Authored by K. Thor Jensen in Celebrities
Published on 07-20-2009
The heyday of the civil rights struggle was a time of intense debate, with two major groups arguing their own approaches to equality for everyone. One thing both sides had in common, however, is their charismatic leaders were assassinated in their prime. The murder of Martin Luther King Jr. was shocking due to King’s Gandhi-derived tactics of passive resistance. But the death of radical Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X was just as shocking – at the height of his powers, after leaving the organization, Malcolm was shot down in his prime. The events of his death shocked the entire civil rights movement and cast the Nation of Islam as one of the true villains of the mid-60s.
In 1965, Malcolm X was at a crossroads. He had left the Nation of Islam a year earlier after a disagreement with Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm believed that the Nation had gone as far as it could in the civil rights struggle, and it was held back by its rigid religious views. Muhammad had prohibited Malcolm from working with other civil rights leaders, and he felt that there was more powerful work to be done outside its confines. Resentment of Malcolm’s public fame also bubbled within the Nation, making him feel even more uncomfortable. However, the religion of Islam still captivated Malcolm, and he traveled to the holy city of Mecca to convert to the Sunni sect.
After returning to America, Malcolm began to step up his campaign for Black unity and civil rights. Unfortunately, barely a year later, his works would be cut short by rogue members of the Nation of Islam. During a speaking engagement at Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom, a disturbance in the crowd brought Malcolm and his bodyguards forward from the stage to attempt to make peace. Taking advantage of the confusion, a gunman armed with a sawed-off shotgun charged the civil rights leader and shot him in the chest. Two other armed men came from the audience with pistols and fired sixteen more shots into Malcolm X and his bodyguards. An ambulance rushed Malcolm to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, but he was pronounced dead soon after arrival.
One of the three suspects was arrested at the scene of the crime – his name was Talmadge Hayer, a member of the Nation of Islam. He protested his innocence, and refused to identify his alleged collaborators. Eyewitnesses, however, pointed the finger at two men – Thomas 15X Johnson and Norman 3X Butler, two other Black Muslims. All three men were convicted and sentenced to prison. Johnson rejected the Nation of Islam in prison and converted to Sunni Islam before he was released. Butler, however, was installed as head of the Nation’s Harlem mosque upon release, and still claims that he was innocent in the murder. It’s hard to believe that the Nation didn’t have something to do with Malcolm’s death – after the funeral, Elijah Muhammad said “Malcolm got just what he preached” at the annual Savior’s Day convention. But what about the FBI’s secret COINTELPRO division, which was infiltrating a number of radical groups at the time? The real truth may never be known, but the tragedy of Malcolm’s death will always be with us.