Does Malcolm X’s Assassination Matter 55 Years Later? New Claims Suggest it Might
February is Black History Month, but this year it also marks 55 years since the assassination of one of the most prominent and controversial figures in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and the subject of a recent Netflix documentary series, Who Killed Malcolm X? On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was gunned down as he was about to address a gathering at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem sparking a whole new set of controversies related to the investigation, trial and convictions of the alleged perpetrators.
A little over a year later, three men were convicted for murder in the case, each receiving a life sentence. But something wasn’t quite right, and those closest to the matter seemed to know it.
During the trial, Thomas Hagan (AKA Talmadge X Hayer; Mujahid Abdul Halim) confessed to the crime, but testified that the other two men indicted, Thomas Johnson (AKA Khalil Islam) and Norman Butler (AKA Muhammad Abd Al-Aziz), were innocent. Despite Hagan’s testimony all three men were found guilty.
The Netflix series explores, among other things, Hagan’s continued insistence that Johnson and Butler were innocent as well as affidavits he signed in 1977 and 78 where he implicates four other men involved who were never tried or convicted of the crime. Perhaps the most important assailant named was William Bradley (AKA Al-Mustafa Shabazz), a member of a Newark, NJ Nation of Islam Mosque, who Hagan claims fired the first shots at Malcolm X.
Bradley appeared briefly in a 2010 TV campaign ad Senator Cory Booker who was mayor of Newark at the time. In 2015 the Daily News reported that Bradley’s role in the assassination was an “open secret” in Newark, but Bradley initially declined to comment to reporters when they confronted him in front of his home. He later told the News that no one had ever spoken to him about the matter and that he was simply being accused of something he didn’t do.
Bradley died in 2018 without having ever been tried for the murder of Malcolm X. The other men named in Hagan’s affidavits, Benjamin Thomas, Leon Davis and Wilbur McKinley were members of the same Newark Mosque. Thomas is known to have died in 1986, while Davis and McKinley are also believed to be dead, though Davis reportedly lived in Patterson, NJ as late as 1989.
Questions raised in the documentary were enough to convince the Manhattan District Attorney, Cyrus Vance, Jr. to launch a preliminary review the case together with the Innocence Project, a non-profit that seeks to exonerate individuals wrongly convicted of a crime.
Meanwhile, of the three men convicted of the crime, all were ultimately granted parole. Johnson died in 2009. Hagan is now 78 and, while still a practicing Muslim, is no longer a member of the Nation of Islam and has expressed regret over his involvement in Malcolm X’s death. Butler, now 81, was the first of them to receive parole (1985) and has spent most of his time since then trying to clear his name.
Perhaps a revamped investigation into the events of February 1965, will give him that opportunity at long last.