We speak with independent researcher Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, whose work is featured in the Netflix documentary “Who Killed Malcolm X?” and helped ignite widespread public support for two men falsely convicted of assassinating the civil rights activist in 1965. Muhammad was in the courtroom this week as a judge exonerated 83-year-old Muhammad Aziz and the late Khalil Islam due to revelations uncovered by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and the Innocence Project that key evidence was withheld at the trial. Aziz has maintained his innocence and addressed the court after he finally received an official apology, saying his false conviction was “the result of a process that was corrupt to its core.” Muhammad says being in the courtroom was “surreal.” “To watch the government admit that these brothers were sent to prison for a crime they didn’t commit was stunning.”
AMY GOODMAN: A New York judge has exonerated two men convicted in the assassination of Malcolm X in the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, February 21st, 1965. This came after the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and the Innocence Project conducted a nearly two-year investigation that uncovered key evidence was withheld at the trial of the two men, 83-year-old Muhammad Aziz and Khalil Islam, who died in 2009. On Thursday, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance apologized in court to Aziz and the family of Islam. Vance also called out former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
CYRUS VANCE: We have obtained dozens and dozens of reports from the FBI and the NYPD’s Bureau of Special Services and Investigations. These records include FBI reports of witnesses who failed to identify Mr. Islam and who implicated other subjects and suspects. And significantly, we now have reports revealing that on orders from Director J. Edgar Hoover himself, the FBI ordered multiple witnesses not to tell police or prosecutors that they were, in fact, FBI informants. Many of those documents were exculpatory. None of them were disclosed to the defense.
AMY GOODMAN: That was the Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance speaking through his mask. Eighty-three-year-old Muhammad Aziz also addressed the court. He was jailed for almost two decades for the killing of Malcolm X before being released on parole in 1985. He has been fighting to clear his name ever since. Listen carefully, because he, too, is wearing the mask.
MUHAMMAD AZIZ: The event that brought us to court today should never have occurred. Those events were and are the result of a process that was corrupt to its core, one that was all too familiar to Black people in 2021. While I do not need this court, these prosecutors or a piece of paper to tell me I’m innocent, I am very glad that my family, my friends and the attorneys who have worked and supported me all of these years are finally seeing the truth, that we have all known, officially recognized. I am an 83-year-old man who was victimized by the criminal justice system. I do not know how many more years of creative activity I have. However, I hope the same system that was responsible for this travesty of justice also takes responsibility for the immeasurable harm caused to me during the last 55 or 56 years. Thank you, Your Honor.
AMY GOODMAN: Muhammad Aziz speaking Thursday in a New York courtroom. He was exonerated for his role in the assassination of Malcolm X.
The latest investigation into Malcolm’s murder in 1965 was spurred by the Netflix documentary series Who Killed Malcolm X?, which was largely based on research done by Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, an independent scholar and historian who’s spent decades investigating the life and death of Malcolm X. In a moment, Abdur-Rahman Muhammad will join us, but first, this is the trailer to Who Killed Malcolm X?
MALCOLM X: We’re not brutalized because we’re Muslims. We’re brutalized because we are Black people in America!
ABDUR-RAHMAN MUHAMMAD: The power of this man’s courage to say this stuff, it changed the entire trajectory of my life.
SHAUN KING: He was becoming a figure that transcended the Nation of Islam.
ABDUR-RAHMAN MUHAMMAD: It was politics that really started the rift between Malcolm and the Nation.
MALCOLM X: Here the white man is the greatest hate teacher that ever walked the Earth!
ABDUR-RAHMAN MUHAMMAD: The FBI was deathly afraid of someone like Malcolm X.
MALCOLM X: What kind of democracy is that?
QASIM AMIN NATHARI: People had to start wondering, “If something happens to Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm becomes the leader, it’s over for all of us.”
RAY SIMPSON: And just then, the gunfire went off.
ABDUR-RAHMAN MUHAMMAD: Malcolm’s death never sat right with me.
TONY BOUZA: The investigation was a failure.
DAVID GARROW: Asking who’s guilty is a dangerous question to ask.
ABDUR-RAHMAN MUHAMMAD: What is the real story?
EARL SIDDIQ: It’s in the history book. Leave it there. Leave it alone.
KHALILAH ALI: Elijah Muhammad told everybody, “Do not raise a hand against Malcolm X.”
IMAN MUSTAFA EL-AMIN: He didn’t have to give the order. Someone would take care of it.
DAVID GARROW: The FBI should have known.
ABDUR-RAHMAN MUHAMMAD: Why doesn’t someone want to get to the bottom of this?
A. PETER BAILEY: They never had any intentions of seriously investigating that assassination.
ABDUR-RAHMAN MUHAMMAD: That is my mission. I’m not going to stop until I get justice, because the official account of who killed Malcolm X, it’s not true.
AMY GOODMAN: Those are the words of Abdur-Rahman Muhammad in the trailer of the 2020 Netflix documentary series Who Killed Malcolm X? Abdur-Rahman Muhammad joins us now.
Welcome back to Democracy Now! You were in the courtroom yesterday. Can you describe the scene? You have two men who served each more than 20 years in prison for the assassination of Malcolm X. One of them died, Khalil Islam, more than a decade ago. But Muhammad Aziz stood there in the courtroom. Talk about the moment. Describe the scene.
ABDUR-RAHMAN MUHAMMAD: Amy, it was a beautiful fall afternoon. The weather couldn’t have been better in New York. When we sat down, we had to process what we were witnessing. It was surreal. It was almost out of body to be sitting there and watching an exoneration — not a pardon, an exoneration — long after a half a century, a half a century, of a man who was still living, a man present, 83 years old. And to watch the government admit that these brothers were sent to prison for a crime they didn’t commit, it was stunning. It was stunning. It was breathtaking, honestly. I mean, it just took my breath away.
AMY GOODMAN: And a lot of this is based on your research, a lay historian, who just devoted your life to uncovering what happened. Can you talk about who Mujahid Abdul Halim is, who spoke to a reporter yesterday briefly, to The New York Times, in favor of the exoneration, and his role in the assassination?
ABDUR-RAHMAN MUHAMMAD: Well, Mujahid Abdul Halim, back in those days, the winter of 1965, was known as Talmadge Hayer. At the time he was arrested, he was known — the name that was put on his jacket was Thomas Hagan. But he is one of the confessed assassins who was caught at the scene. One of Malcolm’s bodyguards shot him in the leg, and he was literally stomped almost to death outside the Audubon Ballroom. He was convicted for the crime, along with Muhammad Aziz, who was Norman 3X Butler at that time, and Khalil Islam, Thomas 15X Johnson. He is the one who gave us the names of the real assassins.
And, Amy, I would say this, that it was our revelation, the revelation that I published in 2010 of the identity of Al-Mustafa Shabazz, William X Bradley, that revived this entire investigation. Before that and before his name appearing in Manning Marable’s book, crediting that revelation to me, the little independent scholar here in Washington, D.C., it completely blew the lid off this whole case, revived it from the dead, literally from the dead. And that material finds its way into Who Killed Malcolm X?, and we have what we have today. And I’m appreciative to the lawyers, David Shanies and Barry Scheck, for acknowledging that in the courtroom.
Talmadge Hayer filed his affidavit in 1977 and ’78, where he named his four accomplices. It was an affidavit that was ignored by the criminal justice system. There it was, laid out in black and white, their names, you know, how they carried out the assassination, how they planned it. Law enforcement never, ever, ever made any attempt to arrest those men.
AMY GOODMAN: I only wish Manning Marable and Les Payne, two great writers, could be with us today, as well. Both died on the eve of the publication of their books on Malcolm X. But I wanted to go to the clip from that Netflix docuseries, Who Killed Malcolm X?, where you, our guest, Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, describes footage of the scene outside the Audubon Ballroom after the assassination.
ABDUR-RAHMAN MUHAMMAD: The coroner ruled the cause of death to be the shotgun pellet. It wasn’t the wounds from the shooters after the shot that killed Malcolm X. The cause of death was ruled to be the sawed-off shotgun.
REPORTER: Rally attendees seized one of the gunmen as he tried to escape the Audubon.
ABDUR-RAHMAN MUHAMMAD: There is archival film of the scene outside the Audubon Ballroom right after the assassination.
REPORTER: These men engaged in a brutal tug-of-war.
ABDUR-RAHMAN MUHAMMAD: You see a scuffle between the police and the crowd that was trying to beat down Talmadge Hayer, the only one of the assassins to confess. There’s a man standing on the edge of that crowd who looks a lot like William Bradley, who, according to Hayer, fired the shotgun that killed Malcolm. 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. If William Bradley is the man who pulled out that shotgun and took the life of Malcolm X and I can prove it, I want to confront him face to face.
AMY GOODMAN: And talk about whether you ever did confront him. But talk about who William Bradley is and how this was suppressed for decades.
ABDUR-RAHMAN MUHAMMAD: That’s right. William, he’s called in Talmadge Hayer’s affidavit “William X.” William X Bradley was a lieutenant in Muhammad’s Mosque #25 in Newark, the temple where the assassins hailed from. He was — you know, he was a street thug. He was a bank robber. He was very proficient with a sawed-off shotgun, which is the reason why he was selected to carry out the assassination of Malcolm X, because they knew he could accomplish the task. Long criminal record, especially after Malcolm’s assassination. He lived a life unmolested in Newark. He was never approached by law enforcement about the assassination of Malcolm X. He did spend many years in prison for other crimes, but not the killing of Brother Malcolm.
AMY GOODMAN: And did you get a chance to talk to him?
ABDUR-RAHMAN MUHAMMAD: Did not get a chance to talk to him. I mean, there’s no way in the world I would have approached that man’s house by myself. The truth of the matter is that what I did is really the work of law enforcement. I can’t walk up to a dangerous felon’s house and say, you know, “Why did you kill Malcolm X? Why did you murder Malcolm X?” Right? You need a team, you need security. And by the time, you know, we was able to put together the team for Who Killed Malcolm X?, where I’d have proper security and be able to make that move, unfortunately, he passed away in the middle of production as we were on the cusp of visiting his home there in Newark, New Jersey.
AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to go to the issue of all the FBI informants involved here. Let’s go to another clip from the documentary series Who Killed Malcolm X?
A. PETER BAILEY: In the 1960s, the FBI launched one of the biggest counterintelligence operations in its entire history.
MALCOLM X: Black people everywhere today are fed up with the hypocrisy practiced by whites.
A. PETER BAILEY: And they kept a very close watch on Brother Malcolm.
MALCOLM X: And if something isn’t done, then I’m afraid that you will have a racial explosion. And a racial explosion is more deadly than an atomic explosion.
ABDUR-RAHMAN MUHAMMAD: J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, was deathly afraid of someone like Malcolm X. Malcolm was being surveilled. He was being followed. His phone was tapped.
JOHN FOX: If you look at the investigation of Malcolm X, it’s when he becomes a public figure for the Nation of Islam that the bureau starts taking more of an interest into his subversive rhetoric.
INTERVIEWER: You seem to be dissatisfied with everything. Just what do you want?
MALCOLM X: I’m not dissatisfied with everything. I’m just telling you that the Negroes themselves will take whatever steps necessary to defend themselves.
DAVID GARROW: The FBI had multiple high-ranking paid human informants in the leadership of the Nation of Islam. Could it have been that FBI informants were actively involved in Malcolm’s murder? Almost certainly so.
A. PETER BAILEY: Some members of the Nation of Islam became willing tools. But they were the puppets. The puppeteers were in charge of that whole situation.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s just another clip from the Netflix series Who Killed Malcolm X? that everyone should see, that really features Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, our guest, who is the lay historian who laid out this research, has spent his life, all his off-time working at various jobs, really investigating this. It is truly amazing, Abdur-Rahman. Talk about the FBI informants and others who were not identified at the time, suppressed by J. Edgar Hoover. This was raised by Cy Vance in the courtroom.
ABDUR-RAHMAN MUHAMMAD: This is absolutely stunning, but not when you think about what an evil individual J. Edgar Hoover was. J. Edgar Hoovere was perfectly OK with allowing two innocent men to rot in prison for 20 years. It was supposed to be for the rest of their lives. Yes, we know for a fact, and have known for quite a while, that there were nine undercover FBI informants in the Audubon Ballroom that day. They filed reports in which they described the assassins to a T, especially William Bradley, the shotgun killer. They described him from head to toe, exactly what he looked like. It’s right there in the FBI documents. They had this material like the next day, February 22nd. They knew what the shotgun assassin looked like. They were receiving information that this came from Newark. They knew all of this, yet J. Edgar Hoover, to protect his assets, just denied the prosecutor, denied them access to these witnesses who could have exonerated these men and kept them from wasting away all of those decades behind bars.
AMY GOODMAN: As Cy Vance said in court, we now have reports, on orders from Director J. Edgar Hoover himself, the FBI ordered multiple witnesses not to tell police or prosecutors that they were in fact FBI informants. Many of those documents were exculpatory. None of them were disclosed to the defense. We want to end with Ameen Johnson, who spoke to reporters shortly after his late father Khalil Islam, who died in 2009, was exonerated for killing Malcolm X.
AMEEN JOHNSON: It’s bittersweet. Emotions running everywhere. The fact that my father and my mother weren’t here, are not here alive to see this and to experience the exoneration is painful, because they suffered a lot. They suffered a lot. I believe that their deaths was a direct result of the stress and drama and trauma and post-traumatic stress that this whole situation has caused on them. So, I can’t say that I’m completely happy, because they’re not here, and I think that the effects of it removed them from our lives.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that is Ameen Johnson, who spoke to reporters shortly after his late father, Khalil Islam, and Muhammad Aziz, who is still alive, were exonerated in court yesterday in New York. Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, we thank you so much for being with us and for your devoted work to Who Killed Malcolm X?, the independent scholar, historian, journalist, writer and activist, widely regarded as one of the most respected authorities on the life and legacy of Malcolm X, featured in that 2020 Netflix documentary, Who Killed Malcolm X?
Next up, Angela Davis responds to North Dakota banning teaching critical race theory in schools. And we look at Miseducation: How Climate Change Is Taught in America. Stay with us.