The Assassination of Malcolm X: A Look at Why the Activist Was Murdered

Malcolm X (1925-1965) was a human rights activist whose name is usually brought up right after that of Martin Luther King Jr. However, many people might not be aware of his whole story. More than 50 years after it happened, we take a brief look at the events leading up to Malcolm X’s assassination.

Many people only know the radicalized ideas of Malcolm X, the Muslim minister with African-American roots who became an influential human rights activist. Few know about the things that led up to his assassination. Fewer still know that what they learned about Malcolm X from the history books might not be the whole story. In this article, we’re going to take a brief look at the events that led up to the assassination of Malcolm X on February 21, 1965.

Leaving the Nation and a Religious Awakening

While the history books, television shows, and movies teach us about the more radical nature of Malcolm X and his promotion of the more militant tenets of the Nation of Islam, he was an activist on his own with only the Nation to back him.

What many people may not realize is that in 1964, Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam. He had grown tired of some of the Nation’s policies. He also wanted to work with other civil rights leaders in order to broaden his reach and help even more people.

Malcolm X founded two organizations after leaving the Nation: a religious group, Muslim Mosque, Inc.; and a secular one, the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU).

Soon after, he converted to Sunni Islam and, as such, undertook a pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. It was during this religious experience that X’s feelings on race relations softened. Where he had originally thought whites and blacks should be separated in the United States, he saw Muslims of all types on his pilgrimage—men, women, of all colors and shades—all there together, for the same purpose.

It was here that X thought that maybe integration could be found through the word of Islam.

In many ways, he had turned his back on the messages he had promoted for the Nation of Islam. And this is where the issues began.

The Months Before the Assassination

There are numerous reasons and stories that have been attributed to the reasons why Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam, but what seems to be the biggest reason was that X was just disillusioned with it. But when Malcolm X left, he was the face of the religion and their programs in the United States.

Malcolm X

Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Nation began to strike back at X. The threats started small and gradually grew larger. X’s car was firebombed in February of 1964. By the summer of that year, the FBI was getting numerous tips that X’s life was in danger.

For their part, the Nation of Islam wasn’t even being quiet when it came to death threats. Muhammad Speaks, a newspaper created by the Nation of Islam, published a cartoon featuring X’s severed head being bounced. Louis X (later known as Louis Farrakhan) also made public comments to Muhammad Speaks that alluded to the idea that Malcolm X should be dealt with in a harsh manner.

The Nation tried to evict X and his family from their house, which was a Nation of Islam property. Suspiciously, just before a hearing where Malcolm X was seeking a postponement, the house burnt down.

The Assassination of Malcolm X

On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was preparing to speak to a large OAAU group at the Audubon Ballroom at West 165th Street and Broadway in New York City. There was a disturbance in the crowd and a man rushed forward and shot X with a sawed-off shotgun. Two more men came to the front and unloaded their handguns into X.

In all, Malcolm X was shot 15 times. He was pronounced dead by the time he reached the hospital.

He was just 39 at the time of his death.

Three men were taken in, arrested, and ultimately served time for X’s murder. But there has always been a question of whether all three men were actually guilty.

Conspiracies Abound

At the time of the shooting, Nation of Islam member Talmadge Hayer was grabbed by the audience and beaten. Eyewitnesses pointed to Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson as the other two gunmen. But were the men the right suspects?

Hayer confessed to the crime and would never finger the other assailants. Butler and Johnson both professed their innocence but were tried anyway. In 1966, all three men were sentenced to 20 years to life. But questions kept arising.

While Hayer would not tell prosecutors who the other gunmen were, he would tell them that neither of the men was Butler or Johnson. In the late 1970s, Hagan would sign affidavits that pointed to other members of the Nation of Islam who helped in planning the execution of Malcolm X. But reiterated that neither Johnson nor Butler was involved. Once again, nothing changed.

If Butler and Johnson weren’t involved, who was? Who was the mastermind? Theories point to numerous people. Louis Farrakhan, the current leader of the Nation of Islam, is often pointed at due to the various comments he has made over the years about X’s death.

John Ali, who served as the national secretary of the Nation of Islam at the time of the assassination, was at odds with Malcolm X during that period and reportedly had a meeting with Hayer the night before the X’s murder. What has made Ali’s name a center of gossip is that Ali was allegedly an informant for the FBI at the time as well.

To this day, officials feel that the matter is closed and those who did the deed have been punished and since released.