The city and state of New York have agreed to pay $36 million to settle lawsuits on behalf of two men wrongly convicted and imprisoned for decades for the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X. Muhammad Aziz and Khalil Islam were exonerated last year for the murder after investigators found “serious miscarriages of justice” in the case. They each spent more than 20 years in prison for a crime they did not commit, and Islam died in 2009 before his record was cleared. We speak to civil rights lawyer David Shanies, who represented the men in their lawsuit, and scholar Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, who helped spark the reopening of the case and was featured in the 2020 Netflix documentary series “Who Killed Malcolm X?”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
New York City and New York state have agreed to pay a total of $36 million to settle lawsuits on behalf of two men who were wrongly convicted and jailed for decades for assassinating Malcolm X in 1965. Last year, a judge tossed out convictions against Muhammad Aziz and the late Khalil Islam after finding serious miscarriages of justice. An investigation by the Manhattan DA’s Office and the Innocence Project found that prosecutors, the FBI, the New York Police Department omitted key evidence around Malcolm X’s murder. Muhammad Aziz spent two decades in prison before being released on parole. He was interviewed by ABC earlier this year.
BYRON PITTS: People knew why you there, that you were one of the men —
MUHAMMAD AZIZ: Yeah.
BYRON PITTS: — convicted of killing Malcolm. Were there threats because of that?
MUHAMMAD AZIZ: To me?
BYRON PITTS: Yes, sir.
MUHAMMAD AZIZ: No. No. The people know I didn’t do it. Nobody ever thought I did it. Just white people. Our people never thought I did it.
AMY GOODMAN: The other man exonerated was Khalil Islam. He died more than a decade ago, in 2009, but his family filed suit on his behalf. The settlement comes two years after Netflix released a documentary titled Who Killed Malcolm X?, which raised new questions about the assassination. This is the trailer.
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: The trailer to the 2020 Netflix documentary series, Who Killed Malcolm X? That last voice, Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, is joining us now, independent scholar, historian, journalist, writer and activist, widely regarded as one of the most respected authorities on the life and legacy of Malcolm X. We’re also joined by David Shanies, civil rights and wrongful conviction attorney. He represented Muhammad Aziz and the family of Khalil Islam, who were exonerated this year and just settled for $36 million.
David Shanies, let’s begin with you. How did this negotiation take place? What was acknowledged?
DAVID SHANIES: Well thanks for having me, Amy.
First of all, the first settlement was with the state of New York. That happened a few months ago. The recent news was the settlement with the City of New York, which happened just last week. Fortunately, and this is the exception, not the norm, both of those entities wanted to come to the table immediately. They were both serious about trying to resolve these cases. And it was important to resolve them quickly. As you know, this case had a 50-year injustice that lingered and lingered and lingered. So, for the government to resolve these cases immediately was essential.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, David, in terms of the size of the settlement, how was that reached by New York City? Because there was always, obviously, the questions about to what degree the New York City Police Department was aware of the assassination. Infamously, they had an undercover agent, Gene Roberts, who was part of the security detail. So, to what degree did the responsibilities of New York City, not just in terms of the convictions of the men but of the role of the New York City Police Department in Malcolm’s death, come into play?
DAVID SHANIES: Great question, because there are a lot of questions about who was responsible for this injustice. You have the FBI, of course, who hid a mountain of information that would have exonerated these men. But the New York City Police Department’s hands were just as dirty. They had, as you said, an undercover police officer in the ballroom who witnessed the assassination, who could have corroborated the trial testimony of Mujahid Halim, who tried to exonerate these men, said, “They had nothing to do with it. I don’t know these men.” But the NYPD sat on that information for decades.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to another clip, to introduce our next guest, from the documentary 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: And in this next clip from the Netflix docuseries Who Killed Malcolm X?, our guest, Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, describes footage of the scene outside the Audubon Ballroom after the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X.
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: That’s Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, independent scholar, historian, journalist and activist, in the docuseries on Netflix, Who Killed Malcom X? Abdul-Rahman Muhammad is joining us right now. So, $36 million has been awarded to these two men who served decades in prison: Muhammad Aziz, who is alive, and Khalil Islam, who died over 10 years ago, so he did not know — he was never vindicated in his lifetime to the public. And then you are describing who in fact did kill Malcolm X. Talk about your response to what has now taken place. And are the people involved, are any still alive?
ABDUR-RAHMAN MUHAMMAD: To my knowledge, no, they are all deceased. There’s really no one —
AMY GOODMAN: Including J. Edgar Hoover.
ABDUR-RAHMAN MUHAMMAD: Including J. Edgar Hoover. And I tend to believe that that’s the reason why we’ve been able to get this far in terms of whatever kind of justice we’ve been able to attain. It’s because it is so far along in the history that most of these personalities are long since deceased.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, clearly, Louis Farrakhan, the head of the Nation of Islam, is still around, and he famously — I think it was in 2000 in a 60 Minutes interview — claimed that he did not order the assassination of Malcolm, but he admitted that he created the climate in which the assassination took place. I’m wondering your sense of to what degree the actual perpetrators or intellectual authors of this crime were ever held to justice.
ABDUR-RAHMAN MUHAMMAD: Well, you know, let me set the record straight here. He did quite a bit more than that. I mean, he was at the Mosque No. 25, the mosque that we documented was the epicenter of the murder plot against Malcolm X. He preached there that afternoon, the very afternoon that Malcolm was delivering or was set to deliver his talk at the Audubon Ballroom. So, you know, what he knows and what we can prove that he knows, those are two different things, but he did quite a bit more than create the climate. He was — as we say, he was in the nest of the plot.
AMY GOODMAN: And were you ever able to confront him, Abdur-Rahman Muhammad?
ABDUR-RAHMAN MUHAMMAD: Well, you know, our producers reached out to him, and he declined to participate in the project in any way, viscerally so.
AMY GOODMAN: And what do you think is most important for the world to understand right now — because, clearly, Malcolm X was a world leader, he was a human rights leader — in what took place, and the role of the FBI in this?
ABDUR-RAHMAN MUHAMMAD: Well, we should understand that Malcolm’s legacy is — it looms larger today than it did even in his own lifetime. Part of the reason why it has taken so much time to attain some measure of justice in this case is because at the time of his assassination, the general public essentially took the position of the government: You know, his own people were after him, and they finally got him — case closed. You know, there weren’t too many people identifying with these wrongly accused brothers. He was not treated in the same way as Dr. King was, and he was not accorded the same respect and acclaim, as I should say, that Dr. King was able to garner. And so, his case just faded to black. But now his star looms large on the international stage, and he is regarded as an icon and a hero and a great revolutionary. And so, for that reason, we learned that in the passage of time, the true measure of a man is revealed.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We only have about a minute left, but this $36 million settlement comes on top of $20 million that New York state agreed to pay. Why was — we can see the FBI, the federal government, the New York City police, but what was the culpability of the state in all of this?
DAVID SHANIES: So —
ABDUR-RAHMAN MUHAMMAD: It was — go ahead, Dave.
DAVID SHANIES: Oh, sorry, Abdur-Rahman. Yeah, just to clarify that one, the total between the city and state is $36 million. So it was 26 from the city and 10 from the state that came previously. And the reason the state paid is because New York state is one of few states in the country that has a law that compensates people who are wrongfully convicted and imprisoned. And that’s a major movement of my partners at the Innocence Project and other organizations to get similar laws passed in the rest of the country.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you both for being with us, David Shanies, civil rights and wrongful conviction lawyer who represented Muhammad Aziz and the family of Khalil Islam. And thank you to Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, independent scholar, historian, journalist and activist who helped break open this case, didn’t let it go for decades.
That does it for our show. Democracy Now! currently accepting applications for a video news production fellowship and a people and culture manager. Learn more and apply at democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Stay safe.