Civil rights worker, minister
Posterity tends to remember people who make a splash, who ooze charisma and change the course of history. But those individuals rarely accomplish great things without the crucial help and support of friends, associates, and advisors. Benjamin Karim was one of those friends and advisors. As Malcolm X's right hand man, Karim—then known as Benjamin 2X—was an important, if quiet, player in the making of civil rights history. A key member of the Nation of Islam, and later a chief preserver of Malcolm X's legacy, Karim's role in African-American history, though not necessarily a starring role, was considerable.
Benjamin Karim was born Benjamin Goodman on July 14, 1932, in Suffolk, Virginia, the son ofWilbur Bryant and Mary Goodman. Goodman joined the U.S. Air Force in 1952. After receiving his basic training, he was stationed in San Francisco, California, where he was trained as a radar operator. He was then assigned to a ship in the Pacific fleet, and he saw tours of duty in Korea and Japan.
Left the South to Escape Discrimination
Karim was discharged from the Air Force and 1954. Returning to civilian life in the American South, he was confronted with discrimination and a hostile environment for even those African American's who had risked their lives to fight on behalf of their country. Unable to find satisfactory work, Karim moved to New York, only to find that jobs in the airline industry involving the radar skills he had acquired during his military service were closed to African Americans.
Unable to find work in his chosen field, Karim bounced between a variety of other jobs. He worked for his uncle's painting company for a while, but he disliked that position. His next job was delivering clothing for a garment company, but that work was just as unfulfilling as painting. Eventually, Karim landed a job with Vanguard Records, a major distributor of jazz music. While working at Vanguard, Karim heard from a Muslim coworker about a charismatic young speaker who was developing a strong and loyal following. This orator, Malcolm X, was minister of the Nation of Islam's Mosque Number 7 in Harlem, and second only to Nation of Islam (NOI) leader Elijah Muhammad in influence within the NOI ranks. Malcolm preached of the glory and dignity of black history, calling for an end to white domination of society. Karim initially declined his coworker's attempts to persuade him to go to the mosque to hear Malcolm speak.
Eventually, Karim's curiosity got the best of him. In April of 1957, Malcolm X made headlines in New York after an incident in which New York police officers brutally assaulted an NOI member. With tensions rising in Harlem and a potential riot brewing, Malcolm quickly assembled the NOI's paramilitary wing, known as the Fruit of Islam, for a march on the police precinct at which the injured member was being detained. Karim was extremely impressed by this display of power and unity. "The more I heard about the whole episode, the more I wanted to be one of those men," Karim wrote in his memoir, Remembering Malcolm. In the wake of the event, Karim resolved to attend services at Malcolm's Harlem temple the very next week. It turned out to be a life-changing experience. After listening to Malcolm speak for two hours on the history of slavery, Karim was ready to convert to the Muslim faith and join the Nation of Islam.
Changed Name Upon Joining Nation of Islam
Joining the NOI required a radical lifestyle change for Karim. He cut his hair short, gave up alcohol, stopped eating pork, and traded in the flashy garb he had worn as part of the jazz industry for the conservative suits worn by all of Malcolm X's followers. He swore off cursing. Karim threw himself into the NOI community full-force, and he quickly became a key disciple of Malcolm X, immersing himself in the intensive study of African and African-American history, as well as the teachings of Islam. Within six months of joining the organization, he changed his name to Benjamin 2X. The "X" symbolized a shedding of "the slave name given to our forebears…since we did not know what our rightful names were," as Karim wrote in his introduction to the 1971 book The End of White World Supremacy, a collection of speeches by Malcolm X. He had to put the "2" before the X because he was the second Benjamin in the NOI to receive the letter.
For the next seven years, Karim was one of Malcolm X's closest aides, and "Minister Malcolm," as Karim always referred to him, served as his mentor and teacher. Karim not only traveled with Malcolm, but often pinch-hit for him at events when Malcolm was unable to fulfill a commitment. Karim was also an important figure at the temple in Harlem, where he ran the NOI's education program.
Beginning in 1963, tensions were simmering within NOI, and Karim's loyalty to the organization was put to the test. Elijah Muhammad and several other ministers were uncomfortable with Malcolm X's popularity. When Malcolm made unauthorized comments about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, he was suspended by NOI for 90 days. Karim remained loyal to Malcolm throughout this tumultuous period.
A month later, after returning from a trip to the Middle East, where he saw Muslims of all colors worshipping together, Malcolm X announced that he was turning his back on the racist beliefs of NOI, which subscribed to the notion that "Whites are devils," in order to embrace the "true" faith of Islam. He broke with NOI and formed a new group, the Organization of African American Unity. Having already announced that he was standing by Malcolm in his conflict with NOI, Karim joined his mentor in abandoning NOI. It was a perilous move. In the course of splitting with NOI, Malcolm had publicly revealed some unpleasant information about the organization, including stories about Elijah Muhammad's extramarital affairs with his young secretaries. NOI leaders were furious, and Malcolm X became a marked man, receiving a steady flow of death threats.
Introduced Malcolm X on Day of Assassination
On February 21, 1965, Karim introduced Malcolm X to the crowd at a speaking engagement at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. Moments after Karim relinquished the podium to his boss and retreated backstage, Malcolm X was assassinated. As he recovered from the turmoil, Karim found time to start a family, marrying Linda Karim in 1970. They eventually had five children: three sons and two daughters. After the death of Elijah Muhammad in 1975, Karim was invited to rejoin the NOI, which was in the process of moving toward a more conventional brand of Islam under the leadership of Elijah's son, Wallace D. Muhammad. Karim accepted the invitation, and a few years later he was appointed minister of his own temple in Richmond, Virginia. He was also given his new last name, Karim.
For the rest of his life, Karim worked tirelessly to preserve the legacy of Malcolm X. He was the chief interpreter and commentator of Malcolm's speeches and writings, and he gave hundreds of talks at colleges, universities and other institutions on the life and work of his former mentor. In 1992 Karim published a memoir, Remembering Malcolm, which the Washington Post called "a resplendent tribute" to Malcolm X. When director Spike Lee made his biographical film Malcolm X the same year, Karim served as one of his key advisors.
At a Glance …
Born Benjamin Goodman on July 14, 1932, in Suffolk, VA; died on August 2, 2005, in Richmond, VA; married Linda Karim, 1970; children: Asia, Jahlil, Jamal, Khadya (Khadigia, according to some sources), Tariq (deceased), and Zaid. Military service: U.S. Air Force, 1952-54. Religion: Muslim.
Vanguard Records, distributor, 1955-57; Nation of Islam, chief aide to Malcolm X and director of education programs at Harlem temple, 1957-63; Organization of African American Unity, chief aide to Malcolm X, 1963-65; author and public speaker on Malcolm X legacy, 1965-2005; Nation of Islam, minister, 1975-2005; consultant to Spike Lee during making of film Malcolm X, 1992.
Nation of Islam
In February of 2005, on the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X, Karim returned to the Audubon Ballroom for the first time since that historic day. Karim died in August of that year, leaving 15 grandchildren in addition to his wife and five children.
Editor, The End of White World Supremacy, collection of speeches by Malcolm X, Merlin House, 1971.
Remembering Malcolm, Carroll & Graf, 1992.
The End of White World Supremacy, Merlin House, 1971.
Remembering Malcolm, Carroll & Graf, 1992.
Afro-American Red Star, August 27, 2005, p. A1.
Los Angeles Sentinel, August 25, 2005, p. A23.
New York Amsterdam News, August 11, 2005, p. 30.
Richmond Times-Dispatch, August 5, 2005, p. B7.
Washington Post, January 24, 1993, p. W11; August 8, 2005, p. B4.
"Min. Benjamin Karim, Aide to Malcolm X, Passes," The Black World Today, http://tbwt.org/index.php?option=content&task=view&id=534 (March 2, 2007).
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