Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, born Cassius Marcellus Clay and Malcolm Little, respectively, lived two of the most volatile lives in one of the most volatile times in 20th century America. Each has been the subject of numerous biographies, particularly Ali who has drawn the attention of such writers as Norman Mailer, Wilfrid Sheed, George Plimpton, and David Remnick. But with “Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X,’’ history professors Randy Roberts of Purdue (“Joe Louis: Hard Times Man’’) and Johnny Smith of Georgia Tech have written the first book to take a detailed look at the relationship between the two — particularly Ali’s conversion to Islam and recruitment into the Nation of Islam by Malcolm.
Making use of previously unexamined documents, including private papers, FBI and State Department files, and media interview transcripts, Roberts and Smith focus most of their attention on a three-year period starting in June 1962, when the two men met, through February 1965, when Malcolm was killed.
The early chapters alternate between the rising careers of Clay and Malcolm, one as a professional athlete, the other as a militant activist. While each pursued a different path, the authors note that the two shared a number of traits: keen intelligence, personal charisma, thirst for the limelight, and anger over the nation’s prevalent racism and injustice, traits that lead each to remake his identity though Islam.
Clay and Malcolm were introduced before a Nation of Islam rally in Detroit where Malcolm was to speak. Clay had already embraced Black Nationalist ideology by the time he began his professional career after winning a gold medal in the 1960 Rome Olympics, but “[t]hat day in Detroit changed Clay’s life . . . Malcolm had magnetized Clay, drawing him toward the inner circle of the Nation.’’
Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation, initially wanted nothing to do with a practitioner of what he regarded as a dirty sport. But as the group’s dynamic spokesman, Malcolm, a reformed pimp and street hustler who had converted to Islam during a six-year prison stint, saw the potential that a celebrity face could have for the movement.
“Recognizing Clay’s global fame,” write Roberts and Smith, “Malcolm exploited him, envisioning a new movement that fused together Clay’s world and his into one built around celebrity and politics.”
“More than anyone else,” Roberts and Smith contend, “Malcolm molded Cassius Clay into Muhammad Ali,” transforming the “Louisville Lip,” the showman who promoted boxing matches into spectacles, from an entertainer to a political spokesman and minister. Clay, younger than his new mentor by over 15 years, “adopted Malcolm’s rhetoric, mimicked his delivery, and copied his cool.’’
It did not take long for Elijah to come around on Ali’s importance and take him in. At the same time Malcolm had begun to alienate the organization’s hierarchy. Some were irritated by Malcolm’s “puritanical beliefs’’ and relatively “ascetic lifestyle’’; others were jealous of Malcolm’s apparent growing influence with Elijah. For his part, Malcolm was growing disillusioned with Elijah, owing to the religious leader’s passive reaction to high-profile racist incidents and his philandering lifestyle.
Things came to a head soon after Ali’s Feb. 25, 1964 title win. The Nation’s leadership, viewing Malcolm now as a threat, began blocking his access to the champ, who suddenly refused to take his phone calls. Malcolm later voiced his disappointment about the break, saying to an interviewer that he had “felt like a blood brother’’ to Ali.
After his split with the Nation, Malcolm formed his own rival group and traveled to meet with Muslims in Africa and the Middle East. His religious ideas became more expansive, and he embraced Sunni Islam, which toned down some of the more extreme and violent segregationist beliefs of the Nation.
On Feb. 19 of the following year, two days after Malcolm had told an interviewer that the Nation was trying to kill him, rogue members of the group, attempting to curry favor with Elijah and his son Herbert, shot and killed Malcolm at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan, where he was scheduled to speak to the Organization of Afro-American Unity.
Not surprisingly Ali’s beliefs also would shift over a period of years, and he eventually distanced himself from the Nation’s radical policies. Nearly 40 years after Malcolm’s death, Ali confessed that turning his back on his mentor was a mistake he deeply regretted. “I wish I had been able to tell Malcolm I was sorry, that he was right about so many things.”
“In time,” write Roberts and Smith, “Ali understood that who he was and who he became were the results of his friendship with Malcolm. He knew that without Malcolm X he would never have become Muhammad Ali.”
“Blood Brothers’’ is a unique hybrid of race, politics, and sports; it is easy to read yet gives rise to sober reflection. It fills a gap in our understanding of one of the most fascinating relationships in American history.Basic, 362 pp., illustrated, $28.99
The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X
By Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith
Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and history for American History magazine.