For decades, it was believed that Elijah Muhammed, leader of the Nation of Islam, was behind the assassination of Malcolm X at the Audubon Ballroom on Feb. 21, 1965.
Three men were convicted of the crime the following year but the case was dogged by unanswered questions.
Last week, the family of Malcom X held a press conference to announce they had received a letter from a former undercover New York police officer stating that he had been ordered to infiltrate civil rights groups. In the letter, the deceased police officer, Raymond Wood, confessed that he and a second officer had been instrumental in the iconic leader's assassination.
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. has re-opened the investigation.
Back in our youths, we read the book: The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to the great writer Alex Haley. The book was part of a canon; Soul on Ice, Revolution for the Hell of It, Steal This Book, and later, The Female Eunuch and The Dialectic of Sex. Books that formed our world view. That was our generation. Maybe not yours.
If these books weren't in your early reading, here is the story: Born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1925, Malcolm X's parents Earl and Louise Little were followers of the pan-African and black nationalist movement founded by Marcus Garvey. The youngest of eight, Malcolm was a bright student. Later he would tell his daughters that his eighth-grade teacher discouraged his ambition to become a lawyer because it was unrealistic for "a colored boy."
Malcolm's father died in 1931. The death was reportedly from a streetcar accident, but the family often discussed whether Little was murdered because of his political beliefs. Louise, an educated woman from the island of Grenada who had worked as a recording secretary for the Garvey movement, entered a mental hospital in 1939, and her children, including Malcolm, bounced around relatives and foster homes. In his teens, Malcolm made his way to Harlem, where he became involved in drug dealing, prostitution, and gambling. To put it less delicately: he was a pimp and a numbers runner.
After being sentenced to 10 years in prison for larceny in 1946, Malcolm Little became the student he had wanted to be as a boy. Reading voraciously, he joined several of his siblings in the Nation of Islam, the black pride movement headed by Elijah Muhammad. This was not traditional Islam. While the Nation, like Marcus Garvey, preached Black empowerment, its leader also taught that whites were "blue-eyed devils" created millennia before by an evil scientist. Malcolm Little abandoned his "slave name" for the stark patronymic X.
After his release in 1952, Malcolm X became close to Elijah Muhammad. He continued the work of building the Nation of Islam into a national organization, gaining a following in his own right as head of the Harlem mosque.
Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammed
Malcolm X was brilliant speaker whose grasp of history sounds remarkably contemporary: "We didn't land on Plymouth Rock, my brothers and sisters. Plymouth Rock landed on us!"
Integration versus separatism was a major intellectual debate in the 1960s. Unlike Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and the Nation preached black separatism. In fact, he expressed contempt for King, thinking him naive and calling his March on Washington, the "Farce on Washington."
These divisions helped determine the fate of public schools. While some activists supported integrating the schools, even if it meant forcing the issue through busing, others insisted that schools in minority neighborhoods should receive the same resources as majority white areas. Others argued that housing should be integrated and school quality would follow.
Parity in America's public education system was never achieved. Harsh inequities remain to this day, with public school budgets determined by local tax revenues. The failure of many public schools offered an opening to privatization, and charter schools have made inroads into public school systems.
America's neighborhoods and schools are more segregated than ever; if they are more equal when it comes to resources, the improvement is marginal, especially since public schools generally are underfunded in the U.S.
One of the tragedies of Malcolm X's premature death is the loss of his intellectual, political, and spiritual development. By the time of his death, he had broken away from the Nation of Islam to form the Muslim Mosque, and his vision of an equal society had become more inclusive.
A Change Came
Muhammed Ali and Malcolm X
In 1964, after returning from a pilgrimage to Mecca, Malcolm X moved away from wholesale denunciations of whites, embracing a more humanistic approach to fighting oppression. After discovering that his mentor had fathered illegitimate children in contravention of Islamic teaching, he broke with the Nation of Islam, taking the name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, and starting his own sect: the Muslim Mosque, and the Organization for African-American Unity.
On February 14, 1965, someone threw a Molotov cocktail at Malcolm X's house; if they had succeeded, the incendiary device would have entered the room where his three daughters, ages 6, 4, and 2 slept. Malcolm X made a statement accusing Muhammad and his Nation of Islam enforcers of the attack:
My house was bombed. It was bombed by the Black Muslim movement upon the orders of Elijah Muhammad.
Now, they had come around to they had planned to do it from the front and the back so that I couldn’t get out. They covered the front completely, the front door. Then they had came to the back.
But instead of getting directly in the back of the house and throwing it this way, they stood at a 45-degree angle and tossed it at the window so it glanced and went onto the ground. And the fire hit the window and it woke up my second-oldest baby. But the fire burned on the outside of the house. But had that fire, had that one gone through that window, it would have fallen on a six-year-old girl, a four-year-old girl and a two-year-old girl.
And I’m gonna tell you, if it had done it, I’d have taken my rifle and gone after anybody in sight. I would not wait! And I say that because of this: the police know the criminal operation of the Black Muslim movement because they have thoroughly infiltrated it.
A week later, gunmen shot Malcolm X dead in Harlem's Audubon Ballroom. His wife, Betty Shabazz, pregnant with twins, shielded her four daughters from the hail of bullets.
Malcolm X was 39.
Three men were convicted of the murder. They appeared to be acting on orders from the Nation of Islam's leader, Elijah Muhammad.
It appears now that the story wasn't that simple.
A week ago, on Feb. 22, members of Malcolm X's family made public a letter apparently written by a former New York undercover police officer. According to his cousin, Raymond A. Wood wrote the letter in 2011 shortly after being diagnosed with stomach cancer. He insisted that he did not want his involvement to be made public until after his death. He died on Nov. 24, 2020.
In the letter, Wood confessed that the NYPD and the FBI had recruited him to infiltrate civil rights groups, include CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality), and the Black Panthers, between 1964 and 1971. His cousin, Reggie Wood, read this section aloud at a press conference last week:
Wood wrote that he was involved in drumming up a conspiracy among the Black Panthers and Nation of Islam members to blow up the Statue of Liberty. The goal was to arrest Malcolm X's security detail, so he would be unprotected at a speech he was scheduled to give at the Audubon Ballroom. Several people were wrongfully accused, Wood wrote, including the mother of slain rapper Tupac Shakur, as part of the group that came to be called the Panther 21.
It was my assignment to draw the two men into a felonious federal crime, so that they could be arrested by the FBI and kept away from managing Malcolm X’s Audubon Ballroom door security on February 21st, 1965.
In The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X, winner of the 2020 National Book Award for Nonfiction, co-authors Les and Tamara Payne report that by the beginning of 1965, there had already been five attempts on Malcolm X's life. They wrote that Elijah Muhammed had set an absolute deadline for Malcolm's assassination: Feb. 26, designated as Savior's Day by the Nation of Islam. They called the hit on Malcolm X "the worst-kept secret" in Muslim circles.
On that day, speaking at the Audubon ballroom, Malcolm X blasted Elijah Muhammad for accusing him of firebombing his own home. "Now they are using the same tactics that's used by the Ku Klux Klan," he said. "When the Klan bombs your church, they say you did it. When they bomb your synagogue, they say the Jews bombed their own synagogue."
Malcolm X was alluding to secret meetings Elijah Muhammad had held with the Klan; he himself had met with them once. But the next allegation cut deeper. He accused Muhammed of engaging in violence against blacks, but never against the white power structure. And he promised to name names in the coming weeks.
Minutes later, he was dead.
The question of who pulled the trigger remains important, not only for the sake of history, but to determine whether the NYPD and the FBI were guilty of conspiracy. What seems clear is that the 1966 trial didn't delve deeply enough in the circumstances of the assassination.
Khalil Islam, who spent 20 years behind bars for the crime, has long insisted that he was nowhere near the Audubon Ballroom that day. In addition to Islam's denials, one man who confessed to the murder, Majahid Abdul Halim, (also known as Talmadge Hayer or Thomas Hagan), has claimed that the other two men convicted of the killing are innocent.
Who planned the assassination of Malcolm X? Who facilitated it? Who pulled the trigger? The list of suspects remains long, and no dominant narrative has appeared yet.
That may change now. The Innocence Project, a non-profit dedicated to exonerating the wrongfully convicted and reforming the criminal justice system, had already raised questions about the assassination when Reggie Wood released his uncle's letter.
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance has opened an investigation into the convictions of two of the three Nation of Islam members held responsible for the killing. Peter Casolaro, the attorney who overturned the convictions of the Central Park Five, has been assigned to the case.
The New York Police Department announced that all records had been provided to the district attorney.
The FBI declined to comment.
Black Lives Matter
This story could sound like a plot twist out of a movie: a deathbed confession by one man, another found innocent. But if one studies the history of 1960s radical movements in the U.S., the only surprising thing is that the information - which still requires vetting and further corroboration - took so long to surface.
Lawsuits in the 1970s and 1980s revealed the FBI's counterintelligence program known as COINTELPRO was massive. The FBI and other security agencies planted informers and agents provocateur, targeting student antiwar groups, the Black Panthers, and the American Indian Movement.
The toll was felt by victims and undercover agents alike. According to his cousin, for Wood, who was Black, the case never rested. Wood said that his cousin isolated himself, fearful that if the story surfaced, he would be targeted by both police and radicals. For the sake of their safety, he kept his family at arm's length until he became ill.
And in his isolation, he had to face his own conscience. "He felt guilt and remorse for that for 56 years," said his cousin Reggie.
In early March, Raymond Wood's daughter told a different story. She said that she had been her father's caretaker during his final illness and disputed the letter's veracity. While she acknowledged that her father had worked undercover on the Statue of Liberty case, she refuted the contention that he had been present at the Audubon ballroom or directly involved in the assassination of Malcolm X.
The Shabazz family, buffeted by their own history of pain, loss, and confusion, is working with superstar attorney Ben Crump. Crump, who also represented George Floyd's family, is calling for restorative justice, a euphemism for financial damages.
Like many personal injury attorneys, Crump has been criticized for being a showboat. But nobody can argue with his sense of history. Crump recently tied what he called "an astonishing revelation from the past" to the racial reckoning the country is seeing now.
"Malcolm X is Black Lives Matter," he said.
It will be up to the Manhattan district attorney's office to disentangle the politics and family tragedy.
Keith Donnell, who wrote the poem, "Eulogy Delivered by Ossie Davis at the Funeral of Malcolm X," told us that he grew up in Philadelphia - Phillie, he calls it, sounding like a true native son - where his grandparents had a portrait of Malcolm X in their living room.
In his poem, Donnell riffs on the stirring eulogy delivered by actor Ossie Davis at Malcolm X's 1965 funeral. In his words, "I break down, warp, swap out, and reorganize the original words and sounds to create new meanings and associations."
One of those associations is unexpected: the Donner Party, settlers stopped on their way to California by heavy snows in the Sierra who resorted to cannibalism. Cannibalism, of course, is a tried-and-true trope of the "primitive." But the Donner Party were god-fearing Christian farmers. And they were white.
"I read this Joan Didion book, Run River," Donnell told JOTPY. "She talks about the Donner Party. People believed that the Donner Party failed because there was something internally that was wrong with them. The obligations that they shared among each other were wrong. So I was bringing in this idea of community, the obligations we have toward one another."
Donnell, a graduate of San Francisco State University's creative writing program, said that he's immersed himself in history, both as an undergraduate and in an earlier master's degree in African-American literature. His approach to the Malcolm X poem, along with a collection that will be his second collection, represents his sense that to truly eliminate anti-blackness requires nothing less than remaking society.
"I want to create a voice that is singular and at the same time, multitudes that talk over each other, connections between now and then," he said.
"I contain multitudes?" we asked, teasing him about his ambitions matching the famous line of Whitman's.
He laughed; self-deprecation implied. It's not quite that, but something like it. Donnell says he's trying to channel our time: "the confusion, the echo chamber, how history bears upon the present."
"I’m trying to capture a language of this moment," he said.
With the publication of Donnell's poem just as news broke that undercover New York City police officer Ray Wood had implicated the New York City police department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the assassination of Malcolm X, Donnell did exactly that.
"One day, may we all meet together in the light of understanding."
Les Payne (1941-2018), born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist and a former editor at Newsday. A founder of the National Association of Black Journalists, Payne died before the book he wrote with his daughter Tamara Payne as his principal researcher won the National Book Award in 2020.
"Here's an opportunity to look at Malcolm as a fully fledged human being," is how she described the opportunity her father saw.
Malcolm X > No Sell Out ::: Keith LeBlanc
Malcolm X ::: The Beatings
Malcolm : Teacher, Martyr ::: Jimi M’baye
Malcolm X ::: Dennis Brown
A Change Is Gonna Come ::: Sam Cooke
The House Negro & The Field Negro ::: Malcolm X
Raciste ::: Ismael Lo (“Have You Ever Seen Black Blood? Have You Ever Seen White Blood?”)
I Am Not Your Negro ::: James Baldwin on The Dick Cavett Show
Bring The Noise ::: Public Enemy
Brer Soul (full album) ::: Melvin Van Peebles