Commentary: What pending exonerations of two men convicted of killing Malcolm X say about today’s justice system

Texas Standard commentator Peniel Joseph is also author of “The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

By Peniel JosephNovember 18, 2021 8:00 am,

The pending exonerations, after nearly 56 years, of two Black men convicted of the assassination of Malcolm X will right a grave miscarriage of justice, and opens new questions about race in America’s criminal justice system.

Spurred by the findings of the widely acclaimed Netflix documentary series, “Who Killed Malcolm X?” the Manhattan district attorney’s office reopened the investigation into Malcolm X’s Feb. 21, 1965 assassination.

After a 22-month investigation, two of the men found guilty in 1966 – Muhammad Abdul Aziz and Khalil Islam, formerly Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson – are set to be released. The investigation by the Manhattan DA’s office reveals that the prosecution, the FBI and the NYPD colluded after Malcolm X’s assassination to withhold exculpatory evidence that would have made any reasonable jury find the defendants innocent.

This exoneration is especially relevant now, not only because it represents another instance of defendants receiving unfair treatment before the justice system. This bombshell news takes place against the backdrop of racially charged trials of white defendants in Wisconsin and Georgia. In the former case, a teenage white defendant is on trial for three felony charges related to the shooting deaths of two white men. He received the kind of grace – not being shot down by police while carrying an assault weapon during demonstrations in downtown Kenosha in the summer of 2020 – Black folks rarely, if ever, receive. The latter case is linked to the former, with three white men charged for shooting down a Black man, Ahmaud Arbery, whose only crime proved to be taking a jog in the wrong neighborhood.

Malcolm X represents the most important working class Black political activist and organizer in American history. A formerly incarcerated prisoner turned religious leader, political organizer and public intellectual, Malcolm utilized the Nation of Islam’s ministry to restore the lost promise of scores of Black men and women in postwar America. Malcolm X’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 neighborhoods.

Malcolm X’s 1965 assassination remains one of the most traumatic events of the 1960s. The case remains unsolved – the reflection of not just a racially biased justice system but a criminally negligent one as well. For 56 years, the murder of one of the most impactful political leaders in American history has been allowed to go unpunished. 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 now. Yet, the struggle for Black dignity and citizenship that Malcolm X devoted his life to continues. The lawyers and staff of the Innocence Project, the filmmakers and team behind the “Who Killed Malcolm X?” film, the scholarly work of historians such as Manning Marable, the late journalist Les Payne, and Les’ daughter, Tamara Payne, have all contributed to this outcome.

Malcolm X’s killers have remained unpunished, the result of collusion from law enforcement. We still have more questions despite these results, than answers when it comes to Malcolm X’s assassination. What role did the FBI and NYPD play in the perpetration or cover-up following Malcolm X’s murder? Why did it take 56 years to convince the DA’s office to reinvestigate? What about the thousands of lost souls, innocent men and women, who do not have access to filmmakers, Innocence Projects and the collective attention of the nation since their case is disconnected to an iconic historical figure’s assassination? These are the kind of questions that Malcolm X searched for answers to in his own time and continue to haunt us today.

Peniel Joseph

Peniel Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. He’s also a professor of history and founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the University of Texas at Austin.

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