SHIP BOTTOM — Jim De Francesco remembers that hot June night in 1963 when he stood less than five feet from Malcolm X.
De Francesco, 67, was 20 when he was assigned by Philadelphia’s WHAT-AM radio station to report on a Malcolm X rally held June 30, 1963, at the Camden Convention Hall. He said WHAT-AM was one of the major African-American radio stations in the city at that time.
Inside De Francesco’s Hog Penny Studios, his home television studio on East 14th Street in Ship Bottom, he keeps a copy of an audio reel that captured Malcolm X’s historic words that night.
He said he has not touched the reel since August 1963.
De Francesco supplied the exclusive audio feed to The Associated Press in 1963. He smiles as he remembers the heat and humidity in the crowded convention hall on that muggy late June night 48 years ago.
“This was before the Beatles, and this was just months before John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The racial turbulence in the north Philadelphia Columbia Avenue section had already started. The National Guard was called in, and there was a police presence,” he said. “There was such incredible electricity in the audience of about 1,000 that night,” he said.
De Francesco, who is 5 feet, 8 inches tall, said that when he arrived at the rally venue, he was patted down and his 60-pound reel-to reel-recorder was searched by members of the Fruit of Islam, who served as Malcolm X’s security force.
“As I was setting up my equipment, a friend of mine who was a still photographer told me to turn around and see who was behind me. It was (boxer) Cassius Clay, before he converted to Islam and became Muhammad Ali,” De Francesco said.
De Francesco stood with the rest of the media, below the stage that was cordoned off by members of the Fruit of Islam. He said the men stood, aligned like a human blockade along the stage, wearing suits and bowties with their large arms crossed over their chests.
Then Malcolm X appeared on stage.
“He strode to the front edge of the stage. He was about 6 feet, 3 inches tall and had reddish brown hair. He was dressed impeccably,” De Francesco said, adding many of the women in the audience stared at Malcolm X as if he were a movie star. “I got the distinct feeling that the crowd was hanging on his every word.”
But when Malcolm X started his speech, De Francesco said, he felt racial unease for the first time.
De Francesco hailed from an integrated Philadelphia neighborhood and attended an integrated school. But the crowd that night was anything but integrated, he said. He said about a handful of white people were present, and they were members of the media.
Malcolm X spoke of enemies among his supporters that night, gesturing to the media that were present.
“Brothers, sisters and friends, I see some enemies. In fact, I think we’d be fooling ourselves if we had an audience this large and didn’t realize that there were some enemies present,” Malcolm X said at the start of his speech that night.
But De Francesco, still inexperienced at 20, said he immediately set aside his discomfort and focused on what he was there to do.
“When he said we were the enemy, I felt this profound unease for about 45 seconds, and then I got a professional grip,” he said.
He calls himself a leftover liberal from the 1960s and said he empathized with Malcolm X’s message, although he did not totally embrace it.
De Francesco also recorded Martin Luther King Jr.’s delivery of the “I Have a Dream” speech on the Mall in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 28, 1963. He stood about 125 feet from King during that speech. He no longer has the recording.
He said he is aware that the country has come a long way when it comes to racial equality and acceptance, but that racism is still alive. That’s when he thinks of Malcolm X’s words on that hot June night in 1963.
“(On Feb. 16), a cross was burned on the side of the road in southern Ocean County during Black History Month. So perhaps, the more things change, the more things stay the same,” he said.
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