“Everyone was standing around like I was dying. ‘Ain’t you ever seen anyone have a heart attack before?’ I screamed.” This worries Khalil because, like every Muslim, he longs to go to Mecca, to make his hajj. “If I don’t do that, I’m going to die a miserable man.”
Khalil lives with his third wife, Helen Greene Johnson—whose knowledge of CPR he credits with saving his life at least two times—in a senior-citizen’s home on 124th Street a block from Lenox Avenue, now renamed Malcolm X Boulevard. Looking at the ubiquitous green signs, Khalil says, “They never let you forget.”
Four decades after his conviction, Khalil maintains an uneasy relationship with the memory of the famous man he didn’t kill. Asked if he ever has to fend off people angry about his alleged crime, Khalil says, “It has never happened—not in the joint, not outside—if it did, I’d just tell them the truth. But people are strange. Not so long ago, this lady was looking at me. Now, I’m a Muslim, I don’t backstreet around, but I played along. She wanted to know what it was like: shooting Malcolm. When I told her I didn’t do it, she lost interest. She vanished.”
Khalil’s own feelings are more complicated. “This thing destroyed my family; how am I supposed to feel?” He is still rankled by an incident at the trial, when Betty Shabazz, Malcolm’s widow, unable to identify Khalil on the stand, passed the defense table and began screaming, in full view of the jury, “They killed my husband! They killed him!”
“After all those days I’d wait out in the rain in front of her house with her groceries, I couldn’t help wondering if that was just part of the setup,” Khalil says pitilessly. “They should have given her an Oscar for that.”
Khalil likewise takes a dim view of the popularized interpretation of Malcolm’s political legacy. No fan of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, Khalil says, “They made him into a cartoon. A shell. By any means necessary—that’s the only thing left over now. Where you gonna get with a slogan like that on your T-shirt? In the joint, the Panthers were screaming about revolution, calling Muslims Uncle Toms. I’d say, ‘You think you’re taking on this government, where’s your air force, where’s your tanks?’ People lie to themselves. When I was in Auburn, there was a riot, the prisoners took over. They’re standing there congratulating each other, and I’m thinking, Great, what are you going to do now? They got cut down.”
When it comes back to Malcolm X himself, however, Khalil’s voice softens. “He was a sitting duck. God would have had to come down and pull that man out of there. That’s the only way he would have survived. Everyone’s got their destiny. He had his, I have mine. Our paths crossed, and we both suffered.”
It is a conversation, as Khalil says, that “could go on for miles and miles.” But now, his book bag stuffed with Stolen Continents: The “New World” Through Indian Eyes, by Ronald Wright; William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience; Khalil Gibran’s poetry; and some tomes about how the Masons, the Illuminati, and the Council on Foreign Relations run everything, Khalil complains about not having enough time to read, “to get into things.” Ask Khalil if he misses the peace and quiet of the joint, he just laughs.
“The world I came from, we heard if we brought in the heads of four Caucasians, we’d get an all-expenses-paid trip to Mecca to meet Brother Muhammad. One guy actually did it. Now I feel bad if I step on an ant, because, you know, they think, too. One thing I’ve learned is, only a maniac flies a plane into a building and calls it jihad. Jihad is inside your soul.” Then, as you’re thinking, for the hundredth time, there is something about Khalil Islam that goes a long way to defining what a human being ought to be, he seems to drift off.
“Oh,” he says, “I was praying. It’s something I got used to in the joint, I go off, to where there’s nothing except me and the universe.”