Pres­sure builds to rein­ves­ti­gate the 1965 killing of Mal­colm X

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NATION & WORLD - By John Le­land

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.

AP 1964

A new six-part doc­u­men­tary has put the spot­light on the as­sas­si­na­tion of Mal­colm X.

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