Today, May 19, 2015, marks what would have been Malcolm X's ninetieth birthday. His life was cut tragically short in 1965, however, when three Nation of Islam members shot him dead at the Audubon Ballroom in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City.
X, who was born in Nebraska and raised in various cities of the Midwest, emerged in the late 1950s as a charismatic Nation of Islam minister based in New York. Under the tutelage of Reverend Elijah Muhammad, X led the Nation of Islam to furious prominence within the civil rights movement, providing a militant, separatist contrast to the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In 1957, Malcolm X's earliest mass-demonstration against the NYPD wasn't his first brush with the law, but it was certainly his boldest.
It all started at the Nation of Islam’s Temple No. 7, now known as Masjid Malcolm Shabazz (and disassociated from NOI), on 116th Street in West Harlem. On April 26, 1957, local police officers cornered a suspect, Reece Poe, and fought him to the ground when he resisted arrest. As several NYPD officers were beating Reece Poe, NOI member Johnson Hinton interrupted the scene. Hinton reportedly shouted to the officers, “You’re not in Alabama! This is New York!”
The officers then turned their nightsticks on Hinton, as fearful onlookers watched.
Appointed by the Reverend Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X had served as minister of Temple No. 7 since 1953. (Though Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little, he updated his name in 1950, during the six-year prison term in Boston when X converted to Islam.) Onlookers eventually alerted X to the police altercation that had taken place outside the mosque. After learning that Hinton had been taken into police custody without medical attention to his injuries, X rallied a few hundred protesters to march on the 28th precinct on West 123rd Street to petition for Hinton's release.
When officers finally escorted Hinton to Harlem Hospital, the protesters followed.
Spike Lee dramatized the uptown march from the precinct to the hospital, where doctors treated Poe's injuries and then turned him back over to the NYPD. Police then escorted Hinton from the hospital back to the precinct, where he was once again detained.
According to Peter Goldman's biography of Malcolm X, Deputy Inspector McGowan of the NYPD recruited X’s friend and neighbor James Hicks, managing editor of the New York Amsterdam News, to talk Malcolm down. When Hicks met up with X at the epicenter of the protests on 123rd Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, the Nation of Islam had mobilized a disciplined crowd of thousands. The police were outnumbered but unyielding until the following morning, April 27, when the Nation of Islam paid Hinton's bail and escorted him to Sydenham Hospital in Harlem.
Before the NYPD clobbered Reece Poe, the Nation of Islam was a curious but marginal development in American political life. Despite its expanding influence in the black communities of New York, Detroit, and Los Angeles, white America had yet to confront the radical teachings of Elijah Muhammad and the charisma of NOI's leadership.
Less than two years after the Hinton incident, New York-based WNTA-TV reporter Louis Lomax pitched ABC news anchor Mike Wallace on a full-length documentary covering the Nation of Islam. Elijah Muhammad refused to allow himself or his subordinates, including Malcolm X, to be interviewed by a white reporter, so Lomax, who is black, conducted the interviews. Wallace hosted the segment and provided narrative voice-overs.
The documentary, titled "The Hate That Hate Produced," exposed the largest black separatist movement in America. "US News, The New York Times, Time, Newsweek, the [Detroit] Free Press, and others followed up," Wallace told an interviewer in 1988. "It was the first time that the Black Muslims came to the attention of White America."
Fifty-eight years after Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam first gained major traction and national headlines, the civil rights movement marches onward. From Alabama to Staten Island, to Ferguson and Baltimore, activists have rallied to challenge national indifference to police brutality, disproportionate incarceration, housing discrimination, employment discrimination, and other issues affecting blacks in the U.S.
While the Nation of Islam's occasionally violent separatism is no longer so broadly appealing, the modern civil rights movement is nonetheless indebted to both Malcolm and Martin, two martyred revolutionaries who, ultimately, weren't as irreconciled or bitterly divided as the pundits would have you believe.