Wednesday, February 21, 2007

February 21

Incas, a Carolina parakeet held captive at the Cincinnati Zoo, passed away on this date in 1918, less than a year after the death of his partner, Lady Jane. With Incas’ passing, the species Conuropsis carolinensis ceased to exist; it had been the only native species of parrot in North America, nesting in large trees from Florida to the upper Great Plains. When early 19th century deforestation reduced the birds’ access to cockleburs -- the species’ main source of food -- the birds turned upon the crops that were grown on the plantations and farms where their habitat used to be. In retaliation, farmers shot the Carolina parakeet in extraordinary quantities. To their ultimate disadvantage, carolinensis would swarm and circle over the slain bodies of their compatriots; this allowed even the least skilled shooters to destroy an entire flock in a matter of minutes. For many years in the mid-19th century, parakeet killers were able to sell the birds to hat-makers, who valued them for their attractive green and yellow feathers. By the 1880s the species had been diminished perilously; disease helped finish them off.

Forty-seven years after the extinction of the Carolina parakeet, Malcolm X was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, where he was preparing to deliver a speech before an audience of 400 people. Although he was shot over a dozen times, it was a single shotgun blast to the chest that killed him. Three men -- former colleagues of Malcolm’s when he was with the Nation of Islam -- were later charged in the shooting, but conclusive evidence has never been put forth to explain who fired the fatal shot.

Herman Ferguson, who worked on a number of youth projects with Malcolm X, was in attendance at the Audubon and recalled the assassination years later.
As I glanced over in the middle rows . . . two brothers had jumped to their feet. One brother was facing another brother, who was backing off from him, and they both had their hands in their pockets. One of them said, "Get your hands out of my pocket, nigger," very loud, and everybody could hear this, and the place got quiet. Malcolm stepped out from behind the podium and took a step toward the stage, and leaned forward and said, "cool it brothers and sisters" . . . and as he started to straighten up, there was a loud blast that filled that auditorium with the sound of a weapon going off. Malcolm straightened up, and his hand came up, and he stiffened. . . . The shotgun blast was fired at him by one of the assassins . . . Then a fusillade of shots rang out . . . the sound of heavy caliber pistols like they were 45s, smaller caliber pistols like they were 38s., and this kept up for several seconds. And I remember saying, “If they would just stop firing, maybe he could survive this.
As Malcolm X lay dying, he was held by his friend Yuri Kochiyama, a Japanese-American activist, had moved to Harlem with her husband in 1960 and befriended Malcolm during the last two years of his life. Kochiyama, who had been interned at Jerome, Arkansas during World War II, believed that Malcolm X spoke on behalf of people of color everywhere. Malcolm X and Yuri Kochiyama share the same birthday, May 19.

Painting By John J. Audubon
Audubon Ballroom Photo here

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