Two of the men found guilty in 1966, Muhammad A. Aziz and Khalil Islam (formerly Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson) have now been acquitted. Aziz, 83, was released on probation in 1985, while Islam, who was released in 1987, died in 2009 at the age of 74.
According to The New York Times, the 22-month-long investigation – conducted jointly by the Manhattan DA’s office and lawyers for Aziz and Islam – revealed that after Malcolm X’s killing, the FBI and the New York Police Department withheld evidence that would likely have led a jury to find the accused innocent. ,
Prosecutor notes show they failed to disclose that undercover officers were present at the time of the shooting. Police files also showed a local reporter being called in the morning where the shooting indicated that Malcolm X would be killed. Investigators also interviewed a living witness who supported an alibi for Aziz. Overall, the Times reported, the re-examination found that if this additional material had been shown to a jury, it could very well have led to acquittals.
These exemptions are particularly relevant now, not only because they represent yet another case of black defendants receiving unfair treatment before the judiciary, but because they reformulate history at a time when the failures of this system continue to resonate through national politics in USA.
Knowing the fuller truth about his death allows us to see Malcolm X in a new light. Malcolm’s activism sharpened racial differences in the criminal justice system from first-hand personal experiences. Malcolm X represents one of the most important black working class activists and organizers in American history. It is important that Malcolm became an avid captive rights activist.
These new revelations about the corrupt investigation of his death help us to better understand why Malcolm in life emerged as a relentless critic of the judicial system’s mistreatment of black America. A former prisoner himself – who became a religious leader, political organizer and public intellectual – used Malcolm’s Ministry of Nation of Islam (NOI) to restore the lost promise of dozens of black men and women in post-war America.
Malcolm’s greatest legacy is still his ability to speak the truth to power. His activism resonates across generations and can be seen in the Black Lives Matter movement as well as efforts to end penal systems by investing in historically disadvantaged people.
This astonishing fact calls into question the integrity of some of the fundamental institutions of our democracy. The right to a fair trial, presumption of innocence, and an investigation led by ethical servants in public trust is sacred – but in large parts of this nation, sadly absent then – and for some now.
The struggle for black dignity and citizenship, to which Malcolm dedicated his entire life, continues. The lawyers and staff of the Innocence Project, the filmmakers and the team behind “Who Killed Malcolm X?” documentary, the scientific work of the late historian Manning Marable, the late journalist Les Payne and Tamara Payne all contributed to this result.
For decades, learned activists and members of society have spoken out against the imprisonment of Aziz and Islam as a gross violation of justice. It was this and probably much more.
And despite the welcome results of these decades of work and nearly two years of investigation on top of that, we still have more questions than answers when it comes to Malcolm X’s assassination. Why did law enforcement withhold evidence to convict Aziz and Islam? What role did the FBI and NYPD play? Why did it take 56 years to persuade Manhattan DA’s office to re-examine?
Malcolm X’s legacy continues to haunt the US criminal justice system in ways that are both sober and hopeful. The exemptions of Aziz and Islam represent a continuation of Malcolm’s struggle. Malcolm called America in so many ways against the racial and political bill that it continues to experience. The lawsuits against the white men accused of killing Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and against Kyle Rittenhouse in Wisconsin shed light on both how far we have come since the civil rights era and the considerable distance we have to travel to achieve racism under law, not just in theory, but in practice.