik, he founded the Racial Adjustment Action Society (RAAS).[4]

In 1967 he was involved with the counterculture/hippie organisation the London Free School (LFS) through his contact with John "Hoppy" Hopkins, which both helped widen the reach of the group, at least in the Notting Hill area, and create problems with local police who disliked his involvement. Michael and the LFS were instrumental in organising the first outdoor Notting Hill Carnival later that year.[5]

Later that year, he became the first non-white person to be charged and imprisoned under the UK's Race Relations Act, which was designed to protect Britain's Black and Asian populations from discrimination.[6] He was sentenced to 12 months in jail for advocating the immediate killing of any white man seen "laying hands" on a black woman.[7] He also said "white men have no soul".[8]

In 1969, he became the self-appointed leader of a Black Power commune on Holloway Road, North London called the "Black House." The commune was financed by a young millionaire benefactor named Nigel Samuel. Michael X said, "They've made me the archbishop of violence in this country. But that 'get a gun' rhetoric is over. We're talking of really building things in the community needed by people in the community. We're keeping a sane approach."[9] John Lennon and Yoko Ono donated a bag of their hair to be auctioned for the benefit of the Black House.

In what the media called "the slave collar affair," Jewish businessman Marvin Brown was enticed to The Black House, viciously attacked, and made to wear a spiked "slave" collar around his neck as Michael X and others threatened him with extortion.[10] The Black House, underfinanced and undertaken with volunteer labour, closed in the autumn of 1970. The two men found guilty of assaulting Marvin Brown were imprisoned for eighteen months.[11]

The Black House burned down in mysterious circumstances, and soon Michael X and four colleagues were arrested for extortion. His bail was paid by John Lennon in January 1971.[12]

In February 1971, he fled to his native Trinidad, where he started an agricultural commune devoted to Black empowerment 16 miles east of the capital, Port of Spain. "The only politics I ever understand is the politics of revolution," he told the Trinidad Express. "The politics of change, the politics of a completely new system."[3] He began another commune, also called the Black House, which, in February 1972, also burned down in a fire.

Murder trial[edit]

Police who had come to the commune to investigate the fire discovered the bodies of Joseph Skerritt and Gale Benson, members of the commune. They had been hacked to death and separately buried in shallow graves. Benson, who had been going under the name Hale Kimga, was the daughter of Conservative MP Leonard F. Plugge. She had met Michael X through her relationship with Malcolm X's cousin Hakim Jamal.

Michael X fled to Guyana a few days later and was captured there. He was charged with the murder of Skerritt and Benson, but was never tried for the latter crime.[13] A witness at his trial claimed that Skerritt was a member of Malik's "Black Liberation Army" and had been killed by him because he refused to obey orders to attack a local police station. Malik was found guilty and sentenced to death. The Save Malik Committee, whose members included Angela Davis, Dick Gregory, Kate Millet and others, including the well known "radical lawyer" William Kunstler, who was paid by John Lennon,[12] pleaded for clemency, but he was hanged in 1975.[13]

Other members of the group were tried for Benson's murder. It was asserted that Benson had been shown an open grave and was then pushed in it and hacked at by Michael X with a machete on her neck.[14]

Legacy[edit]

Under the name Michael Abdul Malik, Michael X was the author of From Michael Freitas to Michael X (André Deutsch, 1968). Michael X also left behind fragments of a novel about a romantic black hero who wins the abject admiration of the narrator, a young English woman named Lena Boyd-Richardson. Inspecting the hero's bookshelf, Lena Boyd-Richardson is impressed at finding Salammbô: "I discover that he not only have (sic) the books but actually reads and understands them I was absolutely bowld (sic), litterally. I took a seat, and gazed upon this marvel, Mike."[3][15]

Cultural references[edit]

Michael X is the subject of the essay "Michael X and the Black Power Killings in Trinidad" by V.S. Naipaul, collected in The Return of Eva Perón and the Killings in Trinidad (1980), and is also believed to be the model for the fictional character Jimmy Ahmed in Naipaul's 1975 novel Guerrillas.

Michael X is a secondary character in The Bank Job (2008), a dramatisation of a real-life bank robbery in 1971. The film claims that Michael X was in possession of indecent photographs of Princess Margaret and used them to avoid criminal prosecution by threatening to publish them. He was played by Peter de Jersey.

Michael X and his trial are the subject of a chapter in Geoffrey Robertson's legal memoir The Justice Game.

Michael X plays a part in Make Believe: A True Story, a memoir by Diana Athill.

Michael X is the eponymous title of a play, by the writer Vanessa Walters, that takes the form of a 1960s black power rally and was performed at The Tabernacle Theatre, Powis Square, London W11 (Notting Hill), in November 2008.

Further reading[edit]

  • Malik, Michael Abdul. From Michael de Freitas to Michael X (London: André Deutsch, 1968).
  • Levy, William and Michell, John (editors). Souvenir Programme for the Official Lynching of Michael Abdul Malik with Poems, Stories, Sayings by the Condemned (privately published: Cambridge, England, 1973).
  • Humphry, Derek. False Messiah - The Story of Michael X (London: Hart-Davis, MacGibbon Ltd, 1977).
  • Naipaul, V.S. "Michael X and the Black Power Killings in Trinidad", in: The Return of Eva Perón and the Killings in Trinidad (London: André Deutsch, 1980).
  • Sharp, James. The Life and Death of Michael X (Uni Books, 1981).
  • Athill, Diane, Make Believe: A True Story (London: Granta Books, 1993).
  • Williams, Jon. Michael X: A Life in Black and White (London: Century, 2008).

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Margaret Busby, "Notting Hill to death row" (review of Michael X: A Life In Black And White, by John Williams), The Independent, 8 August 2008.
  2. ^ Nigel Fountain, Underground: The London Alternative Press, 1966-74, London: Taylor & Francis, 1988, p. 8.
  3. ^ a b c Didion, Joan (12 June 1980) "Without Regret or Hope." New York Review of Books.
  4. ^ Werbner, Pnina (1991), Black and Ethnic Leaderships in Britain: The Cultural Dimensions of Political Action, London: Routledge, p. 29. 
  5. ^ Barry Miles (2010), London Calling: A Countercultural History of London Since 1945, pp. 187-90.
  6. ^ Eds. (10 November 1967), "Black Muslim Gets One Year in Britain." New York Times.
  7. ^ Eds. (30 September 1967), "Michael X On Trial For Race Hate Charges", The Times.
  8. ^ Katharine Gelber, Speaking Back: the free speech versus hate speech debate, John Benjamins, 2002, p. 105.
  9. ^ Eds. (29 January 1970) "London Getting a Black Cultural Leader." New York Times.
  10. ^ Naughton, Philippe (23 June 1970). "Man In Michael X Centre led in 'slave collar'.". London: The Times. Retrieved 13 November 2008. 
  11. ^ Naughton, Philippe (14 July 1971). "Two found guilty in Black Power case.". London: The Times. Retrieved 13 November 2008. 
  12. ^ a b Bill Harry, The John Lennon Encyclopedia.
  13. ^ a b UPS (17 May 1975) "Militant is Hanged in Trinidad After Long Fight for Clemency." New York Times.
  14. ^ Reuters (22 August 1972), "Michael X Doomed in Trinidad Murder." New York Times.
  15. ^ C. C. Barfoot, Theo d' Haen, Shades of Empire in Colonial and Post-colonial Literatures: In Colonial and Post-colonial Literatures, Rodopi, 1993, p. 241.