The Day That Malcolm Won Harlem Over…

August 12, 2012
[An excerpt from a pamphlet, An (Abridged) History of Resisting Police Violence in Harlem (PDF) by Mariame Kaba and designed by Eric Kerl (see http://policeviolence.wordpress.com/historical-moments/). It focuses on an incident that brought Malcolm X to national prominence in 1957.]

1957 Johnson X Hinton Incident

There are many versions of the story of Johnson Hinton. Even his name is contested; in some accounts he is called Hinton Johnson and in others he is Johnson Hinton. There are a few details of the story, however, that seem to be settled history.

In April 1957, Johnson Hinton came upon a couple of police officers who were clubbing a man named Reese V. Poe on the corner of 125th street and 7th Avenue in Harlem. Hinton called out to the officers: “You’re not in Alabama – this is New York! ” The police then turned their nightsticks on Hinton clubbing him and cracking his skull. The officers subsequently handcuffed Hinton and took him to the 28th precinct stationhouse. By the time the evening arrived, there were over 2,000 people surrounding the precinct demanding that Hinton be provided with adequate medical attention.

Johnson X Hinton, it turns out, was a black Muslim who belonged to Mosque Number Seven, the largest mosque in the country – led by a 31 year old preacher named Malcolm X.

At this point, the accounts begin to diverge. In some recollections, a woman who had observed the altercation ran over to the Nation of Islam’s (NOI) restaurant to report the news. Several phone calls later, Malcolm X, accompanied by a small group of Muslims, was at the precinct insisting to see Johnson X. At first they were denied by police but as the crowd outside grew to hundreds of people, they were finally allowed to see Johnson X who was in great pain and distress. The police allowed Johnson X to be transported by ambulance for treatment at Harlem Hospital. Remarkably, once he was treated, the hospital released Johnson X back to the police. By the time Johnson was back in police custody, the crowd outside of the 28th precinct had swelled to over 4,000 people.

When Malcom X returned to the precinct from Harlem Hospital, it was past midnight. He tried to post bail for Johnson X, but police refused to release him and said that he had to remain incarcerated overnight until he could appear in court the next day. By 2:30 am, Malcolm decided that negotiations for Johnson’s release were at a stalemate. With thousands still assembled outside the police precinct, Malcolm X gave a hand signal to his lieutenants in the Fruit of Islam (FOI) and within seconds the crowd silently began to disperse. The next morning, Hinton was dumped in front of NYC’s felony courthouse after a bail of $2,500 was paid by the Nation of Islam. He was promptly picked up and driven to Syndenham Hospital in Harlem to be treated for his injuries.

James Hicks, the managing editor of the New York Amsterdam News, offered his own account of the episode. He reached out to Malcolm X, asking him to act as a mediator between the police and community members. Peter Goldman, in his book “The Death and Life of Malcolm X,” remembers Hicks telling the story this way:

“I was chairman of the 28th Precinct Community Council at the time, and at two in the morning I got a call from the 28th to come over to my office. I went there and I met Inspector McGowen, Deputy Commissioner Walter Arm and Deputy Inspector Robert J. Mangum, who’s black. McGowen said, ‘I had a normal arrest, he was resisting, he got beat up and he’s over there in the 28th Precinct now.” He said, “They’ve got two thousand people out there,’ He said, ‘You know Malcolm X? I said, ‘Yeah, I know him’ – we were pretty good friends by that time. Got to be lunch buddies at the Chock Full O’ Nuts at 125th and Seventh. McGowen said, ‘You think you can get him up here?’ I said, ‘Yeah, give me a little time. Where is he?’ He said, ‘Over at the 28th.’

“So I got over, and there he is with his people – with them and the bystanders they must have had 2,600 people lining the sidewalks between Seventh and Eighth avenues on 123rd Street. I said, ‘Hey, Malcolm, Jesus. What’s going on? He told me one of their people was inside, he’d been beaten and needed medical attention. He said, “We’re going to stay right here, Brother Hicks.’ I asked him if he’d come back to my office and talk to the police people. He said, “If you think anything can be accomplished, I’ll go. But only on your word.’ So we went back and walked up to my office at the Amsterdam News – it was on the fourth floor.

“When we got there, Walter Arm started talking. He was in charge of public relations: he’d been a police reporter, and a good one, but he was white. He said, ‘My presence here, and Inspector McGowen’s, and Deputy Inspector Mangum’s, indicates how much concern the police department has for this situation. However, I’d like to say that the police of the city of New York can handle any situation that arises in Harlem, and we’re not here to ask anybody’s help.’

“Well, Malcolm sat there and listened, and then he got up and put on that camel’s hair coat of his – he’d been a hustler and he always dressed sharp – and he told them, “There’s nothing more to be said,’ Just like that. And suddenly he was striding out the door of my office. I can still hear his steps – clump-clump-clump – going into that gloomy city room. All the lights were out; my office was in the back at the end of the corridor, and he walked out into the darkness. Someone said, ‘Where’s he going?’ And I said, ‘He’s leaving.’

“I followed him out. I said, ‘Wait a minute, Mr. X.’ He stopped out in the darkness there. He said, ‘Brother Hicks, I’m only here ‘cause you said something could be accomplished.’ He said, ‘They don’t need me. They say they can handle it. Well, let them handle it.’

“I said, ‘Wait a minute.’

“I went back to the room. Mangum said, ‘Tell him there must be some level we can get together on if he’ll only come back.’ I went back and told it to Malcolm, and he came back. He said, ‘I only came back because I respect Brother Hicks.’ And I said, ‘Have a seat.’

“This time, Arm shut up. Malcolm said, “I have no respect for you’ – Arm – ‘or the police department.’ He may have said something to Mangum, too. [What he told Mangum, according to a police source, was: “I don’t talk with white man’s niggers.” Mangum, this source said, was “very hurt.”] Malcolm said, “One of our brothers has been beaten, and all we are asking is that we be allowed to go in there and see him and determine if he is in need of hospitalization. The evidence we have now is that he should be in the hospital. If we find that he doesn’t need hospitalization, you can go on with your case. If he does, we want him hospitalized.’ So Mangum and Arm agreed. They hadn’t even seen the man themselves. They said, ‘All right, let’s take a look. If he does need hospitalization, we’ll give it to him. Would that be satisfactory to you?’ Malcolm said yes. They said, ‘Will you then get your people out of the block?’ Malcolm said, ‘this is all we asked for and this is all we want.’

“In effect, the police were saying, ‘We can’t handle it without you.’ Nobody got down on his knees. But they bowed.
“So, we walked the three blocks back to the station, and Malcolm’s people were still there. The men were standing in the gutter with their arms folded. Immobile. The women were on the sidewalk behind them with white kerchiefs on their heads. And nobody said a word. The light in the stationhouse was the only light in the block. I remember thinking, ‘Where did they all come from? – a movement like that growing up right under your nose. When we got to the station, there was a black sergeant on the door. I heard him saying, “Goddamn Muslims – who the hell are they anyway? Turn me loose with this club and I’ll clear this block.’ John X, who was with Malcolm, turned and just stared at him, and I said to McGowen, ‘You better get that sergeant off the door.’

“We went on in and saw the man, and they had torn his head off – [sic]. One look and McGowen said, “Get him to the hospital.” He said, ‘Mr. X, he’s going to be sent to Harlem Hospital – is that all right? Malcolm said, ‘That’s all we asked.’ McGowen said, ‘Would you take the responsibility of sending your people home? Malcolm said, “I’ll do that.’

“And then, in that dim light, Malcolm stood up and waved his hand, and all those people just disappeared. Disappeared. One of the police people said to me, ‘Did you see what I just saw?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, “This is too much power for one man to have.’ He meant one black man. I’ll never forget that.”

Johnson X survived his assault but had to have multiple brain surgeries and live with a metal plate in his head. Johnson X filed a lawsuit against the NYPD. An all-white jury awarded $70,000 to him; this was (at the time) the largest police brutality settlement in New York City.

In his book “The Savage City,” T. J. English writes of the Johnson X incident: “It was the beginning of a new kind of relationship between blacks and the police in the city of New York.” Malcolm X had stood up to the NYPD and won. No one in Harlem would soon forget that.

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