Forty-six years after Malcolm X predicted his own assassination, the question of who pulled the trigger remains unanswered among many scholars who study his life. A book out Monday resurrects the long-standing mystery and suggests that some of those responsible for the activist minister’s death have never been prosecuted.
The exhaustive biography by historian Manning Marable, who died Friday after a long illness, offers a theory about Malcolm X’s assassination and tells a fuller story of the man who at various points was a street hustler, a minister who preached racial separatism and a civil rights icon.
After Malcolm X was gunned down in 1965 at Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom, three men — who viewed him as an enemy and hypocrite for renouncing the Nation of Islam — were quickly arrested and prosecuted. The case was closed for law enforcement, but many have doubted that police captured the right men.
Marable, who began studying Malcolm X in 1969 and founded the African American studies program at Columbia University, uses the biography, “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention,” to search for answers and name five alleged conspirators. Only one has served time for the crime.
While the 592-page book also examines Malcolm X’s life, it is the research into his death, which publisher Viking Press describes as “the never-before-told true story of his assassination,” that could prove most controversial. Marable goes further than any other mainstream scholar in pointing to specific individuals who he alleges plotted to kill the minister. The man who fired the first and deadliest shot, Marable alleges, is still alive, while another conspirator has died. The book does not include definitive information about the fate or whereabouts of the other two.
“Here is a real assassination, with real assassins who are out there,” said David Garrow, an American historian and author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Martin Luther King Jr. “It’s never been pursued.” Garrow, who in 1993 wrote an opinion piece titled “Does Anyone Care Who Killed Malcolm X?,” called Marable’s book a “huge achievement.”
Marable alleges that one of the killers is 72-year-old Al-Mustafa Shabazz, a Newark resident once known as William Bradley.
His wife, Carolyn Kelley Shabazz, answered the phone Sunday but referred questions to an attorney.
“It’s unfair to try someone in public based upon an allegation,” said J. Edward Waller, the Shabazzes’ attorney. “He was not directly or indirectly involved with the assassination of Malcolm X.”
Waller said Al-Mustafa Shabazz, who has not read the book, is reviewing his legal options.
Three members of the Nation of Islam, the religious group for which Malcolm X was chief spokesman before he repudiated it in the year before his death, were convicted in the killing. Two of the men, both paroled in the late 1980s, maintained their innocence. Talmadge Hayer, who was released last year, was caught at the scene by Malcolm X’s supporters. He later confessed to his involvement, declared the two other convicted men innocent and in a court affidavit named four accomplices who have never been tried.
“History is not a cold-case investigation,” Marable writes. “I have had to weigh forensic probabilities, not certainties.”
For his conclusions, Marable relies heavily on both Hayer’s affidavit, which a judge ruled in the late 1970s was not a credible reason for reopening the case, and previously untapped notes from Hayer’s attorney. The notes and the affidavit describe how a small crew of Nation of Islam members in Newark plotted the assassination, scoping out the Audubon Ballroom, where Malcolm X frequently held meetings, as an ideal place to target him.
Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, a historian whom Marable cites as a source in his book, first asserted that a triggerman was alive in a blog posting last year and named Shabazz.
Marable was also interested in the involvement of the Nation of Islam leaders, and law enforcement officials who wiretapped Malcolm X and other black nationalist and civil rights leaders.
In hours of interviews, Marable draws Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan into a conversation about whether he played a role in creating an atmosphere in which Malcolm X was killed.
“Even now there are some black people calling for a grand jury — because there’s no statute of limitations on murder — to bring me into a grand jury to question me,” Farrakhan tells Marable, according to the book.
Marable accuses police of failing to investigate the threats on Malcolm X’s life and of “almost waiting for a crime to happen,” something police officials have called an unsupported conspiracy theory.
Some scholars and followers of Malcolm X have said the case should be reexamined by authorities.
“Marable’s work calls for the case of Malcolm’s assassination to be re-opened,” Michael Eric Dyson, a Georgetown University professor and an author of a book about King’s death, said in an e-mail Sunday.
Peter Goldman, a journalist who interviewed Malcolm X several times and spoke with Marable for his book, said: “The question I’d like to see explored — preferably by a body with subpoena power — is the chain of command. Who ordered the killing? Who said what to whom? But nobody seems interested.”
Erin Duggan, a spokeswoman for the New York district attorney’s office, said in an e-mail that she had been contacted by an author about new theories in Malcolm X’s case but that the office does not comment on whether an investigation is open.
In his book, Marable deconstructs Malcolm X’s famed autobiography, a collaboration with Alex Haley. The classic book, published nine months after Malcolm X’s death, painted a false picture of its subject’s political and social evolution, according to Marable, who was associated with the political left.
“A liberal Republican, Haley held the Nation of Islam’s racial separatism and religious extremism in contempt, but he was fascinated by the tortured tale of Malcolm’s personal life,” Marable writes.
Scholars have predicted that Marable’s book will prompt a new focus on Malcolm X. In the early 1990s, Spike Lee’s biographical movie triggered a revival, and hip-hop groups embraced Malcolm X as a political icon. In 1999, his picture was placed on a U.S. postage stamp.
The aim of the biography, Marable writes, is to “get beyond the legend.”