The 1960s in black American history was marked by three notorious assassinations: the demise of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who was respected by African-Americans because of his Civil Rights support, in 1963; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968; and the shooting of Malcolm Little a.k.a. Malcolm X in 1965.
All three men were shot down in the prime of their professional lives, and have had numerous conspiracy theories surrounding their deaths. Despite individuals being convicted for their assassinations, the police, FBI, CIA, and other groups have not escaped suspicion or public scrutiny.
Khalil Islam spent 22 years in prison for the murder of Malcolm X. Now a free man - who used to go by the name of Thomas 15X Johnson and was a ranking lieutenant at Elijah Muhammad’s Temple No. 7 on 116th Street and Lenox Avenue - Islam is ready to tell his story to the world.
He wants to ‘prove his innocence’, reveal who he believed killed ‘Detroit Red’, and explain why ‘they’ wanted to frame him.
In his hoarse, quiet voice, the father of six told Black Power: “I did not kill Big Red. I know I served time, but I am innocent.” Becoming overwhelmed, he said: “They gave me the star role - the man with the shotgun, but as I protested 43 years ago, I did not kill my black Muslim brother, Malcolm X.”
Explaining why he is now willing to speak about the “injustice,” Islam states: “People are always confronting me, including friends and family, asking why I was picked as the individual who supposedly shot Malcolm X. I’m a private person and I don’t like to focus on the past, but I believe the time is right to speak now.”
Continuing, he says: “Being Red’s security person made me the perfect culprit. The fact that Red defected and I didn’t - I stayed with our leader the Honourable Elijah Muhammad - the prosecutors used this as a motive against me.”
“My rapid advancement in the brotherhood, making me lieutenant in one year, and my position with Red is what put me in view of the law enforcement. Before his death the authorities constantly photographed me wherever I went with him, and this was used against me in court. I was found guilty by my association.”
Malcolm X, also known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, broke away from with his mentor, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam (a.k.a. the Black Muslims) and self-proclaimed Messenger of Allah. Having once viewed Elijah as his savior from the dismal streets of crime, keeping him out of prison (he became involved in drug dealing, gambling, racketeering, robbery and prostituted himself), the discovery of Elijah’s personal life led Malcolm X to feel betrayed by his teacher.
As a result, Malcolm X referred to the ‘Messenger’ as a ‘religious faker’ in his famous autobiography and he denounced Elijah Muhammad’s alleged sexual dalliances. Consequently, he became vulnerable to attack from his Muslim peers. No longer trusted and derided as ‘a Judas’ and ‘the chief hypocrite,’ Malcolm X publicly announced his break from the Nation of Islam on March 8 1964, and founded the Muslim Mosque, Inc. four days later.
“Only those who wish to be led to hell, or to their doom, will follow Malcolm,” wrote the then Louis X, later known as Louis Farrakhan. Malcolm X was now seen as public enemy number one.
Remembering his departure from the brotherhood, Islam stated: “Malcolm was worthy of death when he began to blaspheme the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. Although I did not kill him, I did feel a strong anger towards him because I used to see the Honorable Elijah Muhammad as Christ-like.”
“I believed that if God could send Jesus Christ as a savior, he could also send the Elijah Muhammad as a messenger - although I now know different. Like myself, many saw Malcolm’s death as what it was supposed to be.”
He added: “You did not break the rule, Red knew that. You don’t criticize the leader and expect to get away with it. In those days if we caught someone even smoking in the mosque, we’d smash your face in, and what Malcolm said was below the belt.”
The cold winter afternoon on which the ‘Father of Black Power’ was assassinated at the Audubon, still remains fresh in Islam’s mind because his neighbor frantically banged on his door as news of Malcolm X’s assassination was aired. He insists he was not present at the death of the man he was employed to guard.
“I spent most of the day in bed because I had a rheumatoid-arthritis condition, he told Black Power. “They said I shot Malcolm, then jumped out the ladies’ room window and ran down the stairs, but how could I have done that?” The truth is, I could hardly walk … I only found out about the shooting when my next door neighbour started shouting, ‘They got Big Red.’ “
This alibi meant little at Islam’s murder trial. Both Islam’s wife and the neighbor who informed him of Malcolm X’s death testified in court, but their word (despite being said under oath) counted for nothing. Nor did it matter that the man with the shotgun was described as dark-skinned with a full beard, while Islam is light-skinned and was beardless at the time.
More galling was when Talmadge Hayer, a 22-year-old member of the Nation of Islam, suddenly confessed to Malcolm X’s murder, while swearing that Islam along with Norman 3X Butler, another Temple No. 7 lieutenant, had nothing to do with the murder.
Also a bodyguard for Muhammad Ali when the boxer joined the brotherhood, Islam was convicted of first-degree murder in early 1966, and spent the next two decades behinds bars in various New York State maximum-security prisons.
He spent his first four years caged in ‘the hole’, where prisoners saw only an hour a day of natural sunlight.
Despite not being the sole person to be convicted of Malcolm X’s killing - Talmadge Hayer and Norman Butler also went down - Islam was said to be the first official black Muslim to go to prison.
“I was innocent, yet there I was, behind those walls,” said Islam. “Right from the start I knew that they were trying to frame me, because just the thought that I could do such a thing was insane. As the saying goes, ‘if the hat fits, wear it’, and I fitted. They knew I would never talk, never give anyone up. I was just the perfect patsy.”
Asked whether he received any support from the Nation of Islam, the 73-year-old former convict replied: “No! They gave me no help. No visits. I was very hurt by the lack of support the brotherhood showed me, especially because I knew that they knew I was innocent.
“It was not until the trial ended and I was sent to prison that I began to reflect on the whole situation. When I analyze my dedication towards the religion and the respect I had for my high-ranking peers, I should have had the best legal representation, but they gave me nothing.”
Known as the ‘ambassador prisoner’ while in jail, Islam continued to spread the love of Allah, and taught his fellow black brothers inside the slammer to have respect not only for themselves but also for their race as a whole.
Speaking of the violence that he witnessed inside, Islam revealed, “Death was the order of the day. When you’re locked up 24 hours a day you will see the worst type of violence amongst inmates, such as rape and killings. It’s very tragic what a lack of education can do. I felt obligated to empower my fellow black brothers.”
Taking a deep breath, he added: “It took me until now to really understand it, to think it through, and that’s important because I always felt knowing what happened would be the key to who I really was.”
Asked who he felt framed him, Islam answered sharply: “Inside people. The Feds set me up because they felt I too became a threat, because they believed I wanted to take over from Red.”
“Taking care of all the top brothers in the ministry exposed me to a great deal of inside information and knowledge, and in the eyes of the Feds they saw me as another threat, just like Red. You have to understand that during those days, and still now, white people were very afraid of an educated black man.”
Islam believes that five men from New Jersey carried out the assassination of one of the great black heroes of all time. “These men were not true followers,” said Islam. “They were relegated. There was a lot of confusion amongst the Muslim masses at that time. There was hatred and jealously, and those men were known criminals.”
Islam categorically rejects the possibility that the command to kill Malcolm X came from Chicago, the headquarters of Elijah Muhammad, which is one of the most popular conspiracy theories since the assassination. He insisted that the five men who orchestrated the Muslim leader’s death were organized by the Feds.
Islam told Black Power that he had no time to feel sorry for himself or feel bitter towards those that he felt put him behind bars, because he was too busy keeping up with his religious studies of the Quran, the Bible, and other academic materials (including law), in order to prepare himself for his release date.
“What good would it have served for me to crumble while I was locked up? I used my time to better myself and progress physically, mentally, but most importantly, spiritually.”
During his jail term, Islam had a visit from Wallace D. Muhammad, son of Elijah Muhammad. Educated in traditional Islamic schools, an Arabic speaker and Quranic scholar, W. D. Muhammad’s beliefs were different from his father’s and he developed a strong connection with Malcolm X before his death.
Amazed by his visit, Islam explained: “He told me to look him in the eye and tell him whether or not I had anything to do with killing Malcolm X. I knew they were friends, so he wasn’t asking just as a leader but also as a man. I told him I didn’t do it. That was when he gave me my name, Khalil Islam, which means ‘friend of God.’ “
Released in 1987 aged 52 with just $40 in his pocket, Islam’s life behind bars caused the breakdown of his family. His kids were deeply affected by his imprisonment, which eventually resulted in a divorce from his first wife.
Like Malcolm X, Islam was brought up a Christian, fell into drugs and crime due to ‘a lack of opportunity in black America’, and was drawn to the Nation of Islam after spending time in jail. He later joined mainstream Islam, searching for the true concept of God.
Believing that there are always powerful, positive life lessons to be learned from trials and tribulations, after prison Islam dedicated his life to helping marginalized black youth, schooling them on God’s love. However, the deterioration of his health - he has experienced several heart bypasses - has made him retire from his mentoring programs.
Islam was only discharged from hospital the day before the interview, and increasing fatigue could be heard in his frail voice. He said his only wish before meeting his maker was to be vindicated over Malcolm X’s murder, and to visit Mecca to make his hajj.
“If I don’t do that, I’m going to die a miserable man.”
He asked if Black Power is based in England, (it’s not) and exclaimed: “I’m so honored that you having given me the opportunity to tell my story so English people and the rest of the world can hear the truth. Back in the days, we used to travel to Europe a lot and I am very aware that there is a huge brotherhood in the UK.”
Islam added: “Muhammad Ali paid for me to take a polygraph test, which I passed. Talmadge Hayer signed an affidavit revealing the names of the four men who he claimed really helped him assassinate Red, and since my release I have met two of Malcolm’s daughters, Qubilah and Ilyasah, and they both have told me that they knew that I did not kill their beloved father. I just hope that one day the justice system will admit that they jailed an innocent man.”