Unsolved Mysteries: The Assassination of Malcolm X

As New Evidence Implicates the NYPD, Were Two Men Wrongly Convicted of Killing the Iconic Activist?

Michael East
Feb 23 · 12 min read

The month marked the 56th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X. Over those long decades, Malcolm’s message has only grown more robust, with it being particularly relevant today. Born in 1925, there is the possibility that, at 95, he may still have been giving his thoughts on Black Lives Matter, America’s treatment of Muslims, and the dire state of human rights around the globe. However, 21 bullets and a hail of gunfire guaranteed that wouldn’t happen. Like the other political killings of the 1960s, all manner of allegations, conspiracy theories, and outright lies about what happened continue to fill every corner of the internet. But what really did happen that fateful day in 1965 when the world was robbed of Malcolm X? And just who exactly was responsible?

Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925, in Omaha, Nebraska. His mother, Helen, was from Grenada and his father, Earl, was a Baptist lay speaker. The two were activists with the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL) ran by the iconic Marcus Garvey. They passed on values of black pride and self-sufficiency to their children. Earl’s proudly outspoken rhetoric won him few friends amongst whites, and he soon found himself under attack by the KKK, being forced to move out of state. Ending up in Lansing, Michigan, the Littles couldn’t escape white supremacy; now coming under threat from the KKK splinter-group, the Black Legion.

Earl Little died in 1931 under the wheels of a streetcar, and his death was controversial. While the police said it was purely an accident, Helen believed her husband had been murdered by the Black Legion. An insurer, meanwhile, refused to pay-out as they thought it was a suicide. In any case, Malcolm was understandably disturbed by both the death and allegations and would lose himself in the early years of his adult life. He was told point-blank that, as a black man, he would never study law. There was no place for black education in the white man’s world. Moving through Boston and Flint, Malcolm ended up in Harlem and fell into a life of petty crime. He dodged the Second World War draft, engaged in drug dealing, robbery, pimping, and racketeering. In 1946, he was arrested and sentenced to eight-to-ten-years. Malcolm Little’s life was spiraling out of control; it would take Malcolm X to save him.

“To have once been a criminal is no disgrace. To remain a criminal is the disgrace” — Malcolm X.

While serving his time, Malcolm would meet fellow convict John Bembry who encouraged him to begin reading, igniting the fierce intelligence that became the hallmark of his future public life as Malcolm X. It was also during this time that family began to write to him about the Nation of Islam (NOI), looking to bring him into the group. The Nation had been founded by Wallace Fard Muhammad in 1930 to improve the lives of black Americans through messages of spirituality, black power, and positive mental attitude. This was all done through the lens of Islam.

However, it should be noted that the majority of the world’s Muslims don’t see the NOI as Islamic; indeed, quite the opposite. The then leader, Elijah Muhammad, believed himself to be a prophet, entitling himself “Messenger of Allah” and rejecting the Islamic belief in Muhammad as the final prophet. This blasphemy was coupled with the rejection of Ramadan as unfixed, demands for 10% of income, an outspoken belief in racial superiority, and instruction to followers that they should keep the images of Wallace Fard Muhammad in-mind when they prey. Effectively idolatry.

After some initial reluctance, however, Malcolm eventually embraced the NOI’s version of Islam and was in regular correspondence with Elijah Muhammad during the rest of his incarceration. Finally, with a focus, Malcolm was almost immediately on the government radar. The FBI file on him was opened in 1950 after a letter to President Truman that criticized the war in Korea. Two years later, he would be released on parole and visit Muhammad in Chicago, setting about expanding the NOI’s membership and influence.

Known for his fiery, persuasive, and charismatic rhetoric, Malcolm X had quietly been gaining a following, and in 1957, the public would finally become aware. On April 26, three Nation of Islam members, including Hinton Johnson, saw police beating a black man in the street in New York. Attempting to intercede, Johnson was beaten so severely that he suffered brain contusions and hemorrhaging. Arrested, all four men were taken to the station, and soon after, there was a protest outside. Organized by Malcolm X, the crowd swelled to first 500 and then 4,000. He secured medical treatment for Johnson and infamously dismissed the crowd with just a wave of his hand. “No one man should have that much power,” one officer would tell the press. The FBI agreed.

Now with police and FBI interest, Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam were under increasing scrutiny. Vilified in the press and infiltrated, it seemed only a matter of time before actions were taken to stop Malcolm’s message of black power and the advancement of the NOI.

Malcolm X photographs Muhammad Ali after his defeat of Sonny Liston | Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

However, now also using the name Malcolm Shabazz or Malik el-Shabazz, Malcolm’s star continued to shine, driving thousands of new members to the NOI while he became seen as the effective face of the group. His comments would regularly be seen on television, newspapers, and radio. He was invited to meet with African leaders and, even more alarmingly, for the FBI, Fidel Castro. The two met for two hours, and Fidel was highly impressed, asking the young activist to visit Cuba.

“Human rights are something you were born with. Human rights are your God-given rights. Human rights are the rights that are recognized by all nations of this earth. And any time any one violates your human rights, you can take them to the world court.” — Malcolm X.

Yet, Malcolm X was no civil rights leader and openly criticized Martin Luther King’s willingness to appeal to liberalism. Malcolm didn’t believe that voting within a rigged system was any practical way to bring about change; instead, he thought only black separation would bring about liberation. Malcolm didn’t want to take the scraps offered by the establishment; instead, he encouraged followers to rise and take the fight for justice into their own hands. His message of power won favor with many, yet for many others, including some blacks, it was a frightening concept.

Somebody else who was growing dissatisfied with the messages of Malcolm X was Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm had quickly replaced him in the public consciousness as the Nation of Islam’s voice, being more charismatic, eloquent, and quotable. Some in the NOI believed it was only a matter of time before he became the group’s leader.

Meanwhile, Malcolm became increasingly dissatisfied with the Nation, thinking they had been weak in not calling for a street response to violence and killings from the LAPD. His view of Muhammad would also be irrevocably damaged when it was revealed that the NOI leader had engaged in extramarital affairs with teenage secretaries, fathering children. Muhammad attempted to justify his impropriety by comparing himself to biblical prophets.

In March of 1964, Malcolm X would officially leave the Nation of Islam. Planning to organize his own black nationalist organization, he now called the NOIs teaching “rigid.” He expressed a desire to work with other civil rights leaders and groups, rejected black separation and pointed the finger at Elijah Muhammad for stopping collaboration in the past. He founded the Muslim Mosque and the Organization of Afro-American Unity; he would perform his Hajj to Mecca and embrace orthodox Sunni Islam.

Away from the influence of the NOI, his views developed quickly, noting that true Islam was adopted by blacks and whites alike, believing it could be the answer to many racial problems. He traveled and spoke across Africa, doing likewise in France and the United Kingdom. X began to advocate beyond civil rights, developing a passion for human rights across the globe. Back in the United States, he began to address the meetings of the Socialist Workers Party.

Malcolm X’s new attitude enraged the Nation of Islam and FBI alike, with the government increasingly concerned by Malcolm’s willingness to state that violence was an option. However, that wasn’t their whole issue. He had a tendency to cut through the civil niceties and tell home truths that were profoundly uncomfortable, particularly given the logic in the arguments. He was persuasive. Coupled with his new willingness to work with socialists such as the SWP and Castro, Malcolm was not somebody whose message could be diluted.

“I’m not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or a flag-saluter, or a flag-waver — no, not I. I’m speaking as a victim of this American system. And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.” — Malcolm X.

To the NOI, he had left the religion, rejecting their teachings and the teachings of Elijah Muhammad. In February of 1964, a threat was made to bomb his car. In March, future NOI leader Louis Farrakhan suggested Malcolm should be beheaded. In April, a cartoon in the NOI newspaper Muhammad Speaks showed just that. In July, the national secretary of the Nation of Islam, John Ali, said, “Anyone who opposes the Honorable Elijah Muhammad puts their life in jeopardy.” Ali was suspected of being an FBI agent. The assault was relentless.

On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X would take to the stage at Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom to address a meeting of his Organization of Afro-American Unity. Despite his house being firebombed just a week previously with his wife and children inside, he was in good spirits. He was defiant. There was a cry from somewhere in the audience, a shout of, “N****r! Get your hand outta my pocket!” As security tried to quell the disruption, a man rushed the stage and blasted Malcolm in the chest with a sawn-off shotgun. Two more men then emerged, both firing handguns. Malcolm X was shot 21 times and pronounced dead shortly after being rushed to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital.

Bullet holes in back of stage where Malcolm X was shot | Library of Congress

Immediately after the shooting, a sizable number of NYPD strolled into the ballroom. There was no urgency, and none had their weapon drawn, despite the evident panic and sound of gunfire. They rescued shooter Talmadge Hayer from the crowd after he’d been shot in the leg by one of Malcolm X’s bodyguards, and witnesses would identify Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson as the other two killers, former members of Malcolm’s Harlem mosque. Hayer confessed, but Butler and Johnson would always plead their innocence. Heyer’s confession and statements at his trial would deny they were his accomplices, but he refused to name who actually was. All three received life sentences.

Indeed, who was responsible for the killing would be a matter of debate for decades to come. Blame was laid at the doors of the FBI, NYPD and CIA, with many observing that the assassins had easily entered the ballroom and no protection had been given by police.

“When you’re dealing with a complex crime, and you simplify it to five members of the Nation of Islam walking into a ballroom, you don’t give people the context they need” — Zak Kondo, author of Conspiracys: Unravelling the Assassination of Malcolm X.

In 1977, Hayer would go on record to state that he had planned the murder with four others in revenge for public statements Malcolm X had made against Elijah Muhammad. Those four did not include Butler and Johnson. He admitted that one of his accomplices started the disturbance in the crowd, and another was the man armed with the shotgun. Hayer and the third man then opened fire with the handguns. He finally identified the men as fellow members of the NOI’s Temple Number 25 out of Newark, New Jersey. While he only gave first names or nicknames, there was more than enough for an investigation, and with the new evidence in hand, civil rights lawyer William Kunstler tried to have the case reopened. He was denied.

It would be 27 years before movement emerged in the case thanks to the tenacity of researcher Abdur-Rahman Muhammad. Working off his own back, Muhammad’s search revealed that the men identified by Hayer were Wilbur McKinley, William Bradley, and Leon Davis, with another man, Benjamin Thomas, said to have been involved with the conspiracy. He shared his findings with Manning Marable, who was working on the Pulitzer Prize-winning Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.

Whether the assailants involved at the ballroom acted independently or under orders from others has never been entirely ascertained. Some contend that John Ali was likely behind the killing. Others argue that future leader Louis Farrakhan was the man behind the attacks. This was a fact he acknowledged in 2000 when he said, “I may have been complicit in words that I spoke,” indicating that his anti-Malcolm rhetoric may have contributed to the actions of the assassins.

However, the surviving family of Malcolm X believes his involvement was far more than mere incitement. In 1995, Malcolm’s daughter Qubilah Shabazz was arrested for conspiring to kill Farrakhan in revenge. She accepted a plea agreement and underwent counseling, having been an eyewitness to her father’s murder in 1965 at the age of just four.

“Was Malcolm your traitor or ours? And if we dealt with him like a nation deals with a traitor, what the hell business is it of yours? A nation has to be able to deal with traitors and cutthroats and turncoats.” — Louis Farrakhan, 1993

Just this past Saturday, the family of Malcolm X held a press conference to reveal the existence of a death bed confession. Written by undercover NYPD officer Raymond Wood, the letter was authorized for release posthumously by his cousin. It states clearly that while undercover, he “encourage[d] leaders and members of the civil rights groups to commit felonious acts” under orders from his “handlers.” Wood states two of these men were Malcolm X’s security. Once they had been arrested, they were unable to handle the doors of the Audubon Ballroom.

The possible wrongful conviction of Butler and Johnson was a stain that lingered for decades. Indeed, it still remains. Justice is too late for Thomas 15X Johnson, having died in 2009. Yet, Norman 3X Butler, now 82, still hopes that his name will be cleared. He served 20-years. Last year, new moves were afoot by lawyers and the Innocence Project to clear his name before it’s too late. With access to unreleased FBI files, representatives from the project have stated they are “troubled” as to why the case against Butler wasn’t thrown out in the 1970s.

It’s easy to wonder what might have been had Malcolm X lived. His uncompromising rhetoric may have alienated some, yet his intelligence and eloquence won over many others. Finding new power after accepting Sunni Islam, his potential had agonizingly only just begun to be unlocked. However, this action is the same one that drew the fire of the Nation of Islam, and just as with Fred Hampton four years later, the establishment couldn’t allow a message of taking justice to find favor with blacks and whites alike. However, what seems certain is that Malcolm would have been a fierce defender of Norman 3X Butler, a man who served 20-years on a likely fraud. While the names of those who pulled the trigger are widely known, those ultimately responsible continued to live prominent lives in law enforcement and the Nation of Islam. While they may never see justice, it’s still not too late for Butler.

“O you who believe, be upright for God, and be bearers of witness with justice!” [Quran, 5:8]

I am a freelance long-form writer who writes on true crime, politics, history and more. I am entirely self-funded and if you liked this article, please consider a donation via Patreon as a token of appreciation or directly via PayPal. You can join my mailing list for the latest articles and also like my Facebook page. I’m also active on Twitter. I can be contacted for projects through my website MichaelEastWriter.com where you’ll also find lots more content.

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Michael East

Written by

Freelance writer. Writing on true crime, mysteries, politics, history, and more. | https://linktr.ee/MichaelEast

The Mystery Box

A publication about unsolved mysteries from the deep ocean to space and from antiquity to present day.

Michael East

Written by

Freelance writer. Writing on true crime, mysteries, politics, history, and more. | https://linktr.ee/MichaelEast

The Mystery Box

A publication about unsolved mysteries from the deep ocean to space and from antiquity to present day.

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