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 exonerated. Aziz, who is 83, was paroled 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 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 made a jury find the defendants not guilty.
Prosecutors’ notes indicate they failed to disclose that undercover officers were present at the time of the shooting. Police department files also showed that a local reporter got a call the morning of the shooting indicating that Malcolm X would be killed. Investigators also interviewed a living witness who backed up an alibi for Aziz. Overall, the Times reported, the reinvestigation found that had this additional material been shown to a jury, it may well have led to acquittals.
These exonerations are especially relevant now, not only because they represent another instance of Black defendants receiving unfair treatment before the justice system but because they reframe history at a moment when the failures of that system continue to reverberate through national politics in the United States.
Knowing the fuller truth about his death allows us to see Malcolm X in a new light. Malcolm’s activism honed in on racial disparities in the criminal justice system from firsthand personal experiences. Malcolm X represents one of the most important working-class Black political activists and organizers in American history. Importantly, Malcolm became an ardent prisoner rights activist.
These new revelations about the corrupt investigation into his death helps us to better understand why, in life, Malcolm emerged as a relentless critic of the justice system’s mistreatment of Black America. A formerly incarcerated prisoner himself — turned religious leader, political organizer and public intellectual — Malcolm used the ministry of the Nation of Islam (NOI) to restore the lost promise of scores of Black men and women in postwar America.
Malcolm’s greatest legacy remains his ability to speak truth to power. His activism echoes across generations and can be seen in the Black Lives Matter movement as well as efforts to end systems of punishment by investing in historically disadvantaged people.
This astonishing fact calls into question the integrity of some of the basic institutions within our democracy. The right to a fair trial, presumption of innocence and an investigation led by ethical servants of the public trust is sacrosanct — yet, in large parts of this nation, woefully absent then — and for some, now.
The struggle for Black dignity and citizenship to which Malcolm devoted his whole life continues. The lawyers and staff of the Innocence Project, the filmmakers and team behind the “Who Killed Malcolm X?” documentary, the scholarly work of the late historian Manning Marable, the late journalist Les Payne and Tamara Payne all contributed to this outcome.
For decades scholars activists, and community members have railed against the incarceration of Aziz and Islam as a gross miscarriage of justice. It was this and surely much more.
And despite the welcome results of these decades of work and nearly two years of investigation on top of it, 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 the Manhattan DA’s office to reinvestigate?
Malcolm X’s legacy continues to haunt America’s criminal justice system in ways that are both sobering and hopeful. The exonerations of Aziz and Islam represent a continuation of Malcolm’s struggle. Malcolm, in so many ways, called America toward the racial and political reckoning it continues to experience. The trials of the White men accused of killing Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and of Kyle Rittenhouse in Wisconsin illuminate both how far we have come since the civil rights era and the considerable distance we have to travel to achieve racial equity under law not only in theory but in practice.