On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated in the Audubon Ballroom located at Broadway and West 165th Street in New York City. The assassination took place at 3:00 p.m. before Malcolm could deliver his speech to the Organization of Afro-American Unity, which he founded and led.
Diversion Leads to Killing
One or more persons at the rear of the ballroom created a noise diversion by shouting about the presence of a pickpocket before throwing a smoke bomb into the crowd. During the confusion, a gunman armed with a sawed-off shotgun approached the rostrum and fired two blasts into the chest of Malcolm. Mujahid Abdul Halim (aka Thalmage Hayer), armed with a .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol, and a third gunman, armed with a nine millimeter semi-automatic Luger pistol, ran toward the stage, firing multiple shots into Malcolm’s body.
The two gunmen escaped the assassination scene. Halim could not because he was wounded in the leg by one of Malcolm’s bodyguards. Halim did manage to make it outside in front of the ballroom, where he discarded the .45 caliber pistol. An individual took the gun to his home and disassembled it before surrendering it to the police several hours later. Halim had several .45 caliber bullets in his possession at the time of his arrest.
The shotgun and Luger pistol were later found in front of the ballroom where the gunmen had discarded them. Several individuals handled the guns during the commotion. The shotgun was later found in the anteroom of the ballroom, and the Luger disappeared.
On February 26, 1965, police arrested Muhammad A. Aziz (aka Norman 3X Butler). On March 3, 1965, Khalil Islam (aka Thomas 15X Johnson) was arrested as the other gunman in Malcolm’s assassination.
Three Men Arrested in Assassination
On March 10, 1965, a New York County grand jury indicted all three men for first-degree murder in Malcolm’s assassination.
On January 20, 1966, a jury began hearing evidence in the trial of the three men. The prosecution had twelve witnesses. Ten of those witnesses placed Halim in the ballroom, with most of them identifying him as a shooter in the case. Seven witnesses also identified Aziz and Islam as the other two gunmen involved in the assassination.
Inconsistencies In Testimony
However, there were numerous inconsistencies in the testimony of witnesses about what they saw and how events unfolded in the ballroom that day.
The prosecution called nine police officers and the county coroner to testify about physical evidence and the cause of Malcolm’s death. While some physical evidence could directly tie Halim to Malcolm’s assassination, none of it in any way connected Aziz or Islam to the crime. Nor was the prosecution able to associate Aziz and Islam with Halim in any way before the crime.
From the moment of their arrests, both Aziz and Islam strenuously denied any involvement in Malcolm’s assassination, and the two men presented credible alibis that showed they could not have committed the crime.
Co-Defendant Testifies, Clears Two Men
Halim testified during the February 1966 trial of the three men that he did not participate in Malcolm’s assassination. However, when called as a defense witness by Aziz’s attorney, Halim recanted his earlier non-involvement testimony and admitted to his guilt in the crime. He then testified that neither Aziz nor Islam were involved in the murder.
Two Decades in Prison for Crime They Did Not Commit
On March 11, 1966, the three men were found guilty as charged. All three were sentenced to life imprisonment on April 14, 1966. Aziz was released on parole in 1985, while Islam was paroled two years later in 1987. Islam died in 2009. Halim was paroled the following year in 2010.
Halim signed two sworn affidavits on November 30, 1977, and February 25, 1978, attesting that Aziz and Islam had “nothing to do with” Malcolm’s assassination.
Who Killed Malcolm X
In 2020, Netflix aired an original documentary titled “Who Killed Malcolm X?” that raised serious questions about the guilt of Aziz and Islam in Malcolm’s assassination. The documentary, the media coverage surrounding its revelations, and a request by the New York-based Innocence Project prompted outgoing Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance to reopen the Malcolm X case and review all the events leading up to the convictions of Aziz and Islam. That review included but was not necessarily limited to:
- Internal district attorney files and court transcripts in the case;
- Documents from the FBI, the New York City Police Department (NYPD), the New York City Municipal Archives; and the New York State Parole Board;
- Interviews with police, civilian witnesses, and principals in the case;
- Conversations with the attorneys and investigators assigned to the reinvestigation of the case; and
- A thorough examination of the historical record in the case.
The results of the review led the Conviction Integrity Program (CIP) in Vance’s office to file a “Joint Motion to Vacate Judgments of Conviction and Dismiss Indictment” in the Aziz and Islam cases. The motion informed the Supreme Court of the State of New York County of New York: Part 99 of the following reasons for the motion:
- Halim refused to cooperate with the reinvestigation, although members of his family agreed to speak with investigators.
- Important documents from the DA’s files and files with the NYPD were lost;
- The complete file of the identification procedures utilized against Aziz and Islam was missing.
- There was no record of what NYPD officers and prosecutors said to witnesses before they identified Aziz and Islam.
- Much of the physical evidence, such as the shotgun, could not be located for forensic testing with methods not available in 1965.
- Telephone records that could have either corroborated or refuted the alibis of Aziz and Islam were never inspected in the original investigation.
- No record of any electronic surveillance in the Malcolm X case was preserved after the trial.
- The convictions of Aziz and Islam rested exclusively on inconsistent eyewitness testimony.
- From December 1977 through January 24, 1978, ten affidavits, based on newly discovered evidence, were submitted to the trial court in a post-conviction proceeding attesting to the innocence of Aziz and Islam.
- The NYPD and prosecutors did not disclose that NYPD officer Eugene “Gene” Roberts witnessed Malcolm’s assassination. Roberts was in the ballroom as a police undercover operative and had inserted himself as a member of Malcolm’s security team in the ballroom that day. There is evidence that he may have had prior knowledge of the impending assassination.
- Halim’s 1978 affidavit named four New Jersey Nation of Islam members were involved with him in the assassination plot.
- The district attorney’s office had documents from the NYPD and FBI that supported Halim’s versions of the events spelled out in his two 1977-78 affidavits. These critical documents were not disclosed to Aziz and Islam’s post-conviction attorneys in the late 1970s and early 1980s as they pushed for a new trial.
- The CIP, the Innocence Project, and the David B. Shanies Law Office shared documents during the review.
- New York University, Columbia University, and NYC Municipal Archives participated in the review that examined thousands of pages of documents.
- Documents included in the DA files contained exculpatory information and revealed prosecutorial misconduct contributed to the wrongful conviction of Aziz and Islam.
- FBI files disclosed that the law enforcement agency believed assassins were “imported to New York;” that the descriptions of the killers did not match either Aziz or Islam; that one of the witnesses who identified Aziz and Islam was an FBI informant; that FBI headquarters ordered its local field offices not to disclose any information that witnesses to the assassination were FBI informants; that FBI informants told agency investigators that four other men were involved with Halim in the assassination; that the FBI had information gained from the NYPD that at least one other man besides Aziz, Islam and Halim was involved in the assassination; that the FBI also had other numerous reports from the NYPD that people other than Aziz and Islam participated in the assassination; and that an FBI report indicated that one of the New Jersey Nation of Islam members it had under active surveillance (as a violent extremist) matched the description given by several of the witnesses to Malcolm’s assassination.
- None of these FBI files, documents, and reports were ever provided to Aziz or Islam by the district attorney’s office before trial or during post-conviction proceedings.
- A massive trove of documents from the NYPD also cast serious doubts about Aziz and Islam’s alleged involvement in the assassination. None of these documents were ever disclosed to Aziz or Islam by the DA’s office; and
- Prosecutors knew about these NYPD documents and that informants were in the ballroom during the assassination but deliberately withheld this exculpatory information.
Exonerations Follow Disclosure of Misconduct
Based on these findings and conclusion, the New York City trial court granted Vance’s motion, set aside the convictions of Aziz and Islam, and exonerated both men of any involvement in Malcolm X’s assassination.
In making that ruling, Manhattan Judge Ellen Biben said “there can be no question that this is a case that calls out for fundamental justice.”
Why did it take so long for this “fundamental justice” to arrive?
Aziz and Islam should never have been convicted. The two men were convicted to cover up the role that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and NYPD Commissioner Michael J. Murphy had in the surveillance and, perhaps, the assassination of Malcolm X.
And why would these two high-ranking law enforcement officials, and others in influential government positions, want to see Malcolm X gone?
An October 11, 1963 speech Malcolm delivered at the University of California (Berkeley) called “Racial Separation” outlined the state of Black America:
“But the white man is misjudging the times, and he is underestimating the American so-called Negro because we’re living in a new day. Our people are now a new people. That old Uncle Tom-type Negro is dead. Our people have no more fear of anyone, no more fear of anything. We are not afraid to go to jail. We are not afraid to give our very life itself. And we’re not afraid to take the lives of those who try to take our lives. We believe in a fair exchange.
“We believe in a fair exchange. An eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth. A head for a head and life for a life. If this is the price of freedom, we won’t hesitate to pay the price.”
The same white fear that Malcolm X stirred in the racist soul of much of white America in 1963 continues to fuel White prosecutors today. This prejudice has led to generations of innocent Black men being framed and sent to prison, just as the prosecutors and police did to Aziz and Islam in 1966. This fear and hate encourages militarized police to gun down innocent unarmed Black men, women, and children perceived to be threats.
As evidenced by the January 6, 2021 insurrection, the white ruling class in America today still stands in fear of the defiance of Black America, as outlined by Malcolm X in that 1963 Berkeley speech.
A nation does indeed reap what it sows.