When I asked what he thought of Malcolm X, he replied: â€œMalcolm was telling the truth but we didnâ€™t see it. Only later did I see what he was saying. But then I hated him for what he had said about the Messenger.â€
[National Op-Ed: In Memoriam]
Brother Khalil Islam, formerly known as Thomas 15X Johnson, the man convicted as the murderer of Malcolm X, died Tuesday, August 4.
He was a friend, a spiritual guide, a historian, and a man unjustly robbed of a major part of his life.
For almost a year, I listened to Khalil Islam’s extraordinary personal story of a man who transcended from a drug addict and criminal to a trusted lieutenant of the Nation of Islam wrongly convicted as the clever mastermind behind the tragic assassination of Malcolm X.
I was honored to be chosen to ghost-write his memoir which would finally tell the dark days surrounding the killing of the controversial Minister at Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom.
Ironically, the lives of these two men, Malcolm X and Khalil Islam, will be forever linked through one bloody event—the slaying of the former Nation of Islam spokesman on that February, 1965 afternoon. The prosecutors painted a picture of the killers, some say a squad of four, using handguns and a shotgun to silence “the Judas” who had blasphemed the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. Remembering the trial, Khalil Islam often said: “They made me the star of the show – the professional hitman, the cold-hearted shotgunner who fired the fatal shots into Malcolm’s sprawled body.”
For this act, Khalil Islam was sentenced to life and did 22 years behind bars at some of the most dehumanizing prisons in the country. At the trial, there was conflicting testimony about the description of the shooters, even among the prosecution’s star witnesses.
In fact, according to family and friends, Khalil was ill, suffering from arthritis which had him laid up with his family at his Bronx apartment that day. In 1977, Talmadge Hayer, the sole man arrested at the scene, gave the entire assassination plot in two affidavits to the late civil rights attorney William Kunstler, who had also represented the Black Panthers during their heyday. Hayer identified the men involved in the crime with him and dismissed the notion that Thomas Johnson (Khalil Islam) or Norman 3X Butler were a part of the killing scheme.
During the trial, the trio of accused shooters was convicted to the maximum with inept defense attorneys, badgered witnesses, altered testimony, lost and discarded evidence, and a community obsessed with vengeance.
Khalil explained that he was at home with his then-pregnant wife, suffering with leg pain, at the time of the assassination. He only learned about the slaying from his wife and neighbors hours later.
In our interviews which continued up until the beginning of this summer, Khalil acknowledged that there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime found at the scene. No hair; no blood; and, no DNA. Also, there was no fingerprints on the sawed-off shotgun that the police tried to link to him. The District Attorney pointed at Khalil’s criminal record as a drug addict, thief, numbers runner, and gambling den lookout as proof positive that he did the crime.
We would spend hour upon hour, sitting in his Harlem apartment. No tape recorder. Just pen and paper. I found Khalil to be a devoted follower of Allah, often quoting to me passages of the Q’uran or singing the praises of his leader, Imam W. D. Muhammad. He was not bitter or sad.
He was internally strong, fortified by his faith and the superior will of Allah. He was very well read. There was always a book at his elbow and discussions could range to African nationalism, Sufism, cold war politics, Gandhi, Garvey, Iraq and Afghanistan, or author J.A. Rogers.
“They convicted me because of my past and I had left that behind when I joined the Nation of Islam,” he said. “I didn’t use drugs. I didn’t drink. I didn’t chase women.
When they set me up, I took my medicine like a man. I believed in the Honorable Elijah Muhammad at the time, but when I went into prison, I saw the light. I truly embraced Islam.”
When I asked what he thought of Malcolm X, who he once served as a driver and bodyguard, Khalil thought silently and then replied: “Malcolm was telling the truth but we didn’t see it. Only later did I see what he was saying. But then I hated him for what he had said about the Messenger.”
I respected Khalil for he believed in something, which is rare these days. He was a traditional Moslem, the patriarch of his family, and a teacher to many. The lessons of Khalil Islam were the innate gifts of spiritual potency, optimism, and endurance. As a revered elder, he always spoke of strong values, moral character, and persistence. I wanted to send him on a trip to Mecca. That was my dream. He always laughed when I said that. I will remember those months we spent together as a cherished memory. He will always be the finest example of self-respect, dignity, Islamic renewal and redemption.
May Allah take Khalil into His blessed embrace.
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