Nearly 60 years after the shocking assassination of civil rights leader Malcolm X, a new development in the investigation into his murder has led to the exoneration of two of the men previously convicted of the harrowing crime.
In 1965, Malcolm X appeared at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem to address the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Before he could begin speaking, a commotion erupted in the crowd, followed by three men rushing the stage; one was armed with a shotgun, and the other two were carrying semi-automatic handguns. Malcolm X was fatally wounded in the scuffle, succumbing to his injuries at a local hospital later that day. Talmadge X Hayer, Muhammad A. Aziz, and Khalil Islam were identified as the assailants.
Hayer confessed to the crime, later revealing in a 1977 statement that he had been part of an assassination plot put together as revenge for Malcolm X’s constant critique of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. Aziz and Islam claimed that they were innocent, but they were still convicted of murder in March 1966 and sentenced to 20 years to life in prison alongside Hayer.
However, the fidelity of the investigation into Malcolm X’s death was highly debated, with many believing that the court was discriminating against the suspects. A documentary of the civil rights icon’s death launched a re-investigation into the case. In it, experts and activists alike argued that the FBI and NYPD’s evidence of Aziz and Islam's guilt was shaky at best, asserting that the harsh sentencing was a clear outcome of the rampant anti-Blackness of the time. The 22-month-long investigation that followed revealed important evidence that could have exonerated the pair had been withheld, including Hayer’s own admission that the men had not been part of the deadly scheme.
Today, Aziz and Islam have been officially exonerated for the murder of Malcolm X, but only after serving a combined 42 years behind bars in some of New York state's worst facilities as well as carrying the public shame of being falsely branded the murderers of one of the most important leaders in Black history. Legal counsel for the men stressed that the corrupt investigation had “horrific, torturous and unconscionable” consequences that could never be undone.
“This wasn’t a mere oversight,” said one defense lawyer for Aziz and Islam. “This was a product of extreme and gross official misconduct.”