Members Only | November 26, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

The system that allowed Malcolm X’s killers to walk keeps giving white supremacy a free pass

In the decades since the assassination of Malcolm X, it might be comfortable to imagine we have traveled some way down the road of racial justice. But it’s a long road and not an easy one.  

Muhammad Aziz, left, and Khalil Islam.
Muhammad Aziz, left, and Khalil Islam.

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Editor’s note: I hope you had a great turkey day. I’m not writing today, but here’s our London correspondent, Richard Sudan, on an important story that might have escaped your attention. See you Monday. –JS

The trial of Ahmaud Arbery’s murderers and the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse meant that for the last few weeks there’s been an incredible amount of focus on America’s justice system, its flaws and the problem of deep-rooted racism endemically corrupting it.

For some, the fact that Kyle Rittenhouse walked free having shot and killed two people at an anti-police brutality protest is a scathing indictment of the criminal justice system. It reveals the extent to which white nationalist vigilantism gets a pass and is, moreover, rewarded for violent acts like those committed by Rittenhouse.


The only reason there was a new investigation in the first place is because of the brilliant work of Abdur Rahman-Muhammad, the mastermind behind the Netflix hit series, Who Killed Malcolm X?


For others, the fact that the three murderers who lynched Ahmaud Arbery could well face the rest of their lives in prison offers hope that justice is at least possible, if at times elusive.

It’s tempting to want to celebrate, that Arbery’s family are on the cusp of getting some sort of justice and accountability for the murder of their son, while we await the sentencing of his killers. And, for sure, when we do eventually see them locked up, we can sigh in relief.

But if ever there was a powerfully sober reminder that there’s more to be done, and that we shouldn’t get too starry-eyed at the prospect of a measure of racial justice in American courtrooms, then the following news is surely worthy of consideration.

Two of the men imprisoned for assassinating Malcolm X, after more than 50 years, have been completely exonerated, and have had their names cleared. They didn’t do it and had their lives ruined while those actually responsible for Malcolm X’s murder evaded justice.

Just days ago, in the very same courthouse that had convicted Muhammad Abdul-Aziz, formerly Norman Butler, now 83, and Khalil Islam (deceased) more than half a century earlier, issued an apology and acknowledgment of the injustice both men had suffered. 


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Far from committing any crime, they themselves had become the victims in the campaign to murder one of the most important Black civil rights leaders in American history and of the cover up that followed. Talk about a miscarriage of justice!

What’s worse is the new investigation revealed that the FBI and the New York City Police Department allegedly withheld vital evidence about the truth of Malcolm X’s assassination. Such evidence might have persuaded the jury of the innocence of Aziz and Islam.

The fact that undercover officers were present at the assassination location was also not disclosed. Also missing was the fact that a local reporter had received a tip on the morning of Malcolm’s assassination suggesting that Malcolm X would be killed. Certain players clearly didn’t want the truth exposed and were happy to see innocent men framed, each spending more than 20 years in prison.

The truth was attainable in 1966. Justice could have become a reality.  Authorities have claimed incompetence led to a botched investigation. Lawyers for the two men, however, hint at a deliberate plot. Indeed, the only one of the three men convicted for Malcolm X’s assassination, who admitted to the murder, even professed that the other two men accused were innocent.

And the only reason there was a new investigation in the first place is because of the brilliant work of Abdur Rahman-Muhammad, the mastermind behind the Netflix hit series, Who Killed Malcolm X?


Some say the system is broken. Others contend it is working as intended. Whatever the case may be, it’s clear there’s a great deal of work still to do.


I won’t give too much away here for those who’ve yet to catch the documentary series, but suffice to say the case made to identify those responsible for the murder of Malcolm X is compelling. And Rahman-Muhammad comes with receipts.

Incredible as the documentary is, it shouldn’t have taken decades of work by Rahman-Muhammad and others as well as an independent investigation for the authorities to do their job. And the film goes some way to explain why this never happened. The implications of the investigation might have been too much for some to grapple with.

What has become ever more apparent, though, especially during these last few weeks, is that the corrupt system that allowed Malcolm X’s killers to walk free is the same system that exists today. Some say the system is broken. Others contend it is working as intended. Whatever the case may be, it’s clear there’s a great deal of work still to do.

We heard the sad news in recent days, after the exoneration of Muhammad Abdul Aziz and Khalil Islam, that one of Malcolm X’s daughters passed away. Malikah Shabazz was 56 years old when she was found dead at home. She lived long enough to see two of the men falsely accused of killing her father have their names cleared.

In the decades since the assassination of Malcolm X, it might be comfortable to imagine we have traveled some way down the road of racial justice. But it’s a long road, and not an easy one.  

If the recent court cases are anything to go by, it’s clear justice is possible, but immense pressure must be applied to bring it about in all cases, not just the ones that make headlines. 

Justice is justice, and a system that properly administers it regardless of race will deter those hell-bent on racist violent vigilantism.


Richard Sudan covers human rights and American foreign affairs for the Editorial Board. Based in London, his reporting has appeared in The Guardian, Independent and others. Find him @richardsudan.

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