A. Peter Bailey distinctly remembers the day Malcolm X was assassinated. He had just spoken to Malcolm X about distributing materials for a rally. He was sitting in the lobby of the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem waiting for a visiting minister. “I heard Brother Malcolm say, ‘As-Salam-u-Alaikum,’ and the next thing I heard were shots. … It sounded like so many shots.”
Bailey, one of the last people to speak with and see Malcolm X before he died, has spent his life talking about his contributions and legacy, which have survived for more than half a century. Physical markers pay homage: Public schools bear his name, like Malcolm X Shabazz High School in Newark, New Jersey. Streets have been renamed or named in his honor, like Lenox Avenue in New York. Even abroad he is commemorated; the U.S. Embassy in Turkey is located on Malcolm X Avenue.
Ideological markers celebrate his legacy, too. Arguably his most famous phrase, “by any means necessary,” has been chanted through bullhorns and has appeared, alongside his visage, on banners and buttons at protests and rallies. His legacy is reflected in people who use his teachings to galvanize others to take up a cause.
“I wasn’t really made aware of what Malcolm X’s legacy was until middle school or high school,” says Jaylen Carr, a sophomore audio production major from Houston. “I had heard about him before then, but I really didn’t know much until I got older.”
“His legacy impacted me in a way that showed me that peaceful, nonviolent and nonreactive protests weren’t and isn’t the only way people tried to fight Jim Crow in the Civil Rights era,” Carr added. “It also made me think more about what a truly separate, but equal America could’ve been if we had fought for it instead of integration.”
The Netflix docuseries “Who Killed Malcolm X?” has led to a resurgence in interest related to his assassination. Historian Abdur-Rahman Muhammad led the series, and Bailey was one of the people interviewed. The series follows Muhammad’s investigation of the assassination attempt and has prompted the New York City District Attorney to reopen the case.
The impact of Malcolm X’s work, and the greater impact of his death, still carry weight today. Given the gravity of reverence he still receives, those associated with his assassins face heavy consequences. Muhammad recounts a conversation he had with one such person, who was related to Talmadge Hayer, the man convicted for killing Malcolm X.
“The nephew of Talmadge Hayer wanted to come to Howard,” Muhammad recalled. “They put so much pressure on him, and he just went ghost, ended up going to Morehouse.”
“He said, “anywhere I go with the Hayer name … I wonder, are they gonna ask me, ‘Are you related to Talmadge Hayer? The man that killed Malcolm?’”
When it comes to understanding Malcolm X and his impact, Bailey stresses that merely watching the documentary does not do justice. “My position on that is the same one I took when Spike Lee’s movie came out,” he said. “You cannot see that movie and then think you then know Brother Malcolm. … It’s an introduction to him, and then you’ve gotta go and do some further research and study.”
Bailey says the question of who the assassins were was answered conclusively in 1993, in Professor Zak Kondo’s book “Conspiracys: Unravelling the Assassination of Malcolm X.” In addition to Kondo’s book and Bailey’s memoir, “Witnessing Brother Malcolm X: The Master Teacher,” he recommends works by Benjamin Kareem and Karl Evanzz as accounts that provide more depth surrounding the assassination, and that provide deeper depictions of Malcolm X.
Bailey met Malcolm X during his early twenties when he moved to Harlem in 1962. He was captivated by the charismatic orator and became an ardent follower, despite having no intention of joining the Nation of Islam.
After attending many of his speeches, Bailey was able to meet Malcolm X in December of 1963. The following year, he became the editor of the Blacklash, the newsletter for Malcolm X’s Organization of Afro-American Unity. When he was assassinated, Malcolm X was delivering an address at a rally for his organization on Feb. 21, 1965 in the Audubon Ballroom in New York City.
“If Brother Malcolm were still alive,” Bailey says, “we would now have a very serious national black organization, which would be very deeply involved in promoting and protecting our interests in this society.”