Bodies on the Pavement: A Reflection on Malcolm X, Police Violence, and Changing One's Mind

[This is the draft text of second of the two talks about Malcolm X I am due to give this week at Lehigh. This talk is more informal and meant as a personal reflection.]

[The above image is from Ferguson, Missouri. The name of the young man on the ground is Michael Brown. There are much more shocking images of his body on that street that many of us have seen. I chose this one because it at least affords him the dignity of being covered.]

After receiving the invitation to speak at this event, I immediately picked up a book I had been meaning to read for some time, Manning Marable’s much-discussed biography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. I spent the better part of two working days reading through the book in its entirety and learned many things I hadn’t previously known about Malcolm X’s life and death. One incident in particular stood out for its relevance for us today – the killing of Ronald X Stokes in April 1962 at the hands of the Los Angeles Police Department. Ronald Stokes was unarmed – but in fact no Nation of Islam (NOI) members carried guns in those days; that was Elijah Muhammad’s policy. Ronald X Stokes was killed in a disputed incident with the police; witnesses who saw the shooting say he had his hands up.

Other Malcolm X biographers have also written about this incident with varying degrees of detail (Peter Louis Goodman, in The Death and Life of Malcolm X also has an extensive section dealing with the killing of Stokes and what happened immediately afterwards). Interestingly, however, Malcolm X himself omitted any mention of this incident from The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and Spike Lee’s film, which did so much to create the iconic image of Malcolm X in the mass media in 1992, also omitted it (though there is a scene involving police brutality in the film that I think is a fictionalization). I’m guessing it’s possible that at least some folks in this room don’t know about it, and if you'll permit me I’ll take a few moments to revisit the history before meditating on what it might mean.

In April 1962, Malcolm X was still a full member of the Nation of Islam. Indeed, he was the organization’s “National Minister” – frequently described by outsiders as the “number 2 man” in the organization after Elijah Muhammad. He had personally set up the Los Angeles mosque some years earlier, and it was considered one of the NOI’s major success stories by the early 1960s. Malcolm X knew many of the mosque leaders personally, including Ronald X Stokes himself.

On April 27, 1962, there was an altercation between two police officers and a group of Nation of Islam members outside of the NOI’s Los Angeles Mosque, Mosque No. 27. What exactly happened and what triggered the altercation are a matter of dispute. The Nation of Islam’s story was that some of its members were delivering dry cleaned clothes to the mosque. The LAPD, which had been investigating the Nation following another altercation a few months earlier, claims they thought the clothes might have been stolen. Here is how Manning Marable summarizes the incident in his biography:

What happened next is a matter of dispute, yet whether the police were jumped, as they claimed, or the Muslim men were shoved and beaten without provocation, as seems likely, the commotion brought a stream of angry Muslims out of the mosque. The police threatened to respond with deadly force, but when one officer attempted to intimidate the growing crowd of bystanders, he was disarmed by the crowd. Somehow one officer’s revolver went off, shooting and wounding his partner in the elbow. Backup squad cars soon arrived ferrying more than seventy officers, and a full-scale battle ensued. Within minutes dozens of cops raided the mosque itself, randomly beating NOI members. It took fifteen minutes for the fighting to die down. In the end, seven Muslims were shot, including NOI member William X Rogers, who was shot in the back and paralyzed for life. NOI officer Ronald Stokes, a Korean War veteran, had attempted to surrender to the police by raising his hands over his head. Police responded by shooting him from the rear; a bullet pierced his heart, killing him. A coroner’s inquest determined that Stokes’ death was ‘justifiable.’ A number of Muslims were indicted. (Marable 207)

There are two notable things that we can take away from this incident. One is probably pretty glaringly obvious: more than fifty years have passed, and at least in respect to police violence it feels like nothing's changed. Not only was the police shooter in the incident not charged or disciplined, but several Muslims were indicted and then convicted of assault against the police (this is an age-old pattern that, unfortunately, still seems to be in effect).

(As a side note: I would be remiss if I didn’t stop to recognize for a moment Sureshbhai Patel, a 57 year old visitor from India who was minding his business on a sidewalk in Alabama last week until he was slammed to the ground by a police officer and left partially paralyzed by the impact. The person who called 9/11 to report his presence in the suburban neighborhood described him to police as a “skinny black guy.” That phrase is telling: it underlines, in case there was any doubt, that we, as people of color, are all in this together. The Model Minority myth periodically comes up against the realities of racism and xenophobia.)

But there are some other wrinkles here, which have to do with Malcolm X’s responses to the death of Ronald Stokes. He was, understandably, extremely angry about what had happened at Mosque No. 27. The event appeared to be the result of a sidewalk incident that was fairly trivial in nature; there’s no indication that any criminal activity on the part of the NOI triggering the event, so the evidence suggests the incident was the result of police harassment -- the raid on the mosque was by design, and intended to intimidate and disrupt the NOI's rapid growth in Los Angeles. Malcolm X also knew many of the members of the LA Mosque quite well, including Ronald X Stokes himself. And as people who have read his biography know, Malcolm X’s life had been scarred by a series of violent incidents, including the death of his own father under questionable circumstances in 1931.

I mention all this because I think t’s important to be aware of all that background before considering what Malcolm then apparently proposed to do. Even before Stokes’ funeral, Malcolm held secret meetings with Fruit of Islam members at his home mosque in New York. Manning Marable interviewed several NOI members about this incident, including Louis Farrakhan as well as Charles 37X Kenyatta and James 67X Warden (now known as Abdullah Abdur-Razzaq), and they all apparently stated that Malcolm X then solicited volunteers for an “assassination team to target LAPD officers.” The plan was, it appears, to go to LA and exact violent revenge for the attack on the mosque by killing police officers.

In the life of Malcolm X this appears to be an unusual event – I don’t know of any other incident where Malcolm X actively solicited or planned an act of violence, though he frequently used quite fiery language in his speeches and always said he believed in self-defense and in achieving justice through “an eye for an eye.” But he didn’t actually do violent things. So I was a little shocked when I read about this for the first time in the Marable (incidentally, it's not only in the Marable; other biographers have corroborate the details, again with interviews with people who were there).

Malcolm X's boss and the supreme authority within the NOI, Elijah Muhammad, nixed the action – not so much because he didn’t support it ethically, but because it would likely have damaged the NOI organization much more than it would have benefited it. Malcolm X was ordered to stand down, and he followed that order.

That's the first wrinkle. There's also a second wrinkle I would like to bring to your attention. While the NOI was very much a black nationalist organization, in the early 1960s, it was by and large an apolitical group that advocated self-segregation from white society rather than direct confrontation with American racism.

After being ordered by Elijah Muhammad to put away any thoughts of violent retribution following the death of Ronald X Stokes, Malcolm X went to Los Angeles and presided over his friend’s funeral on May 5. He then went on to stay in LA for several weeks, organizing a major civil rights rally against police brutality that involved mainstream civil rights groups as well as left wing activists – including a sizeable number of sympathetic whites. As the momentum began to build and press reports about the incident at Mosque No. 27 multiplied, Malcolm X was again shut down by Elijah Muhammad, who sent him a terse note ordering him to stand down increasingly expansive and inclusive civil rights agitations: “Stay where I put you.”

Malcolm again complied with his supreme leader’s wishes. But from this point forward, Malcolm X would be in tension with Elijah Muhammad and the rest of the NOI organization regarding the role of the nation's relationship to civil rights activism. Eventually, this tension, along with Malcolm’s disgust at Elijah Muhammad’s personal life, would lead to his split from the NOI only a little more than a year later.

So Malcolm was wrong in his first reaction to the raid on Mosque No. 27 and the death of Ronald X Stokes. But we can now see that he was right in his second reaction. The way forward for the black community would be through protest, agitation, and strategic engagement with allies, not self-segregation (which can also be seen as a form of quietism or passivity).

For me personally this is a powerful and telling incident in several ways.

Just to reiterate, the uncanny parallels between what happened to Ronald X Stokes and what happened to Michael Brown (down to the non-indictment of the police officers involved later) reminds us that the issues with the police relationship with the black community haven't really changed. Excessive and unwarranted police violence is still very much with us. The bodies of young black men are still on the pavement; we’re still watching and looking at their photographs, and frustrated that justice isn't being done.

Police violence is still destroying families and leaving lives shattered (did I mention that Ronald X Stokes, on his death, left behind a wife and a three-month old daughter?). It’s still a formidable challenge to have that violence be acknowledged, or to see any trace of accountability among law enforcement officials for incidents like the ones that led to the deaths of Eric Garner in New York or Michael Brown in Ferguson.

But it also reminds us that Malcolm X, who so powerfully and memorably gave voice to black anger and alienation, was also subject to human fallibility. In a moment of passion and anger he asked his followers to do something that was out of character, and that would have diminished his legacy. I don’t see his desire for revenge something that makes me lose respect for Malcolm X, but I do see it as a mistake. (Not his only one; we won't dwell on the others today, but they're there: the NOI's brief flirtation with the KKK in the 1950s; and there's the matter of Malcolm X's misogyny, of which we can see considerable evidence in the Autobiography...)

If we can put Malcolm X's fantasy of violent retribution aside as a minor mistake, we see in that second moment an early indication of a shift in Malcolm X's orientation to civil rights activism that quite clearly was no mistake at all. As Malcolm X became more convinced over the course of the next year or so that civil rights was a better strategy for empowering the black community than rigid separatism of the NOI, he emerged from a fairly narrow and intellectually limited religious sect towards a much more ecumenical and global perspective. He went from mocking the mainstream civil rights movement, and leaders like Dr. King, as acting like “House Negroes” and “Uncle Toms” to aligning himself with their actions and strategies in the last months of his life. Finally, he went from categorically excluding and rejecting the support of liberal whites to the black civil rights struggle to at least an ambivalent acceptance of their positive contributions. And he did all this without giving up on his core message and the beliefs that propelled him to the national stage to begin with.

When I was a young person I loved Malcolm X the angry rebel – I was under the spell of the story in the Autobiography, Spike Lee’s iconic version of him, the snippets of his voice in the songs of rap groups like Public Enemy. Now at age 40, and with many mistakes and disappointments of my own to ponder, I’m much more drawn to aspects of his life and personality that reveal complexities that I can learn from in my own teaching, scholarship (and sometimes, activism). I'm drawn to Malcolm X as a person who, gracefully and with integrity, came to realize that he had been wrong.

What's beautiful about this older more mature Malcolm X is that he found a new way to push forward in the path to justice. He changed, he learned from his mistakes, and most importantly, he refused to allow failures and setbacks to reduce the scope of his ambitions. He found a way of becoming someone new, while remaining true to himself.