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it was america that killed malcolm x

February 10, 2020
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The man who fired the shots that killed Malcolm X was named William Bradley, and he walked away from that mass shooting at Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom on February 21st, 1965, where he and two others opened fire in front of a 400-person crowd that included Malcolm’s wife and four young children. They fired many, many bullets into his body — Malcolm arrived at the hospital with at least 21 gunshot wounds. That day, Malcolm died while Bradley went home. The assassin was never punished for the murder, and lived in Newark, New Jersey, in plain sight, until his death in 2018. That is one of the conclusions of the new Netflix documentary, Who Killed Malcolm X?, hosted by Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, a Washington, D.C. tour guide who became obsessed with the case, and directed by Phil Bertelsen and Rachel Dretzin. But, according to the documentary team, laying the entirety of the blame on Bradley misses the point. There are forces greater than the the trigger man, forces that also deserve blame for Malcolm X’s assassination. 

Muhammad says he became obsessed with this case because, “It seems to be a grave injustice to brother Malcolm not to have this issue resolved. The government just botched the case. It was just a terrible travesty of justice and not too many people seemed to be concerned about getting to the truth of the matter.” He said finding out who killed Malcolm has been the center of his adult life. His research landed on Bradley, who later became Al-Mustafa Shabazz.

“William Bradley was himself a criminal bank robber, known to commit robberies, bank robberies with a sawed-off shotgun, which is the reason why he was selected to be the assassin, to fire the kill shot. Because it’s a difficult weapon to fire.” Bradley was a lieutenant, “one of the muscles” in Newark Mosque #25. “He was very skillful with the sawed-off shotgun. He was lethal and that was the reason why he was recruited into the assassination squad. His motivations were primarily religious. He felt that Malcolm was scandalizing the honorable Elijah Muhammad” [then the Head of the Nation of Islam]. According to Abdur-Rahman, Bradley had been told that Malcolm was the father of the children that Elijah Muhammad had later in life, children who were the products of relationships that had driven a wedge between Malcolm and Muhammad. “So he saw Malcolm as a hypocrite, a traitor, a Judas, and someone who was actually trying to destroy the Nation of Islam.”

Many people know that Elijah Muhammad was deeply angry with Malcolm when he died — partly because Malcolm’s fame had eclipsed Muhammad’s, partly because Malcolm was upset that Muhammad had fathered those children with several younger women in the Nation, and perhaps because of other reasons, too. Abdur-Rahman says, “One of the things that we talk about in the series is we actually have documented documentary evidence that demonstrates Elijah Muhammad in a threatening posture towards Malcolm. A murderous posture. He said some very incendiary things to his followers and basically, in a sense, condoning murder against Malcolm.” 

But messages coming from inside the Nation of Islam are not necessarily coming from inside the Nation of Islam. Director and series producer Phil Bertelsen says, “ At the time, the Nation was known to be one of the most infiltrated bodies of Black community leadership, even more so than the SCLC, and Dr. King’s ranks. The NOI was just riddled with FBI informants.” Muhammad and the team behind the documentary film — which includes Bertelsen, and co-director/executive producer Dretzin — all believe that responsibility for the death of Malcolm X also falls on the U.S. Federal Government and the New York Police Department, even though each has a very different sort of culpability.

Abdur-Rahman says, “The U.S. Federal government is implicated, because they were actively playing dirty tricks on the Nation and Malcolm and his followers, to create dissension and stoke hatred, suspicion, division, and all kinds of chaos through a campaign of dirty tricks which came to be known as the COINTELPRO program.” The producers claim that the government knew that there was a growing rift between Malcolm and the Honorable Elijah Muhammad — because they had infiltrators and informants —and used that knowledge to manipulate others in the Nation. “In a sense, they threw gasoline on the situation,” says Abdur-Rahman. “They knew where that would lead.” 

While the federal government was agitating, and the situation was growing more and more dangerous, the NYPD was falling back. “They knew Malcolm’s life was under grave threat,” Abdur-Rahman says. “Rather than protect him like we’d expect police officers to do, they just allowed it to happen. We have strong circumstantial evidence that they knew he was going to be killed and did nothing about it.” And even after Malcolm’s death, the government continued to actively pursue a course of injustice.

“Following the assassination, the FBI had information pointing to the identity of the real killer and they did not, as far as we can tell, share that information with the New York City Police Department,” says Rachel Dretzin. “In the series, we show a document in which they explicitly say that this information should not be shared with the New York City Police Department. We don’t know why that is. It is conceivable that one or more of the assassins was an informer for the FBI. We can’t prove that. But for whatever reasons, they were sitting on information pointing to the identity of the real killers.”

It’s curious, and perhaps convenient for the U.S. government, that five men participated in the killing of Malcolm — three gun men and two who created a diversion — but only one was caught and put on trial. Three men were convicted of Malcolm’s murder but, according to the documentarians, two of them were not at the Audubon Ballroom on the day of the murder. 

Malcolm’s murder had a massive impact on American history. We will never know how much more influential he could have been or where he might have gone to seek justice for Black Americans. He has become a Christ-like martyr for many, in that his words were prophetic, his ideology remains inspiring, and his death at the hands of the state stands as proof of the importance of his message. The documentary’s research also found that, like Christ, Malcolm seemed aware that the end was near.

“It seems like he had some kind of premonition,” says Abdur-Rahman Muhammad. “He was very haggard that afternoon when he showed up at the Audubon. He was completely run down and he was very agitated that day, February 21st, 1965, to the point where he was out of character. No one had ever remembered seeing him like that. He was irascible and he kept getting up from his chair and looking out behind the curtain and he kept saying, ‘I shouldn’t go out there today. I shouldn’t go out there today.'”

Who Killed Malcolm X? lays out a compelling and powerful case, pointing its finger beyond the gunmen — at the leaders of his religion, at the government of his nation, at the local police force and at a slew of institutions whose stated mission is to protect people, even when they are exercising their first amendment rights. Its finger is pointed at America itself, supposedly committed to truth, justice, and liberty, except when those values are being used to help Black Americans or when they’re making white men uncomfortable.