Civil rights leader Malcolm X took the stage at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood on February 21, 1965. Minutes later, shortly after 3 p.m., the former prominent figure of the Nation of Islam took to the stage. was shot dead by three men as his wife, Betty Shabazz, pregnant with twins, and four daughters took shelter in the front row. He was 39 years old.
Reason and background
Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, on May 19, 1925, was the most famous advocate of black nationalism during the civil rights era. Rising through the ranks of the Nation of Islam, he left the political and religious group in 1964, following a deeply strained relationship with leader Elijah Muhammad over political ideology (Malcolm believed that the Nation of Islam should stand by join civil rights protests), as well as moral (he was also distressed to learn that Muhammad had fathered several children from several women). By digging the ditch, when Malcolm called the assassination of President John F. Kennedy “chickens coming home to roost,” Muhammad silenced him for 90 days.
After breaking with the Nation of Islam, Malcolm made a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964 and converted to Sunni Islam, taking the name el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz. He formed the Secular Organization of African American Unity, blaming racism, rather than the white race, for injustices and taking a more moderate stance on civil rights.
The split from the Nation of Islam prompted the group to make death threats against Malcolm. On February 14, 1965, Molotov cocktails were thrown from the windows of his home in Queens, New York, as he and his family slept inside, “on orders from Elijah Muhammad,” according to Malcolm. The family escaped the flames, but he told reporters: “I live like a man who is already dead.
Right after taking the stage with about 400 people in the audience, three men, one with a sawed-off shotgun and the others with pistols, rushed at Malcolm, firing several shots, at least one of which was mortal. Mujahid Abdul Halim (aka Thomas Hagan) was shot in the leg by a security guard, detained and beaten by the crowd, and was arrested at the scene, while two other gunmen escaped. Five days later, Muhammad A. Aziz, alias Norman 3X Butler, was arrested, and Khalil Islam, alias Thomas 15X Johnson, was arrested on March 3, 1965. The three men were members of the Nation of Islam and were charged the first- charges of one degree murder.
More than 1,500 people attended the February 27 funeral, led by actor Ossie Davis, and around 20,000 paid tribute to the body of the civil rights leader as he lay at Unity Funeral Home in Harlem.
“Although we have not always been in agreement on the methods of solving the racial problem, I have always had a deep affection for Malcolm and felt that he had the great capacity to put his finger on it. ‘existence and the root of the problem,’ Martin Luther King Jr., assassinated three years later, wrote to Malcolm’s widow.
The autobiography of Malcolm X was released on October 29, 1965, nine months after Malcolm’s death. Written with Alex Haley, it immediately became a bestseller.
The trial and the convictions
During the 1966 trial, Halim confessed to the crime and ultimately declared that Islam and Aziz were innocent. The testimonies were contradictory, The New York Times reports, and no real evidence has been provided against Islam or Aziz, both of which presented credible alibis.
“I just want to testify that Butler (Aziz) and Johnson (Islam) had nothing to do with it.… I was there, I know what happened and I know the people who were there,” said Halim to the jury, according to the newspaper.
However, the three men were convicted on March 11, 1966 and sentenced to 20 years in life.
Aziz and Islam have maintained their innocence. Aziz was released from prison in 1985, at the age of 46, after serving 20 years. Islam, released in 1987, died in 2009. Halim was released in 2010.
The case is reopened, leading to exonerations
The verdict against Aziz and Islam has been in doubt for decades. Halim again asserted his innocence in a pair of affidavits filed in 1977 and 1978 and offered partial names of his accomplices, but a judge dismissed a motion for a new trial. Appeals from book authors and experts to reopen the case also went unheard until February 2020. That’s when Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. ., began a review that coincided with the release of a documentary, “Who Killed Malcolm X?” , which supported Aziz and Islam’s claims of innocence.
On November 18, 2021, Aziz and Islam were exonerated after an investigation that included the discovery of key FBI documents withheld from the defense and prosecution during the trial. Aziz was 83 at the time of the exemption.
“The assassination of Malcolm X was a historic event which demanded careful investigation and prosecution but, instead, produced one of the most egregious miscarriages of justice I have ever seen,” Project said. Innocence Barry Scheck.
“2 men convicted of the murder of Malcolm X will be exonerated after decades”, the New York Times
“Malcolm X”, Martin Luther King, Jr. Institute for Research and Education, Stanford University
“The day Malcolm X was killed” The New Yorker
“The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X”, by Les Payne, Norton Books
“Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention”, by Manning Marable, Penguin Books