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May 2001 • Vol 1, No. 1 •

Malcolm X and Martin Luther King:
Why They Were Assassinated


Over 30 years ago—Malcolm X in 1965, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968—were assassinated. In the case of Malcolm X, several members of the Nation of Islam (NOI) were convicted of the assassination.

In the case of Martin Luther King, one assassin, James Earl Ray, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Despite the convictions, and the ongoing campaign by the government, police agencies, and various authors and pundits to put the assassinations to rest, there have always been many unanswered questions about these murders.

In the 1970’s, for example, the Watergate hearings revealed the existence of Cointelpro, a government-initiated counterintelligence program organized to disrupt and ultimately destroy the civil rights and antiwar movements and victimize or discredit radicals and socialists during the 1960s. Under Cointelpro the various United States spy agencies (FBI, CIA, etc.) used informers, agents, and agent provocateurs to infiltrate these organizations. One of the stated purposes of this program was to "neutralize" Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Elijah Muhammad, in order to prevent the emergence, in the government’s terms, of a “Black Messiah” who would have the potential of uniting and leading a mass organization of Black Americans in their struggle for freedom and economic equality.

In the ensuing years, a “second assassination” of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King has been inflicted through the attempt to distort what they really stood for in their last years. This is a process that Lenin, himself, described in the opening to his book “State and Revolution:”

“....what in the course of history, has happened repeatedly to the theories of revolutionary thinkers and leaders of oppressed classes fighting for emancipation.[During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonize them, so to say, and to hallow their names to a certain extent for the "consolation" of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping the latter, while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarizing it.”

As one who was politically active at that time, I believe that it is important to tell the truth about Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. To help keep their ideas alive and prevent them from being reduced to “harmless icons”.

I witnessed Malcolm X’s assassination at the Audubon Ballroom, on Feb. 21, 1965. I am writing with the benefit of first-hand knowledge of what took place that day, what Malcolm X stood for at the time of his death, and the hope for the future that inspired all who heard or knew the man. I remember the mass media reflecting their class hatred of Malcolm X, gloating and cheering his assassination. I also remember the response to the death of Malcolm X by the tens of thousands of mourners in Harlem, who, for several days, went to view his casket. And I remember the eulogy by Ossie Davis that silenced the hyenas of the press when he said: “He was our prince, our Black shinning prince.”

In spite of all of the attacks by the mass media, Malcolm X has grown more and more popular as a martyred leader of his people and an uncompromising advocate of human rights and freedom.

Malcolm X’s last year

In 1991, at the time Spike Lee's biographical movie on Malcolm X was due to be released, several books were written that attempted to obscure Malcolm’s political evolution during his last year. Two such books were “Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America,” by Bruce Perry and “Malcolm X: The Assassination," by Michael Friedly. In my opinion, these books were a “second assassination” of Malcolm X. Unfortunately, Spike Lee's movie “Malcolm X” also downplayed Malcolm's evolution during his last year.

Both books were written in order to reaffirm the government’s position to put sole blame on the NOI for the assassination. Both books likewise discounted any possibility of government complicity or motive in the assassination. Both deny the evolution of his thinking, which reflected his revolutionary development in the last year of his life. Both authors go out of their way to provide a distorted version of events that allows those who were opposed to or denied what Malcolm was becoming in his last year to maintain that he was never a threat to the capitalist status quo. Therefore, the logic is inferred, why would the government want him dead? Such a line of argument is consciously advanced to make it seem that it was only the NOI who had a motive to kill Malcolm and cover up the role of the government in his assassination.

Moreover, the books by Friedly and Perry were also polemics against two excellent books written by George Breitman: “The Last Year of Malcolm X: The Evolution of a Revolutionary” and “The Assassination of Malcolm X.” Breitman wrote “The Last Year of Malcolm X” to cover the period of life that is absent from the autobiography that Malcolm co-authored with Alex Haley. Breitman also hoped to clear up any misconceptions that Alex Haley, who disagreed with Malcolm's ideas as they were developing, had introduced into the epilogue of the autobiography. Breitman's book was based on Malcolm's speeches and statements during his last year alive and his collaboration with the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). If one reads Malcolm X’s speeches, it is clear that Breitman's book is a very accurate statement of Malcolm X's political development and evolution.

Who had the biggest motive? Uncle Sam

In his last year, Malcolm X came to the conclusion that it was impossible for African Americans to be integrated into this system because racism was too profitable and was an integral part of capitalism.

His words on the world-wide oppression of non-whites by white Europeans were very similar to what Karl Marx wrote on how the original capitalist fortunes were amassed. In "Capital," Volume One, Part VIII, Chapter 31, (the) “Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist" Marx wrote:

…The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement, and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalized the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.

“…If money…comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek, capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.

Malcolm X was the first mass leader in the United States, to oppose the war in Vietnam and to identify the oppression of African Americans in this country with the struggles of the oppressed throughout the world.

In all probability, Malcolm X would have spoken at the first mass demonstration against the Vietnam War in 1965. His powerful oratory alone, as well as his standing among inner-city Blacks, would have given the Vietnam Antiwar Movement a far different character and the history of that period would have been greatly changed.

This writer had the opportunity to hear Malcolm X speak at meetings in Harlem at the Audubon Ballroom and elsewhere. His power as an orator was in his ability to make complex ideas simple and clear. He was not a demagogue. His speeches were always an appeal to reason.

One example of his oratorical skill was when he spoke at an organizing rally for Hospital Workers Local 1199 in New York City in 1962. The following is a famous quote from that speech:

“The hospital strikers have demonstrated that you don't get a job done unless you show the Man you're not afraid…If you're not willing to pay that price, then you don't deserve the rewards or benefits that go along with it.”

He gave the best speech at the rally, and when he finished speaking all of the workers—Black, white, and Puerto Rican—cheered wildly. The response was the same whether he spoke in Harlem or at Oxford University in England.

Malcolm X viewed the struggle of African Americans as an economic and social struggle for human rights and not limited to just a struggle for civil rights. He identified with the Colonial Revolution, raging at that time in Africa and throughout the world, including the struggle of the Vietnamese people and the Cuban revolution. He had met with Che Guevara and the Cuban delegation to the United Nations in December 1964, and a firm bond was established between them.

Contrary to Friedly’s and Perry’s assertions, Malcolm had become a very real threat to the very foundations of capitalism in the United States. The truth is that the United States government had a very good motive for the assassination.

Prior to his assassination, Malcolm X told me and Clifton DeBerry, the presidential candidate of the Socialist Workers Party in 1964, that he hoped to live long enough to build a viable organization based on his current ideas, so that he would be more dangerous to the system dead than alive. Unfortunately, he did not have time to build the new organization that he had envisioned.

What happened at the Audubon Ballroom?

In his book,"The Assassination of Malcolm X", George Breitman points out that the first accounts of the assassination in the New York City newspapers reported that two people were caught by the crowd and saved by the police. But later, both the press and the police reported that only one person (Talmadge Hayer) had been caught by the crowd. No explanation has ever been given for the change in the story.

The question remains to this day: What happened to the second man? Why wasn't he brought to trial? The first police report stated that five men were involved in the assassination; yet only three were accused and convicted at the trial.

Both Perry and Friedly allege that the newspapers made a normal journalistic mistake. But Breitman puts forward the probability that the second man was an undercover agent who was quietly released.

There is no doubt that the police had plainclothes officials in the audience. Later, as a witness to the assassination, I was questioned at the Harlem police headquarters. I recognized a man there—obviously a cop with free run of the office—who I saw sitting in the first row at the Audubon Ballroom where Hayer said his accomplices were sitting. Perry's book basically supports the official police version of the assassination. It ignores strong evidence that it would have been virtually impossible for only three people to have carried out the assassination.

Perry also ignores Hayer’s affidavit that the two other people convicted with him, Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson—who were both members of the NOI—were not even present at the meeting when Malcolm was killed.

(When I was called before the Grand Jury on the assassination of Malcolm X, James Shabazz, Malcolm’s primary assistant, also told me that Butler and Johnson were well known and confirmed that they were not at the meeting nor would they have been allowed to enter the meeting.)

Friedly's book is a more sophisticated cover up. The book puts the blame solely on the NOI while, at the same time, criticizing the police investigation. It is based on Hayer’s confessions at the trial and at a later parole hearing.

Friedly’s and Hayer’s version is that five members of the NOI carried out the assassination—three people doing the shooting up front and two people creating a diversion prior to the shooting and setting off a smoke bomb in the back of the room.

Hayer’s version of the logistics corresponds with my own impressions at the scene. Contrary to Friedly's contention, however, the confession by Hayer only reinforces the probable existence of a second man caught by the crowd. Hayer explains that at the time that he was shot and caught by the crowd he could see one of his accomplices running ahead of him.

I was told by Malcolm’s guards when I got outside the Audubon Ballroom that two people were caught by the crowd at the same time and that one was taken to the hospital and the other taken into custody. Hayer was taken to the hospital and then booked. It is likely that the second man caught was the one running ahead of Hayer and quite possibly an agent.

But there is one glaring error in Hayer’s statement. He stated that the five assassins cased one of Malcolm's meetings at the Audubon Ballroom in the winter of 1964-65 and concluded that they would have a good chance to escape. This is far from probable.

At these meetings there were normally 30 to 50 uniformed cops, both inside and outside the building, stationed at all the exits. Escape would not have been easy. The white press and I were usually seated in the front row. On that day, however, one of Malcolm’s bodyguards, who later came forward as a police informer in a trial of the Black Panthers, came up to me as I was going to my usual seat, and told me that I would not be seated there today and escorted me to another seat on the other side of the room. The assassins then sat in these seats.

At the meeting where Malcolm was assassinated, the police were conspicuous by their complete absence—even though they knew that an assassination attempt was imminent. In order to plan Malcolm X's death, the conspirators would have needed to know and be confident that the cops were not going to be there on that day. They would also have to know that the press would be seated in a different place.

Perry and Friedly assert that the police agreed to Malcolm's request not to have police protection. However, when the police first spoke of their “agreement,” Malcolm's wife, Betty Shabaaz, stated that it was a lie that Malcolm had made the request.

Both Perry and Friedly discount any possible disruption operations by the FBI, the CIA or the New York City Police. But in a documentary aired in 1992 on Malcolm X and narrated by Dan Rather on CBS television, the FBI is shown to have acted as agent provocateurs. For example, the FBI sent provocative letters to the NOI and forged Malcolm's signature to the letters.

Dan Rather further revealed that the CBS television crew had not been allowed access to over 45,000 pages of documents on Malcolm X that remain in the files of the CIA and FBI.

“The Judas Factor”

In dramatic contrast to Perry’s and Friedly’s conclusions about Malcolm X's assassination, is a book by Washington Post staff writer Karl Evanzz titled, "The Judas Factor” (Thunder's Mouth Press, New York, 1992. 389 pp., $22.95).

In this book, Evanzz documents how the intelligence community—the CIA, the FBI, and the New York Police Bureau of Special Services (BOSSI)—through the use of agents provocateurs and infiltrators—set the stage for the assassination of Malcolm X. It outlines the motives for their actions.

Evanzz spent 15 years researching over 300,000 pages of declassified FBI and CIA documents. In the introduction to the book, Evanzz writes: “After analyzing these resources, I am convinced that Louis E. Lomax, an industrious African-American journalist who befriended Malcolm X in the late 1950’s, had practically solved the riddle of his assassination.” Lomax, who died in a mysterious automobile accident while shooting a film in Los Angeles about the assassination, believed that Malcolm X was betrayed by a former friend who reportedly had ties to the intelligence community. Evanzz wrote: “In 1968, Lomax called the suspect ‘Judas.’ This, then, is the story of ‘The Judas Factor.’”

There are two major themes in the book: One is the Judas Factor and the other is the concern of the FBI and the CIA over Malcolm X's success in linking the struggle of African Americans with the national liberation struggles in Africa and throughout the Third World.

Evanzz documents that Ahmed Ben Bella, the leader of the Algerian revolution, had invited Malcolm X—along with Che Guevara and other leaders of independence movements—to a special conference in Bandung, scheduled to begin on March 3, 1965.

Malcolm X had also been able to get Ethiopia and Liberia to include human rights violations against African Americans with their petition on South African human rights violations before the International Court of Justice at The Hague. The petition was scheduled to be heard on March 12, 1965.

Part of the "Judas Factor" was the FBI's attempts to "neutralize" Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Elijah Muhammad. Evanzz provides concrete evidence that Martin Luther King was going to support Malcolm X in his project to bring the struggle of Black human rights before the United Nations and had begun to also identify with the struggles for human rights in Africa.

In light of the CIA’s policies to "neutralize" opponents of the U.S. government's political and covert activities in Africa, Evanzz explains that it was necessary to "neutralize" Malcolm X prior to the Bandung conference.

Malcolm X was assassinated on February, 21, 1965, a week and a half before the conference was to take place. Soon after the assassination, several African government officials who had been working with Malcolm X were also assassinated and the Ben Bella government in Algeria was overthrown in June 1965.

From his research into FBI files, Evanzz was able to prove that the FBI had a high-level informant in the NOI. Thus, the FBI was clearly in a position to carry out a campaign to fan the flames of discontent among rising leaders of the Nation and to disrupt the organization's activities.

The FBI memos indicate that they maneuvered within the NOI to keep their informant in the best possible leadership position to carry out their covert activities. From the very day that Malcolm X split from the NOI, the FBI worked on a day-to-day basis with BOSSI and the CIA to infiltrate and disrupt his activities. William Sullivan (subsequently of Watergate fame) was the FBI agent in over-all charge of both the infiltration of the NOI and Malcolm's organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU).

It is clear from the book that a coordinated effort was carried out between all government spy agencies to widen the split between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, to increase tensions between their organizations, and to undermine their support among African Americans. It is also safe to assume that agents, informants, and provocateurs from these different agencies were sent into the NOI and Malcolm X’s organizations and that these agents were also present at the Audubon Ballroom when Malcolm X was assassinated.

Some of Evanzz's research was based on books about the NOI by Louis Lomax. Evanzz found in the FBI files a script for a movie on the assassination of Malcolm X, which Lomax was working on at the time of his death. (He died in a car accident caused by brake failure.)

Evanzz provides circumstantial evidence that John Ali, a former friend of Malcolm X who became a national secretary of the NOI, was more than likely an FBI agent/informer and hence the “Judas Factor.” In fact, Evanzz provides quotes from Malcolm X to Lomax indicating that Malcolm X blamed John Ali for his expulsion from the Nation of Islam.

The most important aspect, however, is not whether Ali was the high-level agent, but the fact that the FBI did indeed have a high-level person in the Nation in their employ. Overall, the main value of the book is that all of the spy agencies in the United States were deeply involved as infiltrators and agent provocateurs ("Judas Factors") to set the stage for Malcolm X's assassination.

The evidence provided by the book is irrefutable proof that the government had the motive, the ability and the opportunity, through its “Cointelpro” spy operations, to orchestrate his assassination. It is now time to open up all the files of the CIA and the FBI—as well as the thousands of pages of files of the New York City Police Department—so that the truth about the assassination of Malcolm X can be exposed.

Why Martin Luther King became a target

From the time of the Martin Luther King assassination, the many inconsistencies in the government’s assertion that James Earl Ray was the sole assassin were well publicized.

When the “Cointelpro” disruption operations of the government were exposed, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Committee on Assassinations, under pressure from these exposures and the civil rights movement, convened an "investigation" in 1979 with the purpose to reconfirm the government’s version of the murder.

Immediately after it released the report, affirming that Ray was the lone assassin, this committee sealed all of the evidence it had in its possession for 50 years (until 2029). Thus, we were left with nothing but the “integrity” of the Senators to justify their conclusions rather than the facts. The only logical reason to keep the files secret is to protect the guilty.

Recently, however, new facts on King’s assassination have come to light. On Dec. 8, 1999, a jury awarded Coretta Scott King and her family $100 in damages resulting from a conspiracy to murder her late husband. The trial was initiated by the admission of Lloyd Jowers on national TV in 1993 that he had hired King's assassin as a favor to an underworld figure who was a friend.

At the conclusion of the trial, Dexter King, Dr. King's son, said, “After today, we don't want questions like, ‘Do you believe James Earl Ray killed your father?’ I've been hearing that all my life. No, I don't, and this is the end of it. This was the most incredible cover-up of the century, and now it has been exposed. Now we can finally move on with our lives."

The King family, along with their attorney, William Pepper, plan to lobby historians and elected officials to get the official record of the assassination changed.

There have always been many unanswered questions about the assassination of Martin Luther King. From the beginning it has been clear that the FBI was involved to one degree or another. The FBI “leaked” the information to the Memphis, Tenn., press that King was going to be staying at a “white hotel” a couple of days prior to his arrival in the city. This forced King to stay at the less secure Lorraine Motel.

The question remains: Why would the government be part of the conspiracy against King? Why would they want him dead?

A key to understanding the government’s motive is that Martin Luther King had a different political perspective at the time of his death than when he made his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. His final speeches and actions reveal that he, like Malcolm X, had begun to view the struggle for equality as an economic struggle and the capitalist economic system as the problem.

At at speech given at Stanford University in April 1967—one year before his death—titled the “The Other America,” King addressed the problem of the rich and the poor in this country. Instead of his “dream,” he talked about the nightmare of the economic conditions suffered by Blacks.

He alluded to “work-starved men searching for jobs that did not exist,” about the Black population living on a “lonely island of poverty surrounded by an ocean of material prosperity,” and about living in a “triple ghetto of race, poverty, and human misery.”

He explained that after World War II, the unemployment rate of Blacks and whites was equal and that in the years between then and 1967, Black unemployment had become double the rate for white workers. He also spoke about how Black workers made half the wages of white workers.

From his experience when he started his campaign for equality in Chicago and elsewhere in the North, King concluded in this speech that to deal with this problem of the “Two Americas” was “much more difficult than to get rid of legal segregation.” He pointed out that the northern liberals, who had given moral and financial support to the struggle against Jim Crow in the South, would not give such support to the efforts to end economic segregation.

He also polemicized against the concept that “people should pick themselves up by their own bootstraps.” In the course of explaining the obstacles that Blacks faced coming into this country that Europeans did not have, he stated:

It is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man to pick himself up by his own bootstraps. Black people, he said, were impoverished aliens in their own land.

In this speech King also opposed the war in Vietnam. He criticized the government for spending hundreds of millions of dollars for war and not for equality. He stated his goal “to organize and mobilize forces to fight for economic equality.”

In his last letter, requesting support for the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” in 1968 he wrote:

It was obdurate government callousness to misery that first stoked the flames of rage and frustration. With unemployment a scourge in Negro ghettos, the government still tinkers with half-hearted measures, refuses still to become an employer of last resort. It asks the business community to solve the problems as though its past failures qualified it for success.

He also stated this outlook at the SCLC Convention of Aug. 1967:

We've got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life's marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. Who owns this oil? ... Who owns the iron ore?...Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two-thirds water?

In another major speech in 1967, King also stated the course that he was planning to take in the fight for economic equality:

There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American citizen whether he be a hospital worker, laundry worker, maid, or day laborer.

There is nothing except shortsightedness to prevent us from guaranteeing an annual minimum—and livable—income for every American family. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities…

The coalition of an energized section of labor, Negroes, unemployed, and welfare recipients may be the source of power that reshapes economic relationships and ushers in a breakthrough to a new level of social reform.

The total elimination of poverty, now a practical responsibility, the reality of equality in race relations and other profound structural changes in society may well begin here.

These words have even more meaning in today's world. At that time, the stock market was below 1000 points. Today it is above 10,000 points, and yet living conditions for millions of African Americans are still lower than after World War II.

At the time of their assassinations, both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were embarking on a course in opposition to the capitalist system. It is clear from reading and listening to their final speeches that they had both evolved to similar conclusions of capitalism’s role in the maintenance of racism. That is why they were “neutralized.”

Unlike Malcolm X, who never got the opportunity to act upon his convictions, Martin Luther King was organizing a movement to obtain his stated goals when he was assassinated in Memphis. He was in Memphis to build “the coalition of an energized section of labor, Negroes, unemployed, and welfare recipients” in support of municipal garbage workers on strike.

If such a force had been launched, the whole power of the antiwar and civil rights movement in the 1960’s could have transformed the labor movement and become “the source of power that reshapes economic relationships and ushers in a breakthrough to a new level of social reform.”

Such a coalition, as King envisioned it 33 years ago, is needed today. The best tribute to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X would be to begin anew to build a movement based on the ideas and the concepts that they had developed at the time of their untimely deaths.





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