Release of Malcolm X's Assassin Revives Old Questions

7 years ago

The only man to confess to being one of the assassins of human rights leader Malcolm X walked out of a New York City correctional facility this week.

Thomas Hagan, 69, was granted parole after serving 45 years, 20 of them on work release, according to news reports.


Malcolm X


In his parole hearing, Hagan apologized for his role in the killing. Two other men, Thomas Johnson and Norman Butler, who had also been convicted of the sensational public execution at the Audobon Ballroom in February, 1965, had been previously released. Hagan's release is a reminder of the fact that 45 years later, there is still no clear answer to the question, who killed Malcolm X?

Malcolm X lived what the scholar Manning Marable called a life of reinvention. The arc of that life is well-known to biographers and students of African-American history: He was born Malcolm Little in 1925, in Omaha, Nebraska. His father, a Baptist preacher named Earl Little, was involved in Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association. Threatened by the Ku Klux Klan for his activism, Earl Little moved his family to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Lansing, Michigan. Earl Little was run over by a streetcar in 1931 when Malcolm was six. His  widow, Louise ended up in a mental hospital in 1939, and Malcolm was sent first to a detention home and then foster care. In his autobiography, he also says that it was at that time that a his favorite teacher told him that it was unrealistic for him to want to be a lawyer.

After high school, he went to live in Boston with his sister. He worked a variety of jobs, including serving as a railroad porter with future star comic Redd Foxx,  He also fell into a life of crime that ended with a seven-year prison stretch. There, he was introduced to the teachings of the Nation of Islam. The NOI was founded in the 1930s by a former sharecropper, Elijah Poole, who said that God had materialized in the United States in the form of an Arab immigrant named WD Fard. Poole said Fard had given him a revelation about African Americans, whom he called the Lost-Found Nation of Islam. Fard had also changed Poole's name to Muhammad and made him a divine messenger. Malcolm's brothers had already become converts. 

Elijah Muhammad changed Malcolm  Little's name to Malcolm X.  Malcolm rose through the NOI ranks to become, during the 1950s, its national spokesman and the leader of its powerful Harlem mosque. He founded the NOI's newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, and helped build its business interests. His bold rhetoric and puritannical reputation earned him respect within the NOI but made him and the Nation much more prominent and controversial. The FBI began to track his movements, compiling a massive dossier.

In the early 1960s, Malcolm X stood in stark contrast to the leaders of the non-violent, integrationist civil rights movement. He called on black Americans to exercise their right to self-defense in the face of attacks by police, white supremacists or black criminals. He espoused a philosophy of black nationalism and denounced white people as devils. His positions brought condemnation from civil rights leaders as well as journalists and white political leaders. All of that would change, though, after he made a comment in the aftermath of the murder of President John F. Kennedy that some interpreted as an expression of pleasure at the president's assassination. Elijah Muhammad announced that Malcolm would be prohibited from speaking publicly for 90 days. That silencing was followed by Malcolm's departure from the NOI.


In 1964, Malcolm X toured Africa. His travels exposed him to more traditional forms of Islam and changed his views of race. He made the obligatory Hajj to the holy Muslim city of Mecca. Upon his return to the U.S., he renounced his previous anti-white rhetoric and expressed a desire to work in concert with civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King. He made a famous speech, "The Ballot or the Bullet," that encouraged African-American participation in the political process, as well as entrepreneurship and community development. He also went public with an allegation that the Hon. Elijah Muhammad had fathered several children out of wedlock, and he accused members of the NOI of plotting his demise. Not long after, his home was firebombed while he and his pregnant wife and four daughters slept. Miraculously, everyone survived. 

On February 21, however, in front  of his wife, children and a packed crowd at the Audobon Ballroom in Harlem, he was cut down in a hail of bullets just as he was about to speak. Aside from Hagan, no one knows who the triggermen were. Johnson and Butler had always professed innocence, and Hagan, also known as Talmadge Hayer,  concurs.

But who was there? And why? We will probably never know. Columbia University professor Manning Marable has a forthcoming biography of Malcolm that points fingers of suspicion in multiple directions. In 2007, on the show Democracy Now, he told Amy Goodman:


It is very clear to me that Butler and Johnson were not at the Audubon that day of the assassination. Talmadge Hayer was. He was shot by Reuben Francis, the chief bodyguard of Malcolm X. But the circumstances of the murder and all of the evidence that we have points to six men, not three, who were involved in the assassination; that the assassination was carefully planned for weeks; that, indeed, the day before the Audubon rally that Malcolm X and the OAAU held, that there was a one-hour walkthrough that night of the killers.

And what’s curious were the actions of the NYPD and also the FBI. The NYPD ubiquitously followed Malcolm around wherever he spoke in the last year. They always had one to two dozen police officers. On this day, they pulled back the police guard. Many writers have already talked about this. But there were only two police officers in the Audubon at the time of the actual killing. And these two were assigned to the furthest end of the building, away from where the 400 people had gathered in the main ballroom. There were no cops outside. Usually, there were more than one or two dozen. So the police knew in advance something was going to occur that day.

In 2007, Marable's  Malcolm X project at Columbia University unearthed new information about the assassination, including the fact that some of Malcolm's own deputies were upset by some of the change in his views on race. He also says they were upset because of his insistence on bringing women into leadership positions in his Organization for African American Unity. The site also contains interviews with Malcolm's associates.

The other major site,, is a trove of speeches, images and other documents related to Malcolm's life and work. It also archives scholarly conferences on Malcolm.

Here, you can watch a panel discussion that includes one of the men who was incarcerated despite his denial of involvement in the shooting:




Not long after the assassination, Dr. Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X's widow, explained the aim of her husband's work.


Kim Pearson
BlogHer Contributing Editor||

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