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The Plot to Kill Malcolm X
By Karl Evanzz
Thunder's Mouth Press
389 pages, $22.95

WHO KILLED Malcolm X? The list of suspects is long, and obscured by intrigue involving U.S. intelligence, the FBI, the New York City police, and the organization Malcolm faithfully served as spokesman, the Nation of Islam.

Karl Evanzz makes no strong case that any arm of the federal government -- the Central Intelligence Agency, the Secret Service, the Office of Naval Intelligence, the Air Force Office of Special Investigations -- was directly involved in Malcolm's assassination on Feb. 21, 1965, in Harlem's Audubon Ballroom.

However, given revelations that the U.S. Army spied on African-Americans for 75 years as they struggled to improve their social and political status, Evanzz's book clearly indicates that Malcolm's killing came as no surprise to, and may have been instigated by, those in power.

A Tennessee newspaper recently revealed that the Army spied on three generations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s family. The Commercial Appeal of Memphis, which based its story in part on classified documents and interviews with Army agents, contended that eight undercover Green Beret soldiers were watching King when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968, on the balcony of a Memphis hotel.

Evanzz has pursued the same investigation as the newspaper. Interviews are tied in with information from FBI memos, classified documents and newspaper reports. The result sheds a critical eye not just on the government's role in domestic spying, but also on the Nation of Islam, its beginnings and its leaders.

Elijah Muhammad, the group's founder, was perceived as a threat, particularly by former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, long before his small sect -- which was based on an unorthodox interpretation of Islam -- became widely known.

Muhammad, who was self-educated and a master of African-American psychology, taught his followers a mixture of biblical interpretation, truth and fantasy. He transformed them from a downtrodden race to the original human beings waiting for God to impose justice on the "white devils." He advocated that blacks oppose the draft as early as the late 1930s and was convicted of draft evasion in 1943, after the FBI infiltrated his small Chicago sect with a black police officer.

Muhammad had some ties with the Black Dragon Society, a Japanese group dedicated to Japan's World War II imperial aspirations, but Evanzz's book continually gives the impression that the intelligence community perceived the issues surrounding race, African-American organization and advocacy as the soft underbelly of a world power.

It is therefore conceivable that those responsible for protecting America and its citizens saw it as their duty to discredit and perhaps even eliminate those black leaders they saw gnawing away at the nation's social weak spot. Those who exposed the malignant nature of a democracy that made a huge exception for people of color, became enemies of their homeland, as America officially stood as the bulwark against the evils of communism.

Malcolm became a significant player in this international Cold War battle of ideas. He brought African-American grievances before the International Court of Justice at The Hague, the United Nations and other international forums.

He also had ties to many African leaders the United States distrusted. Evanzz details the U.S. role in the assassination of President Patrice Lumumba of the Congo, and mentions the deaths of others who may have appeared to be leaning toward communism.

Malcolm's famous "chicken coming home to roost" remark, in reaction to the death of President John F. Kennedy, most certainly stemmed from his contacts with African and Latin American leaders, who felt that the United States opposed them and was trying to eliminate them by any means necessary.

The remark cost Malcolm his spokesman role for the Nation of Islam. It also came at a time when many in the organization looked to Malcolm rather than Muhammad for leadership, and Malcolm began pursuing a quiet investigation into charges that Muhammad had impregnated several of his young secretaries.

Despite Malcolm's international ties, he was never charged with violating federal laws that restrict American citizens from acting as agents for foreign governments. He apparently turned down offers that would have made him a virtual head of state in some African nations.

It still seems doubtful that intelligence agencies would have plotted his assassination. Hoover's FBI considered it more effective to discredit black leaders by holding them up to public ridicule or accusing them of immorality and fraud.

The CIA, the State Department and others probably wrung a few hands over Malcolm's international efforts, but taking his life overseas probably would have caused a bigger propaganda problem than it would have solved. The recounting of an alleged attempted to poison Malcolm while he dined in Cairo, Egypt, is intriguing. However, in the end, Malcolm's former Nation of Islam associates -- who turned into bitter enemies over his exposure of Elijah Muhammad as an adulterer -- had the strongest motive for assassinating him.

Evanzz's work offers enough, however, to demonstrate that the nation's intelligence agencies either facilitated Malcolm's assassination or did nothing to stop it. Given the yeoman effort they put into finding out what Malcolm was up to in every corner of the world, it seems illogical to assume that they did not know Nation of Islam followers were tracking him and had marked him for death. There is also much in this book about Louis Farrakhan's role in Malcolm's death, and it is not flattering.

The story of Malcolm X is a story of self-discovery in a turbulent era of American history. For that reason, his life will always prove instructive. And his death forces us to examine the government's role in protecting a democratic society's more provocative citizens.

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