Thomas Hagan: What Happened To The Man Who Killed Malcolm X?

The death of Black revolutionary and civil rights leader Malcolm X was a devastating blow to the movement for racial equality in the U.S. On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was giving a speech at the Audubon Ballroom in New York. As he was talking, he was interrupted by a disruption going on in the room. When security attempted to maintain silence for the leader's speech, a man ran toward Malcolm X and shot at him. This first assassin was joined by two other men who also shot at X until he was dead. He was 39 years old.

The brazen assassination was witnessed by the more than 400 people in attendance (via Penn Live), and attendees were able to capture and apprehend the main shooter — later identified as Thomas Hagan (then Talmadge Hayer). Hagan was a member of the Nation of Islam (NOI), a Black-American Islamic and political organization, and a group that Malcolm X was once a member of before leaving to convert to Islam in Mecca, per African American Registry.

Malcolm X became a major figure in the civil rights movement

Malcolm X had lived through a tough upbringing. Born Malcolm Little, his father, a Baptist minister and political activist, was hit by a car in what some believe was a possible murder (per Britannica). Malcolm was just 6 years old. His mother, Louie, was institutionalized when Malcolm was 14. This led Malcolm to turn to crime at a young age, and he wound up sentenced to juvenile detention centers. He eventually moved to Boston to live with his half-sister where he continued his life of crime, dealing drugs and working with gangs.  While serving time in jail for robbery, Little joined the Nation of Islam and took the surname X, as was the Nation's custom. He had been a good student and was incredibly intelligent. He read as many books as he could in the prison library and took debate classes, which helped to sharpen his incredible oratory skills.

He went on to become a central figure in the American civil rights movement of the 1960s, alongside the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., though the two often disagreed on certain matters and approaches. Dr. King championed non-violence and civil disobedience, whereas X famously told his followers to defend themselves "by any means necessary." 

After a pilgrimage to Mecca, X's views started to evolve and he left the Nation of Islam, per PBS. This caused immense tension between himself and his former organization, which led to both death threats and his eventual assassination in 1965 at the Audubon Ballroom.

Hagan and Accomplices Assassinate Malcolm X

Malcolm had been instrumental in the NOI's membership growth and had become the most recognizable face of the organization. His departure from the Nation had added more tension to an already sour relationship brewing between Malcolm and the NOI's leader, Elijah Muhammad. As a result of his split, he spent the last year of his life receiving countless death threats from the group (via Britannica).

Hagan was arrested and charged with Malcolm X's murder, along with the other two men, Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson. But the latter two have always maintained their innocence (per Innocence Project), and supporting that, even Hagan has always said that they were not involved in the assassination, even going so far as to name the men he said were his true accomplices in an affidavit, per ABC News. Despite that, all three were convicted of the murder in 1966.

Decades later, Butler, whose name is now Muhammad Aziz, was released in 1985, per The New York Times. Johnson, who changed his name to Khalil Islam, was released in 1987 (via New York Magazine). He died in 2009. Both men continued to claim their innocence, and in 2021 a judge finally listened to them, opting to exonerate both men. "I do not need this court, these prosecutors or a piece of paper to tell me I am innocent," Aziz said in the courtroom before his exoneration. "I am an 83-year-old man who was victimized by the criminal justice system."

Thomas Hagen today

In April 2010, the only person who admitted shooting the activist at the Audubon Ballroom was out of prison. Thomas Hagan was released on parole from a New York Prison 44 years after being convicted in Malcolm X's murder, reported CNN. He was 69 years old at the time of his release and coincidentally, on that day he walked out of a New York City minimum-security prison at the intersection of West 110th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard.

Today Hagan is 80 years old. Prior to his official release he was living in Brooklyn, New York several days out of the week and in prison the other days, a program he'd been actively partaking in since 1992. Last year, Netflix released an investigative documentary series titled "Who Killed Malcolm X?" shedding light on the men whom Hagan named in his affidavit. (The trailer is posted on YouTube.) Although he does not appear in the docuseries, old footage and photographs of Hagan were used and the documentary's directors credited him (as Talmadge Hayer) in the project, according to IMDb