The Murder of Malcolm X: Muslim Fratricide in Tumultuous 1960’s America

America’s current racial divide is not nearly the chasm the nation dealt with in the 1960’s.

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 a Black Muslim activist who embraced violence as a means to address racial inequality.

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’s radical views put him in contact with some sordid characters. Here he is seen visiting with Fidel Castro.

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.

This is one of the most iconic photos to come out of the Civil Rights era. Malcolm X wields an M1 Carbine out of concern for attacks from his former brothers at the Nation of Islam.

Malcolm X’s carbine sports late-war features like an adjustable rear sight and bayonet lug along with a pair of 30-round magazines taped back to back.

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.

The Killing

The assassination of Malcolm X took place in a roomful of around 400 spectators.

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.

Bystanders rushed to his aid, but Malcolm X had absorbed the fury of at least three armed attackers unleashed at close range.

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.

The initial blast from the sawed-off shotgun shredded the man’s heart.

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.

This photograph of the Audubon Ballroom after the attack bespeaks the chaos.

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 Guns

A cut-down side-by-side shotgun makes a formidable close range weapon.

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.

The Sicilian Lupo is easily conjured with little more than a side-by-side sporting shotgun and a hacksaw.

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.

These devastating short-barreled shotguns begin as benign sporting arms.

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.

The resulting shotgun pistol is concealable and powerful.

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 dressed the muzzles of my gun with a Dremel tool and filled the resulting void between the barrels with JB Weld.

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 five tries to craft a pistol grip that seemed to match the geometry of my shotgun.

I built my pistol grip by laminating three layers of wood together. Dowels glued crosswise keep it strong.

It took me four failed efforts before I finally built a pistol grip that looked and felt right.

The M1911A1 is an integral part of Americana.

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 M1911A1 was an inspired brainchild of the firearms luminary John Moses Browning.

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 controls of the M1911A1 flirt with perfection.

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 specific type of 9mm pistol used in the murder of Malcolm X seems to have been lost to history.

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.

The Walther P38 (left) and the P08 Luger were common 9mm veteran bringback weapons available in the 1960’s.

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.

Trigger Time

The cut-down side-by-side 12-gauge is a monster no matter what it fires.

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.

This side-by-side short-barreled shotgun was an easy BATF Form 1 workshop project.

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 is a powerful and effective combat handgun.

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.

The 9mm Parabellum has been derided as insufficiently powerful in its FMJ guise. Shown here from left to right are the .45ACP, the 12-gauge, and the 9mm Parabellum.

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.

The Aftermath

These three firearms are representative of the guns used by Nation of Islam assassins to murder Malcolm X.

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.

Talmadge Hayer admitted to the murder of Malcolm X and later expressed his regret at committing the crime.

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.

Killed violently at age 39, Malcolm X was and is a controversial figure.

Conspiracy theories about the death of Malcolm X still abound even today.

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 is the current head of the Nation of Islam.

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.

The brutal murder of Malcolm X shocked the country.

The assassin’s short-barreled shotgun fed Remington 0-buckshot.

These bullet fragments were removed from Malcolm X after his death.

Malcolm X ultimately succumbed to internecine Muslim rivalries not fundamentally dissimilar to those we see active in the Middle East today.

***Shop GunsAmerica for your next self-defense handgun***

About the author: Will Dabbs A native of the Mississippi Delta, Will is a mechanical engineer who flew UH1H, OH58A/C, CH47D, and AH1S aircraft as an Army Aviator. He has parachuted out of perfectly good airplanes at 3 o’clock in the morning and summited Mount McKinley, Alaska, six times…always at the controls of an Army helicopter, which is the only way sensible folk climb mountains. Major Dabbs eventually resigned his commission in favor of medical school where he delivered 60 babies and occasionally wrung human blood out of his socks. Will works in his own urgent care clinic, shares a business build-ing precision rifles and sound suppressors, and has written for the gun press since 1989. He is married to his high school sweetheart, has three awesome adult children, and teaches Sunday School. Turn-ons include vintage German machineguns, flying his sexy-cool RV6A airplane, Count Chocula cereal, and the movie “Aliens.”

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  • C Geen April 22, 2022, 4:02 pm

    I enjoyed reading this article. I was delighted with the angle you took on the guns used. But, of course, a shotgun has a place in any defense plan or, in this case, a devasting conceal weapon. Additionally, who doesn’t love a 1911!

  • Ti October 30, 2019, 12:14 am

    That was interesting.

    I lean toward the golden rule. Not stupid though and know we aren’t equal to the elite.

    Studying bang for the given space – 2 3/4 in chamber by 12 g. I loaded my double barrel in the upstairs closet (not sawed off though..:( ) with #4 Buck as I believe that is on the .32 cal side and gives you max count pellets of a good lethal size in that chamber size.

  • Jerry October 28, 2019, 6:53 pm

    Always enjoy your articles Mr. Dabbs, and this is no exception. However, there appears to be a slight discrepancy in the date of the event. The text indicates that the assassination occurred “In the evening of February 25, 1965…”, yet the evidence tags all indicate a date of “2/21/65”. Dr. Google agrees with the evidence tags.

  • trail October 28, 2019, 2:20 pm

    While Malcolm X may have advocated his slogan “by any means necessary” at one point he also advocated for the arming of the african american population for self defense against a racist and segregated society. He merely to people to exercise their second amendment rights as americans. As a result he scared the hell out of the sacramento legislature and Governor Ronald Reagan at the time. Thus the republican party started gun control in California and they started passing laws to curb black people from owning guns. Today, we now have the SRC (socialist republic of california). We have more gun control laws than any other state yet we still have mass shootings and gun violence. The public has lost their constitutional right to self defense in public due to their second amendment rights being infringed by the democratic party and voters themselves. No open carry and virtually impossible to get a cc permit in the SRC. Gun control is a government monopoly on violence and weapons. Gun control is people control and further departmentalization of society. Gun control kills innocent people by denying their right to self defense in public. This may be the golden age of firearms but it is the fight of our times for freedom and gun rights which are slowly be whittled away state by state. The second amendment is being destroyed by a thousand cuts. If the democrats win the senate and presidency in 2020 , things are going to changed very rapidly. The golden age will end and a new semiautomatic ban will pass. Thanks President and Governor Reagan and Governor Newson. Of course the voters passed prop 63 as well but they are brainwashed by the corporate entertainment media and easily swayed by politicians who have armed security themselves and take millions in contributions from the war industry. The shortsighted public and uneducated youth are begging in the streets for a corrupt, powerful and well armed government to take away our rights and protect us at all costs. A society that rejects freedom and cant protect themselves is a recipe for tyranny. “those who trade liberty for security deserve neither”. B,Franklin. “beware the military industrial complex” Pres. H.S. Truman. “skynet is coming and the drones will be controlled by the government, at first anyway”, me.

  • Mark Johnson October 28, 2019, 2:07 pm

    As I remember from reading his autobiography long ago, he said his father was a rapist and gave him a reddish color to hair and maybe skin. What I remember is at odds with the idea that white racists murdered the guy.

    It does the world a lot of good for some people to change their views, and this man is an example.

  • Lloyd Dumas October 28, 2019, 10:28 am

    I didn’t care for Mr.X when he was teaching division and black supremest, rather I believe we must learn to live together black and white. There is no supreme race, brother X found this the hard way and it cost him his life.

  • SuperG October 25, 2019, 10:30 am

    Go on Youtube and watch what he has to say about Democrats.

  • Rokurota October 25, 2019, 9:37 am

    After reading his autobiography, I have much respect for Malcolm X. He had a complex mind that seemed to be always groping for the truth, and he was not afraid to follow the facts. To many white people, the sum of his character is “he hated whites,” and while that was at one time true, Malcolm X is proof that people can and do change.

    Keep these articles coming, Dr. Dabbs!

    • Cliff October 28, 2019, 11:57 am

      Well said Rokurota,

      I also read his autobiography and came to almost the exact same conclusion.

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