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Cointelpro and the Assassination of Malcolm X Essay

During the early 1950’s, Malcolm X was the top spokesman for the Black Nationalist Muslim group called the Nation of Islam (NOI). As the national representative of the NOI, Malcolm X attracted the media spotlight by speaking out against the injustices that were being inflicted upon black Americans in the United States (Haley 225). Malcolm later separated from the NOI due to accusations of immoral behavior he made against his leader, Elijah Muhammad, and went on to form his own group called Muslim Mosque Inc. 323).

Malcolm was assassinated February 21, 1965, at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem New York, by black gunmen who were alleged to be members of the Nation of Islam (442-443). According to the book “The Assassination of Malcolm X by George Breitman, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover made Malcolm the subject of an intensive surveillance investigation by the Counter Intelligence Program known by its acronym “Cointelpro” (13).

Malcolm, as a Muslim minister in the NOI, had become a powerful speaker equipped with the oratorical skills which provided him the ability to attract large followings of black people into his new organization. However, Hoover had labeled Malcolm a “subversive” and a radical black nationalist whom he felt needed to be “neutralized” (14). What did Hoover mean by “neutralize”? And did the Nation of Islam assassinate Malcolm X, or was this a government conspiracy?

These two theories will be addressed in order to answer these questions and others that have been unanswered for 48 years. Cointelpro was a FBI top secret and illegal political agency, the main agenda of which was to target specific individuals and organizations whose ideas Hoover did not agree with (Blackstock, preface vii). Even though the program was initially started in 1956 to disrupt the activities of the Communist Party of the United States, policies were secretly changed under the direction of its founder, Hoover in order to target other organizations (9).

Even though the name “Counterintelligence” may imply opposition to anyone who threatens the security of the United States through espionage, the targets were not enemy spies (10). The FBI’s main objective under this program was to eliminate all “radical” political opposition inside the United States by any means necessary (10-11). When traditional methods such as harassment and prosecution failed, the Bureau resorted to illegal and unconstitutional methods by taking the law into its own hands (11).

Methods such as intimidation, job loss, violence, and forging letters in order to frame members were just a few tactics used by FBI agents and police informants who had infiltrated targeted organizations (12-13). In instructions to his FBI field operatives, Hoover displayed the outright contempt that he held for the Civil Rights Movement and its black leaders (28). In one specific memo dated August 25, 1967, he explains that the purpose of the program was “to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” the Civil Rights Movement (30).

Even though the memo was revealed by Hoover in 1967, two years after Malcolm’s death, tactics had been put into action long before it was distributed as a memo to his agents (30). On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X prepared to give a speech to a crowd of approximately 400 at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, New York (Evanzz xiv). As he approached the rostrum, a scuffle began in the rear of the ballroom (xv). One of the men yelled “Get your hand out of my pocket. ” Malcolm responded by telling the two individuals who were scuffling to “cool it” and to not get excited (xv).

As Malcolm tried to calm things down, a large explosion in the back was heard from a smoke bomb, and a man sitting in the front row pulled out a double barreled sawed-off shotgun from under his long coat and fired at Malcolm, striking him in the chest (xv). As Malcolm was falling and clutching his chest, two more men rushed the stage, firing pistols at him (xv). Betty Shabazz, Malcolm’s wife, and Gene Roberts, his close friend and bodyguard came to Malcolm’s aid along with others close by (xv). Meanwhile, a crowd of Malcolm’s supporters had caught two of the fleeing assailants and were beating them until they were rescued by policemen (xvii).

One of the men rescued by police was Talmadge Hayer, a black Muslim, who had a gunshot wound from one of Malcolm X’s bodyguards and was taken to the hospital across the street from the Audubon (xvi). Malcolm X was pronounced dead 15 minutes after they got him to the hospital (xvi). Who killed Malcolm X? Examine the following scenarios. Initially, it was reported by Malcolm’s guards, the New York City police and local newspapers that two men were taken into police custody (xviii). In later newspaper editions, it was changed from two men to one. No reason was given for the sudden change and no admission of a mistake ever mentioned (xv).

Police vehemently denied that a second man had existed and that Hayer was the only person caught at the scene (xviii). Five days later, Norman Butler, and Thomas Johnson, two well-known Muslims were arrested and charged with the murder of Malcolm X, even though they had concrete alibis placing them elsewhere, evidence the prosecutor withheld at the trial (Evanzz xviii). Hayer had confessed to his involvement in Malcolm’s death and testified that Butler and Johnson were neither present nor involved in the assassination but that four other gunmen were involved (xviii-xx). The question remains to this day: Who was the mysterious second man?

Why did the first police report and witnesses inside the Audubon say they saw five men who were involved in the assassination, yet only three were accused and convicted at the trial (xv, xviii)? It should also be noted that many of Malcolm’s bodyguards and aides were Muslim defectors from the Nation of Islam and would have recognized Butler and Johnson immediately and prevented them from coming in (xv). Roland Sheppard was a journalist who regularly attended Malcolm’s lectures and was also a witness to his assassination.

In his article “The Assassination of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. ” he stated that he was told by one of Malcolm’s bodyguards, “You are not going to sit here today” and to move from the front row where he normally would sit. Sheppard, along with Malcolm and his group, always knew that there were police agents and informants in the audience. After Malcolm’s assassination, Sheppard was questioned at the Harlem police headquarters, where he saw a familiar face, obviously a police officer, walking freely around the office, whom “he had seen standing in the first row at the Audubon Ballroom, with other men, before the start of the meeting.

This is where Hayer said he and his accomplices were sitting” (Sheppard). This was also the same row of seats Sheppard was told to move from. Sheppard also noticed that usually at Malcolm’s meetings, there would be somewhere between 30-50 uniformed police officers on site (Sheppard). But when Malcolm was assassinated, the police were nowhere to be found, even though Malcolm had warned them that an assassination attempt was imminent (Sheppard). Police officials claim that Malcolm had requested not to have police protection that day (Sheppard).

However, when the police first spoke of this agreement with Malcolm, his wife, Betty Shabazz, stated that it was a lie, that Malcolm had not made the request for no police security (Sheppard). Malcolm knew from his experience with the Nation of Islam that his organization had been infiltrated by police agents who were undercover working for the government (Evanzz xxiii). But what would have shocked Malcolm the most is that his head of security and close friend Roberts, was one of them (xv).

Roberts was a police agent working for New York Police Department’s Bureau of Special Services, also known as BOSSI (xxiii). This was the same bodyguard who told Sheppard to move from where he normally sits at Malcolm’s meetings. The night of the assassination, Roberts, as usual, posted guards in their proper positions and took his post as well (xv). Once Malcolm came to the rostrum and greeted the crowd with, “As-Salaam Alaikum,” Roberts subtly gave a signal that he needed to be relieved from his guard post (xv).

As soon as Roberts walked away and stationed himself by the front entrance, the commotion started in the rear of the ballroom and shots were fired (xv). Is it just a coincidence that Roberts had himself relieved from the guard post and soon after, the shooting started? As Malcolm lay on the ground gasping for air, Roberts, who had changed guard post seconds before the shooting, rushed to the stage to Malcolm’s side and appeared to be administering mouth to mouth (Evanzz 295).

Betty Shabazz, Malcolm’s wife, went his side and removed a piece of paper from Malcolm’s blood stained coat jacket, that had the names of the five men whom Malcolm believed were going to assassinate him (295). Finally, Malcolm was placed on a stretcher and as they started to take him to the hospital across the street, the police, who were not present during the shooting, appeared and took charge of Malcolm’s body (xvii). It is apparent to me that Roberts was there for the sole purpose of ensuring that Malcolm was dead. Was he actually giving mouth-to-mouth respirations to Malcolm?

Or was he preventing him from breathing altogether? Why would Malcolm’s wife remove the paper with the names of her husband’s assassins on it and not reveal it to any of those present? Malcolm X had been under surveillance by the FBI since his release from prison in 1952 (Evanzz 28). Once Malcolm separated from Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, he started reaching out to other Black Nationalist organizations and civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. (266-267). Even though they had opposing views, both men realized they were after the same common goal but with different means of gaining it.

In his letter “A Call for Unity” from Birmingham jail, King made it a point to his critics that the Negro in America had been caught up by the “Zeitgeist” (spirit of the age), and with his black brothers of Africa, and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America, and the Caribbean, the Negro in the United States is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice” (King 1303). Malcolm shared this viewpoint also, that injustice was universal, and Malcolm decided to take the plight of the American Negro to the United Nations (309).

No one had ever brought the issue of racism to the United Nations before (310). This deeply disturbed Hoover and the FBI and gave them a definite reason to target Malcolm for “neutralization” (Evanzz 310). Malcolm’s fall out with Muhammad and the Nation of Islam was the catalyst needed to later help the FBI set the stage for Malcolm’s assassination (311). The question remains: who killed Malcolm X? Malcolm had initially and for good reason, thought that the Nation of Islam were plotting to take his life.

After close analysis, he realized that this plot to kill him was deeper than the NOI. He expressed this to Alex Haley, who was in the process of finishing Malcolm’s autobiography, “…The more I keep thinking about this thing, the things that have been happening lately, I’m not all that sure it’s the Muslims, I know what they can do, and what they can’t, and they can’t do some of the stuff recently going on. Now, I’m going to tell you, the more I keep thinking about what happened to me…, I think I’m going to quit saying it’s the Muslims” (qtd. in Haley 438).


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