The Assassination of Malcolm X
On February 21, 1965, the black leader Malcolm X was assassinated as he started to address a rally in New York City. Malcolm X was a controversial figure. He had spent time in jail as a street criminal. As spokesman for Elijah Mohammed's Nation of Islam, he articulated a virulently anti-white program of black self-help. After a trip to Mecca, he broke with Elijah Mohammed and his anti-white policies to form an independent political group expressing both national and international concerns.
A: from The New York TimesMalcolm X, the 39-year-old leader of a militant black nationalist movement, was shot to death yesterday afternoon at a rally of his followers in a ballroom in Washington Heights.
Shortly before midnight, a 22-year-old Negro, Thomas Hagan, was charged with the killing. The police rescued him from the ballroom crowd after he has been shot and beaten.
Malcolm, a bearded extremist, had said only a few words of greeting when a fusillade rang out. The bullets knocked him over backward.
Pandemonium broke out among the 400 Negroes in the Audubon Ballroom at 166th Street and Broadway. As men, women and children ducked under tables and flattened themselves on the floor, more shots were fired. Some witnesses said 30 shots had been fired.
The police said seven bullets had struck Malcolm. Three other Negroes were shot.
About two hours later the police said the shooting had apparently been a result of a feud between followers of Malcolm and members of the extremist group he broke with last year, the Black Muslims. However, the police declined to say whether Hagan is a Muslim.
The Medical Examiner's office said early this morning that a preliminary autopsy showed Malcolm had died of multiple gunshot wounds. The office said that bullets of two different calibers as well as shotgun pellets had been removed from his body.
One police theory was that as many as five conspirators might have been involved, two creating a diversionary disturbance.
Hagan was shot in the left thigh and his left leg was broken, apparently by kicks. He was under treatment in the Bellevue Hospital prison ward last night; perhaps a dozen policemen were guarding him, according to the hospital's night attendant. The police said they had found a cartridge case with four unused .45-caliber shells in his pocket.
Two other Negroes, described as apparent spectators by Assistant Chief Inspector Harry Taylor, in command of Manhattan North uniformed police, also were shot. They were identified as William Harris, wounded seriously in the abdomen, and William Parker, shot in a foot. Both were taken to Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, which is close to the ballroom.
Capt. Paul Glaser of the Police Department's Community Relations Bureau said early today that Hagan, using a double-barrelled shotgun with shortened barrels and stock, had killed Malcolm X.
Malcolm, a slim, reddish-haired six-footer with a gift for bitter eloquence against what he considered white exploitation of Negroes, broke in March, 1964, with the Black Muslim movement called the Nation of Islam, headed by Elijah Muhammad . . . .1
B: from NewsweekHe was born Malcolm Little, an Omaha Negro preacher's son. Before he was out of his teens, he was Big Red, a Harlem hipster trafficking in numbers, narcotics, sex, and petty crime. He was buried as Al Hajj Malik Shabazz, a spiritual desperado lost between the peace of Islam and the pain of blackness. His whole life was a series of provisional identities, and he was still looking for the last when, as Malcolm X, 39, apostate Black Muslim and mercurial black nationalist, he was gunned to death by black men last week in a dingy uptown New York ballroom.
He had seen the end coming?predicted it, in fact, so long and so loudly that people had stopped listening. Malcolm X had always been an extravagant talker, a demagogue who titillated slum Negroes and frightened whites with his blazing racist attacks on the white devils and his calls for an armed American Mau Mau. His own flamboyant past made it easy to disregard his dire warnings that he had been marked for murder by the Muslims, the anti-white, anti- integrationist Negro sect he had served so devoutly for a dozen years and fought so bitterly since his defection a year ago.
His assassination turned out to be one of his few entirely accurate prophecies. Its fulfillment triggered an ominous vendetta between the Malcolmites and the Muslims?ominous in its intensity even though it was isolated on the outermost extremist fringe of American Negro life.
Death came moments after Malcolm stepped up to a flimsy plywood lectern in Manhattan's Audubon Ballroom, just north of Harlem, to address 400 of the faithful and the curious at a Sunday afternoon rally of his fledgling Organization of Afro-American Unity. The extermination plot was clever in conception, swift and smooth in execution. Two men popped to their feet in the front rows of wooden folding chairs, one yelling at the other: Get your hands off my pockets, don't be messing with my pockets. Four of Malcolm's six bodyguards moved toward the pair; Malcolm himself chided, Let's cool it.
Volley: Then came a second diversion: a man's sock, soaked in lighter fluid and set ablaze, flared in the rear. Heads swiveled, and as they did, a dark, muscular man moved toward the lectern in a crouch, a sawed-off shotgun wrapped in his coat. Blam-blam! A double-barreled charge ripped up through the lectern and into Malcolm's chest. From the left, near the spot where the two men had been squabbling, came a back-up volley of pistol fire.
Malcolm tumbled backward, his lean body rent by a dozen wounds, his heels hooked over a fallen chair. The hall was bedlam. Malcolm's pregnant wife, Betty, rushed on stage screaming, They're killing my husband! His retainers fired wildly through the crowd at the fleeing killers. Four assailants made it to side doors and disappeared.
The man with the shotgun, identified by police as 22-year-old Talmadge Hayer of Paterson, N.J., dashed down a side aisle to the stairway exit from the second floor ballroom. From the landing, one of Malcolm's bodyguards winged him in the thigh with a .45-caliber slug. Howling in pursuit (Kill the bastard!), the ballroom crowd caught Hayer on the sidewalk, mauled him, and broke his ankle before police rescued him.
Hayer was charged with homicide. Five days later, police picked up a karate-trained Muslim enforcer, Norman 3X Butler, 26, as suspect No. 2.
The arrest of a Muslim surprised almost no one. For all his many enemies, Malcolm himself had insisted to the end that it was the Muslims who wanted him dead. They seemed to dog him everywhere he went; a bare week before his death, he was firebombed out of his Queens home, the ownership of which he had been disputing with the Muslims. Increasingly edgy, he moved with his wife and four children first to Harlem's Hotel Theresa, finally?the night before his death?to the New York Hilton in the alien world downtown. When he died, Manhattan police assumed that Muslims were involved . . . .2
C: from New York PostThey came early to the Audubon Ballroom, perhaps drawn by the expectation that Malcolm X would name the men who firebombed his home last Sunday, streaming from the bright afternoon sunlight into the darkness of the hall.
The crowd was larger than usual for Malcolm's recent meetings, the 400 filling three-quarters of the wooden folding seats, feet scuffling the worn floor as they waited impatiently, docilely obeying the orders of Malcolm's guards as they were directed to their seats.
I sat at the left in the 12th row and, as we waited, the man next to me spoke of Malcolm and his followers:
Malcolm is our only hope, he said. You can depend on him to tell it like it is and to give Whitey hell.
Then a man was on the stage, saying:
. . . I now give you Brother Malcolm. I hope you will listen, hear, and understand.
There was a prolonged ovation as Malcolm walked to the rostrum past a piano and a set of drums waiting for an evening dance and stood in front of a mural of a landscape as dingy as the rest of the ballroom.
When, after more than a minute the crowd quieted, Malcolm looked up and said, A salaam aleikum (Peace be unto you) and the audience replied Wa aleikum salaam (And unto you, peace).
Bespectacled and dapper in a dark suit, his sandy hair glinting in the light, Malcolm said: Brothers and sisters . . . He was interrupted by two men in the center of the ballroom, about four rows in front and to the right of me, who rose and, arguing with each other, moved forward. Then there was a scuffle in the back of the room and, as I turned my head to see what was happening, I heard Malcolm X say his last words: Now, now brothers, break it up, he said softly. Be cool, be calm.
Then all hell broke loose. There was a muffled sound of shots and Malcolm, blood on his face and chest, fell limply back over the chairs behind him. The two men who had approached him ran to the exit on my side of the room shooting wildly behind them as they ran.
I fell to the floor, got up, tried to find a way out of the bedlam.
Malcolm's wife, Betty, was near the stage, screaming in a frenzy. They're killing my husband, she cried. They're killing my husband.
Groping my way through the first frightened, then enraged crowd, I heard people screaming, Don't let them kill him. Kill those bastards. Don't let him get away. Get him.
At an exit I saw some of Malcolm's men beating with all their strength on two men. Police were trying to fight their way toward the two. The press of the crowd forced me back inside.
I saw a half-dozen of Malcolm's followers bending over his inert body on the stage, their clothes stained with their leader's blood. Then they put him on a litter while guards kept everyone off the platform. A woman bending over him said: He's still alive. His heart's beating.
Four policemen took the stretcher and carried Malcolm through the crowd and some of the women came out of their shock long enough to moan and one said: I don't think he's going to make it. I hope he doesn't die, but I don't think he's going to make it.
I spotted a phone booth in the rear of the hall, fumbled for a dime, and called a photographer. Then I sat there, the surprise wearing off a bit, and tried desperately to remember what had happened. One of my first thoughts was that this was the first day of National Brotherhood Week.3
1Peter Kihss, The New York Times, Febnruary 22, 1965, p. 1. Copyright @1965 by The New York Times Company.
Copyright © 2000 by Daniel J. Kurland. All rights reserved.