Malcolm X, the man who grew to national notoriety for his embrace of militant, separatist approach to addressing civil rights issues and inequality for U.S. blacks in the 1950s and 1960s, was assassinated in New York on Feb. 21, 1965. The American Muslim minister and civil rights activist was 39 at the time of his death. Malcolm X had been known as an antagonist to the African-American civil rights movement led by the nonviolent, integrationist leader, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
But as Malcolm X reached the height of his prominence, his brand of violent, uncompromising political rhetoric grew less militant. He changed his name to el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, disillusioned with and disassociated from the Nation of Islam, a Black Muslim group he helped grow in the years before his death. Below are several facts about the civil rights icon’s assassination, derived from newspaper clippings, historians’ accounts and biographies.
Malcolm X was giving a speech to the Organization of Afro-American Unity. The venue, the Audubon Ballroom in the Manhattan borough of New York City, was packed with blacks who had come to hear the leader speak about his evolving views on the civil rights movement and his disillusionment with the Nation of Islam.
Malcolm X was expected to blame Nation of Islam members for fire bombing his home. Following his break with the Nation of Islam, and his public criticisms of leader Elijah Muhammadm Malcolm X received death threats from Black Muslims. He spoke publicly about those threats in an interview with the New York Times: “I’m a marked man. It doesn’t frighten me for myself as long as I felt they would not hurt my family. … No one can get out without trouble, and this thing with me will be resolved by death and violence.” His home in the Queens borough of New York City was set on fire a week prior to his death.
Three Black Muslims were implicated in the assassination. Malcolm X had spoken only words of greeting to the crowd at the Audubon Ballroom before men identified as Thomas Hagan, Norman Butler and Thomas Johnson rushed the ballroom stage and fired several gunshots at close range. Malcolm X would be pronounced dead at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital that evening. Hagan is the only person involved in assassination who confessed to the crime. He, Butler and Johnson were each sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Thomas Hagan was paroled in 2010 after more than 40 years in prison. Hagan said he and several accomplices planned Malcolm X’s assassination. In a 1977 affidavit, Hagan said he and the others had decided Malcolm X was a hypocrite for going against Muhammad, who had become a controversial figure because of a sex scandal that rocked the Nation of Islam. Hagan tried to win his freedom and was denied parole 16 times. In 1988, Hagan was placed on work release and eventually was allowed to spend free days with his wife and children before returning to a minimum security prison in Manhattan.
Muhammad blamed Malcolm X for creating an environment that led to his death. The assassination was undoubtedly the biggest scandal faced by the Nation of Islam. In a speech made after his death, Muhammad said Black Muslims were not responsible for the assassination because members were forbidden to carry guns. Malcolm X had been suspended by Muhammad as the Nation of Islam spokesman following controversial statements he made after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963. Malcolm X and Muhammad never reconciled their differences.