Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

Justifiable Homicide, Police Brutality, or Governmental Repression? the 1962 Los Angeles Police Shooting of Seven Members of the Nation of Islam

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

Justifiable Homicide, Police Brutality, or Governmental Repression? the 1962 Los Angeles Police Shooting of Seven Members of the Nation of Islam

Article excerpt

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. 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 dared to condemn the police for what they considered to be a racially motivated assault. Though contemporaries viewed the shooting from quite 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.

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, face-down, handcuffed, swimming in a pool of his own blood. The political struggles 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.

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 F.B.I. 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 synthesizes this current scholarship and 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. …

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