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Malcolm X at the Audubon Ballroom

Two men framed for killing Malcolm X on February 21, 1965, Muhammad Aziz and Khalil Islam, have been exonerated after all these years. On November 18 the New York Times played the story BIG  — a three-deck headline over a two-column front-page story that jumped to fill a two-page spread that included five photos and five related articles. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr., who ordered the belated reinvestigation, made a meaningless apology that might be the understatement of all time: "This points to the truth that law-enforcement over history has often failed to live up to its responsibilities. These men did not get the justice that they deserve." 

Aziz and Islam spent a combined 42 years in prison, as the Times notes, "with years in solitary confinement... in some of New York's worst maximum security prisons." And knowing and maintaining all the while that they were innocent. 

The FBI withheld documents that would have exonerated them. The presence of undercover cops from the notorious NYPD "Red Squad" was concealed by the prosecution. Ditto the fact that a witness had confirmed Aziz's alibi. (He was at home.) Islam also had a credible alibi confirmed by witnesses. The third defendant, Mujahid Halim, had confessed on the witness stand and said that the other two were innocent. He even identified William Bradley, a member of his mosque in Newark, as one of the killers. (After I read the name Bradley, Bob Dylan's great song Hurricane started playing real loud in my head.)  The Times described Bradley as a former "machine gunner in the Marine Corps." A physical description of him — which did not fit Aziz or Islam — was provided by eye-witnesses to Malcolm's assassination and was in FBI files at the time.

You'll be doing society a favor. That sonofabitch is brave and getting braver...

District Attorney Vance didn't wake up conscience-stricken one morning and decide to reopen the case. Journalists, historians, biographers, and others outside the "criminal justice system" had been putting the true story together over the years. Vance was finally compelled by Abdur-Rahman Muhammad's Netflix documentary, "Who Killed Malcolm X?" to meet with lawyers who had compiled the exonerating evidence (i.e., done his job for him). The DA's office then spent 22 months confirming the truth. It didn't matter to Kahlil Islam, who died in 2007. Aziz, now 83, was present in the courtroom when he was officially cleared.  “'I do not need this court, these prosecutors or a piece of paper to tell me I am innocent,' he said in a stern voice that did not shake or falter. 'I am an 83-year-old man who was victimized by the criminal justice system.'"

The man the authorities came to blame for something that he never done...

David Shanies, one of the civil rights lawyers who forced the DA to act, said the effects of the convictions were "horrific, torturous and unconscionable." The Times reported, "Both men saw their marriages fall apart and spent the primes of their lives behind bars. Even after their release, they were understood as Malcolm X's killers, affecting their ability to live openly in society. 'It affected them in every way you could possibly imagine, them and their families,' Mr. Shanies said."

In a sidebar hedded "Questions Left Unanswered," John Leland asks, "If the Federal Bureau of investigation had as many as seven informants in the Audubon ballroom, why were their accounts not fully shared with the Police Department, the prosecutors and the defense lawyers?"  The short answer, of course, is that J. Edgar Hoover hated Malcolm X and had no interest in finding his assassins. Clayborne Carson's book "Malcolm X: The Police File" runs more than 500 pages, almost every one of which is pockmarked with numerous "[BUREAU DELETION]."  

Buried 22 paragraphs into the Times coverage of Aziz and Islam's exoneration was a lone reference to the reason Malcolm X was giving a talk at the Audobon Ballroom on that cold, sunny afternoon in February '65. He had returned from a trip to Africa a few months earlier and, having left the Nation of Islam, was trying to build a new group which he called the Organization of Afro-American Unity. He had met with Fannie Lou Hamer of the Mississippi Freedom Party and members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, among others. He was seeking a meeting with Martin Luther King, who was said to be receptive.

Lyndon Johnson, inaugurated in January, had announced his schizoid plan to create the "Great Society" at home while sending hundreds of thousands more troops to Vietnam. Malcolm was urging Black men not to take part in the war. He had concluded that not all white people were devils, and that whites could help but not join the OAAU. I was anti-war and had a tactical idea that I thought the OAAU might want to pursue. I shared it with an OAAU aide named Peter Bailey when I went to hear Malcolm talk at the Audobon in December '64.

As I recall there were about 200 people seated in wooden chairs facing the stage and a large screen on which Malcolm, wearing a dashiki, showed slides from his recent travels. He said he had been an honored guest in Egypt, Lebanon, Nigeria, Ghana and Morocco, and had made a pilgrimage to Mecca where he prayed alongside people of all races. To my surprise he was extremely funny.  He said (this is from memory), "You know how the newspapers are always reporting on 'tribal warfare' in Africa? You want to know about tribal warfare? You go to the Balkans, go to Yugoslavia —somebody killed somebody's cousin a thousand years ago and they're still getting revenge! That's tribal warfare!" His theme was that people should be proud they came from Africa. He hated Tarzan movies and riffed about the incredibly deceitful image of the heroic white man that had been projected into his and everybody else's brain in childhood. People laughed and agreed out loud.  "They say the most beautiful woman that ever lived was Cleopatra," Malcolm said. "When I was in Egypt I saw images of the real Cleopatra, and she was a dark-skinned sister!"

His FBI file contains this account of the meeting I attended by BUREAU DELETION: "Malcolm X spoke on Africa, particularly about the natural resources and industrial potential of that continent. He also stated that the economy of western Europe and America are dependent on Africa and would collapse if their interests in Africa are lost. This, he claimed, is why the United States and European countries are interested in keeping their foothold in Africa by supporting the Congo regime of Moise Tshombe. He praised the Mau Mau, an anti-white terrorist group that formerly operated in Kenya, and indicated that a Mau Mau was needed in the United States to win freedom and equality for Negroes. He also claimed that black people in America should align themselves with black people of Africa. Malcolm X also talked about the future of the OAAU, indicating that its new philosophy will be one of alignment with Africa."

The lengthy Times piece about the exoneration of Aziz and Islam ended on page 22. Turning the page I saw this headline running across four columns on page 24: "Bosnia and Herzogovina is on the Brink of Rupture" A drop quote added: "The fuse on the Balkans powder keg has been lit. It must be stamped out."

And as I send this off on Sunday, November 21, across five columns of the Times front page is a color photo of dump trucks lined up at an open-pit mine owned, according to the caption, "by a Chinese company in Kisanfu, Democratic Republic of Congo. The land contains a vast reserve of cobalt, vital to electric car batteries." The accompanying story makes exactly the same point that prescient Malcolm X had made about the Congo's natural resources at the Audubon Ballroom all those years ago.

One Comment

  1. Nathan Duffy November 27, 2021

    Well I grew up in Chicago with these guys (Nation of Islam), I guess the best thing to realize is not to get excited by the hyperbolic language (people are upset for good reasons). I have definitely talked to all these guys over the years and the history does follow this trajectory and I do believe the history is quite obvious. The author Karl Evanzz sheds a lot of light on these subjects with his exposes on the Nation of Islam which are unparalleled. Maybe run some Karl Evanzz, Bruce. I should help.

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