San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who has recently decided not to stand during the national anthem, wore a Malcolm X hat and a T-shirt featuring images of the leader meeting with Fidel Castro at a press conference where he explained his protest. The T-shirt has, perhaps predictably, drawn criticism from conservative quarters; the Weekly Standard called Kaepernick’s wardrobe choice a “startling display of ignorance,” pointing to what writer Mark Hemingway called Cuba’s human rights abuses and “legacy of racism.” Setting aside an assessment of Castro’s later record on race, and whether it strengthens or undermines Kaepernick’s stance, what’s the story behind those photos, taken a year after the Cuban leader came to power, and five years before Malcolm’s death? Why did the two men meet, and what did they discuss?
The photos, taken by Carl Nesfield, record a September 1960 meeting that was rich in symbolic significance. The Castro meeting illustrates Malcolm X’s internationalism—an important aspect of his activism in the last half-decade of his life that, scholars argue, has been unfairly cropped out of popular representations of his biography. While the meeting itself—which took place at the Theresa Hotel in Harlem during Castro’s longer visit to the city—was reportedly light on substance, its public relations value was immense. Harlem heartily welcomed Castro, demonstrating that the official American rejection of the Cuban regime did not represent unanimous public opinion, and that many Americans of African descent had come to believe they shared a common cause with others who had been oppressed abroad, including Afro-Cubans. And Malcolm’s prominent presence on the welcoming committee declared the rising leader—then a popular minister with an increasingly high profile within the Nation of Islam—to be a person of national and international importance.