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Malcolm X: Who was he, why was he assassinated, and who did it?

In this 1963 photo, civil rights leader Malcolm X speaks to reporters in Washington. (AP)

On Thursday, a judge dismissed the convictions of two of the three men found guilty of killing Malcolm X. The move came after Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. acknowledged deep flaws in the decades-old prosecution and said “it was clear these men did not receive a fair trial.”

Who was Malcolm X?

Malcolm X was an African American religious leader and civil rights activist who spoke about the need for Black empowerment and advocated for the adoption of Islam within the Black community as a spokesman for the Nation of Islam.

During his time, he was a controversial figure among White and Black Americans alike for speaking out vociferously against the racism of White people — famously referring to them as “blue-eyed devils” — and arguing for the creation of a Black separatist society. But the same outspoken stance against the brutal treatment of Black people during that era made him a hero to many, especially African Americans in the North. Malcolm X’s advocacy has been celebrated again in recent years amid high-profile killings of Black people by White police officers.

And yet, as with his more tempered counterpart in the South, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X’s views changed over his short lifetime. After leaving the Nation of Islam in 1964, Malcolm X traveled throughout Africa and underwent a transformation as he encountered Muslims of all races. He abandoned the Nation’s virulently anti-White ideology and converted to Sunni Islam.

His international ambitions, which included charging the United States with human rights violations against African Americans at the United Nations, drew the ire of the U.S. government, according to Les Payne and Tamara Payne in the book “The Dead Are Arising.” He also became a growing threat to his former mentor, Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad.

Judge vacates convictions of Aziz, Islam in 1965 killing of Malcolm X

Why did Malcolm X break with the Nation of Islam?

Malcolm X had learned of Elijah Muhammad’s affairs with women in the Nation and his many illegitimate children and, disenchanted with the leader’s moral character and hypocrisy, began sharing this knowledge within the Nation.

In the wake of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, Malcolm X gave Muhammad an opening to oust him. In a speech in Manhattan, Malcolm X called the murder “a case of the chickens coming home to roost.” Muhammad, who had forbidden his members to speak about the assassination, suspended Malcolm for 90 days, with no plans to reinstate him.

In March 1964, Malcolm X announced that he was leaving the Nation to start Muslim Mosque Inc. A few months later, he founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity to encourage oppressed Black people around the world to join forces. He also began divulging Muhammad’s secrets in public.

Rumors that the Nation was plotting to murder him did not escape him. “I live like a man who is dead already,” he told reporters.

Where and how was Malcolm X assassinated?

Malcolm X was assassinated at age 39 as he was preparing to give a speech at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan on Feb. 21, 1965. As he greeted his audience from the podium, there was a commotion in the back of the room.

“Get your hands out of my pocket,” a man shouted. The man struck a match and lit a rolled-up sock, throwing the makeshift smoke bomb onto the auditorium floor. Malcolm X shifted his attention to the ruckus. Two security men in front of the stage moved toward the disturbance, deserting their posts. Members of the audience turned their heads. Malcolm X raised his arms and stepped back from the wooden podium.

“Now, now, brothers break it up,” he said.

An assassin wielding a sawed-off shotgun rushed to the podium, aimed at Malcolm’s chest and pulled the trigger. Malcolm X fell.

Meanwhile, two accomplices dashed to the edge of the stage, shooting Malcom X in the ankle and both of his thighs. The three gunmen turned to retreat through the chaos of the crowd. Two managed to escape the ballroom, but a Malcolm X bodyguard shot one attacker in the thigh. Meanwhile on the stage, undercover New York police officer Gene Roberts, who had been working as a part of Malcolm X’s security detail, tried unsuccessfully to revive Malcolm X. Japanese American activist Yuri Kochiyama famously cradled the leader’s head.

Did a Black undercover NYPD detective unwittingly aid Malcolm X’s assassination?

Who assassinated Malcolm X?

The circumstances of the civil rights leader’s death have long been the subject of controversy, well-founded skepticism and conspiracy theories.

The man who was shot by the bodyguard in the thigh and captured, Talmadge Hayer, also known as Thomas Hagan and Mujahid Abdul Halim, confessed to the killing and is imprisoned. Yet since his 1966 trial, he has maintained that the other two Nation members convicted in the murder — Muhammad A. Aziz, who previously went by the name Norman 3X Butler, and Khalil Islam, who previously went by Thomas 15X Johnson — were innocent.

In 1977, Hayer fingered the four men by name whom he alleged acted with him: the two other gunmen and two accomplices in the audience. But the information went nowhere. He served 45 years in prison before being released on parole in 2010. Islam, paroled in 1987, died in 2009. Aziz, 83, was paroled in 1985 and is still alive. The Innocence Project, along with attorney David B. Shanies, have fought to clear Islam’s and Aziz’s names.

All along, some people have maintained that the FBI and the NYPD were involved in the assassination. Although the agencies viewed Malcolm X as a dangerous Black radical who somehow needed to be brought down, some experts maintain that they did not need to plot to murder the leader because Malcolm X himself had helped make it possible. After leaving the Nation, Malcolm X had ordered his security team not to carry guns and not to search people at the door to the Audubon so as not to deter people from attending his meetings.

“There was no need for them to get involved with killing Malcolm X. … They knew the Nation of Islam,” Peter Goldman, a former journalist for Newsweek and the author of “The Death and Life of Malcolm X,” said in an interview with The Washington Post earlier this year. “They knew that Muhammad’s followers wouldn’t be daunted by security or police. They knew that they would walk through walls to do the Nation’s bidding.”

Archival footage from Malcolm X’s assassination on Feb. 21, 1965, in Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom in New York City. (Video: Smithsonian Channel)

What prompted the reinvestigation of the Malcolm X assassination?

A 2020 Netflix documentary series, “Who Killed Malcolm X?” and efforts by the Innocence Project prompted Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. to review the convictions of Aziz and Islam.

Evidence unearthed by Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, a Malcolm X scholar whose search for the true killers was the focus of the documentary, and investigative journalist Les Payne made a compelling case that the actual murderers were members of a Newark mosque, rather than Malcolm X’s former Harlem mosque associates Aziz and Islam, who likely would have been quickly recognized in the ballroom.

In the documentary, a close friend of Newark mosque member William Bradley said Bradley, also known as Al-Mustafa Shabazz, was the man who fired the sawed-off shotgun that killed Malcolm X, echoing Hayer’s earlier assertion that Bradley did it. Bradley’s alleged role was apparently an open secret in Newark, although Bradley denied it right up to his death in 2018.

What’s the latest news on the case?

On Thursday, a judge dismissed the convictions of Aziz and Islam, after Vance acknowledged that the prosecution was deeply flawed and said “it was clear these men did not receive a fair trial.”

Vance’s office joined attorneys for Aziz and Islam’s family in filing the motion seeking to overturn the first-degree murder convictions. He said there was no way to retry the legendary murder case with most witnesses dead and with major pieces of evidence missing from the record.

Shayna Jacobs contributed to this report.

More from Retropolis:

Who killed Martin Luther King Jr.? His family believes James Earl Ray was framed.

Martin Luther King Jr. met Malcolm X just once. The photo still haunts us with what was lost.

The police raid that killed two Black Panthers, shook Chicago and changed the nation