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The Day Malcolm X Was Killed (PHOTOS)

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By Les PayneTHE NEW YORKER

August 27, 2020
At the height of his powers, the Black Nationalist leader was assassinated, and the government botched the investigation of his murder.

At 2 p.m. on Sunday, February 21, 1965, Malcolm X arrived at the Audubon Ballroom, in Harlem, to give a speech. Malcolm was thirty-nine, tall and serious, with a dark suit and a new beard, and he was in the midst of remaking himself. He had recently left the Nation of Islam, the Black-Muslim group that had nurtured his rise to prominence. He was in Harlem to launch the Organization of Afro-American Unity, a new, secular group that he hoped would allow him to engage in mainstream civil-rights activism in a way that the Nation—which was both rigidly devout and expressly militant—had made difficult. He envisioned the event as an afternoon of rousing rhetoric for a diverse crowd: a reverend campaigning for school desegregation would give opening remarks. At most of Malcolm’s rallies, security guards frisked guests before they entered, but Malcolm worried that this would scare off the younger, better-educated, non-Muslim attendees that he hoped to attract to his new organization. Despite the potential dangers, he had called off the body searches, which set his advisers on edge. “I felt something that was ominous in the air,” Benjamin 2X Goodman, one of Malcolm’s assistants, told me, years later. “It was like an invisible weight sitting on my shoulder, on my back.”

Malcolm had been the national spokesman of the Nation of Islam, and had become famous as a fierce and eloquent advocate of Black Nationalism. But, over the past few years, he had come to see the group’s leader, Elijah Muhammad, as a charlatan, and had grown skeptical of his teachings—among them, that white people were all “blue-eyed devils.” In addition to the O.A.A.U., Malcolm had founded Muslim Mosque, Inc., a group that would allow his followers to explore more orthodox versions of Sunni Islam. He had grown tired of being pigeonholed as a violent agitator, and had begun to forge connections with the nonviolent civil-rights movement, which he had previously spurned. He attended a secret meeting of civil-rights leaders at the home of the actor Sidney Poitier, where he proposed working together to bring American race relations to the United Nations. He travelled to Selma, Alabama, in solidarity with Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s push for voting rights there, and met with his wife, Coretta. This transformation was not appreciated among the ranks of the Nation. His split with the group had been public and ugly, and there were rumors that his old colleagues were plotting to have him killed.

At the Audubon, four hundred people filed into the hall. Betty Shabazz, Malcolm’s wife, who was pregnant with twins, shouldered her way onto a bench with their four neatly groomed daughters. Backstage, Malcolm learned that the opening act had cancelled, setting a vein pulsing in his forehead. He sent out Goodman, his assistant, to open for him instead. Goodman stood behind a plywood rostrum, in front of a pastoral scene leftover from another event. “I began talking about a captain of a ship heading toward the destination,” he said. As he spoke, he scanned the crowd. Near the front, he saw two dark-skinned men sitting with their coats folded over their arms. He knew them to be Muslims, because of their appearance, but he didn’t recognize them. “The thing that attracted me about them was their silence,” he told me. “It was like a silence within a silence.” Malcolm had walked onto the podium behind Goodman without him noticing. After a few minutes, he gave the signal—“Make it plain,” he said—and Goodman yielded the floor. He told me later, “Strange, when I introduced him, brought him to the podium, I said, ‘I now introduce to you a man that would give his life for his people.’ ”

Malcolm walked to center stage and shuffled some notecards in his hand. “As-Salaam Alaikum. . . .” he said in a hoarse voice. Suddenly, four rows back, two men began to tussle, one shouting, “Get your hands out of my pocket.” An attendee later told me that she thought it was the outburst of “some rowdy drunks.” Then, near the back, a man struck a match, lit a strip of photographic film protruding from a rolled-up sock, and heaved it underhand. The mock smoke bomb fizzled to the floor, releasing noxious smoke, and a woman screamed. Two security men moved toward the disturbance, leaving their posts in front of the stage. Malcolm moved to impose order, stepping from behind the podium with his arms raised and exposing the full length of his body. “Now, now, brothers break it up,” he said. “Hold it, hold it, hold it.”

In an instant, William 25X Bradley, a member of the Newark mosque of the Nation of Islam, charged the stage in a slight crouch from the fourth row. He aimed a sawed-off shotgun at Malcolm’s chest and pulled the trigger. The blast lifted Malcolm backward off his feet and over a pair of wooden chairs. Seven of the buckshot pellets dug a series of craters above his navel. A piece of shrapnel tore the web between his thumb and index finger. The main pellet punctured Malcolm’s aorta. Soon after, two other men drew pistols and ran to the stage. Thomas Hayer, a twenty-two-year-old member of the Newark Mosque, fired insurance rounds at the prostrate Malcolm, hitting him in his left ankle. Leon Davis, another young member, shot two 9-mm rounds, hitting his thighs. A tape recorder on the podium caught what it could of the drama before the physics of the blasts shut down its revolving reels.

Malcolm’s advisers were backstage when the shots were fired. Sara Mitchell, an assistant who also worked as a receptionist at The New Yorker, heard a “terrible sound” and hid behind a radiator. Goodman hit the floor. “I knew exactly what had happened on the stage,” he told me. “I knew, because the feeling—that weighty feeling that I had—just left.” Soon after, someone opened the door, and Goodman saw Malcolm lying on the stage. The hand of his twisted right arm grasped at his belt in a defiant street pose. “I saw that his eyes were fixed, you know, open,” Goodman said. “And his mouth was like he was slightly gasping. And those people were trying to revive him, but I knew it was no use. I just knew it.”

Malcolm had once credited the Nation with saving his life. He grew up in Lansing, Michigan, and spent a troubled youth engaged in criminal enterprises like drug-dealing and racketeering. But in prison, in 1948, he discovered the teachings of the Nation, and wrote a letter to Elijah Muhammad, pledging his loyalty. Since then, he had maintained a tough, analytical approach to all matters except those pertaining to his religious beliefs, some of which were eccentric. Members of the Nation believed that white people were “Satans”; a key mythology supporting this conclusion was that the white race, a so-called “race of devils,” had been created by Black scientists in an experiment started by a man named Yacub some sixty-six hundred years ago. Eventually, there would be a global war—or Armageddon—in which Africans vanquished the devils. Another exotic teaching held that a heavily armed spaceship called the “Mother of Planes,” probably built by the Japanese, circled the Earth constantly. The group’s founder, W. D. Fard, was believed to be the human incarnation of Allah. (Fard claimed to come from Mecca, though, according to police records, he seems to have been a white con-artist from New Zealand who had spent time in San Quentin for selling narcotics.) Elijah Muhammad was believed to be his divine Messenger.

Malcolm defended these beliefs as no stranger than, say, the Virgin Birth or Jesus’ resurrection. But after a dozen years as a disciple, he began to harbor doubts about the group’s leader. There had long been rumors of Muhammad’s illicit behavior, including that he had impregnated one of his secretaries out of wedlock. In February, 1963, worried by these whisperings, Malcolm went to speak to Muhammad’s son, Wallace, who had been anointed at birth as Muhammad’s successor. Wallace confirmed that, indeed, Muhammad had fathered children with several young secretaries, and had then denied the paternity and kicked the women out of the Nation for premarital sex. More shockingly, Wallace told Malcolm that he doubted his father’s divinity. As the group’s future leader, Wallace had been schooled by orthodox Sunni Muslim clerics; he no longer believed that Fard was God. “He said that it was the Messenger himself who started teaching that the Savior was Allah, but that the Messenger knows that the Savior himself wasn’t Allah,” Malcolm later said. “He frightened me with this!”

As a minister, Malcolm had faithfully informed the Messenger of every development related to the sect. So, soon after the meeting, he confronted Muhammad about his adultery. Muhammad reportedly likened himself to the Bible’s adulterous David, drunken Noah, and incestuous Lot, saying, “I have to fulfill all of those things.” But, after the meeting, Malcolm continued to discuss Muhammad’s moral failings with his associates, making him a threat. Word was passed to curtail coverage of Malcolm in Muhammad Speaks, the sect’s widely circulated newspaper. Goons from other mosques began to harass Malcolm and Betty with telephone death threats at all hours of the night, and to drive by Malcolm’s gatherings in bold attempts to intimidate him. In 1963, after speaking out of turn about the assassination of John F. Kennedy (he referred to it as “chickens coming home to roost”), Malcolm was suspended from the Nation for ninety days. It seemed clear that he would not be invited back into the fold, and, in March, 1964, he announced that he was leaving the Nation.

After the split, Malcolm went through an intense period of deprogramming. He took a pilgrimage to Mecca, where he embraced traditional Sunni teachings, and sent letters denouncing Muhammad as a “religious faker.” “I shall never rest until I have undone the harm I did to so many well‐meaning, innocent Negroes who through my own evangelistic zeal now believe in him even more fanatically and more blindly than I did,” he wrote, in a letter reprinted in the Times. He became critical of women’s diminished role in the Nation. He disavowed Black separatism, and gained confidence that a cross-racial coalition could work together to fight a broad range of evils, including racism, colonialism, and the ravages of capitalism. He also came to be troubled by the Nation’s longstanding, secret relationship with the Ku Klux Klan. In 1961, Malcolm had been forced to attend a meeting where Klansmen proposed working together to assassinate Martin Luther King, Jr. (Malcolm declined.) Muhammad also hoped that the Klan might help the Nation procure a plot of land in the South and induce Black people to move there, thereby giving credence to both groups’ vision of separate ethno-states. In a memo dated three weeks before Malcolm’s death, the F.B.I. noted that Malcolm’s “next line of attack” may be to make public that Muhammad is “in some way affiliated with the KKK.” And, seven days before his death, Malcolm threatened to expose the relationship. “There are some things involving the Black Muslim movement which, when they come to light, will shock you,” he said.

Muhammad, meanwhile, was growing impatient with Malcolm. In a secret meeting with his captains, in September, 1964, he complained that the “chief hypocrite” had “mudwashed” him, and suggested that he be “made to go away.” Jeremiah X, a minister from Philadelphia who attended, told me that the order went out to do Malcolm “terminal bodily harm.” After this, Nation assassins made several bold attempts on Malcolm’s life. His car was tailed at high speeds in Los Angeles, and police had to scare off attackers in New York. In January, Malcolm was with a journalist named Chuck Stone at a hotel in Chicago. When they got off the elevator on Malcolm’s floor, Stone was first to turn the corner. “There was a short, Black guy in a three-quarter length coat, standing in the corridor with a sawed-off shotgun,” Stone told me. “The gunman turned around and ran down the steps. If Malcolm had been first around the corner. . .” On February 14, 1965, in the early morning hours, men from Mosque No. 7, Malcolm’s old mosque in Harlem, threw Molotov cocktails through the windows of his home in Queens. Malcolm was awakened when the bombs exploded, and he managed to escort Betty and their children outside to safety.

These near hits were not appreciated at Chicago headquarters, and a deadline was set: Malcolm was to be eliminated by Saviour’s Day, a holiday commemorating the birth of the sect’s founder, on February 26th. The task fell to the Newark mosque, whose goon squad included several accomplished bank robbers with access to caches of pistols, rifles, shotguns, and other weapons. (During an interview in a restaurant, one former member told me, “I have an ice pick in my glove compartment right now.”) The head minister, James Shabazz, called a meeting of squad members at the mosque’s restaurant. He had taken note of Malcolm’s scheduled appearance at the Audubon Ballroom, shortly before Saviour’s Day. “It’ll be a good time to kill that hypocrite,” he told the group. The mission was assigned to Hayer, Davis, and to Bradley—who had trained as a Green Beret and was known as the most cold-blooded member of the squad. “James gave them the idea that Friday night,” a former member of the squad, who asked to be identified as Talib, told me. “He said, ‘You get there early, two brothers sit down in the back and the other three that are going to shoot, sit down in front. He outlined that the brothers in the back were to create a disturbance soon as [Malcolm] walked out. ‘Make sure everybody turn their heads. Then, that’s when you hit him. And the crowd will be your getaway.’ ”

At the Audubon Ballroom, Gene Roberts, a twenty-six-year-old member of Malcolm’s security detail, had been relieved of his post in front of the rostrum and was standing in the back of the hall. Roberts was a trusted guard—disciplined in checking avenues of escape and quick to detect danger—but he was also an undercover cop. There were so few Black police officers that the department’s Bureau of Special Services and Investigations, or bossi, had recruited him directly out of the Navy and rushed him onto the street to infiltrate Malcolm’s group. “I had no weapon, no I.D.,” Roberts recalled. “Nobody in the department probably knew who I was, except my control officer.” He had been motivated to join because of his ideological disdain for the Black leader. “I had heard a couple of Malcolm X’s speeches when he was in the Nation. And I didn’t particularly care for him,” he said. “I was one of those middle-class blacks that had a half-ass education.”

Roberts was part of a broad government operation to spy on Malcolm. The F.B.I. had started a counter-intelligence program, later formalized as part of cointelpro, that aimed to disrupt “the coalition of militant Black Nationalist groups” and to mount a campaign of “discrediting” their leaders; it implored agents to “prevent the rise of a ‘messiah’ who could unify, and electrify, the militant black nationalist movement.” The Bureau was tracking Malcolm’s movements, tapping his communications, and paying informants to report on the inner workings of his organizations. The F.B.I. also had sources inside the Nation of Islam, at the national headquarters, and at the Harlem and Newark mosques. The government had stimulated the split between Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad, monitored its development, and encouraged its escalation. Through its sources, the Bureau also had advance knowledge of the unfolding attempt on Malcolm’s life, and likely knew of its rough schedule. (On the afternoon of the shooting, the Bureau had several informants sitting in the Audubon Ballroom. After Malcolm was shot, one rushed to a payphone to inform his handler.) The C.I.A. was monitoring Malcolm’s international movements. The agencies communicated little, and none of the informants knew of the others’ existence.

On February 15th, the week before the assassination, Roberts was working as a guard at a previous speech of Malcolm’s at the Audubon Ballroom. Toward the end of the speech, there was a sound of loud heckling on one side of the hall, which caused audience members to turn, and Malcolm to interrupt his speech. “O.K. Y’all sit down and be cool,” he said. At the same time, a lone man, clean-cut, with a red bow tie, walked down the aisle as if heading for the stage. Based on his dress, he appeared to Roberts to be from the Nation. Roberts intercepted him and followed him to his seat. The encounter unsettled him, and, afterward, he reported the incident in his role as a police officer. “I told my staff people that ‘I just think I saw a dress rehearsal for this man’s assassination,’ ” Roberts said. His superiors didn’t seem overly concerned; after this warning, rather than increasing the uniformed presence in front of the ballroom, the department sharply reduced it.

When the shots went off on February 21st, the Ballroom descended into chaos. Shrieking audience members broke for cover. Betty dove beneath some chairs, shielding her children and shouting, “They’re killing my husband; they’re killing my husband.” Bradley, the shotgun man, dropped his warm weapon, wrapped in a green suit jacket, on the stage. Davis also dropped his weapon, to avoid being recognized. Hayer, the least experienced assassin, held onto his pistol, giving away his role in the plot. The shooters maintained a military crouch and headed for the rear exit, two hundred feet away. “I saw the three gunmen coming up the middle aisle,” Roberts said. From five feet away, Hayer shot at Roberts, who dodged. “The bullet went through my suit jacket,” he said. Roberts threw a chair, momentarily knocking Hayer down. When Hayer finally made it outside, he was shot in the leg by another of Malcolm’s guards. Bradley and Davis screeched off in a Cadillac, but the crowd caught Hayer, pummelling him. He was eventually pulled from the mob by the police and arrested.

Inside, Roberts rushed to the front of the ballroom and jumped onto the stage. Malcolm lay eerily still, stretched out on his back. His mouth was locked open in a slack expression. A bit of blood was visible on his fresh white shirt. In all the scurrying about, little medical attention had been paid to him. Roberts ripped open Malcolm’s shirt and found the holes in his chest. Malcolm still had a pulse, though it was weak and rapid. Roberts had trained as a medical corpsman in the Navy. He began giving Malcolm mouth-to-mouth. Tiny air bubbles of blood began to rise and fall over the shotgun holes in Malcolm’s chest. After ten minutes, a gurgling sound started deep in Malcolm’s throat, then a violent rush of air came from his lips: “uuuuuUhhh . . . AAAAAhhhhh!” Roberts told me, “When I heard that gasp of breath, I knew it was over.”

Roberts later reported these efforts, along with everything else he observed, to the police department. His superiors fixated on his care for Malcolm in the Black leader’s final moments. “Why did you give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation,” Roberts’s commander thundered. Roberts cited his training as a medic, and his oath as a cop to defend human life. Still, he was chastised, which made him indignant. “I don’t care what his ideology is or his philosophy is,” Roberts remembers saying. “This is a human being gunned down in front of his family.”

At the ballroom, an ambulance finally arrived. Goodman and the other assistants made their way out of hiding in the back room. Mitchell and several other women rounded up Malcolm’s four young daughters and took them home. But before Malcolm was moved from the hall, his body was disturbed once more. Luqman Raheem, Malcolm’s chief of security, had been pacing nearby. Raheem was a weapons expert who had initially been hired by the Nation to assassinate Malcolm by wiring his blue Oldsmobile with explosives, but had defected to Malcolm’s side. Before the event at the Audubon, Raheem had pressed Malcolm to maintain a heavy security presence. When Malcolm refused, Raheem convinced him to take his pistol: a dark, snub-nosed, five-shot .38-calibre Chief’s Special, with a 2½-inch barrel and a cozy, thumb-sized handle. “I said, ‘Look, if you don’t want security, you’d better, at least, take my piece, because you need it more than I do,’ ” Raheem told me. The revolver was designed to be easily concealed on the small of his back. When Malcolm fell, Raheem realized that Malcolm still had his pistol on his person, carried illegally, and covered with Raheem’s fingerprints. “I was debating whether to grab his legs and drag him off to the side behind the curtain and disarm him,” he said. “I had to get it!”

Raheem approached Malcolm and covered him with his long camel-hair coat. Then he reached under Malcolm and found the weapon. “I lifted the gun and holster up and put it in my pocket,” he said. “People saw me doing this but didn’t know what I was doing.” Archival news footage captures the moment. It is likely that police were aware beforehand that Malcolm was armed and, by some accounts, may have expected a shoot-out between Muslim gunmen and the Black leader. Detectives for the Manhattan Attorney General’s office later interrogated Raheem, trying to find the pistol, and even searched his apartment for it. They narrowly missed the .38 Chief’s Special, which he had hidden. When they departed, Raheem ground the weapon into powder on a rigged emery wheel.

Cheated of being able to declare that Malcolm had been armed with an illegal weapon—a man who lived by the gun and died by it—authorities were left to solve the murder of a Black martyr they despised. This task was complicated by the long-standing secret of the illegal F.B.I. and police surveillance. The government knew a great deal about the plot, but none of the agencies could share their information with the others, and little information could be made public without blowing their agents’ cover. The result was a botched investigation. The D.A.’s office ended up indicting Hayer along with Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson, two members of the goon squad of the Harlem mosque. Butler and Johnson had become some of Malcolm’s chief harassers, cruising around shaking their fists at Malcolm’s men. Johnson is thought to have participated in the firebombing of Malcolm’s home, though he later suggested the bombing was carried out by other Nation members. “They were both treacherous as far as violence against Malcolm was concerned,” Goodman told me. But neither had participated in the assassination plot.

Goodman had supervised Butler and Johnson for years when Malcolm ran the Harlem mosque. “We were like brothers together, Butler and Johnson,” he told me. He knew that they were not present in the ballroom. “Those two brothers we would have searched if they had gotten the nerve to even come to the door,” he said. “They weren’t there, period.” But Goodman was never called to testify at the trial. Roberts also knew both Butler and Johnson, and could have confirmed that they weren’t there. He had seen Davis and Bradley at the ballroom, and could have identified them. Roberts told all of this to his superiors in the police department, but authorities, not wanting his cover to be blown, did not call him to testify. He remained undercover and went on to infiltrate several other Black nationalist groups, including the Black Panthers. At the trial, Hayer pled guilty, but insisted that Butler and Johnson were not involved. Years later, he signed an affidavit reasserting their innocence, and stating that Bradley and Davis had been the other shooters. Nevertheless, Butler and Johnson were convicted. Butler served twenty years in prison for Malcolm’s murder, and Johnson served twenty-two. It was a case study in covering the tracks of the police, the federal government, and the F.B.I.

Bradley and Davis, along with the conspirators who threw the smoke bomb and helped distract Malcolm’s attention by shouting a ruse, never came to trial. After the assassination, they drove back to the Newark mosque and were greeted by a group of senior ministers, which included Louis Farrakhan, the current leader of the Nation of Islam. Farrakhan, then the minister of the Boston mosque, had once been a loyal protégé of Malcolm. According to Jeremiah X, the Philadelphia minister, Muhammad had placed him at the mosque to make him complicit in the killing of his former mentor, and to insure his silence. “The Messenger was like that,” Jeremiah said. (Farrakhan has long denied playing a role in the plot.) James Shabazz, the Newark mosque’s head minister, reportedly put the assassins on a plane to Chicago and checked them into a hotel. (Shabazz died in 1973.) Talib, the member of the Newark squad, recalled that their identities became an open secret in the Nation. “The hit against Malcolm X was never discussed, but the shooters gained great respect in the goon squads,” he told me. “I went to Saviour’s Day in Chicago, and the four brothers were there. They didn’t talk. They just looked at me and winked. Like the cops do when they kill one of us, they give each other the wink.” (In 2018, through a lawyer, Bradley denied involvement in the plot; he passed away later that year. Davis could not be located for comment, and is also believed to be dead. In February, the Manhattan D.A.’s office announced that it would review the case.)

In the days after his assassination, Malcolm was vilified in the mainstream press. Major media outlets described him as gifted but evil—a twisted, distorted, embittered fanatic who was fascinated with violence and who, as a result, was destined to become its victim. An editorial in the Times opined, “Yesterday, someone came out of that darkness that he spawned, and killed him.” But among his followers, he was just as fervently mourned. Malcolm was buried on February 27th, under the name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, which he had taken in Mecca. More than twenty thousand people waited in the cold to file past his body as it lay in repose in a bronze casket in a Harlem funeral home. At his funeral, in the Faith Temple Church of Christ, in Harlem, Ossie Davis, the actor and activist, eulogized Malcolm as “our living black manhood.” He crowned Malcolm with what has become his lasting title: “a prince—our own black shining prince.”
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This excerpt is drawn from “The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X,” by Les Payne, published by Liveright.

Les Payne is the author of the biography “The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X,” which will be published this year.

—— AUTO – GENERATED; Published (Halifax Canada Time AST) on: August 27, 2020 at 05:45PM

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