Malcolm X

The story of Malcolm X is, of course, profoundly intertwined with that of Harlem.

As a leading figure in Harlem’s radical scene it may seem incongruous that he was appointed to the 28th Precinct’s Community Council to serve as a community liaison. The chairman of the 28th Precinct’s Community Council was James Hicks

the influential editor of the New York Amsterdam News. Hicks was impressed by Malcolm X’s masterful ability to control the crowds during a protest against police brutality in the spring of 1957.

Manning Marable captures the incident in Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention:

Perhaps no single event catapulted Malcolm X into the public eye more than the police beating of Johnson X Hinton. Malcolm had quickly risen through the ranks of the NOI since his release from prison, becoming a permanent fixture in Philadelphia before being appointed the head minister of Harlem’s Mosque 7 in 1955. However, both the minister and the Nation of Islam maintained a low public profile and were regarded by most as little more than a fringe religious cult. This changed on April 26, 1957, when police intervened in a scuffle between a man and woman at 125th Street and Lenox Avenue. Hinton and several local mosque members came across the police beating the man. When Hinton and his companions were ordered to leave the scene, they refused and responded: “You’re not in Alabama − this is New York.” Hinton was then placed under arrest and subsequently beaten by patrolman Mike Dolan with his nightstick, receiving what was later described as “multiple lacerations of the scalp” and a “subdural hemorrhage.”

Malcolm X was quickly notified and marched with mosque members to the nearby 28th Precinct. Within a few telephone calls and in less than half an hour, fifty members of the Nation’s paramilitary group, the Fruit of Islam, stood in formation outside the precinct. There, Malcolm demanded that Hinton be admitted for treatment at Harlem Hospital while the crowd outside swelled to nearly two thousand. More impressive than the size of the silently protesting crowd was the orderliness and simplicity by which it was dispersed. Assured that Hinton had received the proper care, Malcolm approached the crowd, raised his arm, and gave a signal. One bystander described it as “eerie, because these people just faded into the night. It was the most orderly movement of four thousand to five thousand people I’ve ever seen in my life − they just simply disappeared − right before our eyes.” Malcolm’s silent command also left a strong impression on the New York Police. The chief inspector at the scene turned to Amsterdam News reporter James Hicks and said: “This is too much power for one man to have.”

The event garnered media attention for both the Nation of Islam and for Malcolm individually, earning him the reputation as the one man who “could stop a race riot − or start one.” Of course, it was not merely the Harlem public, but the NYPD which took an active notice. The chief inspector quickly released a series of urgent inquiries to police departments and government agencies in Michigan and Massachusetts requesting Malcolm’s criminal background. Malcolm also became a primary concern for the department’s newly formed surveillance unit, the Bureau of Special Services and Investigation (BOSS). The Nation of Islam eventually filed three lawsuits, the largest of them for a million-dollars. The sum of $70,000 eventually granted Hinton the largest damage award the city had ever paid in a police brutality case and was granted by an all-white jury. Ultimately the legacy of the Johnson X Hinton case was not merely Malcolm X’s explosion onto the local and national scene, but the strong precedent set against police brutality through litigation and public protest.

Below you can see the old 28th Precinct station house on April 3rd, 1918:

Today the brutalist bunker (complete with a modernist moat, defensive wall, and projecting parapets) is anything but, architecturally welcoming.

For Spike Lee’s interpretation of this event see:

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