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Civil rights leader Malcolm X took the stage at the Audubon Ballroom in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan on February 21, 1965. Just minutes later, shortly after 3 p.m., the former prominent Nation of Islam figure was gunned down by three men as his wife, Betty Shabazz, pregnant with twins, and four daughters took cover in the front row. He was 39.

Motive and Background

Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska on May 19, 1925, was the civil rights era's most notable advocate of Black nationalism. Rising through the ranks of the Nation of Islam, he left the political and religious group in 1964, following a deeply strained relationship with leader Elijah Muhammad over political ideology (Malcolm believed the Nation of Islam should join in civil rights protests), as well as morals (he also was distressed to learn Muhammad had fathered several children by multiple women). Deepening the rift, when Malcolm called the assassination of President John F. Kennedy “chickens coming home to roost,” Muhammad silenced him for 90 days.

After breaking with the Nation of Islam, Malcolm made a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964 and converted to Sunni Islam, taking the name el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz. He formed the secular Organization of African American Unity, blaming racism, rather than the white race, for injustices and adopting a more moderate stance on civil rights.

The separation from the Nation of Islam prompted the group to make death threats against Malcolm. On February 14, 1965, Molotov cocktails were thrown through the windows of his Queens, New York home as he and his family slept inside, “upon the orders of Elijah Muhammad,” according to Malcolm. The family escaped the flames, but he told reporters, "I live like a man who is dead already."

The Audubon Attack

Police escort Muhammad Abdul Aziz, formerly known as Norman 3X Butler, into a jail in New York on February 26, 1965.

Police escort Muhammad Abdul Aziz, formerly known as Norman 3X Butler, into a jail in New York on February 26, 1965.

Just after taking the stage with approximately 400 people in the audience, three men, one with a sawed-off shotgun and the others with pistols, rushed at Malcolm, firing several shots, at least one of which was fatal. Mujahid Abdul Halim (aka Thomas Hagan) was shot in the leg by a security guard, held and beaten by the crowd, and was arrested at the scene, while two other gunmen escaped. Five days later, Muhammad A. Aziz, aka Norman 3X Butler, was arrested, and Khalil Islam, aka Thomas 15X Johnson, was arrested on March 3, 1965. All three men were members of the Nation of Islam and were indicted on first-degree murder charges.

More than 1,500 people attended the February 27 funeral service, led by actor Ossie Davis, and approximately 20,000 paid respects to the civil rights leader’s body as it lied in repose at Unity Funeral Home in Harlem.

“While we did not always see eye to eye on methods to solve the race problem, I always had a deep affection for Malcolm and felt that he had the great ability to put his finger on the existence and root of the problem,” Martin Luther King Jr., assassinated three years later, wrote to Malcolm’s widow.

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The Autobiography of Malcolm X was published October 29, 1965, nine months after Malcolm’s death. Written with Alex Haley, it became an immediate best-seller.

The Trial and Convictions

During the 1966 trial, Halim confessed to the crime and eventually testified that Islam and Aziz were innocent. Witness accounts were contradictory, The New York Times reports, and no physical evidence was provided against Islam or Aziz, who both presented credible alibis.

"I just want to testify that Butler (Aziz) and Johnson (Islam) had nothing to do with it. ... I was there, I know what happened and I know the people who were there," Halim told the jury, according to the newspaper.

Still, all three men were found guilty on March 11, 1966, and were sentenced to 20 years to life in prison.

Aziz and Islam maintained their innocence. Aziz was released from prison in 1985, at age 46, after serving 20 years. Islam, released in 1987, died in 2009. Halim was granted release in 2010.

Case Is Reopened, Leading to Exonerations

Doubt was cast on the verdict against Aziz and Islam for decades. Halim again asserted their innocence in a pair of affidavits filed in 1977 and 1978 and offered up partial names of his accomplices, but a judge denied a motion for a new trial. Calls from book authors and experts to reopen the case were also left unheard—until February 2020. This is when Manhattan district attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. began a review that coincided with the release of a documentary, “Who Killed Malcolm X?”, that supported the innocence claims of Aziz and Islam.

On November 18, 2021, Aziz and Islam were exonerated after an investigation that included the discovery of key FBI documents withheld from the defense and prosecution during the trial. Aziz was 83 at the time of the exoneration.

"The assassination of Malcolm X was a historic event that demanded a scrupulous investigation and prosecution but, instead, produced one of the most blatant miscarriages of justice that I have ever seen," Innocence Project Barry Scheck stated.

Sources

“2 Men Convicted of Killing Malcolm X Will Be Exonerated After Decades,” the New York Times
"Malcolm X," The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University
“The Day Malcolm X Was Killed,” the New Yorker
"The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X," by Les Payne, Norton Books
"Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention," by Manning Marable, Penguin Books

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