Renewed Examination of the Assassination of Malcolm X 55 Years Later

African American History Month Series Number 2

Malcolm X with Muhammad Speaks-AP
Malcolm X with Muhammad Speaks. | Photo: AP

By Abayomi Azikiwe

February 21, 2020 marks the 55th anniversary of the martyrdom of Malcolm X (El-Hajj Malik Shabazz) who was 39 years old at the time of his untimely death in New York City.

Malcolm was on the verge of delivering an address at a mass meeting at the Audubon Ballroom on that fateful Sunday afternoon when at least three people rose from their seats to fire numerous bullets into his body.

Since March 1964, when Malcolm X had officially announced his departure from the Nation of Islam (NOI) where he had been indefinitely suspended since early December 1963, the activist had formed two groups aimed at pursuing what he perceived as a more effective and relevant approach to the liberation of African Americans. The Muslim Mosque, Inc., a religious grouping designed to provide orthodox Islamic instruction to potential adherents in New York, was founded in the immediate aftermath of his resignation from the NOI.

Some three months later, after a six week tour of Africa and the Middle East, which included a pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, Malcolm would form the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), which he described as being partially inspired by the Organization of African Unity (OAU) on the continent.

After the formation of the OAAU on June 28, 1964, Malcolm embarked upon another trip to Africa and the Middle East which lasted for over four months. His ideological and political orientation by this time was largely secular and sought to build a broad-based united front among African Americans, Africans and other oppressed groups for the purpose of liberating the Black people in the United States and all the downtrodden from imperialism.

During the time of his active political life (1952-1965) after emerging from a six year prison term (1946-1952) for burglary in the State of Massachusetts, Malcolm was under constant surveillance by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), local police agencies around the country including New York City, among other government agencies.

Malcolm X outside his bombed home on Sunday Feb. 14, 1965 in New York City
Malcolm X outside his bombed home on Sunday Feb. 14, 1965 in New York City. | Photo: Getty Images/STF/AFP

The corporate press portrayed Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, then headed by the Hon. Elijah Muhammad, in an extreme negative light, describing the organization as a hate-mongering and violence prone cult generating racial controversy at variance with other Civil Rights organizations which advocated a nonviolent approach to the  African American struggle.

The fact that Malcolm left the NOI under terms that were less than favorable with recriminations related to the personal life of Elijah Muhammad and allegations of disloyalty by him as the former minister of the New York City mosque, was seized upon by the mainstream press to create an image in the public mind that the assassination was a direct result of differences which emerged between martyred leader and his former organization.

In fact there had been death threats against Malcolm in the Muhammad Speaks newspaper which was circulated nationally during the early 1960s. Several incidents of Malcolm and his followers being pursued by NOI members were well documented. However, what has never fully been taken into consideration by the New York District Attorney’s offices and the U.S. Justice Department is the extensive surveillance of Malcolm X by the FBI and other federal investigative and law-enforcement agencies.

Tens of thousands of pages of FBI files on Malcolm X have been declassified since the 1970s. These files provide proof of the hostility towards the Muslim leader by the state. Despite the avoidance by the New York City police and the Justice Department related to a state conspiracy being behind the assassination, many publications and researchers in the African American and Left communities have alleged since 1965 that the federal government and local law-enforcement were involved in the plot to kill Malcolm.

Documentary Reopens the Question of a State Conspiracy

The Netflix documentary series is once again looking into the issues of a potential conspiracy extending beyond the NOI. Nonetheless, this is by no means a novel idea. The federal government had every reason to want Malcolm assassinated in 1965.

At the time of his death, Malcolm had internationalized the African American movement for human rights and national liberation. His journeys to Africa, the Middle East and Western Europe in 1964-65 had resulted in exposing the failure of the U.S. Congress and the administration of the-then President Lyndon B. Johnson in protecting lives and interests of the African American people even though a Civil Rights Act had been passed and signed by the head-of-state in July 1964.

Malcolm had advocated petitioning the United Nations to take up the cause of the African American people. His trips abroad had been both educational and geared towards winning support for the view that the U.S. government should be sanctioned by the UN for its violations of the human rights of Blacks in a nation which professed to be the citadel of democracy and equal protection under the law.

According to a review by the Guardian of the Netflix documentary series, “Three men were jailed for the 1965 murder of the activist, who in his campaigns for Black empowerment dismissed the nonviolent ideology of contemporaries such as Martin Luther King. Malcolm X had been a member of Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam until an acrimonious split in 1964. Another member, Talmadge Hayer – later known as Mujahid Abdul Halim – admitted his part in the killing, while two other men, Norman 3X Butler (who later became Muhammad Abdul Aziz) and Thomas 15X Johnson (who took the name Khalil Islam), maintained their innocence. Aziz was released on parole in 1985; Islam was released in 1987 and died in 2009; Halim was released in 2010.”

However, since the time of the arrests and later trial of the three members of the NOI in 1965 and 1966, innumerable suspicions of a broader conspiracy have existed. Obviously the widespread surveillance of Malcolm and his associates utilizing wiretaps and infiltrations of both the NOI and the groups subsequently formed after the split, the MMI and OAAU, the law-enforcement community was well aware of the criminal plots aimed at his assassination.

The same article published in the Guardian goes on to note: “The documentary examines various theories surrounding the killing, including that it was set up by the FBI and was carried out by white nationalists. Crucially, it emphasizes the lack of evidence against Aziz and Islam, and the fact that Halim said that neither man was involved. The Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization that investigates potential miscarriages of justice, has also claimed that a civil rights lawyer, William Kunstler, obtained FBI documents supporting Halim’s version of events and naming other co-conspirators.”

New York District Attorney Cyrus Vance has announced a reexamination of the case. Nonetheless, this is not the first time that attempts have been made to reopen the investigation into the assassination utilizing the evidence which exist related to government and police operations surrounding Malcolm and his associates. When President Barack Obama was elected and took office in 2009, his Attorney General Eric Holder was requested by African American activists to review the case. Unfortunately, nothing concrete emerged from the Justice Department.

After over five decades the trail is quite cold. What is known is that one of the alleged gunmen who escaped the assassination scene on February 21, 1965 had been living in Newark, New Jersey unscathed for many years. William Bradley, who was identified through archival film footage by researchers as being present outside the location of the assassination, is suspected to have been one of the gunmen who utilized a shotgun in the murder.

Bradley, later known as Almustafa Shabazz, denied any involvement in the killing of Malcolm X. He died in 2018 having never been questioned by law-enforcement in regard to the case.

Significance of Investigation and Remaining Unanswered Questions

There are three others identified by Hayer (now Halim) as co-conspirators in the assassination who are now deceased as well. Even if the Innocence Project can clear the name of Aziz (formerly Butler) it does not answer the key questions related to state involvement.

Other African American leaders during the 1960s, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers, Fred Hampton, Mark Clark, among others who were assassinated, were clear targets in the efforts to thwart the African American freedom movement. The issue of political assassination emanates from the nationally oppressive and class character of the U.S. capitalist and imperialist system.

Ultimately, a revolutionary struggle to transform the exploitative system is at the root of resolving these ongoing open cases of state-sponsored conspiracy and murder. The U.S. remains an unjust society and until the existing oppressive apparatuses of the state are eliminated no African American leader seeking fundamental social change will be immune from unjust persecution and assassination.

Malcolm X in Ghana with Maya Angelou, Julius Mayfield, Alice Windom, Vicki Garvin
Malcolm X in Ghana with Maya Angelou, Julius Mayfield, Alice Windom, Vicki Garvin

African American History Month Series:

Part 1: Mass Student Movement in the United States Began Six Decades Ago

Part 3: Five decades ago the Black Panther Party sought to build an alliance of progressive forces throughout the United States

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