Time elides the complexity of icons. Almost 51 years after his death, Malcolm X has become a T-shirt superhero of African American militancy: Malcolm carrying a rifle, Malcolm “By any means necessary,” one hand raised above his bespectacled face.
Muhammad Ali’s longer life and genius for self-creation has allowed him more roles, all equally oversimplified. There’s brash Cassius Clay a.k.a. the Louisville Lip, fast-talking and self-described as “pretty,” jabbing circles around more stolid heavyweights; political Ali refusing induction into the Army during the Vietnam War with “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong"; “Rope-a-dope” Ali relying on endurance and guile in championship fights against Joe Frazier and George Foreman; and finally, the trembling figure disabled by Parkinson’s who has become a genial stepfather to the world.
In “Blood Brothers,” Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith attempt to restore the men behind the myths by delving into their intense two-year friendship, a bond that altered both lives and affected those of millions of others. Armed with redacted FBI files and rare archival material, the historians challenge standard accounts of the friendship and use their revision to illuminate the moment when the civil rights era, anti-colonial struggles and the baby boomers’ coming of age coalesced to reshape the world in ways that still resonate.
“The relationship between Cassius Clay and Malcolm X signaled a new direction in American culture, one shaped by the forces of sports and entertainment, race and politics,” the authors write. “Under Malcolm’s tutelage, [Ali] embraced the world stage, emerging as an international symbol of black pride and black independence. Without Malcolm, Muhammad Ali would have never become the ‘king of the world.’”
When Cassius Clay won gold at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, he adhered to the script for athletes of the era — be humble, praise your opponents, let your skills do the talking. African American athletes, particularly boxers, were heedful of this unwritten code. They had to be. During his reign as heavyweight champion (1908-15), black boxer Jack Johnson infuriated the white world by living opulently, taunting outclassed white opponents, and worst of all, flaunting his relationships with white women. Johnson’s flamboyance kept later black heavyweights from a title shot for more than two decades. When the “Brown Bomber” Joe Louis won the title in 1937, his seven commandments for personal behavior included “Never have your picture taken with a white woman.” Although Louis became a national hero after knocking out Germany’s Max Schmeling, black athletes continued to face racist aggression from opponents and fans even as other major sports slowly integrated.
Beneath his polite demeanor, Clay seethed at the constant reminders of second-class status — the police harassment, the segregated hotels and clubs. In the young, semi-literate but supremely self-confident boxer, Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam found an ideal audience: according to the Nation, blacks weren’t equal to whites, they were superior and destined to rule the world. The Nation mocked the nonviolent stance of Martin Luther King, preaching that violence would be met with violence (although in practice, the Nation only used violence against other African Americans). As the public face of the Nation, Malcolm X was the perfect vehicle to bring about Clay’s conversion. “How could he say those things?” Ali asked later. “He was fearless. That really attracted me.”
Malcolm had discovered the Nation while serving a prison sentence for armed robbery, and he used its teachings to transform himself from thief and hustler into the acid-tongued spokesman of black rage. His comment that the assassination of JFK was an example of the “chickens coming home to roost” instantly made him one of the most controversial figures in the country, feared by whites and admired by blacks for his uncompromising stance. As a New York police offer said after an encounter with the NOI spokesman, “No one man should have that much power.” When Ali first met Malcolm X in June 1962, he had become Elijah Muhammad’s heir apparent.
A gripping public speaker, Malcolm X brought the Nation thousands of new converts and provided a counterweight to King: Where King offered hope, Malcolm X tapped into resentment and despair. Yet by 1960, Malcolm X was struggling in an organization that he’d outgrown morally and intellectually. He’d discovered unpleasant truths about Elijah Muhammad, including extramarital affairs and unacknowledged children. His dissatisfaction went beyond the personal, however — he’d grown frustrated with empty tough talk and the Nation’s alienation from the broader Civil Rights Movement. Ironically, his evolution as a thinker would lead to his death at the hands of the organization that had saved him.
In standard accounts, Malcolm brought Ali into the Nation only to have Ali disown him after Malcolm’s break with Elijah Muhammad. The reality, as Roberts and Smith establish, was far more complicated.
Ali was drawn to the Nation years before his first meeting with Malcolm, and their friendship struggled along in the wake of Malcolm’s excommunication. In convincing detail, “Blood Brothers” traces Ali’s rise to international celebrity while Malcolm was stalked and harassed by the “Fruit of Islam,” the paramilitary group that enforced obedience to the church.
At a time when the Nation dismissed boxing as nothing but another way for rich white men to exploit poor blacks, Malcolm X recognized Ali’s enormous talent and charisma. Although Malcolm succeeded both in enlisting Ali to the Nation and in making Elijah Muhammad appreciate Ali’s potential, it was a Pyrrhic victory. As Malcolm struggled with the Nation for the champion’s allegiance in 1964, Muhammad awarded Cassius Clay a new name: Muhammad Ali. “Once Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali,” Roberts and Smith write, “Elijah won his political chess match with Malcolm.”
In changing his name to Muhammad Ali, the heavyweight boxer made himself a symbol of self-creation and heroism to people across the globe, above all, his fellow African Americans. Ali suffered greatly for his decision: He was stripped of his title and banned from boxing in the U.S. during three years of his physical prime.
As Malcolm X fell out of favor with Elijah Muhammad, he continued to work for a rapprochement. For Malcolm, a break with the man he’d seen as a prophet and spiritual father was almost unimaginable. He also worried, with reason, about the danger to his family and himself. The authors provide insights into Malcolm’s struggle, detailing his desperate attempt to use Ali as a bargaining chit with the Nation.
Other of the book’s claims, however, are more tenuous. At times, the authors engage in pop psychologizing to explain Ali’s behavior, and they over-dramatize Malcolm’s reaction to Ali’s betrayal: “When Malcolm lost the contest for Clay’s loyalty, he had no more moves ... he was expendable.” In reality, Malcolm X made plenty of moves, including his rapprochement with civil rights leaders, his international outreach to other revolutionary movements and his efforts to include African Americans in a global struggle against racial oppression. In a 1964 speech, he said, “We need to expand the civil rights struggle to a higher level — to the level of human rights.”
Ali was no longer listening to his former friend. To the press he referred to Malcolm as “a jailbird, a hoodlum ... that chief hypocrite.” In a cryptic warning he declared that “Mr. Muhammad will destroy him through Allah.”
Ali’s embrace of a new identity transformed him from a talented boxer to the most important athlete of the 20th century. Yet he did not fully achieve the promise of his symbolic act, a failure that mirrors the failure of the civil rights movement to deliver African Americans from the tragedies that their communities would suffer in the decades to come.
To their credit, the authors cover Malcolm X’s final act in full detail, further highlighting the true loss from his murder — Malcolm X wasn’t at the end when he was killed but at a new beginning.
Looking back more than 40 years after the death of Malcolm X, Ali shared his regrets: “I wish I’d been able to tell Malcolm I was sorry, that he was right about so many things. Malcolm X 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.” Ali’s understanding of the enormity of the loss of Malcolm X is one that he doesn’t bear alone.
Anasi is the author of “The Last Bohemia” and “The Gloves: A Boxing Chronicle.”
Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X
Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith
Basic Books: 392 pp., $28.99