Five years ago, Thomas Hagan was paroled. He served 44 years for his part in the murder of black nationalist leader Malcolm X. Hagan, who at the time of the murder went by the name of Talmadge Hayer, is the only one of a trio of convicted assassins who ever publicly admitted to killing Malcolm, born Malcom Little and also known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. Hagan bluntly said that he joined the assassination team because of Malcolm’s public attacks on the Nation of Islam.
Hagan’s explanation still doesn’t satisfy many who see much more than a killing by a disaffected, misguided, rogue group of black assassins. Fifty years after Hagan and the others gunned down Malcolm on February 21, 1965 questions remain as to whether there was more to the killing than what Hagan said. A petition through the White House online petition site has been launched demanding that the federal government release all files on the Malcolm X assassination.
The point of this is twofold. One is to toss the spotlight back on the federal government to determine what extent, if any, the FBI and other police agencies were involved, either knowingly or tacitly, in the killing. The other is to force government transparency in its dealings with radical activists.
For now, the official answer is that Malcolm’s murder was a revenge killing for the bitter and contentious attacks he made on his former mentor and father figure, Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. Louis Farrakhan, Muhammad’s successor, candidly admitted years later, “There was not a Muslim who loved the Honorable Elijah Muhammad that did not want to kill Malcolm.” Farrakhan at the time repeatedly lambasted Malcolm as a betrayer of the faith. Years later, though, Farrakhan attempted a public reconciliation with Betty Shabazz, Malcolm’s widow, and other family members.
Hagan and his known accomplices were indeed fanatic followers of Elijah Muhammad. But did they kill Malcolm out of robotic blind hatred? Were there others involved? And who stood to benefit the most from Malcolm’s death? Those are the tough questions that beg answers but remain shrouded in mystery.
The men almost certainly hated Malcolm and believed they were being good Muslims by killing him. However, the FBI and the New York Police Department’s super-secret elite undercover unit, the Bureau of Special Services (BOSS), also hated Malcolm. They waged a fierce illegal and shadowy campaign to undermine Malcolm and the Muslims. They riddled the Nation of Islam and Malcolm’s group, the OAAU, with informants and police agents. They dogged his travels in Africa and the Middle East. FBI and BOSS agents reported on every word of his speeches and press conferences.
FBI officials were well aware of the threats made on Malcolm’s life by Muslims, and they knew that some in the organization were more than willing to carry out his murder. Months before the killing, FBI informants supplied verbatim accounts to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover of death threats made against Malcolm at Black Muslim meetings. During a European jaunt, Malcolm was not allowed to leave the airports in London and Paris. Reportedly, British and French intelligence agencies feared there would be an assassination attempt against him in their countries.
The FBI’s interest in Malcolm’s murder didn’t stop with the conviction of his killers. FBI agents closely monitored the trial proceedings. In memos to top FBI officials, their prime concern was to protect from public exposure their informants and undercover agents planted in Malcolm’s organization. At one point during the trial, one of the hit men — Hagan — claimed that he was promised several thousand dollars for the murder by a non-Muslim. The prosecutor and defense attorneys did not press him to name names. The judge sternly warned the jury to consider only that part of Hagan’s testimony that was directly pertinent to the case and disregard the rest of what he said. His statements may have simply been hyperbole to get press attention, or inflate his importance, but it was another loose end that was deliberately not tied up.
There is no direct evidence that the FBI or the New York police had a hand in Malcolm’s murder, and the contours of any conspiracy by anyone other than the Black Muslims to get Malcolm remain hazy, problematic, or nonexistent. But Malcolm’s murder can’t be totally separated from the well-documented savage war that the FBI waged against Martin Luther King Jr., black organizations and black leaders during the 1960s. In an infamous memo from those years, FBI officials flatly warned of the necessity to prevent “the rise of a ‘black messiah.’” The FBI was more than willing and able to do whatever it could to make sure that that didn’t happen. Malcolm undoubtedly was an unwitting casualty of Hoover and the FBI’s obsession to decapitate black leadership. FBI officials undoubtedly shed few tears over his murder.
The whitewash of the issues and mystery that often surrounds the murder of a popular but controversial leader always raises questions and doubts, no matter how many years pass. Fifty years later, those questions remain about the assassination of Malcolm X.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author, political analyst, associate editor with New America Media and co-host of “The Al Sharpton Show” on American Urban Radio Network. He is also host of the weekly “Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour.” His forthcoming book is “From King to Obama: Witness to a Turbulent History” (Middle Passage Press) http://www.amazon.com/dp/0692370714. Follow Earl on Twitter at http://twitter.com/earlhutchinson.