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Explained: Who was Malcolm X, and why was he assassinated?

Malcolm X was one of the most influential leaders of the American civil rights movement. He was a religious leader and activist who spoke extensively about black self-determination and empowerment.

Written by Rahel Philipose , Edited by Explained Desk , with input from Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: November 23, 2021 1:43:55 pm
Malcolm X speaks at a news conference in the Hotel Theresa, in New York, May 21,1964. (AP Photo, File)

In 1966, three men were convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the assassination of Malcolm X, one of the United States’ most influential black leaders. Over the last five decades, scholars and historians have raised countless questions about Malcolm’s death. In 2020, after the release of a six-part documentary, titled ‘Who Killed Malcolm X?’, the Manhattan district attorney’s office decided to reopen the investigation.

A two-year-long investigation concluded with two of the three men — Muhammad Aziz, now 83, and the late Khalil Islam —  being exonerated on Thursday. The two men steadfastly maintained their innocence for decades. In fact, the third man, Mujahid Abdul Rahim, who confessed to the murder during the trial, has maintained that the other two men were innocent.

The investigation, conducted jointly by the Manhattan district attorney’s office and lawyers for the two men, found that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the New York Police Department (NYPD) had withheld key evidence that could have led to the men’s exoneration at the time of their trial, The New York Times reported.

So, who was Malcolm X?

Malcolm X was one of the most influential leaders of the American civil rights movement. He was a religious leader and activist who spoke extensively about black self-determination and empowerment.

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In the late 1940s, Malcolm was arrested for larceny and breaking and entering. It was during this period that he converted to Islam. In 1952, he joined the Nation of Islam and became one of its main speakers and leaders. The Nation of Islam (NOI) was an African American movement that combined Islam and black nationalism.

But Malcolm’s views on black freedom were widely considered controversial at the time. He was a proponent of black people creating their own structures of wealth and power and rejected the then-increasingly popular notion of racial integration and acceptance. He famously referred to white people as “blue-eyed devils” and strongly believed in self-defence as an alternative to the nonviolent resistance promoted by fellow civil rights leader Rev Martin Luther King Jr.

“I am for violence if non-violence means we continue postponing a solution to the American black man’s problem,” he once said.

But in the 1960s, Malcolm’s views slowly started to change. This is largely attributed to his travel through Africa, where he interacted with Muslims of all races. He began to question the anti-white ideology of the NOI, and ultimately in 1964, he left the organisation. This was also when he converted to Sunni Islam.

What led up to his assassination?

Malcolm’s decision to leave the NOI came amidst growing tensions between him and the organisation’s leader Elijah Muhammad. The two had varying views on the political future of the Nation.

He grew increasingly uncomfortable after learning about Muhammad’s extramarital affairs with women and his many illegitimate children. He was also against the NOI’s decision not to respond to acts of violence against Muslims by the Los Angeles police department..

Following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963, Malcolm was “forbidden” to speak about it. After Muhammad ordered members of the NOI not to comment on the assassination, Malcolm publicly described Kennedy’s death as “the chickens coming home to roost.”

Members of the group started to see him as a traitor and some even threatened to kill him. “I live like a man who is dead already,” he once told reporters, the Washington Post reported. Undeterred, Malcolm set up two new organisations, Muslim Mosque, Inc (MMI) and the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU).

Where and how was he assassinated?

On February 21, 1965, during an ill-fated speech at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan, a then-39-year-old Malcolm was attacked by three gunmen, who rushed on stage and opened fire right in front of his pregnant wife and three of his daughters.

The gunmen then tried to escape as chaos ensued. But one of Malcolm’s bodyguards was able to shoot one of the men, Halim, also known as Talmadge Hayer, in the thigh. Aziz, then known as Norman 3X Butler, was arrested five days later, and Islam, known as Thomas 15X Johnson, another five days after that. Within a week, the three men, all of whom were members of the NOI, were charged with murder.

Why were questions raised over Malcolm’s assassination and the investigation that followed?

During the trial in 1966, Islam was identified as the assassin who fired the shot that killed Malcolm. Ten eyewitnesses claimed that they saw Aziz and Halim at the scene of the crime. But several of the witness testimonies were contradictory, and no physical evidence was found to tie Aziz and Islam to the murder.

When Halim took the stand during his trial, he confessed he had committed the crime and insisted that Aziz and Islam were innocent. Despite this, they were all found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.

But several scholars have questioned the trials and have proposed their own theories about the black leader’s death.

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What were the findings of the recent investigation?

The aftermath of Malcolm’s assassination was documented in the Netflix series “Who Killed Malcolm X?”. Soon after its release, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., the Manhattan district attorney, announced that he would reopen the case along with the NGO the Innocence Project, and attorney David B. Shanies, who have fought to clear Islam’s and Aziz’s names.

But the road to the exoneration was far from easy as most key witnesses, investigators and potential suspects died a while ago. Key documents as well as murder weapons were also no longer available.

After the investigation was reopened last year, evidence resurfaced that seemed to exonerate Aziz and Islam. Key evidence was found to have been withheld by authorities at the time of the trial.

Notably, one of the witnesses, a man named Ernest Greene, had said he had seen a man with a shotgun. He described him s dark-skinned, stocky and sporting a “deep” beard — a description that did not match Islam’s. Greene’s description matched that of William Bradley, another member of the NOI.

Bradley’s description was with the FBI at the time, and Halim even identified him as one of the assassins, The New York Times reported. According to the latest investigation, the FBI was even aware that the NOI was targeting Malcolm, ahead of his assassination.

Investigators also interviewed a witness named JM who was able to verify Aziz’s alibi. The investigators said that if the available evidence had been presented at the time of trial, Aziz and Islam could have been acquitted.

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