Feb. 21, 2022

The Assassination of Malcolm X

The Assassination of Malcolm X

February 21, 1965. Civil rights leader Malcolm X is assassinated while giving a speech in New York.

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Cold Open

It’s December 1945.

A young, 20-year-old dark-skinned man carefully walks up the steps of a house just outside Boston. But this isn’t his house. He’s about to rob the place. His job is to keep watch out front while his friends break in through the back door.

But just then, a car turns onto the street and stops right in front of the house. Young man ducks down on the front porch. As the car idles, the young man holds his breath.

Recently, he's been struggling to make ends meet. So, over the past few months, he and a small crew of friends have been robbing houses in and around Boston. Today, the young man hopes they can make another score… assuming they don’t get caught.

But after a few moments, the car drives off and turns down a side street. Young man exhales a sigh of relief.

And finally, the front door opens and young man joins his friends inside. Soon, he's rummaging through drawers and jewelry boxes. He steals earrings, a gold pendant, and an expensive watch. Then, he and his friends flee on foot, their bags filled to the brim. They hop in the getaway car parked around the corner and drive away from the scene.

They've made a clean getaway. But not long after the robbery, young man gives the stolen watch to a relative for Christmas. After the holiday, the relative sells the watch to a local jeweler, who reports the item to police as possible stolen goods.

In January of 1946, police trace that stolen watch back to the young man. He’s sentenced to prison for eight-to-ten years. Facing time behind bars is devastating. He believes his life is over. But in truth, it’s just beginning. In prison, this young man, Malcolm Little, will study literature, history, and politics. He will turn to a new religion, spread its message, and eventually change his name to Malcolm X, becoming an impassioned advocate for civil rights and black empowerment, until his assassination on February 21st, 1965.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is February 21: The Assassination of Malcolm X.

Act One: Malcolm joins Nation of Islam

It’s late 1946, in the license plate shop at Charlestown Prison in Massachusetts.

Malcolm Little sits with a group of prisoners and guards, hanging on the words of an older inmate named John Elton Bembry.

For almost 10 months, Malcolm has been in Charlestown Prison, notorious for its brutal conditions. Cells are infested with mice, running water is scarce, and inmates are often left to fend for themselves. Charlestown has changed Malcolm. He’s become angry and prone to fits of rage. But today, as he listens to Bembry speak about the writings of Henry David Thoreau, Malcolm is enraptured. He’s never heard anything like this before.

Bembry notices, and after he wraps up his lecture, he pulls Malcolm aside urging him to take advantage of the prison’s library and to start reading. Bembry tells Malcolm that he needs to educate himself if he wants a better life.

And so for the first time in his young life, Malcolm commits himself to studying. He does go to the prison library, delving into history, poetry, and literature. He memorizes words and definitions from the dictionary to improve his vocabulary.

And the change that comes over Malcolm is noticeable to nearly everyone at Charlestown. He no longer lashes out, and is instead, content to spend his time in solitude, reading. Malcolm’s self-improvement is so complete, that in March of 1948, he’s transferred to the Norfolk Prison, a more relaxed facility with a much larger library.

With access to new reading materials, Malcolm starts to study religion. He reads works on Buddhism and searches for answers in other spiritual texts. But then, in 1947, Malcolm’s brother, Reginald, visits him in prison and introduces him to a religious and political organization called the Nation of Islam.

In 1930, The Nation of Islam was founded by Wallace Fard in Detroit, Michigan. Fard’s assistant, Elijah Poole, established the Nation’s second center in Chicago. Poole, or Elijah Muhammed as he’s now known, took over the organization in 1934. And under his leadership, the Nation of Islam combined elements of the Islamic faith with certain tenets of Black Nationalism, making the group a departure from traditional Islamic orthodoxy.

But that's perhaps exactly why Malcolm is intrigued by the group. So he writes to Elijah from prison to learn more, and the two men start a regular correspondence. Soon, Malcolm converts to the Nation of Islam and dives into the teachings of Elijah Muhammed. There are messages of peace in Elijah’s philosophies, but Malcolm also learns that Elijah believes all white people are devils. In Elijah’s mind, the 20th century is the time for Black people to assert themselves and form a separate Black nation.

Several years later, in August of 1952, Malcolm is released from prison. Soon, he abandons his surname “Little”, and instead goes by Malcolm X; a rejection of his slave name. Malcolm goes to work for the Nation of Islam and quickly rises through the organization. He develops into a gifted speaker and an expert recruiter. Throughout the 1950s, wherever Malcolm goes, the Nation of Islam’s numbers increase, rallying new members to mosques in Boston, Philadelphia, and Harlem.

Malcolm is so effective, he takes on a role as a national spokesman for the group, giving talks at universities and major venues all over the country. He makes appearances on television and radio to speak on a variety of topics including the Civil Rights Movement. In these appearances, Malcolm often espouses the belief that it’s time for Black people to separate themselves from white America, and form their own nation. And by the early 1960s, Malcolm has become one of the highest-ranking members of the Nation of Islam and a trusted confidante of Elijah Muhammed.

But the two men do not see eye to eye in every respect. Malcolm believes the Nation of Islam needs to be a force for societal and political change for all Black people. But Elijah argues that first and foremost, they’re a religious organization that needs to focus on caring for its members. But their disagreements aren’t limited to policy and priorities. Rumors spread that Elijah is growing jealous of Malcolm’s growing fame. Personal notoriety is not Malcom’s aim, so he makes it clear in speeches that he is loyal to the Nation of Islam, and to Elijah.

Still, the simmering tension between them will reach a boiling point when a national tragedy strikes. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy will bring Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammed into direct conflict. And Malcolm will have to decide if he wants to turn his back on the Nation of Islam.

Act Two: Malcolm journeys to Mecca

It’s December 2nd, 1963, outside Elijah Muhammed’s office in Chicago.

Malcolm walks down a hallway and stops for a moment outside Elija’s door, preparing for the fight he knows is coming.

After the assassination of President Kennedy just over a week before, Elijah made a statement expressing how affected he was by the tragedy. He moved quickly to ensure that all representatives of the Nation of Islam said nothing negative about Kennedy. Elijah even had one of his sons call Malcolm directly to make sure Malcolm did not disparage the late president.

But Malcolm didn’t listen. At a recent speech in New York, Malcolm said Kennedy’s assassination was an example of “the chickens coming home to roost.” He emphasized his belief that America’s treatment of other nations, and its own people, fueled violent acts like the assassination. Parts of Malcolm’s speech quickly made it into the pages of major newspapers across the country.

In his office, Elijah chastises Malcolm for straying too far from the Nation of Islam’s message. He then suspends Malcolm from his duties with the Nation of Islam for ninety days. Malcolm is stunned, and he walks out of the office feeling like he’s in a fog. Uncertain of what to do next, he heads to the airport to catch a flight back home to New York.

During Malcolm’s suspension, he realizes how exhausted he is from the endless flights, speeches, and appearances. He’s starting to wonder what it’s all for. Malcolm can’t shake the feeling that he and Elijah no longer want the same thing. Malcolm is trying to affect change on a large scale, and he doesn’t believe the Nation of Islam is doing enough to make an impact. But even as Malcolm ponders what he should do with the Nation of Islam and future, rumors surface that Elijah is already looking to replace him.

So, in March of 1964, Malcolm splits with the Nation of Islam and founds Muslim Mosque, Inc. This new organization shares many of the teachings of the Nation of Islam, but Malcolm hopes to use the newly formed group to engage in more political activities. But even as he ventures out on his own, Malcolm questions if he will be able to make a real difference. His departure from the Nation of Islam has led Malcolm to question many things, including some of his spiritual beliefs.

So in search of greater purpose, Malcolm sets out to fulfill a dream he’s had for years: he decides to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, the birthplace of the founder of Islam: the Prophet Muhammed. 

In April of 1964, Malcolm leaves the United States and travels to Saudi Arabia. On his journey to Mecca, Malcolm witnesses things during his pilgrimage that shake his beliefs to the core. He watches thousands of people of different nationalities pray together, and he starts to re-evaluate the separatist messages he preached as a member of the Nation of Islam.

Malcolm writes home to a friend, expressing that his views on white people are changing as well. In the letter, Malcolm explains that on the journey he encountered some white people who behaved “... genuinely brotherly.” More brotherly, Malcolm believes, than many in the Nation of Islam.

Also on his trip to Mecca, Malcolm begins to embrace more traditional Islamic doctrine, and he starts to believe that Elijah and others in the Nation of Islam missed the messages of peace that he believes are inherent in the religion. Most importantly, Malcolm is imbued with the confidence that Islam is key to defeating racism in the United States. And upon his return to America, Malcolm publicly moves further away from what he views as the separatist dogma of the Nation of Islam and the teachings of Elijah Muhammed.

And then when news surfaces that Elijah has fathered children out of wedlock, Malcolm uses the opportunity to proclaim that Elijah is a false prophet. He says, “When I ceased to respect him as a man, I could see that he was also not divine. There was no God within him at all.”

But Malcolm’s words will put him in harm’s way. Throughout 1964, Malcolm will become the target of multiple attacks believed by many to be instigated, planned, and carried out by the Nation of Islam.

Act Three: Malcolm is Assassinated in NY

It’s February 21st, 1965 at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan. Flanked by two bodyguards, Malcolm takes the stage to thunderous applause. He warmly greets the cheering crowd; in truth, he’s on edge.

Over the past several months, Malcolm has endured multiple assaults, both at home and on the road. Just a week ago, Malcolm’s house was firebombed. He’s heard rumors that the Nation of Islam is planning to kill him.

It's made public appearances like this unsettling. The room quiets down as Malcolm begins his speech. But before he can start speaking, he hears shouts erupting from the audience. Malcolm looks out to find two men engaged in a violent altercation. Malcolm’s bodyguards rush out to stop the fight, leaving Malcolm alone on stage.

And at that moment, a man stands up in the front row, walks forward, raises a sawed-off shotgun, and fires. The audience screams and rushes for the exits, as Malcolm falls to the ground, dead at the age of 39.

All of the assailants managed to escape the ballroom, except one: Mujahid Abdul Halim; a member of the Nation of Islam. Days later, the police arrest two other members allegedly connected to the assassination: Muhammed Aziz and Khalil Islam. All three are found guilty of murder in 1966 and sentenced to life in prison.

But even up until his death in 1975, Elijah Muhammed maintains that the Nation of Islam had nothing to do with the assassination. And in the decades that follow, many will come to believe the government may have played a role. The FBI had Malcolm X under tight surveillance for years leading some to assert that the FBI knew Malcolm’s life was in danger but failed to act on the information. Still, others argue that the New York City Police Department got it wrong; some or all of the men who were arrested had nothing to do with the shooting. Even the man caught red-handed Mujahid Abdul Halim, stated that neither Muhammed Aziz or Khalil Islam were involved.

Decades later, in 2020, these two men's case is investigated by the Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization committed to exonerating individuals who have been wrongly convicted. The investigation concludes that prosecutors, the New York Police Department, and the FBI withheld evidence that likely would have led to the acquittal of Aziz and Islam. The investigation will ultimately lead to both men’s exoneration.

Like the question of who was responsible for his murder, Malcolm X’s legacy is full of controversy. He's often been left out of history textbooks, and his role within the Civil Rights Movement has been both overblown and overlooked. Critics of Malcolm X attack his message as extremist, but often ignore the good work Malcolm X did for the movement as a whole and for Black communities all over the country.

The last words ever publicly spoken about Malcolm while he was alive were those used to introduce him on the night of the assassination. Moments before he came on stage, Malcolm X was introduced as a leader who cared for others more than he cared for himself; he was someone who knew he was walking into danger, but bravely stepped forward anyway to make his final speech on February 21st, 1965.


Next on History Daily. February 22nd, 1680. A 17th-Century French woman is burned at the stake for her role in a scandal known as the Affair of Poisons.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Mischa Stanton. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Michael Federico.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.