Justifiable Homicide, Police Brutality, or Governmental Repression?
The 1962 Los Angeles Police Shooting of Seven Members of the Nation of Islam
ON THE NIGHT OF APRIL 27, 1962, scores of policeman ransacked the Nation of Islam Mosque in Los Angeles and wounded seven unarmed Muslims, leaving William Rogers paralyzed and Ronald Stokes dead. Newspapers from New York to Los Angeles printed the story in their headlines, presenting the gruesome image of the slain Muslim, suited, facedown, handcuffed, swimming in a pool of his own blood. The political struggle which erupted after the shooting soon overshadowed this story of human pain and suffering. And the headlines of local and national newspapers quickly recognized that the siege was certainly not the normal police brutality case.
‘To many white political leaders, the conflict substantiated their worst fears about the violent nature of the Nation of Islam. On the other hand, many Black leaders condemned the police for what they considered to be a racially motivated assault. Though contemporaries viewed the shooting from different perspectives, they agreed on the importance of the attack and its aftermath. Several recent scholars have marked the event as a watershed event in the ideological development of Malcolm X and in Los Angeles racial politics preceding the Watts Rebellion of August 1965. This study synthesizes the current scholarship and taps new sources to show that the fatal shooting of Ronald Stokes has even deeper roots and wider implications than any single scholar has suggested.
Biographers have shown that the shooting catalyzed Malcolm’s growing disenchantment with the eventual break from the Nation of Islam. George Breitman, editor of Pathfinder Press, reveals that the shooting may have created the tension that caused the split between Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X. 1 Peter Goldman and Benjamin Karim describe the inner struggle that Malcolm felt because of the Nation of Islam’s “inaction” after the shooting.2 Eugene Wolfenstein provides an unmistakably Marxist analysis in interpreting Malcolm X’s response to the failure of the Nation of Islam to retaliate against the police.3 And in what he proclaims as “the first complete biography” of the slain leader, Bruce Perry gives an account of the shooting and Malcolm’s surface response, but he does not provide any substantial analysis.4
Several other authorities provide deeper analyses of the shooting of Ronald Stokes and its aftermath. Bruce Tyler places the conflict within the wider context of the volatile Los Angeles racial politics which erupted into the Watts uprising of 1965. 5 In his study of the governmental plot to assassinate Malcolm X, Karl Evanzz provides the most thorough analysis to date. 6 Relying most heavily upon FBI records, Evanzz brilliantly captures the national and international response, yet he fails to explore the origins of or local protest to the attack. This study taps new sources to show that the assault on the Los Angeles Muslims had even deeper roots and wider implications than any single scholar has suggested.
In providing their accounts of the shooting, the previously mentioned authorities share a variety of primary sources. Of course they reference the Autobiography of Malcolm X. Most of them cite Hakim Jamal’s From the Dead Level, which is a moving autobiography of a Muslim who left the Los Angeles Mosque because of his disappointment over the Nation of Islam’s “inaction” after the shooting. Evanzz, Goldman, and Wolfenstein utilize Louis Lomax To Kill Black Man: The Shocking Parallel in the Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. Overall, Perry, Wolfenstein, Evanzz, and Breitman use a carefully selected combination of biographies, government documents, interviews, newspapers, and audio tapes.
Several of these sources proved to be useful, especially the Autobiography of Malcolm X, Lomax’s work, and Jamal’s biography. But for the purposes of this study, other sources needed to be tapped. The official organ of the Nation of Islam, Muhammad Speaks, and the Los Angeles Times were indispensable in providing chronology, detail, and a wide assortment of perspectives. Most importantly, the traditional Black press, including the Pittsburgh Courier, New York Amsterdam News, Los Angeles Sentinel, and California Eagle, provides invaluable information on the local and national protest to the shooting. A variety of other sources, including the papers of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, government reports, secondary sources, and general dialogue with fellow students and mentors revealed important insights. Unfortunately, the Muslims who were at the scene of the shooting were not available for interviews. Despite the absence of their testimony, this study still provides greater scope than previous works.
The shooting of Ronald Stokes in April 1962 can perhaps be best understood as part of a larger historical tradition of American violence against Blacks. From the torturous slave trade to the lash of the slaveholder to the noose of the Ku Klux Klan, irrespective of gender or class, have withstood seemingly constant violence from the hands of white America, Racist violence followed Blacks as they made the Great Migration from the South to the North. By the mid-twentieth century; Black ghettoes were being described by some as internal American colonies. In this context; the police department served not as protector of the peace but as an occupying army which could reign terror without tear of reprimand.’ And Blacks were expected to remain passive and stand defenseless in the face of such racist assault.
As an essentially northern grassroots movement, the Nation of Islam was certainly no stranger to police brutality. The brutal murder of Ronald Stokes was to become the most vivid example, but the antagonism between the Nation of Islam and the police predates the Los Angeles shooting. For example, because many of the members of the Nation of Islam were ex-convicts, surely some of them had been victims of the capricious acts of the police or prison guards. In additional the movement was embroiled in a J 9:37 brutality case in New York City. Hinton Johnson) a member of the Nation or Islam was beaten and then arrested by a police officer. Malcolm X) then the local New York minister; led dozens of members of Muhammad’s Mosque No. 7 and many curious bystanders on a march on the Harlem police precinct, where they demanded proper medical attention for their fallen brother, who was mauled so severely that surgeons were required to use a steel plate to repair his cracked skull. “the message quickly spread among Black New Yorkers that the Nation of Islam was nothing to play with; and police departments and federal investigators became increasingly concerned that the “Black Muslim Movement” was a subversive organization. 8
It did not take long for members of the Nation of Islam Mosque No. 27, established in 1957, in Los to experience their first confrontation with law enforcement. On September 2, 1961, several Muslims were selling their national newspaper, Muhamad Speaks in South Central Los Angeles at Venice Plaza in the parking lot of a Safeway grocery store when they were accosted by two white store detectives. The Los Angeles Times reported that detectives were stomped and beaten after they tried to stop the Muslims’ solicitations. “We’ve been having trouble for 10 months … Groups of Muslims block the market doorways and try to sell their newspaper,” said one detective Reporting the story, the Los Angeles Times, printed on the cover of its September 3 Metropolitan section a picture of a Los Angeles policeman reading a copy of one of the confiscated newspapers. Ironically (or perhaps fittingly), on the cover of that month’s Muhammad Speaks appeared t e headline: “MUSLIMS SET FOR CHRISTIAN ATTACK” 9
An article in the May 1962 issue of Muhammad Speaks describes the insider quite differently:
According to witnesses, two white “store detectives” employed by the Safeway store came onto [sic] the lot and tried to chase the Muslims away. When they refused, saying they had permission from the owner to sell the paper there, the two “detectives” produced guns and attempted to make a “citizen’ arrest.” Grocery packers rushed out to help the detectives, who were identified as Fred Prendergast and King Marsh, and Black residents of the area who had area also became involved. For 45 minutes’ bedlam reigned.
It took forty policemen to disperse the crowd of bystanders before arresting five Fruit of Islam, Louis (5X) Faison, twenty-four; William (X) Orr, nineteen; Raymond (6X) Phillips, twenty-two; Donald (6X) Caffey, twenty-two: and Wade (X) Morris, twenty-five; and one onlooker, Fred Perkins, forty-seven. Further research will determine who threw the first blow. But it is important to note that when the case went to trial the store’s owner and manager submitted an affidavit that slated they had permitted paper sales, thus exonerating the Muslim defendants. After less than two hours of deliberation, an all-white jury acquitted the Fruit of Islam of assault and battery charges; the Muslims subsequently filed a lawsuit against Safeway in excess of one million dollars.
The May 1962 issue of Muhammad Speaks not only reported the 1961 Los Angeles conflict but also cited a recent by the United States Commission on Civil Rights that concluded that ‘Negroes are the victims of (police) brutality far more, proportionately, than any other group in American society.” It is rather ironic that these two articles were published in May 1962, only four days after the fatal shooting of Ronald Stokes and the wounding of six other Muslims. Obviously; the paper had gone to press before the April 27, shooting. But importantly, that issue shows the consciousness of the paper’s editor (if not the entire organization) of friction between law enforcement and the Muslims, and, more generally, the volatile relationship between the police and the Black community.
Such tension was felt in the North and the South, in the East and the West. In 1961, in Los Angeles, the tension erupted when on May 31, a gathering of nearly two hundred Blacks who were enjoying a Memorial Day barbecue at Griffith Park was confronted by seventy-five policemen. Most accounts reveal that the “mini-riot” that ensued was the fault of police overreaction. The unrest occurred just a few days before the city’s mayoral Democratic primary election between Samuel Yorty and the incumbent Norris Poulson. Yorty’s criticism of the current administration’s record in law enforcement helped him gain some of the undecided vote, solidify the Black vote, and carry the primary.11 After the election, answering a question about police chief William H. Parker, Yorty remarked:
I stand all right with Chief Parker. I got him a double (pay) raise that he wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. I’m planning on keeping him, but I want [him] to enforce the law and stop making remarks about the minority groups in this community, because the police have had very poor public relations with the minority groups.
This is not good for this community. We’re not living in the South and I expect everybody to be treated equally and fairly and I expect police to enforce the law and I will expect they will do so.
I know the minority groups have confidence in me and I have confidence in them, and we are going to have good public relations with all the groups in this community and act like a grownup (sic] city, 12
The exigencies of office would make Mayor Yorty eat his words.
Yorty entered a government that seemed to have no conscience—certainly it would not be disturbed by the murder of a member of the Nation of Islam at the hands of the police. For by the 1960s, the government, on the federal, state, and local levels, had developed an expertise in conducting surveillance, destroying the lives of “subversives,” and dismantling organizations, all under the guise of “nabbing communists.” The Nation of Islam, though not considered a communist organization, was put on the government’s list of dangerous organizations. In fact, during the 1940s, Yorty chaired the California Committee on Un-American Activities, which by the early 1960s targeted the Muslims.13
Two documents are indicative of the federal governments viewpoints on the “Black Muslims.”’ In a seventy-three-page report, Black FBI agent J. P. Mathews describes the ambivalent feelings the Nation of Islam had toward violence. Mathews observed that while leaders preached nonviolence publicly and often admonished their followers to obey the white man’s law, local ministers would tell their followers, Blood must be shed to get our rights. We mean business.”14 Such statements confounded the FBI.
Concern about the Nation of Islam reached the top the FBI. In his September 18, 1968, statement to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover argued that the Nation of Islam’s “meetings are replete with condemnations of the white race and vague references to the physical retribution that will be meted out to oppressors.”15 Some in the bureau saw the Nation of Islam as a threat, but: several factors spared it from more intense scrutiny: the organization had religious grounding, it publicly denounced or equivocated on the question of violence, and the bureau was primarily concerned with the Communist Party and the civil rights movement.
On the state level the Nation of Islam was among the organizations included in the eleventh report of the California Senate Fact-finding Committee on Un-American Activities. Essentially, the committee asked whether the Nation of Islam had communist affiliations. Though this fear was allayed, they still concluded that there was an “interesting parallel between the Negro Muslim movement and the Communist Party, and that is the advocacy of the overthrow of a hated regime by force, violence or any other means…”16 The state committee, once chaired by Mayor Yorty; evoked fear of the Nation of Islam that may have trickled down to the local level.
As a neighbor of Los Angeles, the San Diego Police Department established method of identifying and confronting members of the Nation of Islam and forewarned its officers about possible confrontations. According to their officer training manual:
The nucleus of the Nation of Islam is comprised of 20 to 30 year-old men called, “the Fruit of Islam.” These men are selected for their physical prowess and are adept for their aggressive tactics and judo. They are psychotic in their dedication and hatred of Caucasians and are comparable to the Mau Mau or Kamikaze in their dedication and fanaticism. It has been reported that many temples have gun clubs in which this militant group is trained in weapons.
The Muslims in the Los Angeles area, like their cult elsewhere, are highly disciplined. The “clean cut” Negro, well dressed and groomed, is the most likely member of the organization; male members of the inner circle wear dark suits, white shirts and maroon ties. Many are well-educated, all are well trained.
Officers should, however, be apprehensive and alert to any eminent threat to these fanatics. Patrol Officers should request “back-up” on any investigation or police incident involving a possible MUSLIM, regardless of how trivial the incident…”17
Their method of identification and analysis was dangerously vague. First, their assertion that mosques had “gun clubs” implied that Muslims were armed and therefor a threat to patrolmen. Second, their use of terms such as “fanatic,” “aggressive,” and “psychotic” painted the picture to trainees that the Fruit of Islam would not fear using their alleged weapons and made the Muslims justifiable targets for police attack. Third, their statement that “the clean cut” Negro, well dressed and groomed, is the most likely member of the organization is sufficiently nebulous that almost any Black man dressed in a dark suit could be targeted, whether a Fruit of Islam, a lawyer, or a Baptist preacher. The national and state paranoia may have aroused the San Diego Police Department’s anxiety. But since San Diego did not have a substantial Muslim population, why did they express such concern?
The Los Angeles Police Department may have cautioned the San Diego Police Department. In an April 1962 interview by Donald McDonald of the Center for the Study of Democratic institutions, Los Angeles police department chief William H. Parker admitted his concern over racial tensions in Los Angeles. A published interview reads:
Parker: you can’t ignore these problems [racial tensions]. I am reading a book now dealing with an organization which is totally anti-Caucasian. We have been watching it with concern for a Jong lime.
Q: Do you Mean the Muslims?
Parker: Yes, the Black Muslims of America [Sic]. The Negro author of this book [C. Eric Lincoln] does an apparently objective analysis of this problem. Of course, our primary job is to enforce the law. . . But we ought to also be interested enough in our work to look into some of the causes of these problems.
Less than one year after police were called in to repress the struggle between Muslims and Safeway detectives and during the very month of the shooting, the chief of police admitted that he was conducting surveillance of the Nation of Islam.
The tension between the Los Angeles Police Department and the Nation of Islam eventually exploded on April 27, 1962, with the shooting of Ronald Stokes and six other Muslims. The Los Angeles Times initially reported the story as a “blazing gunfight” though the Muslims were unarmed.19 Such headlines proved to be emblematic of their coverage. As it reported the trial of the fourteen Muslims charged in the melee (Robert L. Buice, Arthur Coleman, John Shabazz, Raymond Wiley, Elmer Craft, Fred Jingles Nathaniel Rivers, William Rogers, Randolph Sidle, Charles H. Zeno, Roosevelt Walker, Robert Rogers, Troy Augustine, and Monroe Jones), it privileged the testimony of the police under the district attorney’s questioning and, when it included the cross-examination, relegated to the end of its articles any contradictions that may have arisen under the defense attorney’s questioning. Before, during, and after the trial the major Los Angeles electronic and print media, and institutions which wielded the most power and held the greatest claim to “objectivity” came down decidedly on the side of the police. 20 The coverage was so one-sided that John Shabazz, minister of Muhammad’s Mosque No. 27 and one of the defendants, declared that the Muslims were “not only PERSECUTED, and PROSECUTED, but worst of all we were PRESSECUTED.”21
Bruce Perry in his biography of Malcolm X provides an account of the shooting. He contends that at around midnight on April 27, 1962, two Los Angeles patrolmen, Stanley Kensic and Frank Tomlinson, confronted two Black men whom they deemed suspicious. Perry asserts that the policemen stopped to interrogate the men because there was a rash of clothing store burglaries in the area. The two Black men whom they saw take some clothing from a parked car thus became immediate suspects. “What happened next has been disputed,” says Perry. But he then provides a lengthy account of what he thinks happened. Because he does not provide a historical backdrop behind the shooting and because his narrative flows largely from the perspective of the police officers, Perry, whether he knows it or not, presents the police as victims.22
The murder of Ronald Stokes and the shooting of six other Muslims at the hands of the Los Angeles police department cannot be understood outside of a historical context. First, the Nation of Islam was a targeted organization. The increased national exposure and the previous clashes between the Nation of Islam and law enforcement had drawn the attention of Los Angeles police chief Parker. Second, the police felt a general disregard for the human rights of Blacks to live free from violent repression: in fact, by the mid-twentieth century; many perceived the police as the new bearers of the “American tradition” of violence. Third, as a grassroots organization in the urban “colony” and the only national Black organization that broached the subject of self-defense, the Nation of Islam served as an antithesis to the police. This combination of ingredients exploded.
Certainly it is a difficult task to recreate what happened at approximately midnight on April 27, 1962, just one block from the Nation of Islam Mosque. Emotions were flaring and subsiding, things occurred simultaneously, and those on the inside were not aware of everything that surrounded them. Sources correspond on several facts and are in conflict on others; what no one disputes is that after the two officers confronted two Muslims, one being Monroe Jones, a struggle ensured. A bullet from the arresting officer Stanley Kensic’s revolver struck his partner Officer Frank Tomlinson in the elbow. Later in the conflict, from approximately six feet away, Officer Donald Weese fatally shot the unarmed Ronald Stokes through the heart as he walked toward the officer with his hands raised in the air. William Rogers was shot in the back and paralyzed. And five other Muslims, Robert Rogers, Arthur Coleman, Roosevelt Walker, Fred Jingles Jr. and Monroe Jones, were shot. provoked the conflict? Who shot Officer Tomlinson? These questions will be left for further research. But the evidence suggests that perhaps the most important question can be answered: Was the shooting of the seven Muslims justifiable homicide (as the white media, Bruce Perry, and the Los Angeles grand jury contend), a case of police brutality (as most Blacks concluded) or an instance of racist governmental repression against the Black struggle for freedom?
Reports from Muhamad Speaks, several other Black newspapers, and other primary sources present damaging evidence against the police department. Testimony from the trial of the Muslims suggests that a Black off-duty security guard, noticing the conflict, fired the bullet which struck officer ‘Tomlinson. In a speech delivered to a mas meeting, Malcolm X asserted that after the original struggle between the police and the Muslims outside of the mosque, a call went out to the police department. However, they did not report to the original scene of the conflict. Rather, they stopped a block away at the Muslim mosque, where Muslims began to filter out of the Mosque.23
Policemen shot their way into the mosque, wounding Robert Rogers, Roosevelt Walker, Arthur Coleman, Clarence Jingles, and Monroe Jones, and paralyzing William Rogers. Officer Donald Weese shot to silence the Muslims as they declared in Arabic, “Allah O Akbar” which simply means “God is Great.” Inside the mosque, Minister John (Morris) Shabazz called for medical attention and handed the phone to Stokes and then rushed Outside to tend to the fallen brothers. When he found that the wounded Clarence Jingles was already rushed off to the hospital, Minister Shabazz reentered the mosque to ensure the safety of the Muslim women.24
In the meantime, Stokes went outside to make sure that his wife was safe and to carry the downed Roosevelt Walker from the scene. The police immediately demanded Stokes to stop. Stokes, secretary of Mosque No. 27, then dropped Walker’s feet and walked forward with his hands raised to plead with the police to stop shooting. Officer Donald Weese, ignoring Stokes’s pleas, shot him through the heart. “I shot to kill,” Weese testified in the grand jury hearings held against the police. Later, a Muslim inside the mosque overheard a policeman brag, “We got one of their top officials.”25
Inside the mosque, a policeman poked a gun to Minister Morris’s back. He overheard Officer Reynolds say, “We ought to burn this place down. They’re going to declare it subversive in the next few days anyway” [italics mine]. He then exhorted, “Let’s tear those pretty suits off those niggers.” They then ripped the Muslims’ clothes off in an alleged search for weapons. Not one weapon was found.26
The police proceeded to kick, slap, hit with their night sticks, and handcuff the wounded Muslims who were left to lay in their own blood, scattered along the sidewalk outside the mosque. Approximately one hour expired before ambulances arrived at the scene, and then whites were treated first. As one of the Muslims was being carried off the scene, one of the attendants remarked to a policeman: “Why don’t you kill the nigger. I’ll say that he tried to grab your gun.” Then the officer said, “Take the long way to the hospital and drive real slow and this nigger will be dead by the time we get there [the hospital].”27
When in custody at the police headquarters, a Muslim overheard officers boasting about, how they shot up the mosque. One allegedly said: “We should have gotten more of those nigger M[other] F [ucker]’s. Reminiscent of the scene in New York with Hinton Johnson, three Muslims who suffered gunshot wounds were held in jail for two days and denied sufficient medical treatment until their $10,000 bond was posted.28 Was the shooting “justifiable homicide”? If one believes the reports in the Los Angeles Times, one might respond, “Yes, the police were justified.” But if the information in Muhammad Speaks and California Eagle is correct, the only rational conclusion that can be drawn is that the shooting was a case of police brutality and a religious, political, and racial attack.
The crisis that followed the shooting can be best described within the context of the tensions between the Black masses and various forms of “leadership” on the question self-defense and self-determination during the civil rights era. The white power structure, including the press, the mayor, and the police chief, attempted to direct the energy of the masses and prevent a riot. Members of the local Black leadership distanced themselves from the violent image of the Muslims but capitalized on the headlines the shooting drew to deal with the issue of police brutality. And some followed more closely the philosophy of the militant civil rights activist Robert Williams, who provided the keen insight that self-defense is an “American tradition.”
The written word is not sufficient to express the rage Malcolm X vented in responding to the shooting of Ronald Stokes. In a Harlem “Unity Rally,” Malcolm exhorted: “This is a Black man [Ronald Stokes], a Korean vet; went to war in Korea fightin’ for America . . . and came back to this country and was shot down by the white man like a dog. Not from Ku Klux Klansmen, down in Mississippi! This Black man was shot through the heart by policemen in Los Angeles, California. And they are dumb enough to think we have forgotten it . . . We’ll never forget!!!” Throughout the speech, he roused his audience’s emotions, declaring at one moment that God will bring retribution but in the next proclaiming the right for personal self-defense.
Malcolm felt a personal loss in the slaughter at the mosque that he helped to establish five years earlier. For Ronald Stokes was innocent: a college man, a Korean veteran, a husband, and a father of a three-month-old girl, Saudia. Malcolm described Stokes as “one of the most religious persons who displayed the highest form of morals of any black person anywhere on this earth.” To Malcolm, the assault on the Muslims deserved a call to action.31
Some Muslims saw the cold-blooded shooting of Ronald Stokes as their call to start the battle of Armageddon. In “To Kill a Black Man”, Louis Lomax reports that Malcolm X left New York the day after the shooting with the intention of directing the attack. However, Elijah Muhammad stayed his hand.32 Hakim Yamal, a member of Mosque No. 27 described the scene that Malcolm met in Los Angeles two days after the shooting by stating plainly:
I never knew there were many Muslims in America, never mind Los Angeles—we were everywhere. Many brothers had guns in their pockets, others were sharpening knives. Still others were in corners of the mosque limbering up and practicing judo and karate chops on imaginary devils’ necks.
We were all ready to kill.
Very few talked of dying. Everyone smiled at each other in a strange way. Most of us knew we would probably get killed, but we knew that we were at war with the devil. The time had arrived to kill.”33
As the crowd grew restless, Malcolm mounted the podium to give the word. With the message from Elijah Muhammad, he exclaimed: “We are going into the streets now to begin war with the devil. Not the kind of war he expects … no, we are going to let the world know he is a devil: we are going to sell newspapers.” They went out and sold the newspaper; but the picture of Ronald Stokes lying in his own blood became a moral symbol and a painful reminder to the Nation of Islam.
Some of the Muslims were not satisfied. A number of them formed a “band of angels” to beat up white drunkards on the Fifth Street skid row, “Ten brothers would get together, drive down there and watch until a devil came out of a barroom; karate chops would land on white necks; a devil would die or damn near die.” When Malcolm found out about Fifth Street, he chastised the “band of angels” for being cowardly. Unable to retaliate, Malcolm embarked on a personal campaign to unify Black leaders and the urban mases, inviting the leaders of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the NAACP, SCLC, Urban League, and other leaders to mass rallies in Los Angeles and eastern cities. In a letter to James Farmer, National Director of CORE, Malcolm wrote, “It is a disgrace for Negro leaders not to be able to submerge out ‘minor’ differences in order to seek a common solution to a common problem posed by a Common Enemy.”36
Biographers have acknowledged that the shooting deeply affected Malcolm, but they do not always recognize that the inner struggle reached throughout the ranks of the Nation of Islam. The “band of angels” were carrying out their “little deaths” against the white man. Hakim Jamal, who reported this scene, and other Muslims soon defected from the mosque. Muslims who witnessed the massacre had its image forever etched into their minds and hearts. And an angry member chastised the Amsterdam News: “Your failure to make any comment in your paper on the brutal wanton murder of our beloved Muslim brother is indicative of your callous indifference to the militant, determined stand of courageous Black men for freedom, justice, and equality, regardless of cost.”37
Elijah Muhammad has been roundly criticized for his inaction. Malcolm and many in the rank and file were dissatisfied with Elijah’s statement on self-defense:
In the case of the so-called American Negro, we have nothing to fight back with. If you come to the door shooting, we have no guns here to shoot back, so, therefore, the right is with God, as it is written in the Book.
He will defend us if we believe in Him and trust in Him, and we’re not going to start fighting with anyone to have Him to defend us. But if we are attacked, we depend on Him to defend us…” [italics mine].
However, an earlier statement reveals a quite different sentiment: “There is no justice in the sweet bye and bye. Immortality is NOW, HERE. We are the blessed of God and we must every means to protect ourselves…” Ultimately, Muhammad used the shooting as further evidence against “the white man” and to push his program.38To Elijah Muhamad, retaliation was out of the question.
Under pressure from Mayor Yorty; Elijah Muhammad admonished Malcolm to tone down his rhetoric. Indeed, the same Mayor Samuel Yorty who courted the Back vote for 1961 election tried to silence major Black voices. For example, he realized power of printed word. Formerly a critic of the of the police force and an advocate of improved race relations in Los Angeles, Yorty was to become an outspoken defender of the police department and a staunch critic of the Black press. In response to requests by Black civic leaders to fire Chief Parker, he remarked, “I don’t want the Negro community to appear as if it’s (sic) only objective is the firing of Chief Parker because Parker is highly respected by the white community.” Also, in response to a question calmly posed by Malcolm X at a symposium in New York, Yorty pronounced, “I’m having the police investigate the Negro Press in Los Angeles because of articles they feed the Negro community … The Negro press inflames the community against the police by printing lies about the police.”39
Yorty’s response was indicative of the general paranoia which reigned in the aftermath of the shooting. On May the San Diego Police Department reported that it sighted 180 members of the Nation of Islam cross the border into Mexico. The following day it sighted fifteen to twenty Muslims return. But on May 3, to its own embarrassment, it admitted that its “suspects” may have been just a group of Blacks who were there for a funeral.40 Less than two weeks after the shooting, Los Angeles district attorney William B. McKesson joined the mayor in his request for an investigation. He called upon the California state attorney general Stanley Mosk to probe the “Muslim Conspiracy in California.”40 This defender of “innocent before proven guilty” seemed to have concluded that the Nation of Islam was a “conspiracy” even before an investigation was made. Such was the paranoia and defensiveness of the white Los Angeles power structure (including the police chief, the mayor’s office, the attorney general, and the press) immediately after the shooting. 42
Not all whites aligned themselves against the Black community. In a letter dated July 6, 1962, twenty middle-class whites addressed a letter to the editor of the New York Times arguing that “we who are not Negroes believe that we cannot stand aside and allow the protest against these brutal acts to remain the responsibility of the Negro community alone.” Two of the cosigners, Drs. Kathleen and David Aberle, resigned from their positions at Brandeis University because the school’s president censored Dr. Kathleen Aberle for remarks she made criticizing police brutality.43
With but minor dissent from white circles, the Los Angeles power structure tried to silence the Black community, During the 1950s, this tactic may have worked. In Here I Stand, Paul Robeson wrote that when whites mounted racist attacks, the Black community often did not respond. “Where arc the other Negroes?” he implored.44 However, the civil rights movement emboldened many within Black communities. Thus, national civil rights leaders spoke out against the shooting, and local Black leaders refused to be silenced.
At least two of the mainstream civil rights organizations expressed their concern; however, they did so with qualification. James Farmer, chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), “stated that CORE should stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the NAACP and other human rights organizations ‘in condemnation of such police brutality.’” On the local level, national vice chairman Earl Walter of Los Angeles observed that CORE could learn from the Nation of Islam; he proposed that the issue of police brutality be used to rally the Black community behind CORE’s agenda.43 So when Los Angeles CORE, which at the time was three-fourths white, protested police brutality by picketing outside the trial of the fourteen Muslims, it may have come as much from self-interest as from altruism.
Roy Wilkins, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), wrote an open letter condemning the shooting. However, statement a released to the press underscores his still conservative nature. “Why did they [the police] have to use their guns?” he asked. “Didn’t they have billy clubs?” He received the support of the national body. Meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, the national convention of the NAACP approved a resolution which stated, “This convention approves the vigorous protest entered by the Los Angeles Branch of the Association and Executive Director Roy Wilkins in this instance against the use of obsessive [sic] force by police officers…”
The Nation of Islam hoped to take the issue onto the international stage. A Korean newspaper circulated petitions which read:
All freedom loving people of all races and nationalities who believe in equality must demand justice for the Muslims.
The undersigned respectfully request that this great injustice be presented to the public opinion of the world …
We further request that the Commission on Human Rights investigate the police brutality charges. These charges are being heard in atatmosphere of hate and prejudice by the racist press, radio and television of the area…
According to Evanzz, leaders from the newly independent African nations, with whom Malcolm was beginning to establish connections, publicly condemned the shooting. Muhammad Speaks made a strong case that the shooting of Ronald Stokes and six others could be classified as an act of genocide as defined by Articles Il and Ill of the United Nations Convention of the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. And the noted civil rights lawyer Paul Zuber suggested that he would press the United Nations to investigate the death of Ronald Stokes and the shooting of six others. He “stated that he would personally take the case before the Afro-Asian bloc if no action were forthcoming” from the UN Secretary General, U Thant.48
Though it reached national and international quarters, the reaction to the shooting was the most dynamic on the local level. The local power structure continued to antagonize the Black community and, more specifically, members of the Nation of Islam. In the aftermath of the shooting, Police Chief William Parker called for two-man patrols in “sensitive areas until such a time as the potentially dangerous emotional reactions abate.”49 In May 1963, as the trial proceeded, Malcolm X and another Muslim were followed from the airport by Los Angeles police officers. They forced Malcolm and the driver off the road at gunpoint and searched their car flor Despite such efforts, the Los Angeles power structure could not silence the Black leadership.
For a brief moment, the Black community answered calls for unity as they mobilized the issue of police brutality, Middle-class Blacks, including the political candidates Mervyn Dymally and Augustus Hawkinsi, Broadway Federal Savings and Loan president Claude Hudson, and the Black legal association, the Langston Law Club, condemned injustice. 31 However, the unity began to splinter when a group of Black clergy distanced themselves from the Nation of Islam and sought to negotiate with Yorty and Parker on the issues facing the Black community. On May 25, from a manifesto representing more than five hundred Black churches and ninety Los Angeles preachers, a leading A.M.E. minister, Hartford Brookins, read the following:
We want it clearly understood that we are in no way related to the Muslim movement. We repudiate its total doctrine of Black supremacy and the attempt to place one American against another. We suspect that the Muslim movement wears the garb of religion but in reality is just another nationalistic Movement.52
The statement soon drew the praise of Mayor Yorty and the editor of the Los Angeles Times. However, the Muslims and many among the masses saw the manifesto as a sellout; At a meeting at the Garden of Prayer Baptist Church, nearly seven hundred people protested against the position taken by the preachers. One woman cried aloud that the ministers were “handkerchief heads.” As the unity of Blacks crumbled, Earl Warren, president of the local chapter of the NAACP, and Earl Walter, leader of the local CORE chapter, tried unsuccessfully to keep the factions together.53 Ideological differences shattered the tenuous unity as several Black leaders were co-opted by the power structure. Blacks lost chance for a consolidated struggle against police brutality and perhaps against broader issues. Individuals made various attempts, through commissions and official meetings, to get redress. However, as unity broke down so did momentum.
When Watts erupted into rebellion in the long, hot summer of 1965, the police made another repressive attack on the Nation of Islam Mosque, firing one hundred rounds blindly into the place of worship. And authorities have cited the recurrence of police brutality, as an underlying cause of the Watts Rebellion. The two issues which racked the city in 1962 were still alive in 1965. Blacks failed to resist the power structure, capitalize on the crucial issue of police brutality, and build an enduring unity. Tragically, the Los Angeles Police Department was able to continue its assault on Blacks, most viciously against the Black Panther Party, Thus Ronald Stokes appears to have died in vain.
PDF With Notes/Citations
I posted this because I can’t stand JSTOR and I wanted to read a non-pdf scanned version of the article. I used Word to get the text from the PDF and corrected the misinterpreted words. Both the original and the present NOI are anti-Semitic black supremacist however their treatment by the LAPD is/was disturbing. They were shot at despite not having any weapons.
“Officer Donald Weese fatally shot the unarmed Ronald Stokes through the heart as he walked toward the officer with his hands raised in the air. William Rogers was shot in the back and paralyzed”
Update: Stumbled upon this pdf hosted on The Malcolm X Project at Columbia university. The files hosted there are documents taken from the FBI files of Malcolm X.