History

Why the Assassination of Malcolm X Remains Such a Mystery

This week’s exonerations raise more questions than they answer.

Malcolm X raises his right hand as he stands outside a building speaking into a cluster of microphones
Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X in 1963. Bettmann/Getty Images

This week, two of the three men found guilty for the shooting death of Malcolm X in 1965 have been exonerated, after the Netflix docuseries Who Killed Malcolm X? publicized the gaps in evidence used to imprison them. Despite both men having an alibi, and despite the FBI and the New York Police Department having access to evidence that pointed to their innocence, it took until now for their names to be cleared.

While some might find this to be a positive story about justice finally done, the new developments only raise more questions for Zaheer Ali, a scholar who studies Malcolm’s life. Ali was the project manager of Columbia University’s Malcolm X Project, and he was a key researcher for Manning Marable’s Pulitzer Prize–winning biography Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. He was also interviewed in the Netflix docuseries.

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Now the inaugural executive director of the Lawrenceville School’s Hutchins Center for Race and Social Justice, Ali argues that the mystery of Malcolm’s death is far from solved. We talked about why he always firmly believed in the innocence of the exonerated men, what other questions arise from this reversal, his theories on why the courts rushed their convictions through, and the consequences this reversal will have for Malcolm X’s legacy.

Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Aymann Ismail: How big of a deal is this week’s news for people who closely follow the life and death of Malcolm X, like you?

Zaheer Ali: I think it would be a mistake to frame this new development as a resolution of this case. I think it’s important that these two men—men that many people, activists, students, scholars, have believed to be innocent—that their innocence be finally admitted by the state. What [the development] now raises are the questions: One, who is responsible? And two, why, given some of the evidence that the state and various law enforcement agencies had at the time that pointed in another direction, did they seek to quickly wrap up this case with the prosecution of these two men? Was it an act of misdirection? Was it an act of protecting assets? Was it to deflect attention away from other parties that might have been involved?

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To me, this is not the closing of the case. This, to me, begs for a reopening of the case. This is justice delayed for 55 years. I don’t know how one makes up for this. Only Muhammad Abdul Aziz, or Norman Butler, is still alive, but you’ve had families and communities that have been harmed for this. Where is accountability for the state and law enforcement’s role in, at the very least, mishandling the investigation and the trial? I appreciate the district attorney’s office (and of course it’s a different district attorney, but it’s the same office) acknowledging that this was an error and moving to exonerate these two men. But that to me is not accountability.

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I read that the innocence of the two men convicted was already known and widespread among Malcolm X scholars. Did you encounter that theory early on in your time studying his life? Did you believe it right away?

The first time I encountered the details around the assassination, which would’ve been in the early ’90s, I knew that there were inconsistencies. I knew that there wasn’t even circumstantial evidence that placed them at the scene of the crime. At that time I didn’t have any more details. I knew that they were not picked up at the scene of the crime, but many days later. That they had alibis for their whereabouts on the day that Malcolm was killed. And the reason why they were convicted, from what I discerned at the time, was some eyewitness testimony, which was inconsistent across the board. There seemed to be a desire on the part of the prosecution to wrap this up in a neat little bow: The people from the mosque that Malcolm left were the people who came after him.

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And that to me was just not sufficient in terms of explaining how these men would’ve been involved. There were people who were with Malcolm who came from that same mosque who would have recognized them [at the scene]. This was to me a case, for the state, of Let us just find some people to wrap this case up. We really don’t want to dig too deep because we are afraid of what we might find. Or maybe we’ve been told not to go there. We do know that both the FBI and NYPD withheld evidence that could have led to their exoneration.

News played this out as gang violence, turf warfare between two rival groups. That is how this gets framed. And I do think it was in the interest of the state to frame it this way, in order to neutralize the impact that both Malcolm and the Nation of Islam were having on Black communities.

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I worked with the late Manning Marable as part of his Malcolm X Project. In his biography, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, Marable was able to pull together many of the threads that had been woven by previous scholars. Marable was the first person to really go through the DA’s case file [on the shooting] that had been languishing in the municipal archives until one of his researchers found it and organized it. Many of the doubts that people had became validated upon reviewing some of the inconsistencies in the investigation. Then certainly when Marable’s book got published in 2011, he brought these questions to the surface again.

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Why do you think it took the release of a new Netflix docuseries for the case to be reopened?

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You can go far back as George Breitman’s The Assassination of Malcolm X, first published in 1969, that raised these questions [about the guilt of the two men]. You can go as far back as Peter Goldman’s The Death and Life of Malcolm X, from 1973, where he begins to explore it. At one point, the two men [convicted of the crime] had hired William Kunstler, who’s this famous New York–based attorney known for taking unpopular cases that he believed represented miscarriages of justice. And William Kunstler tried to reopen the case in 1977 or ’78.

So this has been an ongoing thing, but we know that sometimes this just remains the domain of specialists and hobbyists and devoted scholars. And what the documentary did was bring many of these threads and unravel them to a much wider audience, making them just unavoidable. And it can, in really visceral ways, illustrate the urgency of redressing this issue, by focusing on the sense of loss, the sense of betrayal, the questions that people had about how this case was mishandled.

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It’s not just in this instance. We’ve seen the New York Times’ documentary on Britney Spears, how that mobilized people around her case. I think of the movie Judas and the Black Messiah, how people were so shocked by that [story of the assassination of Fred Hampton]. And that’s a history that is well established. I think there is something about the medium—storytelling in that format, given the nature of how we receive information in this current moment, how powerful that is to move people, and then for those people to move the state.

What other questions do you have about what happened that day, and in the days leading to Malcolm’s death?

I don’t have new questions. I just have questions that remain unanswered. We don’t have an answer from the FBI about the tens of thousands of pages of redacted documents and files they have on Malcolm and on the Nation of Islam and on Muslim Mosque Inc. [one organization Malcolm founded after leaving the Nation of Islam] and on Afro-American Unity [a second such organization] and on many of the people whose lives he shaped and encountered. We have the Manhattan DA saying, These two men didn’t do it.

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So then my question is, well, who did it? And why have they not been brought to justice? Why did y’all withhold evidence? Why was there no police detail? The day that Malcolm was killed, there was a noticeable absence of police presence. We know that there were also a number of undercover officers. There are all of these questions that remain unanswered.

Will this change in Malcolm X’s official history alter his legacy in any way?

I think it makes it an even stronger case for the power that Malcolm represented to challenge the system. A system that, even after he was killed, worked to neutralize his legacy through misdirection, malfeasance, and corruption. There was a community-based understanding of what went down, and the media didn’t carry it. Maybe people didn’t believe it. Law enforcement, of course, didn’t take it seriously at the time, but there have been some elders and pioneers who held close to their heart that one day we would be a little bit closer to the truth. We don’t have the full truth yet, but we are closer to it.

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What does it mean to you as a historian that 55 years later, the details of how something important happened can still change like this?

The book is never closed. I tell my students, “The past has happened, but when we think about the past, what we know about the past, that changes every day. History is a living thing.” The thing that I think is so powerful, beyond the specifics of this case, is that it reinforces what we historians know: that history is a contestation over the meaning of the past, and that meaning changes with more information. It’s like an archeological dig and you just keep discovering more and more bones to build out the structure of what that thing was. And you start off with one bone and it’s like, This could be a leg. This could be an arm. And then you get more, more, and more, and you’re like, Oh, OK. Is this a lion? Is this a zebra? History is like that. It is a constant revisiting of the past based on what we know now. The book is never closed.

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