Oh dear, the dreaded letter X – not an easy one when your subjects are people’s names, so I’m cheating a little bit this time by writing about Malcolm Little, or El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz as he became, and better known as the human rights activist Malcolm X.
But rather than write about his life, interesting though it was, I wanted to focus on his death and the conspiracy theories that surround it.
Born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1925, Malcolm X became the most visible spokesman of radical black America and as the frontman for the Nation of Islam he rejected the passive civil disobedience of Martin Luther King and argued that blacks should resist oppression ‘by any means necessary’.
X left the so-called ‘Black Muslims’ in 1964 and set up his own Organization of Afro-American Unity as his views changed from racial separation to one of integration, but on 21 February 1965, he was shot dead on stage at the Audubon Ballroom in New York after making a speech.
Three men were convicted of his murder – Talmadge Hayer, ’15X‘ Johnson and Norman ‘3X‘ Butler – but conspiracy theories abound as to who was really behind the assassination.
Hayer had clearly shot X with a sawn-off shotgun and two other men had charged the stage with semi-automatic pistols, shooting X several times, but Hayer has always denied that they were Butler and Johnson.
Chaos followed the shooting. Initial press reports said that two people had to be rescued from the furious crowd, but the police later said that only the wounded Hayer had been arrested.
Doubts about the assassination began almost immediately. There was usually a heavy police presence whenever X made a public appearance, but there wasn’t that day. The police said that X had refused their protection while his widow said that this was a lie.
Then soon after X’s death, one of his activists announced that the had proof of government involvement only to die himself the following day from previously undiagnosed epilepsy.
According to the militant socialist journalist Roland Sheppard, X was at the centre of a government conspiracy because of his views on American capitalism and his opposition to the Vietnam War, not to mention keeping company with the likes of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.
But it is X‘s involvement with African states at a time when America and the USSR were vying for influence that is said to have prompted the CIA to take action. According to The Judas Factor by Karl Evanzz of the Washington Post, the CIA decided to neutralise X by infiltrating the Nation of Islam to disrupt its activities.
Evanzz argues that the CIA had a high-level informant – the Judas of the title – believed to be Nation secretary John Ali, but while there may well have been a plot to stir up trouble, there is no evidence of a documented order to assassinate X.
Another theory was that X was killed by Chinese drug traffickers – he had long campaigned against drug abuse in the inner cities.
Yet another theory was that he was killed by a member of the Nation of Islam because he was about to reveal that the organisation took funding from the American Nazi Party and the Ku Klux Klan on the grounds that they all shared the idea of racial segregation.
But all the evidence points to X being a victim of internecine vengeance. His killer, Hayer, was a member of the Nation of Islam and as well as defecting, X also alleged that the Nation’s leader, Elijah Muhammad, had fathered numerous illegitimate children. The latter is reported to have said: ‘It’s time to close that nigger’s eyes.’
Equally furious at X‘s decision to leave the Nation of Islam was Louis Farrakhan who saw him as a traitor to the cause and only two months before the shooting wrote that ‘such a man is worthy of death’.
X‘s widow publicly accused Farrakhan of her husband’s murder, while his daughter, Qubilah, attempted to hire a hitman to kill Farrakhan in 1994. (The assassin turned out to be an FBI informant.)
Micheal Friedly’s book, Malcolm X: The Assassination, supports this theory, pointing out that there had been four attempts on his life in the weeks leading up to the shooting.
Farrakhan made an implicit admission of guilt in 2000 when he said: ‘I may have been complicit in words that I spoke leading up to February 21… I acknowledge that and regret that any words that I have said caused the loss of life of a human being.’
Even so, X’s daughter still believed that the FBI was involved, even if it was young black men who shot him, and the agency refuses to release 45,000 documents relating to Malcolm X.
Before his death, X travelled extensively in Europe and Africa including to Manchester University close to where I live. Below he is interviewed by Cliff Michelmore on the BBC’s Tonight programme in 1964.