The only time Malcolm X met Martin Luther King Jr – in the US Capitol Building in March 1964 – he told King, “Now you’re going to get investigated.” By then, King had fought for and gained a place in America’s conscience; Malcolm had just fallen out with his teacher and the Nation of Islam, and he hoped to forge a united front of Black liberation groups that included a rapprochement with King. The meeting took place a year before Malcolm’s death, during a time of intense travel and speeches, landmark civil rights legislation, and rampant government surveillance of both figures.
But while Malcolm joked about it to King, the degree to which various agencies were spying on the Nation of Islam’s most famous apostate escaped even him. In his final months, Malcolm softened his antagonism to King’s nonviolent approach, while speaking openly to friends of near-constant death threats. A series out this winter on Netflix suggests that the role the US law enforcement officials played in Malcolm’s murder has been understated – and gets closer than ever before to lay the blame at the feet of the US government itself.
Originally shown at Fusion, Who Killed Malcolm X? features Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, a journalist, father and Malcolm admirer who, over six episodes, guides the viewer through his decades-long investigation to reveal that two of the three men convicted for Malcolm’s murder were innocent. He goes on to show that the FBI knew this but did not submit evidence to exonerate the men. During a key episode, he meditates on why. Taking his questions to Nation of Islam veterans and Pulitzer Prize-winning and in-house FBI historians, Muhammad finally establishes that this oversight could not have been accidental. As a protagonist and guide through the annals of Malcolm X revisionism, Muhammad is so convincing that Malcolm’s murder case has been reopened.
Malcolm’s murder turned 55 this year. Timed with the anniversary, the series includes among its experts the scholar Peniel Joseph, whose The Sword and the Shield, a side-by-side biography of Malcolm and Martin Luther King Jr, came out in early April. While the Netflix series emphasises the important relationship with Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, Joseph provides context around that other important relationship – with King – that should have been allowed to ripen further. Though it was frequently antagonistic, the relationship bore features of an unspoken collaboration that made each figure a better analyst of history and a more effective activist.
It also kept FBI director J. Edgar Hoover up at night. He worried about a charismatic figure who might “unify and electrify the Black nationalist movement,” let alone two Black radicals working together.
Abdur-Rahman Muhammad is a journalist and a proud working man who leads tours of lower Manhattan. On camera, he looks like a business-casual-clad bureaucrat with an affable face, a wry smile and a warm, steady voice. As a teen, he was targeted by police for being out with a white girlfriend. Police insulted him, took him on a ride around the city, mocked and threatened him. It made him distrustful of police and an admirer of Malcolm X. “I became a Black militant activist . . . who wasn’t going to take this shit anymore.”
He never believed the official story when Malcolm was killed. Much later, he started to dig. Soon his files were rich, and his work was featured in A Life of Reinvention, a 2011 biography of Malcolm by the late Manning Marable. “No one alive has done more to solve Malcolm’s killing than Abdur-Raman,” says Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Garrow.
The official story of Malcolm X’s killing is that he and his teacher, the spiritual leader of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, sometimes known as “the Messenger”, had a falling out. The inciting incident was a remark Malcolm made after the Kennedy assassination. Muhammad had asked him not to weigh in or criticise the slain president, and he grew increasingly wary of Malcolm’s political punditry. At the end of a speech a week after the assassination, however, someone in the audience asked Malcolm’s opinion. Given the state of violence the United States presided over at home and around the world, he famously said that the assassination was like “chickens coming home to roost.” Recognising Kennedy’s popularity, Elijah Muhammad suspended, or “muzzled”, Malcolm for 90 days. Nation of Islam (NOI) members started to take sides. The feud escalated with Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm engaged in a war of words, including threats from the Messenger often coded in religious imagery.
On February 21, 1965, Malcolm was shot at close range at New York City’s Audubon Ballroom in front of his wife, Betty Shabazz, and his children. Although multiple assailants fired at him, the wounds from a sawed-off shotgun (used by a man in a long coat who had appeared from the front row) were ruled to be the cause of death. Another man with a gun, Talmadge Hayer, from a Newark, New Jersey, mosque known to NOI followers as Mosque No. 25, was apprehended at the crime scene. After he was shot in the leg and caught in a melee, police pulled him from the crowd and he eventually confessed to being one of the coconspirators.
Two other men, Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson, were arrested. Both maintained their innocence. Police had no physical evidence against them, but their weaker cases were bundled together with Hayer’s and they were convicted, with all three given 20 years to life. Through a series of files debunking the thin case against Johnson and Butler, Abdur-Raman Muhammad alleges these men were telling the truth; two were innocent, and only Hayer, who confessed, was guilty.
The popular story of Malcolm X’s murder, Abdur-Raman Muhammad asserts in the first episode of Who Killed Malcolm X?, is untrue. Muhammad’s revisionist version starts with J. Edgar Hoover, the professional suppressor of left-wing radicals. Hoover was terrified of a “Black Messiah,” and once insisted that
there must be a goal of preventing a coalition of militant Black nationalist groups, prevent[ing] the rise of a [figure who] can unify and electrify the Black nationalist movement, along with preventing militant Black nationalist groups and leaders from gaining respectability, by discrediting them to the community.
The New York Police Department (NYPD) knew about the threats on Malcolm’s life. But it didn’t have a security detail checking for weapons at the door of the Audubon Ballroom the night Malcolm would speak. No uniformed police officers came inside the venue to guard the famed leader during his talk. Instead, the NYPD stationed cops on the roof and on the sidewalk in front of the building.
The lackadaisical attitude didn’t end there. When police arrived to investigate the scene, they reportedly sauntered through the ballroom, as if on a Sunday stroll. After Hayer’s capture, eyewitness accounts corroborated that there were five gunmen, one of whom, according to the series, may have slipped away in the melee. Somehow, after they captured Hayer and then Johnson and Butler, the police arbitrarily reduced the number of suspects from five to three – a decision they never explained. Aside from taking a few photographs of bullet holes in the podium and in the chest and chin of Malcolm himself, police barely secured the room or its evidence; that night, they allowed the owners to hold a dance.
After the rift over Malcolm’s Kennedy comments, Malcolm had written apologetically to his teacher but received no answer. The series asserts that the FBI had been exploiting this schism in the months leading up to the killing. They fed stories to the media about the rift, and they may have used informants to spread rumours about each figure’s animosity toward the other.
The sheer number of informants known to have penetrated the Nation of Islam created paranoia — one of the explicit goals of the FBI’s COINTELPRO, or Counterintelligence Program, which spied on progressives and dissident groups, pitting them against each other. John Ali, the national secretary based in the organisation’s Chicago mansion, has been frequently accused of having been an informant, as well as helping stoke hatred between the two former collaborators. He responds to the filmmakers’ questions about these accusations with odd phrases like, “I could have,” while insisting the bureau didn’t accept him as an informant.
Some interviews feature the affable Abdur-Raman Muhammad asking witnesses questions, nodding along, raising his brow before a follow-up. After casually befriending witnesses who tell him they saw it as a closed case, he asks, “But how could justice be done if two innocent Black men served time?” Series director Rachel Dretzin conducts another kind of interview. Both interviewers are virtuosic at drawing out their subjects, but Dretzin’s interviews are filmed more like police interrogations, the camera on the subject directly, while Muhammad’s feel like eavesdropping on a conversation. Her interview of Cory Booker, who has an eerie and incidental tie to the presumptive killer through a campaign video, is gripping.
When files must be examined, Muhammad either skims them with another historian or archivist, or he points to key sentences that then loom onscreen. We learn that Johnson was arrested as the trigger man, for instance, despite not matching the description of the real killer in an FBI file.
Episode one ends with Abdur-Rahaman Muhammad finding a file describing the shotgun shooter as stocky, dark-skinned and coming from the Newark mosque — none of which characterised Johnson, who was light-skinned and from Malcolm’s Harlem mosque. Why did police miss this?
Kennedy attacked Islam, a religion
From there, the series turns into a meditation on FBI surveillance and COINTELPRO. Garrow tells viewers how thoroughly the bureau infiltrated the Nation of Islam, citing “multiple high-ranking paid human informants in the leadership . . . Could it have been,” he asks in a bookish drawl, “that FBI paid informants were involved in Malcolm X’s murder? Almost certainly.”
The Nation of Islam’s need for revenge, the series posits, may have been the cover for members who joined as informants, or who – thanks to money offered after they joined – turned dirty while rising into the leadership. Soon we see that the need for revenge itself may have been manipulated. Who egged on whom?
While the FBI surveilled Malcolm, the NYPD sent the Bureau of Special Services and Investigations – known as BOSSI, or the Red Squad – to his rallies and to record his calls. BOSSI was effectively a police unit made over as a spy ring. One of its agents boasts how he knew Malcolm’s habits so well that they switched on their wiretap on the second ring when Malcolm would always pick up, so he wouldn’t hear the click. Tony Bouza, one of the more wryly unapologetic BOSSI officers in the series confesses, “I don’t think he understood that we were tapping his wire and listening to the tapes . . . Did we intrude into privacy? Yes. But I was alright with it.” If Malcolm spoke before a broader audience, then FBI agents (all white) could attend. If not, they found Black men in the streets and met them in movie theatres to arrange the surveillance or to trade information.
A series like this — or Erroll Morris’s Wormwood (2018, also on Netflix) — forces you to admit that paranoia, as a mode, isn’t so quaint or paranoid, after all. So it was for Malcolm, who began addressing crowds beginning with “Mister Moderator, friends . . . uh, enemies . . .” While the audience looked around at each other and laughed uneasily, Malcolm would continue, “Everyone is here.” In The Sword and the Shield, Joseph quotes Malcolm admitting that when “speaking publicly, I’d guess which were FBI faces in the audience or other types of agents.”
A 1962 FBI memo shows that the FBI knew about Elijah Muhammad’s multiple extramarital affairs, often with underage girls, including several with whom he conceived children. Agents schemed to send “anonymous letters to [his wife] Clara Muhammad.” This was stirred into the cauldron to poison the two men’s relationship. To encounter his teacher’s rampant hypocrisy would have offended the happily married father of four, especially as he bristled at the muzzle against his own outspokenness.
One event during the Kennedy administration offers a window into the growing conflict. In 1962, Malcolm’s friend, a Nation of Islam member named Ronald Stokes, was shot and killed by Los Angeles police officers. The incident marked the only time his wife, Betty Shabazz, recalls seeing Malcolm cry. Footage from a speech Malcolm made in the aftermath of the killing shows the activist with blown-up photographs of the scene, one featuring the back of Stokes’s head with a bullet hole in it. An FBI memo describes his full-throated denunciation, which compared the LAPD’s actions to Gestapo-like tactics:
Subject’s opening statement was that “. . . Seven innocent unarmed Black men were shot down in cold blood by Police Chief WILLIAM J. PARKER’S Los Angeles City Police.” The . . . subject referred to the incident as “one of the most ferocious, inhuman atrocities ever inflicted in a so-called ‘democratic’ and ‘civilised’ society” and subject referred to Stokes’ murder as “a brutal and cold-blooded murder by PARKER’S well-armed storm troopers.”
When Muhammad cautioned Malcolm to de-escalate, Malcolm reportedly felt shame that the Nation of Islam wouldn’t stand up to defend its own members. Part of why Muhammad wanted to keep Malcolm from going too far, however, was because the NOI had lucrative commercial interests in Los Angeles. These funded its ministerial work and enriched Elijah Muhammad and his family, and a war with the LAPD would jeopardise the business.
The series is good on this and other details. But Joseph gives broader context about the questions around Malcolm’s political outspokenness and Muhammad’s affairs. Malcolm had always been outspoken politically, and it helped boost the organisation’s members, spurring publicity and filling seats. For that, Muhammad would have been grateful. Malcolm was often booked to speak with Elijah Muhammad — the genius orator and acolyte warming up, as it were, for the Messenger himself as the main event. But Muhammad had a lung condition; as the 1960s progressed, Muhammad missed events due to illness.
In his many appearances before the media or a live audience, Malcolm was often tasked with explaining how the Nation of Islam’s policy of separatism was distinct from segregation. Pundits expected to discredit Malcolm and the Nation by likening this separatism to reverse racism. But it had little to do with accepting segregation as it was, Malcolm explained. Segregation was the control of Black people, he said, while the Nation’s separatism “was the voluntary promotion of self-determination for a Black community in search of its own place in the world.” To Malcolm, King’s gospel of nonviolence was bargaining from a position of weakness, akin to asking white people’s permission for freedom rather than taking it. Malcolm saw King’s bids for integration as “admitting [King’s] inferiority because he is also admitting that he wants to become part of a ‘superior society.’”
Well before his comments on Kennedy, but especially after his falling out with the Nation, Malcolm circled around the idea of a broader coalition. He interspersed invitations to work alongside King with a steady barrage of critiques of nonviolence as ineffectual. Perhaps this was why King tended to decline, or not answer, Malcolm’s invitations — as with his 1961 Harlem Freedom Rally. Nevertheless, the two leaders engaged in a fascinating, indirect conversation, which Joseph draws out well in a tandem biography that feels, remarkably, like full biographies of each. A virtuoso at articulating the undercurrents of Black power, including in his equally meticulous biography of Stokely Carmichael (Stokely: A Life, 2014), Joseph adroitly places the two leaders in contrast to each other as in a contrapuntal duet. This duet demonstrates the awful silence we would feel with just one of their voices missing, as was exemplified by Malcolm’s death three years before King’s, let alone both, after 1968.
The most fascinating part of their joint performance was how Malcolm was constantly using his rhetoric to amplify the terms in which King could work, and vice versa. If one fought for Black citizenship, and the other for Black dignity, their disagreement over nonviolence was a disagreement merely over tactics, Malcolm said in a period of softening toward King. In their socially distant partnership, something small might echo from one to the other. First Malcolm, as around the 1962 Stokes killing, and then King (as in Birmingham) might take turns calling police methods Gestapo-like. Malcolm obviously followed King’s movements and speeches (and vice versa; King sometimes responded to Malcolm’s speech the very same day).
Malcolm would at times even debate King through a proxy, like Bayard Rustin, one of the lead organisers of the March on Washington. The two would joust ruthlessly on stage, but they enjoyed themselves so much that they soon agreed to take their routine on the road. Their first debate, at Howard University, impressed students, like the young Carmichael, and faculty alike. Rustin accused the Muslims of having “no political, social or economic program,” but Malcolm’s
talk of racial pride, political self-determination and Black solidarity motivated a generation of young activists to imbibe large quantities of Black history, to investigate the significance of African decolonisation, and reimagine the meaning of African American identity within Western culture.
Much of their mutual curiosity, or at least Malcolm’s, circled around Kennedy. (Picture Malcolm watching King, watching Kennedy, watching King.) When the commissioner of public safety Bull Connor was beating up civil rights activists in Birmingham, Alabama, siccing dogs on small children and their mothers and blasting them with fire hoses, Malcolm grew incensed. But aside from complaining privately that the pictures of such police brutality “made [him] sick,” Kennedy himself did nothing. This “earned him the permanent enmity of Malcolm X, who criticised the president for authorising force only when white property and lives, rather than that of Black women and children, hung in the balance.”
As for King and Kennedy, King had been waiting for a meeting for the first seven months of Kennedy’s term, and whether King saw it or not, Malcolm’s criticism of Kennedy gave King cover for his own. Malcolm also knew that the original vision for the March on Washington — which A. Philip Randolph first imagined decades earlier, in the 1940s — was more radical, focused on shutting down the capital. Malcolm complained that when the president saw that he couldn’t stop it, he joined it. Once it had Kennedy’s blessing, Malcolm felt it became too timid, focused less on stopping traffic, stopping work, and flexing Black power, concerning itself instead with providing places to urinate and faint.
Before a gathering of newspaper editors, Kennedy denigrated Muslims as a den for extremists. “Instead of attacking the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens’ Council,” said Malcolm, “Kennedy attacked Islam, a religion.” And did Malcolm also blame Kennedy for the assassination of Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba, who was killed just days before Kennedy’s inauguration? Or for the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, in April of Kennedy’s first term? Regardless, Malcolm’s quip about Kennedy and violence had more behind it than the random act of cruelty it was portrayed as.
Courteous but not too cooperative
According to the docuseries, John Ali, Elijah Muhammad’s secretary, called Chicago and reported Malcolm to the Messenger after he made the chicken roosting comment. Newspapers and TV networks distorted the quip — made in ironic indignation over the United States’ hypocrisy — framing it as if Malcolm had expressed joy over Kennedy’s death. Malcolm worked hard to make peace with Muhammad, but his letters of humility and regret to Muhammad were intercepted by the Messenger’s children (heirs to his empire) or others who would have been threatened by Malcolm. He was suspended.
In the aftermath of the incident, the press continued to refer to Malcolm as Muhammad’s “heir apparent.” This annoyed Malcolm, as he knew it would only heighten the animosity of the actual heirs. Worried about the loss of his livelihood through an organisation he had built and expanded like no one else, Malcolm spent the winter correcting interviewers, saying he was never the heir apparent, emphasising that he was suspended over his own actions and that the Honorable Elijah Muhammad had taught him everything he knew. It was a moment of real humility for the firebrand activist and preacher, with a touch of survival instinct.
Two months into the rift, the FBI visited Malcolm at his home. He welcomed them in. In an exploratory interview, they offered to pay him to inform on the Nation of Islam. They spoke, in tentative tones, of records he may have access to. They were there to test the psychology of Malcolm during the rift, a rift these agents had quietly curated. Denying he had such access, Malcolm secretly recorded the two agents, one of whom was named Fulton, who speaks to Dretzin but refuses to show his face on camera.
“Money brings out the information,” Fulton told Malcolm, instantly realising he’d erred. “You insult my intelligence,” Malcolm objected. “In fact, you insult your own [that] you wouldn’t know in advance what I’m going to say.” He emphasised that he was no Quisling or fink, that “no government agency should ever expect information from me.” One of the agents described Malcolm during the visit as “nice and courteous, but not too cooperative.”
Benching the slugger
To cool him down, Malcolm’s cohort took him to Miami, where NOI member Sam Saxon introduced Malcolm to Cassius Clay. The two quickly became friends. Malcolm converted Clay, who was on the verge of becoming heavyweight champion in his fight against Sonny Liston. Malcolm hoped that by recruiting the boxing star, he would help restore to Black Americans a “racial pride” — part of Malcolm’s program of Black dignity. Still looking to return to the fold, Malcolm also hoped to offer the champion as a peace offering to Elijah Muhammad.
But Muhammad outmanoeuvred Malcolm. After Clay’s championship win, Muhammad held a public reception, praised Clay, and gave him his Muslim name, Muhammad Ali. Joseph tells the filmmakers that Malcolm wasn’t as good at power politics as Muhammad. “Elijah Muhammad was playing chess, and Malcolm was playing checkers.”
Celebrated New York literary socialite George Plimpton caught Malcolm for an interview in Miami. At the time Plimpton was writing about Ali for Sports Illustrated (and for his subsequent book Shadow Box). Depicting Malcolm as hopeful that in five days “he was going to be unmuzzled,” Plimpton blames Malcolm’s subsequent death on the rift between the two, and he goes on to lightly ridicule most of Malcolm’s indignation over brutal historical injustices. Plimpton highlights contradictions and features Malcolm popping peppermints into his mouth, and finally implies that an undercurrent of antisemitism tainted the Muslims’ work. But after the fight, Malcolm knew he wouldn’t be reinstated. BOSSI member Tony Gouza delighted in this: “I thought it great. I thought it wonderful. Elijah Muhammad was divesting himself of his greatest asset and weakening his organisation. It’s like a baseball team depriving itself of its greatest slugger. How much better does it get than that?”
On March 8, with no peace brokered with the Messenger, Malcolm announced the permanent split. It was also the final year of Malcolm’s life, and he was active and hounded. He launched his own fledgling Nation of Islam (which he called Muslim Mosque, Inc.) and reinvented himself as a roving ambassador — some called him the president — of Black America. Touring Africa and the Middle East, he also founded the Organisation of Afro-American Unity (OAAU). The OAAU linked a minority group in the United States with a great worldwide constituency.
Malcolm had made a kind of tactical shift, reframing civil rights as global human rights in his search for a broader moral and historical constituency, which brought nationalist and anti-colonialist movements in Africa into solidarity with American liberation movements. From the United States’ standpoint, this was an attempt to embarrass the US globally by holding up its actual treatment of Black Americans against its image of itself as the seat of freedom.
Hype talk or death threats?
Between the launch of his new organisations, Malcolm and the Nation of Islam began a battle over his small Queens house. Muhammad tried to evict him, and the case went to court. Malcolm had spent 12 years of his life expanding the membership of the Nation of Islam and was justified in feeling that, given his effective organising work, he was indispensable in building it. To squabble in court over his family’s modest place of shelter, while Elijah Muhammad resided in mansions in Chicago and Phoenix, further embittered Malcolm. How Malcolm learned of his teacher’s affairs, and whether the FBI played a role, the documentary doesn’t explicitly say. But footage shows him seething outside the courthouse after losing the fight over his home, denouncing Muhammad for having “eight children by six teenage girls who were his private secretaries.”
To many Muslims, such as James Shabazz, minister at the group’s Newark Mosque No. 25, this was an unforgivable betrayal of the man who guided Malcolm to straighten out his life after prison and gave him a vocation. A CBS TV interviewer asked Shabazz, featured in archival footage if he wouldn’t “put it past” some of his followers who might want to “get” Malcolm. (Talk about leading the witness.) “I wouldn’t put it past a Christian,” Shabazz responded, “to punch somebody out for talking about Jesus.”
Other members of the mosque said, “it never even entered my mind that Malcolm was right” and that it felt “like a man turning on his father.” Footage shows Malcolm, on the verge of homelessness, escalating the feud further, saying “Elijah Muhammad has gone insane, absolutely out of his mind. Besides, you can’t be 70 years old and surround yourself by a bunch of 16- 17- or 18-year-old girls and keep your right mind. You can’t do it.” The crowd laughs. Malcolm believed Elijah Muhammad was behind the threats against him, telling an interviewer, “Elijah Muhammad has given the order to his followers to see that I am crippled or killed.”
And being that Elijah Muhammad was the most wiretapped target of the FBI’s COINTELPRO, used illegally during this time to spy on civilians, Abdur-Rahman Muhammad searches in the government record for a coded or explicit order to have Malcolm killed. “Elijah stated that with these hypocrites, when you find them, cut their heads off,” reads one FBI memo from 1964, from a wiretap of Muhammad’s Phoenix home. As a Muslim himself, he decodes this for Garrow, explaining that the phrase “cut their heads off” refers to the teachings of the NOI founder, Wallace Fard Muhammad, who said that whoever takes the heads off four devils will go to Mecca. A subsequent reference to Moses in another memo could be another coded death threat against Malcolm. “It’s very clear what he’s calling for. He wouldn’t have to say it.”
The Fruit of Islam was Elijah Muhammad’s security force. But they could be seen, too, as his enforcers, about whom authorities worried since they could be converted into a paramilitary force. Historian Zak A. Kondo explains that they might say, “We want you to bless him,” but it might mean taking him into the park and beating him up. The leadership of the Nation of Islam were “basically saying things that gave people the notion that [they] wanted Malcolm X dead.” One of the Nation’s newspapers featured a cartoon of Malcolm’s disembodied head rolling down the street, his horns growing with each bounce. A whisper campaign intensified, suggestions like, “Man, if you knew what Malcolm was saying about the leader, you would kill him yourself.” Talmadge Hayer, the only confessed killer convicted of his murder, felt that he had to correct Malcolm’s slander, but he stated that he did not need a direct order. Norman Butler — later known as Muhammad A. Aziz — remembers Elijah Muhammad’s son, known to many simply as “Junior,” telling an audience, “‘You should cut out [Malcolm’s] tongue, and I’ll stamp it APPROVED, and send it to my father,’ words to that effect.” But he took this to be “hype talk.”
Chasing William X, breaking news to Cory Booker
After he was found guilty of killing Malcolm, Butler hired William Kunstler, who publicised on television Hayer’s signed affidavit. The document’s purpose was to exonerate the innocent Butler and Johnson. In the affidavit, Hayer names four men from the Newark mosque who conspired with him. In details about how the crime was planned and executed, Hayer writes that it was “William” who “had the shotgun” — the weapon that had killed Malcolm. “If you want to answer the question of who killed Malcolm,” summarises Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, “it was the man who fired the shotgun. According to Hayer, that man’s name was William X.” When the courts denied Kunstler’s request to reopen the case, Kunstler petitioned Congress, but to no avail. In his affidavit, Hayer described William X as 27 years old, of stocky build, around 5’10”, with a dark complexion and short, cropped hair. A member of both the Newark mosque and the Fruit of Islam, his last name was Bradley.
In the fifth of the series’s six episodes, Muhammad declares that if Bradley is the killer, he wants to confront him face to face. But first, he needs to find his adopted Muslim name. In an informal discussion, he gets lucky. Someone tells him offhand: Al-Mustafa Shabazz. He travels to Newark and meets a clutch of Newark old-timers who tell him not to stir up ghosts. Turns out Shabazz’s involvement was an open secret. The rumour itself, plus the fact that he was never convicted, leads to inchoate suspicions of impunity, that central undermining condition of American corruption. That same impunity led Shabazz on, under the name Bradley, to wield a long and violent rap sheet: terrorist threats, sexual assault, armed robbery.
“Leave him alone, leave him alone, leave him alone,” says one community member. “Because he’s probably being protected by the state.” Many in Newark knew who Shabazz was and what he is said to have done in 1965. In fact, he was so well enmeshed in the Newark community that he was featured in Cory Booker’s 2010 mayoral reelection campaign video.
The video opens with Booker telling Newark voters that “Violent crime in our city was getting worse. But together, Newark, we took action, adding 300 police to our streets.” Then Bradley, aka Shabazz, shakes hands with a cop in the video. The directors freeze it and zoom in on the burly, grinning Shabazz. “This is the first time that the world has seen the face of the man who took the life of Malcolm X,” declares Abdur-Raman Muhammad. Booker’s campaign voiceover continues, “We are making Newark safer and stronger. And together, Newark, we are taking back our city.”
In the next scene, Dretzin is in Booker’s office. There are many awkward interviews in the docuseries; they make for addictive viewing. This is easily the most awkward and most addictive of all.
Dretzin: Are you familiar with . . . William Bradley, or Al-Mustafa Shabazz?
Booker: In Newark, from Newark?
Dretzin: Do you know that he . . .
Booker: [gleaming eyes wondering where this is going]
Dretzin: . . . appeared in your reelection campaign video of 2010?
Booker: [looks down and to the left]
Dretzin: . . . And that he is one of the people who allegedly murdered Malcolm X?
Booker: [eyes going very wide, head tilting up, slight smirk] That connection I was not aware of. No.
Dretzin: You weren’t aware of that?
Booker: You are breaking news, to me. He’s one of the people that is alleged by whom?
[Dretzin tells him that Hayer named him.]
Booker: I was not aware of that.
Dretzin asks Booker if he wants to see the video. Booker (whose face says no) asks, “Do you have it with you right now?” The laptop lands on Booker’s lap; his eyes are bright with anger, his mouth is smiling — his scheduler’s head is going to roll. The video plays, and Dretzin indicates Shabazz. “Yeah,” says Booker, “I know him well. I know him well.” Soon, they go back and forth, Booker saying vaguely that we should get to the truth. When Dretzin uses the word “assassin,” or “potential assassin,” Booker flinches, moves out of the shot, and adds, “Please keep saying ‘potential.’”
A father in name only
In the final episode, Muhammad wonders aloud why the FBI’s narrative around the killing differed from the official case. If both Hayer and Butler insist Butler was innocent, why was he allowed to languish in prison for two decades? Muhammad’s research on Al-Mustafa Shabazz/Bradley finds that multiple descriptions, including his status as a lieutenant in the Newark Mosque, match the eyewitness descriptions the FBI had on file. Then he examines an FBI internal memo warning that Shabazz/Bradley’s fitting the description of the trigger man “should not be furnished to the NYCPD without first receiving Bureau authority.” Strange. Norman 3X Johnson, a light-skinned man from a different mosque, had already been arrested as the trigger man. “Why wouldn’t the FBI immediately notify the New York City Police Department?” Muhammad asks. Yet another file provides a possible answer. It said that “a lieutenant from Newark may have been involved in the slaying of Malcolm [X],” and that the New York Police Department “had . . . not . . . been advised of the identity of this [lieutenant] for use in the [Malcolm X] case.”
While a jury considered the innocence or guilt of these two men, men who didn’t match the FBI’s description of the person with the shotgun or others at the Audubon Ballroom that afternoon, for whom there was no physical evidence, the FBI just watched. Once these innocent men were convicted, it appears, they closed their own file concluding that it was Bradley. They did so without offering to correct the case and made sure anyone attempting to correct the record would notify them first. After two decades in prison, Johnson died in 2009 without ever clearing his name. “It just makes you wonder,” says Muhammad, “could Bradley have been an informant working for the FBI?”
Meanwhile, Muhammad prepares to confront him, hoping to “look the man eye to eye, man to man [and ask him,] ‘How could you do that, how could you do that, how could you do that to our people?’” But he learns during production that Bradley has died. With this news, he admits to feeling depressed.
Perhaps to rechannel the series’s energy, the final segment does the most to personalise Muhammad. We meet his son, watch him recite poetry, and then point to the Marable biography his father’s important work appears in. We learn from Muhammad in voiceover that much of his scholarship has “come out of my own pocket.” If the state doesn’t care about the truth of who killed Malcolm X, so that Americans don’t know 55 years later, this produces a chilling effect on the media. But stories like this, time and again, are too hot to report, the real story unsayable, protected like Shabazz and other collaborating men.
The final episode also does the most to personalise Butler. Bearded, acerbic, afraid to hope for much, he tells the interviewers that, thanks to his two decades in prison, “I don’t know my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren or my great-great-grandchildren.” Caught between narratives, that of an ex-con who is expected to repent and look optimistically forward and that of a framed man, he can engage only in “filler talk” with his children, and he feels like “a father in name only.” The segment shows him looking up his family members on Facebook, saying, “I think this is my granddaughter.”
Muhammad, sitting next to him on a bench outside, promises to file a wrongful conviction report for him. Butler, now Aziz, is hesitant to reignite his hope. His hesitancy — to hope — is moving. The subtext is the crisis of masculinity, which one hears in the first episode when Muhammad talks about being persecuted by police for dating who he wants, and then being drawn to Malcolm’s “manhood.” (The series’s focus on men, to the near exclusion of Black women scholars, has been criticised.) Malcolm’s own quest for Black dignity, and Black self-determination, was, of course, violated and disfigured by his death as a warning to these men and to their families.
The week before Malcolm was to give his fateful talk at the Audubon Ballroom, on Valentine’s Day, his house was firebombed. While he was able to evacuate his wife and children before the house was consumed by flames, it took nearly an hour for police to arrive. “I stood in my underwear in my driveway with a gun for 45 minutes,” he complained. In need of money, without clothes or insurance, and effectively homeless, he continued his busy schedule of paid speaking appearances. The night before his Audubon speech, he stayed at the Statler-Hilton across the street from Penn Station. His security team, led by his personal bodyguard, Eugene Roberts, would have kept his location under tight wraps. 12 years earlier, military scientist Frank Olson plunged to his death from the thirteenth floor of the Statler, in a killing ruled to have been a suicide (Netflix’s Wormwood, however, reveals it was probably a CIA murder). At 3 am, Malcolm’s hotel room phone rang. When he picked up: silence. Were his whereabouts known to those behind the death threats? Everyone else on the roster to speak with him that day called in with last-minute cancellations.
When he was shot, his bodyguard, Roberts, smashed a chair over the back of one of the assailants, probably Bradley, and leapt onto the stage and gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The series cuts to Gouza frowning, calling Malcolm a “thug,” suggesting it was inappropriate for Roberts to try to help Malcolm live. Why? Because Roberts was also a paid NYPD informant, working undercover for BOSSI. The goal had been to penetrate Malcolm’s security detail and make himself useful to the activist. He was chosen partly because he had no family ties to NYPD. For Roberts to leap onstage and perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation was in violation of police-spy protocol, the Breslin stand-in Gouza suggests. Yet nevertheless, for several minutes, Roberts kept breathing air into Malcolm’s lungs, trying to save him, until he realised Malcolm had no pulse and couldn’t be saved.
While Malcolm’s widow continued to try to save his life, police were busy with the one person they caught who actually was involved in the conspiracy to murder Malcolm X: Hayer. Though they had stood down when they should have been guarding the entrance — and the speaker — they couldn’t have avoided nabbing Hayer, even if they had wanted to, because of the brawl underway after admirers of Malcolm saw Hayer with a gun. But while police wrestled with those attacking Hayer, footage shows a ringer for Al-Mustafa Shabazz, Malcolm’s presumptive killer, skirting the melee.
At least nine informants crowded into the Audubon Ballroom that Sunday afternoon. Did Malcolm play his game that day, trying to guess which ones were the informants? “I don’t think he understood that his closest associate,” Bouza tells the audience drily, “was working for us.”
The grace of Betty Shabazz
An extraordinary record of its subject matter, Who Killed Malcolm X? features a gruelling clip of Betty Shabazz being interviewed after her husband’s murder. It is the most powerful segment of archival footage in the series, and it feels voyeuristic and exploitative, even five and a half decades later. She is dazed, freshly traumatised, looking down. Off-camera, in milder tones, a battery of journalists, all men, fire a barrage of leading questions at her. The questions are restatements of Malcolm X’s alleged feelings of racial superiority, some with an insinuation that he brought this violence on himself. They are uttered gently, almost whispered, but with violent, baiting undertones. Unmoved to respond, Shabazz appears unwilling even to gesture at an answer. Did she remember her husband, who had rejected police protection after the firebombing, saying,
The policemen in this country are the ones who are responsible for the brutality, the policemen themselves have become guilty of violating the rights of the people . . . So what are the people to do? Call upon the same ones who are victimising them to protect them? No, they have to protect themselves.
She blinks, her mouth parts briefly. One of the newsmen asks if she was about to answer, but she stays quiet a little longer.
Picture that February meeting with Malcolm, after his main source of income, his ministerial work with the Nation of Islam, is lost, and the FBI knocks on his door. Where is Betty when her husband welcomes them into their house, and they invite him to snitch? Now picture that same meeting taking place with one of Elijah Muhammad’s surrogates, one of those in line to inherit what Malcolm helped the Messenger build. Picture that surrogate admitting that his curiosity is piqued, conceding that by helping keep Malcolm out of the Nation of Islam, both their missions, the FBI’s and his own, will be served. Within Elijah Muhammad’s inner circle of just half of a dozen people, the series reports, sat another FBI informant.
Now picture Eugene Roberts, who goes secretly into the precinct only when absolutely necessary (like the morning after Malcolm’s murder), being handed a file about Elijah Muhammad’s extramarital affairs. Doesn’t he hand it to Malcolm? Isn’t that his job? Malcolm starts to ask questions, to interview these women and girls, just as the Messenger is telling him not to be too hard on the LAPD after they murdered his friend Ronald Stokes. Does this complicate the idea that it was merely “the rift” that grew up naturally between them, which led to Malcolm’s murder? The winds of the surveillance state, of COINTELPRO and the CIA’s tandem Operation CHAOS, blew more toxic material, more poison into rifts like these — to deny these men respectability, dignity. “If the NYPD had an agent in the Audubon that day, close enough to give him mouth-to-mouth,” Abdur-Raman Muhammad concludes, it “makes me wonder who else law enforcement had on the inside that nobody knows about.”
As the barrage of hostile questions continues, the newly widowed Betty Shabazz continues to look down in silence, until something flashes, like she has suddenly remembered something. Looking up, at first softly, she utters her first phrase in this new phase of her life, her life-preserving a legacy and carrying it forward: “I think he accomplished more than can be realised at this moment.”
Joel Whitney is the author of Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers. His work has also appeared in Newsweek, Poetry Magazine, the New York Times, the New Republic and elsewhere.