Back in 1992, the Spike Lee movie Malcolm X was showing in UK cinemas. On those evenings, a small group of us from The Young Muslims UK dutifully stood outside many of those cinemas in a number of our towns and cities to sell our youth magazine TRENDS which had a dedicated front cover feature on the African-American Muslim leader to tie in with the movie release.
We had all come to know the broad outline of the life story of the civil rights leader Malcolm X. Malcolm had been a petty criminal in his youth and during a stint in prison he came into contact with the teachings of the black nationalist movement, the Nation of Islam, led by Elijah Muhammad. The NoI had played a key role in helping to empower black people who were facing racism and discrimination in the USA and helped to instill in them confidence, self-respect and discipline.
Following his release from prison Malcolm was mentored by Elijah Muhammad. Given Malcolm’s own charisma, devotion and oratorical skills, he rose rapidly up the NoI hierarchy over the next few years and helped to bring in many thousands of new members until he widely became viewed as the No. 2 to Elijah Muhammad and his heir apparent. This rise created jealousy amongst some in Elijah Muhammad’s inner circle who started a whispering campaign against Malcolm and sought to turn Elijah against Malcolm. That break between the two came at the end of 1963 and over the next year Malcolm was the target of a hate campaign by many of his former colleagues in the NoI until his assassination in Feb 1965 at the hands of NoI members.
That much is known. What I did not know and my younger 1992 self standing outside those cinemas most certainly did not know – until I watched the Netflix documentary Who Killed Malcolm X? – was that the person who had allegedly fired the shotgun which actually killed Malcolm X in the Audubon Ballroom in New York on that fateful day back in 1965 was still alive and living under a new identity in the USA and had never been arrested for the murder. In fact, the Netflix documentary argues that two of the three men convicted of Malcolm’s murder were innocent and were not even present at the Audubon Ballroom on the day of the killing. The actual killers were a five-man hit team of whom only one was actually caught and convicted. This is stunning news. How on earth did this happen?
Malcolm X gave his life to spread the egalitarian teachings of Islam among the African-American community and the tremendous success he was achieving in his mission was feared by J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI who was determined to prevent the rise of a “Black Messiah.”
Our main narrator in this six-part documentary is Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, a likeable and humble historian-activist who works as a tour guide for a living. Abdur-Rahman says that he became obsessed with uncovering the truth about Malcolm’s murder after realising that the official prosecution version of the killing just seemed to leave too many questions unanswered. For over thirty years, Abdur-Rahman worked to gain access to official police and FBI files and talk to living witnesses to try and obtain answers to his questions.
Amongst the many astonishing revelations in this documentary is the news that the FBI had nine paid informants sitting in that crowd of four hundred people who were attending Malcolm’s talk that day in Feb 1965. Shockingly, none of the nine informants present at the scene of Malcolm’s murder were called by the authorities to give evidence at the trial.
An official note uncovered from the FBI makes clear that they were committed to preventing the unifying of radical black movements and had therefore created a network of both informants and paid agents who had infiltrated leading black organisations including the NoI and Malcolm’s new organisation. Interviews undertaken by the documentary makers with the relevant law enforcement officials still alive today show that they derived much pleasure at sowing division amongst the black nationalist movement.
The documentary is also very good at revealing the human cost paid by two of those accused of being involved in Malcolm’s killing but who were actually innocent according to Abdur-Rahman Muhammad. One of the two, Thomas 15X Johnson, died in 2009, but the second, Norman 3X Butler (now called Muhammad Abdul Aziz) is still alive and has always denied being involved in Malcolm’s murder. Muhammad Abdul Aziz spent twenty years in prison and was unable to form a proper relationship with his children. When asked if things had now gotten better, he shakes his head in sorrow. Later, we see him walking in a park where points to the trees and says:
“The tree is a representation of life: power, structure, development, response. And its branches respond to light. Light is a metaphor for knowledge. When branches don’t get enough light they will bend and twist and do whatever they have to in order to get light. And people should do the same thing. But they often don’t.”
Our narrator Abdur-Rahman Muhammad keeps digging in order to find out who fired the shotgun that killed Malcolm and encounters some Muslims in Newark who try to discourage him from going any further. “The chapter’s closed,” “Leave him alone,” “Why open old wounds?” But, determined that truth should be revealed, Abdur-Rahman perseveres and finally manages to track down the man who allegedly killed Malcolm X and has been living under a new identity all these years.
Following the release of this Netflix documentary just over a week ago, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office announced that they were going to review the case of Malcolm X with a view to re-opening the case. It could perhaps lead to the exoneration of the two men who were apparently wrongly convicted of murder.
This documentary is testament to the difference that one person can make and the need to always be wary of unquestioningly accepting the authorities’ version of events. Abdur-Rahman Muhammad has done Malcolm X and all of us a true service by helping to shine some light on a very murky tale.