The Assassination of Malcolm X

Malcom X Shot to Death at Rally Here
Three Other Negroes Wounded – One is Held in Killing

This is how The New York Times reported the assassination of Malcolm X, which happened 50 years ago today. One of the most influential figures of the civil rights movement, Malcolm X was shot dead as he took the stage to address a packed audience at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem on 21 February 1965.

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Early Years

Born Malcolm Little in 1925 in Nebraska, Malcolm X was inculcated with black nationalist ideals from an early age. His father was a Baptist preacher who advocated the ideals set out by Marcus Garvey.

Threats from the Ku Klux Klan were a constant feature of Malcolm X’s early life, and in 1935 his father was murdered by the white supremacist organization ‘Black Legion.’ The culprits were never held responsible.

At the age of 21 Malcolm X was sent to prison for burglary. There he encountered the the teachings Elijah Mohammed, the leader of the Nation of Islam. On his release from Prison, he became an effective minister for the Nation of Islam in Harlem, New York. His fiery oratory set him apart from more peaceful civil rights leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr.

“I am for violence if non violence means we continue postponing a solution American black man’s problem just to avoid violence.”

Divergence

By the early 1960s Malcolm X was becoming increasingly militant and outspoken. His divergence from the line taken by Elijah Mohammad was illustrated by his comments about he assassination of JFK – it was a matter of ‘the chickens coming home to roost.’

Malcolm X was formally suspended from the Nation of Islam a few months later. This provided him the opportunity to embark on a pilgrimage to Mecca. Profoundly affected by the unity and peace he found on his journey, he returned to the US as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. In 1964 he founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity.

The organization’s philosophy was fairly moderate, holding racism, not the white race, as the enemy. It gained significant social traction and Malcolm X’s stock rose massively. His success, however, invited attacks from competing black nationalist movements.

Assassination

Shortly before his assassination, Malcolm X reported a fire-bombing at his house:

My house was bombed. It was bombed by the Black Muslim movement upon the orders of Elijah Muhammad. Now, they had come around to—they had planned to do it from the front and the back so that I couldn’t get out. They covered the front completely, the front door. Then they had come to the back, but instead of getting directly in back of the house and throwing it this way, they stood at a 45-degree angle and tossed it at the window so it glanced and went onto the ground. And the fire hit the window, and it woke up my second-oldest baby. And then it—but the fire burned on the outside of the house.

On 21 February, as he was about to address the crowd in Harlem, a member of audience shouted “Nigger! Get your hand outta my pocket!” A man then charged out the audience was shot Malcolm X in the chest with a sawn-off shotgun. Two others opened fire with semi-automatic handguns.

Malcolm X was pronounced dead at 3.30pm. The autopsy identified 21 gunshot wounds.

Talmadge Hayer, who was the first to open fire, was held by the crowd.  The other two gunmen – Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson – were also detained. All three were members of the Nation of Islam, and it was clear that they were acting on orders of that organization. Malcolm X’s more moderate philosophy was siphoning support from the Nation of Islam, and diluting black militancy. Of the three assailants, two are alive and free today.

The public viewing preceding the funeral was attended by between 15,000 and 30,000 people. At the funeral itself eulogies were delivered by a variety of leading figures in the civil rights struggle.

Martin Luther King wasn’t in attendance, but did send a telegram to Malcolm X’s widow:

While we did not always see eye to eye on methods to solve the race problem, I always had a deep affection for Malcolm and felt that he had a great ability to put his finger on the existence and root of the problem. He was an eloquent spokesman for his point of view and no one can honestly doubt that Malcolm had a great concern for the problems that we face as a race.

Elijah Muhammad didn’t express any regret at the assassination, but denied any involvement:

We didn’t want to kill Malcolm and didn’t try to kill him. We know such ignorant, foolish teachings would bring him to his own end.”

Alex Browne studied History at Kings College London and is an Assistant Editor at Made From History. He specializes in post-war history in the USA and Central America.