Malcolm X, MLK: The Men, The Struggle, The Legacy
"In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence
of our friends." - Martin Luther King Jr.
The Assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X
By ROLAND SHEPPARD
Roland Sheppard is a retired Business Representative of Painters District
Council #8 in San Francisco. He has been a life long social activist and
socialist. He regularly attended Malcolm X's meetings in Harlem and was
present at the meeting when Malcolm X was assassinated. He was in charge of
defense whenever Malcolm X spoke at the Militant Labor Forum in New York
City from 1964-1965. He has written several articles, spoken to various
groups, and been interviewed about Malcolm X. This is an expanded version of
his contribution to the pamphlet, "Who Killed Malcolm X?"
It was first written as the February, 2001 "Monthly Feature" for the Holt
Labor Library website. (http://www.hll.org)
It is based on his presentation at a forum in Boston 2000, on the same
subject. The other speaker at the forum was Minister Don Muhammad of the
Boston Nation of Islam.
Over thirty years ago, Malcolm X (1965) and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
(1968) were assassinated.
In the case of Malcolm X, several members of the Nation of Islam (NOI) were
convicted of the assassination.
In the case of Martin Luther King, one assassin, James Earl Ray, was
convicted of the assassination and sentenced to life in prison. . However,
there have always been many unanswered questions about both of these
According to a Memphis jury's verdict on December 8,1999, in the wrongful
death lawsuit of the King family versus Loyd Jowers "and other unknown
co-conspirators," Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by a
conspiracy that included agencies of the United States government. Almost 32
years after King's murder at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 4, l968,
a court extended the circle of responsibility for the assassination beyond
the late scapegoat James Earl Ray to the United States government. Despite
the convictions, and the ongoing campaign by the government, police
agencies, and various authors and pundits to put the assassinations to rest,
there have always been many unanswered questions about these murders.
Since the assassinations, in the 1970's, the "Cointelpro" disruption
operations of the government against the civil rights movement, the antiwar
movement, and radicals and socialists during that period, became public
knowledge. Under "Cointelpro" the different United States spy agencies used
informers, agents, and agent provocateurs to disrupt these organizations.
One of the stated purposes of this program was to "neutralize" Malcolm X,
Martin Luther King, and Elijah Muhammad," in order to prevent, the
development, in government's terms, of a "Black Messiah," who would have the
potential of uniting and leading a mass organization of Black Americans in
their quest for freedom and economic equality.
A "second assassination" of these two leaders has been the attempt to
distort what they really stood for in their last years of life. This is a
process that Lenin described in the opening to his book State and
"...what in the course of history, has happened repeatedly to the theories
of revolutionary thinkers and leaders of oppressed classes fighting for
emancipation. During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing
classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most
savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns
of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them
into harmless icons, to canonize them, so to say, and to hallow their names
to a certain extent for the "consolation" of the oppressed classes and with
the object of duping the latter, while at the same time robbing the
revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and
As one who was politically active at that time, I believe that it is
important to tell the truth about Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. To help
keep their ideas alive and prevent them from being reduced to "harmless
The Assassination of Malcolm X
I witnessed Malcolm X's assassination at the Audubon Ballroom, on February
21, 1965. I am writing with the benefit of first hand knowledge of what took
place that day, what Malcolm X stood for at the time of his death, and the
hope for the future that inspired all who heard or knew the man.
I remember the mass media, reflecting their class hatred of Malcolm X
gloating and cheering his assassination. I also remember the response to
Malcolm X by the tens of thousands in Harlem, who, for several days, went to
view his casket and I remember the eulogy by Ossie Davis that silenced the
hyenas of the press when he said: "He (Malcolm X) was our prince, our Black
In spite of all of the attacks by the mass media, Malcolm X has grown more
and more popular as a martyred leader of his people and an uncompromising
advocate of human rights and freedom.
In 1991, at the time Spike Lee's documentary movie on Malcolm X was due to
be released, several books were written that attempted to camouflage
Malcolm's political evolution during his last year. Two such books were
Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America, by Bruce Perry and
Malcolm X: The Assassination, by Michael Friedly. In my opinion, these books
are "a second assassination of Malcolm X."
Both books were written in order to reaffirm the government's position to
put sole blame on the NOI for the assassination. Both books likewise
discounted any possibility of government complicity or motive in the
assassination. Both were polemics against two excellent books written by
George Breitman: The Last Year of Malcolm X: The Evolution of a
Revolutionary and The Assassination of Malcolm X. Both deny the evolution of
his thinking reflecting his revolutionary development in the last year of
Breitman wrote The Last Year of Malcolm X to cover the period of Malcolm's
life that is absent from the autobiography. He also hoped to clear up any
misconceptions that Alex Haley, who disagreed with Malcolm's ideas as they
were developing, had put into the epilogue of the autobiography. Breitman's
book was based on Malcolm's speeches and statements during his last year and
his collaboration with the Socialist Workers Party. If one reads Malcolm X's
speeches, one will clearly understand that Breitman's book is a very
accurate statement of Malcolm X's political development and evolution.
Unfortunately, Spike Lee's documentary movie Malcolm X also downplayed
Malcolm's thinking and accomplishments during his last year. This allows
those who oppose what Malcolm had become in his last year to maintain that
he had not become a threat to the capitalist establishment. This has been
consciously done to make it appear that the NOI had the only motive to kill
Malcolm X and to exonerate the role of the government in the assassination.
The Government's Motive To "Neutralize" Malcolm X
In his last year, Malcolm X came to the conclusion that it was impossible
for African Americans to be integrated into this system because racism was
profitable and an integral part of capitalism. His words on the world wide
oppression of nonwhites by white Europeans were very similar to what Karl
Marx wrote about how the original capitalist fortunes were obtained. In
Capital, Volume One, Part VIII, Chapter 31, [the] "Genesis of the Industrial
Capitalist" Marx wrote:
"...The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation,
enslavement, and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the
beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of
Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalized
the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production... If money... comes into
the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek, capital comes dripping
from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt."
Malcolm X was the first mass leader, in the United States, to oppose the war
in Vietnam and to identify the oppression of African Americans in this
country with the struggles of the oppressed throughout the world. In all
probability, Malcolm X would have spoken at the first mass demonstration
against the Vietnam War in 1965. His powerful oratory alone, as well as his
standing among inner-city Blacks, would have given the Vietnam Antiwar
Movement a far different character and the history of that period in the
United States and the world would have been greatly changed.
I had the opportunity to hear Malcolm X speak at meetings in Harlem at the
Audubon Ballroom and elsewhere. His power as an orator was his ability to
make complex ideas simple and clear. He was not a demagogue. His speeches
were always an appeal to reason.
One example of the power of his oratory was when he spoke at an organizing
rally for Hospital Workers Local 1199 in New York City 1962. The following
is a famous quote from that speech: "The hospital strikers have demonstrated
that you don't get a job done unless you show the Man you're not afraid...
If you're not willing to pay that price, then you don't deserve the rewards
or benefits that go along with it." He gave the best speech at the rally,
and when he finished speaking all of the workers-Black, white, and Puerto
Rican-cheered wildly. The response was the same whether he spoke in Harlem
or at Oxford University in England.
Malcolm X viewed the struggle of African Americans as an economic and social
struggle for human rights and not limited to just a struggle for civil
fights. He identified with the Colonial Revolution at that time in Africa
and throughout the world, including the struggle of the Vietnamese people
and the Cuban revolution; in direct opposition to the policies of the United
States government both then and now. He had met with Che Guevara and the
Cuban delegation to the United Nations in December 1964 and a firm bond was
established between them. Contrary to Friedly and Perry's assertions,
Malcolm had become a very real threat to the very foundations of capitalism
in the United States, The truth is that the United States government had a
very good motive for the assassination.
Prior to his assassination, Malcolm X told Clifton DeBerry, the presidential
candidate of the Socialist Workers Party in 1964, and me that he hoped to
live long enough to build a viable organization based on his current ideas -
so that he would be more dangerous to the system dead than alive.
Unfortunately, he did not have time to build the new organization that he
In his book, The Assassination of Malcolm X, George Breitman points out that
the first accounts of the assassination, in the New York City newspapers,
reported that two people were caught by the crowd and saved by the police.
But later, the press and the police reported that only one person (Talmadge
Hayer) had been caught by the crowd. No explanation has ever been given for
the change in the story.
The question remains to this day: What happened to the second man? Why
wasn't he brought to trial? The first police report stated that five men
were involved in the assassination; yet only three were accused and
convicted at the trial. Both Perry and Friedly allege that the newspapers
made a normal journalistic mistake. However, Breitman puts forward the
probability that the second man was an undercover agent who was quietly
There is no doubt that the police had plainclothes officials in the
audience. Later, as a witness to the assassination, I was questioned at the
Harlem police headquarters. I recognized a man there-obviously a cop, with
free run of the office-whom I saw sitting in the first row at the Audubon
Ballroom where Hayer said his accomplices were sitting. Perry's book
basically supports the official police version of the assassination. It
ignores strong evidence that it would have been virtually impossible for
only three people to have carried out the assassination.
Perry also ignores Hayer's affidavit that the two other people convicted
with him, Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson-who were both members of
the NOI-were not even present at the meeting when Malcolm was killed. (When
I was called before the Grand Jury on the assassination of Malcolm X, James
Shabazz, Malcolm's primary assistant, also told me that that Butler and
Johnson were well known and confirmed that they were not at the meeting nor
would they have been allowed to enter the meeting.)
Friedly's book is a more sophisticated cover up. The book puts the blame
solely on the NOI while, at the same time, criticizing the police
investigation. It is based on Hayer's confessions at the trial and at a
later parole hearing. Friedly's and Hayer's version is that five members of
the NOI carried out the assassination--three people doing the shooting up
front and two people creating a diversion prior to the shooting and setting
off a smoke bomb in the back of the room.
Hayer's version of the logistics corresponds with my own impressions at the
scene. Contrary to Friedly's contention, however, the confession by Hayer
only reinforces the probable existence of a second man caught by the crowd.
Hayer explains that at the time that he was shot and caught by the crowd he
could see one of his accomplices running ahead of him. I was told by
Malcolm's guards when I got outside the Audubon Ballroom, that two people
were caught by the crowd at the same time and that one was taken to the
hospital by the police and the other taken into police custody. Hayer was
taken to the hospital and then booked. It is likely that the second man
caught was the one running ahead of Hayer and was quite possibly an agent.
There is one glaring error in Hayer's statement. He stated that the five
assassins cased one of Malcolm's meetings at the Audubon Ballroom in the
winter of 1964-65 and concluded that they would have a good chance to
escape. This is far from probable. There were normally 30 to 50 cops, in
their blue uniforms, both inside and outside the building stationed at all
the exits. Escape would not have been easy.
However, at the meeting when Malcolm was assassinated, the police were
nowhere around-even though they knew that an assassination attempt was
imminent. In order to plan Malcolm X's death, the conspirators would have
needed to know and be confident that the cops were not going to be there on
that day. Perry and Friedly assert that the police agreed to Malcolm's
request not to have police protection. However, when the police first spoke
of their "agreement," Malcolm's wife, Betty Shabazz, stated that it was a
lie that Malcolm had made the request.
Both Perry and Friedly discount any possible disruption operations by the
FBI, the New York City police, or the CIA. But in a documentary aired in
1992 on Malcolm X and narrated by Dan Rather on CBS television, the FBI is
shown to have acted as agent provocateurs. For example, the FBI sent
provocative letters to the NOI and forged Malcolm's signature to the
letters. Dan Rather revealed that the CBS television crew had not been
allowed access to over 45,000 pages of documents on Malcolm X that remain in
the files of the CIA and FBI.
The Judas Factor
In dramatic contrast to Perry's and Friedly's conclusions about Malcolm X's
assassination, is a book by Washington Post staff writer Karl Evanzz titled,
The Judas Factor (Thunder's Mouth Press, New York, 1992. 389 pp., $22.95).
In this book, Evanzz documents how the intelligence community--the CIA, the
FBI, and the New York Police Bureau of Special Services (BOSSI) - using
agents provocateurs and infiltrators - set the stage for the assassination
of Malcolm X. It outlines the motives for their actions. Evanzz spent 15
years researching over 300,000 pages of declassified FBI and CIA documents.
In the introduction to the book, Evanzz writes: "After analyzing these
resources, I am convinced that Louis E. Lomax, an industrious
African-American journalist who befriended Malcolm X in the late 1950's, had
practically solved the riddle of his assassination." Lomax, who died in a
mysterious automobile accident while shooting a film in Los Angeles about
the assassination, believed that Malcolm X was betrayed by a former friend
who reportedly had ties to the intelligence community. Evanzz wrote: "In
1968, Lomax called the suspect 'Judas.' This, then, is the story of The
There are two major themes in the book: One is the Judas Factor and the
other is the concern of the FBI and the CIA over Malcolm X's success in
linking the struggle of African Americans with the national liberation
struggles in Africa and throughout the Third World.
Evanzz documents that Ahmed Ben Bella, the leader of the Algerian
Revolution, had invited Malcolm X - along with Che Guevara and other leaders
of independence movements---to a special conference in Bandung scheduled to
begin on March 3, 1965. Malcolm X had also been able to get Ethiopia and
Liberia to include human rights violations against African Americans with
their petition on South African human rights violations before the
International Court of Justice at The Hague. The petition was scheduled to
be heard on March 12, 1965.
Part of the "Judas Factor" was the FBI's attempts to "neutralize" Malcolm X,
Martin Luther King, and Elijah Muhammad. Evanzz provides concrete evidence
that Martin Luther King was going to support Malcolm X in his project to
bring the struggle of human rights before the United Nations and had begun
to also identify with the struggles for human rights in Africa.
In light of the CIA's policies to "neutralize" opponents of the U.S.
government's political and covert activities in Africa, Evanzz explains that
it was necessary to "neutralize" Malcolm X prior to the Bandung conference.
Malcolm X was assassinated on February, 21, 1965, a week and a half before
the conference was to take place. Soon after the assassination, several
African government officials who had been working with Malcolm X were also
assassinated and the Ben Bella government in Algeria was overthrown in June
From his research into FBI files, Evanzz was able to prove that the FBI had
a high-level informant in the NOI. Thus, the FBI was clearly in a position
to carry out a campaign to fan the flames of discontent among rising leaders
of the Nation and to disrupt the organization's activities. FBI memos
indicate that they maneuvered within the NOI to keep their informant in the
best possible leadership position to carry out their covert activities. From
the very day that Malcolm X split from the NOI, the FBI worked on a
day-to-day basis with BOSSI and the CIA to infiltrate and disrupt his
activities. William Sullivan (subsequently, of Watergate fame) was the FBI
agent in over-all charge of both the infiltration of the NOI and Malcolm's
organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU).
It is clear from the book that a coordinated effort was carried out between
all government spy agencies to widen the split between Malcolm X and Elijah
Muhammad, to increase tensions between their organizations, and to undermine
their support among African Americans. It is also safe to assume that
agents, informants, and provocateurs from these different agencies were sent
into the NOI and Malcolm X's organizations and that these agents were also
present at the Audubon Ballroom when Malcolm X was assassinated. One of
police informants, who later informed on the Black Panthers, told me as I
was going to take my normal front row seat that "you are not going to sit
there today" and he had me sit in the front row on the left side of the
Ballroom. (The assassins then sat in the area where I normally sat to hear
Malcolm X speak.)
Some of Evanzz's research was based on books about the NOI by Louis Lomax.
Evanzz found in the FBI files a script for a movie on the assassination of
Malcolm X, which Lomax was working on at the time of his death. (He died in
a car accident caused by brake failure.) Evanzz provides circumstantial
evidence that John Ali, a former friend of Malcolm X who became a national
secretary of the NOI, was more than likely an FBI agent/informer and hence
the "Judas Factor." In fact, Evanzz provides quotes from Malcolm X to Lomax
indicating that Malcolm X blamed John Ali for his expulsion from the Nation.
The most important aspect, however, is not whether Ali was the high-level
agent, but the fact that the FBI did indeed have a high-level person in the
Nation in their employ. Overall, the main value of the book is that all of
the spy agencies in the United States were deeply involved as infiltrators
and agent provocateurs ("Judas Factors") to set the stage for Malcolm X's
The evidence provided by the book is irrefutable proof that the government
had the motive to assassinate Malcolm X and the ability, through its
"Cointelpro" spy operations, to orchestrate his assassination. It is now
time to open up all the files of the CIA and the FBI--as well as the
thousands of pages of files of the New York City Police Department-so that
the truth about the assassination of Malcolm X can be exposed.
The Government's Motive To "Neutralize" Martin Luther King
From the time of the King assassination, the many inconsistencies in the
Government's case that James Earl Ray was the sole assassin were well
publicized. When the "Cointelpro" disruption operations of the government
against the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, and radicals and
socialists were exposed; The United States House of Representatives' Select
Committee on Assassinations, under pressure from these exposures and the
Civil Rights Movement, did an "investigation" in 1979 with the purpose to
reconfirm the Government's case. Immediately after it released the
report--affirming that Ray was the lone assassin--this committee sealed all
of the evidence it had in its possession for 50 years (until 2029). Thus, we
were left with nothing but the "integrity" of the Senators to justify their
findings--rather than the facts. (The only logical reason to keep the files
secret is to protect the guilty.)
Recently, new facts on this assassination have come to light. On Dec. 8,
1999, a jury awarded Coretta Scott King and her family $100 in damages
resulting from a conspiracy to murder her late husband, Martin Luther King.
The trial was initiated by the admission of Lloyd Jowers on national TV in
1993 that he had hired King's assassin as a favor to an underworld figure
who was a friend. At the conclusion of the trial, Dexter King, Dr. King's
son, said, "After today, we don't want questions like, 'Do you believe James
Earl Ray killed your father?' I've been hearing that all my life. No, I
don't, and this is the end of it.
This was the most incredible cover-up of the century, and now it has been
exposed. Now we can finally move on with our lives."
The King family, along with their attorney, William Pepper, plan to lobby
historians and elected officials to get the official record of the
assassination changed. There have always been many unanswered questions
about the assassination of Martin Luther King. From the beginning it has
been clear that the FBI was involved to one degree or another.
The FBI "leaked" the information to the Memphis press that King was going to
be staying at a "white hotel" a couple of days prior to his arrival in the
city. This forced King to stay at the less secure Lorraine Motel.
The question remains: Why would the government be part of the conspiracy
against King? Why would they want him dead? A key to understanding the
governments motive is that Martin Luther King had a different political
perspective at the time of his death than when he made his 1963 "I Have a
Dream" speech. His final speeches and actions reveal that he had begun to
view the struggle for equality as an economic struggle and the capitalist
economic system as the problem.
In one of his last speeches, given at Stanford University in April 1997 and
titled the "The Other America," King addressed the problem of the rich and
the poor in this country. Instead of his "dream," he talked about the
nightmare of the economic condition of Blacks. He talked about "work-starved
men searching for jobs that did not exist" ; about the Black population
living on a "lonely island of poverty surrounded by an ocean of material
prosperity;" and about living in a "triple ghetto of race, poverty, and
human misery." He explained that after World War II, the unemployment rate
between Blacks and whites was equal and that in the years between then and
1967, Black unemployment had become double the rate for white workers. He
also spoke about how Black workers made half the wages of white workers.
From his experience when he started his campaign for equality in Chicago and
elsewhere in the North, King concluded in this speech that to deal with this
problem of the "Two Americas" was "much more difficult than to get rid of
legal segregation." He pointed out that the northern liberals, who had given
moral and financial support to the struggle against Jim Crow, would not give
such support to the efforts to end economic segregation. He also polemicized
against the concept that "people should pick themselves up by their own
bootstraps." In the course of explaining the obstacles that Blacks faced
coming into this country that Europeans did not have, he stated: "It is a
cruel jest to say to a bootless man to pick himself up by his own
bootstraps." Black people, he said, were "impoverished aliens in their own
In this speech King also opposed the war in Vietnam. He criticized the
government for spending hundreds of millions of dollars for war and not for
equality. He stated his goal "to organize and mobilize forces to fight for
economic equality." In his last letter, requesting support for the March on
Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1968, he wrote:
"It was obdurate government callousness to misery that first stoked the
flames of rage and frustration. With unemployment a scourge in Negro
ghettos, the government still tinkers with half-hearted measures, refuses
still to become an employer of last resort. It asks the business community
to solve the problems as though its past failures qualified it for success."
He also stated this outlook at the SCLC Convention of Aug. 1967:
"We've got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called
upon to help the discouraged beggars in life's marketplace. But one day we
must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.
It means that questions must be raised. "Who owns this oil? ... Who owns the
iron ore?... Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that
is two-thirds water?"
In another major speech in 1967, King also stated the course that he was
planning to take in the fight for economic equality:
"There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an
adequate wage to every American citizen whether he be a hospital worker,
laundry worker, maid, or day laborer.
"There is nothing except shortsightedness to prevent us from guaranteeing an
annual minimum-and livable-income for every American family.
"There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering
"The coalition of an energized section of labor, Negroes, unemployed, and
welfare recipients may be the source of power that reshapes economic
relationships and ushers in a breakthrough to a new level of social reform.
"The total elimination of poverty, now a practical responsibility, the
reality of equality in race relations and other profound structural changes
in society may well begin here."
These words have even more meaning in today's world. At that time, the stock
market was below 1000 points. Today, it is above 10,000 points (10 times
higher) and yet conditions for Blacks are still lower than after World War
At the time of their assassinations, both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X
were embarking on a course in opposition to the capitalist system. It is
clear from reading and listening to their final speeches that they had both
evolved to similar conclusions of capitalism's role in the maintenance of
racism. That is why they were "neutralized".
Unlike Malcolm X, who never got the opportunity to act upon his convictions,
Martin Luther King was organizing a movement to obtain his stated goals when
he was assassinated in Memphis. He was in Memphis to build "the coalition of
an energized section of labor, Negroes, unemployed, and welfare recipients"
in support of striking municipal garbage workers.
If such a force had been launched, the whole power of the antiwar and civil
rights movement in the 1960s could have transformed the labor movement and
become "the source of power that reshapes economic relationships and ushers
in a breakthrough to a new level of social reform." Such a coalition, as
King envisioned it thirty-three years ago, is needed today. The best tribute
to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X would be to begin anew to build a
movement based on the ideas and the concepts that they had developed at the
time of their untimely deaths.
© Copyright 2001 Roland Sheppard. All Rights Reserved. For permission to
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