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Two Innocent Men Exonerated in the Murder of Malcolm X After Decades in Prison—But the Hand of the System Remains Covered Up

On November 18, two men had their guilty convictions for the February 21, 1965 assassination of Malcolm X finally and rightfully overturned in a New York court. Mohammad Aziz (now 83) and Khalil Islam—formerly known as Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson—together lost 42 of their prime years in prison. Islam, who had been Malcolm X’s driver, died in 2009 at age 74. They and their families had their lives shattered, both by prison and by the decades of carrying the social stigma of being wrongly designated as the killers of Malcolm X, a revolutionary beloved by millions then as now.

Muhammad Aziz exonerated from assassinating Malcolm X.


Muhammad Aziz    Photo: AP

Khalil Islam during 2008 interview, exonerated after his death.


Khalil Islam   

Evidence existed at the time of these men’s arrests and trials in 1966 that they were innocent, including their testimony and that of the third defendant (Talmadge Hayer, now Mujahid Abdul Halim). Hayer actually confessed as one of the shooters and said in court that these two had nothing to do with it. In 1977, Hayer even provided lawyer William Kunstler with the four names of those who had acted with him, but the authorities refused to review the case. This could have led to the exoneration of Aziz and Islam then and the prosecution of ALL those actually involved. And it might have led to revealing the dirty work of the FBI and NYPD whose agents were present in the audience as Malcolm was gunned down that day. In 1977, they were still alive to tell.

A reason given by the authorities for reviewing this case was the 2020 Netflix series Who Killed Malcolm X? by Abdur Rahman Muhammad. The six-part series did meticulously trace and expose the actual triggermen—members of the Nation of Islam (NOI). It showed the role various NOI leaders played in calling for Malcolm’s death. For example, two months before Malcolm’s murder, Louis X (Farrakhan) wrote in the NOI paper Muhammad Speaks that "The die is set, and Malcolm shall not escape, especially after such evil foolish talk about his benefactor, Elijah Muhammad. Such a man as Malcolm is worthy of death." This type of slander and threat, no matter what the intent or motivation of those who make it, creates an atmosphere in which the authorities can carry out foul acts and/or manipulate others to do so for them.

Malcolm X speaking, gesturing


Malcolm X   

The Big Question: Who Was Threatened by Malcolm X—and Why?

The recent court motion by the New York District Attorney said the investigation “did not uncover any evidence” to support theories that the murder had been “orchestrated by the FBI and/or the NYPD.”


While not a complete list, some of the damning facts below about the active role of the NYPD, FBI and CIA in Malcolm’s death were known for decades, and documented in numerous well researched books and films. Some facts below are recently revealed, though there are undoubtedly more still hidden in NYPD, FBI and CIA files:

*One fact that was in the Netflix series and has been known for decades by many cops, FBI, and eyewitnesses is that it was a heavy-set, dark-skinned Black man who fired the shotgun blast at Malcolm’s heart that killed him—now identified as William Bradley. Why then did the authorities NEVER pursue this lead but instead arrested and jailed someone light-skinned and thin—Thomas Johnson/Khalil Islam? What was being hidden—for decades—in plain sight, and WHY?

*Inside the ballroom on the day of Malcolm’s murder, there were at least nine FBI informants and several other pigs from the NYPD’s “red squad,” the Bureau of Special Services and Investigations (BOSSI). Malcolm’s security guard was Gene Roberts, a BOSSI undercover agent who had reported to his superiors the week before of a dry run attempt. None of these pigs were called to testify at the original trial of Aziz/Butler, Islam/Johnson and Hayer/Halim. This almost certainly suppressed evidence that could have proven the two men innocent then—and raised the explosive political question of just what the hell was all of this pig infiltration all about!

Malcolm X examines damage to sidewalk in front of his home from molotov cocktail.


Malcolm X examines damage from firebombing of his home, February 14, 1965, a week before he was assassinated.    Photo: AP

*Malcolm’s home was firebombed, with him and his family asleep inside, in the week before he was assassinated. He was clearly under very immediate threat. Yet, unlike other times when Malcolm gave public speeches and the uniformed NYPD would have a high profile presence, on February 21 they were notably missing inside and outside the Audubon Ballroom. Eyewitnesses reported that NYPD cops who came into the Ballroom neither drew their guns nor acted in a hurry after Malcolm sustained a shotgun blast to the chest and two men had emptied their revolvers into him as he lay on the stage.

*Most damning was the fact that Malcolm was killed around 3 pm, and the NYPD neither secured the crime scene nor gathered evidence. In fact, a dance went on as scheduled in the Ballroom at 7 pm that night! The bullet riddled podium was stored in the basement for decades just as it was on February 21, 1965.

*BOSSI agents helped frame up two men who would have been Malcolm’s door security that day so that they were in jail on the day itself. The day before the murder, Hayer was seen meeting in a nearby hotel with John Ali, who was in the inner circle of the Nation of Islam as well as an FBI informant.

*A few years later, the FBI Chicago office openly bragged of promoting and making worse the clash between the NOI and Malcolm. This clash had its origin in real and growing political and ideological differences—between the NOI’s mysticism of waiting for “divine intervention” to end the oppression of Black people, as opposed to Malcolm’s increasingly revolutionary stance against white supremacy, his developing stance against U.S. imperialism and his growing view that the struggle of Black people in America was not a nonviolent struggle for reform and inclusion, but one for liberation whose fate was bound up with the revolutionary liberation struggles then going on in Africa, Asia and Latin America (see 1994 documentary Malcolm X: Make it Plain).

*At that time, the FBI’s dirty tricks program against radicals and revolutionaries in this country, called COINTELPRO (counterintelligence program), and its head pig J. Edgar Hoover, were fixated on preventing the “rise of a Black messiah,” and they clearly viewed Malcolm as such a threat. One of their tactics was, in fact, to fuel or manufacture disputes between Black movement organizations and individuals (see the accompanying article from the American Crime series). As we have shown, during the period before Malcolm’s death, NOI leaders launched unprincipled attacks and veiled threats against Malcolm, obscuring the real differences and creating an atmosphere in which police skullduggery could flourish; what was the hand of the state in all this?

*Less than two weeks before he was killed, Malcolm was denied entry into France to speak. The denial was requested by the U.S. embassy (or CIA) in France. During his 1964 travels in the Middle East and Africa, he was followed and under CIA surveillance everywhere. CIA Deputy Director Richard Helms had been monitoring Malcolm’s activities possibly up the hour of the assassination (according to the Covert Action Magazine article “Who ordered the Killing of Malcolm X?” by Jeremy Kuzmarov). Such a high position in the CIA meant Helms routinely reported to the White House.

Why Has The System Still Not Revealed the FULL Truth About Malcolm X’s Murder?

Why has the full truth about Malcolm’s assassination been lied about or covered up for decades and why does it continue to be covered up today, even as two innocent men are exonerated? Is it because it shows that the system and its violent enforcers such as the CIA, FBI and NYPD were involved in having him killed?

The early 1960s was a period of growing revolutionary national liberation around the world including Asia, Africa and Latin America that battered the U.S. empire. Standing as a beacon in all this was China—at that point, still a revolutionary socialist society1—from which Malcolm took inspiration and drew lessons for the Black liberation struggle here. He was meeting and being recognized by many world leaders, even as he formed the Organization of Afro-American Unity as a vehicle to unite broad forces in the civil rights and other social justice movements around this orientation. Who, in that explosive international situation, would be threatened by Malcolm’s move away from the essentially conservative NOI to the radical stance that Malcolm was taking up?

In December 1964, just two months before he was murdered, when invited to debate at Oxford Union in England, Malcolm said this: “And in my opinion, the young generation of whites, blacks, browns, whatever else there is, you’re living at a time of extremism, a time of revolution, a time when there’s got to be a change. People in power have misused it, and now there has to be a change and a better world has to be built. And the only way it’s going to be built is with extreme methods. And I, for one, will join with ANYONE, I don't care what color you are, as long as you want to change this miserable condition that exists on this earth.”

All this underscores the deep lesson of the importance of revolutionary leaders and protecting them from the arms of the system and those they manipulate and control. Applying this today means to recognize the truly rare and unique leader we DO have today in Bob Avakian, and the serious responsibility that is on all who care about the future.

A Final Thought, a Crucial Lesson

What happened to Malcolm is not so much a history lesson, as a warning from the past. Ossie Davis, the late Black actor, playwright and activist was asked why he gave the eulogy at Malcolm X’s funeral. He said that to be honest with himself, he had to speak the truth about Malcolm’s role for Black people when he and so many others did not speak out while Malcolm was still alive. This is honest, but it is also shameful; the point is to learn the lesson, not repeat it.

Today we are fortunate to have the revolutionary leadership of Bob Avakian, who has developed a whole new framework for human emancipation. So we close with an urgent message from the crucial revcom article “Watching Fruitvale Station with Bob Avakian:

A leader like this comes along very, very rarely. And when this does happen, the absolute worst thing we could do is fail to recognize this, fail to act in accordance with this, fail to take this seriously, or take this for granted….

Furthermore, and very crucially, we must fully confront the reality of what it would mean for the people of the world to lose this leader, and take extremely seriously that there are people and forces—those officially part of the powers-that-be, as well as those willing to do the work of the powers-that-be—who hate what BA represents and would like nothing more than to tear him down, silence him, and take him from the masses of people. And we must be absolutely determined not to let that happen.

This means taking very seriously the need to do everything we can to protect and defend BA. This means denouncing and not giving a millimeter of space to those who slander and personally attack BA, because these attacks and slanders are part of creating the poisonous atmosphere and conditions that would make it easier for the powers-that-be, or those doing their bidding, to take BA from the people of the world. Protecting and defending BA, and building a wall around him, also means boldly and sharply challenging those who may not be part of the camp of the enemy, but who are wallowing in, or at least being influenced by, arrogance, cynicism and snark, and who seek to dismiss without seriously engaging what BA has brought forward; this arrogance, snark, cynicism, and dismissal, regardless of the intent of those who fall into it, stands in the way of BA and all that he has brought forward having the reach and societal influence that this urgently needs to have. And this, too, creates easier conditions for those who would try to silence and isolate BA and take him from the masses.

Few things in life are more tragic than a critical lesson learned too late. And it would truly be a tragedy if BA were taken from the people, and then people said: “Wow, I wish I had realized sooner what we had here.”

But the good news is: It is not too late. We, and the masses of the planet, have BA right now. We had better realize, and let everyone know, what that means.

Overwhelmingly, the main thing about Malcolm X, which made him stand out from every other major Black leader of his time (the early ’60s), was his basic revolutionary stand: his defiance right in the face of the system; his uncompromising hatred for the oppression of the Black masses and his determination to fight against it; his bold disloyalty to America and exposure of its whole history of barbarous crimes against Black people and others...

From A Horrible End, or An End To The Horror? by Bob Avakian



1. In 1976, shortly after the death of revolutionary leader Mao Zedong, counter-revolutionaries staged a coup d'etat and moved to turn China into the capitalist-imperialist country it is today. [back]

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From the genocide in Gaza, to the growing threat of world war between nuclear powers, to escalating environmental devastation… the capitalist-imperialist system ruling over us is a horror for billions around the world and is tearing up the fabric of life on earth. Now the all-out battle within the U.S. ruling class, between fascist Republicans and war criminal Democrats, is coming to a head—likely during, or before, the coming elections—ripping society apart unlike anything since the Civil War. 

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