Malcolm X was assassinated on 21 February 1965 at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. The subsequent murder trial convicted three men, Talmadge Hayer, Norman 3X Butler, and Thomas 15X Johnson. For most commentators (e.g., Breitman), Malcolm’s death left a number of questions unanswered.
Not only did the trial fail to definitively answer who murdered Malcolm, it also failed to answer who sponsored the assassination. The prosecution team quickly assumed the involvement of the Nation of Islam (NOI), and failed to track leads that did not match their assumptions.
Focused solely on winning the case as they defined it, the prosecution worked with the circumstantial evidence they had without attempting to find hard facts or the real motive behind the assassination. To their discredit, the defense teams shared part of the blame; they failed to introduce evidence or raise questions that would seriously weaken the prosecution’s case.
Proponents of various theories have since attempted to solve some of the questions left unanswered, by positing the involvement of not only the Nation of Islam but also other groups with possible motives and means, including the Harlem Drug Lords, the New York Police Department (NYPD), the CIA, and the FBI.
Harlem Drug Lords Theory
As a staunch and vocal opponent of narcotics, Malcolm often warned audiences against using the “weapon of the white man.” Based largely on the personal recollections of one man (Farmer), this theory claims Malcolm’s assassination was nothing more than a battle over turf, as Harlem drug dealers did not want him driving away customers.
The weakness of this theory lies in the fact that most of the evidence is anecdotal, and that Malcolm’s antidrug beliefs did little to curb drug use in Harlem, which continued to rise steadily in the early 1960s regardless of anything Malcolm said or did.
Theorists who believe the police played a direct role in the assassination often cite the issue of the “Second Man” as evidence (Norden). “The Second Man” refers to initial press reports that police arrested two suspects, Hayer and an unnamed individual.
Subsequent stories failed to mention the capture of two individuals, but never corrected the error of the first reports. Proponents of the “Second Man” theory argue that the second individual was actually a police operative, and as soon as the police realized this, all evidence of a second arrest disappeared.
While the unexplained disappearance of the “Second Man” looks suspicious on the surface, others explain it away as a simple error committed by the press trying to meet a story deadline. The “Second Man,” say some, could actually be Hayer himself. One officer arrested Hayer, but this officer gave him over to two other officers for transport.
The press might have questioned the first officer and then the other two officers, unaware that there was in fact only one suspect. Once they realized their error, the press corrected the information in their stories, overlooking the need to note the reason for the correction to their readers.
More compelling is the argument that the police played an important indirect role in allowing the assassination to occur. Although the police claimed to have a special detail of twenty officers guarding Malcolm the day of the assassination, only George Roberts, one of Malcolm’s bodyguards and also an undercover agent, was actually in the ballroom itself.
The rest of the detail were supposedly stationed in other rooms of the building and in the hospital across the street. By keeping such a low profile, none of the officers assigned to the detail was in any position to thwart the assassination attempt.
In fact, the officers credited with capturing and transferring Hayer were not a part of the special detail, but were simply passing through the area at the time. While the police may or may not have been directly responsible for Malcolm’s death, they were clearly negligent in their duties.
Some have argued that the CIA viewed Malcolm as a major threat to national security interests. In 1964, Malcolm’s travels in Africa sparked the interest of the government, specifically the CIA, who followed Malcolm and kept close tabs on his activities.
One of Malcolm’s objectives while in Africa was to garner the support of the Organization of African Unity (OAU). His attempts to lobby the OAU to pass a resolution strongly condemning the racial policy of the United States ultimately failed, but some suggest these attempts were a serious enough threat for the CIA to eliminate him.
While in Cairo, Malcolm suffered a case of food poisoning and had his stomach pumped in a local hospital. Although no proof exists that the CIA placed poison in his food, speculation surfaced after his death that the CIA might have been involved.
Internal CIA documents since released through the Freedom of Information Act indicate that the CIA had no direct role in any assassination attempts made on Malcolm X. In 1976, the CIA carried out an internal review of its files, and an in-house document dated 30 January 1976 concluded that the CIA only monitored Malcolm’s actions and never assumed any active role to stop him. Theorists question the truthfulness of such internal findings, but some question why the CIA would find it necessary to lie to itself eleven years after Malcolm’s death (Friedly).
Malcolm X was still in prison when the FBI started its first file on him in 1953. He initially caught their attention when he claimed affiliation with the Communist Party in a letter. Although Malcolm was never a Communist, merely mentioning his involvement was enough for the FBI to monitor him as a security threat. Over the next decade, the FBI would collect thousands of documents in Malcolm’s file.
Under J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI was notoriously against the civil rights movement, which Hoover believed was a front for Communists. The FBI developed different tactics to discredit African American organizations and leaders, eventually beginning the Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) to combat groups it viewed as threats to national security.
Theorists point to two documents that suggest the FBI’s interest in discrediting Malcolm. The first is an internal memo dated 22 January 1969 that takes credit for the split between the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X. Exactly how much influence the FBI had in the split remains unclear, but its role was probably minor.
The second document, dated 4 March 1968, outlined COINTELPRO’s objective to “prevent the rise of a ‘messiah.’” The document confirmed the FBI’s fear that Malcolm might have developed into a messiah figure for the African American community, but using these documents to show the FBI’s involvement in Malcolm’s assassination is highly problematic. No credible evidence exists that the FBI ever did anything more than attempt to discredit Malcolm (Carson).
Nation of Islam Theory
Although Hayer offered a surprise confession during the original trial, he did not indicate motive or identify the names of his coconspirators. His claim that Butler and Johnson played no role in the assassination was ignored. During the trial Hayer denied any affiliation with the Nation of Islam, but once in prison, he resumed his Muslim beliefs.
In late 1977 and early 1978, Hayer offered two sworn affidavits, once again confirming the innocence of Butler and Johnson. With Elijah Muhammad’s death in 1975, Hayer claimed he no longer felt it necessary to hide the identities of his fellow assassins, whom he identified as Brother Benjamin, Leon X, Wilbur X, and William X.
The motive they all shared as NOI members was to silence Malcolm, the man dubbed by the NOI as “the chief hypocrite.” Malcolm threatened to spread not only the news of Muhammad’s adulterous relationships, but also the knowledge of the NOI’s rampant fiscal corruption.
While the best evidence suggests that the NOI had the most plausible motive and was ultimately responsible for Malcolm’s death, no direct proof links the assassination to Elijah Muhammad or anyone higher up in the organization than the men who committed the crime.
What is clear is that the harsh rhetoric used by various members of the NOI, such as statements made by Boston minister Louis X [Farrakhan], created a hostile environment for Malcolm, making his assassination a virtual certainty. Members of the NOI identified Malcolm as the enemy, and could easily infer that killing Malcolm was warranted and would be welcomed.