Pressure builds to reinvestigate the 1965 killing of Malcolm X
NEW YORK — For more than half a century, scholars have maintained that prosecutors convicted the wrong men in the assassination of Malcolm X.
Now, 55 years after that bloody afternoon in February 1965, the Manhattan district attorney’s office is reviewing whether to reinvestigate the murder.
Some new evidence comes from a six-part documentary called “Who Killed Malcolm X?,” which began streaming Friday on Netflix. It posits that two of the men convicted could not have been at the scene that day.
Instead it points the finger at four members of a Nation of Islam mosque in Newark, New Jersey, depicting their involvement as an open secret in their city. One even appeared in a 2010 campaign ad for thenNewark Mayor Cory Booker.
“What got us hooked,” said Rachel Dretzin, a director of the documentary along with Phil Bertelsen, “was the notion that the likely shotgun assassin of Malcolm X was living in plain sight in Newark and that many people knew of his involvement, and he was uninvestigated, unprosecuted, unquestioned.”
The case has long tempted scholars, who see a conspiracy hidden in unreleased government documents. A detective in the case, Anthony V. Bouza, wrote flatly a few years ago, “The investigation was botched.”
Yet it has never sparked the widespread obsessive interest of the John F. Kennedy assassination or the equally brazen killing of Tupac Shakur. Attempts to reopen the case — to uncover the possible roles of the FBI, New York Police Department and the Nation of Islam leadership, including Louis Farrakhan — have gotten nowhere.
“The vast majority of white opinion at that time was that this was black-onblack crime, and maybe black-extremist-on-blackextremist crime,” said David Garrow, a Pulitzer Prizewinning civil rights historian. “And there was for decades a consensus in black communities that we are not going to pick up that rock to see what’s underneath it.”
At the time Malcolm spoke at the Audubon Ballroom on Feb. 21, 1965, he was a marked man — spied on by the FBI and the police, denounced as a traitor by the Nation leadership, viscerally hated and beloved. Farrakhan declared him “worthy of death.” A week before his assassination, his home in Queens was firebombed while he and his wife and four daughters slept inside.
Seconds after Malcolm stepped to the lectern, gunfire rang out, then pandemonium.
Talmadge Hayer, a member of the Nation of Islam from a New Jersey mosque, was arrested fleeing the ballroom, with a clip from a handgun used in the killing. Later the police arrested two men from Malcolm’s former Harlem mosque, Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson, both known as enforcers.
At trial, Hayer, who later became Mujahid Abdul Halim, admitted his guilt but said the other two men were innocent. All three men were convicted and received life sentences. Johnson, who became Khalil Islam, died in 2009; Butler, who is now Muhammad Abdul Aziz, was granted parole in 1985 and still maintains his innocence.
In the late 1970s, Hayer filed affidavits naming four members of the Newark mosque as his partners in the crime. Civil rights lawyer William Kunstler moved to reopen the case but was denied.
Since then, the legwork has fallen to biographers and independent researchers, including a Washington tour guide named AbdurRahman Muhammad, the central figure in the new documentary series.
“It bothered me that no one cared about it,” Muhammad said. “I didn’t get paid to do any of this. I’ve sold cars. I’m just a working-class guy.”
In 2010 Muhammad uncovered the identity of one of the supposed assassins named in Hayer’s affidavit, William Bradley, who had changed his name to Almustafa Shabazz and was married to a prominent Newark activist. It was Bradley’s shotgun blast, researchers contend, that killed Malcolm.
Shabazz, who died in 2018, denied any involvement in the murder and lived in plain sight. “I knew him well,” Cory Booker says in the documentary, adding that he was not aware of Shabazz’s past identity.
Muhammad published Shabazz’s name and photograph on his blog in 2010, and then shared his research with Manning Marable, who was working on his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.” Muhammad thinks the other three men named in Hayer’s affidavits are dead.
A new six-part documentary has put the spotlight on the assassination of Malcolm X.