Ben Crump, the celebrity civil rights lawyer who represents the family of George Floyd, sat with Malcolm X’s three daughters on the stage as Reggie Wood waved a letter and an envelope sheathed in plastic from the podium. A colorful mural of a towering Malcolm loomed in the background.
The letter, Wood said, had been written by his father’s first cousin, Raymond A. Wood. A Black undercover detective with the New York Police Department in the 1960s, Ray infiltrated civil rights groups to arrest and discredit their leaders.
“This letter,” Reggie said somberly, “helps me to understand the pain and guilt that Ray felt over the last 55 years.”
Then he read aloud from the one-page typewritten document.
“I participated in actions that in hindsight were deplorable and detrimental to the advancement of my own black people,” Ray Wood allegedly wrote on Jan. 25, 2011.
His supervisors at the NYPD, the letter said, involved him in a plot to bomb the Statue of Liberty that led to the arrests of two key members of Malcolm X’s security team — just days before Malcolm was gunned down on the ballroom stage by three members of the Nation of Islam.
Ray, according to his cousin, had asked that the letter not be made public until after his death, which finally came Nov. 24 at age 87.
Ray’s seemingly regretful words from the grave, amplified by Crump’s endorsement, made immediate waves. Reggie appeared in a flurry of broadcasts; news stories multiplied.
The letter fed long-held questions and conspiracy theories by implying that the NYPD and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI knew when the assassination would go down and that they actively plotted to help make it happen. It also held out the possibility, both painful and tantalizing, that the life of Malcolm, a fearless champion of Black people, might have been saved.
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. had already announced that his office would review the convictions of two Nation of Islam members in Malcolm X’s killing. On the stage with Wood, Crump called on Vance to begin a full reinvestigation into the assassination.
“This was orchestrated, and the only way we get to justice … is with the truth,” Crump said at the Feb. 20 news conference.
He likened Malcolm’s murder to the deaths of Floyd and other Black people at the hands of racist police. “The past is prologue,” he said.
Yet in the weeks since, a growing chorus of Malcolm X experts, as well as the detective’s daughter, have questioned everything from the historical veracity of the letter’s contents to the way it was written and signed.
“I’m angry that this letter has gotten such a run, but I know why,” said Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, whose lifelong search for Malcolm’s killers was chronicled in the Netflix documentary “Who Killed Malcolm X?” Evidence presented in the film and pressure by the Innocence Project prompted Vance’s review.
Muhammad pointed to the recent Oscar-nominated HBO movie “Judas and the Black Messiah,” about the killing of Chicago Black Panthers leader Fred Hampton after Black car-thief-turned-FBI informant William O’Neal set him up.
“The ideological current right now in popular culture is to abolish the police,” Muhammad said. Reggie Wood “seized upon the political climate. He knew people wanted to believe it.”
In an interview with The Washington Post, Crump said the Hampton case and the nefarious practices of the NYPD and FBI in the 1960s are exactly why he thought the letter needed to be taken seriously. The targeting and surveillance of Black civil rights leaders then are echoed today in the FBI’s recent practice of labeling Black Lives Matter activists “Black Identity Extremists,” he said.
By providing Reggie a platform to share Ray’s alleged confession, “My intention was absolutely to present it in a public way so it couldn’t just be swept under the rug,” he said.
Crump said he and his team did not directly vet the letter’s contents but cautioned Reggie “to do a lot of research … to make sure you corroborate the things that are stated in the letter.” By turning over the letter to Vance’s office, Crump said he anticipates that others will investigate its credibility, too.
Referring to the men who may have been falsely convicted in Malcolm X’s death, Crump said, “if there is any chance that they can be exonerated and have their names cleared, then we should investigate everything.”
While she spoke at the news conference about the need to investigate “any evidence” surrounding her father’s assassination, Ilyasah Shabazz was not endorsing the letter’s credibility, said Ron Baldwin, a business associate authorized to speak on her behalf.
In releasing the letter, Reggie said he was trying to grant the dying wish of his cousin and help the Shabazz family and the nation find justice. He said he has grown weary of the accusations that he concocted it.
“People ask me the same questions 15 different ways,” he said in an interview from his home near Tampa. “All I know is what Ray told me.”
He said he fears he is in danger. “I notice weird people near my house. … Everything is strange to me now,” he said. “My wife is stressed out. … It’s crazy. People are not nice. They’re trying to find dirt on me.”
As he spoke, Reggie’s voice rose to an anxious crescendo, no longer the measured tones of the man who spoke on the stage just a few weeks earlier.
A Statue of Liberty plot
Ray Wood was a tall, broad-shouldered Air Force veteran in his early 30s when he joined the detective division of the New York Police Department in 1964.
He was immediately put to work as part of a cadre of Black undercover law enforcement officers who were used to gain entree into the inner workings of civil rights groups.
These police officers have been alternately described through the decades as heroes uncovering dangerous Black militant plots, traitors undermining the cause of Black equality or simply Black men taking advantage of opportunities during an era when well-paid employment was far scarcer for Black people.
The men, including Wood, were assigned to the NYPD’s Bureau of Special Services, known then as BOSS or BOSSI. The agency shared information with the FBI to undermine and discredit Black civil rights leaders.
BOSSI preferred men with military training and intentionally did not send them to the police academy so that they would be less likely to use police slang or exhibit other telltale behaviors, said David Viola, an adjunct history professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York who has researched Wood’s role in the Statue of Liberty plot. Perhaps the most well-known among them, Black undercover BOSSI officer Gene Roberts, home from the Navy, infiltrated Malcolm X’s security team. Embodying the tensions of his role in that era, Roberts administered mouth-to-mouth to the leader as he lay dying at the Audubon.
On his first assignment, Ray Wood, going by “Ray Woodall,” insinuated himself into the top New York City echelons of the nonviolent Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Then in late 1964, Wood was given a new mission: to follow up on a chance encounter with Robert Steele Collier, a pro-Communist Black revolutionary leader.
Collier invited two other Black activists to a subsequent meeting with Wood and soon the four started plotting to bomb the Statue of Liberty. On Feb. 16, Wood drove Collier to a parking lot in the Bronx where a Canadian militant said she had stashed the explosives the men had requested.
The trap sprung: NYPD officers jumped out of hiding and rushed to arrest the culprits. Canadian Michelle DuClos and the two other plotters — Khaleel Sayyed, 22, a Howard University engineering student, and Walter Bowe, a 32-year-old Black radical — were apprehended later. Wood’s cover was instantly blown; stories about the high-profile bust and Wood ran in the New York Times on Feb. 17, 1965, with a photo of the detective shot from behind.
At the trial that spring, Wood — who was quickly promoted to second-grade detective — testified that Bowe suggested the Statue of Liberty idea and the others signed on quickly. The activists argued that it was Wood who ensnared them in the plot.
In the letter Reggie Wood unveiled 56 years later, Ray Wood allegedly pushed a third scenario. Although Collier appeared to be the prime target at the time, Bowe and Sayyed were actually central to the scheme, which was designed by Wood’s supervisors and the FBI to weaken Malcolm X’s security detail at the Audubon by sidelining the two men, the letter asserts.
But is this true and would it have made a difference? Much of the dissension over Wood’s letter — and Reggie’s 123-page companion book, “The Ray Wood Story: Confessions of a Black NYPD Cop in the Assassination of Malcolm X” — centers on these questions.
And yet this is known: Just five days after Sayyed and Bowe were arrested and jailed, Malcolm X fell to the floor of the Audubon Ballroom, mouth gaping, fighting for his life.
In a speech in Manhattan, Malcolm X called the murder “a case of the chickens coming home to roost.” Muhammad, who had forbidden his members to speak about the assassination, suspended Malcolm for 90 days with no plans to reinstate him.
In March 1964, Malcolm announced he was leaving the Nation to start Muslim Mosque Inc. A few months later he founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity to encourage oppressed Black people around the world to join forces.
Traveling throughout Africa that year, Malcolm underwent a transformation as he encountered Muslims of all races. He abandoned the Nation’s virulently anti-White ideology and converted to Sunni Islam. And yet his international ambitions, which included charging the United States with human rights violations against African Americans at the United Nations, made his rising profile all the more concerning to the U.S. government, according to Les Payne and Tamara Payne in the book “The Dead are Arising.”
Elijah Muhammad felt threatened by Malcolm, too. Malcolm X had learned of the leader’s affairs with women in the Nation and his many illegitimate children and had been sharing this knowledge within the Nation. After leaving the Nation, he began divulging Muhammad’s secrets in public. Rumors of Malcolm’s impending murder did not escape him.
“’I live like a man who is dead already,” he told reporters at the time.
‘A lowering of the guard’
According to Reggie’s account: Ray Wood was awakened on Feb. 21, 1965, by a phone call. A man on the other end of the line instructed him to leave and get in the back seat of a black Buick.
Inside were two White FBI agents. The men told Wood to go the Audubon Ballroom to observe and report back about Malcom X’s afternoon appearance. After balking at first — his cover had been blown after all — Wood chose a seat in the front of the room near the stage, according to Reggie.
Historians recount what happened next: Malcolm took his place on the podium, his voice weary. “As-Salaam Alaikum,” he said in greeting to his audience. Suddenly there was a commotion in the auditorium.
“Get your hands out of my pocket,” a man shouted.
Elsewhere, another man struck a match and lit a rolled-up sock, heaving the makeshift smoke bomb to the auditorium floor. Malcolm shifted his attention to the ruckus. Two security men in front of the stage moved toward the disturbance, deserting their posts. Members of the audience pivoted their heads. Malcolm raised his arms and stepped back from the wooden podium.
“Now, now, brothers break it up,” he said.
Just then a man with a sawed-off shotgun rushed to the podium, aimed at Malcolm’s chest and pulled the trigger. Malcolm fell. Meanwhile, two accomplices dashed to the edge of the stage. Talmadge Hayer fired a .45-caliber automatic into Malcolm’s ankle. The second gunman pumped his 9mm Lugar into both of Malcolm’s thighs.
The three gunmen turned to retreat through the chaos of the crowd. Two managed to escape but a Malcolm X bodyguard shot 22-year-old Hayer in the thigh, and he was surrounded in the street by an angry crowd before the NYPD hustled him into a squad car.
Inside on the stage, Roberts tried unsuccessfully to revive Malcolm. Japanese American activist Yuri Kochiyama famously cradled the leader’s head.
Amid the pandemonium, Reggie asserted in his book, a stunned Ray Wood was handcuffed and hurried away from the scene by the NYPD.
Hayer, also known as Thomas Hagan and Mujahid Abdul Halim, confessed to the killing but has maintained since his 1966 trial that the other two Nation members convicted in the murder, Thomas Johnson, also known as Khalil Islam, and Norman Butler, a.k.a. Muhammad Aziz, were innocent.
In 1977, Hayer fingered the four men by name that he said acted with him — the two other gunmen and two accomplices in the audience — but the information went nowhere.
Hayer served 45 years in prison before he was paroled in 2010. Johnson, paroled in 1987, died in 2009. Butler, 83, was paroled in 1985. The Innocence Project, along with attorney David B. Shanies, are fighting to clear Johnson’s and Butler’s names.
Evidence unearthed by Abdur-Rahman Muhammad and included in the Netflix documentary and by investigative journalist Les Payne in his book makes a compelling case that the actual murderers were members of the Newark mosque, rather than Malcolm X’s former Harlem mosque associates Butler and Johnson, who likely would have been quickly recognized in the ballroom. In the documentary, a close friend of William Bradley said the Newark mosque member, also known as Al-Mustafa Shabazz, was the man who fired the bullets that killed Malcolm X, echoing Hayer’s earlier assertion. Bradley’s alleged role was apparently an open secret in Newark, although Bradley denied it right up to his death in 2018.
Ray Wood’s alleged letter focuses not on who killed Malcolm, but this: How were the assailants able to do it with such apparent ease? And did the FBI and the NYPD plot actively to help commit the deed?
Reggie and Malcom X expert Baba Zac Kondo point to a 1970s educational booklet about the Revolutionary Action Movement that said member “Kaliel Said” was helping Malcolm develop a “security wing.” But Muhammad said although RAM leaders talked militantly, the group was largely ineffectual.
Ray Wood died believing that he had played an unwitting role in exposing Malcolm, Reggie said.
Ray “felt very guilty when he was telling me about the situation with Malcolm X,” Reggie recalled in an interview with The Post. “He was holding back tears. … He said ‘If I had known, I would have done something.’ ”
By then, Ray Wood was in his 70s and living near Reggie and his family in Florida. He’d been diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2011.
“Ray thought the end was near,” Reggie wrote in “The Ray Wood Story, “and he was adamant that the secret not die with him.”
Ray recovered from the cancer, and the letter he had supposedly written about his role in the assassination remained private for the next nine years.
After Ray Wood died last November, Reggie was torn about his next move, he said in the interview. He said he confided in a friend who had a connection to Ben Crump’s sister. Crump called Reggie back immediately and listened carefully as he shared his cousin’s story, he said.
“He had his people look into it and they said it was legitimate and that’s when he took it over from there,” Reggie said, contradicting Crump’s recounting of events.
Reggie said that the attorney advised him to put everything he knew into a “memoir” to release in tandem with the news conference.
In his interview with The Post, Crump said he told Reggie to amass the evidence in a way that would make it convincing to the public, but did not suggest that Reggie publish a book about it.
Abdur-Rahman Muhammad accuses Reggie of concocting the letter to reap a profit from “The Ray Wood Story,” which is being sold on Amazon for $19.99.
Reggie, who has owned a variety of small businesses, faced multiple lawsuits and liens between 1991 and 2018 for failure to pay his bills, court records show. He was convicted twice on criminal charges of writing bad checks, in 2000 and 2002.
Reggie said he decided to sell a book in part to help provide for his family’s protection if publicizing the letter endangered them. He also plans to use a portion of the profits, he said, to start a college scholarship fund for criminal justice students in Ray Wood’s name. And he noted that it is not unusual for small business owners to be sued unfairly.
“I’ve been an entrepreneur for many years and I’ve done good and I’ve done bad…but I still came out above water,” he said, attributing some of his legal troubles to the stress of keeping Ray’s secret for almost a decade.
Crump said that the book doesn’t strike him as a sufficient motive for Reggie to tell such a lie. “You put stuff out into the world to vet, if it’s not real, people are going to know it,” he said. “Why would you do that?”
But Muhammad and other experts on the assassination point out that the two Statue of Liberty plotters — so crucial to the letter — played minor roles in Malcolm’s security.
Sayyed was charged with guarding Malcolm’s empty house after the firebombing and not much more, the historians note. Bowe, who had recently left his role with Malcolm’s organization because the leader was insufficiently radical for him, played no role in Malcolm’s security at the time of the assassination, Muhammad said, pointing to a 1997 video interview with Bowe.
Viola noted that the men were brought into the Statue of Liberty plot incidentally by Collier. If law enforcement wanted to arrest Sayyed and Bowe in the days before the assassination, there were much simpler and more reliable ways to do it at a time when police were routinely violating Black men’s civil rights, he said.
“The idea of concocting this really elaborate scheme just to get them off the streets just doesn’t pass muster,” Viola said. And even if the letter is authentic, that scenario “was something that Ray Wood concocted in his head after the fact” — in other words, Ray’s own personal conspiracy theory. “We all remember history in a way that puts a better light on our involvement in it,” he said.
First, Garrow said, the FBI did not give orders directly to NYPD undercover officers. “In J. Edgar Hoover’s world, that would have been a fireable offense,” he said.
As proof that Ray was at the Audubon when Malcolm was assassinated, Reggie points to a note by Kochiyama on March 6, 1965 that surfaced in 2011 in the archived papers of civil rights activist James Campbell and was featured in a 2015 Guardian article.
“Ray Woods is said to have been seen also running out of the Audubon; was one of two picked up by police. Was the second person running out,” the notes read. The first “was” had been crossed out and “is said to have been” was inserted, edits that make the document akin to hearsay, Garrow said.
In the book, Reggie said that Ray surmised that Thomas Johnson was later arrested in the murder to cover for the fact that Ray had been recognized and put in a police car.
But what would have been the purpose of having Wood there that day, especially since his involvement could have been directly linked to the NYPD? The NYPD had undercover policemen and the FBI had informants there already.
“I can only go by what he told me,” Reggie said. “I asked him ‘Why would they send you back in?’ I was confused about that, too.”
Then there is the matter of the way the letter was written, the Malcolm X experts said: Why, as a police detective who knew what was needed to make a case, would Ray have not had the letter witnessed and notarized and not included audio or video of his confession? Why would he refer to himself as an officer in the letter when he was a detective, an important distinction in police hierarchy?
And even if the letter were true and Sayyed and Bowe were part of Malcom X’s security, would their presence at the ballroom have made a difference?
It’s unlikely, historians say, because Malcolm himself was the greatest impediment to the strength of his security that day.
“Malcolm willed a lowering of the guard,” said Peter Goldman, a former journalist for Newsweek and the author of “The Death and Life of Malcolm X.” “The organizations he founded were new and fragile, and he was worried that the heavy police presence and heavy security … were deterring people from coming to his meetings.”
Malcolm X ordered his security team not to carry guns and not to search people at the door to the Audubon, Goldman and the other Malcolm X experts noted.
The lack of security, the hunger in the Nation to see Malcolm dead — all the FBI and the NYPD needed to do was wait, Goldman said. Through their surveillance, which included wiretapping, undercover detectives and top-level informants in the Nation, they had a front-row seat to the plotting.
“There was no need for them to get involved with killing Malcolm X. … They knew the Nation of Islam,” Goldman said. “They knew that Muhammad’s followers wouldn’t be daunted by security or police. They knew that they would walk through walls to do the Nation’s bidding.”
The FBI and the NYPD and their nefarious practices during the civil rights era and their echoes in the discriminatory treatment of Black people by law enforcement today rightly feed questions about the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., Goldman said. He, Muhammad, Garrow and Viola all believe the FBI and the NYPD owe it to the nation to release all records related to Malcolm X, including electronic surveillance and informant files.
But sometimes, Goldman said, conspiracy theories are born of a reluctance to face the truth and a desperate wish that, somehow, our heroes — Malcolm X, MLK or the Kennedys — might have been saved, if only.
“My own theory is that it’s painful to think that this extraordinary guy died a trashy death in a dispute over Elijah Muhammad’s sex life,” he said. “I think if he were going to die, his admirers would have liked to have had him die heroically.”
On Feb. 26, six days after Reggie Wood read from the letter at the Shabazz Center, Ray Wood’s daughter Kelly Adams gave an interview to New York’s TV1.
“My father is not a coward. He would have never ever asked anybody to speak on his behalf after his passing,” said Adams, a well-spoken woman in her early 50s wearing a blue fur vest. “If he had something to say, he would have said it when he was alive. I’m certain of that.”
“My father was and still is a hero,” she said, as an archival photo of Wood and photos of father and daughter together flashed in the background on the screen.
Adams said she was dismayed by Reggie Wood’s decision to release the letter. She claimed that the signature was forged and that an envelope used to underscore its authenticity was “a fake.” Reggie Wood denies the charge, saying he hired an expert to verify the signature on the letter.
Adams also questioned the allegations that her father was at the ballroom when Malcolm X was murdered. “They were not going to run the risk of having him there,” she said, adding that her mother told her that his handlers had ordered Ray to stay out of sight until the Statue of Liberty trial that spring.
She sympathizes with Malcolm X’s daughters in their pursuit of justice for their father, she said.
“My heart goes out to you,” she said. Still, she asked the Shabazz family to “find another way to get the answers that you need and the closure that you need.”
“I support you 100 percent,” she said, “but on this, with my father, I cannot.”
Perhaps her appearance lacked the stagecraft of Crump and the Shabazz daughters on the site where Malcolm X was murdered. Perhaps there’s too much distrust of law enforcement stirring the air. Perhaps Americans, as true now as then, just prefer a good conspiracy theory. But Kelly Adams’s interview barely made a ripple in the news.
Magda Jean-Louis and Tom Jackman contributed to this report.