February is Black History Month, but this year also marks 55 years since the assassination of probably the most prominent and controversial figures in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, and the subject of the recent Netflix documentary series, Who Killed Malcolm X? On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was shot dead as he was about to address a gathering at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem sparking a new series of controversies related to the investigation, trial, and conviction of the alleged perpetrators.
A little over a year later, three men were convicted of murder in the case, each receiving a life sentence. But something is amiss, and those closest to the matter seem to know it.
During the trial, Thomas Hagan (AKA Talmadge X Hayer; Mujahid Abdul Halim) confessed to the crime, but testified that the other two men charged, Thomas Johnson (AKA Khalil Islam) and Norman Butler (AKA Muhammad Abd Al-Aziz), weren’t guilty. Despite Hagan’s testimony, all three men were found guilty.
The Netflix series explores, amongst other things, Hagan’s continued insistence that Johnson and Butler were innocent in addition to the affidavits he signed in 1977 and 78 in which he implicated four other men who were never tried or convicted of the crimes. Perhaps the most notable attacker’s name is William Bradley (AKA Al-Mustafa Shabazz), a member of the Newark, NJ Nation of Islam Mosque, who Hagan says fired the first shot at Malcolm X.
Bradley appeared briefly in a 2010 TV campaign advert for Senator Cory Booker who was mayor of Newark at the time. In 2015, the Daily News reported that Bradley’s role in the murder was an “open secret” in Newark, but Bradley initially refused to comment to reporters when they confronted him in front of his house. He later told the News that nobody had ever spoken to him about the matter and that he had only been accused of something he didn’t do.
Bradley died in 2018 without ever being tried for the murder of Malcolm X. The other men named in Hagan’s affidavit, Benjamin Thomas, Leon Davis and Wilbur McKinley were members of the same Newark Mosque. Thomas is known to have died in 1986, while Davis and McKinley are also believed to have died, even though Davis reportedly lived in Patterson, NJ until 1989.
The questions posed in the documentary were enough to convince Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. to launch a preliminary review of the case in conjunction with the Innocence Project, a non-profit organization that seeks to exonerate individuals wrongly convicted of crimes.
Meanwhile, of the three people convicted of the crime, all were ultimately granted parole. Johnson died in 2009. Hagan is now 78 years old and, while still a devout Muslim, is no longer a member of the Nation of Islam and has expressed regret over his involvement in Malcolm X’s death. Butler, now 81, was the first to receive parole (1985) and has spent much of his time since then trying to clear his name.
Perhaps a revamped investigation into the events of February 1965 will finally give him that opportunity.