The Biggest Conspiracy Theories Surrounding Malcolm X's Assassination

Here's what we know for sure about the assassination of civil rights leader Malcolm X: that the long-held official explanation for his death — that he was killed by three members of the Nation of Islam, who were all arrested and sent to prison for decades — is now believed to be false. Manhattan prosecutors reviewed the case for nearly two years, according to The New York Times. In light of this, two of the men convicted for Malcolm X's killing will have their charges completely exonerated; unfortunately, one of them died in 2009, having maintained his innocence for decades.

This means that the alternate explanations for Malcolm X's assassination have considerable more credibility than is usually meant by the term "conspiracy theory." In fact, writes the Times, the Manhattan district attorney's office concluded that the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the New York Police Department withheld evidence that might have led to the acquittal of the two men, known then as Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson, back when they were first placed on trial. This led DA Cyrus Vance Jr. to apologize on behalf of the city.

"This wasn't a mere oversight," Deborah Francois, one of the lawyers for the men, told the Times. "This was a product of extreme and gross official misconduct."

The biggest theory: He was killed by other Nation of Islam members

After Malcolm X was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan, three men were arrested: Mujahid Abdul Halim, who was arrested at the ballroom after being shot in the leg; Norman 3X Butler, later known as Muhammad Aziz, who was arrested five days later; and Thomas 15X Johnson, later known as Khalil Islam, who was arrested another five days after that, according to The New York Times.

Both Aziz and Islam had alibis for the time of the killing, and though Halim confessed to his involvement in the assassination, he also attested that Aziz and Islam were innocent. In fact, Halim claimed that another Nation of Islam member was one of the killers: William Bradley. But the name William Bradley was never mentioned to jurors, even though he fit the description of one of the assassins much more closely than Islam did.

The FBI never even told New York City investigators that Bradley was a suspect. But Bradley, unlike Aziz and Islam, had a close connection with Halim — they both attended the same Newark, New Jersey mosque. Aziz and Islam lived and worshiped in New York City.

Though the report by the Manhattan district attorney's office found that New York City police and the FBI made critical failures in the case, it did not find that law enforcement directed the assassination, according to the Times. But another theory gained prominence in 2021: that law enforcement allowed the assassination to occur by purposefully weakening Malcolm X's security detail.

Did law enforcement deliberately weaken Malcolm X's security team?

The theory was bolstered by a letter, allegedly written in 2011 by former undercover detective Ray Wood, in which Wood wrote that he participated in a sting in which he worked with radical black activists to plot to blow up the Statue of Liberty, according to The Washington Post. When the activists — including high-profile communist Robert Steele Collier — began to enact their plan, they were arrested.

Wood's participation in the plot as an undercover officer was widely reported, and the activists claimed that the sting operation was entrapment. But in the letter, Wood supposedly confessed to something worse: that the plot had been designed specifically to arrest two little-known activists in the group, who were also members of Malcolm X's security team. The letter alleges that the whole sting was a ploy to leave Malcolm X vulnerable before his speech at the Audubon Ballroom. Five days later, while the Statue of Liberty plotters were in jail, Malcolm X was killed.

It isn't clear that this letter, which was released by Wood's cousin, is authentic; his daughter has said that she believes it's a fake, according to the Post, and the two associates of Malcolm X who were arrested in the plot were not vital parts of Malcolm X's team. But it's known that at least one other undercover officer actually infiltrated the leader's security team: Gene Roberts, who was on stage with Malcolm X after he was shot, attempting mouth-to-mouth resuscitation (via Esquire).