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Malcolm X didn’t fear being killed: ‘I live like a man who is dead already’

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

The shooting began in the Audubon Ballroom just as Malcolm X was preparing to speak.

A commotion eight rows back in the Harlem auditorium interrupted him. “N—–, get your hand outta my pocket,” a man yelled that Sunday in February.

“Now, now, brothers, break it up,” Malcolm X told them. “Be cool, be calm.”

Distracted, Malcolm’s bodyguards moved away to break up the scuffle. Suddenly, a man rushed the stage with a sawed-off shotgun, and two more fired handguns, hitting Malcolm X in the chin, hand and chest.

Betty Shabazz threw her body on her children, who were seated in a curved booth near the stage, said her daughter, Ilyasah Al Shabazz, who was just 2 years old when she witnessed the Feb. 21, 1965, assassination of her father.

“My young mother was pregnant with our youngest sisters, the twins,”  Shabazz told an audience at the National Museum of African American History and Culture this month during a screening of “The Lost Tapes: Malcolm X,” which airs Monday night on the Smithsonian Channel. “I’m told my mother placed her entire body over my sisters and me that sunny, cold afternoon to protect us from the gunfire and make certain we could not see.”

She has no memory of that day or of being held by her father. “So, I cherish the fun, loving and inspirational stories my mother and sisters shared,” she said, “to keep our father’s memory very integral in our family’s lives.”

In college, Shabazz learned about “the inaccurate portrayals of her father’s character and work.” In 1997, after their mother died from burns suffered in a fire set by her grandson, Shabazz and her sisters set about correcting “the misappropriation of her father’s speeches and image.”

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Shabazz described the documentary, which tells Malcolm X’s story through speeches, vintage interviews and rare archival footage, as an opportunity for audiences to “to hear directly from our father’s mouth. He was such a young man with impeccable integrity. And you will see there is no mistaking his commitment to achieving peace and an egalitarian future for all.”

The film, which includes recordings of the gunfire inside the Audubon Ballroom, opens with a 1962 speech Malcolm X delivered at a Los Angeles church rally:

“Let us remember we are not brutalized because we are Baptists. We are not brutalized because we are Methodists. We are not brutalized because we are Muslims. We are not brutalized because we are Catholics. We are brutalized because we are black people in America.”

The documentary chronicles his rise within the Nation of Islam and his eventual split with Elijah Muhammad, its fiery leader, after Malcolm X’s 1964 pilgrimage to Mecca. The rupture made him a target, and he survived several attempts on his life.

Days before his death, Malcolm X assured reporters: “I don’t worry, I’ll tell you. I’m a man who believed that I died 20 years ago, and I live like a man who is dead already. I have no fear whatsoever of anybody or anything.”

“If I’m alive when this book comes out, it will be a miracle,” he told Alex Haley, who wrote “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and later the blockbuster historical novel “Roots.”

A week before he was assassinated, Malcolm X’s house in East Elmhurst, Queens, was firebombed while he, his wife and children were asleep. They ran out of the house in pajamas, where they stood in 20-degree weather.

“The house was severely damaged by a Molotov cocktail thrown through a living room window,” the New York Daily News reported in 1965. “Fragments of a second bottle bomb were found in the rear of the house.”

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“They planned to do it from the front and the back so I couldn’t get out,” Malcolm X says in the documentary. “Had that fire gone through that window, it would have fallen on a 6-year-old girl, a 4-year-old girl, and a 2-year-old girl.” And if they’d succeeded, “I would taken my rifle and gone after anybody in sight.”

Seven days later, Malcolm X called his wife and told her to bring the children to the Audubon Ballroom at 166th Street and Broadway, where he was scheduled to give a speech on his newly formed Organization of Afro-American Unity.

He checked out of the New York Hilton and drove his blue Oldsmobile to Harlem. The room was arranged with 400 wooden-backed chairs with no aisles. Despite the tension and the threats against him, no one was being searched at the door, a security procedure Malcolm X had protested.

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He was 39 years old and exhausted. He had asked his publisher for an advance to buy a new home. He wanted to make his wife happy. “I have to love this woman,” he had told Haley. They had made plans that Friday to see a lawyer about a will and life insurance.

“The way I feel, I ought not to go out there at all today,” Malcolm X said, according to Haley. “In fact, I’m going to ease some of this tension by telling the black man not to fight himself. That’s all part of the white man’s big maneuver to keep us fighting among ourselves, against each other.”

Backstage, Malcolm X looked at his watch as his loyal assistant Benjamin 2X warmed up the crowd. “Make it plain,” Malcolm had told Benjamin 2X.

“I present to you one who is willing to put himself on the line for you,” Benjamin 2X told the crowd.

As Malcolm walked to the podium, people in the audience heard what they believed were his last words, “As-Salaam-Alaikum,” the Arabic greeting meaning “Peace be unto you.”

Suddenly, shortly after 3 p.m., the ballroom erupted in gunfire and chaos.

“Pandemonium is the only word that I can use to describe the scene here,” Gene Simpson, a radio reporter sitting in the front row, told his listeners. “Everybody dove for the floor. I dove myself and crawled over to the side. … Shots rang out all over the place as Malcolm’s supporters tried to subdue those who had fired upon him.”

Police would later arrest three members of the Nation of Islam in connection with the assassination. Thomas Hagan, later identified as Talmadge Hayer, who at the time was 22, would later testify at the trial and parole hearings that the two other men arrested — Muhammad Abdul Aziz and Khalil Islam — were innocent. Aziz received parole in 1985, and Islam was paroled two years later. Hagan was paroled in 2010.

One of the men “was firing like he was in some Western, running backward toward the door and firing at the same time,” Simpson reported.

The shots knocked Malcolm X backward. He fell over two chairs, landing on the stage.

Police said at least 16 bullets hit him. After the shooting stopped, Betty Shabazz rushed to the stage, where she sank to her knees. “They killed him,” she cried.

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