Khalil attributes survival during what he calls “my little sabbatical” to his protective “ring of fire.” Some of it was physical. As the highest-ranking NOI member, Khalil acted as “the captain of the joint, dealing with the warden, getting the right food, teaching religion. If there was any trouble with the white-power nuts or the Panthers, I sent out my strike teams, because in a place like Dannemora, you can’t let nothing slide.”
Mostly, though, Khalil’s “ring of fire” was inside his head. “At Auburn, this priest gave me a book, the Metaphysical Bible Dictionary. That’s when I knew you couldn’t take Scripture at face value, that you needed to understand allegory, symbolism, the truth behind the word. That’s how I went, step-by-step. In Attica, this guy from Binghamton gave me In Search of the Miraculous, by P. D. Ouspensky. He said how without consciousness, people were basically machines. After that robotism in the Nation, that made sense. I got into the esoteric religions from there. We had a bunch of guys in the block—big, tough cats—looking through Isis Unveiled, by Madame Blavatsky. We read epistemology, etymology, memorized Shakespearean sonnets for fun. In the hole, I read by the hall light because they wouldn’t give you more than fifteen watts in the cell. I wrecked my eyes like that. You know, like Abraham Lincoln. I’d pass on chow because there was this chapter I had to finish.”
Khalil’s self-education was well under way when, in 1976, Wallace D. Muhammad, son of Elijah Muhammad (who had died the year before), came to visit him in Attica. Educated in traditional Islamic schools, an Arabic speaker and Koranic scholar, W. D. Muhammad had no use for mythic mother planes and big-headed scientists. Often clashing with the elder Muhammad, Wallace and Malcolm X had become kindred spirits over the years.
Khalil was amazed and honored to receive Wallace, whom he holds in the highest esteem. “The Nation had become corrupt, the ministers just a bunch of money-skimming pimps. There were stories about them smuggling cocaine inside the bodies of the fish the Nation was importing from Peru.
“But that didn’t mean I was going to start following Jesus Christ or whatever. I was a Muslim. An American Muslim. That’s why I was so happy to see W.D. Muhammad, because I knew he was different. I knew he was truly a man of God.
“He told me to look him in the eye and tell him whether or not I had anything to do with killing Malcolm X. I knew they were friends, so he wasn’t asking just as a leader but also as a man. I told him I didn’t do it.
“That was when he gave me my name, Khalil Islam, which means ‘friend of God.’ I knew, however long they kept me in jail, whatever they did to me, I was exonerated.”
Despite near-universal acknowledgment of his innocence, Khalil was not to be released for another eleven years. In the early eighties, Muhammad Ali, the most famous of all Black Muslims, paid for him to take a polygraph test. While allowing that Ali’s Islamic progress was hindered by a serious “zipper problem,” Khalil passed the polygraph, but nothing happened.
Nothing happened either when, in 1977, Talmadge Hayer, who’d kept quiet while Elijah was alive, signed an affidavit revealing the names of the four men who he claimed really helped him assassinate Malcolm. “You’d figure that might at least get you a new trial, a hearing, something,” Khalil says. But despite the efforts of William Kunstler, it didn’t. The four men named by Hayer remained at large, while Khalil stayed in jail.
Parole petitions went nowhere. At one particularly dismaying hearing, held at Dannemora in January 1985, a Commissioner Burke told Khalil that “everyone has come full circle” on Malcolm X since 1965, when the New York Times report of his murder described the leader as “a bearded extremist.”
“You changed the course of history,” Burke lectured Khalil. “Do you understand? It’s no essential difference … between Malcolm X and Gandhi for a segment of the population … Malcolm was an awakened spirit … We don’t know where we would be today, twenty years later, if he still had been around … We would talk about Kennedy. We would talk about Sadat … I’m trying to tell you, you got convicted of a heavy crime.”
“Can you believe it, having to listen to this incredible crap?” Khalil says, still aghast at the tricknological irony of it all. “They couldn’t wait to bury Malcolm, and now he’s this great hero.”
Finally let out of jail in 1987, Khalil worked a variety of jobs, including a stint as a drug counselor in Poughkeepsie. He taught Islam in the Bronx. “Then my health went.” Khalil has had triple-bypass heart surgery and suffers from diabetes. Only a few days ago, he felt short of breath and couldn’t move.