The Assassination of Malcolm X: Important Lessons for Today

February 23, 2015 | Revolution Newspaper |


Malcolm X was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, New York on February 21, 1965. Just after 3 pm he got up to speak before about 400 people. Suddenly there was a commotion, what appeared to be an argument between two men at the back of the room. A smoke bomb went off. Then two men who had been sitting in the front rows rushed the stage. Malcolm was hit with a shotgun blast and pistol shots, 16 times. He was pronounced dead at 3:30 pm at a nearby hospital.

Many questions remain about the tragic death of Malcolm X and we may never fully know what and who was behind this assassination. The U.S. government has refused to release all of the FBI and CIA documents on Malcolm X. But hundreds of thousands of pages have been released which make some things  clear: Malcolm X was kept under intense government surveillance; U.S. agents infiltrated organizations Malcolm X was a part of; members of the NYPD worked as undercover agents; and all kinds of dirty methods were used to foment and exacerbate divisions between Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, creating a climate conducive to such an assassination. There are important lessons here for the struggle today. In 1965, Malcolm X was emerging as a powerful Black revolutionary leader, far more radical than other forces at the time. Carl Dix wrote, “He played an indispensable role in the transformation of the Black resistance movement of the 1960s from one that was trying to deal with the savage oppression Black people faced by getting into the system to a movement whose most advanced elements had come to see that system as the source of this oppression. Malcolm was relentless in condemning the U.S. for its crimes against Black people.” (See “Remembering Malcolm’s Life & Legacy—and Going Beyond It to Make Revolution and End the Hell on Earth this System Inflicts on Humanity!”)

Malcolm had also increasingly been playing a role internationally—traveling to Africa and other countries, speaking out and exposing colonialism and uniting with anti-colonial forces and calling out U.S. crimes committed against oppressed people in Africa and other parts of the world.

For all this Malcolm X represented a serious threat to the powers-that-be in the U.S. and the government’s repressive apparatus put him in their sights. The FBI started a surveillance file on Malcolm in the 1950s when he was organizing Nation of Islam mosques around the country. By the 1960s they were writing several reports a week on him. In 1964, head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover sent a telegram to the FBI’s New York office saying, “Do something about Malcolm X enough of this black violence in NY." That same year Malcolm started a new group, the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU). Undercover NYPD agent Gene Roberts quickly infiltrated the OAAU and became a leader in the group’s security force in Harlem. Roberts was part of the NYPD’s Bureau of Special Services and Investigations (BOSSI)—directly led by the FBI as part of its Counter Intelligence Program (Cointelpro). During this time the FBI and CIA were also doing surveillance of Malcolm’s international travels. Government agents are also known to have infiltrated the NOI, like John Ali, who became the NOI’s national press secretary. These undercover agents reported on activities and names of members, and also did things like try to frighten away supporters, steal files and records and plant incriminating material.

In the years before Malcolm’s death there were increasing conflicts between him and the Nation of Islam, whose program was profoundly conservative. These differences led to Malcolm’s silencing by the head of NOI, Elijah Muhammad, and then to his eventual break with the organization.

As pointed out in a letter to the editors that appeared in, “When Malcolm left the Nation of Islam, NOI launched a vicious personal slander campaign against him. This included all kinds of vitriol, as well as Louis Farrakhan—then a major figure in NOI and now its head—directly saying that Malcolm was ‘worthy of death.’ More generally, Farrakhan and others stirred up a great deal of personal animosity against Malcolm X, running all kinds of slanders and encouraging all kinds of personal grievances against him. This took a toll. Malcolm did not, at that point, have an organization which could take care to protect him; in early 1965 his house, the location of which was publicly known, was firebombed in the middle of night, and Malcolm and his family barely escaped death. Threats mounted. Finally, on February 21, 1965, Malcolm was assassinated. On the day of his assassination, the regular police suddenly left the scene, and thereby provided a clear field for the killers. At the same time, at least five FBI informants were in the room when Malcolm was killed and Malcolm’s main bodyguard was an agent of the New York Police Department (NYPD). Whether the NOI members who carried out slanders against Malcolm X were directly employed by the FBI or not is irrelevant; they created an atmosphere that allowed this kind of thing to go down and that enabled the police agencies to claim that their hands were clean.”

At a panel on the 49th anniversary of the death of Malcolm, Baba Zak Kondo, an associate professor at Baltimore City Community College, talked about the dirty tricks carried out by FBI infiltrators: “[The FBI] would basically put out through its informants negative rumors about somebody. This is what they would do which was actually quite scientific. They’re listening to Malcolm’s phone. They’re listening to the phones and the family. When they hear a conversation in which the family, for example might be saying something about Malcolm and they hear Elijah reacting to it in a negative way they take notes and say we can probably develop a scheme around that. Let’s exploit that. Throughout 1963, they constantly be doing just that. And ultimately what is going to happen is because there were in fact some weaknesses in the relationship between Elijah and Malcolm, the FBI is basically going to exploit it to the maximum. Then they went to the next level, once Malcolm was suspended then the goal was to get Malcolm kicked out, then the goal was to create a war between Malcolm X and Elijah and the Nation of Islam. And it was this war that ultimately would result in the assassination of Malcolm X.”

The powers-that-be recognized the potential in Malcolm X. They saw the effect he was having—and could have even more—especially among the masses of Black people who so desperately need the leadership and organization to get rid of the system oppressing them. There is a hard lesson here: It cannot be the case that the system recognizes the powerful (and to them dangerous) role leaders play in the struggle for liberation while the people do not fully appreciate this themselves. The people must do all they can to protect such leaders. And an important part of this is taking seriously that there are people and forces—those officially working for the government; as well as others who objectively contribute to the efforts of the system to undermine, tear down and even eliminate revolutionary leaders. The people must recognize, expose and put a stop to the kinds of slander and lies that create a situation that makes it easier for the powers-that-be to do their murderous deeds.

For an important analysis of the lessons that need to be drawn from the assassination of Malcolm X, see “A Reflection on Piggery—Then and Now.”

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