AFRICANGLOBE – Malcolm X remains a polarizing figure 50 years after he was assassinated.
Harlem was ready to explode.
It was just before midnight on April 26, 1957, and at least 4,000 protesters were massed outside the 28th Precinct stationhouse on Eighth Ave.
Hours earlier, 32-year-old Johnson Hinton and two friends had been walking along W. 125th St. when they spotted two cops beating another Black man with nightsticks.
“You’re not in Alabama!” yelled Hinton and his pals. “This is New York!”
The officers turned their nightsticks on Hinton, a member of the Nation of Islam, delivering several crushing blows to his head and face.\
Hinton, despite suffering lacerations on his scalp and bleeding on the brain, was now being held inside the four-story, red-brick 28th Precinct police station.
The crowd was growing impatient. A race riot seemed imminent.
A ripple of excitement swept through the crush of people when a 6-foot-3 man in a black suit and spectacles showed up and strode inside the stationhouse. The demonstrators, many of whom were Nation of Islam members, knew exactly who he was.
The fiery head of the Nation’s new Harlem mosque, Malcolm was allowed to see Hinton. But the cops refused to return the battered man to the hospital.
Malcolm, sensing an impasse, stepped outside the stationhouse and flashed a hand signal to his Nation of Islam followers. They immediately started marching off — silent and stern — like an Army battalion having just received orders from their general.
The rest of the crowd followed.
A group of NYPD cops watched the scene in awe.
“No one man should have that much power,” one officer told Amsterdam News editor James Hicks.
Hinton was released in the morning — after the Nation paid his $2,500 bail — and taken to Harlem Hospital.
The striking show of force introduced the nation to Malcolm X.
Incendiary, influential and often polarizing, Malcolm led the Black nationalist movement with a clenched fist and biting tongue.
His rejection of integration and insistence on Black liberation “by any means necessary” made him a hero to large swaths of Black people.
To many others, he was seen as a villain and a menace. The gospel of liberation Malcolm preached sent shivers of fear down the spines of many whites and alarmed some African-American collaborators.
“Other Black leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King included, all engaged in tailoring their language to minimize negative reactions from white America,” said Russell Adams, professor emeritus of African-American studies at Howard University. “Malcolm said in his fashion what many Blacks thought and said among themselves.”
Fifty years after his assassination, Malcolm X remains one of the most controversial figures of the 20th century.
His short, turbulent life was marked by a series of remarkable transformations.
He was a pot-smoking, skirt-chasing criminal in his teens — only to reinvent himself in prison as a self-taught intellectual and deeply committed Muslim and disciple of Elijah Muhammad.
He called for racial separation and cast whites as “devils” — only to renounce the Nation of Islam years later and champion “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all people.”
Like the man, the public perception of Malcolm has also undergone a transformation.
Once viewed as a racist demagogue by whites, Malcolm is now viewed by many as an American icon. His face even adorns a postage stamp.
How Malcolm rose from a troubled orphan to a leading civil rights figure is one of history’s more unlikely stories.
His childhood was marred by tragedy. He was born Malcolm Little in Omaha on May 19, 1925 – the fourth of Earl and Louise Little’s seven children.
Earl, an outspoken Baptist minister, served as chapter president for Marcus Garvey’s Black nationalism organization. Louise worked as the chapter secretary.
The Littles settled on a piece of farmland in a mostly white neighborhood in Lansing, Mich.
The neighbors were not pleased with the new arrivals. In 1929, months after they arrived, the Littles’ house was burned to the ground by a group of white men.
Earl moved his family to East Lansing.
One day in late September 1931, he left home and never came back. The 41-year-old father’s battered body was found underneath a streetcar in what the police ruled was an accident.
Malcolm, along with his other family members, became convinced that Earl was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan.
Following Earl’s sudden death, Louise struggled to provide for the family — and began to deteriorate physically and mentally.
In December of 1938, Louise was diagnosed as mentally ill and sent to a psychiatric hospital, where she’d remain for the next 26 years.
Malcolm ended up at juvenile home in Mason, Mich. Despite his troubled upbringing, Malcolm excelled in school.
But a chat with an eighth-grade English teacher led him to drop out. Malcolm had told him he dreamed of becoming a lawyer.
“A lawyer?” Malcolm’s teacher replied. “That’s no realistic goal for a n-gger.”
Malcolm moved to Boston to live with his half-sister, Ella. He worked a series of odd jobs – on the railroad, at shoeshine stands, and in nightclubs – but couldn’t resist the pull of street life.
Malcolm bought his first “zoot suit” and “conked” his hair. His first transformation was complete: He was now a full-time hustler.