Behind the Headlines: The Complexities of Malcolm X’s Assassination

NYC street sign Malcolm X main

The 1960s was a decade of assassinations, both in the United States and the world as a whole. At home, the nation was horrified by the murder of President John F. Kennedy. Multiple leaders of the civil rights movement also were killed, including Malcolm X, a controversial black nationalist. Controversy remains, however, about who was responsible.

What is the Nation of Islam?

Islam is one of the three major monotheistic religions.  People who practice Islam are known as Muslims. There are millions of Muslims living in this country. The Nation of Islam is one of the different groups of Muslims. Nonetheless, they are very controversial.  

Wallace D. Fard Muhammad established the Nation of Islam in Detroit, Michigan. His mission was to “teach the downtrodden and defenseless Black people a thorough knowledge of God and themselves.” The new group was not only a religion. The Nation of Islam was a movement for black empowerment in an age of racial segregation and widespread discrimination. 

The Nation of Islam (or “Black Muslims”) argued: Did not non-whites establish Islam and establish a great empire? African Americans could thrive, even in the racist nation of the 1930s and beyond. The mythical origin story of the Nation of Islam (unlike mainstream Islam) explained whites were “devils” without the inner spark of the divine that black people have. 

Elijah Muhammed became the leader of the Nation of Islam. 

Malcolm Little Becomes Malcolm X

Malcolm Little was born in 1925. His father was a Baptist preacher who taught the black nationalist ideals of Marcus Garvey. Garvey argued that all blacks worldwide should unite. Garvey also argued the best way for African Americans to succeed was self-reliance. 

White supremacists murdered Malcolm’s father. His mother had a nervous breakdown and was committed to a state hospital. Malcolm did well in school until, as he later explained, a teacher told him that his dream of becoming a lawyer was impossible for a (n-word). 

He decided that the United States was fundamentally racist and that a black person had no chance to succeed. Malcolm was later convicted of burglary and sent to prison. 

Malcolm Little learned about the teachings of Elijah Muhammed. Muhammad’s teachings had a strong effect on Malcolm, who underwent an intense program of self-education and took the last name “X” to symbolize his stolen African identity.

Malcolm X Preaches 

Malcolm X followed in his father’s footsteps. After six years in prison, he became a passionate and effective preacher of the Nation of Islam. His base was Harlem in New York City.

Martin Luther King Jr. also followed in the footsteps of a preacher father. Nonetheless, King was a Baptist preacher who promoted non-violence and the dream of all races joining together. 

Malcolm X supported black separatism. He argued King’s “dream” was a fantasy that kowtowed to the wishes of the whites. Malcolm demanded racial justice by “any means necessary.”  

Many government officials were very wary of the civil rights movement. J. Edgar Hoover, the Federal Bureau of Investigations leader, closely monitored King and Malcolm X. Undercover agents watched their meetings. The government also used electronic surveillance. 

Malcolm X Leaves Nation of Islam  

Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammed ultimately had a falling out. Elijah Muhammed was jealous of Malcolm X’s popularity. He thought Malcolm was getting too powerful.

Malcolm believed the Nation of Islam was not radical enough. He also worried about Elijah’s moral failings, including his sexual affairs.  

When Malcolm declared that the assassination of President Kennedy was a “chickens coming home to roost moment,” Elijah suspended him from the Nation of Islam. Malcolm decided it was time to leave the organization. He became a Sunni Muslim, the largest Muslim sect. 

Malcolm took a Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964. He was impressed by the presence of all types of Muslims able to join together peacefully. He formed the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Malcolm continued to be a believer in racial justice. Nonetheless, he now argued that racism, not the inherent evilness of the white race, was the ultimate enemy.  

The Assassination 

The rivalry between the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X became very heated. 

Malcolm X began to get death threats. Elijah Muhammed and other Black Muslims started to suggest it would be better if he were dead. On February 19, 1965, Malcolm X told interviewer Gordon Parks that the Nation of Islam was actively trying to kill him.

On February 21, 1965, Malcolm was about to give a speech in Harlem about his organization. He had bodyguards but told them not to search the guests. That might discourage them from coming. About four hundred guests, including Malcolm’s pregnant wife, were present.  

After a man in the audience lit a smoke bomb, Malcolm tried to regain order. Then, someone rushed to the stage and shot him with a shotgun. Two more men followed with handguns.  

Malcolm X, age thirty-nine, was dead. A few years later, Martin Luther King Jr. was also assassinated, this time by a white racist. He was also thirty-nine years old.   


Witnesses testified that Mujahid Abdul Halim (aka Talmadge Hayer and Thomas Hagen), Muhammad Aziz (aka Norman Butler), and Khalil Islam (aka Thomas Johnson) were the three assassins. Halim, who was shot in the leg by Malcolm’s bodyguards, admitted guilt.

Halim was convicted and released on parole in 2010. Aziz and Islam were also convicted. Islam was paroled in 1987 and died in 2009. Aziz was paroled in 1985 and is still alive.  

Halim testified that Aziz and Islam were involved.  Halim, then a member of the Nation of Islam, later said four other men were involved. A doctor also testified at the trial that Aziz was resting at home from a leg injury when the murder occurred. 

Almost fifty years after the murders, their professions of innocence finally bore fruit. The city of New York admitted the convictions were wrongful. A court overturned their verdicts.  

Controversy Remains

Elijah Muhammad went to his death claiming innocence. The men fingered by Mujahid Abdul Halim denied involvement. Who else professing innocence might be involved?

Malcolm X’s family believes the government was involved. They joined a lawsuit alleging that the FBI, CIA, and New York police department are concealing evidence. The government allegedly had reason to know Malcolm X’s life was at risk but did not warn him. 
As a news headline once said: Who Really Killed Malcolm X?

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.