It has been 60 years since the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) killed Ronald (X) Stokes, wounded several others, and raided the Nation of Islam’s Temple #27. This enraged many in Black Los Angeles and led Minister Malcolm X to organize a Black alliance for racial justice. The over policing of Black Angelenos specifically and other minoritized communities more broadly was common in Los Angeles. In addition, LAPD’s Chief William H. Parker’s officers were known for invasive and abusive policing. Furthermore, federal and local law enforcement became increasingly aware of and monitored the rapidly growing Nation of Islam viewing them as crazed, fanatic, “hate mongers” for their critiques of white people. Founder and leader of the Nation, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad says they want freedom, justice, equality of opportunity, and the establishment of a separate state or territory. However, the differing approaches to freedom, justice, and equality among Black people would prove difficult to overcome when attempting to build a Black United Front in Los Angeles.
Incidents in Los Angeles between members of the Nation of Islam and law enforcement would increase in 1961 becoming deadly in April of 1962. On the night of Friday April 27, 1962, LAPD officers Frank Tomlinson and Stanley Kensic accosted Monroe (2X) Jones, Jr., and Fred (X) Jingles after exiting Temple #27 and viewing suits out of the open trunk of a parked car. Assuming an illegal clothing sale, Tomlinson and Kensic pulled over, approached with caution, and questioned Monore 2X and Fred X. As police officers continued to arrive on the scene and more members of the Nation exited the Temple, tensions arose, and conflict began. Ronald X was shot and killed by LAPD officer Donald Weese while attempting to assist Monroe 2X. Weese also shot Arthur (X) Coleman, Jr. in the chest and the base of his penis. In addition, Coleman suffered a laceration on his head caused by the butt of a gun. William (X) Rogers was shot and paralyzed. The police also raided the Temple, lined fifteen members of the Nation against the wall and began tormenting them. Davis and Wiener report:
‘We ought to shoot these n*****s,’ one cop taunted. ‘We got them lined up and we out to kill every one of them.’ There was an obscene obsession with Black men’s genitals as they were prodded, kicked, and their pants torn off. Two of the wounded Muslims, moreover, had been shot in the groin.
Such treatment crossed the line from policing to brutality suggesting contemplation and forethought. The racial epithet reveals anti-Black attitudes. In the end, fourteen members of the Nation, including head minister of Temple #27 Minister John Shabazz, were charged and tried for resisting arrest and attempted murder of a police officer.
After the murders, arrests, and raid on the Temple, there were those within the ranks of the Nation who wanted justice and revenge for the murder of Stokes, brutality experienced by others, and the siege of their Muslim Temple. The following morning, members were waiting on the orders from Messenger Muhammad to avenge the death of Stokes. Former Nation of Islam member Hakim Jamal, reports that he observed hundreds of Black men at the Temple ready and willing to respond in kind to the police specifically, and to white people generally. However, Muhammad ordered that they were not to attack the police but to sell their newspapers to the people and communicate the “savagery” of white people in general and the police specifically. Muhammad believed this would aid the Nation in their cause by bringing the masses of Black people “into the light” by revealing the ways of the “devil.”
Some members did not take kindly to Muhammad’s orders but still followed them, rationalizing to themselves that there must be a larger plan afoot. As time went by, disillusionment resulted in some members of the Nation disobeying Muhammad’s orders, organizing themselves into patrols of downtown Los Angeles, Skid Row in particular, and assaulting white men in the night. Minister Malcolm would later find out about these late-night beatings of white men and chastise the group for engaging in such action. Malcolm X called it “small time gangsterism.” Beating up drunken homeless white men did not target and direct their efforts in a manner that would create change. Minister Malcolm and other members wanted answers, justice, and action toward ensuring that Black life was not lost at the hands of police in vain. For Malcolm X, the disrespect shown to the arrested Black men must be addressed, and the raid on Temple #27 explained. Malcolm X was incensed. He knew Stokes and many others involved and assaulted by the police. Minister Malcolm’s retaliatory violence plan targeted LAPD officers. Elijah Muhammad, however, would order Minister Malcolm to “stand down.” Albeit stunned, he obeyed the order. Malcolm X pivoted and developed a new strategy to attack the LAPD. He would bring the issue of police brutality into the Black Freedom Movement.1
Benjamin Karim remembers, “Malcolm saw the Stokes incident as part of a larger cause, and he wanted to bring it into the larger battle of black people in America for social justice and human rights.” Minister Malcolm viewed Stokes’ murder as part of the Black Freedom Movement and procured attorneys Loren Miller and Earl Broady to defend the members of the Nation. Then, Minister Malcolm wanted to organize a Black alliance for racial justice to address police brutality and violence. Manning Marable reveals,
If Malcolm could not kill the officers involved, he was determined that both the police and the political establishment in Los Angeles should be forced to acknowledge their responsibility. The only way to accomplish this, he believed, was for the NOI to work with civil rights organizations, local black politicians, and religious groups.
Malcolm X understood that the issue was not about religion, per se, but about Black folks from diverse backgrounds coalescing on mutual concerns for racial justice and freedom.
Meanwhile, some Black leaders in Los Angeles refused to allow the police to scapegoat the Nation of Islam. At Stokes’ funeral on May 5, Minister Malcolm repeatedly praised Black organizations and leaders such as the NAACP and CORE in Los Angeles who had been protesting the attack. Journalist Danny Green, rising Black politician Mervyn Dymally, and Danny Gray of CORE would publicly stand with Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam. Minister Malcolm would spend much of May speaking to large crowds explaining that the Nation was not at war with the police, it was the police that were at war with Black people. However, this did not mean that general unity came about within the movement. For example, on May 23, The Los Angeles Times reported that 90 Black clergymen met and denounced the Nation of Islam and Minister Malcolm, accusing them of spreading hate and operating in a “cloak” of religion. In addition, Elijah Muhammad would again instruct Minister Malcolm to “stand down” and cease collaboration with the civil rights groups in hopes that the failure of the Civil Rights Movement would lead Black people to the Nation of Islam.
Local and national organizations such as the NAACP would continue organizing to hold the police department accountable without Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam. For example, Roy Wilkins, Secretary of the NAACP national office shared his concerns, questioning, “What touched off such a crazy assault that would lead unarmed Muslims to charge armed policemen?” The Nation, NAACP, and others demanded an investigation. And yet, Black churches, civil rights organizations, and Black politicians walked a tight line of condemning the actions of police while simultaneously not endorsing the Nation of Islam and their beliefs, which many believed would derail the Civil Rights Movements and alienate their white allies.
The raid on Temple #27 and the related death of Stokes resulted in Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty and Chief Parker closing ranks and coming together against the Nation of Islam and matters of policing. Yorty would also denounce the proposed civilian police review board that the NAACP and ACLU co-sponsored. Black Los Angeles would continue to voice their concerns about LAPD, but LAPD would continue to fan the kindling until the fires of rebellion singed the city in August of 1965. Malcolm X asserts the lesson and legacy of this historical moment stating:
Our people have made the mistake of confusing the methods with the objectives. As long as we agree on the objectives, we should never fall out with each other just because we believe in different methods or tactics or strategy to reach a common objective.
The Movement for Black Lives, 21st Century Black Student Activists, Black Alliance for Just Immigration, Congressional Black Caucus, and more must heed Minister Malcolm’s message and stay clear on the objectives. The objective of the Black Freedom Movement was and continues to be, for human respect and dignity as well as an increased quality of life and material conditions for Black people: the foundation of Black solidarity.
- Hakim Jamal, From the Dead Level: Malcolm X and Me (New York, 1972), Benjamin Karim, Peter Skutches, and David Gallen, Remembering Malcolm, (New York, 1992), C. Eric Lincoln, The Black Muslims in America, 3rd ed. (Trenton, NJ, 1994), Amina Hassan, Loren Miller: Civil Rights Attorney and Journalist (Norman, OK, 2015), Manning Marable, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (New York, 2011), 207. ↩