The Full Story Of Thomas Hagan And The Assassination Of Malcolm X

Published February 28, 2024
Updated February 29, 2024

A former Nation of Islam member, Thomas Hagan was the only man who admitted to killing Malcolm X in 1965 — but he had several accomplices.

The assassination of Malcolm X sent shockwaves through America in the mid-1960s. An outspoken Black rights activist and former member of the Nation of Islam, X had made many enemies throughout his life, and three of them were accused of shooting him in New York City in 1965. But only one man confessed to pulling the trigger: Thomas Hagan.

Hagan, who then went by the name Talmadge X Hayer, was a devoted member of the Nation of Islam who was furious with Malcolm X for leaving the organization and for criticizing the group’s leader, Elijah Muhammad. But while Hagan admitted to his role in killing X, he claimed that the other two Nation of Islam members accused of murdering the activist — Muhammad A. Aziz and Khalil Islam — were innocent.

Eventually, it was revealed that Hagan was telling the truth, and the other two men’s convictions were vacated decades later. It’s still believed that Hagan played a role in X’s death, but he certainly didn’t work alone. Scholars think he had help from four accomplices in the Nation of Islam. And it’s also thought that Hagan may have had assistance from law enforcement agencies like the NYPD and the FBI, who wanted the activist gone.

And yet, Thomas Hagan remains the only person who’s confessed to killing Malcolm X. So who is Hagan? What led him to shoot the activist? Who helped him carry out the assassination? And where is he today?

Who Is Thomas Hagan And How Was He Connected To Malcolm X?

Thomas Hagan

Wikimedia CommonsThomas Hagan being restrained by a police officer after the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965.

Thomas Hagan was born on March 16, 1941. Very little is known about his early life. But it’s clear that by the time he was a young man, he was attracted to the philosophy of the Nation of Islam (NOI), an organization that combined traditional Islam with Black nationalism. Though the NOI was created to promote racial unity among Black people and to uplift African Americans, it also has a long history of antisemitism and preaching bigotry against white people. It also has ties to some white supremacists.

By the time Hagan joined NOI, he would have certainly been familiar with Malcolm X. After all, X had been a member of the organization since the early 1950s. He’d quickly become close with the group’s leader, Elijah Muhammad, and helped attract new members with his charisma and natural talent for public speaking. X had long been frustrated with racism against Black people in America, and many potential NOI members related to X’s experiences.

In the meantime, the FBI began closely tracking X, viewing him as a danger to American society. This surveillance only intensified as the civil rights movement took off in the 1960s, and X counted many powerful authority figures as his enemies — including FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.

Malcolm X

Wikimedia CommonsAs an outspoken and highly public figure, Malcolm X faced many death threats throughout his life.

It can be assumed that Hagan was firmly on X’s side until X began feuding with Muhammad around 1963. The two men had different ideas on where to take NOI in the future, with X hoping to become involved with more mainstream civil rights protests and Muhammad refusing to approve of that idea. X was also angry with Muhammad for fathering children with several of his secretaries — which went against the morals that Muhammad preached.

By 1964, X had split from the Nation of Islam and had an enlightening pilgrimage to Mecca. Converting to Sunni Islam, he later recalled that he saw “pilgrims of all colors from all parts of this earth displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood like I’ve never seen before.”

Though X remained firmly devoted to uplifting Black people and eliminating racism in American society and abroad, he renounced his prior separatist views he held while in NOI. This likely made NOI figures even angrier with X than they were already.

At this point, X was not only facing threats from the FBI and other law enforcement agencies but also the NOI. On February 14, 1965, his home in Queens was firebombed, an attack he claimed was orchestrated by Muhammad. Though X (and his family members in the home) survived the firebombing, X would meet a brutal end just one week later.

Malcolm X’s Assassination And The Aftermath

Assassination Of Malcolm X

PICRYLMalcolm X’s body being taken away on a stretcher after he was shot in the Audubon Ballroom.

On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City. X, 39 years old at the time, was just about to make a speech when he was shot to death by a group of gunmen in the ballroom.

Malcolm X was shot 21 times, and though he was taken to a nearby hospital, he was soon pronounced dead. In the midst of the chaos, a 23-year-old NOI member, Thomas Hagan, was identified by several people in the crowd as one of the gunmen who’d shot X. According to CNN, Hagan was beaten by members of X’s would-be audience, and at one point, he was shot in the leg.

Hagan tried to flee the scene, but he was arrested by police officers outside. Before long, he was accused of murdering X, alongside two other NOI members, Muhammad A. Aziz and Khalil Islam. Though Aziz and Islam maintained their innocence, Hagan eventually admitted to his role in killing X. As he later put it, he decided to take out X because he believed the activist was a “hypocrite” who had “gone against the leader of the Nation of Islam.”

Hagan also said that he had help from accomplices in the NOI — who he refused to fully name — but he insisted that Aziz and Islam were not his fellow gunmen. In fact, he said they weren’t involved in the assassination plot at all. Despite this, all three men were found guilty in the high-profile murder case and sentenced to 20 years to life imprisonment.

Malcolm X's Funeral

Library of CongressThe scene outside Malcolm X’s funeral.

Eventually, Aziz was paroled in 1985 and Islam was paroled in 1987. But Hagan remained imprisoned until 2010. Ultimately, he spent 44 years behind bars and expressed remorse for his actions: “I have deep regrets about my participation in that. I don’t think it should ever have happened.”

By this point, Hagan had left the Nation of Islam (though he remained a devout Muslim) and claimed that the chaos in the organization had led him down the path to murder: “It stemmed from a break off and confusion in the leadership. Malcolm X broke with the Nation of Islam, separated from the Nation of Islam, and in doing so there was controversy as to some of the statements he was making about the leader.”

Despite this, Hagan also claimed that he and his NOI accomplices did not receive official orders from NOI leadership to carry out the assassination: “I can’t say that anyone in the Nation of Islam gave us the idea or instructed us to do it. We did this ourselves for the most part, yes.” But many experts doubt that the group of NOI members really worked alone.

Lingering Questions About Thomas Hagan And The Infamous Murder

Thomas Hagan's Mugshot

New York State Department of CorrectionsThomas Hagan’s mugshot, taken at the time of his release on parole in 2010.

Today, it’s still believed that Thomas Hagan was one of the gunmen who assassinated Malcolm X. However, the convictions of Muhammad A. Aziz and Khalil Islam were vacated in 2021. The Manhattan district attorney agreed that those two men did not receive fair trials, and thus were exonerated. Unfortunately, by that point, Islam had already died in 2009.

According to The New York Times, most scholars today believe that Hagan had four accomplices who helped him carry out the assassination of X: NOI members William Bradley, Leon Davis, Benjamin Thomas, and Wilbur McKinley. Some historians have made a point to uncover more specific details of the plot, like that Bradley was the one who would fire the first round of bullets and McKinley would be responsible for creating a distraction outside of the ballroom. It’s also believed that all — or at least most — of these suspected accomplices have died and thus can no longer be charged.

But while experts feel fairly confident about who was directly responsible for X’s death, questions linger about who might’ve been pulling the strings in the shadows. Considering that NOI members shot the bullets that killed X, many suspect that NOI leaders or figureheads guided them along the way.

Thomas Hagan's Wrongly Accused Accomplices

AP PhotoMuhammad A. Aziz and Khalil Islam were paroled in the 1980s, but their convictions weren’t vacated until 2021.

It’s also widely believed that law enforcement agencies such as the FBI and NYPD were complicit in Malcolm X’s assassination — or even helped plan it. FBI Director Hoover was known to have hated X and he had spearheaded his organization’s surveillance of the activist for years, eventually gathering a whopping 2,300 pages worth of material on X. And chillingly, just one year before X’s assassination, Hoover sent a telegram to the FBI office in New York City saying, “Do something about Malcolm X.”

And according to The Guardian, a witness who saw X’s assassination later came forward to say that he heard one NYPD officer ask another “Is he one of us?” while they were restraining Hagan after the murder. Furthermore, experts say law enforcement agencies did not investigate the case thoroughly, even leaving the crime scene improperly secured. Shockingly, there was a dance held at the same ballroom hours after X was shot there.

A botched investigation would pave the way for two innocent men to be imprisoned for a crime they didn’t commit — and it would also allow attention to be directed away from any powerful figures who’d ordered the assassination. But anyone who hopes to get any more answers from Hagan about the formation of the plot will likely be disappointed.

Now a bespectacled man in his 80s, Thomas Hagan lives a quiet, peaceful, “nonpolitical” life in Brooklyn today.

He now goes by the name Mujahid Abdul Halim. Most who encounter him would be shocked to learn about his militant past. He largely shuns publicity and spends most of his time with his family, only occasionally resurfacing for brief interviews. However, he did publicly express relief in 2021 when he learned that Aziz and Islam’s convictions had been vacated: “God bless you, they’re exonerated.”

Next, read about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Then, go inside the historic moment when Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. met.

Erin Kelly
An All That's Interesting writer since 2013, Erin Kelly focuses on historic places, natural wonders, environmental issues, and the world of science. Her work has also been featured in Smithsonian and she's designed several book covers in her career as a graphic artist.
Jaclyn Anglis
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.
Cite This Article
Kelly, Erin. "The Full Story Of Thomas Hagan And The Assassination Of Malcolm X.", February 28, 2024, Accessed April 20, 2024.