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Once they were brothers: Stephen Williams reviews a new work on the tragic friendship between two icons.




ISBN: 978-0-465-07970-4


In some ways, it was an unlikely friendship. Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali (or Cassius Marcellus Clay Jnr as he was known until 1964) had much in common, but also had many differences.

The young boxer Clay was from Louisville, Kentucky in the USA's Deep South; Malcolm Little he would replace his surname with a symbolic X indicating his lost African origins and his renunciation of slave history--had his upbringing in the tough streets of Detroit, Boston and New York. Clay was a dedicated athlete and a patriot, defending his country and possessing a relentless ambition.

By contrast, Malcolm X's formative years were a history of predominantly white reform schools and foster homes, virtually flunking high school, becoming a street hustler (known as 'Detroit Red')--a pimp, thief and drug peddler. He was to find redemption and purpose during a prison spell.

That redemption came by embracing the message of the Nation of Islam. Interestingly enough, his conversion did not come through fellow prisoners but by being introduced to the teachings of the NOI's founder, Prophet Elijah Muhammad, by his family outside jail. He discovered faith though his own siblings, Philbert and Reginald.

Alongside his conversion came a resolve to turn away from a life of hard drinking, smoking, gambling and fornication. His brothers also advised him to avoid pork. Conversion sparked a dedication to scholarship and a voracious appetite for reading and learning as much as he could about Islam.

When Malcolm was released from prison, he could hardly wait to visit the NOI's Detroit temple following which, after a brief stint as an assistant minister in Detroit, he was quickly promoted to his own ministries in Boston, then Philadelphia and Harlem, New York.

Authors Roberts and Smith, drawing on the work of Huston Horn of Sports Illustrated, write that Elijah Muhammad recognised that no-one could relate to "those bottom-of-the-pile Negroes" better than Malcolm as he also knew of life "in worn-out shotgun houses and rancid tenements'.

For many readers, the use of language such as "Negroes" and "niggers" will come as quite a shock, but the authors are quoting writers, journalists and commentators who, in early 1960s America, had no compunction about using these pejorative terms.

Roberts and Smith do an excellent job of placing this story in context: a Jim Crow America riven by racism and the colour bar--and polarised by a brutal war in Vietnam. By using Freedom of Information legislation they trawl through thousands of previously unknown documents, such as those of the FBI, to reveal the level of surveillance Clay/Ali and Malcolm X were placed under. These were bad, ugly times, whose disturbing echoes today reverberate in the much-publicised killings of young black men by the police.

The authors quote the Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver, from his seminal book Soul on Ice, who insisted: "What white America demands of her black champions is a brilliant, powerful body, and a dull bestial mind--a tiger in the ring and a pussycat outside the ring." Black boxers' lives,

Cleaver maintained, were "sharply circumscribed by the ropes around the ring".

But from the outset, Cassius Clay showed a determination not to fit into this stereotype. His "radicalisation" appears to have been shaped by the treatment he received on his return home, after winning Olympic gold in Rome. He and a friend were refused service at a downtown Fouisville restaurant because of their colour. It shattered his belief that, as a returning gold-medalled hero, he would be honoured and respected.

A widely circulated story is that Clay threw his Olympic medal into the Ohio River in disgust at the treatment meted out to him, but the book does not repeat this tale. Regardless of whether or not the story is merely apocryphal, what is indisputable is that shortly after his return from the Olympics, Clay started to take an interest in the NOI--although he was careful not to let the press get wind of his Muslim leanings.

His first encounter with Malcolm X was when he was invited to a NOI meeting in Detroit in 1962.

"That day in Detroit changed Clay's life," Roberts and Smith write, quoting Clay. "There was something about Malcolm--his swagger, the dazzle of his smile, the way everyone watched him that [told] Cassius that Malcolm possessed an unbridled confidence and an audacity to speak his mind in a way that no one else did."

Indeed, as the boxer told Sam Pollard and Judy Richardson in a 1989 interview: "My first impression of Malcolm X was how could a black man talk about the government and white people and act so bold and not be shot at? How could he say these things? Only God must be protecting him, He was fearless. That really attracted me."

Unlike Malcolm, Elijah Muhammad did not initially see the value of Clay to the cause of the Nation of Islam, viewing the boxing world as inimical to the supposed values of the movement, especially as the fight world was closely connected to gambling and organised crime.

But Malcolm immediately saw how the fighter's charismatic personality and huge talent would e a great asset to the NOI. He was pleased to cultivate the young boxer's friendship and was a true believer in his ability to rise to the top of his profession. And Clay adopted X, becoming Cassius X.

His backers, the Louisiana Sponsoring Group, a group of powerful, rich, white investors, were nervous at his ever-closer relationship with the NOI, fearing the public would turn away from Cassius' fights.

On the other hand, Clay, while himself powerfully self-possessed, had been deeply influenced by Elijah Muhammad's teachings, and reacted angrily against Malcolm's move to expose Elijah Muhammad's scandalous private life, which included six children born out of wedlock and affairs with his secretaries. Siding with Elijah Muhammad, he was at the forefront of the clamour to suspend Malcolm from the NOI in 1963.


Moving through the rankings, Clay got a championship bout with Sonny Liston. Practically all of the pundits said that Clay had no chance, but Malcolm X believed he could win. Despite the change in their relationship, Malcolm was ringside (hoping for a reconciliation) to witness Clay beating Liston in the sixth round, to become world champion.

Shortly after the fight, Elijah Muhammad announced that Clay was to be renamed Muhammad Ali. The internecine war between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad intensified, and Malcolm X was expelled from the NOI.

Ali remained loyal to Elijah Muhammad, repudiating Malcolm and unilaterally ending their friendship.

During a chance meeting at the Ambassador Hotel, Accra in May 1964, Ali refused to acknowledge Malcolm--now el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, following his conversion to formal Islam and his pilgrimage to Mecca. It was this, as much as Malcolm's assassination less than a year later, that permanently shut down their friendship.

Malcolm X's international travels--his two visits to Africa separated by his hajj to Mecca--left a profound and lasting impression on him. Having long propounded the NOI's "separatist" philosophy, he professed that Islam had cleansed him of his belief that all whites were devils.

Eight months after his return from Africa, Malcolm was gunned down in New York, at the Audubon ballroom where he was speaking, by a three-man team of NOI members.

"The real question, the question that has lingered for decades," the authors write, "was much simpler: who sent them?"

Two years after Malcolm's assassination, Ali found himself with another kind of fight on his hands: his US Army draft to Vietnam. Rejecting it--"Man,

I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong," he would famously declare--he was fined heavily, stripped of his title and had his boxing licence withdrawn.

Following the reform of the NOI after Elijah Muhammad's death in 1975, Ali embraced a more universal attitude about race and Islam. "I don't hate whites," he announced. "That was history but it is coming to an end. We're in a new phase, a resurrection."

His regret about the end of his friendship with Malcolm X now rang tragically across the intervening years: "I wish I'd been able to tell Malcolm I was sorry, that he was right about so many things. Malcolm was a great thinker and an even greater friend. If I could go back and do it over again, I would never have turned my back on him."
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Title Annotation:Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X
Author:Williams, Stephen
Publication:New African
Article Type:Book review
Date:Oct 1, 2016
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