On May 1, 1973, in the living room of 113 Townsend St in Roxbury, Hakim Jamal was listening to the radio, joking and laughing with friends. Next to him was a loaded shotgun.
Around 11 pm there was a knock at the door. It was ignored, but at the second knock Kidogo, a friend of Jamal’s, got up, along with his 190-pound German shepherd, and opened the door. Kidogo saw a group of men led by one with a carbine rifle in his hands. The dog lunged at the man with the rifle and Kidogo slammed the door shut.
Jamal watched as Kidogo put his back to the door and jumped up and down without speaking. The door was forced open. Jamal now had the shotgun in his hands and was trying to get it into position to fire. Gunshots rang out.
Friday marks 55 years since the assassination of Malcolm X, and the complexities of his life and his death are increasingly being examined from different angles—from the recent Netflix special on his death to Detroit Red, the new play examining his life as a Boston street hustler. A lesser-known but fascinating character in Malcolm X’s life is Hakim Jamal, his “cousin” who, like Malcolm X, transformed from a Roxbury hoodlum to an author and activist.
And like Malcolm X, Hakim Jamal was now facing down a group of armed men. At least now Jamal had his own rifle—he’d always advised picking up arms in self-defense. Five years earlier, when he appeared on the groundbreaking WGBH public affairs show Say Brother in the show’s initial year, he said as much.
“When you pick up the gun they’ll lay it down,” Jamal told a Boston television audience in 1968. “That’s why in the west they were the fastest draw. They don’t have to put their guns down just beat me to the draw because if they draw on me they’re going to have to.”
The only question now was who would shoot first.
Hakim Jamal was a Boston original—an engaging author and activist who identified as a recovering alcoholic and addict. He founded the group that created Kwanzaa. His controversial romances with movie stars and models inspired movies decades later—2008’s The Bank Job, last year’s Seberg on Amazon. However, in the last year of his life the handsome and charismatic leader was showing troubling signs—insisting to others that he was in fact God. Even more troubling, he was at least complicit and possibly directly involved in the gruesome murder of a young model in Trinidad.
Before all that, Jamal was a Roxbury teen infatuated with the clubs and street corner action of black Boston. That was where he met Detroit Red. Jamal was 14 and sharing a gallon of wine with three friends when the night took them to “Columbus Avenue and Massachusetts Avenue, the heart of the black entertainment center in Boston. That’s where everything happened—well, most everything. There it was black people’s heaven. … I was deeply impressed by the ‘big-time’ clubs and people, but I didn’t admit it.”
In his memoir, Jamal recounts that coming-of-age night when he met Detroit Red, the street name of the man born Malcolm Little, who had not quite yet matured into Malcolm X. Jamal describes the thousand-watt smile Little greeted him and his friends with as they asked around for drugs—and Jamal describes Little’s charisma and elegant style.
“No one could help noticing that Malcolm’s suit was pressed, its creases sharp, his pegged pants tight around his ankles, his hat snap-brimmed just right. ‘Stetson’s,’ he bragged and showed us the name inside the hat. When he opened his coat his pants were just high enough for the current style. When he took off his hat, we could all see that his hair was done up, ‘fried’—it was right.”
“When Malcolm walks away to talk to some white men who look like gangsters,” Jamal writes, “I thought how lucky I was to have met a real gangster.”
That night was the first time Jamal tried heroin. With Charlie Parker playing in the background and feeling the intense euphoric opiate high, the 14-year-old added heroin addiction to his already growing problem with alcohol. From there, Jamal experienced the full horror of addiction. He was in prison for attempted murder at age 20 and served four years.
At 26, Jamal heard that his wife’s distant cousin—the same man he knew as Detroit Red—was speaking in Downtown Boston along with Elijah Muhammad. The first speaker was Louis X, who Jamal knew as none other than “Gene Walcott, or the Charmer, the guy who had been singing at Eddie Lavene’s night club on the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Columbus Avenue.” Louis X was Louis Farrakhan.
Jamal wrote, “This was too much: first Gene Walcott, the singer; now Malcolm, the crook and liar. If they were up there, this cat Muhammad must at least be a murderer!” When Muhammad, a small, soft-spoken man, closed his speech, hundreds of people in the crowd were starting to get up and put on their coats. “Most people, from what I could gather had been disappointed—me too,” wrote Jamal.
When most of the crowd were on their feet, Malcolm X approached the podium and, after what seemed like minutes of silence, began to speak.
“His voice was a lot different from what I could remember,” Jamal wrote. “He didn’t talk hep any longer. He didn’t cuss. His voice was strong and he knew just what he was doing.”
Soon, the hall was rocking. “Again came the applause and the screaming and the stamping of feet.”
“In classic street talk, Malcolm began telling the assembly that down home … [in] Mississippi or Alabama, the black people there realized one thing most of all. They realized they were black, whereas up here, in Boston, we thought we were negroes and that alone made us chumps.”
“I was amazed,” Jamal wrote. “Is this Malcolm from the corner? He’d been talking about Columbus Avenue, but he was careful not to reveal his connection with the corner. He didn’t mention that he’d been out there selling pot and cocaine to us. He didn’t mention that he was using the stuff just like the rest of us—if I’m a chump he’s a chump right along with me.”
Although he had initial doubts, the following year Jamal converted to Islam and swore off drugs and alcohol forever.
Within a few years, Jamal himself became a valued voice in the discussion surrounding the struggle for civil rights. He wrote a book published in 1971 that eloquently captures his interactions with Malcolm X at various points in the life of this master of reinvention. Hakim Jamal was probably one of the few people who personally knew Malcolm X at some of the most distinct phases of his life—he knew Detroit Red the street hustler, Malcolm X the Nation of Islam minister, and El Hajj Malik Shabazz, the name Malcolm X took after leaving the Nation of Islam.
The book is strongest in its first half—his sociological treatise on walking through Boston’s endlessly segregated neighborhoods united only by virulent anti-black racism is only one example of his insightful and critical eye. Jamal’s honest accounts of his struggles with heroin and alcohol, and his own evolution from street kid to scholar make it a vulnerable and honest account of a Boston black man’s life.
Despite the book’s value, Jamal still faced criticism. The second half is mostly Jamal’s accounts of Malcolm X’s preaching and public appearances of Malcolm X that he attended. The title, From the Dead Level: Malcolm X and Me, hinted that Jamal and Malcolm X had a substantial relationship, but in reality they had only a handful of meaningful encounters.
“People have described Hakim as a fraud who was inventing a relationship with Malcolm in order to advance himself,” editor Diana Athill wrote in her memoir, Make Believe: A True Story. “It was his own written accounts of the few personal encounters with Malcolm which made the triviality clear. These are scrupulous. He took pains not to distort them. Not once did he try to blow up the facts on which he was basing his own claims to attention.”
To close the book, Jamal admits he is not sure what is next in his life. “Now, where do I go from here? I have no idea. My path is cloudy. Sometimes I think to myself that a return to dope would take me out of all this mess, but I’m reluctant to take that first shot that will take me back to the waiting gutter.
He continued, “What I believe in is revenge. A good deed for a good deed, a bad deed for a bad deed. Don’t tell me what is wrong—and just don’t do me any bad deeds.”
There would be bad deeds to come for Jamal—sinister government agents, a false messiah, and more than one murder were in store as the idealistic ’60s turned to the fateful ’70s.
After Malcolm X’s assassination in February 1965 and the Watts riots the following August, Jamal began a discussion group with Maulana Karenga called the circle of seven. Jamal then created a magazine called US. In a 1966 issue, Karenga was listed as chairman and Jamal as founder of the new group.
The organization ran the US School of Afro American culture, but the two men began to differ on how to achieve the group’s aims. Jamal argued that the ideas of Malcolm X should be the main ideological model for the group, while Karenga wanted the focus to be on African culture.
This difference between Jamal and Karenga foreshadowed US’ upcoming conflict with the Black Panthers. Jamal left to establish the Malcolm X Foundation, a Montessori school in Compton, California. The US Organization’s legacy includes the creation of the first holiday specifically for African-Americans, Kwanzaa.
In addition, the FBI’s targeting and harassment of the US Organization and its members was part of COINTELPRO—the United States government’s secret campaign of dirty tricks against civil rights activists. Jamal might have moved on from US, but after an affair with a Hollywood star he too would be targeted by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI.
It wasn’t long before Jamal’s Malcolm X Foundation became a player in the Black Power movement. He had a positive relationship with the Black Panthers and it was said he even acted as a go-between for the group and their high-profile supporter, movie star Marlon Brando.
Brando wasn’t the only Hollywood star Jamal was courting. In October 1968, while traveling by flight, Jamal met Jean Seberg, the American actress who starred in the new wave French classic Breathless and made her look in that film—a side-swept pixie short haircut—iconic.
Soon Seberg was enthralled by Jamal. She transferred $5,000 into his account and bought a bus for his school in Compton. In April 1969 Jamal hosted a fundraiser for his school in her home and Hollywood’s liberal elite turned out to support the cause—Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Vanessa Redgrave, Lee Marvin, and Jane Fonda, who donated $1,000 to Jamal’s school, were all there.
According to most accounts, Jamal and Seberg did not confine their partnership to business. Seberg’s third husband said Jamal was the “one passionate love of Jean’s life.” But when Seberg donated $1,000 to Jamal’s Malcolm X Montessori School, she became a target of Hoover and the FBI. Files now show that Hoover ordered, “Jean Seberg … must be neutralized.”
The FBI would later admit that agents followed Seberg and monitored her phone. The agency also planted gossip with celebrity columnists claiming the child she was expecting with her second husband was actually fathered by Jamal. Publications worldwide picked up the story.
The stress took its toll—Seberg delivered the baby three months early. The girl, Nina, died a few days later. In a strange public display, Seberg returned to her hometown of Des Moines, Iowa, and allowed the child’s remains to be viewed publicly and photographed by the press in a bizarre attempt to prove her child was not African-American. However, the event mostly demonstrated Seberg’s mental health was failing. She died in 1979 at age 40 from what doctors ruled was an intentional drug overdose.
Jamal’s own mental health was also in crisis. He was telling people he was God, and while most laughed it off as a joke or realized he was serious and backed off, one woman realized he was serious and believed him. Her name was Gale Ann Benson. She was in her early 20s and had been a model. She was recently divorced from an aspiring filmmaker. Her father was Leonard Frank Plugge—an inventor, pirate radio pioneer, and conservative politician who had been elected to Parliament.
She met Jamal at a party thrown by actress Vanessa Redgrave at a time when she was depressed. They slept together the day after the party and it changed her life, as Jamal’s editor Athill reported in her evocative memoir: “The classic marvel happened, she discovered what sex is about, and within three weeks she had lost three stone … To both of them this sudden loss of weight had immense significance: he had remade her, it was a miracle. She became Hale Kimga and took to counting her age from the start of their affair.”
Athill admitted that “Everyone in this story was at some time or another at least a little mad,” and Jamal and Benson were in fact a whirlwind of mad drama. They traveled from Morocco to Paris to London where they met Herbert Girardet, a young German radical from a wealthy family. They devised plans to change the world and traveled to Guyana where the government was giving out land to those who promised to develop it (a few years later, they would give some to the Reverend Jim Jones for his Jonestown nightmare).
The trip to Guyana was a disaster, with Jamal “acting like a lunatic from the start. … He insisted on seeking out Guyanese politicians and lecturing them on how to run their country, chiding them for not being good black men,” Girardet told Athill.
Jamal and Benson were off to Trinidad where they would seek out Michael X, a black leader there who Jamal said he felt a strong bond with.
In Michael X, Jamal saw salvation. Here was a black man running an actual commune known as Christina Gardens. Recently, Michael X had convinced John Lennon of the Beatles and comedian Dick Gregory to visit him in Trinidad.
Michael X was born Michael De Freitas to a Portuguese father and Bajan mother. At various times he could credibly be described as poet, criminal, revolutionary, prisoner, activist, or con man. He could only have thrived in the tumultuous times of the ’60s and ’70s—going from petty thief to the public face of black Britain in just a few short years due mostly to his ability to use guilt to raise money from white liberals.
In 1969, when he was able to get an appointment to see John Lennon, Michael X promptly berated the pop star for stealing black people’s music and commercializing it. He’d found Lennon’s weak spot and the Beatles star asked what he could do. Michael suggested Lennon commission him to write a book on the “black experience.” The next day Michael was summoned to Lennon’s office and Yoko Ono gave him a paper bag containing 10,000 pounds in cash.
Michael also managed to build a relationship with heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali. When the young fighter visited London to fight Henry Cooper, Michael X brought Ali to public events and an appearance at a London elementary school. Ali gave Michael his shorts from the fight, splattered with Cooper’s blood, as a souvenir, handing them over with the words, “Here’s the blood of an Englishman.”
Hakim Jamal wasn’t John Lennon or Muhammad Ali, but Michael X was pleased to meet him. Jamal was a charismatic American with links to Black Power royalty in Malcolm X. Michael X had also been looking for a ghost writer—and now he found one in Jamal.
“Hakim was similarly thrilled,” wrote author John L. Williams in Michael X: A Life in Black and White. His belief in his own godhead had been severely shaken by his failure in Guyana and he was only too happy to downgrade his role to that of John the Baptist, charged with announcing the glory of Michael to the world.”
Benson’s arrival also had a profound effect on Michael X. In the first chapters of a draft of a novel he was working on, Michael X writes about an upper-class English woman who is both repelled and attracted to a dangerous, brilliant activist Michael X clearly modeled after his own idealized version of himself.
“The parallels between the fictional Lena and actual Gale are obvious. Clearly the arrival of Gale had a distinct effect on Michael,” Williams wrote.
Benson, in turn, was deeply affected by this new situation. Her relationship with Jamal had been based on him being God and her being his self-appointed slave/apostle. But now Jamal was submitting to Michael X and the mentally fragile Benson was finding it hard to cope with.
Bad omens were coming to Christina Gardens. As 1971 became 1972, Michael decided to celebrate New Year’s Eve with a ritual he learned from his mother—drinking the blood of a slaughtered calf. Michael took a drink first and offered it to Jamal, who said he refused; “I ain’t no blood drinker.”
At 8:45 pm on Jan. 1 Michael asked five of the commune’s men to join him at the back of the house. Michael X told the gathering that Benson was causing Jamal great strain, and there was only one solution: She must be disposed of. “I want blood,” he said. “That is the only thing that will keep us together.”
The next morning everything went like clockwork. When the grave was dug and Jamal hurried away, Benson was driven to the back of the property where the pit was now four feet deep. She asked what it was for.
“For you,” one of the men replied.
Benson was dragged into the pit by one man, while Kidogo attacked her with a cutlass. Kidogo slashed at her repeatedly, but Benson was able to fend off his blows and received only superficial wounds. As she fought for her life she called out, “What have I done to deserve this?”
One of the commune’s men then jumped into a now-crowded pit and took the cutlass from Kidogo. He pointed it at Benson’s throat and drove it in as hard as he could.
The killers climbed out of the hole and began to bury Benson, who was still alive as the earth started to cover her. Michael X returned half an hour later with Jamal, and life seemed to go on as usual: Jamal never asked about his lover’s absence.
Michael X’s biographer John L. Williams posits that authorities should have looked more closely at Jamal’s involvement in Benson’s murder. “The first, most obvious question is what about Hakim? Is it really credible that Hakim was not involved in his girlfriend’s murder, that he simply turned a blind eye to her execution, or genuinely believed she’d just wandered off one morning?”
Williams writes that a pathologist found a human fingernail lodged in Benson’s throat and that Girardet, the rich German benefactor, on hearing the news of the murder, told police that Jamal had unusually long fingernails.
Trinidad police, however, seemed uninterested in charging Jamal with Benson’s murder, even as an accessory. An investigator from Trinidad did travel to Boston and talked to Jamal, but the officer appeared to be satisfied with Jamal’s rambling statements of regret. Michael X meanwhile was arrested two weeks later and hung on May 16, 1975, after being convicted of a murder separate from Benson’s.
Jamal escaped any punishment for Benson’s murder, but back in Boston he was facing down a virtual execution squad.
According to court documents, the genesis of the confrontation playing out in the living room at 113 Townsend St. in Roxbury was a verbal argument earlier in the day between Kidogo and a woman known as Sister Cissy. Later the newspapers would say the dispute had roots in a feud between black activist groups, but the headlines were wrong.
After the argument with Kidogo, Sister Cissy told Enfrid Brown, William Johnson, John Clinscales, Isaac Mitchell, and Philips Key that Kidogo “had threatened to hit her.” The men then armed themselves and went to 113 Townsend St. “to pick Kidogo on up.”
They forced the door open, knocking Kidogo to the floor and pinning him “between the door and the wall.” After the door was pushed open, Kidogo “heard a chain of gunfire” and saw that Key “had fallen into the room and the carbine that was in his hand was out in front of him” As the door was pushed open, one of Jamal’s friends saw that Hakim had the shotgun in his hands and was “trying to get it into position to fire.”
After the gunshots, Jamal was found “stretched across the chair.” He had been shot and killed by Isaac Mitchell.
Mitchell eventually pled guilty and served about 10 years on a manslaughter conviction. Brown and Johnson, on the other hand, were swept up in a bureaucratic nightmare. Although neither man fired a shot or even entered the apartment during the incident, both were convicted of first-degree murder. The jury initially announced a verdict of not guilty, but within hours the foreman clarified to the court they were only voting not guilty on the theory of deliberate premeditation. The two were convicted on a theory of felony murder.
The next year, the convictions were vacated on appeal, and Brown and Johnson were retried —again under a theory of deliberate premeditation despite being acquitted once under that theory. They were convicted again, and a 2014 oral argument before the Supreme Judicial Court was rejected.
It is unclear if Johnson is still alive. Brown died in prison.