Why Malcolm X’s murder was revisited, and what exonerations say about U.S. justice system

A New York judge on Thursday exonerated two men of assassinating Malcolm X. The iconic civil rights figure was gunned down in Manhattan in 1965. Muhammad Aziz and the late Khalil Islam were convicted, and imprisoned until the 1980's. A 22-month review of the convictions by the district attorney's office and lawyers for the two men found they had been wrongfully convicted. John Yang reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Earlier today a judge threw out the verdict against two men wrongfully convicted of assassinating civil rights leader Malcolm X in 1965.

    The hearing came after a 22-month review of the convictions by the district attorney's office and lawyers for the two men.

    John Yang reports.

  • Woman:

    The joint motion is hereby granted, and the record…

    (APPLAUSE)

  • John Yang:

    In a New York City courtroom today, justice delayed for Muhammad Aziz and the late Khalil Islam wrongly convicted for the 1965 of civil rights leader Malcolm X.

    From New York district attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., an apology:

  • Cyrus Vance, Manhattan District Attorney:

    I apologize on behalf of our nation's law enforcement for this decades-long injustice, which has eroded public faith in institutions that are designed to guarantee equal protection under the law.

    Your Honor, we can't restore what was taken away from these men and their families. But, by correcting the record, perhaps we can begin to restore that faith.

  • John Yang:

    From Aziz, relief that the legal system has acknowledged what he's known all along.

  • Muhammad Aziz, Exonerated:

    While I do not believe this court, these prosecutors, or a piece of paper can tell me I'm innocent, I am very glad that my family, my friends and the attorneys who have worked and supported me over these years are finally seeing the truth that we have all known officially recognized.

  • Malcolm X, Civil Rights Leader:

    I probably am a dead man already.

  • John Yang:

    The reevaluation of the case followed a six-part Netflix documentary, "Who Killed Malcolm X?"

    Malcolm X was cut down a year after his bitter break with the Black nationalist Nation of Islam. His speech at the Audubon Ballroom in New York that day was to outline the mission of a new group he was organizing.

  • Malcolm X:

    To address the first Congress of the Council of African Organizations.

  • John Yang:

    Shortly after he began speaking, three men rushed the stage, weapons drawn and opened fire, killing Malcolm, who was only 39 years old.

    Ray Simpson, Reporter and Witness: Just then, the gunfire went off. And his hand was up. I remember this. I turned around quickly. And the next thing I saw was Malcolm falling back in a dead faint.

  • John Yang:

    Mujahid Abdul Halim, then known as Talmadge Hayer, was arrested on the spot. Aziz, then known as Norman 3X Butler, and Islam, then known as Thomas 15X Johnson, were arrested days later.

    All three were convicted and spent decades in prison. Halim was paroled in 2010, Aziz in 1985, and Islam was released in 1987 and died in 2009.

    For years, Aziz and Islam said they were innocent of the crime, and a number of historians and writers agreed, saying New York police and the FBI covered up essential evidence. Today's hearing was the culmination of a 22-month joint investigation by the Manhattan District Attorney's Office, The Innocence Project and civil rights lawyers.

    Mujahid Halim, who acknowledged his role in Malcolm X's death and always said that Aziz and Islam were both innocent, told a reporter from The New York Times today: "God bless you. They're exonerated."

    Historian Abdur-Rahman Muhammad is a scholar of Malcolm X's life and legacy and was host of the Netflix documentary series "Who Killed Malcolm X?"

    Mr. Muhammad, thanks for joining us.

    You were in the courtroom today. As someone who has spent a lifetime studying Malcolm X's life and also his death, and having played such a prominent role in that Netflix documentary that renewed interest in this issue, what was it like for you to see these convictions wiped away today?

  • Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, Historian:

    Well, first of all, it was unbelievable. It was absolutely incredible.

    It's such a long time coming that I couldn't believe what was happening. It was actually surreal. But I was filled with gratitude and happiness that this day had finally arrived. After so many years of studying this issue and trying to get it in front of the public, for it to culminate in the exoneration of these two men, Muhammad Abdul Aziz and Khalil Islam, after 55 years was absolutely incredible.

    And I was filled with happiness and gratitude.

  • John Yang:

    Did you think this day would come?

  • Abdur-Rahman Muhammad:

    I wanted it to come. I didn't know if it would come.

    I knew that the story was too powerful to be denied, and that I think that was my driving motivation and passion all of these decades to finally bring it to the public. But I didn't know what the end result would be. It was always a very steep mountain to climb.

    And so to see it actually take place today before my very eyes was just an unreal — an unreal experience.

  • John Yang:

    Now, the investigation did not find a police or government conspiracy against Malcolm X, as some have speculated.

    It also did not explain why the police and officials were unable to protect him, even though he was a marked man, that his house had been firebombed. But it did find that the FBI and the New York police had withheld evidence that would have cleared these two men.

    What does that say to you about the relationship between the police at that time and the community?

  • Abdur-Rahman Muhammad:

    Well, the police at that time had a very strained relationship with the community. I would even go so far as to say a hostile relationship with the community, and for good reason.

    I mean, you have these two innocent men who could have just been any two Black men. It was this — the capriciousness and the — just what you could say, just the random, just random choice of anyone could be thrown away in prison, throw away the key, and be forgotten about.

    It was absolutely outrageous, appalling. And this is the reason why African Americans historically have had such a troubled and often conflicted relationship with the police departments.

  • John Yang:

    Continues to this day.

    And what does it say about how they thought of Malcolm X that they would take this approach to the investigation of his killing?

  • Abdur-Rahman Muhammad:

    Well, if you study what happened that day, after they mopped everything up, later that evening, around 7:00 or so, there was a dance in the very ballroom in which he was cut down by a sawed-off shotgun, a .45 and a Ruger.

    The bullets were still in the walls, and, that evening, there was a dance on the very site where Malcolm X was gunned down. So, that should tell you about how diligent they were in that investigation.

  • John Yang:

    And not only were the two men who were cleared today, one who has subsequently died, not only were they in prison for a crime they didn't commit for decades, but, for all this time, the people who did commit the crime have been free.

  • Abdur-Rahman Muhammad:

    These men could have been exonerated four decades ago, and that's really the outrage of the whole story.

    It's really outrageous that these men were allowed to walk the streets, killers, OK, who were acknowledged by their accomplice. He gave the government their names, where they lived, what they did for a living, so on and so forth, and nothing ever became of it.

    And I believe it's just because there was no political will to get to the bottom of the assassination of Malcolm X. And there may be some secrets that the government doesn't want revealed.

    This is — how else do you explain convicting two men who had nothing to do with it? Why do that, when you could have actually convicted the real assassins, right? That's the question that needs to be answered.

  • John Yang:

    Historian Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, thank you very much.

  • Abdur-Rahman Muhammad:

    It's my pleasure.

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