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Why Malcolm X’s Family Is Suing the FBI, NYPD, and CIA 58 Years After His Death

7 minute read

The family of civil rights leader Malcolm X marked the anniversary of his 1965 assassination on Tuesday by announcing plans to sue the FBI, New York Police Department, and CIA for $100 million, claiming they concealed evidence related to his murder.

For more than half a century, the circumstances surrounding the notorious assassination have been shrouded in mystery, fueling long-held conspiracy theories about possible government involvement. Two men who were convicted of murdering Malcolm X in 1966 were exonerated in 2021 after serving decades in prison—and the New York District Attorney admitted that the FBI and NYPD at the time withheld evidence.

“For years, our family has fought for the truth to come to light concerning his murder,” Ilyasah Shabazz, a daughter of Malcolm X, said at a news conference at the site of her father’s assassination, which is now a memorial.

The civil rights leader was 39 when he was assassinated in 1965 at an auditorium in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood. Three gunmen shot at least 21 times, as Malcolm X’s four children and pregnant wife ducked for safety.

At the news conference on Tuesday, civil rights lawyer Ben Crump said: “It’s not just about the triggermen. It’s about those who conspired with the triggermen to do this dastardly deed.” He claims that government agencies had factual and exculpatory evidence that they concealed from the family of Malcolm X and the men wrongly convicted of his assassination. Crump alleged that high-ranking U.S. officials conspired to kill the civil rights leader, repeatedly referencing J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI director who died in 1972.

Here’s what to know.

Ilyasah Shabazz (C), daughter of African-American activist Malcolm X, speaks alongside civil rights attorney Ben Crump (L) and co-counsel Ray Hamlin (C, R) during a press conference in New York on February 21, 2023 at the Malcolm X & Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center, formerly known as the Audubon Ballroom, where Malcolm X was shot dead at 39 on Feb. 21, 1965.Timothy A. Clary–AFP via Getty Images

What we know about Malcolm X’s assassination

Malcolm X was a controversial figure for many Americans—both white and Black. Unflinching when it came to calling out the realities of anti-Black racism, and famously referring to white people as “blue-eyed devils,” he spoke about the need for Black empowerment. He argued for the creation of a Black separatist society, and was a highly visible figure within the Nation of Islam.

In March 1964, Malcolm X announced that he was leaving the Nation of Islam over disagreements with Elijah Muhammad, the group’s leader. He was assassinated a year later as he was preparing to give a speech about the mission of his new group, the Organization of Afro-American Unity, at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City on Feb. 21, 1965.

When Malcolm X took the stage to begin his address, an apparent dispute broke out among the audience and a man ran onto the stage, approached Malcolm X and shot him. Two other people then ran up to the stage and also fired. The civil rights leader was shot a total of 21 times.

What we know about the men convicted of his murder

In the more than half a century since his death, what actually happened that day has remained the subject of controversy and conspiracy theories. One man who was shot by a bodyguard and captured, Thomas Hagan (a.k.a Talmadge Hayer and Mujahid Abdul Halim), confessed to the killing and was imprisoned for 44 years. But since his 1966 trial, he has maintained that the other two Nation of Islam members convicted in the murder were innocent: Norman Butler (a.k.a Muhammad Abdul Aziz) and Thomas Johnson (a.k.a Khalil Islam). Hayer did not name any other culprits at the time of the trial.

There was no evidence linking Butler or Johnson to the crime. Butler had an alibi for the time of the murder: He was at home resting after injuring his leg, and a doctor who had treated him took the stand during the trial. Nonetheless, all three men were found guilty in 1966 and sentenced to life in prison.

In 1977, Hayer named four men who were members of the Nation of Islam’s Newark chapter who he said had begun planning Malcolm X’s murder in May 1964. He said that he was approached by two of the four men, who told him that Malcolm X should be killed. They later met with the other two men and discussed how they would commit the assassination, he said.

“I had a bit of love and admiration for [Nation of Islam leader] the Honorable Elijah Muhammed, and I just felt that like this is something that I have to stand up for,” Hayer later said, according to Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, a 2011 biography of Malcolm X written by historian Manning Marable.

But for decades, the new information about the other four alleged conspirators went nowhere. The District Attorney’s office did not reopen the investigation until a 2020 Netflix documentary series Who Killed Malcolm X? and efforts by the Innocence Project renewed public interest in the case and prompted Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. to review the convictions.

Evidence unearthed by Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, a Malcolm X historian and scholar, and investigative journalist Les Payne made a compelling case that the actual killers were members of a Newark mosque, rather than Malcolm X’s former Harlem mosque associates Butler and Johnson. In November, a judge dismissed the convictions of Butler and Johnson after Vance acknowledged that “it was clear these men did not receive a fair trial.” New York City was ordered to pay $26 million to the pair to compensate them for their wrongful murder convictions.

What we know about theories about allegations of CIA and FBI involvement

In addition to the unfair trial, some historians have argued that various agencies including the FBI, NYPD, and CIA were actively involved in the assassination attempt. Experts have said that these agencies viewed Malcolm X as a dangerous Black radical figure who needed to be brought down. Others have suggested that they did not need to plot to murder him since he was already a target.

Nonetheless, Malcolm X was under near-constant surveillance by federal and local authorities—as were many civil rights activists. The FBI first opened a file on Malcolm X in March 1953, and closely monitored him over the next decade using surveillance and informants. On June 6, 1964, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover sent a telegram, which later became public, to the FBI office in New York City that said “do something about Malcolm X.”

“Both the NYPD and FBI failed to disclose to prosecutors that they had undercover officers on the scene,” historian Zaheer Ali, the lead researcher for Marable’s biography Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, wrote for TIME in November 2021. “They decided instead to protect their assets; there seemed to be a desire to wrap up the investigation quickly. What paths of inquiry were avoided or cut short as a result? If these two men were unjustly convicted, then who else was unjustly allowed to roam free?”

Crump, the lawyer representing Malcolm X’s family, said on Tuesday that their lawsuit will allege that government agencies were involved in the conspiracy to assassinate Malcolm X. The New York District Attorney’s office has already acknowledged law enforcement’s failings in the case, saying in 2021 that the FBI and NYPD did not honor their obligation to disclose exculpatory evidence to prosecutors and the accused, including “information that implicated other suspects; that identified witnesses who failed to identify defendant Islam; and that revealed witnesses to be FBI informants.” The office also said at the time that FBI records suggested “that information was deliberately withheld.”

According to Crump, these comments from the New York District Attorney’s office—combined with the city’s $26 million settlement—are what opened the door for Malcolm X’s family to build a case against authorities. “If the government compensated the two gentlemen that were wrongfully convicted for the assassination of Malcolm X with tens of millions of dollars, then what is to be the compensation for the daughters who suffered the most from the assassination of Malcolm X?” Crump asked.

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Write to Nik Popli at nik.popli@time.com