Justice  /  Book Excerpt

The Day Malcolm X Was Killed

At the height of his powers, the Black Nationalist leader was assassinated, and the government botched the investigation of his murder.
Les Payne, Tamara Payne

Cheated of being able to declare that Malcolm had been armed with an illegal weapon—a man who lived by the gun and died by it—authorities were left to solve the murder of a Black martyr they despised. This task was complicated by the long-standing secret of the illegal F.B.I. and police surveillance. The government knew a great deal about the plot, but none of the agencies could share their information with the others, and little information could be made public without blowing their agents’ cover. The result was a botched investigation. The D.A.’s office ended up indicting Hayer along with Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson, two members of the goon squad of the Harlem mosque. Butler and Johnson had become some of Malcolm’s chief harassers, cruising around shaking their fists at Malcolm’s men. Johnson is thought to have participated in the firebombing of Malcolm’s home, though he later suggested the bombing was carried out by other Nation members. “They were both treacherous as far as violence against Malcolm was concerned,” Goodman told me. But neither had participated in the assassination plot.

Goodman had supervised Butler and Johnson for years when Malcolm ran the Harlem mosque. “We were like brothers together, Butler and Johnson,” he told me. He knew that they were not present in the ballroom. “Those two brothers we would have searched if they had gotten the nerve to even come to the door,” he said. “They weren’t there, period.” But Goodman was never called to testify at the trial. Roberts also knew both Butler and Johnson, and could have confirmed that they weren’t there. He had seen Davis and Bradley at the ballroom, and could have identified them. Roberts told all of this to his superiors in the police department, but authorities, not wanting his cover to be blown, did not call him to testify. He remained undercover and went on to infiltrate several other Black nationalist groups, including the Black Panthers. At the trial, Hayer pled guilty, but insisted that Butler and Johnson were not involved. Years later, he signed an affidavit reasserting their innocence, and stating that Bradley and Davis had been the other shooters. Nevertheless, Butler and Johnson were convicted. Butler served twenty years in prison for Malcolm’s murder, and Johnson served twenty-two. It was a case study in covering the tracks of the police, the federal government, and the F.B.I.