The Current

Reinvestigation of Malcolm X killing speaks to 'contradictory dynamic' many black people experience: scholar

Decades after civil rights activist Malcolm X was gunned down, his assassination is being reinvestigated. Pan-African Studies scholar Ricky L. Martin says the problems with this investigation are representative of issues many black Americans face in their dealings with the justice system.

Case being reviewed following new evidence in Netflix documentary

Scholar Ricky L. Jones, left, told The Current that civil rights activist Malcolm X is a role model for him. (Ricky L. Jones/Facebook, AP)
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The reinvestigation of the assassination of civil rights activist Malcolm X speaks to the "contradictory dynamic" that many black people experience, according to scholar Ricky L. Jones. 

"We're dependent on agents of the state to deliver investigations and conclusions and be committed to figuring out exactly what happened to people who were threats to the state," Jones, chair of Pan-African Studies at the University of Louisville, told The Current's Matt Galloway.

"That's always a very, very difficult dynamic for black people, and I would argue any marginalized people to swallow."

Malcolm X was gunned down exactly 55 years ago, on Feb. 21, 1965, while speaking to an audience at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City. 

Three men were convicted and imprisoned for his killing, but for decades many people have argued that the case was mishandled and that two of the men were innocent. Only Thomas Hagan, also known as Mujahid Abdul Halim, has admitted to killing Malcolm X, and maintains that the other two men were not involved. 

Thomas Hagan, one of three men convicted for shooting Malcolm X, struggles with police outside the ballroom where the civil rights leader was killed in New York. Only Hagan, also known as Mujahid Abdul Halim, has admitted to killing Malcolm X. He maintains the other two were innocent. (The Associated Press)

Earlier this month, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance announced that his office will review the case, thanks in part to evidence presented in the new Netflix documentary miniseries Who Killed Malcolm X?

Jones spoke to Galloway about the significance of the reinvestigation as well as Malcolm X's impact and relevance today. 

You've written that Malcolm X was one of your role models. Why? 

I think Malcolm X was a role model for a lot of black people, especially young black men.

As you see how integration evolved in this country, certain types of black people were put in positions where they would have influence or even a little bit of power. They were usually more malleable types of people who would kind of go along to get along. Malcolm presented a different narrative about black manhood. 

I think there are a lot of people who were taken in by that. Certainly I was as a younger man and even now as I enter middle age. That's something that I continuously ruminate on. 

Malcolm X is shown here in 1964 with boxer and activist Muhammad Ali, a close friend of his for many years. (Associated Press)

For people perhaps who are too young to remember the impact that he had on the movement in the United States in the '60s, remind us what he accomplished. 

[Malcolm X] speaks to our continued struggle to square American ideals of freedom, equality and democracy with our troubling realities of oppression, racism and white supremacy that we're still dealing with in America today. 

Malcolm also — and look at this case — he raises questions about how far America's centralized powers will go to quell what they see as viable challenges to the state. 

I think that's at the heart of the Netflix documentary that prompted this new case ... to see really how threatening did America's government see Malcolm X and how far would it go to stop him? 

There are very few more important figures on America's historical and contemporary landscape. 

Attallah Shabazz, right, and Malaak Shabazz, two of the six daughters of the late Malcolm X. (Reuters)

What came up in this Netflix documentary that would prompt the D.A. in Manhattan to take another look at his assassination?

I really don't know exactly what prompted them to take another look. Because in black America, especially in black intellectual circles and black activist circles, there are always questions around what really happened with Malcolm. 

One question that's raised [in the documentary is] ... you don't arrest shooters, without finding out who sent the shooter. And they never did.

To your point, the FBI has known some of this information for a long time. Why would it take so long for the justice system to have a second or third look at this? 

Well, this is the question around ideas of black freedom, power and agency. We simply do not control organizational levers of structural power to move them in such a way that we can determine what's happened to the people that our community values. 

So we're dependent on agents of the state to deliver investigations and conclusions and be committed to figuring out exactly what happened to people who were threats to the state. 

After a contentious split from the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X explains his goals for racial equality. Some video on this clip has been repackaged for copyright reasons. 11:55

That's always a very, very difficult dynamic for black people, and I would argue any marginalized people to swallow. It's always something that is going to raise questions.

It's very much like the Ku Klux Klan in the 20th century in this country, where police chiefs, judges and lawyers all were Klansmen. People would be killed, and then they would say, "We're investigating the Klan."

So it's a contradictory dynamic.

We live in an era now of Black Lives Matter. What do you think Malcolm X would have would have made of the time that we're in right now, or what is his influence in terms of the time that we're in right now? 

His influence is absolutely incalculable. 

There's always been this argument that black lives matter. We're simply now in an era of hashtags. 

Ricky L. Jones believes that if Malcolm X were alive and wasn't a member of Black Lives Matter that he would still be a member and an advocate for movements that would speak to black humanity. (Marcus Constantino/Reuters)

But the arguments that have been put forth by that organization and others about the nature of freedom and democracy in America, how can black people really participate in it and be more human in the world, that question has always been around. Unfortunately, that question, I think, is going to be around for some time. 

So if Malcolm were alive, I think that if he were not necessarily a member of that particular organization, he would still be a member and an advocate for movements that were speaking to black humanity because it's still needed.

And so that is a question of, how far has America really come, and how far is America willing to go where black people and historically oppressed people are concerned?


Written by Allie Jaynes. Produced by Howard Goldenthal and Idella Sturino. Interview has been edited for length and clarity.