Someone You Should Know: Thomas Hagan; AKA Talmadge X Hayer

It’s time to Break It Down!

This post was originally published April 28, 2010. I am re-posting and amending it today, in honor of the 50th Anniversary of Malcolm X’s assassination, later this week, Saturday, February 21st, 2015.

Many of us are aware of the lore of Malcolm X. We know he was for a time a street hustler from Omaha Nebraska.  Born Malcolm Little, he refined his hustle on the mean streets of New York and Boston. By age 13, his father had died; his mother institutionalized. He subsequently spent time in several foster homes while growing up.

Malcolm, who would become one of America’s “No last name required” legends, evolved from practitioner of petty street crimes to a member, and ultimately the foremost advocate, of the Nation of Islam (NOI). After more than a decade as the firebrand public face of the NOI, Malcolm broke ranks with the Honorable Elijah Muhammad (Elijah Poole), the leader of the NOI. The ensuing rift between these two men resulted in Malcolm leaving the NOI and affiliating with the orthodox Sunni Muslims.

After this split, there emerged a part of the lore that many people missed. Malcolm, in short order, made a Hajj (Pilgrimage to Mecca), changed his name again, this time to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, and perhaps most important, renounced racism. On February 21, 1965, 11 months after leaving the NOI, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz was assassinated while giving a speech in the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan.

Enter Thomas Hagan!

Yesterday, the New York State Department of Correctional Services paroled Thomas Hagan. He left the Lincoln Correctional Facility at 11:00 a.m. Ironically, the facility is located at the corner of West 110th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard. Why is this ironic, you may ask? The biting irony lies in the coincidence that Mr. Hagan, known in 1965 as Talmadge X Hayer, is the lone “admitted” gunman involved in the slaying of Malcolm X. That Hagan should spend his final days of confinement in a facility on the corner of a street named for his victim is cruelly coincidental. To put the matter into even sharper focus, the nexus ties his freedom portal directly back to the man he murdered, and whose death resulted in his 44-year incarceration.

In many ways, Hagan being released yesterday was simply the culmination of events long underway. In fact, Mr. Hagan had been in a Work Release program since 1992 (18 years) that allowed him to spend five days a week at home in Brooklyn with his family, and required that he spend two days a week only at the minimum-security Lincoln Correctional Facility.

Thomas Hagan became eligible for parole in 1984. Last month he went before the parole board for the 15th time. After 14 rejections, the now 69 year-old Hagan finally gained approval for his release.  He is still on parole, but will return to his family, and continue his efforts to become a substance abuse counselor.

Hagan’s journey has been well chronicled, and more than a little interesting. He was part of a group of three NOI members who shot and killed Malcolm. He was, however, the only one of the three apprehended on the spot. He was also the only person who ever confessed and pled guilty for his role in the assassination. According to transcripts from his March 3, 2010 hearing before the parole board, he said, “I have deep regrets about my participation in that. I don’t think it should ever have happened.”

In one of the more interesting developments of the case, two other suspects were also convicted in the killing. Both of them, Muhammad Abdul Aziz and Kahlil Islam, denied involvement. Of course, that is not the interesting part. For a suspect to declaring his innocence is an every day occurrence. Being convicted, in spite of their declarations is common as well. This scenario departed from the beaten path when Hagan, while admitting his own guilt, testified that Aziz and Islam were not with him, were not a part of the plan, and in fact were innocent.

All three were convicted and sentenced to 20 years to life in prison. Aziz was paroled in 1985; Islam was freed in 1987. Both maintained they were innocent from the start. At every step in the process, from the trial throughout his 15 appearances for hearings before the parole board, Hagan admitted his personal guilt, and consistently maintained the other two men were innocent. The catch, if there was one, is that three men were involved in killing Malcolm. Hagan admitted his own involvement, and even conceded there were two other men involved, just not Aziz and Islam. I am left to infer that either the parole board did not believe him, or they elected to continue punishing him for refusing to roll over on his real co-conspirators.

No matter how you look at it, there is a lot about this part of the case that begs numerous questions. For example, what are the odds that if Hagan had two co-conspirators, witnesses at the Audubon Ballroom mistakenly identified, Aziz and Islam, who apparently were there, and they could not have extricated themselves by identifying the other parties? Why would Hagan take the fall for Aziz and Islam? If Aziz and Islam were in fact innocent, why would Hagan not identify the actual culprits?

Of course, there are other equally compelling queries, but that will do for our purposes. There has long been an undercurrent of rumor and innuendo implicating NOI, in general, and the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, in particular, in Malcolm’s murder. Malcolm had deeply revered Elijah Muhammad, due to the role of his teachings in motivating Malcolm to turn his life around. Yet, when Malcolm learned that the Prophet, as Muhammad was known, had father 8 children by six different teenage girls, he began to distance himself from the NOI’s leader. There are those who also theorize a step further that the current NOI Leader, the Honorable Louis Farrakhan, may have been involved directly or indirectly,

I am not a detective; nor am I writing this post to solve a cold case. In taking just a cursory look at the matter, however, one could certainly see how individuals close to the situation might have been encouraged, incentivized, induced, threatened, or otherwise persuaded to recall specific details differently, or not at all. This matter has garnered some of the same kind of mystique as that of President John F. Kennedy and Dealey Plaza (the grassy knoll legend), and as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Lorraine Motel. One marked distinction in those two cases is that conspiracy theorists have been trying to establish for over 40 years that Lee Harvey Oswald and James Earl Ray did not act alone; while we know Talmadge X Hayer (Thomas Hagan) did not. We are just uncertain who acted as his accomplices.

As with Kennedy and King, other theories emerged. To be considered an icon, one must certainly be the source of more than one legend. Obviously Malcolm emerged as a change agent at a time of great social travail, and national strife. As a black leader, he was alleged to have been constantly under the watchful eye of the enigmatic J. Edgar Hoover and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

Back in the day, the agency was widely believed to have infiltrated all major black organizations, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Black Panther Party for Self Defense (BPPSD), and even the NOI, as well as numerous others. The alleged purposes for these infiltrations were basic, to keep tabs on the plans and activities of the groups and their leaders, but also to sow seeds of confusion, clamor, and chaos. If in the process of so doing, one or more of the leaders happened to get taken out, even better, or so the theory goes.

After Malcolm left the Nation of Islam in March 1964, agents pondered the prospect of a depoliticized more religious Malcolm, but they still perceived him as a threat. On June 5, 1964, J. Edgar Hoover sent a telegram to the FBI’s New York office that simply and plainly instructed, “Do something about Malcolm X enough of this black violence in NY.”

During Malcolm’s era, in New York, the strategic operations of the FBI were frequently complemented by, if not coordinated with the New York City Police. As a result, the actions of the police on the day of Malcolm’s assassination were pointedly unusual. Normally, up to two-dozen police officers were assigned to his rallies. On February 21, 1965, just one week after his home had been fire bombed, none were assigned at the entrance of the Audubon Theater.

In retrospect, we may wonder what that something was, ultimately. We do not know, with certainty. However, what we do know is what subsequently happened to him. Perhaps…the Honorable Elijah Muhammad was simply a foil.

So, on April 27, 2010, Thomas Hagan gained a measure of freedom. By stepping out of prison, and into his future, he begins to reconstruct what is left of his life. He has been out of the game, at least in some part, more than four decades. It is difficult, at least for me, to avoid wondering what might be different had Malcolm been here to spend those decades, working in his own way, to retool America, and to reshape “We the People,” who live here. Because of his central role in Malcolm’s absence, “Thomas Hagan, AKA Talmadge X Hayer, is Someone You Should Know!”

I’m done; holla back!

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