The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Exonerating two men convicted of Malcolm X’s killing doesn’t vindicate the system

Can a system built on racial violence actually deliver justice?

Muhammad A. Aziz, who spent 20 years in prison after being wrongly convicted in the assassination of civil rights leader Malcolm X in 1965, leaves a courtroom after being officially exonerated on Nov. 18. (Justin Lane/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

On Nov. 18, Manhattan’s district attorney exonerated two of the three men convicted of assassinating Malcolm X on Feb. 21, 1965: Muhammad Abdul Aziz and Khalil Islam. The third, Mujahid Abdul Halim (known then as Talmadge Hayer), was paroled in 2010.

A 22-month review by the D.A.’s office found that “one of the most significant weaknesses in the government’s case was Mr. Halim’s confession and his exoneration of his co-defendants.” But that confession first came in 1966, at the original trial. In other words, the primary evidence used to overturn a 55-year-old conviction is as old as the case itself.

So why now? Why not in 1966? Or in the late 1970s, when Halim signed several affidavits naming the other conspirators to clear his co-defendants’ names? Or in 2011, when historian Manning Marable pushed to reopen the case, writing in his Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Malcolm X that “extensive evidence suggests that two of those men were completely innocent of the crime.”

The answer lies in the stakes, and the crisis of legitimacy that the criminal legal system faces today. William Bradley, the last of the four remaining accomplices named in Halim’s affidavits, died in 2018. Islam died in 2009 and Abdul Aziz is now 83 years old. Both were paroled in the 1980s after already serving a combined 42 years in prison. So the state exonerated two men to deflect from the real issue undergirding Malcolm X’s murder: the state itself.

Indeed, answering the decades-old question — “who killed Malcolm X?” — requires confronting a long history of state violence. Local, state and national law enforcement, in cooperation with Black informants, undercover police, scholars and journalists created the conditions that made Malcolm X’s assassination possible as well as the framework to deflect responsibility when it was carried off.

Malcolm X was a revolutionary Black internationalist who advocated self-defense and community control, a separatist who denounced the premises of racial integration and an erudite critic of liberals both Black and White. A week before his assassination, his home was firebombed. He arrived in Detroit the next day, still smelling of smoke, and spoke on African independence movements. Malcolm reminded the audience that “the power structure is international” and that people across the world were awakening to “imperialism, colonialism, racism.”

He was first politicized by his own experiences with policing and prisons. After being arrested for home robberies before his 21st birthday, he was sentenced to six to eight years in prison, where he converted to Islam in 1948. There he began to speak out against state violence, including the death penalty. He argued that the false idea “that murder by the state can repress murder by individuals, is the eternal war cry for the retention of Capital Punishment.”

His view of the death penalty reflected his broader critique about the criminal legal system: individual punishment does not address harm; it compounds it; and violence by the state does not prevent that by individuals; it naturalizes both.

In 1950, Malcolm first came under FBI surveillance after he wrote that he had “always been a Communist” and did not support the Korean War.

In 1952, he left prison and for the first time met Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Black nationalist and religious organization the Nation of Islam. He soon solidified a reputation as an organizer and an electrifying speaker.

By the late 1950s, the FBI and local police had homed in on the strategy of fueling internal divisions between Malcolm X in Harlem and Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam’s headquarters in Chicago. Their goal was to divide the organization and undermine its growing presence and autonomy in Black communities across the country.

In 1960, the FBI used Muhammad’s extramarital affairs to drive a rift between the men, drafting anonymous letters to send to his wife and other ministers. Malcolm, who confided with top-ranking ministers to prepare them to address the issue within their mosques, was then accused of spreading rumors of the infidelities.

Journalists purporting to be objective publicized these divisions, because they used the FBI reports as their sources. For example, a year before Malcolm X’s assassination, the conservative anti-communist broadcaster Fulton Lewis Jr. published an article, “Black Muslims Feud,” which described Malcolm as the “only rival” to Muhammad. He quoted a “confidential government report” claiming that Malcolm would “not hesitate one moment to take over the leadership of the Nation of Islam.”

In addition to driving a wedge between Malcolm and the Nation of Islam’s leadership, law enforcement fed materials to journalists and scholars to portray Malcolm X as a violent extremist filled with hate. For example, in 1963, Alex Haley wrote a prominent essay for the Saturday Evening Post with White journalist Alfred Balk, “Black Merchants of Hate.” They drew heavily upon a 17-page report from a Chicago police unit that involved collaboration between a Black police officer and the FBI, as well as Malcolm X’s criminal history culled from his FBI file.

The following year, J. Edgar Hoover sent a telegram to the New York field office: “Do something about Malcolm X.” Often cited for its sinister and ambiguous tone, it is unclear what exactly he meant. But the second half of his message was clear: “enough of this Black violence in NY.” For Hoover, Black revolutionaries like Malcolm — and their noncompliance with the liberal status quo — were synonymous with violence.

By peddling stock narratives about Black criminality to undiscerning journalists, who then disseminated them to the broader public, the state laid the groundwork for understanding Malcolm’s assassination by Muslims loyal to Elijah Muhammad, based on a rivalry the state had created and stoked, through the racist trope of “Black-on-Black” crime.

Indeed, Malcolm himself predicted this: “[The White man] will make use of me dead, as he has made use of me alive, as a convenient symbol of ‘hatred’ — and that will help him to escape facing the truth that all I have been doing is holding up a mirror to reflect, to show, the history of unspeakable crimes that his race has committed against my race.” Malcolm argued that state violence precipitated and perpetuated other forms of violence, but when exposed, it accused those exposing it of peddling hate.

Malcolm’s premonitions proved correct.

On Feb. 21, 1965, Malcolm awoke to a threatening phone call in his hotel room. Later that evening, he was to unveil the new program of the revolutionary Pan-Africanist Organization of Afro-American Unity. He was killed during his opening remarks, and only Halim was captured at the scene, although a second man likely to have been an undercover officer also was apprehended.

The state’s perspective continued to shape news reporting, ultimately obscuring the real issue of state violence. Journalists eulogized Malcolm in a scolding “live by the sword, die by the sword” tone. Headlines such as “Malcolm X Lived in Two Worlds, White and Black, Both Bitter” or “Malcolm Fought for Top Power in Muslim Movement, and Lost” portrayed the assassination as a street fight between rival gangs.

Shortly after his assassination, a full-page spread in “Life” magazine titled “The Violent End of the Man Called Malcolm X,” showed a person affectionately known as “Brother Gene” hunched over him attempting mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

Gene Roberts was later revealed to be an undercover police officer deployed to surveil Malcolm X.

The photo, ostensibly portraying an effort to keep him alive, actually shows how law enforcement encircled and endangered him, stoking divisions and making him a symbol of violence he sought to end. It offers us a powerful metaphor about the limitations of relying upon death-making systems to protect or sustain life.

Instead of asking the question “Who killed Malcolm X?” perhaps we should be asking “Why was he so dangerous to the state?” And can a system built on racial violence actually deliver justice?

Asking these questions will help us imagine a world beyond this system, the kind that Malcolm X was killed for daring to bring into existence.