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Author Tamara Payne helped to finish her late father's biography of Malcolm X

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Malcolm X was a controversial civil rights leader. The Nation of Islam, which he left prior to his assassination, was often depicted as a cult. He was only 39 at the time of his death, but people's fascination has continued until today. Joining us now to talk about the investigation of Malcolm X's murder and the impact of these expected exonerations is author Tamara Payne. She and her late father, investigative journalist Les Payne, co-authored "The Dead Are Arising: The Life Of Malcolm X." That biography won a Pulitzer this year.

Tamara, thanks for joining us.

TAMARA PAYNE: Good morning. How are you?

MARTINEZ: Good, good. Now, your dad spent 28 years working on this book, and you helped finish it after he passed in 2018. What did you learn about Malcolm X's assassination while you were researching this?

PAYNE: Well, we learned - well, you know, Dad and I worked on this together, and we did conduct our own investigation. And what we were learning is what - how did this unfold? You know, how - you know, what was the environment that was going on at the time in 1965? And how did this unfold in the culture of the Nation of Islam but also - which was an organization that Malcolm helped to build and increase their membership to, you know, to very high numbers. And he had split with them in 1964, and the nation of Islam had considered him a traitor. And so with him, you know, continuing to speak out against Elijah Muhammad but also starting to talk about what was going on that wasn't right with the Nation of Islam, he - you know, this was a threat to them. So this created this, you know, this environment of anger and people looking at Malcolm X as, you know, as a traitor to the organization. So they treated Malcolm as they treated their traitors.

MARTINEZ: Or their - like, their enemies, too. Like, they treated him like...

PAYNE: Their enemies, right.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. Because it seemed like there was that tension there that slowly built up over time.

PAYNE: Yes. I mean, it didn't just happen because of what - you know, a lot of people discuss about Elijah Muhammad having children with young women who were working as his secretaries. But also there were other issues that you know, that helped to splinter Malcolm and helped split - fomented the split with - between Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad in particular. So - and we talk about this in our book, "The Dead Are Arising: The Life Of Malcolm X." And - but as far as the investigation, what we found was that the assassination team came out of - was formed by a group out of the Newark mosque, not the Harlem mosque.

And when we talk about Aziz and - Muhammad Abdul Aziz and Khalil Islam, they were members of the Harlem mosque. And the people who had left the Nation of Islam with Malcolm were also members of - you know, many of them were with the Harlem mosque. And they would have known Abdul Aziz and Khalil Islam if they had walked into the Audubon Ballroom on February 21. Now, that doesn't mean that Khalil - you know, that Abdul Aziz and Khalil Islam were not - you know, they were actually phoning Malcolm's home and, you know, threatening his life, but they were not part of the assassination team.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, they spent more than 20 years in prison for Malcolm X's murder, and their lawyer told The New York Times, quote, "this wasn't a mere oversight. This was a product of extreme and gross official misconduct." Tamara, do you agree? Was this a case of official misconduct?

PAYNE: Absolutely. I mean, when you look at what we found in our investigation, we spoke with Gene Roberts, for example. He was an informant who had infiltrated Malcolm's organization, Muslim Mosque Incorporated, and was on the security team on that day. And so he was sending reports back to his bosses at BOSSI, the Bureau of Special Service and Investigation, which was a special unit of the New York Police Department. So there was information that they had, and he even, you know, wrote down a report in which he described what he thought was a dry run for the assassination a week before Malcolm died. So they had that in reports. And one of the things that was chilling when Gene Roberts did tell us about - on the day of February 21, he said he had - he knew he'd sent them information about this going down. And on the day of February 21, he said there was limited, minimal police presence outside the Audubon.

MARTINEZ: Now, the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus Vance, reopened the investigation into Malcolm X's death after that documentary on Netflix came out. What do you think, Tamara, is the wider lesson we should take from this case?

PAYNE: Look, I think - we need - this is not - I mean, this is a correction and it's a historic development in this story, but the real issue still remains that those who were - who also pulled the trigger, aside from one of the guys who were caught, Talmadge Hayer, they were never charged. They were never investigated. And their names had come up. So that remains the question. So this is not - I don't know that it can be resolved because this will never bring back Malcolm. And, you know, my thoughts are with, you know, Malcolm's family, you know, and it's with the families of Muhammad Abdul Aziz, as well as Khalil Islam, because they suffered.

MARTINEZ: Tamara Payne is the co-author of "The Dead Are Arising: The Life Of Malcolm X," the 2020 National Book Award winner for nonfiction. Tamara, thank you very much.

PAYNE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.