By Amy Goodman & Denis Moynihan
Malcolm X was assassinated 58 years ago, on February 21st, 1965, standing at the podium before a crowd in Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom. His wife Betty Shabazz, pregnant with twins, and his four daughters, aged 6, 4, 2 and five months, were in the ballroom, looking on. As Malcolm began speaking, a man shouted, accusing another of picking his pocket, creating a disturbance. A smoke bomb was thrown. Amidst the confusion, three gunmen at the front of the hall opened fire. Malcolm was hit 17 times in the ensuing hail of bullets. He died on the stage as chaos erupted.
Talmadge Hayer (a.k.a. Mujahid Abdul Halim) was shot in the leg by one of Malcolm X’s bodyguards as he fled the ballroom. He was caught on the scene with ammunition that matched one of the murder weapons. In the days that followed, two other men, Khalil Islam and Muhammad Aziz, were arrested and accused of being the two additional shooters, even though they were nowhere near the ballroom that day and could prove it. Hayer testified under oath that his two codefendants were innocent but was ignored.
Aziz would go on to spend 20 years in prison, and Islam, 22 years. Then, in 2021, more than 56 years after Malcolm X’s assassination, these two wrongfully convicted men were exonerated. Muhammad Aziz was 83 years old. Khalil Islam died in 2009. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. opened a reinvestigation of the assassination and prosecution, complementing years of dogged research by journalists, historians and independent researchers that pointed not only to the innocence of Aziz and Islam, but to the guilt of others.
The reinvestigation spanned almost two years, and uncovered previously undisclosed FBI and New York Police Department (NYPD) documents. It was revealed, more than half a century later, that the FBI had up to ten informants inside the Audubon Ballroom. The NYPD had at least three undercover officers there as well, one of whom was actually on Malcolm X’s security team. Evidence gathered by both the FBI and the NYPD that was exculpatory was “deliberately withheld” from Aziz and Islam. This information and more, the Manhattan DA argued, “would have resulted in verdicts more favorable to the defendants.” The court agreed, and vacated the convictions in late 2021.
Muhammad Aziz and the estate of Khalil Islam sued both the City and State of New York for wrongful conviction and imprisonment, and, in late 2022, they reached a combined settlement of $36 million.
Which brings us to 2023. Today, the Audubon Ballroom has been restored, and is the Malcolm X & Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial & Education Center. On February 21st, the 58th anniversary of Malcolm’s assassination, the family, along with their lawyers, held a press conference there to announce a forthcoming $100 million wrongful death lawsuit. The suit will name the City of New York, the District Attorney, the NYPD, the FBI, the U.S. Justice Department, and, interestingly, the Central Intelligence Agency.
“We intend to have vigorous litigation of this matter,” civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump said. “To have discovery, to be able to take depositions of the individuals who are still alive 58 years later, to make sure that some measure of justice can be given to Malcolm X’s daughters, who in this very room were present with their mother when he was shot at 21 times, 17 bullets hitting him. If anybody deserves justice after these decades, it is these women.”
Malcolm X’s third daughter of six, Dr. Ilyasah Shabazz, an educator and author, spoke next, her voice shaking: “On February 21st, 1965, my mother came here excited to see her husband, because a week prior her home had been firebombed. She walked in here happy, and she left shattered.” Ilyasah was also there that day, just two years old.
She continued, “For years our family has fought for the truth to come to light concerning his murder, and we’d like our father to receive the justice that he deserves. The truth about the circumstances leading to the death of our father is important not only to his family but to many followers, many admirers, many who looked to him for guidance, for love. And it is our hope that litigation of this case will finally provide some unanswered questions. We want justice served for our father.”
Malcolm X was just 39 years old when he was assassinated, as was Martin Luther King, Jr. three years later when felled by a sniper’s bullet in Memphis. Both men were leading revolutionary movements for Black liberation, and both were heavily surveilled and targeted by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.
The time for knowing the full truth behind Malcolm X’s assassination is long past due. May this lawsuit provide the answers, and the overdue justice, that his daughters, and this country, deserve.