As the 50th anniversary of Malcolm X’s assassination nears next month, questions around his killing still linger. That’s why the Department of Justice should heed an online petition to release all the federal files surrounding the civil rights leader’s death. A small group has launched a modest yet compelling grassroots effort to get a fuller picture of the half-century-old case, and its call for full transparency should be honored.
On Feb. 21, 1965, the 39-year-old black former Nation of Islam minister, who had left the group and formed his own religious organization, was gunned down inside the Audubon Ballroom in New York City. While three Nation of Islam members were convicted of the murder, speculation around the real motive remains, and some question whether the real assassin is still at large.
Malcolm X and his associates were under frequent FBI surveillance at the time, and the files could help provide a fuller account of the assassination. Releasing all federal records would presumably shed a light on the government’s role, as well. “Did federal government intelligence agencies play any roles of omission or commission? We’d like to have more evidence to know that definitively. It is high time we get all the information available,” says Peniel Joseph, professor of history at Tufts University and founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy. “It would be important to understand and not to repeat that kind of unconstitutional surveillance state that was happening around that time.”
Which is why Paul Bitakaramire and New Hampshire-based John Altmann decided to use social media and the White House online petition mechanism to call on the government to publish the unredacted Malcolm X files. “It’s not just about bringing justice to Malcolm, the person, but about his enduring message,” said Altmann.
While this certainly has not been the first effort of its kind to demand answers from the federal government on Malcolm X’s assassination, 2015 is an important year for his legacy. Malcolm X, who spent about a decade living in Roxbury, would have been 90 years old in May. Then there’s the notable release of the movie “Selma,” which helps to paint a more panoramic view of American history during the civil rights era. And, in the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting, the subsequent Ferguson protests, the Eric Garner case, and the #BlackLivesMatter social media campaign, releasing the Malcolm X files would resonate loudly in the current public consciousness on these social justice issues.
The public deserves to get a fuller historical record on the death of Malcolm X. Publishing all unredacted federal documents would send a strong — and much-needed — message of justice and government transparency.