Bombshell confessional letter links NYPD, FBI to Malcolm X’s murder
Ex cop says he unwittingly set up Muslim minister
A New York cop’s deathbed confession of involvement in the assassination of Black Power icon Malcolm X led the family of the former Nation of Islam leader to call last week for a full re-opening of the investigation into the murder.
Their plea was echoed by others demanding the full disclosure of long-hidden FBI files that may shed further light on how law-enforcement sowed violent dissension among groups like the Nation of Islam, the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement.
During a press conference at the site of the former Audubon Ballroom in Harlem on the 51st anniversary of Malcolm X’s death, family members of the Boston-raised Black Muslim produced the letter as evidence that New York police and the FBI conspired in the public execution of their father on Feb. 21, 1965.
The 2011 letter by the late Raymond A. Wood admitted the officer’s undercover role in luring key members of Malcolm X’s security team into a plot to blow up the Statue of Liberty, resulting in their arrest by the FBI and setting the stage for the assassination just days after police took them into custody.
“I participated in actions that in hindsight were deplorable and detrimental to the advancement of my own black people,” wrote Wood as he was dying of cancer. His death, however, did not come until 2020. His cousin, Reginald Wood Jr., brought the confessional missive to Malcolm X’s family.
Wood, who said he acted under duress as he infiltrated the Nation of Islam and civil rights groups, was present in the ballroom as armed assailants gunned down Malcolm X at the podium.
“I was ordered to the Audubon Ballroom, where I was identified by witnesses while leaving the scene,” he wrote. “Thomas Johnson was later arrested and wrongfully convicted to protect my cover and the secrets of the FBI and NYPD.”
Wood claimed he was unaware that Malcolm X was the target of his actions.
Three men, including Johnson, known as Khalil Islam, were convicted of the murder. Mujahid Abdul Halim, previously known as Thomas Hagan, confessed to the killing but insisted that two other convicted Nation of Islam members, Islam and Muhammad Aziz, previously known as Norman Butler, were innocent.
Halim spent 45 years in prison before being paroled in 2010. Islam was paroled in 1987 and died in 2009. Aziz was paroled in 1985.
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance opened an inquiry into the case last year after meeting with members of the Innocence Project, a legal group that mounts campaigns to clear defendants unjustly convicted of serious crimes.
“Any evidence that provides greater insight into the truth behind that terrible tragedy should be thoroughly investigated,” said Ilyasah Shabazz, one of Malcom X’s daughters, who was joined at the Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Education Center press conference by two of her sisters.
Heavily redacted sections of Malcolm X’s 10,000-page FBI file have been publicly released, but key elements of the documents must be aired to reveal the full truth of federal complicity in the murder of the former Nation of Islam leader who was a trusted lieutenant of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad before he broke away from the group, according to historian Byron Rushing.
Rushing, a former Massachusetts state representative who was surveilled by the FBI starting with his activism in Boston in the 1960s and his work with the Congress of Racial Equality, echoed Malcolm X’s family in demanding the full release of files.
“Black organizations should insist that President Biden release all this information. He could do it in an instant,” said Rushing.
Rushing also raised questions about the federal role in the murder of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., as well as the disruption of militant Boston groups that fell apart after violent confrontations, possibly provoked by informants and plants.
“We know the FBI was involved in the death of Malcolm X. To assume the FBI wasn’t also involved in the assassination of Martin Luther King is naïve,” he said. “The files need to be opened and the full stories told.”
U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, who represents the neighborhoods where Malcolm X lived and worked during his time in Boston, issued a separate demand for a full investigation and document release.
“The recent revelations about the active role the state played in Malcolm X’s assassination allude to what many have known for years but is no less disturbing,” said the congresswoman. “The Shabazz family and the American people deserve and require nothing short of a full, transparent investigation into the matter, and that includes public access to information and evidence that offer answers to the many questions that remain.”
The recently released Wood letter has surfaced in the midst of a cinematic reckoning with the events of the 1960s when federal officials, alarmed by the rise of Black militants and fearful of the ability of a charismatic leader to unify African Americans around their challenge to white authority, systematically investigated, infiltrated and disrupted groups ranging from the Black Panthers to King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
A 2020 Netflix documentary series titled “Who Killed Malcolm X?” helped spur Vance’s re-examination of the case.
This year’s historical drama “Judas and the Black Messiah” explores the infiltration of the Black Panther Party by an FBI informant linked to Chicago police action in the death of Fred Hampton, the party chairman, who was gunned down in hail of bullets in his apartment.
Another movie, “One Night in Miami,” portrays a fictionalized 1964 meeting between boxer Muhammad Ali, NFL football star Jim Brown, R&B crooner Sam Cooke and Malcolm X on the night of Ali’s victory over Sonny Liston. Throughout the brooding drama, two white men, presumably undercover FBI agents, trail the quartet as they discuss, among other things, surveillance by the feds.
In Boston, federal agents provocateurs have long been suspected of having been at the center of murders that ended the influence of several groups that were under FBI surveillance.
Hakim Jamal, a cousin of Malcolm X, and the leader of his own organization, was shot to death in his Roxbury apartment in 1973, reportedly as a result of a dispute with the De Mau Mau group of Black Vietnam veterans. Five men were convicted of the crime. All denied they were there to kill Jamal.
In 1968, three leaders of the New England Grass Roots Organization, including Guido St. Laurent, were shot to death in their Blue Hill Avenue office, allegedly over a dispute about a federal grant. St. Laurent, an ex-con doing grassroots work in the Black community, was eulogized as a man of peace at his Roxbury funeral by the Rev. James Breeden, a noted civil rights activist.
Rushing said activists at the time were unaware of the full range of activities undertaken by the FBI to discredit and destroy organizations working in poor neighborhoods on educational, nutritional and social programs.
During a conversation with U.S. Ambassador Andrew Young, who marched with King, Rushing said they shook their heads and said, “We were the most naïve Negroes imaginable. We knew about surveillance, but it never dawned on us the extent to which we were being set up, put into things and then getting us killed.”
Malcolm X, a preacher’s son born as Malcolm Little in Nebraska, moved to Michigan with his family. After his father’s suspicious death and his mother’s commitment to an asylum, he arrived in Boston in 1941 at age 15 to live with his older half-sister Ella Collins on Waumbeck Street in Roxbury.
He quickly abandoned education and embraced Boston’s thriving nightlife, donning zoot suits and frequenting clubs like the Hi-Hat, Wally’s and the Savoy as “Detroit Red.” Malcolm’s career as a small-time thief, drug-dealer and hustler came to an end with a stint at the Charlestown State Prison, where he embraced Islam.
After his release, Malcolm X ran the Nation of Islam mosque on Intervale Street before departing for New York City, where his star quickly rose as a disciplined and eloquent organizer for the Black separatist faith.
His falling out with Elijah Muhummad was followed by an embrace of the Sunni Muslim sect, meetings with world leaders and a pilgrimage to Mecca. The 1965 release of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” written with Alex Haley, catapulted him to global attention at a time of rising Black militancy and doubts about what direction Black America would take — the peaceful, non-violent protest of the Civil Rights Era or the unsparing rhetoric of Black Power advocates.
While accepting cross-racial mainstream Islam, Malcolm X continued to denounce white leadership, never fully rejecting his slogan “By Any Means Necessary” to accomplish the full liberation of marginalized people.
By the time of his death, the newly christened El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz came to embody elements of both militant and peaceful approaches to Black liberation, a dichotomy left unresolved by the bullets that tore through his body in the Audubon Ballroom and left Black America wondering what might have been.