Malcolm X found his last resting place on Ferncliff Cemetery, about 20 miles north of Manhattan. As a working cemetery it brings that uniquely solemn atmosphere. An ordinary plaque marks the grave of this extraordinary man.
Malcolm X was assassinated on Sunday, 21 February 1965. Harlem had a few days to bid her “black shining prince” farewell. Then on Saturday, 27 February 1965, after a final service Malcolm’s remains were brought to Ferncliff Cemetery. Despite the freezing cold about twenty-five thousand people paid their last tribute and watched the coffin drive by.
On the cemetery the funeral took place according to Islamic tradition. Al-hajj Heshaam Jaaber said the last prayers and the coffin was lowered into the grave. Malcolm’s grave is placed so that the body’s head faces towards Mecca.
As usual the grave diggers stood aside and waited to close the grave. Malcolm’s family left the cemetery but his followers noticed that the grave diggers were all white. They took offence in the thought that white people would put dirt on Malcolm’s remains. So they started to fill the grave with their bare hands, before the diggers handed them their shovels.
How to get there
Address: Ferncliff Cemetery, 280 Secor Road, Hartsdale, NY 10530
Closest train station: Hartsdale
The train ride from Harlem 125th Street train station to Hartsdale is 24 or 38 minutes long.
From Hartsdale it is an 1 h 30 min to 2 hours walk to the cemetery. For most of the way there are no sidewalks. Walking is possible but not a good option. By taxi it takes 10 min to the cemetery ($6 in 2013).
Commemorating Malcolm X
Cemeteries have that unique atmosphere, all over the world. They look different but they are the rare places where people face death and commemorate the deceased. This brings quietness, solemnity, respect. A cemetery is not so much for the deceased as for the ones left behind. Visiting a graveyard is the chance to make an effort and go somewhere to commemorate. To commemorate in fellowship, there is this strange community among visitors without even exchanging a word.
For my Civil Rights Movement Tour I felt the need to visit the grave of Malcolm X. It was my way of paying tribute to the activist I admire. So on a weekday in sunny weather I arrived at Ferncliff Cemetery. Hardly anyone visited the graveyard, but I saw staff maintaining the graves. At the main building a very helpful employee printed out maps for me so I could find the grave of Malcolm X and others important to black history.
Malcolm X’s resting place is on a lawn with several rows of the usual metal plaques laying flat on the ground. When I walked along the rows, head down reading the names on the plates, someone shouted from a lawn tractor “You looking for Malcolm X?” – “Yeah, I do.” – “Let me show you!”
He drove a short distance away from me, slowed his vehicle and dropped a flower head on a plaque. I shouted my thanks though I felt a little disappointed I didn’t discover the gravesite by myself. On the other hand now there was a flower for the grave. I hadn’t bought flowers in Manhattan and hadn’t seen any shop at the cemetery. I would have loved to bring something.
Slowly I approached the white flower head. Finally there I was, at the grave, that meant so much to me, reading for myself: Hajj-Malik El Shabazz. Malcolm X. And Betty.
I sat down on my knees and kept sitting there, staring at the plaque. Memories from his autobiography flashed through my mind. How Malcolm X experienced a shattered childhood, racism, a criminal life and became the fearless and eloquent activist. Malcolm X was such a strong and free mind but for many years at the same time completely devoted to Elijah Muhammad. He fought tirelessly and fiercely for his people. He would name every injustice, no matter who the audience was. He wasn’t afraid, not of anything. When Malcolm X made speeches or gave interviews he often seemed bitter, facing and living all that injustice. But then suddenly he could make a joke and his face lit up with a warm waggish smile.
Malcolm X’s fight is not my heritage, as I am a white person. Yet, to see the grave was so important to me. I felt like having arrived. For a long time I just sat there. I thought I should cover my hair as Muslim women do. There was a scarf in my backpack. I thought of removing the flower as it seemed a bit ridiculous. But I didn’t do all of that. I just sat there, remembering.
Finally I got up and took a few photographs. Very slowly I retraced my steps. I was thankful to be able to visit the grave of Malcolm X.
Malcolm X and Alex Haley: The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley, 1965
Manning Marable: Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, 2011
“black shining prince”: Ossie Davis described Malcolm X in his eulogy on 27 February 1965 as “our black shining prince”.