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Herman Ferguson: 49 years ago at the Audubon Ballroom

AUTODIDACT 17 | 2/20/2014, 4:04 p.m.
Herman Ferguson Nosayaba Odesanya Photo

In an exclusive AmNews interview, Baba Herman Ferguson, an original member of the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), detailed witnessing the Feb. 21, 1965, assassination of Malcolm X at the Audubon Ballroom.

“A number of people in the Nation of Islam followed Malcolm into the OAAU. There was a lot of strain the last part of Malcolm’s life,” reflected the 93-years-young activist. “It was a dangerous situation on both sides. There were other forces at work stirring up turmoil—the police, FBI, CIA—all trying to remove Malcolm from the scene. It was difficult to know who to trust.

“Malcolm knew that Thomas Johnson and Norman Butler were FOI [Freedom of Islam, the security force of the Nation of Islam] enforcers. He told us, ‘These are dangerous brothers … if either of them comes to our affairs, they are not to be admitted in!’ He was specific about them. At Malcolm’s assassination, there were brothers who would’ve recognized them. I did not recognize them as the men that I saw as part of the assassination team.

“Malcolm ordered that nobody bring guns to OAAU meetings and nobody be searched … shortly after that, Malcolm was assassinated. The police had to have told the assassins: ‘We can guarantee to get you out of there … nothing will happen to you.’ [It was] only because Rueben Francis [Malcolm’s bodyguard] disobeyed Malcolm and brought his pistol that the getaway was thwarted.

“During the assassination, the first thing that happened was … a commotion broke out in the crowd, a chair was heard thrown to the floor, the scuffling of feet … Right across from where I was sitting, these two fellas, one of them said … ‘Get your hand outta my pocket, n—r!’ … The other guy was backing off from him.

“Malcolm was standing behind the rostrum, having greeted the audience: ‘As-salaam-alaikum brothers and sisters!’ Malcolm stepped forward, totally exposed, raised his hand and said, ‘Cool it!’ Then there was a boom … a shotgun rang out, and Malcolm straightened up. Then other shots rang out, a whole fusillade … his hand still up in the air. Finally, he toppled over backward; the back of his head hit the floor with a thud.

“Then the gunfire stopped; it got quiet. Before that, you could hear people screaming, shouting and scrambling to take cover … I was still watching.

“Three men stood right across from me. You could see a gun’s barrel, possibly a shotgun one was carrying under his coat … the other two stood quietly. Then suddenly, as if someone had signaled to them, they ran toward the back of the ballroom.

“Gunfire broke out again. I learned later that that was Rueben trying to stop these guys … shooting one in the leg [Thomas Hagan]. That guy reached the head of the stairs, bumped into someone, falling down the stairs. Outside, the crowd grabbed him … the wound in his leg prevented him from getting away … they were pulling him apart. The police fired a shot [and] the crowd fell back. The police put him in a squad car and drove away.

“I saw the second person that Rueben shot … Within seconds, another police car came from around the corner, turned onto 166th Street, passed the Audubon, part of it still on Broadway. There had been no police presence during all this time.

“Within seconds, this policeman came back, supporting someone who was obviously in great pain, holding his midsection. The policeman brought him to the car, opened the rear door, put him in, slammed the door, got in the front seat [and] told the driver; ‘Get out of here!’ They drove past the Audubon, down the hill, out of sight. I never found out who that guy was. The police were in a hurry to get him out of there.”