Khalil Islam, now 72 and stooped over but still dapper in his purple embroidered kufi and impeccably clipped silver beard, used to go to the Audubon Ballroom on Broadway and 166th Street to see the big dance bands. Those were “my dope and jazz days,” says Khalil, who never guessed his life would change forever on February 21, 1965, the cold winter afternoon Malcolm X was assassinated at the Audubon.
Forty-two years later, the events of that day remain a hotly debated topic in Harlem—even among those far from being born in 1965. This much is agreed upon: The mood at the Audubon was tense. Malcolm, erstwhile “Detroit Red” hustler turned racial firebrand, politician of the street and the cosmos, supreme logician of the African-American dilemma, had broken with his mentor, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam (a.k.a. the Black Muslims) and self-proclaimed Messenger of Allah. Having called Elijah a “religious faker” in his famous autobiography and denounced the Messenger’s alleged sexual dalliances, Malcolm was under counterattack, derided as “a Judas,” “the chief hypocrite.”
“Only those who wish to be led to hell, or to their doom, will follow Malcolm,” wrote the then–Louis X, later known as Louis Farrakhan. Malcolm’s house in Queens had been firebombed, Molotov cocktails thrown through the windows as his children slept. Seemingly resigned to his fate, Malcolm, with an unsettling smile, told CBS’s Mike Wallace during an interview, “Oh yes, I probably am a dead man already.”
The start of Malcolm’s Audubon speech is etched into the landscape of American political violence like Governor John Connally’s wife telling John Kennedy “Mr. President, you can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you” and John Wilkes Booth’s shouting “Sic semper tyrannis” as he jumped from Lincoln’s balcony. As Malcolm began speaking, a disturbance broke out in the crowd.
“Get your hand out of my pocket,” someone screamed. “Hold it, hold it, don’t get excited. Let’s cool it, brothers,” Malcolm said.
That was when a man with a double-barrel shotgun rose from the front row of folding chairs and fired. The slugs shattered Malcolm’s chest, pitching him backward as two more gunmen rushed the stage shooting pistols. A few minutes later, after his bloody body was wheeled across Broadway to Columbia Presbyterian hospital, Malcolm X was dead.
Ten days later, Khalil Islam—then known as Thomas 15X Johnson and a ranking lieutenant at Elijah Muhammad’s Temple No. 7 on 116th Street and Lenox Avenue—was arrested, charged with the murder of the man Ossie Davis eulogized as “our shining Black Prince.”
“Yeah,” Khalil says now, with matter-of-fact irony. “They gave me the star role: the man with the shotgun. The mastermind.”
The big problem with this, Khalil has maintained since his arrest, is that he was nowhere near the Audubon Ballroom on February 21, 1965. He was in his apartment, across from the Bronx Zoo, where he and his children could look out the window and see the giraffes crane their necks above the tree line.
“I spent most of the day in bed with this rheumatoid-arthritis condition. They said I shot Malcolm, then jumped out the ladies’-room window and ran down the stairs. The truth is, I could hardly walk … I only found out about the shooting when my next-door neighbor came over shouting, ‘They got Big Red.’”
This alibi meant little at Khalil’s murder trial. Nor did it matter that the man with the shotgun was described as dark-skinned with a full beard while Khalil is light-skinned and was beardless at the time. More galling was when the 22-year-old Talmadge Hayer suddenly confessed his role in the murder while swearing that Khalil and Norman 3X Butler, another Temple No. 7 lieutenant, had nothing to do with it. Hayer said Khalil and Butler hadn’t even been at the Audubon that night. This didn’t help Khalil either.
Convicted of first-degree murder in early 1966, Khalil spent the next 22 years in various New York State maximum-security prisons, a good portion of that time way down in the hole where a prisoner sees natural light for an hour a day.
“I was innocent, yet there I was, behind those walls,” says Khalil in his hoarse, quiet voice, adding that he decided to finally tell his story because “it took me until now to really understand it, to think it through, and that’s important because I always felt knowing what happened would be the key to who I really was.”
One thing Khalil knows for sure is, back in 1965, if you needed someone to pin the Malcolm X murder rap on, Thomas 15X Johnson sure fit the bill. “I was a reactor,” Khalil says. “We all were in the Fruit of Islam, which was nothing but a paramilitary unit. If someone pulled off a Muslim’s bow tie, or ripped up the Muhammad Speaks newspaper, we reacted. Tell us to go kick a guy’s spleen out, we were on him with all four feet. We were martial artists, but we weren’t training to become black belts: We were training to kill black belts. You didn’t want to see us coming.
“I had this other case pending, with a gun involved. I was out on bail when Malcolm was killed. That buried me, how violent I supposedly was. But really, everyone just wanted it swept under the rug. It was only a year after the Harlem riots. Things were so inflamed. The cops figured one Muslim was as good as another. The Nation didn’t help me. They probably sat down, had a cup of coffee, and made the decision to throw me to the wolves. That protected everyone else.
“They picked the right guy, because even if I felt I was going berserk watching myself get framed, they knew I would never talk, never give anyone up. That was my mentality: straight up, what I thought was a righteous Muslim. The fact was, I was just the patsy. The perfect patsy.”
‘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.”
Khalil went to P.S. 62 and Morris High School in the Bronx, but “I just got high and fooled around with the girls.” His “real education” began in the fall of 1958, on Hart Island. The locale was fitting, Khalil said. Then as now, Hart Island was home to Potter’s Field, where the city’s unclaimed bodies are buried.
“They call it the island of lost souls, and that was me,” says Khalil, sent to the now-shuttered Hart Island correctional facility after trying to boost a rifle from the backseat of a car.
“I was a junkie, that’s what I did,” says Khalil, who reckons he first became addicted to heroin “at around 12.” It was a life in what Muslims call “the dunya,” which Khalil defines as “the dead world, the devil’s playground.”
According to Khalil, Thomas Johnson, his given “slave name”—he now calls it his “government name”—had “a really beautiful childhood,” especially when he lived with his grandparents near Atlantic City. “It was country, I ran around in the woods. My grandfather played the slide trombone and tuba in the sideshow of the Barnum and Bailey circus. I got my love of music then.” But after moving to New York, he tried dope and knew, “right away, I’d be doing it every day. I loved it.”
Fifteen when his father threw him out of the house for his drug use, Khalil spent a decade in the streets. Along with his onetime wife Jo-Ann Jones, daughter of Jo Jones, the nonpareil drummer in the Basie band, Khalil passed time in jazz clubs, digging his bop favorites like Sonny Rollins and Thelonious Monk. He lived in a hotel on West 44th Street where Sugar Ray Robinson had the penthouse. Like most junkies, he remembers the precise location of every place he copped dope. Driving past a billiard parlor on 145th Street, Khalil said, “That was one of my spots. We’d walk down from the Bronx. Didn’t matter if it was raining, soaking wet, we’d go.” Nights in “dope holes” on 117th Street were spent clutching “wake-up bags,” packets of heroin needed “to get your ass out of bed so you could go into your daily flatfoot hustle.”
“The cops figured one Muslim was as good as another. The Nation didn’t help me.”
Arrested several times for possession, Khalil never had “a real bid” until the year’s sentence on Hart Island. In the upper bunk of his cell was Dave, a Times Square pickpocket, or “jostler,” so talented “he used to run classes, with a blackboard and everything.” Dave was in the NOI. “He was my first teacher. When he ran down these concepts, it turned me around like a top.”
It was Dave who told Khalil the planet’s “true knowledge” had been revealed to the Honorable Elijah Muhammad by Master W. Fard Muhammad, “the Supreme Ruler of the Universe,” who appeared on Earth as a door-to-door salesman in Detroit’s Paradise Valley section during the early years of the Great Depression.
Claiming to be “the one the world has been expecting for the past 2,000 years,” Fard (pronounced Fa-rad) told Elijah, then simply Elijah Poole, from Sandersville, Georgia, that it was the black man, so seemingly downtrodden and disregarded, who was the original, legitimate inhabitant of the planet. Blacks had been living on Earth for 66 trillion years, Fard said. On the other hand, whites were “grafted” into existence only 6,000 years ago by the evil “big head scientist,” Yakub, a spiteful Dr. Frankenstein–like eugenicist bent on creating a race of “blue-eyed devils.”
Dave helped Khalil “science up,” instructing him to memorize Master Fard’s “actual facts,” such seemingly miraculous calculations as the sun’s being 93 million miles from the Earth and Mount Everest’s rising precisely 29,035 feet above sea level. “Later on I found out all this was in The World Almanac, but then I was amazed one person knew so much,” Khalil recounts.
“I thought this was the secret knowledge hidden since slavery, when we weren’t even allowed to read a book. I got so excited. I never thought like that … The truth is, I never thought at all.”
Out of jail, Khalil headed to Muhammad’s Temple No. 7. “I’d walked by the place for years to buy dope and never once noticed it. Now I was in the mosque every day. Funny how the center of your life can shift like that—less than half a block away.
“My parents noticed a change. I’d kicked dope, was dressing up, being neat. I wouldn’t eat pork. My mother asked me who told me not to eat pork. I told her: the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. It was in his book, How to Eat to Live, how the hog was a hybrid, grafted animal, a combination of cat, dog, and rat. I wasn’t going to eat no rat.
“My mother, a nice Christian lady, reminded me that when I was young, I wouldn’t eat pork. She’d make ribs, bacon, and I’d refuse to eat it. My father would beat me in the attic about it. ‘We’re not making special food just for you,’ he’d scream. Still wouldn’t eat it. It didn’t taste right. My mother said she could understand me not eating pork now I was a follower of Elijah Muhammad. She wanted to know, Who told you then?” The question haunted Khalil, because “how did I know not to eat pork when I was 5 years old? I think I’ve always had a spiritual calling inside me. That’s what the drugs were about, trying to find another reality, beyond the surface.”
Khalil soon became “a tremendous Black Muslim.” To get one’s X (it stands for the unknown African/“Asiatic” name stolen by slave traders; he was Thomas 15X because fourteen other Thomases had joined No. 7 before him), the applicant had to submit a letter, in “perfect cursive,” to “Mr. W.F. Muhammad, our Dear Savior Allah, our Deliverer.” It often took prospective Muslims weeks to craft an acceptable draft. “But I got mine on the first shot,” Khalil said. Seen as a man of promise, he was sent out to peddle copies of Muhammad Speaks.
“They gave me a squad, and I’d make those guys sell those papers. I’d take their watch and wouldn’t give it back until the papers were gone. To me, this wasn’t just another newspaper—it was the word of the Messenger of God. You had to get that out. In 1961, I got recognized for selling the most Muhammad Speaks. I was driven down to Baltimore in a brand-new Caddy for a dinner. The sisters were eyeing me then.”
Khalil advanced quickly, making lieutenant in a year, a rare accomplishment. Malcolm X complimented Khalil, saying, “You must be a righteous Muslim.”
Asked if he believed Elijah Muhammad’s stories about Yakub and how whites created gorillas in a failed attempt to turn themselves back into blacks, Khalil says, “You mean when I was Thomas 15X? Absolutely. We all did.” All would include the supposedly clear-eyed Malcolm, who oversaw the opening of dozens of mosques and was more responsible than anyone for disseminating Elijah Muhammad’s religious-social package.
After all, there could be no denying the appeal of Elijah’s message, especially as an answer to the question almost always asked by oppressed groups: How did we get into this impossible situation, and how are we going to get out of it? Like the Native American Ghost Dancers, who created instant rituals in hope of ridding themselves of the genocidal John Waynes who suddenly appeared on the horizon (the shaman Wovoka told followers, “White people are only a bad dream”), the Nation of Islam was a cult born of existential crisis. As Jamaican Rastafarians sought salvation in the notion that Haile Selassie, a five-foot-four Ethiopian dictator, was the living God on Earth, Elijah Muhammad offered a stern (no ganja nor dreadlocks here) cosmology rooted in technological Armageddon.
A prime Fard/Elijah precept is “the mother plane.” A baroque sci-fi update of the prophet Ezekiel’s biblical vision of a fiery wheel in the middle of the air (Ezekiel 10:2), Elijah’s key text, Message to the Black Man in America (Chapter 125, “Battle in the Sky Is Near”), describes the mother plane as being “one-half mile by a half mile … the largest mechanical man-made object in the sky.” Designed by “the finest brains,” with bombs constructed of “the toughest of steel,” and capable of staying “in outer space six to twelve months at a time,” the craft carries a payload of “fifteen hundred bombing planes with most deadliest explosives.” America will be the mother plane’s first target, Elijah writes; the country’s “doom is set like a die.” The attack is “only one of the things in store for the white man’s evil world … Believe it or believe it not!”
Malcolm X’s take on the mother plane can be found in his voluminous FBI file (in which he is referred to as Malcolm Little). As for bureau director J. Edgar Hoover’s reaction to the following report, one can only guess:
LITTLE told the group that there is a space ship 40 miles up which was built by the wise men of the East and in this space ship there are a number of smaller space ships and each one is loaded with bombs. LITTLE stated that when ELIJAH MOHAMMED [sic] of Chicago, Illinois, gives the word these ships will descend on the United States, bomb it and destroy all the “white devils.” According to LITTLE these bombs will destroy all the “devils” in the United States and that all the Muslims in good standing will be spared.
This interstellar revenge scenario has had remarkable reverb in black popular culture. You can trace the NOI–“brothers in space” trope from the Arkestra of jazzman Sun Ra—who, born Herman Poole Blount, liked to say (in addition to that he’d been born on Saturn) that he was a relative of Elijah Poole/Muhammad—onward to the Mothership Connection of George Clinton’s P-Funk. The line continues to Clinton’s acolytes in the hip-hop world, notably the adage-rich Wu-Tang Clan, whose florid self-conception includes fancying themselves “5 percenters,” a Fardian concept postulating that if 85 percent of people are dupes and 10 percent the deceitful ruling class that controls them, that left 5 percent as righteous individuals who really knew what was up.
“The mother plane,” Khalil moans. “It was supposed to take us away. To exactly where, that part was never discussed.”
“Everyone’s got their destiny. He had his, I had mine. We both suffered.”
Nonetheless, this was the mind-set that accompanied Khalil as he headed to Sing Sing in 1966 to begin his sentence. “They had two cop cars in front, two behind, a helicopter flying overhead. I don’t know what they thought was going to happen.”
Shuttled between Green Haven, Wallkill, Attica, Auburn, and Clinton (this last being “a real plantation, with inbred guards who’d make you crawl on your knees across broken glass for kicks”), Khalil soon reached “a spiritual impasse.” He thought he’d use his time to become “a better Muslim.” But after memorizing all the lessons from the NOI “problem book,” he realized “there was nowhere to go. Islam was what Elijah Muhammad and Fard Muhammad said it was. Nothing more. We weren’t supposed to question it. I’d reached the end of the road, and I still had another twenty years in jail.”
He began reading the Koran. “We never did in the Nation. We didn’t even pray right. But once I started with the Book, I never stopped. I can’t stay out of it, even for an hour. So I knew that Allah was invisible, that there was no way he would have appeared as a human being the way I was taught Fard Muhammad did.”
“One day, I ran into this mathematician in the prison yard. I was working on an equation handed down by Fard Muhammad about cracking the atom—this was supposed to make it possible to weigh the entire city of Detroit.” The mathematician looked at my figures and laughed. It amused him, me trying to solve this unsolvable problem. I almost punched the guy out. Who was he to insult Fard Muhammad, put down my religion? But it kept happening. We believed Ramadan came in December, around Christmas. In jail, I met some regular Muslims. They knew Ramadan was different every year, according to the phases of the moon. They thought I was a fool.”
Malcolm X described a similar process, freeing himself of NOI fantasies during his Mecca pilgrimage. “Yeah,” Khalil says. “Malcolm found out in Saudi Arabia. I got the message in Attica.”
Khalil professes no animosity at being taken in by Elijah Muhammad’s “bootleg Islam.” He says, “I had to start somewhere, so when I left the Nation’s teaching behind, I didn’t feel betrayed. I felt I was making progress—that I wasn’t one of the dupes anymore.” This is how Khalil looks at it: Education is an endless evolutionary struggle against “natural gullibility and stupidity,” a constant process of “pulling the covers off” falsehoods. It is a process most critical for American blacks, Khalil says, “because most everything you hear is some kind of lie.” In this way, he offers Elijah partial absolution, since “the way black people have been treated has been so outrageous that you needed a story just as outrageous to go up against it.”
As Elijah Muhammad said, the world is full of “tricknology,” and Khalil Islam has been tricknologized against more than most. His main response to his imprisonment has been not to get bitter. “What good would that do, in solitary confinement? I know they’d like to see me crying in the corner, sucking on a bottle of Thorazine. Well, that wasn’t going to happen. With all the violence around the Nation, being in the joint probably saved my life. But it did more than that. It made my life.”
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.
“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.”