On the day newly crowned 22-year-old heavyweight champion of the world Muhammad Ali announced that he had rejected Cassius Clay as his “slave name”, Malcolm X, who had recruited him into the Nation of Islam, was beside him. The two civil rights era icons would become close friends but fell out after three years. Ali would later regret abandoning his close friend and mentor but before he could say sorry, Malcolm X was assassinated.
According to the book, Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, Ali met Malcolm in June 1962. The boxer had traveled with Sam Saxon, a friend from training camp, to a Saviour’s Day rally in Chicago, an annual event hosted by the Black separatist Nation of Islam movement.
Saxton was a Black Muslim (the Nation’s members were usually called Black Muslims) and was aware that his friend Ali, who was then Cassius Clay, was looking for a spiritual home. He brought the boxer to the rally with hopes that the Nation of Islam could give him what he wanted.
Malcolm, who had then become the public face of the Nation of Islam, was the opening speaker at the rally. His words touched Ali. “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?” the boxer later recalled. “He was fearless. That really attracted me.”
Malcolm also believed that Ali had the charisma that got him many followers. And as the two became friends, Malcolm hoped he could draw Ali into the Nation and possibly Ali’s followers as well. But Malcolm’s relationship with the young boxer became more than that as he did not only become a part father figure to Ali but a part big brother to him as well, according to a report by NPR.
“My father’s relationship with him was not as a recruiter for the Nation so much as it was one individual meeting another and suggesting he could have direction and supporters… My father loved Cassius like a brother,” Malcolm’s eldest daughter, Attallah, later said of the relationship between the two icons.
As the two spent more time together, Ali realized that he had found a faith to guide him, and that faith was the Nation of Islam. But he had to keep his faith quiet. The Nation of Islam at the time preached a doctrine of strict separation of the races and also rejected the nonviolent ideals of the Martin Luther King Jr.-led civil rights movement. It was thus feared by Whites and rejected by many Blacks at the time.
Historian and Blood Brothers co-author Randy Roberts said Ali knew that making his faith public could affect his future as the boxing establishment would not accept that. “If he’s a member of this organization, you can write him off,” Roberts said, “he will never get a shot at the championship.”
Thus, Ali never revealed to the outside world what his faith was until he beat Sonny Liston, who was the reigning heavyweight champion, in February 1964. Soon after the fight, he announced that he was indeed a member of the Nation, stunning a lot of fans. “Here you have the most famous mainstream civil rights leaders, heroes — King, [Jackie] Robinson, Floyd Patterson — who were criticizing Clay for joining the Nation of Islam,” historian and Blood Brothers co-author Johnny Smith, said.
Ali was unbothered by the criticism he received. However, by February 1964 when Ali announced his name change, his mentor Malcolm was having issues with Elijah Muhammad, the prophet leader of the Nation of Islam. Malcolm had said Muhammad was ignorant of Islam as he did not know the prayer ritual. And when Malcolm further publicly exposed Muhammad as having fathered several out-of-wedlock children with his secretaries, Malcolm was suspended. The civil rights icon left the group soon after his suspension. He thought Ali would join him. But the young boxer disappointed him.
“Malcolm and I were so close and had been through so much,” Ali wrote in his autobiography, “But there were many things for me to consider.” Ali indicated that he was at the time still a believer in Elijah Muhammad, who he said had given him the name Muhammad Ali.
“I felt that he had set me free!” the boxer recounted in 2004. “I was proud of my name and dedicated to the Nation of Islam as Elijah presented it. At that point in my journey, I just wasn’t ready to question his teaching.”
After Malcolm left the Nation of Islam, he never met Ali until May 1964 when the two run into each other in the plaza outside the Ambassador Hotel in Ghana’s capital city, Accra. Ali had journeyed to Ghana to “see Africa and meet my brothers and sisters.” Malcolm was also visiting the West African country from a pilgrimage to Mecca. This is what happened when the two met in Ghana, according to historian Smith:
“Ali and Malcolm, their eyes meet. And at that moment, Malcolm says, ‘Brother Muhammad! Brother Muhammad!’ He wants to engage with him, say hello. He doesn’t know Ali is mad at him, that they’re no longer friends. He’s got this half-smile on his face. And Muhammad Ali, just stone-faced, says, ‘Brother Malcolm, you shouldn’t have crossed the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.’ And he essentially walks away from him.”
Malcolm would be assassinated the following year while giving a speech at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem.
“One of Ali’s greatest regrets — and he said as much — is that he never patched things up with Malcolm, that he never told Malcolm how important he was to him,” Roberts said.
And years after Malcolm’s death, Ali said he realized he was “a visionary, ahead of us all.” The legendary boxer wrote in 2004 that even though Nation of Islam leader Muhammad had achieved so much when it came to Black pride, “Malcolm was the first to discover the truth, that colour doesn’t make a man a devil. It is the heart, soul and mind that define a person.”
It is interesting to note that when Ali eventually left the Nation of Islam, he converted to Sunni Islam; that was the same orthodox Muslim faith Malcolm had embraced after leaving the Nation of Islam.
“Malcolm X was a great thinker and an even greater friend.
“I might never have become a Muslim if it hadn’t been for Malcolm,” Ali wrote. “If I could go back and do it all over again, I would never have turned my back on him.”