Malcolm X at the mosque
Remembering the 1962 shootings
Fifty years ago, Nation of Islam Muslims Monroe X Jones and Fred X Jingles were reportedly taking a garment bag from their vehicle outside Mosque, No. 27, at 56th Street and Broadway late on the evening of April 27, 1962, when LAPD officers Frank Tomlinson and Stanley Kensic pulled up in their police cruiser and questioned the two men. The officers frisked the men and asked where the clothes came from.
Jones, according to one report, was about to explain that he worked for a dry cleaner, when the officers decided to separate the Muslims. Jingles reportedly heard one of the officer say, “Let’s separate these niggers.”
Those words, if true, may have lit the flame that began the worst confrontation between the police and the Nation of Islam in the city’s history. Moments later, a fight between the Muslims and the officers ensued. A bystander ran into the temple for help and other Muslims reportedly poured out to join the fight. Two Black officers who worked the area happened upon the melee.
In the fighting, Kensic apparently lost his gun and Tomlinson was shot in the arm.
Police cruisers poured into the area, and some officers ran into the mosque, chasing Muslims who had sought refuge there. Later, officers converged on and ransacked the mosque.
Ronald Stokes, it appears, was shot dead outside the building, and William Rogers was paralyzed by gunshots wounds. Other Muslims were shot or badly injured from beatings. Several officers were also injured.
Depending on reports, Stokes, a Korean War veteran and the mosque secretary, had reportedly complied with police commands and was walking toward officers with his hands above his head, when he was shot at close range.
When the news reached Malcolm X, he said: “I’ve got to go out there and do what I’ve been preaching all this time.” Elijah Muhammad, then the leader of the Nation of Islam, took a different approach, privately criticizing mosque members for “ . . . allowing an aggressor to come into their mosque.”
That incident compelled Malcolm X to head to Los Angeles to conduct a press conference at the old Statler Hilton Hotel downtown to protest the killing. “Seven innocent unarmed Black men were shot in cold blood,” he told the press.
A telegram from Roy Wilkins, head of the NAACP at that time, reluctantly offered the organization’s “full support.” Later, an all-White coroner’s inquest exonerated the officers.
Political leaders saw this early case of police versus civillian violence as a verification of the worst fears about the so-called violent nature of the Nation of Islam.
African American politicians condemned the LAPD for what was considered to be a racially motivated attack. And although many Black Christian leaders were uncertain about the Nation of Islam, they too condemned the shooting.
“We are not brutalized because we are Baptist,” Malcolm X said at the press conference. “We are not brutalized because we are Methodist. We are not brutalized because we are Muslim. We are not brutalized because we are Catholic. We are brutalized because we are Black people in America.”
Within the Nation of Islam, there were starkly different opinions as to a response to the killing.
Malcolm X took the brutality as more than a basic violation of human rights and dignity. He had founded the mosque in 1957 and knew several of the victims, including Stokes.
The Los Angeles Herald-Dispatch reported that more than 2,000 people attended Stokes’ funeral.
The egregious nature of the L.A. shootings compelled Malcolm X to continue commenting in the weeks following. By then the case had drawn more sympathy from non-Muslims and both Black and White Christians because of similar police brutality cases witnessed in ghettos in Harlem, Detroit, Cleveland and Chicago. Throughout the turbulent 1960s, an irrational fear of Black militancy gripped White suburbia, and this racial anxiety provided the media with plenty of red meat.
During a New York interview Malcolm X asked: “What do they look like condemning Eichmann for what he did in Germany, and you’ve got some Gestapo tactics being practiced by the police department in this country against 20 million Black people . . . second-class citizens, day in and day out, not only down South but up North?
“Los Angeles isn’t down South. Los Angeles isn’t in Mississippi. Los Angeles is in the state of California, which produced Earl Warren, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, [and] Richard Nixon, the man who was vice president of this country for some eight years and who wants to run for president again.”
Public response to the shootings encouraged William H. Parker and succeeding LAPD chiefs through 1992 to effectively “close ranks” against “Black militant” sympathizers.
This uneasy relationship within the African American community provided a basis for police shoot-outs with the Black Panthers at 41st Street and Central Avenue in 1969, and again in 1974 with the Symbionese Liberation Army on East 54th Street at Compton Avenue, as well as in a number of beat-downs against Black Power and anti-war demonstrators on local college and high school campuses.
A social retrenchment swept the Los Angeles Fire Department as well. As late as 1992, Hershel Clady, a former assistant fire chief, was given a watch from LAPD officer Carl Lee-McGill, whom Clady had mentored since he was a boy. The watch face had Malcolm X’s photo embellished on it and the veteran Clady was reprimanded and almost fired for wearing it.
According to civil rights attorney Constance Rice, by 1992 the city of Los Angeles was paying a yearly minimum of $20 million in wrongful death settlements, police brutality and job discrimination lawsuits filed primarily against the LAPD and other departments of public safety.
On May 13, 1962, Malcolm X joined about 1,200 people at Second Baptist Church in South L.A. at what was called the Citizens Protest Rally Committee, calling for an inquiry into the causes of violence at the mosque shooting. He urged the heads of Black organizations to meet and pursue a unified strategy, stating: “…police brutality must end before something happens that can’t be stopped. We must come together against the common enemy.” It was not a Muslim fight, he said, but rather a Black man’s fight.
“They say we hate because we tell the truth,” Malcolm X said. “They say we inflame the Negro. The hell they’ve been catching for 400 years has inflamed them. We were brought here 400 years ago in chains. And it’s been 400 years of undiluted hell. If we don’t hate the White man, then you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Upon hearing that comment, Second Baptist Pastor J. Raymond Henderson, possibly fearing a violent retribution akin to the Southern Black church bombings, said emphatically: “We don’t want it said that the Muslims ran this meeting. We are not in favor of hating anyone.”
In June 1963, Malcolm X blasted Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty in a Muhammad Speaks newspaper article charging City Hall with operating a “…Ku Klux Klan police force that uses Gestapo tactics” against the Black community and Muslim religious groups.”
Popular author and talk-radio host Louis Lomax had earlier worked with the late Mike Wallace on a 1959 documentary about the Nation of Islam, and in 1963 introduced to Whites the organization’s leadership and mission statement in his book “When the Word is Given.”
(Lomax died in a 1970 car accident in Santa Rosa, New Mexico, while preparing a documentary on the purported role of the FBI in Malcolm X’s assassination. Some colleagues believed Lomax’s death may have been conspired because, at the time of the crash, the FBI had compiled a 141-page dossier on him.)
Author and professor Earl Grant, a close aide and one of the last persons to see Malcolm X alive, would regularly drive him to appointments in Los Angeles.
He said of his late friend, “He was like a vision of your grandfather: very sweet, a loving person. He wasn’t always the person with fists clenched and teeth showing. That was the image that the press presented of him. One of his favorite statements was: ‘tell it like it is.’ He lived in a real world at all times. He once told me, ‘Brother, no matter how much you stand around hallucinating, reality is all around you.’”
Once, after a New York meeting of the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), which was founded by Malcolm X and Grant, the latter suggested that Malcolm spend the night with his family because of increased death threats and police harassment:
“You have a family,” Malcolm X told him, “I don’t want anyone hurt on my account. I always knew it would end like this.”
Malcolm X once told Grant: “A race of people is like an individual man; until it uses its own talent, takes pride in its own history, expresses its own culture, affirms its own selfhood, it can never fulfill itself.”
In an unusual break from traditional Islamic protocol, Malcolm X confided in Grant that he wanted women to be “given a more clearly defined role” in the OAAU. He conveyed his last hopes to Grant, author of “The Life, Times and Legacy of Malcolm X": “I don’t care about myself. I only want to protect my family and the OAAU. No matter what happens to me personally, it is important that the OAAU continue to exist.”
Grant said that frequently during their travels, old friends would avail their services to him and Malcolm X (chauffering, lodging, meals, security, etc.) “ . . . just for old time’s sake. They’d take care of it, you know?”
“The influence of Malcolm X on the political consciousness of Black Americans has had its greatest growth since his death,” Grant continued. “His statement ‘freedom by any means necessary’ has been both used and abused by young Black militants. The Black Muslim movement was the political and spiritual incubator for Malcolm X; it was the area of his basic training and his proving ground. He modified what he learned in this university of the ghetto, but he never repudiated it.”
FBI director J. Edgar Hoover initiated a program of destruction of the OAAU. In a memo to New York and Philadelphia field offices, dated July 2, 1964, Hoover stated: “There is indication that Little (Malcolm X) has aligned himself with subversive groups and this matter must be immediately investigated and, if feasible, a counterintelligence program will be initiated to publicly discredit Little.”
In January 1965, Malcolm X returned to Los Angeles to meet with attorney Gladys Towles-Root and two former Nation of Islam secretaries who had filed paternity suits against Elijah Muhammad.
Malcolm X was shot to death three months later while speaking at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. After the slaying, practically all aides to Malcolm X went silent, with Grant subsequently moving to Ghana, carrying with him the majority of Malcolm X’s writings, tapes and files.
“He was a person always in the process of growth and change,” Grant added. “He had outgrown the Black Muslim movement led by Elijah Muhammad. After he left the Black Muslim movement, he immediately put himself in danger.”
Born on May 19, 1925, Malcolm X would have been 87 on Saturday.
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