Did Breslin, Legendary Journalist Who Inspired Me, Die With Secret About Malcolm X's Death?

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Breslin. Photo: Biography.com

Jimmy Breslin, one of American journalism’s greatest writers, who spoke with a vibrant voice that won him numerous awards including a 1986 Pulitzer Prize “for columns which consistently champion ordinary citizens,” passed away, at 88, last Sunday, leaving behind an enviable body of work.

I was blessed to have met this special journalist, when our paths crossed in the college we both attended, during different generations of course.

My recollections of him, are primarily positive except for a recent development which occurred a few years ago because of allegations made in a book named “Ganja Godfather,” written by author Toby Rogers—about Breslin and what he knew or did not know regarding the assassination of Malcolm X.

Was Breslin tipped off by the NYPD to make sure he was at the Audubon Ballroom on the day Malcolm X was killed?

We’ll get back to that in a minute.

I first met Jimmy Breslin, in 2003—basically, because of a wish. My first foray into journalism happened a decade before this when I published a couple of op-ed pieces in my hometown Daily News newspaper, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Because of overwhelming positive feedback, and the controversy one of those pieces caused --which explored a couple of cases of corruption in the U.S.V.I., including two within the local police department-- several people encouraged me to seriously pursue journalism. I had never thought about journalism as a vocation before this—although, I knew writing was in my destiny. In effect, this led me to New York.

In New York, one of the newspapers I started reading consistently was Long Island’s Newsday. An important thing I liked about Newsday, at that time, was it seemed to have a better diversity of voices compared to the other mainstream publications. For me, two writers in particular stood out. One was Pulitzer Prize winning Les Payne, who I’ve come to know a bit over the last few years—because he’s a great friend of The Black Star News.

Payne, like the late Breslin, is a rabble-rouser after my own heart. Payne is definitely a pain for people who don’t appreciate honest dialogue about racism. Breslin with his brash boldness and colloquial New York style spoke in an original tone that was refreshing and engaging. In an article last Sunday, Newsday writer Michael O’Keefe wrote that Breslin “pilloried the powerful, championed underdogs and celebrated the working class.” That is exactly why I respect Breslin’s lifework—and why I became involved in journalism.

After living here for several years, I finally got into the journalism program at Long Island University’s Brooklyn campus, in the fall of 2000, where I would meet Jimmy Breslin, three years later—because of a classroom request.

You see, at the start of the fall 2003 session, I was seeking one more journalism class to fill my semester list, when I noticed a class called Media Entrepreneurship being taught by a new teacher named Professor Ed Downe. I added this class.

Now, during the earlier spring session of 2003, I suggested to Dr. Ralph Engelman (the current journalism chair at LIU) the names of a few journalism giants, who I felt LIU’s Journalism Department should invite. During that spring, several of these people were invited and spoke at LIU events including: eminent journalist and columnist Earl Caldwell; former program director of WBAI Radio Bernard White; and the legendary host of "Like It Is," Gil Noble.

Mr. Noble and Bernard White talked about the 9-11 terror attacks, the presidency of George W. Bush, the Iraq War, Saddam Hussein and the oily geo-politics at play in that sordid foreign policy affair. Noble also talked about the primary problems of mainstream American journalism.

Around this time, perhaps a bit before, Earl Caldwell gave a riveting presentation of his career. He told of being present during the assassination of Dr. King in Memphis in 1968. He talked about covering the Black Panther Party, which caused him to be targeted by the FBI when he refused to give up his notes; the subsequent case, United States v Caldwell reached the Supreme Court in 1972. It was crucial in defining reporters’ rights.

It’s noteworthy to mention here that Earl Caldwell said of Breslin, that he was “the greatest newspaperman I’ve ever met. He was a mentor, and we were very tight. He was on my side all the time.”

Les Payne, who worked with Breslin at Newsday, has said of Breslin: “We say that in journalism one of our goals is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, but we almost never do it. I think that one of the things that Breslin has done over the years is to pay some attention to the afflicted in ways that journalism preaches, but so very often refuses to practice."

But back to how I met Breslin.

In either the first or second week of fall 2003, Professor Downe asked us to name journalists that we would like to have come and speak to the class. I told him Jimmy Breslin was on my wish list. I didn’t really think this request would come true.

A mere couple of weeks later, I entered class—to buzzed excitement. Looking across the room, there was Professor Downe—and next to him, one of the greatest columnists America has produced: Jimmy Breslin. I was stunned.

As I took a seat, Professor Downe, who then revealed he had been Breslin’s editor in earlier days, pointed me out to Breslin as the student who made the request. Breslin peered over his glasses and looked me over intently with acknowledgment.

After the class we spoke, and on one other occasion, also at LIU, he spoke to me at some length about journalism. Because of this experience, I became aware of the fact that Breslin had attended LIU from 1948 to 1950—and had won LIU’s prestigious Polk Award in 1985. When I told him I had just started writing with The Black Star News, he became animated and said he had been reading the publication—and he admired it.

That first night Breslin spoke at LIU was magical. He possessed that “thing” all great writers, artists and craftspeople have, which commands your attention and forces you to think about the power of their ideas, charisma and wit. Near the end of the presentation, one student asked him about the don’ts of journalism. Breslin quickly quipped something like “don’t come up short.”

The main lesson I remember him making that night was about journalistic integrity. At one point, he told us he never accepted invitations from politicians and powerful people he met to go to special parties and such. He did this, he said, to insulate himself from being bribed. He wanted the powerful to know even if he had cordial dealings with them, if the situation arose, where he had to crucify them in his column—that he would.

Since Breslin warned journalists not to "come up short," I must now speak about a big story where Mr. Breslin himself may not have gone all the way.

Two years ago, my editor, Milton Allimadi, publisher of The Black Star News told me we needed to investigate this explosive claim being made about Jimmy Breslin: that Breslin said he had been tipped off by the NYPD that something was going to happen at the Audubon on Feb. 21, 1965 when Malcolm was to speak.

Allimadi told me Toby Rogers, author of the book “Ganja Godfather: The Untold Story of NYC’s Weed Kingpin,” claimed Breslin himself had told him about the NYPD tip. I didn’t believe a word of it.

However, we spoke with Rogers and later contacted Breslin—and there was something there.

According to Rogers' book, after the assassination, Breslin, who worked then for The New York Herald Tribune, wrote a story for the newspaper which read: “Police Rescue Two Suspects.” However, Rogers stated that after this initial story ran, no further mention was ever made of this other unidentified suspect who is apparently not one of the three people—Talmadge Hayer, Thomas Johnson and Norman Butler—who would eventually be prosecuted for the murder of Malcolm X.

In 2005, on the 40th anniversary of Malcolm X’s assassination Rogers, who was interviewing Breslin, says he decided to question the legendary journalist on these curious circumstances. Rogers claims Breslin started by telling him: “Well I was supposed to receive a journalism award in Syracuse that evening, but I got tip [from the NYPD] that I should go up to Harlem to see Malcolm X speak. I sat way in the back smoking a Pall Mall cigarette.”

Rogers says when he tried to raise the subject of the second suspect and the suspicious omission from The New York Herald Tribune’s coverage, in follow-up and secondary stories about Malcolm’s killing, Breslin’s mood quickly changed.

“When I asked Jimmy about the reports of a second suspect and his strange disappearance, both in his Tribune story and the Times piece. All of the sudden Breslin got quite cagey. He knew exactly what I was referring to and refused to talk any further.”

According to Rogers' book, Breslin’s response just before the interview ended was: “Fuck it, I don’t want to know no more, that’s it! I don’t fucking know what is what. I don’t know if there was two editions or one. I don’t want to remember. I don’t want to read it. Fuck it. Who cares! It’s 2005, I … fucking dead and disinterested.”

But what was really shocking to me was the response Breslin gave to The Black Star News when I wrote my original column on Feb. 21, 2015.

http://www.blackstarnews.com/us-politics/justice/did-nypd-know-malcolm-x...

We reached out to Breslin on Feb. 20, 2015, through his wife Ronnie Eldridge about the quote attributed to him in Rogers' book that he had been tipped off by the NYPD that something was going to happen at the Audubon the day Malcolm X spoke. Breslin, who got on the phone, said: "I don't remember. I don't remember."

The Black Star News pushed the matter by sending an e-mail message on Feb. 20, to Breslin, and including the quote attributed to Breslin about him being tipped off by the NYPD, not going to Syracuse, and sitting in the back at the Audubon, smoking a Pall Mall cigarette; we used his wife's e-mail address, which she provided.

Eldridge called back and said, "He's not questioning it but he really doesn't remember. We're getting old. He's 86. He really doesn't have anything to add."

That’s not the answer I expected from this great journalist over something of that magnitude -- the assassination of Malcolm X. I found it intriguing that Breslin didn’t outright just deny it.

Did Breslin know something he preferred not to talk about? It didn’t make sense to me why he would not have written and spoken, over the years, about being an eyewitness to such a seminal moment in American history.

(The NYPD did not respond to a call and question from The Black Star News sent via e-mail message the time of my original column).

Over the last few years, I’ve replayed the irony of how I became involved in this story regarding what Breslin knew or didn't know about Malcolm’s murder.

In addition to the actual triggermen who assassinated Malcolm X, a rogues’ gallery of murderers --no doubt including the NYPD and FBI-- were involved in some capacity, if not by commission, by letting it happen.

Did Breslin depart with valuable knowledge about Malcolm's end? I’m hoping he was secretly working on a book all these years—that will be published eventually.

I'm hoping Breslin didn't come up short on Malcolm.

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