The exoneration last month of Muhammad Abdul Aziz and Khalil Islam 55 years after their conviction is a major correction of the record on the assassination of Malcolm X. The 22-month investigation conducted by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and lawyers for the two men—with additional support from the Innocence Project—culminated in the filing of a joint motion to vacate the two men’s convictions, and accompanying legal analysis. It confirmed what historians, journalists, and scholars have known for years: that the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the New York Police Department withheld key evidence that could have led to the men’s acquittal.
The exoneration adds a correction to history, but it does not bring closure to the assassination. It does not bring Malcolm X back to his family, or to us. While it does clear Aziz’s and Islam’s names, it does not return to them the years they lost serving 20-plus-year prison sentences for a crime they did not commit. They lost their families. They lost the prime of their lives. Islam died without ever seeing his name cleared.
It also does not name and hold accountable those who withheld such pertinent information. Until that is done, this chapter will remain an open wound.
On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was brutally murdered in front of an audience that included his family in the Audubon Ballroom in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan. My father, Les Payne, investigated the murder over a period of 28 years. His reporting, as presented in our book, The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X, reconstructed the scene as follows: Malcolm X had just greeted the audience when two men jumped up from their chairs, one yelling, “Get your hands out of my pocket!” Near the back, a man struck a match and lit a strip of photographic film protruding from a rolled-up sock. Two security men in front of the stage moved toward the disturbance—deserting their post.
The audience turned its attention toward the noise—but three men in the audience stayed focused on Malcolm at the podium. William 25X, a member of the Newark mosque, charged the stage from the fourth row, locked his eyes, and aimed his sawed-off shotgun dead level at the chest of Malcolm X. He jerked the trigger. The blast lifted Malcolm backward off his feet. He hit the scuffed oak floor with a jarring crash. Two other shooters, Mujahid Halim, then known as Thomas Hayer, with a .45-caliber automatic, and Leon Davis, with a 9-mm Luger, ran to the rim of the stage to deliver insurance rounds to make sure the deed was done.
During the murder trial, Halim eventually confessed that he shot Malcolm and testified that Aziz and Islam were not part of the assassination team. He would spend the next few decades helping to clear their names, including naming the four other men who took part in the killing. Yet none of them were ever prosecuted. What is new in the joint motion is the level of detail of the information that was withheld preventing Aziz and Islam from receiving a fair trial.
The motion brings to light newly obtained unredacted files from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The following are pulled directly from the motion, with my comments in red italics:
• An FBI report dated February 22, 1965, the day after the murder, states that “the killers of Malcolm X were possibly imported to NYC,” and that the shooters were “two men, occupying the front seats, left side of [the] middle aisle.” The report provides a detailed description of two suspects: Halim, who was known to the FBI, and a second assailant believed to have used the shotgun, who was described as “a negro male, age twenty-eight, six feet two inches, two hundred pounds, heavy build, dark complexion, wearing [a] gray coat.”
The source of this information is not specified. It is inconsistent with the description of Islam, who the prosecution claimed at trial wielded the shotgun, and who was five foot 10 inches tall, 190 pounds, and very light-skinned. Instead, the description is closer to the description given by the defense witness, Ernest Greene, who testified that the shotgun assailant was dark skinned, heavy set, and had a deep beard. (p. 23-4)
This is exculpatory. The FBI had this information before Aziz and Islam were arrested. Aziz was arrested on February 25, 1965. Islam was arrested on March 2, 1965.
• An FBI report dated February 25, 1965, indicates that the Bureau ordered its local offices not to disclose to the NYPD the fact that any witness in the murder investigation was an FBI informant. As a result, none of the parties at trial knew about the prior relationship between any of the above three witnesses and the FBI. (p. 24)
• Also on page 24, n25 states: “Several FBI reports indicate that, on the orders of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, FBI informants were told not to disclose that they were FBI informants when talking to law enforcement about the murder.”
• Also on page 24, n26 states that Ronald Timberlake was known by all parties to have a relationship to the FBI. He recovered the .45-cal. pistol and gave it to the FBI. He and the FBI agent both testified at trial.
• An FBI report dated March 25, 1965, summarizes an interview of Leon Lionel Phillips, also known as Leon Ameer, a member of the Nation of Islam (NOI) who attended a Boston Mosque. Ameer recounted that while attending Malcolm X’s funeral, he had a conversation with a man whom he knew from the Newark mosque. The man stated that he was present at the time of the murder, and that the person who fired the shotgun was a black man, tall, dark-skinned, and a lieutenant from the Newark mosque. Ameer further stated that the man said the shooter appeared to be an “expert” in handling a shotgun. Ameer could not remember the name of the person who gave him this information. (p. 25)
This description does not match that of Khalil Islam.
• An FBI report dated September 28, 1965, contains a file on an individual named William 25X Bradley, which had been compiled between 1963 and 1965. The file was created by the Newark office of the FBI as a record of NOI members who had engaged in acts of violence. According to the file, Bradley was 27 years old at the time of the murder. According to government records, his height was five feet eight inches or five feet 10 inches, and his weight was recorded as 182 or 200 pounds. He was dark-skinned. He had been a lieutenant in the Newark mosque and was known as a “strongman” there. He had been a machine gunner in the Marine Corps. At the time, he had a criminal arrest for weapons possession, but the weapon was not specified. The FBI possessed photographs of Bradley. (p. 26)
This reveals that Bradley was known to the FBI as early as 1963. His physical description matches that of the gunmen mentioned in earlier reports.
This reinvestigation is consistent in many ways with the findings by my father, Les Payne, and myself that are detailed in our book. Both probes found, for instance, that law-enforcement informants were present in the hall but were not called to testify. One striking example is the case of Gene Roberts.
Eugene Roberts, upon his discharge from the Marine Corps, was recruited by the Bureau of Special Services and Investigations to spy on Malcolm and his organizations. Roberts was not a formal police officer in 1964 (he had no badge and no gun). He had taken the police academy entrance exam, but did not go to the academy until 1972. His assignment was to join Malcolm’s group and report what he saw to his supervisor, usually over the telephone—which he did every night.
On February 15, 1965, while standing guard over Malcolm, Roberts was on sharp alert. He scanned the room for signs of danger, ready to suppress trouble and to pass any hint of it along to his bosses at police headquarters. A lone man, clean-cut with a red bow tie, walked down the aisle as if heading for the stage. At the same time, Roberts noted the sound of heckling off to one side. The words were inaudible. The disturbance was distracting enough to draw Malcolm’s attention. On a recording of this meeting in the Audubon Ballroom, Malcolm is actually heard addressing it.
“What’s up?” Malcolm asked, interrupting his speech. “Okay, y’all sit down and be cool.… Just sit down and be cool.” Roberts, meanwhile, intercepted the man in the red bow tie who had continued down the aisle. Later that night, he called his superiors and reported that he “saw [what he thought was] a dress rehearsal for [Malcolm’s] assassination.” The NYPD’s reaction to the report was to sharply reduce the uniformed presence in front of the Audubon ballroom, which surprised Roberts.
Roberts told us in 1992 that on February 21, 1965, as members of Malcolm’s security rushed towards the disturbance of two men yelling in the Audubon Ballroom, he saw “three people sitting in the front row get up and start shooting” at Malcolm. As per his discipline, Roberts reported his eyewitness account to his superiors, including that he had given mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a dying Malcolm. Roberts’s commander criticized this action. He was not called to testify in the murder trial.
Fifty-five years have passed since the assassination of Malcolm X. We are now well-acquainted with the names of the victims, as in Malcolm, Aziz, and Islam, and their families. But what about those who willfully withheld evidence, thereby destroying lives unjustly? The question also remains why those who were responsible for the murder were never investigated or prosecuted.