‘Scene of the crime,” said Khalil, still the assassin of record, as he stood in the lobby of the Audubon Ballroom, now home to the Malcolm X & Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center. The museum features videos depicting Malcolm’s life and times. “A lot of familiar faces,” Khalil said, pointing out footage of Lewis Michaux, owner of the National Memorial African Bookstore, whose motto was “The House of Common Sense and Home of Proper Propaganda.” Khalil often saw Malcolm in the 125th Street shop, reading Hegel. “Hegel was his man.”
“There’s James,” Khalil said, identifying James X, a minister from a New Jersey mosque. James was murdered in retaliation for Malcolm’s death, Khalil says. In response, he says, James’s killers were themselves murdered, their decapitated heads mounted on a row of parking meters. Another video had Malcolm’s famous “chickens coming home to roost” speech following JFK’s assassination. “I was right there when he said that,” Khalil said, indicating a spot just barely outside the movie frame.
Khalil also pointed out “the agents.” “Every other man was a cop,” said Khalil, who was compromised at his trial by dutifully lying to protect John Ali, Elijah Muhammad’s national secretary—who many came to believe was an FBI agent. “I screwed myself lying to protect an informer,” Khalil says, shaking his head.
As with other sixties assassinations, the possible role of the authorities, especially the FBI cointelpro units, in Malcolm’s killing has been much discussed. Often cited is the fact that uniformed NYPD officers, usually much in evidence at the Audubon meetings, chose the day of the murder to station themselves outside the hall, in the hospital across the street. Speculation takes off from there, with civil-rights leader James Farmer suggesting a cabal of Harlem and Mafia racketeers made the hit on Malcolm.
Nowhere in the copious literature—at least in nothing I came across—does anyone make the case that Thomas 15X Johnson was guilty as charged.
“He’s innocent,” says Manning Marable, a Columbia professor who has spent the last twenty years working on what he contends will be the definitive study of Malcolm X’s life and death. “At the Audubon, the order was, no one from Temple No. 7 gets in. Thomas Johnson was a well-known enforcer. He would have been spotted. It just couldn’t have happened that way.”
Still, there was something unsettling about being in this place, with this man. Khalil said he didn’t do it, and after spending a good deal of time with him, I had every reason to believe him. But one of the more interesting things about a very interesting man was the idea that if the circumstances had been different, he could have done it, maybe even would have done it.
“If we caught someone smoking a cigarette in the mosque, we’d throw them down the stairs headfirst,” Khalil said, with a straightforward steeliness. “You didn’t break the rules. Malcolm knew that. So what did he expect, saying those things about Elijah Muhammad? That was one of the first tenets of the religion: You don’t criticize the leader, for sure you don’t do it to white people. The truth is, I thought the man was worthy of death.”
But that was then and this is now. The man he once was, Thomas 15X Johnson, is long gone, Khalil said, “passed on, burning in hell, fried like a chicken in the electric chair.” Now, standing in the Audubon lobby, he said, “It was horrible what they did to Malcolm. Blasting a man in front of his family. His babies right there. Betty crying. It’s enough to make you sick.”
Khalil turned to view a life-size statue of Malcolm X. It is a decent likeness, Malcolm’s left hand thrust into his pocket, right index finger extended, making his point. What if that statue came to life—if Malcolm were standing right there, what might Khalil say to him?
Khalil cocked his head. “You know, Malcolm and I spent a lot of time together when he was in the Nation. That was my job, to make sure he had a parking space out in front of the mosque, to pick up groceries and drive them to his house in East Elmhurst. He used to ask me, ‘Thomas, why don’t you talk? He said men who didn’t talk made him nervous.’”
Khalil thought perhaps Malcolm was just trying to find someone “he could be loose with, because believe me, he was never, ever, in a rush to go home … But I didn’t think it was my place to speak to Malcolm X. He was the top minister. A brilliant man. What was I going to say to someone like that? I was an uneducated fool, a soldier, with blinders on. I was just trying to be a respectful Muslim, keeping my mouth shut.”
Asked if he still felt that way, Khalil said, “No. Now it would be different. We’d have a lot to say, him and me.”