The assassination of Malcolm X in 1965 is often not mentioned in discussions of the assassinations of JFK, MLK and RFK, yet the more one learns about Malcolm X, the more it starts to seem that he was far out in front of these other three. He was braver and more radical and perceptive regarding the deep problems in American society. Malcolm X led the way and laid down the challenge. The other three then had to react and follow the path that he had lit.

The life and times of Malcolm X, and his assassination, received renewed attention early in 2020 when a six-hour Netflix documentary, Who Killed Malcolm X?, re-examined this 55-year-old case. The six-part film examines why the long-known, obvious miscarriage of justice has been kept out of public consciousness for so many decades.

The series features Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, a self-described regular citizen who has investigated the case since the 1980s, as he visits contemporary New York and New Jersey and digs into the cold case.

The early episodes go over the life of Malcolm X, the history of Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam, and the close relationship between the two men.

Malcolm X quickly rose to prominence in the organization, as his eloquence and passion put him at the forefront of it. Elijah Muhammad treated him as his favored disciple, which caused serious friction with his own sons.

The Nation of Islam had been successful by disciplining young men from the streets and turning them into productive managers and workers in the Nation’s network of mosques and Black-owned businesses. This led the organization down a contradictory and somewhat ironic path. On the one hand, the Nation was deeply involved in the cause of Black nationalism, and Malcolm X was the radical voice on this matter, going farther than Martin Luther King Jr., whose non-violent marches were often dismissed by Malcolm X and his followers as Black bourgeois politics. On the other hand, the Nation was a money-making enterprise, and its members were advancing in society through the accepted American way—thrift and hard work, and traditional religious family values. These divergent pressures would soon lead to a split that forced Malcolm X to leave and form his own organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity.

Malcolm X’s new approach after he split with the Nation of Islam

Malcom X’s evolving view of the world can be seen in a single event that occurred when he met Fidel Castro during his visit to New York for a meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations in September 1960.

The US government, of course, had an extremely hostile and unwelcoming attitude toward the new leader of revolutionary Cuba. The US government had to allow him to come to the United Nations headquarters, and it was the wrong time, place and occasion to attempt to assassinate him, but they made his visit as uncomfortable as possible. He couldn’t get a hotel room anywhere in Lower Manhattan or Midtown, but Malcolm X and other sympathizers arranged for him to stay at the Hotel Theresa in Haarlem. David Talbot described the meeting between Malcolm X and Castro thus:

But there was still a glow around Castro as he and his retinue settled into the Hotel Theresa. It was the dawn of the 1960s, the gray ‘Eisenhower-Dulles reign’ was coming to an end, and the world seemed to shimmer with new possibilities. The most electric moment of Castro’s week in Harlem came one evening when Malcolm X—wearing a long, double-breasted, black leather coat and tie swept past the press pack in the hotel lobby and was whisked to Fidel’s suite on the ninth floor. Fidel invited Malcolm to sit next to him on the bed, the only comfortable oasis in a room thick with cigar smoke and crowded with aides, bodyguards, and a few specially selected members of the African American press. The two revolutionary icons seemed hesitant with each other at first, their communication made precarious by their language differences. But as Castro plunged ahead with his uncertain English, they slowly found common ground. Fidel told Malcolm that the Cubans appreciated the warm reception given them in Harlem. “I think you will find the people in Harlem are not so addicted to the propaganda they dish out downtown,” Malcolm replied.

Castro’s young foreign minister, Raul Roa Kouri, later said that he thought the meeting between the two revolutionaries, though lasting only half an hour, turned out to be historically significant because it helped broaden the Black Muslim leader’s narrow racial parameters. Malcolm began to understand that blacks were not the only poor and oppressed group, said Kouri, “and the struggle of all was a common struggle.” Afterward, Malcolm maintained a strong interest in the Cuban revolution, saying, “The only white person that I have really liked was Fidel.” He planned to visit Cuba but never had the chance.

The meeting between Fidel and Malcolm sent shudders through US security circles, where a potential alliance between the Cuban revolutionary and the militant black nationalist was seen as the stuff of nightmares. Malcolm’s broadening political outlook, which accelerated after his split with the Nation of Islam in 1964, made him an increasingly dangerous figure—and Kouri, among others, was convinced that it led to his assassination in 1965. By 1960, Malcolm was the target of intensive FBI surveillance. In fact, one of the people who had squeezed into Castro’s hotel bedroom that evening was an undercover FBI agent, who later reported back to the bureau on the two men’s conversation. According to a confidential FBI memo based on the source’s report, Malcolm told Fidel that he was predisposed to like him, because “usually when one sees a man whom the United States is against, there is something good in that man.”[1]

Another source that reveals Malcolm X’s views in the years before he died is his famous “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech from April 1964. If you have fifty-two minutes to spare, listen to the whole speech at this link (the transcript scrolls alongside the audio recording).

“The Ballot or the Bullet” speech was given at a time when Malcolm X’s philosophy was evolving quickly and he was making a break from the Nation of Islam and from his reputation as a spokesman for that organization. He began the speech by de-emphasizing religion and religious differences, stressing that Blacks of all religions faced the same problem.

With this speech he was trying to appeal to civil rights leaders, hoping that they would forgive and forget some of the things he had said about them in the past. The speech indicated that Malcolm still supported self-defense and Black nationalism, by which he meant not a separate nation but Black self-governance in communities and Black ownership of local economies. In the “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech, Malcolm X presented new ways of looking at the relationship between Blacks and Whites.

At this time, the Nation of Islam still told its members to not participate in the political system, so this speech was a clear departure from that policy. Malcolm X was now advocating such participation, but he stressed that Blacks needed political education and had to learn how to use their votes wisely. Since Whites were evenly divided between the two main parties, he stated that Blacks held the balance of power and they had great potential to achieve their goals. Yet he stressed that they had to demand more and stop lending support to White politicians who promised much but never delivered after elections. Black voters had to stop being “chumps,” as he said.

This aspect of the speech is particularly relevant today for the entire oppressed working class, of all races, at a time when the size of the middle class has declined dramatically. As I write this in October 2020, millions of voters are ready to vote for Democrats simply to be rid of President Trump. They have demanded nothing from Democratic candidates, and Democratic candidates have obliged by offering nothing—no student debt relief, no universal health care, no increase in the minimum wage, no protection from evictions and homelessness. They are ready to vote for a presidential candidate who has promised that “nothing fundamentally will change.”

When Malcolm X spoke of “the type of Black man on the scene in America today [who] doesn’t intend to turn the other cheek any longer,” he was stating a belief that Blacks were becoming aware that Martin Luther King’s non-violent “sit-in” approach had gone as far as it could. He never advocated initiating acts of terror or aggression, but he was still advocating self-defense by any means necessary.

These views were presented quite succinctly in a short appearance on Canadian television in early 1965, shortly before he was murdered.  

Malcolm X on CBC Television, Canada, in early 1965

On February 21, 1965, several gunmen shot at Malcolm X, age 39, as he gave a speech to an audience at the Audubon Theater and Ballroom in Manhattan. One assassin, Talmadge Hayer was caught fleeing the scene and later confessed. The film Who Shot Malcolm X? asserts that the other killers came from Mosque 18 in Newark, New Jersey, but were never caught.

In the previous years, Malcolm X had renounced Elijah Muhammad, as a “religious faker” pushing racist ideology, involved hypocritically with teenage or very young women, fathering children out of wedlock, and concerned more with his organization’s business empire than with the struggle of Black nationalism.

The Nation of Islam employed violence to enforce its discipline on members, and many of them saw Malcolm X as a traitor that had to be dealt with. However, Malcolm X was too high-profile and respected, so Elijah Muhammad had to tread carefully. Though many followers thought it was hypocritical that Malcolm X was escaping justice, Elijah Muhammad had to be careful to avoid any appearance that he had ordered anyone to carry out punishment of such a high-profile and beloved member of their community.

While this tension was building, Malcolm X continued to spread his message more widely in American society and to welcome members in his new secular organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity. He also travelled abroad to many countries, met blue-eyed Muslims in Mecca, and was welcomed everywhere as an internationalist voice against neocolonialism. The travel also changed his views on the structural problems that afflicted his country and the world. He was now anti-racist rather than anti-white, which actually made him more radical and more of a threat to the US government and to its standing on the world stage. As he told the panel of Canadian journalists in 1965 (cited above), just a few weeks before he was killed, he was working to have the United States condemned by the international community:

… the objective of this organization is non-religious, number one. Any Negro can belong to it, and the objective of that organization is to bring about a condition that will guarantee respect and recognition of the 22 million black Americans as human beings. We feel that the problem number one of the black man in America is beyond America’s ability to solve. It’s a human problem, not an American problem, or a negro problem, and as a human problem, or world problem, we feel that it should be taken out of the jurisdiction of the United States government in the United States courts and taken into the United Nations in the same manner that the problems of the black man in South Africa, Angola and other parts of the world… and even the way they’re trying to bring the problems of the Jews in Russia into the United Nations… We believe that our problem is not a violation of civil rights but a violation of human rights.

Malcolm X was not the kind of American ambassador that the US government wanted to have on the world stage. His powerful influence naturally put him under the watchful eye of the New York City Police Department (NYPD), the FBI and other intelligence agencies.

The NYPD had long had a special unit for the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X that collaborated with the FBI, and one of the episodes of Who Shot Malcolm X? touches on how this secretive relationship might have been a key factor in Malcolm X’s assassination. Undercover agents and double agents inside the Nation of Islam could have conspired with those who wanted to eliminate him, with or without the explicit or implicit approval of Elijah Muhammad.

The mainstream media outlets reported in 2020 how the new documentary prompted New York officials to re-open the case and examine why two men were wrongfully convicted and so many leads were not investigated. However, these reports typically describe the situation with sentences like this: “Historians have long believed that police and prosecutors botched the investigation.”[2] Media reports avoid mentioning what is to many an obvious conclusion, based on what we know about the other three political assassinations of the 1960s and the culture of the criminal justice system while J. Edgar Hoover ruled the FBI. This failure to investigate was probably not a careless error or a bureaucratic “botching” of the case. It is more plausible that the killers from the New Jersey mosque were directed, manipulated and encouraged by police agencies to carry out the plan they wished they could execute themselves. The FBI and the NYPD had excellent intelligence on everything that was going on within the Nation of Islam, and they knew it had a history of using violence to discipline its members and its traitors. Zak A. Kondo, professor of history, Baltimore City Community College, said in the documentary:

The FBI had studied the Nation of Islam for decades. They knew that certain things that you say or do can lead to brutality and sometimes even death… so what the bureau will basically do is incorporate various counter-intelligence techniques that will help to facilitate the Nation [of Islam] doing for the FBI what the FBI couldn’t do for itself. They thought, “Hey, if we keep pushing this thing, the Nation will take out Malcolm X.”[3]

With a few implicit assurances from FBI officers that the investigation would look away from the actual killers, the conspirators in the Nation of Islam would have felt free to act under such protection. They had the example of the “botched” investigation of the JFK assassination fifteen months earlier (with no case prosecuted in any court), and the Warren Report four months earlier, as an example of how government agencies would act, or rather fail to act. Indeed that is what happened, or rather didn’t happen.  

The documentary puts together convincing evidence that the killer who shot Malcolm X at close range was Al-Mustafa Shabazz, a member of Mosque 18 in Newark, New Jersey. The film says he was allowed to escape, and allowed to escape investigation for the rest of his life until he died in 2018. It even shows him in film footage from the day of the assassination. He is seen outside the theater walking away as police arrest the only person who confessed to being involved in the assassination, Talmadge Hayer. Two others were arrested later and wrongfully convicted, Muhammad Abdul Aziz and Khalil Islam. Hayer testified that they were not involved, and they also had alibis. There had always been enough evidence for Shabazz to be investigated as a person of interest in the case, but he was allowed to change his name and re-establish himself locally as a well-known, upstanding citizen. 

In the subsequent episodes, the issue of FBI complicity is never again addressed. Perhaps there is nothing else to say about it. The suspicion lingers forever without any solid evidence to prove it. There can never be any “smoking gun” evidence for such state crimes because the conspirators don’t leave evidence of their conspiring, and their professional code makes them take their secrets to the grave. Each citizen just has to come to his or her own conclusion about how the world works. Do the NYPD and the FBI, the most modern and competent federal police agency in the world, so easily “botch” investigations into high-profile murders, or do they involve themselves in eliminating problematic dissidents and later decide to leave the murder of these high-profile dissidents unexamined?

In the later episodes of the series, Abdur-Rahman Muhammad spends much time in the community around Mosque 18 in Newark, New Jersey trying to find out why no one ever spoke out against Shabbaz’ obvious involvement or why they did not at least shun him in the community. Why was he allowed to change his name, clean up his shady past (he had a criminal record before 1965) and become an upstanding, highly-respected member of the community? Why did they let his later good deeds whitewash what he had done in the past? How could the community have schools named after Malcolm X while this crime went uninvestigated?

One person told Abdur-Rahman Muhammad (I paraphrase), “If you see a piece of dogshit at the curb, do you walk over and kick it?” They let him know implicitly that Shabbaz’ guilt was an open secret, but they repeatedly told him to leave it alone.

The great irony of the story revealed in these reactions is that this formerly radical and oppressed minority community preferred after 1965 to go along to get along. It became a small-scale example of how the entire country reacted to the killings of JFK, RFK and MLK. “Treason doth never prosper: what ’s the reason? Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.”[4] The killers are now in power, integrated into the new order, and no one dare offend them. And why make a fuss? Everyone is getting ahead. The nation and the Nation of Islam were prospering, so few people, then or now, have time for the troublesome types who insist on pursuing justice for a fallen hero. The schools and airports and holidays named after them, and the sanitized versions of their messages, are assumed to be sufficient tribute.

Notes


[1] David Talbot, The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, The CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government (London: Harper Collins, 2015), 346-347.

[2] Meagan Flynn, “Malcolm X assassination may be reinvestigated as Netflix documentary, lawyers cast doubt on convictions,” Washington Post, February 10, 2020.

[3] Rachel Dretzin and Phil Bertelsen (Directors), Who Killed Malcolm X? Episode 2: “Straight Man in a Crooked Game,” Fusion, Netflix, 41:50~.

[4] John Harrington (1560-1612). Jim Garrison, the New Orleans district attorney who prosecuted Clay Shaw for conspiring to kill JFK, used this quote, and it was used subsequently by Oliver Stone in the film JFK about Garrison’s attempt to obtain a conviction in the assassination.