Fifty years ago this week, a crowd filed into Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom on a Sunday afternoon. The Audubon was a multi-purpose building that hosted a variety of events, including festivals, movie screenings, and religious services. But today, however, it was being utilized for another, different type of event entirely. The crowd had gathered to attend a meeting of the newly formed Organization of African American Unity, with its keynote speaker one of the most controversial and polarizing figures in America: El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, more commonly known as Malcolm X.
As he walked up to the podium, Malcolm X was in the last in a series of transformations occurring at irregular intervals throughout his life. Almost before he could begin his talk, a commotion of the sort witnessed every day, in every inner city across America took place in the audience. Two men confronted one another, one accusing the other of reaching into his pocket. As heads swiveled backwards and bodyguards moved to quash the disturbance, Malcolm urged the crowd to maintain its cool. But this was just a diversion to cover for the real event about to transpire.
A life of transformation
Malcolm X had undergone several transformations since his birth as Malcolm Little in Omaha, Ne., in 1925. Brought up in the Midwest before transitioning to the East Coast, he embarked upon a career as a petty criminal in New York’s Harlem and Boston, before receiving a burglary conviction and being incarcerated in the Massachusetts penal system in 1946.
While serving time, the previously amoral felon came under the influence of the Nation of Islam (NOI), an offshoot of the Muslim faith catering to African Americans, especially those serving prison sentences and marginalized from the rest of society. Through the tutelage of his fellow inmates, and particularly NOI leader Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm rekindled his interest in scholastic pursuits, he said had been stymied by the racist educational systems of his youth, and he set out on the first in a series of personal transformations, which would be the hallmark of his life.
Upon his release in 1952, Malcolm fully embraced the Black Muslims (the label under which the NOI was widely known, and abandoned his “slave name” of Little for the surname “X.” This represented the true, African name lost in the slave migration across the Atlantic to the New World, a name lost in the passage of time.
Malcolm X rose rapidly up the ranks of the NOI, leading or establishing new Mosques (Islamic temples of worship) throughout the East and Midwest. His physical presence and fiery oratorical skills made him the perfect spokesperson for the less than charismatic and retiring Muhammad, who preferred to lead from his Chicago mansion.
In his position as Muhammad’s chief lieutenant, Malcolm became the public “face” of the Nation of Islam. He traversed the continent to spread the word for the “Messenger” (a common designation of reference for Elijah). In the course of his ministry, he made several trips to Southern California, where he struck a cord among the disenfranchised, especially young Black men who found no solace in the sermons delivered from the pulpits of traditional Christian congregations that served the inner cities.
Links to Cali
Now a bon-a-fide academic and scholar, Ernie Smith, Ph.D., was just an apolitical college student in 1960 when he wandered into an auditorium at Los Angeles City College (LACC). Malcolm X was there to debate Ed Warren, head of the Watts chapter of the NAACP on the subject “should we integrate or should we separate.”
Smith, however, had a more primal agenda at the time; he was motivated by the opportunity to “get at them lil’ ole sistas” which were the primary focus for a viral inner-city youth of his age group.
On this particular day, the object of his amorous intent was attending the debate, and he followed in her wake. In the process, he came under the spell of this upstart minister.
Los Angeles, and nearby environs during those days was a hotbed of political discourse, with legions of social consciousness seekers of various cliques. Among them were what Smith termed “old head Black nationalists,” just out of prison, and open to the possibilities developing in the community while they were locked up; “do-rag” brothers (so named for the cloths they wore to keep their chemically straightened hair in place while they slept; “sky pilots” open to any rhetoric no matter how far fetched; and “pork chop” nationalists, eager to experience new and alternative lifestyles, but not quite ready to abandon potentially destructive habits cultivated over a lifetime.
Smith soon became an acquaintance and conversational partner with the minister from New York, as he spread his faith westward, and became a regular visitor to the newly established mosque at Jefferson Boulevard and Normandie Avenue (later moved to 55th Street and Broadway).
Among the notables who frequented the area around the Mosque were Donald Warden (who later became Khalid al-Mansour) later a mentor to Black Panther founders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in the Bay Area; and Ron Everett (later Maulana Karenga) creator of the Pan African holiday Kwanzaa and founder of the cultural and political entity the US Organization.
During these trips, Malcolm often took his meals at a Muslim restaurant at 51st and Main streets, where he proved to be an apt mentor to young Smith. Malcolm provided Smith a path to his future career on the day when he informed his young charge that “English wasn’t our language.”
This action set Smith on an academic path that led to his becoming a linguistics professor and a proponent of the emerging field of Ebonics.
Eventually he finished his doctorate degree at UC Irvine. The title of his dissertation was “The Evolution and the Continuing Presence of the African Oral Tradition in Black America.”
Smith acknowledges Malcolm’s ability to “break things down for a street n—-r,” but emphasizes this skill was abetted by a scholarly approach to research and distributed information relevant to the masses to whom he preached.
The late 1950s and early 1960s were an especially trying time between capitalist countries and developing nations that fell under the mantel of “the Third Word” (a term attributed to French President Charles De Gaulle). World War II had severely damaged the infrastructure of most European countries, stripping them of finances and other resources used to keep their former colonies in line. These former colonies, in turn, were caught up in the push for independence, particularly on the African continent.
Malcolm’s status as spokesperson for the NOI meant regular trips throughout the United States, but his base in New York and its close proximity to the United Nations facilitated his interaction with all the various heads of state, including those not necessarily in sync with American foreign policy.
As the 1960s progressed, and Malcolm had his well-publicized split with Elijah Muhammad and the Nation, this caused his list of enemies to grow. Meanwhile, his newly formed OAAU had forged a partnership with the corresponding Organization of African Unity (OAU) in New York, giving him additional visibility. His new friends in the international community funded his increasingly frequent trips abroad, where they treated him as the de facto leader of the African American community.
Additionally, he regularly criticized America in the foreign media, especially its racial policies.
All of this meant a growing list of adversaries in the diplomatic and intelligence circles of Washington, D.C., as well as within the cadre of his former allies among the Nation of Islam faithful.
Activist and nonviolence pioneer Rev. James Lawson recalled that every civil rights activist of note during this era had a government operative shadowing his or her every move. Compared to the NOI, and Malcolm, even after his break with the group, the overly conservative churchmen like Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy were small fish.
In this environment, it is likely that Muslims and those that followed Malcolm after his split were saturated with informants and/or actual police officials. His top aide and head of security (even a house mate for a period of time), John X Ali, was later revealed to be an F.B.I. agent. Today, decades after Malcolm’s demise, it is almost certain that scores of other surveillance people, from a variety of law enforcement or intelligence organizations were in place during the last years of his life, as evidenced by court transcripts and legal proceedings since then.
Perhaps a week before he was gunned down in the Audubon Auditorium, Malcolm X’s home in the borough of Queens was fire bombed. Another, lesser known incident happened during his overseas travels the previous summer.
One night in Cairo, Egypt, in July of 19674, he and a colleague, civil rights attorney Milton Henry, settled down to dinner in a restaurant adjacent to their hotel. Moments later he was hospitalized, and had his stomach pumped due to food poisoning.
Hoodlum, to convict, to activist, to international statesman, to martyr
“I know, too, that I could suddenly die at the hands of some White racists. Or I could die at the hands of some Negro hired by the White man. Or it could be some brainwashed Negro acting on his own idea that by eliminating me, he would be helping out the White man, because I talk about the White man the way I do.”
—from the pages of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X”
On the day of his death, local police were curiously absent from the Audubon in the moments leading up to Malcolm’s speech. Normally at every sizable gathering where the minister was scheduled to appear, a contingent of police materialized to shadow his movements. On this day, any official police presence was on the fringe of the crime scene, a fact confirmed by witnesses.
As he fell away from the podium and the assassin’s gunfire, one of the first people to reach the minister was one Gene Roberts, who tried reviving him via mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Years later Roberts was revealed to be part of the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) Bureau of Special Services (BOSS), a division tasked with scrutiny of political dissidents. Roberts was also among the charter members of Malcolm’s OAAU.
This episode had an eerie echo years later, on the day Martin Luther King was shot. One of the first to arrive on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel was one Marrell McCollough, working undercover for the Memphis Police, and later an employee of the Central Intelligence Agency. Like Roberts, he attempted to provide first aid.
Across Black America, the news of Malcolm’s death hit certain segments of the population like the bullets and shotgun pellets that tore through the activist’s torso. For Smith, the impact of his death was compounded by the identity of his assailants.
“It wasn’t no ‘White Devils’ who came up in the Audubon audience to kill that man!”
An interesting aside to episodes of skullduggery and nefarious “black ops” allegedly committed by the government against Malcolm was that participants often show up as involved parties in two or more operations. Roberts, who figured prominently in the execution of Malcolm X, turned up again in 1969 during the trial of the “Black Panther 21,” in which Afeni Shakur (mother of Rap legend Tupac Shakur) and others were charged with conspiracy to bomb various buildings in the New York area.
His “handler” in the NYPD, Anthony Ulasewicz was among the first on the scene at Chappaquiddick Island, Mass., in 1969 when Edward M. Kennedy had the tragic automobile accident that left campaign staffer Mary Jo Kopechne dead and effectively dashed the senator’s quest for the presidency. In 1972, Ulasewicz was involved in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal that toppled the presidency of Richard M. Nixon. He later wrote a book chronicling his career titled “The President’s Private Eye: The Journey of Detective Tony U. from N.Y.P.D. to the Nixon White House,” (Macsam Publishing, 1990).
Like the murders of King, John F. and Robert F. Kennedy, and others, any inquiries or investigations wind up raising more questions than providing answers. Two of the men convicted of killing Malcolm served years in prison before it was confirmed that it was virtually impossible for them to be in the building where the minister was killed. One, then known as Thomas 15X Johnson, was actually at home in bed suffering from the ravages of arthritis at his home in the Bronx.
The one man accepted as definitely one of the shooters, Thomas Hagan, aka Talmadge Hayer, aka Mujahid Abdul Halim, has never been absolutely clear about who abetted him.
Three parties figure prominently in this scenario. Government entities include the CIA, the FBI, and the NYPD (other, unnamed agencies could conceivably be connected). Elements of the NOI might certainly have been motivated by a sense of betrayal in the wake of Malcolm X’s desertion from their ranks. Corporate interests almost certainly were troubled because Malcolm’s correspondence with African leaders would complicate their efforts to tap into the natural resources so essential to their continued profit margins.
The most likely answer points to collusion between at least two opposing parties.