A cursory glance at the morning newsfeed will demonstrate that our great republic is currently awash in racial discord. Politicians have built profitable careers by setting one group of Americans against another, and we seem never to be more than a headline away from violence in the streets. While all that can seem overwhelming at times, it pales in comparison to America in 1965.
Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little in 1925. White supremacists were rumored to have murdered his father. Where Martin Luther King espoused non-violent resistance as the means to dispel racial disparity, Malcolm X embraced violence as a tool for social change. He championed intentional segregation of the United States by race and rejected the Civil Rights movement based upon its emphasis on integration.
Malcolm X was a committed Muslim who made a hajj to Mecca and returned a changed man. He subsequently broke off from the Nation of Islam in 1964 after serving as its spokesman for a dozen years. Disillusioned with NOI leader Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm embraced Sunni Islam, denounced attacks on whites, and started his own activist organization known as Muslim Mosque, Inc.
The same as it is today, radical Islam was remarkably intolerant of anyone who failed to embrace their particular brand of chaos. In the evening of February 25, 1965, in the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan, Nation of Islam assassins cut Malcolm X down.
There were around four hundred people in attendance that night at the Organization of Afro-American Unity and the group was rowdy. As Malcolm X took the stage to begin his address someone in the audience yelled, “Get your hand out of my pocket!” With attention drawn to this apparently diversionary scuffle, three men rushed from the crowd and opened fire.
Talmadge Hayer, Norman 3X Butler, and Thomas 15X Johnson were ultimately fingered as the killers, and they were brutally efficient. One wielded a side-by-side cut-down 12-gauge shotgun. The other two carried a 1911 .45ACP pistol and an unknown 9mm handgun.
Malcolm X caught the blast from the shotgun fully in the chest. The gun was stoked with Remington 0-buckshot loads. Ten of the pellets struck Malcolm’s body. At his autopsy, pathologists identified twenty-one separate gunshot wounds to his chest, left shoulder, arms, and legs.
At this point, the crowd went berserk. Hayer was shot in the leg, presumably by Malcolm’s bodyguards, and unable to escape. He was beaten brutally, suffering a femoral fracture along with several lesser injuries. When New York City police officers arrived, at least one of them discharged his weapon into the ceiling in an effort to gain access to the perpetrators.
The side-by-side cut-down shotgun has been a staple of the world’s criminal element for more than a century. The gun requires nothing more than a sporting shotgun and a hacksaw to produce and offers profound firepower in a readily concealable package. Sicilian mobsters refer to this particular DIY weapon as the Lupo.
In many localities where handguns are legally restricted the cut-down shotgun has become a common criminal tool. These guns are staples among serious British ne’er-do-wells.
As side-by-side hunting shotguns are among the most benign sporting arms in circulation they are typically the last to fall to gun bans. Cut-down pistol versions of these commercial weapons can be remarkably effective in the wrong hands.
I built my Lupo at home after filing a BATF Form 1 to cut down the barrels legally. I pruned back the tubes with a cutoff wheel on a table saw. I made a couple of cuts toward the muzzle to make sure I had the technique down before executing the final chop.
I filled the space between the barrels with JB Weld, drilled and tapped a hole for a new front sight bead, and dressed everything up carefully with a Dremel tool.
It took me four failed efforts before I finally built a pistol grip that looked and felt right.
The M1911A1 was itself an evolutionary development of John Moses Browning’s original M1911. The M1911 saw fairly extensive service in World War I before being upgraded to the M1911A1 configuration in 1924. Big, heavy, and mean, the basic 1911 pistol throws a slug the size of your thumbnail and is arguably the most effective military handgun ever produced.
The 1911 saw service through two World Wars as well as Korea and Vietnam. Generations of American servicemen used the weapon operationally, and it was widely distributed among American civilian shooters as well. The government released countless thousands of surplus 1911 pistols for civilian consumption back when American citizens were a bit more durable than is the case today.
The 1911 feeds from a seven-round single-stack box magazine and features one of the nicest single-action triggers ever employed on a military handgun. The magazine release is in the perfect spot underneath the shooter’s thumb when firing right handed, and magazines drop away cleanly. The slide release is just the right size for easy manipulation without being overly large. The manual thumb safety will lock the firing mechanism such that the weapon can be safely carried with a round in the chamber and the hammer back so long as basic safety measures are respected. Milspec sights are small and difficult to acquire in a rush, but this was common to all combat handguns of its era.
The 9mm Parabellum round is the most popular centerfire cartridge in the world. The brainchild of Georg Luger, the 9mm seems to strike the perfect balance between portability and power. While in its FMJ form the 9mm has been justifiably denigrated for its marginal stopping power, the round has claimed an awful lot of lives in this basic configuration.
Handguns firing this round can be readily configured to carry a substantial onboard ammunition load, though such staples as the German P08 Luger and Walther P38 still only pack eight rounds into their boxes. While the 9mm has found widespread acceptance in recent years handguns firing this round were not terribly common in the United States at the time of Malcolm X’s murder. The specific make and model of the 9mm pistol used in this assassination have been lost to time, but chances are it was a German military surplus pistol left over from World War II.
The cut-down side-by-side 12-gauge is a handful no matter what you stuff it with. Birdshot produces painful recoil and significant muzzle jump. High brass buckshot rounds like those used to kill Malcolm X are downright abusive to the firer.
Despite the gun’s vigorous recoil, it remains a profoundly effective close combat tool. My gun sports nine-inch barrels and will fill a standard silhouette with pellets at across-the-room ranges. Reloading is a chore, but those first two rounds are undeniably devastating.
The M1911A1 remains one of the world’s most effective combat handguns even today. Recoil is spunky without being abusive, and follow up shots are fast in the hands of a seasoned shooter. Despite its substantial chambering, a determined gunman can easily conceal a 1911 pistol underneath modest clothing. The single-stack nature of the magazine produces a relatively slim architecture that will tuck readily into a large coat pocket or waistline.
9mm pistols of most any stripe are pleasant on the range. Recoil is recreational, and muzzle flip is manageable with only the most rudimentary attention to technique. German surplus guns like the P08 Luger and P38 do not offer the world’s best ergonomics, but they nonetheless remain effective and lethal at modest ranges.
Hayer, Butler, and Johnson were all convicted and sentenced to between twenty years and life in prison in 1966. Hayer admitted to his role in the shooting but claimed that Butler and Johnson were not involved. He attested in 1977 that he had planned the assassination along with three different NOI members in retaliation for disparaging remarks Malcolm X made about Elijah Muhammad.
During his forty-five years in prison, Talmadge Hayer earned both bachelors and masters degrees. In 1988 Hayer was transferred to a work-release program. He has worked as a counselor at a homeless shelter and in a fast-food restaurant since then. He was officially paroled in 2010. Though still a practicing Muslim, Hayer abandoned the Nation of Islam and expressed “regrets and sorrow” for having shot Malcolm X.
Norman Butler was paroled in 1985 and became the leader of the Nation of Islam Harlem Mosque. He still maintains his innocence.
Thomas Johnson was paroled two years later. Johnson left the NOI for Sunni Islam and died in 2009.
Malcolm X was as disruptive in death as he was in life. Now more than half a century after his murder, conspiracy theories still orbit around the details. While the circumstances presented here represent the best consensus I could find, there yet remains plenty to dispute about the man, his worldview, and his demise.
Louis Farrakhan was a prominent leader in the Nation of Islam at the time of the killing and remains a consistently controversial figure today. He once spoke this of Malcolm X, “Was Malcolm your traitor or ours? And if we dealt with him like a nation deals with a traitor, what the hell business is it of yours? A nation has to be able to deal with traitors and cutthroats and turncoats.” Farrakhan heads the Nation of Islam today.