The killing of Malcolm X on Feb. 21, 1965, was one of the most important yet largely misunderstood events of the American civil rights movement. On that day, a Sunday, Malcolm X took to the stage of the Audubon Ballroom in order to make a speech at a site often used for civic meetings in Harlem.
His wife, Betty Shabazz, and their four children Attallah, Qubilah, Ilyasah, and Gamilah were seated in the crowd, watching a beloved husband and father on the stage. Shabazz was pregnant with twin daughters.
Unfortunately, Thomas Hagan interrupted the event and shot Malcolm X multiple times on that stage, and the well-known activist died in front of a large shocked and panicked audience. That was Hagan’s argument — the public killing of a man he had come to despise.
Just one week earlier on Valentine’s Day, in Detroit, Malcolm X had provided an ominous intro to his remarks by commenting on the constant threats and intimidation he was facing as someone trying to leave the Nation of Islam:
It isn’t something that made me lose confidence in what I am doing, because my wife understands and I have children from this size on down, and even in their young age they understand. I think they would rather have a father or brother or whatever the situation may be who will take a stand in the face of any kind of reaction from narrow-minded people rather than to compromise and later on have to grow up in shame and in disgrace.
So I just ask you to excuse my appearance. I don’t normally come out in front of people without a shirt and a tie. I guess that’s somewhat a holdover from the ‘Black Muslim’ movement, which I was in. That’s one of the good aspects of that movement. It teaches you to be very careful and conscious of how you look, which is a positive contribution on their part. But that positive contribution on their part is greatly offset by too many other liabilities.
Hagan was one of the men convicted of killing Malcolm X that fateful day in 1965. He explained the dangerous mindset that led to the assassination:
Hagan, as a 22-year-old Nation of Islam member, had been enraged by Malcolm X’s recent criticism of the group. His Afro-pessimist paradigm led him to violence as a solution. Malcolm X had since 1964 been trying to depart politely from the segregationist advocacy of the Nation of Islam. Understanding why Malcolm X was killed today is important to most of our current controversies regarding race and essential notions of Black History Month.
The common misconception today is that Malcolm X was killed because he was too provocative and dangerous to the white community. Malcolm X hats and fashion wear are viewed as a way of making a militant statement, in contrast to centrist approaches to racial questions. The more cynical intuitions of the Black Power movement, led by Stokely Carmichael, encouraged the rise of groups such as the Black Liberation Army and arguments that violence would succeed more than the archaic notions of nonviolence offered by men such as Martin Luther King.
This kind of misguided thinking leads contemporary Afro-pessimists such as Micah Johnson to lash out violently, as he did in the summer of 2016 when he killed five Dallas police officers who were protecting a civil rights protest against police violence against black men.
Malcolm X’s misunderstood legacy promotes a false idea that militancy is what is missing in racial progress for America today. In reality, the opposite is the case. The dramatic progress made by the American civil rights movement between 1942 and 1967 is empirically measurable with dramatic reductions in black poverty, rates of the murder of black males, and reductions in black unemployment rates.
After seeing the racially integrated reality of Islamic hajj in Mecca, Malcolm X came to realize that the prosegregation vision of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad was untrue. His last living speech underscored his new commitment to integration and a broader alliance with his former rivals of the American civil rights movement. Civil rights leader Bayard Rustin described the incredible productive possibilities that were cut short by his assassination:
‘They won’t let me turn the corner!’ he once exclaimed. ‘I’m caught in a trap!’
Malcolm was moving toward the mainstream of the civil rights movement when his life was cut short, but he still had quite a way to go. His anti-Semitic comments are a symptom of this malaise. Had he been able to ‘turn the corner,’ he would have made an enormous contribution to the struggle for equal rights … Behind the grim visage on television that upset so many white Americans there was a compassionate and often gentle man with a sense of humor. A testament to his personal honesty was that he died broke and money had to be raised for his funeral and family.
The assassination of Malcolm X 55 years ago should not be a rallying cry for militancy, anger, or any form of neosegregationism. We should all honor X’s intention at the time he died: to seek a more cooperative alliance with those endorsing conversations rather than confrontations.
This is Hagan’s advice to us all today. Incredibly, when he was released from prison in 2010, it was located on a Malcolm X Boulevard.
Malcolm X did challenge the original civil rights movement in his early advocacy, but his efforts to cooperate and join the movement in 1964 and 1965 should serve today as an inspiration for meaningful dialogue on race. America has often made progress on racial questions when this constructive rhetorical mode is engaged. On this anniversary, we should live out that untapped potential in the life of Malcolm X.