Malcolm X was assassinated when doing what he did best, giving a speech to empower African-Americans. At the rally on 25th February 1965, just after Malcolm had greeted the audience, three assassins shot him. Today Harlemites remember the Audubon Ballroom as the place of the assassination of Malcolm X.
Since summer 1964 Malcolm X and his followers used the Audubon Ballroom for their rallies. On Sunday afternoons several hundred people gathered to hear Malcolm speak and to learn more about his new association: the Organization of African-American Unity. The OAAU was a secular group with the aim to bring justice to African-Americans and fight racism in the US.
Malcolm X had formed the OAAU when he was expelled from the Nation of Islam, his former spiritual home. Once the Nation’s most prominent speaker Malcolm fell into disgrace with his own views on how to achieve black empowerment. Disgrace changed into death threats when Malcolm accused the Nation’s leader Elijah Muhammad of infidelity, a scandal concerning the assumed high morality of the Nation of Islam members.
Additionally Malcolm suspected rightly that the FBI kept him under surveillance. On 9th February 1965 while travelling from London to Paris the French border authorities denied Malcolm entrance. The US government had taken as much interest in him as to hinder Malcolm in his actions.
So the beginning of 1965 was a time of immense pressure for Malcolm: his ever intense schedule, travelling, building two new organisations and most influential the attacks on his life. The most recent and most severe attack was the firebombing of his home on 14th February 1965. Fortunately everyone of the Shabazz family came out unharmed. However, they couldn’t stay in the damaged house and so Betty and the children found shelter with friends whilst Malcolm spent the nights in hotel rooms.
Malcolm’s friends noticed that he seemed more and more exhausted. When before he burst of energy now he was often tired. He himself said he might not live much longer.
The assassination of Malcolm X
The rally on 25th February 1965 was unusual in several ways. As everyone was aware of the threats to Malcolm’s life, visitors usually were checked for weapons. However, on this day, Malcolm himself had requested that people would enter without a search because otherwise they would feel uncomfortable.
Furthermore the police officers didn’t position themselves at the venue but a few blocks away, also because Malcolm’s people demanded it. Yet it is puzzling why the police followed accordingly as by then it was clear that the NOI tried to murder Malcolm X.
Strangely in this tense situation Malcolm called his wife Betty in the morning and asked her to come to the rally. She accepted happily and so their four daughters and Betty came to the Audubon ballroom.
Malcolm X took to the stage and greeted the audience with the usual “As-salaam alaikum” (Peace be upon you). Just after people had responded someone in the audience sad loudly: “Get your hands out of my pockets!” This was just a fake announcement in order to draw the attention of the audience and security guards away from the stage. A few moments later three men with guns got up from their chairs, ran towards the stage and all three shot several bullets into Malcolm. He fell backwards, still living. Panic evolved in the ballroom. Betty hid her children under the chairs, then got up and frantically cried over her husband. With Betty around 400 people witnessed the assassination.
In the meantime several of Malcolm’s followers had brought a gurney, put Malcolm on it and wheeled him to the hospital nearby: the Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. Until then no ambulance had arrived at the Audubon ballroom.
The doctors in the hospital’s emergency room tried to revive Malcolm but failed. On Sunday, 25th February 1965 at around 3.30 pm Malcolm had died.
After the assassination
During the chaos before and after the shooting two of the three assassins as well as the two men who had acted out the pocketing managed to escape. One of the assassins was caught by the visitors and one security guard shot him in the thigh.
The police arrived late at the Audubon and already left at 6 pm. The officers didn’t take the effort to make a proper analysis of the crime scene. At 6 pm the cleaning staff started to prepare the ballroom for the evening dance which took place as scheduled at 7 pm. As if nothing had happened.
Harlem was in shock. African-Americans had lost their dedicated, fearless leader who despite the fame remained one of them. He never backed down and now he was killed by his own people. There was fear of more violence and indeed during the night Mosque #7 was bombed.
It is a great gift that the place that saw the assassination of Malcolm X is open to the public. The Malcolm X & Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center hosts an exhibition about Malcolm on the premises and runs events occasionally. The exhibition includes posters with photographs and excerpts from the autobiography, video footage of a few speeches and interactive displays from which I remember a digital map with Malcolm’s accommodations in Harlem.
How to get there
Audubon Ballroom / The Malcolm X & Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center (The Shabazz Center)
Address: 3940 Broadway, New York, NY 10032
Closest Subway Station: 168 Street (lines A C)
Manning Marable: Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, 2011
Malcolm X and Alex Haley: The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley, 1965
For the most detailed account of Malcolm’s last days I recommend the biography by Manning Marable.