The Nation of Islam was not merely a religious organization. Many in Black America saw the organization as a community builder, encouraging self-sufficiency and self-determination among Black people. The NOI looked to help those who had gone astray, such as convicted individuals. While it helped countless prison inmates and former inmates to refocus their lives, it also fought against police brutality with the same zeal.
Here are seven facts about the Nation of Islam’s contribution to prisoner rights and the fight against police brutality.
The Nation organized against the abuses of prison and police. The book “Those Who Know Don’t Say: The Nation of Islam, the Black Freedom Movement, and the Carceral State‘ by Garrett Felber examines how the Nation worked to improve conditions for inmates and to stop police abuse.
In the book, he notes how the various NOI notables such as Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, and Warith Deen Muhammad played a key role in calling for prison reform.
According to Felber, the NOI not only looked to prisons for recruits but long regarded them as a site of political activity, Black Perspectives reported.
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The NOI, wrote Felber, challenged prison abuse by organizing hunger strikes, sit-ins, and even litigation against prison officials. Between 1961 and 1978, federal courts ruled on at least 66 lawsuits filed by Muslim prisoners, Black Perspectives reported.
The lawsuit Cooper v. Pate was filed by NOI member Thomas Cooper who was incarcerated in Illinois. The case ended in the Supreme Court’s 1964 ruling that prisoners did have constitutional rights. This was a first. The ruling overturned the 1871 ruling of Ruffin v. Commonwealth that classified incarcerated individuals as “slaves of the States” without rights, according to The First Amendment Encyclopedia. The Nation played a major role in pushing the case through.
Efforts by Malcolm X to challenge police abuse got pushback from NOI leader Elijah Muhammad. According to Felber’s book, Muhammad refused to support “a full-fledged organizing campaign in 1962 against the Los Angeles police officers who shot several unarmed Nation members and killed 28-year-old Ronald Stokes,” according to California State University, Northridge.
The Ronald Stokes killing united the Nation of Islam and the NAACP in the fight for justice and to end police abuse against Black people.
According to Felber, Malcolm and the NOI’s L.A. temple worked with civil rights groups to protest the shootings and mobilize against the LAPD.
Surprisingly, the NAACP’s Legal Redress Committee and national president Roy Wilkins, who often butted heads with Black nationalists, offered their full public support of Los Angeles’s NOI Temple, Black Perspectives reported.
While many religious organizations stay away from social justice and politics, the Nation of Islam impacted both. “Far from being apolitical, Muslims were ambitious in the pursuit of political goals. They sought to build all-Black coalitions against police brutality and fought for the constitutional rights of prisoners,” reported New America. They organized and challenged the political system to increase the rights of the Black community as a whole, NOI experts say.
Law enforcement wasn’t happy about the NOI’s activism in prisons and its call for police accountability. Prison officials tried to “stamp out Muslim practice and activism through transfers, solitary confinement, and loss of good time credit,” according to New America.
Law enforcement also pressured the NOI outside of the prisons by monitoring NOI mosques and hassling NOI members selling the Nation of Islam’s newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, as well as profiling NOI members, according to New America.
In April 1957 an NOI member was being beaten by two New York City police officers. On April 26, named Johnson X Hinton and two other passersby—all Nation of Islam members—witnessed what was going on and attempted to intervene. One of the officers turned on Johnson, beating him “so severely that he suffered brain contusions and subdural hemorrhaging,” according to History Draft. He and the other three African-American men were arrested. Malcolm X and a small group of Muslims went to the police station and demanded to see Johnson. Upon seeing Johnson, Malcolm X demanded that an ambulance to take Johnson to Harlem Hospital.
The incident led Malcolm X to write a letter to the New York City Police Department Commissioner, according to the blog Prison Culture.
The letter said in part, “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.”
Malcolm C continued, “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.
He went on to ask for police accountability. He wrote, “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.“
Photo: NYC action in solidarity with Ferguson. Mo, encouraging a boycott of Black Friday consumerism, The All-Nite Images, https://www.flickr.com/photos/otto-yamamoto/