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What They Won't Tell You In School: Everything You Need To Know About The Unsolved Murder Of Malcolm X

In light of the new information regarding Malcolm X's murder, I dove into his story.

Malcolm X is known as one of the greatest Black activists of all time, and he's my personal favorite. For this first piece of our Black History Month True Crime Series, I will dive into his life, his activism, the enemies he made, his assassination, and the case that followed. Strap in.

"When my mother was pregnant with me, she told me later, a party of hooded Ku Klux Klan riders galloped up to our home in Omaha, Nebraska, one night," explains Malcolm in his famous autobiographical book. "Surrounding the house, brandishing their shotguns and rifles, they shouted for my father to come out. My mother went to the front door and opened it. Standing where they could see her pregnant condition, she told them that she was alone with her three small children, and that my father was away, preaching, in Milwaukee."

Malcolm X stands at a dining establishment

While in Lansing, Malcolm recalls escaping from their burning home in the night as the white firefighters and neighbors watched his family scream and cry for help as their house burned. This caused Earl to move his family once again, from one side of Lansing to another.

Just two years after moving to East Lansing, Earl was murdered. His body was found lying near streetcar tracks, so the police ruled his death an accident. But nobody was fooled by this obvious racist police ruling.

"My father's skull, on one side, was crushed in, I was told later. Negroes in Lansing have always whispered that he was attacked, and then laid across some tracks for a streetcar to run over him. His body was cut almost in half," explained Malcolm.

Malcolm X speaks to the press

Malcolm's mother, Louise, used the first insurance check to pay out funeral expenses and was left with little to nothing after. Widowed, she shouldered the responsibility of taking care of eight children on her own.

Malcolm X looks seriously at a crowd

In truth, Seventh Day Adventists do not eat pork as well as several other types of food. Their beliefs are very much in line with some Jewish beliefs. Although I do not currently practice it, I was raised in the Seventh Day Adventist religion myself, and to this day I do not eat pork or shellfish, among other foods.

However, Louise went on to meet a man who began to help out with her handful of children. Things were okay for a while... until he up and left out of nowhere. This was the final straw that caused her mental health to tip into a more concerning territory. "It was a terrible shock to her," wrote Malcolm. "It was the beginning of the end of reality for my mother." Her breakdown at this point allowed the Welfare Services to stamp her with the "crazy" tag for good. They took her away to a mental institution, and thrust her children into the foster care system.

Malcolm X speaks to a crowd

Although he said the foster family, the Swerlins, were very nice to him, "A hundred times a day, they used the word 'n***r,'" he wrote. "I suppose that in their own minds, they meant no harm; in fact they probably meant well."

It is here that Malcolm began to understand that even the nicest and kindest white people he met were still entrenched in racism that they themselves didn't see as racism. It was simply just normal to refer to Blacks as the N-word... not out of hate, but just because their cognitive dissonance was so strong it handicapped their ability to see past their own ignorance. 

"What I am trying to say is that it just never dawned upon them that I could understand, that I wasn't a pet, but a human being," Malcolm wrote. "They didn't give me credit for having the same sensitivity, intellect, and understanding that they would have been ready and willing to recognize in a white boy in my position."

Malcom X sits in a chair.

Many historians agree that a turning point in Malcolm's life came when he was living with the Swelins and was in school. An English teacher asked the young Malcolm what he wanted to be when he grew up. Malcolm, who had found a great interest in English, answered that he wanted to be a lawyer.

Students in a classroom

This response turned Malcolm away from school, as he decided that no matter how high his grades nor how intelligent he was, it wouldn't matter to white people. He dropped out of school and went to live with his sister in Boston soon after.

Malcolm X as Detroit Red

As Detroit Red, Malcolm was known as a sharp-dressing, smooth-talking criminal. However, before long, he found himself in jail. He was arrested on charges of larceny, but as Malcolm put it, everyone in the judicial system was more hung up on the fact he was entangled with white women while committing his crimes.

Due to the infuriation this caused, Malcolm was sentenced to ten years... which was pretty unheard of for robbery. It was during his time in jail that Malcolm learned of The Nation of Islam and Elijah Muhammad... and his transformation from Detroit Red to Malcolm X began. He converted to Islam and changed his last name to "X" to signify his break from his father's last name, which was a product of slavery.

Malcolm X speaks to a large crowd

"This big-head scientist, Mr. Yacub, began preaching in the streets of Mecca, making such hosts of converts that the authorities, increasingly concerned, finally exiled him with 59,999 followers to the island of Patmos — described in the Bible as the island where John received the message contained in Revelations in the New Testament," explained Malcolm. "Though he was a Black man, Mr. Yacub, embittered toward Allah now, decided, as revenge, to create upon the earth a devil race — a bleached-out, white race of people."

Elijah Muhammad, 69, surrounded by members of the Fruits of Islam

"You don't have a peaceful revolution. You don't have a turn-the-cheek revolution,” Malcolm preached. “There's no such thing as a nonviolent revolution." His "By any means necessary" rhetoric set ablaze a new fire in the Civil Rights movement. One that was at odds with the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

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Nonetheless, Malcolm's message resonated with the Black masses who were tired of being eviscerated by the systemic and industrialized racism that ran rampant in America. He pushed against white society in a way that made him a target and a hero.

Malcolm taught self-reliance on each other, and shunned the idea of partnering with white people for anything that he didn't need to. He championed building Black wealth and confidence, and holding Black beauty and intelligence to a higher standard. And he absolutely loathed the idea of education and camaraderie within institutions that were headed by white people. However, Malcolm was never known to be antagonistically starting issues with white people, but simply acting in response to the violence perpetrated against Black people.

It seemed as if the government was hell-bent on making sure Malcolm was murdered. As his fame and power rose within the Nation of Islam, however, Malcolm made enemies within his own camp as well.

However, it was hard for Malcolm to escape fame. He was such a powerful orator and leader that it began to stir up resentment within the Nation of Islam.

An FBI poster naming Angela Davis

"Both white people and Negroes — even including Muslims – would make me uncomfortable, always giving me so much credit for the steady progress that the Nation of Islam was making," Malcolm wrote. "'All praise is due to Allah,' I told everybody. 'Anything creditable that I do is due to Mr. Elijah Muhammad.'"

Malcolm X speaks to a large crowd

"I was conducting rallies, trying to propagate Mr. Muhammad's teachings, and because of jealousy and narrow-mindedness finally I got no coverage at all – for by now an order had been given to completely black me out of the newspaper," Malcolm wrote.

Malcolm X breaks down the meaning of the term Negro

It's important to note that much of the envy and anger seemed to come from members of the Nation of Islam, while Elijah Muhammad himself publicly appeared to still hold Malcolm dear and close to his heart. However, their relationship was splintered when Malcolm learned of Elijah Muhammad's infidelity.

Those who began to speak out about their relationships with Elijah Muhammad were expelled from The Nation. But Malcolm, needing to see for himself if their words were true, began to reach out to them. He was in denial that his leader and hero could have committed such acts. But he was committed to finding the truth.

Human rights activist Malcolm X, with political leaders Elijah Muhammad and Louis Farrakhan

"And from their own mouths I heard that Elijah Muhammad had told them I was the best, the greatest minister he ever had, but that someday I would leave him, turn against him — so I was 'dangerous.' I learned from these former secretaries of Mr. Muhammad that while he was praising me to my face, he was tearing me apart behind my back. That deeply hurt me," he penned.

Elijah Muhammad looking down

"'I'm David,'" Elijah Muhammad is quoted by Malcolm X saying. "'When you read about how David took another man's wife, I'm that David. You read about Noah, who got drunk — that's me. You read about Lot, who went and laid up with his own daughters. I have to fulfill all of those things.'"

The Nation of Islam meeting

Of course, the press ran with this statement and Elijah Muhammad was furious. He then placed Malcolm on a 90-day "ban" from the Nation for breaking his instructions to remain silent.

Bodyguards Herbert Muhammad, son of Elijah Muhammad; John Ali and James Shabazz, assistant minister Mosque #2 (l to r) surround Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad

This was the beginning of the end of Malcolm's relationship with the Nation.

Malcolm X holding a pile of newspapers

"Word came to me that a Mosque Seven official who had been one of my most immediate assistants was telling certain Mosque Seven brothers: 'If you knew what the Minister did, you'd go out and kill him yourself,'" Malcolm wrote.

Elijah Muhammad speaks to a crowd

It was around this time that Malcolm's friendship with Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, began to grace major headlines.

Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali

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Ali did end up converting, very publicly, and faced an uphill battle simply trying to change his name. Going as Cassius X at first, Elijah Muhammad would soon publicly grace the legendary boxer with another name... Muhammad Ali.

Muhammad Ali and Elijah Muhammad at a conference

"Turning my back on Malcolm was one of the mistakes that I regret most in my life. I wish I’d been able to tell Malcolm I was sorry, that he was right about so many things. But he was killed before I got the chance," he wrote.

Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X together during an interview

By the time Ali was pulled away from Malcolm, the Civil Rights icon started to receive more death threats.

Malcolm X angrily speaks to the press and points

During this tumultuous period with the Nation, Malcolm decided to travel to Africa and the Middle East, for spiritual healing and guidance.

Malcolm X things deeply

He learned that the hatred towards the white man was not a part of Islamic teachings at all, and was in awe of the multi-colored gathering of worshippers he had discovered.

Muslims on their pilgrimage to Mecca

"During the past eleven days here in the Muslim world, I have eaten from the same plate, drunk from the same glass, and slept in the same bed (or on the same rug) — while praying to the same God — with fellow Muslims, whose eyes were the bluest of blue, whose hair was the blondest of blond, and whose skin was the whitest of white," he explained.

A blurred shot of Muslims on their pilgrimage to Mecca

Malcolm would change his name during his visit to Mecca, to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. And if he thought he had enemies before, things were about to get much worse.

Malcolm X walks down a street with members of the Nation.

At around 3 pm, someone in the crowd at the Audubon Ballroom yelled out "Get your hand out of my pocket!" Malcolm's security began to focus on the ensuing scramble while another assailant rushed the stage and shot him with a sawed-off shotgun.

Malcolm X is carted out of the Audubon Ballroom

Malcolm's assassination has long been a debate. The Nation claimed no responsibility, despite having sent death orders his way on other occasions. Just a week before his assassination, Malcolm's home was fire bombed, with his family inside.

Talmadge Hayer, one of the men convicted of killing Malcolm X

However, something didn't add up. Talmadge Hayer, who later changed his name to Mujahid Abdul Halim, was apprehended at the Ballroom and arrested. He was caught with a clip used in the killing, and later admitted his guilt.

Khalil Islam, formerly known as Thomas 15X Johnson (C), 30, arrives at police station to be booked on a charge of homicide

In 2011, a letter written by since deceased NYC police officer Raymond A. Wood chronicled how law enforcement was complicit in the assassination.

An NYPD vehicle.

Mr. Wood wrote that he was hired by the NYPD to infiltrate Black Civil Rights groups, “to find evidence of criminal activity, so the F.B.I. could discredit and arrest its leaders.”

Civil rights leader Malcolm X attends a meeting

On the day Malcolm was murdered, Mr. Wood claims that the NYPD sent him to the Audubon Ballroom. He was identified by witnesses as being there that day as well. He wrote that Mr. Islam, “was later arrested and wrongfully convicted to protect my cover and the secrets of the FBI and NYPD."

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Mr. Wood's letter was revealed at a press conference that you can watch in the above video. Malcolm's three daughters and Civil Rights attorney Ben Crump disclosed the letter. However, Mr. Wood's daughter Kelly publicly came out to dispute the authenticity of the letter

Betty Shabazz, Malcolm's wife, seemingly blamed religious leader Louis Farrakhan for his role in the murder in 1994. In an interview, Mrs. Shabazz was asked if Farrakhan “had anything to do with the death of your husband.”

Betty Shabazz, wife of Malcolm X, speaking to press

Mr. Farrakhan, who at the time was known as Louis X, had written just months before the assassination that, "the die is set, and Malcolm shall not escape, especially after such evil foolish talk about his benefactor, Elijah Muhammad. Such a man as Malcolm is worthy of death." Before the falling out, Mr. Farrakhan was a protégé of Malcolm's.

Louis Farrakhan speaks in Boston

Since the convictions of Thomas 15X Johnson, Mr. Halim, and Norman 3X Butler, journalists and private investigators have tried to uncover more and more information about the assassination. In all honesty, these diligent independent researchers are the reason we may have reached a closer conclusion in the case.

A detective talks to Black muslims William Gaines (left), Thomas 15X Johnson (center), and Norman 3X Butler (right)

It took the release of the documentary, Netflix's Who Killed Malcolm X?, and continued pushes from independent journalists to convince law enforcement to reopen the case. Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, who is a tour guide in Washington D.C. and a main voice in the Netflix series, was a defining force for the exoneration. The release of the book The Dead Are Arising, by Les and Tamara Payne, also helped push law enforcement in a different direction than the original convictions.

"The Manhattan D.A.'s decision in February to review the convictions of two men for the assassination of Malcolm X coincided with the release of a six-part documentary on Netflix, 'Who Killed Malcolm X?,' that made a strong case they were innocent..."

Twitter: @brianstelter

Abdur-Rahman Muhammad along with a group of astute scholars and researchers were able to identify the other four men that Mr. Halim had signaled out as accomplices to the assassination: Benjamin Thomas, Leon Davis, Wilbur Mckinley, and William Bradley. He published these findings in 2010.

Although Mr. Muhammad believed three of those men had perished by the time he published his findings, William Bradley was still alive at the time.

Here's the image of Malcolm X's probable assassin, William Bradley, shaking hands with a cop in a Cory Booker reelection campaign ad, where Booker brags about how he added 300 police to the streets of Newark...

Twitter: @JSCCounterPunch

Mr. Bradley, who changed his name to Almustafa Shabazz and was a friend of Senator Cory Booker (he even appeared in a campaign commercial for Booker), would maintain his innocence until he passed away in 2018. However, it was this key piece of evidence that helped law enforcement exonerate Mr. Islam and Mr. Aziz.

“I feel that I was able to get some semblance of justice for Brother Malcolm X and his family, first and foremost, and second of all, justice for these two men,” Mr. Muhammad told the New York Times in 2021. “It means that my life mattered, that I contributed to the betterment of society and making our country a better and more equitable place.”

Muhammad Aziz stands outside of a New York City courthouse with members of his family and lawyers after his conviction in the killing of Malcolm X was thrown out on November 18, 2021

What was striking about the reopening of the case was the pure negligence by law enforcement at the time of the assassination. It only seems to back up Mr. Wood's letter.

Besides the fact that Mr. Halim told law enforcement that Mr. Islam and Mr. Aziz were not involved, both men had solid alibis that placed them at home during the time of the assassination. Prosecutors also could not find any connection between Mr. Halim, and Mr. Islam or Mr. Aziz.

And although most of the people who were alive during the time of the assassination are now deceased, one witness (simply identified as J.M.) was able to back up Mr. Aziz's alibi all these years later.

Prosecutors at the time also failed to reveal that there was a trove of undercover agents at the Audubon Ballroom at the time of the assassination. The fact that they withheld this evidence from the trial only raises further suspicions.

The Audubon Ballroom

Although Mr. Aziz and Mr. Islam have been recently exonerated, justice was never truly served. The five men that have since been identified as assassins are all dead and gone.

Make sure to head right here for more of BuzzFeed's Black History Month coverage.

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