Malcolmology 101, #17: The Murder of Ronald Stokes

Having already battled against police brutality in the 1957 case of Johnson X Hinton and in his Queens home the following year, it was in late April 1962 that Malcolm X faced what many cite as the greatest tragedy of his tenure with the Nation of Islam. In what journalist Peter Goldman termed “a sort of volte-face version of the Johnson parable,” Los Angeles police hassled several Mosque 27 members who were unloading dry cleaning from their car. The officers were suspicious due to a chain of clothing store burglaries in the area and confronted the men. A scuffle ensued, the details of which are still muddled. However, after what the Los Angeles Times later dubbed a “blazing gunfight” (despite the fact that none of the Muslims were armed), seven mosque members were shot, many through the back. One was paralyzed, another five were injured, and most dramatically, Korean War veteran and mosque secretary Ronald X Stokes was shot and killed at close range while walking towards an officer with his hands raised.

The day before conducting Stokes’ funeral before nearly two-thousand mourners, Malcolm held a press conference at the Statler-Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles. There he framed the crime in racial rather than religious terms, attempting to mobilize black civil rights groups and leaders whom he had often publicly criticized. A telegram from Roy Wilkins was read at the press conference and reprinted in the Nation’s official organ, Muhammad Speaks, in which the NAACP leader assured full support. Malcolm appeared on a Pacifica radio show alongside James Farmer and William Worthy to discuss the “Crisis of Racism.” He then spoke at Second Baptist Church before a joint meeting organized along with local ministers and politicians.

In addition to his participation in rallies featuring a cross-section of black civic and religious organizations, Malcolm continued to downplay religious differences and stress the need for a black united front at a Los Angeles protest rally sponsored by the County Civic League. Urging the heads of all black organizations to meet and pursue a unified strategy, he stated: “police brutality must end before something happens that can’t be stopped. We must come together against the common enemy. Remember all of us are black. It’s not a Muslim fight. It’s a black man’s fight.” Even Elijah Muhammad, who generally shied away from the political sphere, called for a united black coalition. “In these crucial times,” the Nation’s paper editorialized, “we must not think in terms of one’s religion, but in terms of justice for us poor black people. This means a United Black Front for justice in America.”

Where Muhammad and Malcolm X differed drastically was in their responses to the attack. Malcolm took the brutality at Mosque 27 as more than a basic violation of human rights and dignity. He had personally organized the mosque in the late 1950s and knew several of victims, including Ronald Stokes, intimately. Malcolm felt that Stokes’ death needed immediate retribution and before leaving for Stokes’ funeral, he anticipated organized retaliation: “I got to go out there now and do what I’ve been preaching all this time.”

Conversely, Muhammad took an apocalyptic and prophetic approach to the events, even privately criticizing the mosque members for allowing an “aggressor to come into their mosque.”

Despite Malcolm’s readiness to bring retaliatory violence to Los Angeles, Muhammad advised him to “cool it” and asked his followers to “hold fast to Islam.” Perhaps most difficult for Malcolm was bringing the news back home to Harlem. Before a crowd of several thousand in Harlem Square, he had to publicly justify Muhammad’s stance and advise that they “play it cool, calm, and collected. And leave it in the hands of God.” Over a year and a half before the public split between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, the Stokes incident would come to be regarded as the most illustrative example of the two men’s diverging religious and political visions. 

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