Regular readers know that I write a lot about oppressive policing. It is with good reason. Yesterday, a grand jury declined to indict a police officer who shot Jonathan Ferrell 10 times. After the results of the autopsy, Ferrell’s family suggested that they would file a wrongful death suit. Police violence against black people is of course not new and is mundanely common. History is replete with examples of police brutality against African Americans.
I’ve shared the story of Malcolm X’s rise to national prominence through his involvement in the Johnson X Hinton incident in 1957. I even created a zine about historical moments of policing, violence, & resistance in Harlem based in part on this story.
Today, I thought that I would share a letter that Malcolm X wrote to the NYPD Commissioner following the Johnson X Hinton episode. You will find it very relevant to our current historical moment, I think.
New York NY November 2
Commissioner Stephen P. Kennedy, Police Department of New York City
Report delivery 240 Centre St NYK
Commissioner S.P. Kennedy:
Members of Muhammad’s Temple of Islam here in Harlem are greatly disturbed. Our religion is Islam, the religion of peace. Our spiritual leader and teacher, Messenger Elijah Muhammad, teaches us to respect and obey all laws and law enforcement officers.
Our record shows that all of us who have accepted his divine guidance immediately become better citizens. He makes us conservative, clean-living, peaceful, law-abiding citizens. Through his spiritual guidance we have learned how to abstain from smoking, using drugs and alcohol, adultery, stealing, and all acts of aggression.
We do not try to force ourselves upon or among people who are not our own kind; whose record and history is sufficient proof that they don’t want our kind around them. We are taught not only to avoid trouble, but to avoid even the people whose presence creates trouble.
On April 26, 1957 one of our most peaceful members, [redacted] was the victim of one of the most savage beatings ever inflicted upon an innocent human being since the days of slavery. The bone structure of his skull was shattered by the blows of two white sadistic policemen of the 28th precinct.
On April 29, 1957 in the office of Mr. James L. Hicks, editor of the New York Amsterdam News, in the presence of attorneys T.A. Chance, and Charles Beavers, we met with representatives from your office: Commissioner Walter Arm, Robert Mangum, and Police Captain Eldrige.
Speaking for your office and in your name, they promised us that an immediate and complete investigation would take place and that justice would be done in the form of disciplinary action against the open and unwarranted acts of criminal brutality by these demented white members of the police department.
Investigation to date discloses that the brutal assaults by these prejudiced white officers of the 28th precinct, inflicted against this helpless black man were willful, atrociously inhuman, beast-like, and showed utter disregard and contempt for the black citizens of Harlem.
Also, these biased white police officers, by beating their helpless victim in the mouth with their nightsticks while he was praying to allah, showed contempt not only for his dark skin but also for his god and the religion of islam. This outrageously inhuman act incenses not only our fellow citizens of the Harlem area, but also ignites great concern in the hearts of 600 million sons and daughters of Allah throughout the Moslem World, which stretches from the China Seas to the shores of West Africa.
To justify and hide their own criminal acts, these same guilty officers charged mr. [redacted] with resisting arrest, and with felonious assault against them.
On October 27, 1957 after hearing all witnesses involved, including a number of police officers, the grand jury refused to indict [redacted] on the false accusations of the guilty police officers, clearing him of all their charges and setting him completely free.
Since the grand jury has established [redacted] innocence, and this innocent man has had his skull crushed by these police officers, you must realize that their heartless acts were without just cause, and criminally wrong.
Therefore we respectfully trust that the confidence imposed on the promise of your representatives will not be shaken by your allowing these prejudiced white men, disguised as police officers, who are responsible for this inhuman act of brutal savagery, to remain on active duty.
Harlem is already a potential powder keg. If these ignorant white officers are allowed to remain in the Harlem area, their presence is not only a menace to society, but to world peace.
Pending all further investigation, their immediate suspension and removal from the police force is advised, requested, urged, and demanded.
Minister Malcolm X
Muhammad’s Temple of Islam