Who Killed Malcolm X?

What a new Netflix series doesn't dare mention.

In light of the information presented in a new Netflix documentary researched and presented by Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, a Washington-based tour guide and independent scholar who is an expert on the life and death of the late Malcolm X, the Manhattan District Attorney's Office has opened a review of the 1965 murder of the renowned black Muslim orator. Titled Who Killed Malcolm X?, the six-part series claims that only one of the three men who were arrested and incarcerated for Malcolm’s murder was actually involved in the crime. Hoping to clear the name of the lone surviving man whose conviction was allegedly unjustified, Mr. Muhammad has submitted a petition asking the DA to re-examine the case.

The final moments of Malcolm X’s life were spent in the Audubon Ballroom in northern Manhattan, where, at a few minutes past 3 p.m. on February 21, 1965, he was commencing a meeting of his newly formed Organization of Afro-American Unity. Moments after Malcolm stepped to the podium that afternoon, someone near the back of the audience could be heard shouting, “Get your hand out of my pocket!” Malcolm urged the individuals involved in the scuffle to “be cool,” and as his bodyguards moved to intervene, a man who was seated closer to the front of the ballroom stood up, drew a sawed-off shotgun from beneath his overcoat, and fired multiple rounds into Malcolm’s body, killing him almost instantly. It is known that at least two – and possibly as many as four – additional conspirators were also involved.

Malcolm X had been a major figure in the Nation of Islam (NOI) since the early 1950s. Rejecting Martin Luther King’s vision of a peaceful path to racial integration, Malcolm openly defended the use of violence as a means of black liberation: “You don’t have a peaceful revolution. You don’t have a turn-the-cheek revolution. There’s no such thing as a nonviolent revolution.” In March 1964 he warned: “There will be more violence than ever this year. White people will be shocked when they discover that the passive little Negro they had known turns out to be a roaring lion. The whites had better understand this while there is still time. The Negroes at the mass level are ready to act.” Maintaining also that “the white man is a devil,” Malcolm dutifully promoted the NOI doctrine which held that history would eventually culminate in a racial Armageddon where whites would be exterminated by a deadly “mother ship” equipped with hundreds of “baby planes” laden with powerful explosives.

Notably, Malcolm’s racist rhetoric was good for attendance, helping to swell NOI’s membership rolls from a mere 400 people in 1952, to approximately 40,000 by 1960. Throughout this period, Malcolm spoke reverently about NOI’s longtime leader, Elijah Muhammad, characterizing him as “the greatest and wisest and most fearless black man in America today.”

By 1963, however, Malcolm had begun to perceive that Elijah Muhammad was, as the Netflix documentary puts it, using NOI as his own “personal cash cow” – raking in massive donations on which he paid no taxes because of NOI’s exemption as a religious organization. Gradually, Malcolm grew to view his mentor – now a mega-millionaire who owned multiple homes and businesses – as someone who was more preoccupied with acquiring earthly treasures than with abiding by the tenets of his faith.

The relationship between Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad suffered another major setback on December 1, 1963 – just a few days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy – when Malcolm disobeyed Elijah Muhammad’s explicit directive that he avoid saying anything about Kennedy’s death that might unnecessarily alienate the U.S. public. Instead, Malcolm took the occasion to characterize JFK’s killing as an instance of America’s “chickens coming home to roost” – an event that made him very “glad.”

At that point, an angry Elijah Muhammad suspended Malcolm from speaking publicly on behalf of the Nation of Islam. Moreover, the Nation of Islam, which owned the home where Malcolm and his family were living, tried to evict him along with his wife and children. Embittered like never before, Malcolm now detested the man whom he had once regarded as his mentor, guide, and spiritual advisor.

On March 8, 1964, Malcolm announced that he was leaving NOI. Soon thereafter, he established a new “Muslim Mosque Incorporated” in New York City and founded the aforementioned Organization of Afro-American Unity.

Determined to exact revenge on Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm publicly humiliated his former mentor by publicizing embarrassing secrets about the latter’s private life. As the Netflix documentary shows, Malcolm went before television cameras and announced to the press: “Elijah Muhammad, the head of the movement, is the father of eight children by six different teenage girls who were his private personal secretaries.” One of those girls, Malcolm added, was pregnant at that time with a ninth child sired by Elijah Muhammad.

Malcolm continued to disparage Elijah Muhammad and his associates at every opportunity thereafter. The documentary shows, for example, video clips where Malcolm smears NOI leaders as “the hierarchy who are living off the fatted calf”; where he describes Elijah Muhammad as a “senile” old man who “doesn’t love black people” and “doesn’t even love his own followers”; and where he portrays Elijah Muhammad’s grown children as reprobates who lust for “nothing but luxury” and “power.”

Malcolm’s public denunciations of Elijah Muhammad caused many devoted disciples of the NOI kingpin to become enraged at Malcolm for his disloyalty. Historian David Garrow – once a “very active” member of the Democratic Socialists of America who makes numerous appearances in the Netflix documentary -- says: “The real threat to Elijah Muhammad and the Nation was that as soon as Malcolm had an independent pedestal, position, stature, people all across black America would flock to Malcolm’s banner and abandon Elijah and the Nation.”

By 1965 the hostility between Malcolm and his former NOI brethren was so intense, that Malcolm fully expected to be killed on orders of Elijah Muhammad in the very near future. “I do believe there will be attempts on my life,” we hear Malcolm declare in the Netflix film. “I know them [NOI]. They are foaming at the mouth.” In another video clip, he states: “Elijah Muhammad has given the order to his followers to see that I am crippled or killed.” And in yet another clip, Malcolm recounts how Elijah Muhammad’s son had recently come to New York and told NOI’s paramilitary wing, the Fruit of Islam, “that my tongue should have been put in an envelope and sent back to Chicago by now.”

One of the most noteworthy voices calling for Malcolm’s murder was that of Louis Farrakhan, whom Malcolm had recruited into NOI in the 1950s. Enraged by Malcolm’s disloyalty to Elijah Muhammad, Farrakhan wrote ominously: “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.” This, however, is not mentioned in the Netflix documentary.

At one point, the documentary shows us the transcript of an FBI wiretap of an Elijah Muhammad phone call that reads as follows: “Elijah said the only way to stop him [Malcolm] was to get rid of him the way Moses and the others did their bad ones” – i.e., by putting Malcolm to death, as Moses had effectuated the death of idolators in ancient times. Another portion of the same transcript quotes Elijah Muhammad saying that the best way to deal with “hypocrites” like Malcolm would be to “cut their heads off.”  

Also appearing in the Netflix documentary is former NOI member Q. Amin Nathari, who is shown saying: “It was inevitable that he [Malcolm] would be killed, whether it was gonna be a [NOI] crew out of Philadelphia, or a crew out of New York, or a crew out of any other city that had that type of zeal and love for Elijah Muhammad.” And David Garrow concurs: “For months preceding the assassination, the resentment that the top leadership of the Nation of Islam had towards Malcolm was explicitly broadcast. The signals, the public signals, were visible to anyone who was paying the slightest bit of attention.”

But while Who Killed Malcolm X? acknowledges that the undeniable animosity between Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad was profound and deeply rooted, the documentary nonetheless blames the FBI for fomenting much of that discord. The film notes, for instance, that the Bureau had infiltrated NOI with three “top level” informants, and it displays a 1962 FBI document that reads: “Elijah Muhammad is engaging in extramarital activities with at least five female members of the Nation of Islam. This information indicated Elijah Muhammad has fathered some children by these women…. These paradoxes in the character of Elijah Muhammad make him extremely vulnerable to criticism by his followers.” This document causes David Garrow to say: “The Bureau is aiming to publicly embarrass Elijah Muhammad. That’s a classic Bureau tactic.” Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, for his part, puts it this way: “The FBI was determined to use more counterintelligence techniques to create more distance and schisms between Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad.”

Who Actually Killed Malcolm X?

After Malcolm X was shot and killed in the Audubon Ballroom on the afternoon of February 21, 1965, three NOI members were arrested for the crime. One of the three was 24-year-old Talmadge Hayer (who would later change his name to Mujahid Abdul Halim), who was caught by police at the scene of the murder, with a handgun ammunition clip in his pocket. Hayer was a member of NOI Mosque #25 in Newark, New Jersey.

The other two suspects were not caught at the scene of the crime but were arrested soon afterward. One was a 26-year-old man known as Norman 3X Butler, who would later take the name Muhammad Abdul Aziz and is currently 81 years old. The other was a young man known as Thomas 15X Johnson, who would later change his name to Khalil Islam, and who died in 2009.

Both Butler and Johnson were members of NOI Mosque #7 in Harlem, New York. They became prime suspects in the killing of Malcolm because they both had significant criminal histories and were known to be vocal enemies of the former NOI spokesman. But at the murder trial in early 1966, Hayer, who confessed to being part of the assassination plot, testified that neither Butler nor Johnson had taken part in the crime. Rather, said Hayer, four other accomplices had assisted him. He refused to name any of them, however.

Butler and Johnson, meanwhile, both denied involvement in Malcolm’s death, and the Netflix film tells us that both men provided alibis in the form of people who testified to having seen them, or to having spoken with them, at the exact time of the killing in the Audubon Ballroom. But we have no way of knowing how reliable those witnesses were. Moreover, Abdur-Rahman Muhammad tells us that “Butler even had a doctor who testified that he saw him that morning for injuries on his leg that Butler said made it near impossible for him to walk around freely.” But Mr. Muhammad’s claim is untrue. During the trial in early 1966, Butler’s physician testified that he did not see Butler until February 25 – four days after the murder, and one day before Butler’s arrest.

Also part of Johnson and Butler’s defense was their contention that because they were well known to be enemies of Malcolm X, NOI security personnel would have made it impossible for them to gain admittance into the ballroom.

Both Butler and Johnson were members of NOI’s Fruit of Islam contingent. The Netflix movie does not give viewers any sense of just how violent the Fruit of Islam was. Consider, for instance, what Johnson – who, at the time of Malcolm X’s killing, had another gun-crime charge pending against him -- said in a 2007 interview with New York magazine: “We all were in the Fruit of Islam, which was nothing but a paramilitary unit. If someone pulled off a Muslim’s bow tie, or ripped up the Muhammad Speaks newspaper, we reacted. Tell us to go kick a guy’s spleen out, we were on him with all four feet. We were martial artists, but we weren’t training to become black belts: We were training to kill black belts. You didn’t want to see us coming.”

Nor does the Netflix film mention that Johnson himself was admittedly very much in favor of killing Malcolm, as he noted in the same 2007 interview: “If we caught someone smoking a cigarette in the mosque, we’d throw them down the stairs headfirst. You didn’t break the rules. Malcolm knew that. So what did he expect, saying those things about Elijah Muhammad? That was one of the first tenets of the religion: You don’t criticize the leader, for sure you don’t do it to white people. The truth is, I thought the man was worthy of death.”

Why would a documentary seeking to uncover the truth about Malcolm’s murder, leave out such a significant quote by one of the men convicted of that murder?

The Netflix series also turns a blind eye to the devastating evidence brought forth by Karl Evanzz, author of the 1992 book The Judas Factor: The Plot to Kill Malcolm X, who explains that in the 1966 trial, “numerous eyewitnesses identified Norman Butler as the person they saw firing a gun at Malcolm X.” Evanzz writes that Hagan and Butler in particular “look[ed] like imbeciles” when testifying in court, as they essentially “convicted themselves” by way of their own “numerous lies,” “misstatements,” and “half-truths” which were exposed during cross-examination.

Moreover, Evanzz has publicly posted still-frame photographs from video footage of the scene outside the Audubon Ballroom just after the killing of Malcolm X. These photos show a man whom Evanzz identifies as Norman Butler, trying to view Malcolm’s body as it is being carried away by authorities. In the photos, Butler is wearing the same distinctive tweed suit and fedora hat that he been wearing a few weeks earlier when he and Johnson were arrested for shooting and wounding a fellow NOI member in a dispute. In short, says Evanzz, these pictures provide “positive proof that Butler was not at home with an injured leg at the time of the assassination.”

It is curious that a documentary on Malcolm’s death would not even try to address evidence like this.

In early 1966, Hayer, Butler, and Johnson were all convicted of Malcolm X's murder. Each was sentenced to life in prison, but none of them actually served a full life sentence. Hayer, for his part, was jailed from 1966-88, after which he was relegated to a work-release program that allowed him to spend only two days per week in a minimum-security facility until his parole in April 2010. Butler, meanwhile, served nearly 20 years and was paroled in 1985. And Johnson served 22 years until his parole in 1988, twenty-one years before he died in 2009.

Blaming the FBI and the New York Police Department

The Netflix documentary suggests that the FBI and the NYPD played a major role in Malcolm’s murder. As David Garrow tells us in the film: “The FBI was listening to Elijah Muhammad and his top aides 24 hours a day prior to the killing. My belief is that the FBI should have known that the Nation of Islam was going to kill Malcolm” – the implication being that the Bureau should have intervened in some way to protect him.

The documentary also shows historian Zak A. Kondo stating, similarly, that the FBI, knowing “the mentality of the men of the Fruit of Islam in particular,” purposely employed “various counterintelligence techniques” designed “to facilitate the Nation doing for the FBI what the FBI couldn’t do for itself.” “They thought, you know, if we keep pushing this thing, the Nation will take out Malcolm X,” says Kondo.

Further, the Netflix series shows yet another commenter saying that the NOI members who killed Malcolm X were “willing tools” and “puppets” of white law-enforcement personnel who were, in turn, the “puppeteers … in charge of that whole situation.”

Noting that “in those final weeks it was clear that Malcolm was in dire need of protection,” Abdur-Rahman Muhammad laments that “it was also clear that he wasn’t getting it” from the “authorities” who “had a responsibility … to protect his life at all cost.” On the afternoon of the murder, adds Mr. Muhammad, there was “an absence of any kind of police force in and around the Audubon…. This was very strange, especially given the recent threats that were made on his life.”

In a similar vein, the documentary claims that the policemen who arrived at the Audubon Ballroom immediately after the shooting of Malcolm X appeared to be largely unconcerned about what had just occurred. As Abdur-Rahman Muhammad puts it, the officers had “no sense of urgency,” “almost as if they knew this was going to happen, almost as if they wanted it to happen.” Because of either “negligence or complicity by law enforcement,” says Mr. Muhammad, the real killer was able to get away. This, he claims, amounts to evidence of the “NYPD’s involvement in Malcolm’s assassination.”  

But while Mr. Muhammad condemns law-enforcement for failing to adequately protect Malcolm, he articulates his belief that “Malcolm and his family had plenty of reasons not to trust the NYPD” – suggesting that police protection, even if it had been provided, would have been undependable at best. And indeed, the documentary begrudgingly notes that the Police Department did actually offer to provide Malcolm with round-the-clock personal security – which would have come at great cost to taxpayers – but that Malcolm rejected the offer. The film contends that the NYPD’s offer was insincere because the Department already knew in advance that Malcolm would turn it down.  

It would have been “crazy,” says Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, for Malcolm to turn to the police for protection. Moreover, the documentary shows a clip of Malcolm X himself making that very same point: “So the policemen in this country are the ones who are responsible for the brutality, the policemen themselves have become guilty of violating the rights of the people. So what are the people to do? Call on the same ones who are victimizing them, to protect them? No. They [the people] have to protect themselves.”

The bottom line, as far as the documentary is concerned, is that the police were damned if did (provide security for Malcolm), and damned if they didn’t. Or, as one commenter shown in the film puts it, Malcolm’s death was largely a manifestation of “the complex tragedy” of “being black in America.”

Hayer Reveals the Killers’ Names in 1977

For 12 years after the murder of Malcolm X, Hayer did not reveal the identities of the four men he said were his accomplices. Then, in 1977 -- two years after NOI leader Elijah Muhammad had died -- Hayer drew up an affidavit for civil rights lawyer William Kunstler in which he named the four guilty parties: (1) “Ben” (later identified as Benjamin Thomas); (2) “Lee” or “Leon” (later identified as Leon Davis); (3) “Wilbur” or “Kinly” (later identified as Wilbur McKinley); and (4) “Willie X” (later identified as William X Bradley). All four were, like Hayer, members of NOI Mosque #25 in Newark, which, as Abdur-Rahman Muhammad notes in his Netflix documentary, “was known as a very radical, militant, fanatical even type of mosque, and they prided themselves on that.” In the film, Kunstler contends that the four conspirators “got away with it” specifically because they were all from Newark and thus “they were people nobody [in New York] knew.”

Most notable among the four alleged accomplices was William X Bradley, who would later adopt the Muslim name Almustafa Shabazz. Bradley was a longtime violent criminal who, by Hayer’s telling, had actually fired the gunshots that killed Malcolm. In the Netflix documentary, Abdur-Rahman Muhammad says that in video footage of the mayhem that engulfed the area just outside the Audubon Ballroom on the day of Malcolm’s murder, was one particular man “who looks a lot like William Bradley,” and “he’s feigning like he’s part of the brawl, and in that kind of misdirection, he steps back, and then you see him walk across the frame very calmly, closing his coat, and he just walks away. This is how he got away.”

The documentary also points out that a second affidavit was filed by an NOI member named Benjamin Goodman (aka Benjamin Karim), who claimed that Butler and Johnson were not present at the Audubon Ballroom on February 21, 1965.

But when Kunstler in 1978 tried, on the basis of the two affidavits, to get the case reopened in an effort to vacate the convictions of Butler and Johnson, a judge rejected the motion on grounds that no new evidence was being brought forward. As David Garrow says in the Netflix film: “There would need to be some corroboration of these claims in order for a court really to be satisfied. So, on its face, it didn’t seem to have enough substance.”

The Netflix documentary asserts that “on the street” in Newark, it was an open secret that Bradley was the gunman who killed Malcolm X. He fit the FBI’s description of the assailant, based on eyewitness testimony, as a dark-skinned 28-year-old black man who stood 6-foot-2, weighed about 200 pounds, and was wearing a gray overcoat.

In the years following Malcolm’s murder, Bradley spent a great deal of time in prison for other, unrelated crimes. Eventually he was released in 1998, at which time he opened a boxing gym in Newark and began to develop a reputation as something of a mentor to young people in the community. Abdur-Rahman Muhammad was prepared to track Bradley down and confront him with questions regarding his whereabouts on the day of Malcolm’s murder, and whether he may have been an FBI informant at the time of the murder. But Bradley died in 2018, so the interview never took place.

The Netflix Film’s Emphasis on America’s Intransigent Racism

A theme that weaves its way conspicuously throughout the fabric of Who Killed Malcolm X?, is that white racism – in the form of misconduct by the FBI and NYPD -- not only played a major role in Malcolm’s death in 1965, but continues to be a toxic force in American society to this day. Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, for his part, candidly explains that the reason why he himself became a “black militant activist” as a young man was because of Malcolm’s confrontational, rebellious message. At various times in his film, Mr. Muhammad passionately lauds Malcolm as a “black man that wasn’t gonna take this shit anymore,” and who told his fellow African Americans that “it’s time to stop singing and start swinging!”

At one point, the Netflix documentary shows black-and-white video footage of a white newsman, shortly after Malcolm’s murder, asking a black citizen on the street if he believed that “this [killing] was paid for by whites.” The man replied: “Yes, by white people. Anytime a black man in this country stands up for his constitutional rights, he dies.” Another clip shows a black woman at that time stating: “The white power structure in America is behind it. And they were quick to capitalize on it by saying that one of his [Malcolm’s] own kind did it, but they [the whites] put it up to be done.” Yet another clip shows a black commenter saying that “the hidden hand behind Malcolm’s assassination was the big boys down in Washington.”

Also presented in the Neflix series are video clips of various statements and scenes whose very obvious purpose is to drive home the notion that the same racist forces that allegedly contributed to the killing of Malcolm X in 1965, are still very much alive today. For example, the film shows Malcolm saying in the Sixties that “black people in this country have been the victims of violence at the hands of the white man for 400 years,” juxtaposed with a clip of Jelani Cobb, a staff writer for The New Yorker, saying in 2018 that “white supremacy in the United States” has “not really” diminished at all in the “53 years after his death.”

While these and other quotes are being recited, the Netflix documentary displays a series of photos whose common theme is the notion that white police officers routinely abuse blacks in present-day America. One scene, for instance, shows black demonstrators holding up signs bearing the names of black people like Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, and Renisha McBride, who lost their lives in highly publicized conflicts with police in recent years. Other protesters are shown raising their fists in Black Power salutes or holding placards that call for “Reparations,” denounce “Environmental Racism,” assert that “Black Lives Matter,” advocate “By Any Means Necessary” as a motto for racial rebellion, and assert that “The white man is the devil.” Additional scenes show images of NYPD officers in August 2014 grappling with Eric Garner, a black man who died shortly afterward; NBA start Lebron James wearing an “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirt in homage to Garner; former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who became famous for kneeling during pre-game national anthems as a way of protesting America’s purportedly ubiquitous racism; and black urban rioters violently destroying a police car. Yet another scene in the documentary treats us to an interview with a young black man recalling how white police officers had once singled him out as a “ni**er” and “terrorized” him for an extended period of time.   

In the final analysis, Who Killed Malcolm X? does a competent job at making the case that the late William X Bradley was in fact intimately involved in the killing of Malcolm X but was never punished for that crime. It does a less effective job of proving its claim that Norman 3X Butler (aka Muhammad Abdul Aziz) and Thomas 15X Johnson (Khalil Islam) were innocent.

But clearly, the film’s objective was not simply to exonerate these men. Its larger purpose was to bang the drum of white racism loudly enough for all the nation to hear. If not for the white power structure dominating the FBI and the NYPD, we are told, Malcolm may well have been able to escape assassination altogether, and a pair of innocent men might have been able to avoid spending two decades apiece in prison. We see Butler/Aziz himself articulate this message with crystal clarity in the film: “When the white man say you guilty, you guilty. Why? Cause he says so and he got a gun, or he got a key, or he got money, and it’s that simple.”

It is remarkable that Who Killed Malcolm X? – while purporting to be a nonpartisan search for truth – says not a word about Louis Farrakhan’s admission, many years after the 1965 murder, that he himself had “helped create the atmosphere” that led to the killing of Malcolm. Nor does the film mention the historic 60 Minutes interview of May 2000, where Farrakhan, seated across from Malcolm X’s oldest daughter, Atallah Shabazz, stated quite candidly: “Yes, it is true that black men pulled the trigger. We cannot deny any responsibility in this. Where we are responsible, where our hands are a part of this, we beg God's mercy and forgiveness.”

Malcolm X was a marked man. The Nation of Islam detested him for his disloyalty to Elijah Muhammad and was determined to murder him. And it did. Neither the FBI nor the NYPD were responsible for that.