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This 1965 killing remains an American tragedy

Editor’s Note: Peniel E. Joseph is the Barbara Jordan chair in ethics and political values and founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is a professor of history. He is the author of “The Third Reconstruction: America’s Struggle for Racial Justice in the Twenty-First Century.” The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion on CNN.


The recent news that the family of Malcolm X announced plans to file a $100 million wrongful death lawsuit against a phalanx of law enforcement agencies, including the NYPD, CIA and FBI coincided with the 58th anniversary of his assassination at the Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights, New York. Ilyasah Shabazz, one of Malcolm’s six daughters, announced the suit at the site of her father’s death, standing alongside noted civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump. “We’d like our father to receive the justice that he deserves,” explained Shabazz.

Peniel E. Joseph

What justice for Malcolm X means took on a new resonance after the exoneration in 2021 of two of the three men imprisoned for killing him. Muhammad Aziz, 84, and the estate of Khalil Islam, who died in 2009, received $36 million in settlements ($26 million from the city of New York and an additional $10 from the state) after being exonerated for the alleged role they played in Malcolm X’s assassination.

Their exoneration stemmed from an investigation that revealed what a judge reviewing the decades-old convictions called “serious miscarriages of justice.” An attorney for Aziz argued there had been “official misconduct” by law enforcement agencies, including the NYPD’s Bureau of Special Services and Investigations unit, which spied on Malcolm X for years. In addition, some scholars and historians have argued that the CIA also surveilled Malcolm X.

The Shabazz family’s announcement goes further, alleging that law enforcement colluded to plan Malcolm’s assassination and subsequently covered up their involvement. The FBI, NYPD, CIA and DOJ have thus far made no comment.

The circumstances surrounding Malcolm’s killing have long been kept mysterious, prompting conspiracy theories to fester. But here’s what we do know. Both the FBI and NYPD failed to disclose to prosecutors they had undercover officers at the scene of the assassination, according to historian Zaheer Ali. Both agencies were aware of the increasing death threats against Malcolm X emanating from the Nation of Islam (NOI).

Both the FBI and NYPD not only withheld evidence that would have proven Aziz’s and Islam’s innocence in 1965, they buried this evidence for over a half century until compelled to acknowledge its existence. While the recent exonerations do not prove the Shabazz family’s allegations, they do raise troubling questions that warrant further investigation into the exact role played by authorities in the lead-up to Malcolm X’s assassination and the subsequent criminal and civil proceedings that continue, almost 60 years later.

At the close of Black History Month 2023, Malcolm’s political legacy continues to reverberate all around us. His family and the nation deserve to know the truth, by any means necessary. The Shabazz family deserves full disclosure of the exact role that law enforcement played in the events leading up to Malcolm’s assassination, their subsequent actions on the day of his death and the half-century cover-up that has been unraveling before our eyes.

This latest development in the continuing saga of Malcolm X – and the significance of his life and death to understandings of race, democracy and the criminal justice in the US – adds a chapter to a story filled with twists and turns that continue to haunt our present. Malcolm X’s 1965 assassination remains an American tragedy, one which reflects the ongoing struggle to achieve Black dignity and citizenship, even for historical icons such as Malcolm.

Malcolm’s relationship with the criminal justice system helped to launch his legendary political career. Born in Omaha, Nebraska on May 19, 1925, Malcolm grew up in Lansing, Michigan, the son of Louise Norton Little and Earl Little, political activists who carved out a living as cultivators of land and political minds as followers of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. Garvey, a Jamaican immigrant turned political organizer, transformed Black politics in the early 1920s, convincing millions of Black people around the world of their inherent dignity, the beauty of their bodies and the vitality of their historic past.

The suspicious 1931 killing of Malcolm’s father, widely believed to be racially motivated, upended the Little family. By the late 1930s, Louise, the sole provider of a family of eight children, was placed in a psychiatric hospital in Kalamazoo and young Malcolm was on the road to a period of juvenile crime that would find him arrested and then imprisoned from 1946 to 1952.

Malcolm X stands at a podium during a rally of African-American Muslims held in a Washington, DC arena, circa 1962.

Malcolm found his political and religious vocation in jail through the teachings of the NOI, a religious organization that fused aspects of Garvey’s teachings of Black political self-determination with a grassroots version of Islam that sought to position Elijah Muhammad as the Messenger of God.

In an era before mass incarceration, but when Black Americans were still being disproportionately punished by the criminal legal system, Malcolm publicly repudiated law enforcement agencies and the role they played in upholding structural oppression. His time spent in prison offered intimate experience into the ways Jim Crow segregation constrained Black people’s educational attainment, vocational options and ways of making a legal living.

As national representative of the NOI, Malcolm sought out former prisoners, drug addicts and members of what would later be characterized by scholars, pundits, and journalists as an underclass. Malcolm’s teachings of Black radical dignity – the idea that Black folk had inherent value by virtue of being born and that their past had been misrepresented in American history books, media, and by politicians – eventually inspired millions of people around the world.

As early as his time in prison, Malcolm was being observed by institutional authorities because of his outspoken beliefs as a Muslim, and the FBI interviewed him. Ultimately, the Bureau targeted him for ruin, helping to sow the seeds of rancor, distrust and violence that helped lead to his death. But, as the Shabazz family’s lawsuit now alleges, it was more than just the FBI that surveilled, harassed and helped foment the political atmosphere that contributed to Malcolm’s death.

The New York Police Department’s Bureau of Special Services and Investigations planted informants in Malcolm’s post-NOI organizations and helped foment the context for the charged political atmosphere that led to his death. The CIA and State Department illegally observed and harassed Malcolm during his three extensive tours of Africa and the Middle East and parts of Europe in 1959 and 1964.

The reopening of the investigation into Malcolm X’s assassination has picked up new steam in recent years. The explosive Netflix documentary series “Who Killed Malcolm X?” offered compelling and persuasive evidence that helped lead to the exoneration of Aziz and Islam while opening up new questions about the role of law enforcement agencies in covering up the crime.

Malcolm X served as Black America’s prosecuting attorney during the nation’s Second Reconstruction, sometimes referred to as the civil rights and Black Power eras. Malcolm charged America before the bar of history and in front of the entire world with a series of crimes against Black humanity. He took Black dignity as a given and, over time, came to advocate for Black citizenship with equal fervor.

Malcolm’s death proved to be more than a tragedy, but also an enduring crime. The Shabazz family was deprived of a husband, father and now grandfather – and the world was robbed of a political leader who, at the time of his death, had been recognized internationally as Black America’s prime minister. Malcolm X was a human rights activist who completed the hajj to Mecca, was greeted as El Hajj Malik El Shabazz by dignitaries, ambassadors and revolutionaries and who reveled in his belief that all people (including Whites who displayed political sincerity) could be part of the fundamental transformation the world required to flourish.

For his family, for him and for all Americans, it’s time for Malcolm X to get the justice he deserves.