Revisiting the Malcolm X Assassination

Forty years after the assassination of black nationalist leader Malcolm X the question still dangles: Why was Malcolm X murdered? The easy answer is that his murder was a revenge killing for the bitter and contentious attacks he made on his former mentor and father figure, Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. Louis Farrakhan, then known as Louis X, candidly admitted years later, "There was not a Muslim who loved the Honorable Elijah Muhammad that did not want to kill Malcolm." Farrakhan at the time repeatedly lambasted Malcolm as a betrayer of the faith. Years later, though, Farrakhan attempted a public reconciliation with Betty Shabazz, Malcolm's widow and other family members.

The three men convicted of the killing were all fanatic followers of Muhammad. But did they kill Malcolm out of robotic blind hatred? Were there others involved? And who stood to benefit the most from Malcolm's death? Those are the tougher questions that beg answers, but remain shrouded in mystery.

The men almost certainly hated Malcolm and believed they were being good Muslims by killing him. However, the FBI and the New York police department's super secret elite undercover unit, the Bureau of Special Services (BOSS) also hated Malcolm. They waged a fierce illegal and shadowy campaign to undermine Malcolm and the Muslims. They riddled the Nation of Islam and Malcolm's group, the OAAU, with informants, and police agents. They dogged his tail on his travels in Africa, and the Middle East. FBI and BOSS agents reported on every word of his speeches and press conferences.

FBI officials were well aware of the threats made on Malcolm's life by Muslims, and they knew that some in the organization were more than willing to carry out his murder. Months before the killing, FBI informants supplied verbatim accounts to FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover of death threats made against Malcolm at Black Muslim meetings. During a European jaunt, Malcolm was not allowed to leave the airport in London and Paris. Reportedly, British and French intelligence agencies feared there would be an assassination attempt against him in their countries.

Malcolm knew that he was a marked man, and that the FBI and local police had taken a see-no-evil, hear-no-evil attitude toward the threats against him. He fired off an angry letter to then Secretary of State Dean Rusk charging that, "the government had no intention to help or protect my life." He often told friends and reporters that there were forces bigger then the Muslims who wanted to kill him.

The FBI's interest in Malcolm's murder didn't stop with the conviction of his killers. FBI agents closely monitored the trial proceedings. In memos to top FBI officials, their prime concern was to protect their informants and undercover agents planted in Malcolm's organization from public exposure. At one point during the trial, one of the hit men, Talmadge Hayer, claimed that he was promised several thousand dollars for the murder by a non-Muslim. The prosecutor and defense attorneys did not press him to name names. The judge sternly warned the jury to consider only that part of Hayer's testimony that was directly pertinent to the case and disregard the rest of his statements. Hayer's statement may have simply been hyperbole to get press attention, or inflate his importance, but it was another loose end that deliberately was not tied up.

Those loose ends still tantalize and intrigue four decades later. Malcolm had become a major national and international figure who shortly before his death had worked out a constructive program for domestic social and economic change. Asian and African leaders increasingly viewed him as an able, respected, and visionary spokesman against apartheid, colonialism, the Vietnam War, and for world peace. Malcolm had evolved from the race-baiting, demagogue of his early Nation of Islam days to become one of America's leading social critics.

There is no evidence that the FBI, intelligence agencies, or the New York police had a direct hand in Malcolm's murder, and the contour of any conspiracy by anyone other than the Black Muslims to get Malcolm remains hazy, problematic, or nonexistent. But Malcolm's murder can't be totally separated from the well-documented savage war that the FBI waged against Martin Luther King, Jr. black organizations, and black leaders during the 1960s. In an infamous memo from those years, FBI officials flatly warned of the necessity to prevent "the rise of a "black messiah" among blacks. The FBI was more than willing and able to do whatever it could to make sure that that didn't happen. Malcolm undoubtedly was an unwitting casualty of Hoover and the FBI's obsession to decapitate black leadership. FBI officials undoubtedly shed few tears over his murder.

The whitewash of the issues and even mystery that often surround the murder of a popular, but controversial leader always raises questions and doubts, no matter how many years pass. Forty years later, those questions and doubts are still there in Malcolm X's murder.

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