The Assassination of Malcolm X

February 21, 1965

Malcolm X's body being carried on a stretcher after his assassination.
Black activist Malcolm X is carried from the Audubon Ballroom where he had just been shot. He died shortly after, New York, New York, February 21, 1965. (Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

After spending a year as a hunted man, Malcom X was shot and killed during a meeting of the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, New York, on February 21, 1965. The assailants, at least three in number, were members of the black Muslim group the Nation of Islam, the group with which Malcolm X had been a prominent minister for ten years before he split with them in March 1964.

Exactly who shot Malcolm X has been hotly debated over the decades. One man, Talmage Hayer, was arrested at the scene and was definitely a shooter. Two other men were arrested and sentenced, but were most likely wrongly accused. The confusion over the identity of the shooters compounds the question of why Malcolm X was assassinated and has led to a wide range of conspiracy theories.

Becoming Malcolm X

Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little in 1925. After his father was brutally murdered, his home life unraveled and he was soon selling drugs and involved in petty crimes. In 1946, 20-year-old Malcolm X was arrested and sentenced to ten years in prison.

It was in prison that Malcolm X learned about the Nation of Islam (NOI) and began writing daily letters to the NOI’s leader, Elijah Muhammad, known as the “Messenger of Allah.” Malcolm X, the name he acquired from the NOI, was released from prison in 1952.

He quickly rose up the ranks of the NOI, becoming the minister of the large Temple Number Seven in Harlem.

For ten years, Malcolm X remained a prominent, outspoken member of the NOI, creating controversy across the nation with his rhetoric. However, the close ties between Malcolm X and Muhammad began to whither in 1963.

Breaking With the NOI

Tensions quickly escalated between Malcolm X and Muhammad, with the final rift occurring on December 4, 1963. The entire nation was mourning the recent death of President John F. Kennedy, when Malcolm X publically made the uncouth remark that JFK’s death was as “chickens coming home to roost.” In response, Muhammad ordered Malcom X be suspended from the NOI for 90 days.

After the end of the suspension, on March 8, 1964, Malcolm X formally left the NOI. Malcolm X had become disillusioned with the NOI and so after he left, he created his own black Muslim group, the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU).

Muhammad and the rest of the NOI brothers were not pleased that Malcolm X had created what they viewed as a competing organization – an organization that could potentially pull a large group of members away from the NOI. Malcolm X also had been a trusted member of the inner circle of the NOI and knew many secrets that could potentially destroy the NOI if revealed to the public.

All of this made Malcolm X a dangerous man. To discredit Malcolm X, Muhammad and the NOI began a smear campaign against Malcolm X, calling him the “chief hypocrite.” To defend himself, Malcolm X revealed information about Muhammad’s infidelities with six of his secretaries, with whom he had illegitimate children.

Malcolm X had hoped this revelation would make the NOI back off; instead, it just made him seem even more dangerous.

A Hunted Man

Articles in the NOI’s newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, became increasingly vicious. In December 1964, one article got very close to calling for Malcolm X’s assassination,

Only those who wish to be led to hell, or to their doom, will follow Malcolm. The die is set, and Malcolm shall not escape, especially after such evil, foolish talk about his benefactor [Elijah Muhammad] in trying to rob him of the divine glory which Allah has bestowed upon him. Such a man as Malcolm is worthy of death, and would have met with death if it had not been for Muhammad’s confidence in Allah for victory over the enemies.1

Many members of the NOI believed the message was clear: Malcolm X had to be killed.

During the year after Malcolm X had left the NOI, there had been several assassination attempts on his life, in New York, Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles. On February 14, 1965, just a week before his assassination, unknown assailants firebombed Malcolm X’s house while he and his family were asleep inside. Luckily, all were able to escape unharmed.

These attacks made it obvious -- Malcolm X was a hunted man. It was wearing him down. As he told Alex Haley just days before his assassination, “Haley, my nerves are shot, my brain’s tired.”2

The Assassination

On the morning of Sunday, February 21, 1965, Malcolm X woke up in his 12th-floor hotel room at the Hilton Hotel in New York. Around 1 p.m., he checked out of the hotel and headed for the Audubon Ballroom, where he was to speak at a meeting of his OAAU. He parked his blue Oldsmobile nearly 20 blocks away, which seems surprising for someone who was being hunted.

When he arrived at the Audubon Ballroom, he headed backstage. He was stressed and it was beginning to show. He lashed out at several people, shouting angrily.3 This was very out of character for him.

When the OAAU meeting was to start, Benjamin Goodman went out on stage to speak first. He was to speak for about a half an hour, warming up the crowd of about 400 before Malcolm X was to speak.

Then it was Malcolm X’s turn. He stepped up to the stage and stood behind a wooden podium. After he gave the traditional Muslim welcome, “As-salaam alaikum,” and got the response, a ruckus began to start in the middle of the crowd.

A man had stood up, shouting that a man next to him had tried to pick-pocket him. Malcolm X’s bodyguards left the stage area to go deal with the situation. This left Malcolm unprotected on the stage. Malcolm X sidestepped away from the podium, saying “Let’s be cool, brothers.”4 It was then that a man stood up near the front of the crowd, pulled out a sawed-off shotgun from beneath his trench-coat and shot at Malcolm X.

The blast from the shotgun made Malcolm X fall backwards, over some chairs.

The man with the shotgun fired again. Then, two other men rushed the stage, firing a Luger and a .45 automatic pistol at Malcolm X, hitting mostly his legs.

The noise from the shots, the violence that had just been committed, and a smoke bomb that had been set off in the back, all added to the chaos. En masse, the audience tried to escape. The assassins used this confusion to their advantage as they blended into the crowd -- all but one escaped.

The one who did not escape was Talmage “Tommy” Hayer (sometimes called Hagan). Hayer had been shot in the leg by one of Malcolm X’s bodyguards as he was trying to escape. Once outside, the crowd realized that Hayer was one of the men who had just murdered Malcolm X and the mob started to attack Hayer. Luckily, a policeman happened to be walking by, saved Hayer, and managed to get Hayer into the back of a police car.

During the pandemonium, several of Malcolm X’s friends rushed to the stage to try to help him. Despite their efforts, Malcolm X was too far gone. Malcolm X’s wife, Betty Shabazz, had been in the room with their four daughters that day. She ran up to her husband, shouting, “They are killing my husband!”5

Malcolm X was put on a stretcher and carried across the street to the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center. Doctors tried to revive Malcolm X by opening up his chest and massaging his heart, but their attempt was unsuccessful.

The Funeral

Malcolm X’s body was cleaned, made presentable, and dressed in a suit, so that the public could view his remains at the Unity Funeral Home in Harlem. From Monday through Friday (February 22 to 26), long lines of people waited to get a last glimpse of the fallen leader. Despite the numerous bomb threats that frequently closed down the viewing, approximately 30,000 people made it through.6

When the viewing was over, Malcolm X’s clothes were changed into the traditional, Islamic, white shroud. The funeral was held on Saturday, February 27 at the Faith Temple Church of God, where Malcolm X’s friend, actor Ossie Davis, gave the eulogy.

Then Malcolm X’s body was then taken to the Ferncliff Cemetery, where he was buried under his Islamic name, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.

The Trial

The public wanted Malcolm X’s assassins caught and the police delivered. Tommy Hayer was obviously the first one arrested and there was strong evidence against him. He had been taken into custody at the scene, a .45 cartridge was found in his pocket, and his fingerprint was found on the smoke bomb.

The police found two other suspects by arresting men who had been connected to another shooting of a NOI ex-member. The problem was that there was no physical evidence tying these two men, Thomas 15X Johnson and Norman 3X Butler, to the assassination. The police had only eye-witnesses that vaguely remembered them being there.

Despite the weak evidence against Johnson and Butler, the trial of all three defendants began on January 25, 1966. With the evidence mounting against him, Hayer took the stand on February 28 and stated that Johnson and Butler were innocent. This revelation shocked everyone in the courtroom and it was unclear at the time whether the two really were innocent or whether Hayer was just trying to get his co-conspirators off the hook. With Hayer unwilling to reveal the names of the real assassins, the jury ultimately believed the latter.

All three men were found guilty of first degree murder on March 10, 1966 and were sentenced to life in prison.

Who Really Killed Malcolm X?

The trial did little to elucidate what really happened in the Audubon Ballroom that day. Nor did it reveal who was behind the assassination. As in many other such cases, this void of information led to widespread speculation and conspiracy theories. These theories placed the blame for Malcolm X’s assassination on a wide number of people and groups, including the CIA, FBI, and drug cartels.

The more likely truth comes from Hayer himself. After the death of Elijah Muhammad in 1975, Hayer felt overwhelmed with the burden of having contributed to the imprisonment of two innocent men and now felt less obligated to protect the changing NOI.

In 1977, after 12 years in jail, Hayer handwrote a three-page affidavit, describing his version of really happened that fateful day in 1965. In the affidavit, Hayer again insisted that Johnson and Butler were innocent. Instead, it was Hayer and four other men who had planned and committed the murder of Malcolm X. He also explained why he killed Malcolm X...

I thought it was very bad for anyone to go against the teachings of the Hon. Elijah, then known as the last Messenger of God. I was told that Muslims should more or less be willing to fight against hypocrites and I agreed w/ that. There was no money payed [sic] to me for my part in this. I thought I was fighting for truth and right.7

A few months later, on February 28, 1978, Hayer wrote another affidavit, this one longer and more detailed and included the names of those really involved.

In this affidavit, Hayer described how he was recruited by two Newark NOI members, Ben and Leon. Then later Willie and Wilber joined the crew. It was Hayer who had the .45 pistol and Leon who used the Luger. Willie sat a row or two behind them with the sawed-off shotgun. And it was Wilbur who started the commotion and set off the smoke bomb.

Despite Hayer’s detailed confession, the case was not reopened and the three convicted men – Hayer, Johnson, and Butler – served out their sentences, Butler being the first to be paroled in June 1985, after having served 20 years in prison. Johnson was released shortly thereafter. Hayer, on the other hand, was not paroled until 2010, after spending 45 years in prison.

Notes

  1. Louis X as quoted in Michael Friedly, Malcolm X: The Assassination (New York: Carrol & Graf Publishers, 1992) 153.
  2. Friedly, Malcolm X, 10.
  3. Friedly, Malcolm X, 17.
  4. Friedly, Malcolm X, 18.
  5. Friedly, Malcolm X, 19.
  6. Friedly, Malcolm X, 22.
  7. Tommy Hayer as quoted in Friedly, Malcolm X, 85.