“I know, too, that I could suddenly die at the hands of some white racists. Or I could die at the hands of some Negro hired by the white man.”
~ from The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Conspiracy theories have engulfed the four major American political assassinations of the 1960s since inception. Even before the controversial Warren Commission was empaneled, reasonable doubts emerged about Lee Harvey Oswald being the lone assassin of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963.
Within days of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis on April 4, 1968, his confidantes and constituents expressed skepticism over government claims that James Earl Ray, an ill-educated, inept stick-up artist from the south side of St. Louis acted alone.1
When Robert F. Kennedy was felled inside a Los Angeles hotel during a campaign stop on June 6, 1968, many Americans questioned the official version about a poor Palestinian immigrant shooting the presidential candidate in the back of the head, primarily because key eyewitnesses stated that Sirhan Bishira Sirhan was facing Kennedy when he fired.2
More than half a century later, government accounts stick to the “lone assassin” theory in those cases despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Most Americans harbor the delusion that every government but their own assassinates its citizens on occasion.
Only in the fourth case, the assassination of Malcolm X, is there incontrovertible proof of conspiracy. On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X, a charismatic African American revolutionary, was shot to death inside New York City’s Audubon Ballroom just seconds after greeting a crowd of about three hundred. To many, the assassination was the predictable culmination of a battle between him and the black separatist sect that ousted him eleven months earlier.3
Once home to Rabbi Max Koppel and Congregation Emes Wozedek in the 1930s4, the Audubon was located in a Washington Heights neighborhood bordering Harlem, where Malcolm had until recently headed Muhammad’s Mosque Number Seven. (Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska in May 1925.)
Now an orthodox Muslim, Malcolm used the Audubon for weekly rallies sponsored by his newly formed group, the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU). The group was patterned after the Organization of African Unity (OAU), founded in 1963 with the goal of uniting African nations that had recently wrestled their independence from American, Russian, and European colonialism.
Both the OAU and OAAU had a common goal: to promote Pan Africanism as a vehicle for alleviating economic, social, and political oppression. Sensing that his organizational skills, intelligence, and understanding of American politics could be instrumental in altering the world’s geopolitical landscape, African, Asian, and Latin American leaders had begun appealing to Malcolm X to champion their causes.
An electrifying orator, Malcolm had impressed Third World leaders during two extended trips to Africa in April and July of 19645. The first trip occurred weeks after his official break with the so-called Nation of Islam, a quasi-religious group promoting segregation in a quixotic quest for a separate nation within America exclusively for African Americans.
|Malcolm X drew large crowds during rallies in Harlem. His popularity was seen as a national security risk by the FBI.|
Malcolm quit the sect in March 1964 after discovering that Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the NOI who claimed to be a divine prophet, had fathered over half a dozen children by at least six of his former personal secretaries, some of them teenagers. Muhammad denied the allegations and blamed Malcolm for spreading malicious “rumors,” precipitating helter-skelter plots against Malcolm, former national representative of the NOI.
Nearly a dozen attempts were made on his life between December 1963, when Malcolm was suspended as spokesman for the NOI, and February 1965. He was ostensibly excommunicated for describing the assassination of President John F. Kennedy as a case of the “chickens coming home to roost.” (At the time, the Central Intelligence Agency was suspected of the actual or attempted assassination of numerous Asian, African and Latin American heads of state, among them Patrice Lumumba of the Congo, Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala, and Fidel Castro of Cuba.6 As such, Malcolm postulated that American violence against foreign leaders had boomeranged and claimed the life of an American president.)
|Newspaper account of the suspension of Malcolm X from the Nation of Islam in December 1963.|
But the underlying cause of his suspension was a scandal that had shaken Malcolm to his core. In 1962, a rumor began circulating that Elijah Muhammad had fathered children by several of his secretaries. Since nonmarital and extramarital sexual relations were verboten and grounds for expulsion, almost no one in the sect believed it, and certainly not about their “infallible” messiah (Muhammad claimed to have been educated by God in “the person of Wallace D. Fard,” founder of the Nation of Islam in Detroit in 1931.) For them, anyone making such an outlandish claim was a demonic hypocrite “worthy of death.” Like the majority of NOI members, Malcolm ignored the salacious gossip. In the fall of 1963, however, the rumors were confirmed by three unimpeachable sources: Wilfred X Little, minister of the Detroit NOI mosque and Malcolm’s oldest brother, and Wallace Muhammad, Elijah’s son and putative heir to the throne upon his father’s demise. The third source was none other than Elijah himself.7
|UPI story broke in early 1964 about paternity suit filed by two young black women against Elijah Muhammad, the married leader of the Nation of Islam.|
In explaining his actions during a private meeting at his Chicago mansion, Elijah said that his extramarital affairs were merely the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. “When you read about how David took another man’s wife, I’m that David,” he said. “You read about Noah, who got drunk—that’s me. You read about Lot, who went and laid up with his own daughters. I have to fulfill all of those things.”8 Weeks after recovering from the paralyzing shock of the confession, Malcolm suggested that Elijah permit his ministers to tell their assemblies that his moral transgressions were akin to what other prophets had done and yet held favor with God.
Thinking that Elijah had approved, Malcolm told several prominent ministers that the rumors were true, and that they should explain it in biblical terms to followers. Several ministers, among them Louis X [Farrakhan] of Boston, called Muhammad and told him that Malcolm was one of the “hypocrites” spreading the rumors about the secretaries.9
|Louis Farrakhan denounced Malcolm X in Muhammad Speaks newspaper as the “chief hypocrite” in the Nation of Islam and said that Malcolm was “worthy of death.”|
Elijah summoned Malcolm to his home in Phoenix and castigated him for telling them. Malcolm apologized, saying that he thought he had Elijah’s approval. Elijah retorted that he had in no way approved of Malcolm’s suggestion and said that his three-month suspension for the JFK comment was now indefinite. A few days after the meeting, Elijah contacted several prominent East Coast members of the NOI and said that Malcolm was the sect’s chief hypocrite and that it was therefore time to “close his eyes.”10
|Declassified FBI memo summarizes wiretapped telephone conversation between NOI leader Elijah Muhammad and Louis Farrakhan in which murdering Malcolm X is discussed.|
Several attempts to kill Malcolm soon followed. When he discovered from a prominent Muslim that Elijah had sanctioned the plots to kill him, Malcolm publicly denounced the Nation of Islam and warned that any further attempts to harm him would be met with the biblical justice. He vowed to exact an “eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and a life for a life.”
Malcolm was bearing a heavy cross when he arrived at the Audubon on February 21. The war with Muhammad had taken its toll; it was one man fighting a legion of zealots. Associates were alarmed by his appearance that morning. They recall him looking haggard, anxious, and exhausted.
The most notable attempt to kill him had occurred seven days earlier. Around two o’clock on Valentine’s Day, Molotov cocktails crashed through bedroom windows of his tiny Elmhurst home. If his four-year-old daughter had not been awakened by breaking glass, Malcolm and his wife Betty would have perished along with their four daughters. Betty was pregnant with twin girls.11
An around-the-clock harassment campaign which followed the bombing had unnerved Malcolm. He told several colleagues that he could understand why Elijah Muhammad wanted him silenced, but he could not fathom the religious leader approving the murder of women and children to accomplish that goal.
He was debilitated by the fire not only because of the near-death of his entire family, but because, he said, the fire revealed that the NOI’s attempts were being aided by the New York Police Department, the New York Fire Department and possibly even the federal government. “The police in this country know what’s going on. This is a conspiracy that leads to my death,” he said at a press conference.12
A few hours after the fire, investigators claimed that they discovered an unlit Molotov cocktail on a dresser in his daughters’ bedroom. The explosive concoction was in a whiskey bottle. Police officials insinuated that Malcolm might have set the house on fire because he had been evicted days earlier by court order. NOI officials who filed the lawsuit repeated the claim, noting that Malcolm’s home legally belonged to the sect.
|New York Police Department and Nation of Islam both argue that Malcolm X firebombed his own house.|
Malcolm and Betty dismissed the speculation as nonsense. To begin with, Betty replied, they would never have alcoholic beverages in their home. Malcolm said angrily that only a madman would set fire to his home with his family asleep inside. Moreover, a black fireman who secretly met with them said that he saw a white man in a firefighter’s uniform place the Molotov cocktail on the dresser after the fire was extinguished. The revelation nearly caused Malcolm to have a psychotic break, the reason being that he knew his death was both imminent and inevitable if governmental forces were in cahoots with the Nation of Islam. A close friend noticed his agitated state and arranged for him to see a doctor to get something to help him sleep.
On the evening of February 20, Malcolm checked into a downtown New York hotel under a pseudonym. Nearly undone by the arson attack, he took a sedative and fell asleep. His rest was interrupted, however, by the loud ringing telephone. “Wake up, Mr. Small,” the caller said before hanging up. The call was ominous because only his wife and two close aides knew where Malcolm planned to stay that evening. Unbeknownst to him, a group of Muslims had shown up at the hotel a few hours after he checked in, demanding the desk clerk to tell them which room Malcolm X was in. The clerk said he knew nothing about Malcolm X being there.
At three o’clock on February 21, with his wife and children looking on, Malcolm stood at the podium on the ballroom’s stage. “As Salaam Alaikum,” he said, meaning “peace be with you.”
Suddenly, two young black men seated in the middle of the room stood up and started arguing. “Niggah,” one of them said, “get your hand out of my pocket!”
“Hold it, hold it, hold it,” Malcolm pleaded. Three young black men on the center front row stood up, removed firearms from underneath their coats, and fired at Malcolm. Two were armed with handguns while the third had a sawed-off shotgun. A tall tout black man with the shotgun crouched before the stage and fired twice, striking Malcolm in the chest. Three pellets landed near his heart. The force of the blasts hurled Malcolm backward, and his head hit the stage with a loud thud.
During the ensuing pandemonium, the shotgun assassin wrapped up his weapon in a jacket and dropped it on the ballroom floor as he escaped. The assassin with the German Luger fired at crowd members trying to capture him as he made his escape. The third gunman wasn’t so lucky. He was shot in his left thigh by a member of Malcolm’s security team. As he fell, he dropped his .45 automatic and was tackled and beaten by the crowd.
On the afternoon of the assassination, police were conspicuous by their absence. On past Sundays, there were nearly two dozen officers present in and outside the Audubon. Police arrived as people dragged the man outside. As police tangled with Malcolm’s supporters for custody of the assassin, the other two assassins and the two men who caused the initial distraction escaped.
Thomas Hagan, the wounded suspect, refused to divulge the name of his accomplices. Eyewitnesses, however, gave police descriptions consistent enough to lead them to Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson, lieutenants in the Harlem mosque where Malcolm was minister until his ouster. Butler and Johnson were well-known as enforcers with a reputation for brutalizing wayward Muslims.13 In fact, they were awaiting trial for attempted murder of Benjamin Brown, a NOI defector who had recently opened his own storefront mosque. When the defector refused to remove a photograph of Elijah Muhammad from the front window, Butler and Johnson went to his home. After he opened the door, Johnson shot him at point-blank range in his chest with a rifle. The defector somehow managed to survive the blast.
Butler was arrested on February 26 and Johnson shortly thereafter. All three suspects pleaded not guilty. Following a joint trial one year later, a jury found them all guilty of the assassination and each received a life sentence.14
Case closed, or so it seemed.
Butler and Johnson both steadfastly denied involvement in the assassination. Their case was buttressed by some of Malcolm’s chief aides, who claimed that it would have been virtually impossible for Butler and Johnson to have entered the ballroom that day without detection by the OAU’s security team.
But Johnson and Butler had shaky alibis. Both men, incredulously, claimed to have been immobilized by leg injuries at the time of the assassination. Johnson’s case was helped somewhat by eyewitness accounts, nearly all of whom described the shotgun assassin as a tall, stout, dark-skinned black man sporting a short beard.15 Johnson had a caramel-colored complexion, was of average height, and clean-shaven but for a pencil mustache. Conversely, eyewitnesses described Butler perfectly. One of them, Sharon X Poole, even said that she recognized him as a fellow member of the Harlem mosque.16
|Although Norman 3X Butler denies involvement in the assassination of Malcolm X, he appears on film outside the Audubon Ballroom moments after the murder, attempting to get a look at Malcolm X’s body.”|
For ten years, there was little to refute the official version of the assassination. Malcolm X was killed as a result of a feud with Elijah Muhammad stood as gospel despite suspicions by his admirers and Third World leaders of American government involvement.
In March 1971, white radicals broke into the FBI’s document storage facility in Media, Pennsylvania and made off with a goldmine of files detailing the agency’s decades-long clandestine wars against political and social organizations of every hue and stripe, the Ku Klux Klan and Nation of Islam among them.17 A counterintelligence program—COINTELPRO—which started in the 1950s to combat the spread of Communism in America, soon engulfed thousands of groups, even the benign National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
When several thousand pages were released from the COINTELPRO operations against Malcolm X in the early 1980s, they revealed a massive campaign against him and the Nation of Islam. The initial campaign, started in 1953 (a year after he was released from prison), was intended to retard the astronomical growth of the Nation of Islam.
They also show that in 1964, following a complaint by White House aide Benjamin H. Read that Malcolm’s affiliations with Third World leaders were damaging American foreign policy in Africa, the Central Intelligence Agency was asked to consider killing Malcolm X.
|White House official Benjamin H. Read asked the CIA to consider treating Malcolm X the way it did hostile foreign leaders.|
Richard Helms, the CIA’s Deputy Director of Plans, told Read that the CIA had serious qualms about killing American citizens but would nonetheless explore the possibility of neutralizing Malcolm.18 The FBI had been spying on the Nation of Islam since the 1940s after its male members refused to register under the Selective Service Act. By 1964, it had informants in the highest ranks of not only the NOI but inside Malcolm’s Organization of Afro-American Unity as well.
In addition to being under surveillance by the CIA and FBI, the New York Police Department’s Bureau of Special Services and Investigation (nicknamed BOSSI) had Malcolm under close surveillance and had several high level informants in the OAU. At least one of them, Eugene “Gene” Roberts, was a member of Malcolm’s security detail and on duty at the hour of reckoning.
|Gene Robert (in circle) was an undercover NYPD detective who infiltrated Malcolm X’s organization and became part of his main security detail.|
Malcolm X had been on around-the-clock surveillance by the FBI for more than six months before his assassination. Transcripts of wiretapped telephone conversation between Malcolm X and other prominent black activists are included in the files, some of them heavily redacted.
Declassified FBI documents include a detailed account of the FBI sending anonymous letters to Elijah Muhammad’s wife and NOI ministers across the country about Elijah’s extramarital activities. Bureau agents bragged in several memos about starting the disputes which led to the ouster of Malcolm from the NOI and fomenting a war between Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad.19
|The FBI was alarmed that Malcolm X had begun courting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders following his ouster from the Nation of Islam in March 1964.|
While the CIA and State Department have been reticent to release many documents from their files on Malcolm X, those released thus far reveal an urgent counterintelligence campaign to “neutralize” Malcolm X after several African and Arab countries offered him financial support in 1964 and vowed to support his petition to the United Nations in which he accused the United States government of violating the human rights of African Americans.
Along with Che Guevara, the physician-turned-revolutionary who played a major role in Cuban revolution of 1959, Malcolm X was expected to be one of the preeminent attractions at the Second Asian-African Congress commencing on February 26 in Algeria. The conference was postponed due to the overthrow of Ahmed Ben Bella, an event most reputable historians attribute to the CIA and British intelligence.20 Ben Bella and Malcolm had become friends, and the Algerian leader was a staunch supporter of both Malcolm X and the civil rights movement.
|The CIA was concerned about Malcolm X’s impact on US foreign policy in Africa.|
Declassified FBI and CIA documents suggest that the American government was extremely eager to prevent Malcolm from attending at all cost. He was assassinated five days before the aborted assembly. As it happens, Malcolm’s assassins were recruited in late June 1964, within weeks of the White House’s request to the CIA to handle Malcolm X the way it did hostile foreign leaders.21
In April 2011, Newark NOI member William Bradley was identified as the shotgun shooter. The day after the New York Times asked the Justice Department whether it would investigate the allegations against Bradley, a spokesman said that there was nothing the FBI could do because no federal laws had been violated.
|William Bradley (standing, in circle), the man who fired the shotgun at Malcolm X, was captured on film outside the Audubon as he attempted to free assassin Thomas Hagan from police and angry Malcolm X supporters.|
That was, of course, an egregious error. The assassins had traveled from New Jersey to New York to assassinate Malcolm X. Traveling across state lines to commit murder is a federal crime. And under both federal and state laws, there is no statute of limitations for murder.
The Justice Department’s hasty decision to reject reopening the case was predictable. After all, it was revealed more than three decades ago that the man seen in the famous Life magazine photo administering mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to Malcolm X was none of other than Gene Roberts, an undercover detective for BOSSI. Moreover, a top aide to Elijah Muhammad was linked to the FBI. Although he has denied any involvement with the FBI and the assassination, prosecutors of Malcolm’s assassins had an eyewitness willing to testify that the aide met at the Americana Hotel with the assassins the night before the assassination.
1 Schechtman, Jeff. “The Plot to Kill King: A Look at Who Really Killed Martin Luther King,” April 4, 2018. https://whowhatwhy.org/2018/04/04/the-fbi-in-peace-war-and-assassination/.
2 “The Robert F. Kennedy Assassination,” https://www.maryferrell.org/pages/Robert_Kennedy_Assassination.html
3 Drash, Wayne. “Malcolm X Killer Freed After 44 Years,” April 28, 2010. http://www.cnn.com/2010/CRIME/04/26/malcolmx.killer/index.html
4 Lowenstein, Steven M. Frankfurt on the Hudson: The German-Jewish Community of Washington Heights, 1933-1983, Its Structure and Culture (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991). pp. 109-110. Also see: http://www.nypap.org/preservation-history/audubon-ballroom. Rabbi Mas Koppel, founder of the Emes Wozedek Congregation, was murdered in 1974. Seigel, Max H. “Neighbors Call Slain Rabbi Friend to All,” New York Times, December 18, 1974, A49.
5 Jacobs, Sean. “When Malcolm X Went to Africa,” June 2011. https://africasacountry.com/2011/06/malcolm-x-in-africa1/
6 “Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders,” (1975). https://cia.gov/library/readingroom/document/cia-rdp83-01042r000200090002-0
7 Haley, Alex with Malcolm X. The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Grove Press, 1965) See, in general, ‘Chapter 16: Out.”
10 FBI Main file on Malcolm X, memo dated March 23, 1964.
11 “Malcolm X’s Home is Firebombed in 1965,” (reprint) New York Daily News. https://www.nydailynews.com/news/crime/malcolm-x-home-firebombed-1965-article-1.2529655
12 Scott, Stanley. “Recalls Prophetic Words: Newsman Witnesses Murder of Malcolm X,” Desert Sun, February 22, 1965, pA6.
13 Newman, Andy and John Eligon. “Killer of Malcolm X is Granted Parole,” New York Times, March 19, 2010, A13.
14 “Three Men Convicted of the Assassination of Malcolm X in 1966,” New York Daily News. https://www.nydailynews.com/news/crime/men-convicted-murder-malcolm-x-1996-article-1.2558206
15 Based on documentary footage from local television news in the archives of the University of Los Angeles Film School.
16 Kihss, Peter. “Malcolm X Shot to Death at Rally Here; Three Other Negroes Wounded—One is Held in Killing,” New York Times, February 22, 1965, A1.
17 Mazzetti, Mark. Burglars Who Took On FBI Abandon Shadows,” New York Times, January 7, 2014, p. A1.
18 CIA file on Malcolm X, memo from Richard Helms dated August 11, 1964.
19 See, in general, the FBI New York Field Office file on Malcolm X and the New York Police Department’s Bureau of Special Services and Investigations file on Malcolm X.
20 Gleijeses, Piero. Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976. (North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2011).
21 The assassins, all of them from the Newark mosque of the Nation of Islam, was recruited in late June 1964, according to Thomas Hagan.
Also of interest:
- Surveillance by FBI the last year of his life
- Last year’s documentary on Malcolm
- Our list of the five best books on the Malcolm X assassination