February 5, 2020
Happy Black History Month! Today’s book rec is Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X by Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith. This book traces the years between when Cassius Clay first met Malcolm X in 1962 until Cassius took the name Muhammad Ali, until Malcolm’s assassination in 1965. Cassius Clay had gone to the Olympics in Rome as a teenager in 1960 and when he returned, he started training in Miami. Around this time he became interested in the Nation of Islam, and he secretly attended their meetings and absorbed the teachings of Elijah Muhammad. He wasn’t ready to be known as a member of the Nation of Islam because they were very controversial at the time; the “Black Muslims” terrified white people with their anger at injustice, separatism, and unorthodox views on when Armageddon would happen and what it would entail, so there was a lot of discussion about whether or not NOI was a cult. (If you’re curious, give that theology a Google, it’s pretty interesting.) Cassius Clay was known as the Louisville Lip as he was coming up as a professional athlete because he never shut up about how great he was. That was his gimmick, and it worked like a charm. He was a genius at self-promotion, and he generated a lot of publicity, ticket sales, and copy for newspaper sports writers. In any case, Malcolm met Cassius in 1962, and Malcolm recognized the intelligence and sensitivity Cassius had and hid behind his boasting. He decided that Cassius, as he became more and more famous, would be an asset to the NOI as a visible and successful member. Malcolm steered Cassius’s thinking and encouraged him in his faith, and came to regard him as a friend, or even as a younger brother. Malcolm was at the ringside when Cassius beat Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship in 1964, before any of the other members of the NOI took an interest in Cassius. After he won the bout, Cassius came out publicly as a member of NOI and started taking his faith more seriously, recognizing that he should be a role model.
Unfortunately, this was around the same time that Malcolm X was learning about Elijah Muhammad’s many affairs, infidelities, and indiscretions, including children born out of wedlock. Malcolm came to doubt Elijah Muhammad’s divinity, and once he confronted Elijah Muhammad about the rumors, a schism resulted. Elijah Muhammad looked for new ways to punish Malcolm, just as Cassius decided to throw away his old “slave” name and take X as his last name. Recognizing that Cassius X was now a powerful member of the church, Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm used him as part of their power struggle. Malcolm tried to cling to his relationship with Cassius, hoping to bring him with him once he was inevitably kicked out of NOI. It wasn’t just a matter of using Cassius, though; Malcolm sincerely loved him and wanted what was best for him. Cassius also considered Malcolm a very close friend, but he ultimately sided with Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm knew it was over the minute Elijah Muhammad announced that he had bestowed upon Cassius a new name, his true name: Muhammad Ali. As tensions in NOI grew, Ali maintained his friendship with Malcolm; he’d held a few friendly conversations with Malcolm; before the shit hit the fan, had even vacationed with Malcolm and his family. Once Malcolm was thrown out of the NOI (ostensibly because he’d been disobedient one too many times, notably after making a controversial statement about JFK’s assassination, but really because he was making a ruckus over Elijah Muhammad’s deceptions), no other member was to have anything to do with him, and Muhammad Ali eventually followed this edict. Feeling the pressure of the NOI’s targeted campaign against him and knowing he had a target on his back, Malcolm travelled abroad to take the hajj to Mecca, an experience that converted him to Sunni Islam, mellowed out his racial views, and gave him a new purpose after devoting so much of his life to Elijah Muhammad. This trip coincided with Ali’s trip as essentially an American goodwill ambassador to Africa, where he was incredibly famous and beloved. The two were staying at the same hotel, and they ran into each other. Malcolm was overjoyed to see Ali, but Ali gave him the cold shoulder. (It was rough, man, even my feelings were hurt after that scene.) A few months later, Malcolm X was killed by assassins from the NOI, though no one can prove where the orders came from. Ali kept to the party line that Malcolm was a traitor and deserved what he got, but later he admitted that he regretted the way his friendship with Malcolm ended.
I know absolutely nothing about boxing and found the parts describing the various bouts and matches really interesting because I didn’t know how they’d end, so the book was fun for that reason alone. I’ve always been fascinated by Malcolm X, and this was a cool way to explore his life. Muhammad Ali is such a multifaceted character, an enigma, always playing a part, and I really enjoyed learning more about him. The epilogue really goes in on how Ali went from being *despised* for being a Black Muslim who declined to go to Vietnam to being sanitized and made safe for white audiences as an American icon, and that’s really interesting too. Definitely worth a read.