Malcolm X, Assassination of

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One of the greatest African American leaders of the twentieth century, Malcolm X was head of the Nation of Islam. Theories abound as to who conspired to gun him down in 1965, but none have been proven.

Malcolm X, Assassination of

Who assassinated the controversial black leader—the FBI, the Nation of Islam, the mob, or one of his best friends?

No one will ever know if Malcolm X suspected that something was wrong that Sunday afternoon, February 21, 1965, when he arrived with his family at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem to speak at an Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) rally. Only a week had passed since the controversial militant black leader’s home had been firebombed, and he must have noticed that there were no police inside the ballroom and only two stationed outside the entrance. For Brother Malcolm, an assassination attempt was always a possibility, and he never turned down police protection. There were four hundred men and women crowded into the ballroom, but none of the dark-suited Nation of Islam guards standing near the stage and at the back of the room had bothered to search anyone for weapons.

Later Malcolm’s pregnant wife, Betty Shabazz (when Malcolm X returned from Africa in June 1964, he became an orthodox Muslim, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz), would be told that there were dozens of police officers across the street, waiting in a hospital, positioned there allegedly at the request of Malcolm, who had told them that their presence in the ballroom would create tension among the members of the audience. She denied that her husband would have made such a request.

Malcolm X waited with Betty and their four children in an anteroom until the rally began, then he asked two of his bodyguards to escort them out into the ballroom and seat them in a box near the front of the stage. His bodyguards noticed that Malcolm seemed nervous and irritable.

Brother Benjamin Goodman finished making the opening speech, and introduced Brother Malcolm. The civil rights leader, founder of the OAAU, got to his feet, managed a slight smile, and walked out on the stage to loud applause. He went to the podium and had only begun to speak when a fight broke out near the rear of the ballroom. Malcolm asked the two men to “cool it, brothers,” just as a loud explosion sounded in the back of the room and heavy smoke began to fill the area.

As bodyguards ran toward the back to investigate the disturbances, a man stood up from the front row and fired both barrels of a sawed-off shotgun at Malcolm. As the civil rights leader fell backward, grabbing at his chest, two more men rushed the stage, firing pistols at him. An FBI report, dated February 22, 1965, stated that Malcolm X had “ten bullet wounds in his chest, thigh, and ankle, plus four bullet creases in the chest and thigh.” The bullets were identified as one 9-mm slug, several shotgun pellets, and one .45 slug. Both blasts from the sawed-off shotgun had penetrated Malcolm X’s heart and aorta.

Many of his followers rushed to Malcolm’s fallen body, but it was quickly determined that he was dead. The majority of the crowd in the ballroom were pushing to get out, uncertain if there was a fire sweeping through the place.

Others went after the shooters. One assassin managed to escape by crawling out a restroom window. Two others were beaten and kicked by the angry crowd as they tried to run down the stairs to the street. Twenty-two-year-old Talmadge Hayer (a.k.a. Thomas Hagan) was shot in the leg by one of Malcolm’s bodyguards and kicked and beaten by the crowd until rescued by two uniformed policemen. The other assassin caught by the crowd somehow managed to escape, even after being knocked down by an undercover policeman named Gene Roberts, a member of Bureau of Special Services. Roberts then ran to the stage and attempted to resuscitate the fallen Malcolm. Bodyguards stepped aside, recognizing Roberts as “Brother Gene,” a police officer who had grown very close to Malcolm.

Now the mystery begins. Who ordered the assassination of Malcolm X?

  1. The Nation of Islam (NOI) came first to the minds of many of Malcolm’s followers. In addition to the Organization of Afro-American Unity, Malcolm had founded the Muslim Mosque, Inc. (MMI), and many believed that the NOI’s leaders were jealous of his ability to recruit their members into MMI. Malcolm, who had once been extremely close to Elijah Muhammed, the head of NOI, had later publicly denounced him as an adulterer. In turn, Muhammed had denounced Malcolm for deviating from the peaceful teachings of the Qur’an. Louis Farrakhan, a prominent NOI minister, told Muslims that those who followed Malcolm X would be led to hell or to their doom. However, after Malcolm’s assassination, Farrakhan publicly apologized to Betty Shabazz.
  2. After researching more than 300,000 pages of declassified FBI and CIA documents, Karl Evanzz, author of The Judas Factor: The Plot to Kill Malcolm X, believes that the assassination was arranged by Malcolm’s former friend John Ali, an agent/informer for an intelligence agency. Although Malcolm did not believe that Ali had been responsible for Malcolm’s suspension from the Nation of Islam, Ali rose to the position of national secretary of the NOI.
  3. Some investigators remembered how angry organized crime bosses had been at Malcolm X for his effective crusade against drugs, alcohol, and crime in Harlem. The militant black leader had been very successful in cleaning up the streets and replacing slums with black pride and black businesses.
  4. Perhaps the greater number of conspiracy theorists vote for the FBI’s COINTELPRO and recall FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s mandate to get the goods on and/or dispose of radical, militant, civil rights groups or war protestors by any means necessary. COINTELPRO (counterintelligence program) agents were to neutralize subversive political organizations and dissidents through covert means.

The first edition of the New York Herald Tribune for February 22, 1965, was printed on Sunday evening, just a few hours after the assassination of Malcolm X, for distribution Monday morning. The top headline in the first edition read, “Malcolm X Slain by Gunmen as 400 in Ballroom Watch.” The lead article, written by Jimmy Breslin, mentioned two suspects rescued by police: Talmadge Hayer, taken to Bellevue Hospital under heavy police guard, and an unnamed person taken to Wadsworth Avenue Precinct.

The afternoon edition of the same paper appeared with its top headline unchanged, but the two suspects had become one—and Breslin’s story was rewritten to exclude the unnamed suspect. The first edition of the New York Times similarly proclaimed, “Police Hold Two for Questioning.” The name of the police officer, Thomas Hoy, who grabbed the “suspect” was given as well. But in a later edition of the Times the headline read: “One is Held in Killing.”

Three men were seen firing at nearly pointblank range on Malcolm X. Where did two of them go?

Three men were eventually arrested for Malcolm X’s murder. Talmadge Hayer, Norman 3X Butler, and Thomas 15X Johnson were all convicted of first degree murder in March 1966. Hayer testified that neither Butler nor Johnson was involved in the assassination. Butler and Johnson were well known to Malcolm’s aides and bodyguards as Nation of Islam enforcers, yet all of these individuals swore that neither man was present in the ballroom when Malcolm X was assassinated.

Conspiracy theorists wonder about Malcolm X’s new best friend, Gene Roberts, the undercover agent of the Bureau of Secret Services, an agency so secretive that even the New York City police were unaware of its existence, its activities, and its agents. Witnesses recalled that just prior to the shooting, Roberts was positioned on the stage near Malcolm X. Other witnesses saw him signal to the bodyguards to move just before he went to another position away from the stage. The bullets removed from Malcolm’s body were identified as one 9-mm slug, several shotgun pellets, and one .45 slug. The shotgun was found at the scene. The .45 was later recovered. A 9-mm weapon was never located. Theorists suggest that Roberts fired a 9-mm bullet into Malcolm during the diversion caused by the agents in the back of the ballroom. When the angry crowd began to chase the shooters, Roberts pretended to capture of one of the assassins, whom he actually rescued from the crowd by knocking him down and appearing to have captured him. Next he faked a valiant effort to resuscitate the victim, then he disappeared into the mists of covert action, mission accomplished—a subversive radical eliminated.