Monday marked the 57th anniversary of Malcolm X’s assassination. Last November’s exonerations of Muhammad Abdul-Aziz (Norman 3X Butler) and Khalil Islam (Thomas 15X Johnson), wrongfully convicted for the murder, fuels decades-old suspicions. While their names have been cleared in court, it has rekindled the question, “Who’s really responsible?”
“There are many questions that are going to be asked about the culpability of the N.Y.P.D., and F.B.I.,” stated David B. Shanies, Aziz’s and Islam’s estate attorney. “I can say, as a general matter, our clients support any effort to get to the truth.”
Malcolm X was gunned down Feb. 21, 1965, before several hundred Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) members at Washington Heights’ Audubon Ballroom (3940 Broadway).
Malcolm’s bodyguard, Rueben Francis, shot assassin Thomas Hagan/Talmadge Hayer (now Mujahid Abdul Halim) as he attempted to flee, who was promptly pummeled by OAAU supporters, before being rescued by police outside. He’s the only suspect publicly revealed. However, O.A.A.U. members, Herman Ferguson and James 67X Shabazz tell a different story.
“I saw the second person Rueben shot,” Ferguson once recalled. “Within seconds, this policeman came back, supporting someone who was obviously in great pain, holding his midsection. I never found out who that guy was. The police were in a hurry to get him out of there.”
The following morning, the Associated Press reported “two men were taken into custody,” but later that day, daily newspapers only mentioned Hayer’s arrest—who was a Muslim from the Nation of Islam’s Newark Mosque No. 25. Butler and Johnson (died in 2009), from Harlem’s Mosque No. 7, were arrested days later.
Butler, Johnson, and many witnesses denied their presence at the Audubon that day. During their 1966 trial, Hayer admitted guilt and testified that the two Harlemites didn’t participate with him. All three were convicted and given life sentences.
Initially, Hayer refused to cooperate with authorities, but in 1977, at the behest of civil rights attorney William Kunstler, he named Benjamin Thomas, Leon Davis, William Bradley, and Wilbur McKinnley as accomplices, in an affidavit. None were ever formally charged with murdering Malcolm. Butler and Johnson weren’t permitted to present Hayer’s affidavit as evidence and their appeals were repeatedly denied. Judge Harold Rothwax rejected a motion to reopen the case.
Aziz was paroled in 1985, and Islam in 1987. Bradley (Al-Mustafa Shabazz) passed in 2019, and the others are believed to also be deceased.
In 2011 some valuable documents were un-vaulted which contained notes from a March 6, 1965, OAAU meeting where Japanese American activist Yuri Kochiyama scrawled a message reading: “Ray Woods is said to have been seen also running out of Audubon; was one of two picked up by police. Was the second person running out.”
Gene Roberts, Tony Bouza and Woods, were among several undercover NYPD agents with the clandestine Bureau of Special Services and Investigation (BOSSI), which had infiltrated and were monitoring Malcolm’s OAAU.
“The investigation was botched,” Bousa noted, and a “parallel tragedy lies in the NYPD’s obvious stonewalling of any release of records.”
Also in 2011, the Justice Department responded to requests to implement the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act to reinvestigate the case, saying “the matter does not implicate federal interests sufficient to necessitate the use of scarce federal investigative resources into a matter for which there can be no federal criminal prosecution.”
Paula Johnson, co-director of the Syracuse Cold Case Justice Initiative, said the “purpose of the Emmett Till Act is to fully investigate and resolve just such killings.” Reports that placed Wood at the scene, “warrants further investigation into the knowledge or role of law enforcement in Malcolm X’s death,” she explained.
Malcolm’s supporters note the difficulty in obtaining NYPD and FBI surveillance files which aren’t heavily redacted, and speculate about what evidence lies behind the blacked-out bars.
“We want to know the truth. We want to know why our father was killed and who did it,” daughter Ilyasha Shabazz said on ABC News Primetime special, “Soul of a Nation Presents: X/onerated.”