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  • Mike Martinez

Political Assassinations: Malcolm X

He arrived in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom early on the afternoon of Sunday, February 21, 1965, scheduled to speak at an Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) rally. The controversial 39-year-old civil rights activist was in the midst of a difficult, divisive time in his life. His home had been firebombed a week earlier, and his escalating fears for his own safety and the safety of his family had left him shaken and out of sorts. On the morning of the 21st, he had been awakened in his room at the Hilton Hotel by a telephone call from an unknown man. “Wake up, brother,” a strange voice said in an ominous tone.

He was known as Malcolm X, and he had become one of the most controversial public figures of the twentieth century. Born as Malcolm Little, he discarded his surname, a vestige of slavery, after he converted to Islam while serving time in prison. Malcolm joined Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam (NOI), an American religious organization, and became a prominent national figure. His mesmerizing speaking skills, personal charisma, and imposing physique made Malcolm X a popular and effective recruiter for the NOI. His rising stature also captured the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI’s) attention.

Unlike Martin Luther King Jr., who continually spoke of non-violent protest and Christian brotherhood, Malcolm X, the militant Muslim, uttered incendiary rhetoric that frightened many white listeners. He acquired a reputation as a black racist who supported armed confrontation with white “devils.” Much of Malcolm’s language could be interpreted as vitriolic and confrontational, but such a construction fails to appreciate his evolving character. After he broke ranks with the NOI following a falling out with Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm’s speeches evolved. He remained passionately committed to uplifting blacks in America and around the world, but he also extended an olive branch to any person or group that assisted his efforts. His two new organizations—Muslim Mosque, Inc. (MMI) and the OAAU—were outlets for Malcolm’s changing message.

He knew that many people, including his former colleagues within the NOI, wanted to harm him. Anxious to protect his pregnant wife and four daughters, he had transported them to a friend’s house after his home was firebombed. He decided to stay elsewhere in case he was the target of assassins. On February 20, he checked into a room in the New York Hilton Hotel. He told friends and news reporters that he probably was not long for the world. “I live like a man who’s already dead,” he said in an interview earlier that year. “I’m a marked man. It doesn’t frighten me for myself as long as I felt they would not hurt my family.”

Coming from someone else, such remarks might have sounded unnecessarily melodramatic and absurd, but Malcolm X was not a man to traffic in hyperbole. His life had been dramatic enough without resorting to theatrics. The question was not why he was the target of men who wished to do him harm, but how had he stayed alive as long as he had?

When Malcolm entered the Audubon Ballroom early on the afternoon of February 21, he knew that he might become a target of assassins at any moment. Curiously, he had invited his wife and daughters to attend the meeting. Perhaps he missed them and wanted them by his side. Perhaps he thought that no one would dare harm him in the presence of his family. Perhaps he simply was heedless of the risk. In any event, they became spectators to his grisly fate.

The lax security arrangements struck many people as strange. New York City police officers normally appeared wherever Malcolm spoke, but they were noticeably absent outside the ballroom that day. Malcolm’s aides apparently had asked them to stand in a less conspicuous place. In a bizarre development, especially given the lack of a police presence, the Muslim Mosque security detail, on orders from Malcolm, did not frisk audience members for weapons. It was a simple matter for gunmen to enter the ballroom without fear of detection. In the aftermath of the episode, Malcolm’s supporters wondered whether he had harbored a secret death wish.

He was not his usual equable self that day. By his own admission, Malcolm had reached his “wit’s end.” To the people who saw him immediately before he took the stage, he appeared angry and distracted, a man suffering from unrelenting stress. Usually unflappable, his demeanor worried his entourage. Still, he would press on, stubbornly keeping to his schedule.

Shortly before 3:00 p.m., Malcolm stepped onto the plywood stage of the Audubon Ballroom. His friend and adviser Benjamin 2X Goodman, unnerved by Malcolm’s bitter mood, was still sputtering through an introduction when he saw the minister arrive. He hastily wrapped up his remarks. “Without further ado, I bring before you Minister Malcolm,” he said.

The enthusiastic audience of 400 souls applauded for almost a full minute. “As-salāmu ʿalaykum,” Malcolm said as the noise subsided. It was the traditional Muslim greeting, Arabic for “peace be upon you.” The crowd answered with the usual response, “waʿalaykumu s-salām,” Arabic for “and upon you, peace.”

At that instant, a disturbance erupted about six or eight rows from the stage. Several men appeared to be involved. According to one account, someone involved in the confrontation cried out, “Get your hands out of my pocket,” or words to that effect. Seeing the struggle, Malcom called out, although eyewitnesses differed on precisely what he said. One version recounted his words as, “Be cool now, and don’t get excited.” Another eyewitness heard him repeatedly calling out, “Hold it! Hold it! Hold it! Hold it!”

As Malcolm’s bodyguards moved toward the commotion, a smoke bomb ignited in the rear of the auditorium. The scene quickly degenerated into pandemonium, exactly as planned. While everyone was distracted and Malcolm stood on the stage undefended, a burly figure, Willie X Bradley, stepped forward, aimed a sawed-off shotgun and fired, striking his target in the left side of his chest. Two other men advanced, Talmadge Hayer (who sometimes used the alias Thomas Hagan) and Leon X Davis, firing handguns at Malcolm, who had remained on his feet following the shotgun blast. In the face of the furious fusillade, Malcolm X toppled backward, his head smacking the stage with a thud. He had suffered 21 gunshot wounds, but the initial shotgun blast had killed him.

The three shooters fled the scene. Bradley ducked into a women’s bathroom 60 feet from the stage, threw his shotgun away, and headed down a seldom-used flight of stairs to safety. Hayer and Davis ran through a gauntlet of bystanders and chairs. In the confusion, Davis disappeared into the throngs of clamoring people. Hayer did not. Malcom’s security chief, Reuben X Francis, shot Hagan in the thigh. The crowd descended on the wounded assassin and might have killed him but for the arrival of police officers, who took the suspect into custody.

Malcolm’s wife, Betty, screamed, “They’re killing my husband!” She had fallen to her knees instinctively when the shooting commenced, but as she struggled to stand, her friends interceded. They escorted her and the children outside so they would not see the after-effects of the gunfire.

Gene Roberts, an undercover policeman who had been attached to the Muslim Mosque guard detail, rushed to the stage. He could tell that Malcolm probably was dead, but he attempted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, anyway. Bystanders ripped open the wounded man’s shirt, but they could not revive him.

In the minutes after the assault, an ambulance failed to appear on the scene. Someone retrieved a gurney from the nearby Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, and Malcolm’s followers lifted his body onto it. As they pushed him outside the ballroom and moved toward the hospital, New York City police officers arrived and provided an escort.

Emergency room doctors immediately took charge when Malcolm appeared at the hospital. They cut a tracheotomy in his throat to allow him to breathe, but it made no difference. For 15 minutes, they labored over his unresponsive form before declaring him dead at 3:30 p.m.

Questions persist about who ordered the assassination, and why. Among the various conspiracy theories espoused throughout the years, one version places the FBI at the center of an elaborate assassination plot. Even if the Bureau did not take an active part in the murder, FBI efforts to exploit the gulf between Malcolm X and the NOI certainly contributed to the poisoned atmosphere that encouraged his enemies to shoot the 39-year-old activist.

Within days, three suspects emerged. Aside from Hayer, wounded and captured at the scene, the police focused on two NOI soldiers: Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson. Numerous eyewitnesses placed the men in the ballroom that afternoon. Police promptly arrested the men and charged them with Malcolm’s murder. Conspiracy theorists suggested that others had been involved, too, including undercover FBI agents who had planned to kill Malcolm X many times in the past.

Hayer eventually confessed his role in the shooting. He said that he had been aided by accomplices, but he would not provide their names. He insisted, however, that Butler and Johnson did not participate. His remarks did not prevent a jury from convicting all three defendants of first-degree murder. Sentenced to serve for life in prison, all three survived behind bars. Butler was paroled in 1985, Johnson in 1987, and Hayer in 2010. Willie X Bradley and Leon X Davis were never hauled into court to account for their crimes.

Malcolm X’s assassins do not fit into a neat category. The Nation of Islam gunmen shot Malcolm because he separated from the NOI and dared to criticize Elijah Muhammad. They saw a man who refused to be cowed, who would not temper his views even when he might have profited by toning down his rhetoric. They probably were Type 1 assassins, seeking to accomplish what amounted to a political objective by dispatching a political enemy. The zeal and commitment of these NOI soldiers were based on rational, supposedly principled motives. They possessed an objective—to rid the NOI of an intractable problem—and they took steps to achieve that objective.

Yet there are elements of Type 2 and Type 3 motives as well. As members of a religious group based largely on a cult of personality—namely, Elijah Muhammad’s personality and his enigmatic brand of Islam—the assassins had to demonstrate to their leader that they were loyal subjects. Because Malcolm X had become a pariah, they decided that the most effective means of demonstrating their fidelity to the leader was to eliminate the problem through violence. Their personalities were subsumed by Elijah Muhammad’s personality, making the gunmen appear to be Type 2 actors—needy, possessing low self-esteem, neurotic. They would show their significant other—Muhammad—that they were worthy disciples.

Yet the cavalier manner in which they shot Malcolm X suggests that one or more of the gunmen may have been psychopathic personalities. They did not hesitate to fire multiple shots inside a crowded ballroom, assassinating a public figure in front of his family as well as 400 potential eyewitnesses. Type 3 actors are so contemptuous of ordinary social mores that they feel no compunction about lashing out violently against a target. They are indifferent to the feelings of others, indifferent to death, and nihilistic in their outlook.

Chapter 22 of my book Political Assassinations and Attempts in US History: The Lasting Effects of Gun Violence Against American Political Leaders, published in November 2017, discusses these facts, as well as others, surrounding Malcolm X’s assassination.

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