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When Ali Was Dangerous

books and culture

When Ali Was Dangerous

A new book chronicles Muhammad Ali’s short-lived but consequential friendship with Malcolm X. February 2, 2016
Arts and Culture

Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, by Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith (Basic, 392 pp., $28.99)

The 1996 Atlanta Olympics are remembered for many things—including a harrowing bomb attack—but if they have an enduring image, it’s of Muhammad Ali, hands shaking from Parkinson’s disease, lighting the Olympic torch. Only those past a certain age understood how remarkable the choice of Ali was, not only because of his illness but also because of the extraordinarily divisive racial politics that he embraced as a young man and practiced, lingeringly, throughout his boxing career. But by 1996, American cultural attitudes had changed so much that Ali was considered a national treasure, his refusal of military service during the Vietnam War broadly celebrated.

Malcolm X would have appreciated the improbability of Ali’s Olympic moment, had he lived to see it. Malcolm was instrumental in bringing Ali—then known as Cassius Clay—into the Nation of Islam, the organization headed by Elijah Muhammad that preached black racial supremacy, taught that whites were “devils” cooked up by an evil scientist, and called for separation of the races just as the integrationist civil rights movement was getting into full swing. In their new book, Blood Brothers, Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith explore how the relationship between the brilliant, self-taught Malcolm and the impressionable, charismatic Clay “signaled a new direction in American culture, one shaped by the forces of sports and entertainment, race and politics. When Clay befriended Malcolm and adopted his ideology, he became the most visible, politically conscious athlete in America. More than anyone else, Malcolm molded Cassius Clay into Muhammad Ali.” And once Ali was Ali, American sports were never the same. A straight line can be drawn from, say, Super Bowl quarterback Cam Newtown’s recent suggestion that he is criticized because he’s black to Ali’s elevation of race as a primary subject, sometimes seemingly the only subject, in sports reporting.

The broad outlines of the Ali/Malcolm drama are well known, but Roberts, a Purdue University professor and author of some of the best books about Ali’s heavyweight predecessors, and Smith, a Georgia Tech professor and sports historian, emphasize how crucial each was to the other’s destiny—Ali’s as a global figure of black pride and Malcolm’s as a martyred black visionary. They provide more exhaustive detail than previously available, aided by newly released FBI files and personal papers. And they infuse the tale with sharp insights and an impending sense of tragedy.

It is, on the surface, the unlikeliest of stories. In his book, Message to the Black Man, Elijah Muhammad preached against sports as a tool of exploitation. But Malcolm X saw the potential in Cassius Clay when many wrote him off as merely a showman. Malcolm and Clay forged a deepening relationship in 1963 and early 1964, just as Clay had gone into training for his title fight in Miami against the heavily favored champion, Sonny Liston. Clay had not yet gone public about his membership in the Nation, and since most observers thought that he would be trounced by Liston, no one would care what he did or said after the fight, anyway. Malcolm saw it differently. “One day this kid is going to be heavyweight champion of the world,” he told an associate, “and he’s going to embrace the Nation of Islam. Do you understand what that could mean?”

Yet as he grew close to the young fighter, Malcolm was embattled on all fronts. In November 1963, Malcolm had said that President Kennedy’s death represented the “chickens coming home to roost,” meaning payback for America’s imperial violence. The comment drew national outrage, and Muhammad, worried about a backlash, suspended Malcolm from his ministerial duties. The two men were drifting apart, as “the Messenger” grew resentful of Malcolm’s prominence and as Malcolm learned that Muhammad had fathered children out of wedlock with young secretaries. Deeply disillusioned, Malcolm nonetheless hoped that a Clay victory in Miami might propel him back into Muhammad’s good graces. Roberts and Smith deftly illustrate how Malcolm’s affection for Clay did not preclude his making such calculations.

Sitting near ringside in Miami, Malcolm kept calm throughout the fight, which must have tested his famous self-discipline—because, to the shock of nearly all, Clay outfought Liston, winning the heavyweight title when the champion called it quits after the sixth round. The next day, Clay announced that he had adopted the Muslim religion—or at least, the Nation of Islam’s version of it. He now wished to be called Cassius X.

Clay quickly became the most famous Muslim in the world, visiting the United Nations and embarking on a tour of Africa, but he couldn’t maintain his good standing in the Nation and stay friends with Malcolm, whom Muhammad had determined should never return to the fold. To ensure that Clay would not defect to Malcolm—who would soon break officially with the Nation—Muhammad put his chips on the table. The Messenger declared that Clay would be given a “completed” Muslim name, an honor denied even long-serving Nation loyalists. He would be known as Muhammad Ali.

“That’s a political move!” Malcolm thundered in his car, listening to the news over the radio. “He did that to get him away from me!” The most dramatic break came in summer 1964, when Ali, still on his African tour, ran into Malcolm in Ghana. Malcolm was returning from his pilgrimage to Mecca, which altered his views on the possibilities of interracial brotherhood. Seeing Ali, Malcolm called out, “Brother Muhammad!” Ali reacted coldly, saying, “You left the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. That was the wrong thing to do, Brother Malcolm.” And he turned away.

“I’ve lost a lot,” Malcolm lamented to friends as Ali moved off. “Almost too much.” He had more to lose. “When Malcolm lost the contest for Clay’s loyalty,” Roberts and Smith write, “he had no more moves, no more pawns to sacrifice. At that moment he was expendable. At that moment his life was in jeopardy.” In February 1965, after nearly a year of cat and mouse with Nation goons, Malcolm was gunned down just as he began a speech at the Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights.

The same night that Malcolm died, a fire broke out in Ali’s Chicago apartment. “Somebody probably started it on purpose,” Ali told his first wife, Sonji, as a warning to stay in the fold. Convinced that disobedience could cost him his life, Ali remained a loyal Nation acolyte. In 1967, at Elijah Muhammad’s order, he refused induction for military service in Vietnam, though his role would have been ceremonial, along the lines of boxing exhibitions and entertaining troops. The evidence suggests that Ali followed Muhammad’s orders out of fear. Among other ironies of Ali’s life, his obedience to a cult leader would make him a counterculture icon of individualism and moral principle.

For many years after 1965, Ali expressed nothing resembling sympathy when the subject of Malcolm came up, even suggesting that he “got what he deserved.” Only after Elijah Muhammad’s death in 1975, after which his son, Wallace, took over and renounced the organization’s racial doctrines, did Ali find it safe to speak kindly of Malcolm’s memory. “Turning my back on Malcolm is one of the mistakes that I regret most in my life,” he confessed in later years.

Not long after Malcolm’s death in 1965, the old black comic Stepin Fetchit offered a seemingly dubious prediction. “One of these days,” he said of Ali, “he’ll be one of the country’s greatest heroes. He’s like one of those plays where a man is the villain in the first act and then turns out to be the hero in the last act.” Fetchit proved a prophet. Within a decade, Ali was a guest at the White House, and in time, his immense charm and genuine goodness, along with the madcap genius of his long career, overwhelmed more bitter legacies. Blood Brothers reminds us of a time when an heroic image of Ali would have seemed as unlikely as the idea that Cassius Clay could beat Sonny Liston—or that a big-budget Hollywood film would someday venerate the life of Malcolm X. Such reversals, however, are almost commonplace in the dynamic, ever-changing country that Elijah Muhammad despised. As the boxing promoter Don King, an ex-con who avoided the Nation’s nets, likes to say: “Only in America.”

Photo by Harry Benson/Getty Images

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