On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X, also known then as El Haj Malik Al-Shabazz, was assassinated in the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, New York City. His assassins were associated with the Nation of Islam (NOI), an organization Malcolm X left less than a year before, an organization he had built into a formidable political force opposing police brutality, calling for self defense against the police and the Klan as well as for community self-organization.
The film follows tour-guide-by-day, Malcolm X-enthusiast by night Abdur Rahman Muhammad. Muhammad is a devout Black Muslim and shares the story of police brutality he suffered as a child as what lead him to becoming a Muslim and following Malcolm X.
The film is filled with interviews of historians, activists, NYPD cops who were assigned to follow Malcolm’s whereabouts, and the New York District Attorney at the time of his death, as well as excerpts from files obtained from the FBI through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The files detailed how three of the people accused of being part of the direct assassination attempt (Thomas 15X Johnson and Norman 3X Butler) were not even present at the ballroom. The third person, Talmadge Hayer aka Thomas Haga, was caught at the ballroom and rescued by the police after being shot by Malcolm X’s bodyguard.
Hayer confessed to the crime but also stated there were four others involved. FBI files revealed they knew William Bradley was present but did not reveal his name. He was not discovered as the killer, although it was well known an “open secret” he killed Malcolm X in the city of Newark, New Jersey, where he is from. Also, the day of the murder, there was barely any police presence in the area, and by that evening, there was a dance at the crime scene. The bullet-ridden podium where Malcolm was shot was discovered in the basement of the ballroom years later. The police at best had no interest in Malcolm’s death and more than likely wanted to cover up what actually happened.
The film also discussed the detailed surveillance program of the FBI, the beginnings of COINTELPRO, as well as the Bureau of Secret Service (BOSSI) program by the NYPD. During the 1960s, local police departments conspired with the FBI to create disunity and undermine the organizations of Black radical groups including the Nation of Islam. The Covert Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) was created by the FBI to surveil and disrupt left political organizations. FBI agents would send letters forging signatures to create rifts or exacerbate internal rifts in organizations.
In the FBI’s own words:
COINTELPRO—short for Counterintelligence Program—in 1956 to disrupt the activities of the Communist Party of the United States. In the 1960s, it was expanded to include a number of other domestic groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, the Socialist Workers Party, and the Black Panther Party. All COINTELPRO operations ended in 1971. Although limited in scope (about two-tenths of one percent of the FBI’s workload over a 15-year period), COINTELPRO was later rightfully criticized by Congress and the American people for abridging first amendment rights and for other reasons.
Malcolm X did not simply advocate for Black people to be self sufficient in their own communities and to support the NOI financially. Malcolm X preached against the bedrock of US capitalism: the philosophy of white supremacy. He challenged the belief that white people were “superior,” revealing in fact the horrific, violent, and hypocritical acts white people and a white-run government took against Black people, in particular Black people protesting in the Civil Rights Movement. He denounced pacifism because it was ineffective against attack dogs and murderous bigots. He advocated for Black people to demand their democratic rights “by any means necessary.” The FBI was determined to take him down and use the rift between him and NOI leader Elijah Muhammad to kill him. The film makes clear what many Black revolutionaries already knew: the NOI was a willing puppet of the FBI in the murder of Malcolm X. Their disagreement was used to kill Malcolm X and undermine their organization’s ability to radicalize outside the system.
This tactic would become commonplace for the FBI, CIA, and local police departments in destroying Black, left and socialist revolutionary organizations. FOIA files reveal systemic lies, misinformation, and even direct assassination of leaders to break revolutionary organizations like the Black Panthers, Black Liberation Army, American Indian Movement, Socialist Worker’s Party, Young Lords, Communist Party-USA, and many others. As revealed in the documentary, Malcolm X’s personal bodyguard was an informant for the police. The informant, Gene Roberts, gave Malcolm CPR as he lay dying on the floor of the ballroom.
“Leave Well Enough Alone”
The film is also about history, and if a person is redemptive, why tarnish their history? William Bradley, aka Al-Mustafa Shabazz, was allegedly discovered to be the actual lone gunman of Malcolm X. As the film maker Abdur Rahman Muhammad prepares to confront him face-to-face, he is suddenly informed that Al-Mustafa Shabazz is dead. Before he died, after leading a life of crimes, he converted to Islam and became a pillar in his community, setting up a boxing gym to train low income at risk youth. Local politicians came to his funeral. Even former Presidential hopeful Cory Booker spoke highly of him. Does that then absolve him of being questioned about his past?
The filmmaker suggests not only that Al-Mustafa Shabazz killed Malcolm X, but that elected officials suspected he was the murderer and allowed him to live freely as a “open secret.” Muslims interviewed in Newark also stated that because Shabazz had reformed his life, becoming a devout Muslim and contributing positively to the community, he should be absolved of his crime. Although it is clear in the documentary Abdur Rahman Muhammad is not satisfied with that reasoning, he leaves the question open-ended.
Malcolm X was an individual who went through personal and political changes in his life. His father, Earl Little, was run over by a trolley because he stood up to white supremacists. His mother was placed in a psychiatric hospital after her husband was murdered. Malcolm was split from his six brothers and sisters, growing up in foster homes. After being discouraged by a racist white teacher from becoming a lawyer (“An (n word) can’t be a lawyer. Become a carpenter”), Malcolm turned to a life of crime. After being in and out of jail, Malcolm Little was arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison for burglary. While in prison, he was recruited and then joined the Nation of Islam. Often, the NOI has recruited and targeted people like Malcolm who are incarcerated.
Malcolm Little became Malcolm X, stating he did not know his ancestors’ actual last name because it was taken from them during enslavement. While in the NOI, Malcolm X denounced the racist US government and called for Black people to defend themselves against the Klan, bigots and police attacking Black people. He specifically polemicized to the youth of the Civil Rights Movement. Most of the movement agreed with pacifism. Malcolm X strongly denounced pacifism as a tool of oppressors, arguing that Black people were taught pacifism specifically to keep us from revolting from being enslaved to resisting segregation. Malcolm X’s political agitation grew the NOI membership. It also directly challenged the US government’s racist policies. There began to develop a rift between Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X. With COINTELPRO, the FBI infiltrated and exacerbated the division. Malcolm X had already begun to drift from the NOI when a long time friend and NOI member Ronald Stokes was murdered by the Los Angeles Police Department. Malcolm X called for revenge against the police, but he was told by the Nation of Islam not to strike back against the LAPD.
The division became an unofficial break when Malcolm X called the assassination of John F. Kennedy “Chickens Coming Home to Roost,” defying an order from Elijah Muhammad to be silent on the issue.
Malcolm X’s life went from reactionary, to radical, to revolutionary. When he stood alone from the organization that “rescued him from the wilderness,” he went further to Pan-Africanism and was even influenced by socialist groups like the Trotskyist Socialist Workers’ Party. Malcolm X spoke several times at the Militant Labor Forum organized in part by the SWP, stating that the Militant “was one of the best papers in New York City.” He also gave an interview to the SWP weeks before his death stating, “It is impossible for capitalism to survive… it is only a matter of time in my opinion before it will collapse completely.”Malcolm’s life parallels Trotsky’s life. Building an organization only to be betrayed by it. Working furiously knowing his days were numbered. The sharp speeches of dead men walking.
Malcolm X was assassinated because he was growing and gaining a following among the Black youth and working class. He was growing internationally. From religious to secular, from separatist to internationalist. The US capitalist, imperialist was determined to assassinate him.
Film maker Abdur Rahman Muhammad did not stop at discovering who was the alleged killer of Malcolm. He also linked up with Muhammad Abdul Aziz, one of the three people charged with Malcolm’s murder who is still alive. The assassin who confessed waited until after Elijah Muhammad’s death and revealed the names of the four others. This also meant two people went to jail for crimes they didn’t commit. Further still, that the FBI knew these men were innocent and allowed them to spend most of their lives in jail. The other accused man, Khalil Islam but then known as Thomas 15X Johnson, died before he could be released and his name cleared.
Film maker Abdur Rahman Muhammad’s meeting with Abdul Aziz discussed filing a appeal for he and the late Khalil Islam to the exonerated. It was a sad reality when Aziz said the filmmaker could do what he wanted, but that he had no hope in anything coming of it. Why would he? The U.S. government knowingly stole 20 years of his life. Because he was in prison, it ruined relations with his family and estranged him from generations of his children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren because he “wasn’t there.” It seems to this author rather naive to believe that this government that routinely ruins lives and ends lives with sadistic glee is capable of “justice.” The system itself is based on injustice.
In a surprise twist, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office has decided to reopen the case of Malcolm X’s murder, possibly exonerating two of the three men convicted of his death. There are still dozens of political prisoners locked up behind trumped up charges. There are still millions locked up because they are poor, Black or Brown, and use illegal substances. Around the world, US imperialism continues to bomb, maime and terrorize people and their democratically elected governments for not towing the line. Even if because of pressure from this film, these men are exonerated (one posthumously), it would not make the system any more just.
We know who killed Malcolm X. It was the U.S. government. They even had an informant as Malcolm’s top bodyguard. The Nation of Islam, threatened by Malcolm’s power and unwillingness to be bought by the organizations financial success, were the ones who pulled the trigger. The documentary reveals first hand FBI accounts showing the depravity and fear of radical Black self organization. It is also about secrets kept and complicated histories. About the enduring importance of the truth and the complexities of that. It is a must-see to learn about the bold political life of Malcolm X and how a determined local Black Muslim historian changed the narrative of one of the most influential political leaders in U.S. history.