'Death of a Desperado': Malcolm X Was Assassinated 50 Years Ago

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Fidel Castro shares a laugh with Malcolm X at the Hotel Theresa in New York, October 19, 1960. Prensa Latina/Reuters

On a Sunday afternoon 50 years ago, Malcolm X was shot at a rally he was leading of his Organization of Afro-American Unity in the Washington Heights neighborhood in New York City. He was 39 years old.

The civil rights and religious leader, also known as Al Hajj Malik Shabazz, had long predicted he would be killed, and his death at the hands of rival Black Muslims came just one week after his home was firebombed.

His funeral was held on February 27, 1965 at Faith Temple Church of God in New York City. "All of us sitting here tonight, men and women, black and white, can stand a little taller because a man like Malcolm X walked on our earth, lived in our midst, smiled his smile on the face of Harlem," said Ossie Davis, an actor, director, writer and social activist, in a speech delivered at the funeral.

In its March 8, 1965 issue, Newsweek published a story about Malcolm X's assassination, the circumstances that led up to his death and the aftermath. Like many of Newsweek's stories in the 1960s, it does not have a byline. Read the full piece below.

He was born Malcolm Little, an Omaha Negro preacher's son. Before he was out of his teens, he was Big Red, a Harlem hipster trafficking in numbers, narcotics, sex, and petty crime. He was buried as Al Hajj Malik Shabazz, a spiritual desperado lost between the peace of Islam and the pain of blackness. His whole life was a series provisional identities, and he was still looking for the last when, as Malcolm X, 39, apostate Black Muslim and mercurial black nationalist, he was gunned to death by black men last week in a dingy uptown New York ballroom.

He had seen the end coming—predicted it, in fact, so long and so loudly that people had stopped listening. Malcolm X had always been an extravagant talker, a demagogue who titillated slum Negroes and frightened whites with his blazing racist attacks on the "white devils" and his calls for an armed American Mau Mau. His own flamboyant past made it easy to disregard his dire warnings that he had been marked for murder by the Muslims, the anti-white, anti-integrationist Negro sect he had served so devoutly for a dozen years and fought so bitterly since his defection a year ago.

His assassination turned out to be one of his few entirely accurate prophecies. Its fulfillment triggered an ominous vendetta between the Malcolmites and the Muslims—ominous in its intensity even though it was isolated on the outermost extremist fringe of American Negro life.

Death came moments after Malcolm stepped up to a flimsy plywood lectern in Manhattan's Audubon Ballroom, just north of Harlem, to address 400 of the faithful and the curious at a Sunday afternoon rally of his fledgling Organization of Afro-American Unity. The extermination plot was clever in conception, swift and smooth in execution. Two men popped to their feet in the front rows of wooden folding chairs, one yelling at the other: "Get your hands off my pockets, don't be messing with my pockets." Four of Malcolm's six bodyguards moved toward the pair; Malcolm himself chided, "Let's cool it."

Volley: Then came a second diversion: a man's sock, soaked in lighter fluid and set ablaze, flared in the rear. Heads swiveled, and, as they did, a dark, muscular man moved toward the lectern in a crouch, a sawed-off shotgun wrapped in his coat. Blam-blam! A double-barreled charge ripped up through the lectern and into Malcolm's chest. From the left, near the spot where the two men had been squabbling, came a back-up volley of pistol fire.

Malcolm tumbled backward, his lean body rent by a dozen wounds, his heels hooked over a fallen chair. The hall was bedlam. Malcolm's pregnant wife, Betty, rushed on stage screaming, "They're killing my husband!" His retainers fired wildly through the crowd at the fleeing killers. Four assailants made it to side doors and disappeared.

The man with the shotgun, identified by police as 22-year-old Talmadge Hayer of Paterson, N.J., dashed down a side aisle to the stairway exit from the second-floor ballroom. From the landing, one of Malcolm's bodyguards winged him in the thigh with a .45-caliber slug. Howling in pursuit ("Kill the bastard!"), the ballroom crowd caught Hayer on the sidewalk, mauled him, and broke his ankle before police rescued him.

Hayer was charged with homicide. Five days later, police picked up a karate-trained Muslim "enforcer," Norman 3X Butler, 26, as suspect No. 2.

The arrest of a Muslim surprised almost no one. For all his many enemies, Malcolm himself had insisted to the end that it was the Muslims who wanted him dead. They seemed to dog him everywhere he went; a bare week before his death, he was fire-bombed out of his Queens home, the ownership of which he had been disputing with the Muslims. Increasingly edgy, he moved with his wife and four children first to Harlem's Hotel Theresa, finally—the night before his death—to the New York Hilton in the alien world downtown. When he died, Manhattan police assumed that Muslims were involved.

And so did Malcolm's men.

Reprisal: Malcolmites openly vowed revenge. Police poured hundreds of reinforcements into Harlem, staking out both Muslim buildings and the funeral home where thousands of Harlemites queued up for a look at Malcolm's body. But 36 hours after the assassination, skilled arsonists slipped the guard at the fourth-floor Muslim mosque, adroitly placed a firebomb inside, and set off a spectacular blaze that left the place a gutted shell. In San Francisco, raiders splashed a Muslim temple door with kerosene and set it afire; this time, police spotted the blaze before it did much damage. In Rochester, tipped off to a plot to blow up a Muslim meeting hall, police snatched five sticks of dynamite from an abandoned car.

Threats of vengeance spread to the very top of the Muslim hierarchy in Chicago, to Elijah Muhammad himself, who denied any knowledge of the murder. "We are going to repay them for what they did to Malcolm," said bantam-size Leon Ameer, 31, Malcolm's New England organizer and possible heir to his leadership. Muhammad? "I don't know if he'll live out the month."At the weekend, on the eve of the annual Muslim convention in Chicago's Coliseum, police painstakingly shook down the meeting hall for bombs, posted guards at Muhammad's nineteen-room South Side mansion, and pledged the self-anointed Messenger of Allah as much protection as President Johnson himself might have.

As it turned out, both Malcolm's funeral in Harlem and Muhammad's convention keynote speech in Chicago went peaceably enough. Malcolm, said Muhammad, "got just what he preached," and he warned the Malcolmites: "If you fight us, we will fight you."

Long before his death, Malcolm had been a major problem for the Muslims. Within the movement, his quick mind and articulate tongue had carried him near the top, first as New York minister, then as Muhammad's national representative, finally as a celebrity in the white press and on the campus lecture circuit. Jealous rivals in Chicago regarded him as a potential successor to the 67-year-old Muhammad's throne. But finally he tripped on his own acid tongue; in a public speech, he crowed over John F. Kennedy's assassination as a case of "chickens coming home to roost," and Muhammad seized the chance to suspend him. In three months, Malcolm quit the Muslims.

Exodus: Once outside the movement, he was a constant Muslim embarrassment. Never more than an overblown splinter group, Elijah's Nation of Islam (current estimated population: 7,000) was thinned out still further by defections to Malcolm; two of Muhammad's own sons broke with him. But Malcolm himself was too busy talking and traveling to lead; he never attracted more than a few hundred hard-core followers to his new group.

He was still instant copy for the press and he was well received on a tour of Africa and on the traditional Moslem Hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca. Back in the U.S., he attacked his old guru. He accused the Chicago command of financial irregularities. He said the Muslims were flirting with the Ku Klux Klan. And he charged Muhammad with personal immorality; in one errand on a trip to Los Angeles last month, he conferred with two former Muslim secretaries who have filed paternity suits against Muhammad. The Muslims wanted him killed, Malcolm insisted, "because I know too much."

Yet Malcolm X never knew quite enough about himself. For all his millions of fiery words, there are those who believe he was never quite so revealing as in an uncharacteristic yet repeated slip of the tongue: "I hate every drop of black blood in my body." He meant to say white, of course, and he quickly corrected himself. But the gaffe suggested a possible key to the bitterness he directed against whites.

In his last days, he seemed at times to be laying aside that heavy burden of hatred; he seemed to be softening his attacks on whites—if only, perhaps, as a tactic—and he was prepared, at his last rally, to unfold a plan for orthodox Negro political action by ballots instead of bullets. But his overwhelming talent was still talk; he always followed his agile tongue instead of his wasted mind, and, once he had abandoned the packaged identity that sustained him as a Muslim, his tongue proved an uncertain guide. He did at least suspect that his tongue had undone him—that, as Malcolm X of the Black Muslims, he had helped create the conditions of his own doom. "There is a threat against my life," he said, "and there is no people in the U.S. able to carry out that threat better than the Black Muslims. I know. I taught them."

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Photographs from slain civil rights leader Malcolm X's trips to Africa and the Middle East in 1964. Schomburg Center For Research in Black Culture/Reuters
'Death of a Desperado': Malcolm X Was Assassinated 50 Years Ago | U.S.