Historians Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith have written biographies of icons such as Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey, and John Wooden. In their new book Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, they take on two of the most remarkable figures of 1960s America. Their scrupulous approach to the source materials (from interviews to FBI files) and the extensive literature on the two men results in an illuminating and unconventional portrait. In this interview excerpt, Randy and Johnny discuss what their research revealed.
One of the ways you seek to re-assess the relationship between Cassius Clay and Malcolm X is by plotting out their daily activities over a three-year period, leading up to Malcolm’s assassination in February 1965. You don’t state this explicitly, but something that comes across in your preface is the notion that in order to get the broader interpretation of this relationship correct, you had to excavate the details and make sure they were reliable. Is that the approach you were taking?
Johnny Smith: Yes. That was a real challenge. We have to remember that Malcolm X was always on the move. He was preaching out of his mosque in Harlem, but by 1962-1963, he was traveling to Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, DC. He’s visiting other mosques. He’s giving speeches. He’s going on campuses. He’s appearing on television shows. He’s always on the move.
There was a friction developing inside Nation of Islam at the time that becomes very important in understanding the relationship between Cassius Clay and Malcolm X. What happens is that by 1963 Malcolm X is having this crisis of faith. He learned that Elijah Muhammad has been carrying on extramarital affairs and that he’s had children out of wedlock, and Malcolm questions this idea that Elijah Muhammad is in fact the messenger of Allah. His whole world has been shattered.
The other thing that’s happening is that Elijah Muhammad consistently told Malcolm to stand down, to not talk about politics as much as Malcolm wanted to. Malcolm’s frustration was that he was being criticized by many African Americans because he would talk about how the Nation of Islam would lead a movement that would retaliate against whites, that would use whatever means necessary to defend black communities. And yet Malcolm sees that the Nation of Islam under Elijah Muhammad’s leadership is standing on the sidelines. And Malcolm is a man of action. His impulse is to do something, to be confrontational. So he has this religious crisis. And he has this political change, where he is challenging Elijah’s authority by speaking out and defying Elijah’s order.
Increasingly, Malcolm moves away from the Nation of Islam. And ultimately, after Malcolm X is suspended in November 1963, he realizes that his future may not be with the Nation of Islam. Yet he also recognizes at that same time that Cassius Clay, on the verge of fighting Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship, may be exactly what he needs to build a new movement.
Randy Roberts: One of the issues that Johnny and I talked about – I can’t remember how many times we talked about it – was what was on Malcolm’s mind. When did he realize that there was no going back to Elijah Muhammad? We would see signs of it, that clearly he’s ready to break, that he’s ready to get Cassius Clay to go with him and form a new organization. But then we would see the next day a sign that he’s holding out hope that he won’t have to break. And he goes back and forth. I don’t know if Johnny would agree, but there’s probably never a moment that we could absolutely say, “Ah-ha – here is the time when Malcolm finally made up his mind.”
To me, that becomes a very human story. This is how we all are. We go back and forth. It’s not cut and dried. Sometimes, historians make biographies seem so certain. The person is sure he’s moving this way. In point of fact, we waffle all the time.
And what was happening with Cassius Clay at this time. Was he also being drawn back and forth between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, or was he moving steadily in one direction?
Randy: That’s interesting. In some ways, we can see the agony of Malcolm X, a person who – I have no question – loved Elijah Muhammad. He did not want to break with Elijah Muhammad. Elijah Muhammad was the reason he got out of prison, the reason that he became famous, that he found the cause. This was a person he deeply revered. So we can see the agony.
With Cassius Clay, you can’t say that. It looks as if he’s going directly with Malcolm. We can see it all along. Then all of a sudden, he makes a decision and he goes with Elijah Muhammad. That process of going back and forth isn’t there with him. I never really saw – and maybe Johnny can change this for me – we never really saw the same kind of soul searching that Malcolm went through.
Johnny: I think Randy’s right. It was clearly visible in Malcolm’s actions that he was going back and forth. At first he thinks, when the suspension happens on December 1, 1963, “Oh, the suspension will be lifted. Elijah Muhammad’s just trying to demonstrate his authority here. I’ll be back in the Nation of Islam.” But December passes, January goes on, and then it’s February, and Elijah still hasn’t lifted the suspension. As we get closer to the fight in Miami between Clay and Liston [on February 25], that’s when Malcolm begins to have some doubts about his future.
What he does know is that whether he returns to the Nation of Islam or is permanently dismissed from the movement, he wants Cassius Clay in his world. And he also knows that Elijah Muhammad is also going to want Cassius Clay, the new heavyweight champion, in his world. So Malcolm recognizes that while he has one foot in the Nation of Islam and one foot out the door, he wants to hold on to Cassius Clay, because Cassius Clay is going to be valuable. Cassius Clay is exactly what Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad wanted to help build their movement. He was the kind of person who could draw other young, frustrated black men. He could be someone they could build thousands of followers around. So Cassius Clay’s value is significant to Malcolm as he is thinking about a life without the Nation of Islam.
Randy: The interesting thing is that after Cassius Clay wins the heavyweight title, the night that he defeats Sonny Liston, afterward he goes to a party with Malcolm. And Malcolm is happy. He’s calling friends back in Harlem, saying, “Look at what my little brother did. Look at the new champion.” He is tied to Cassius Clay at the party. They’re joined at the hip. And then he goes out of the room for a short time, and Cassius Clay turns to Jimmy Brown, the great football player, and says, “You know, I don’t think I’ll be able to stay with Malcolm. I’m going to have to go with Elijah Muhammad.” And it’s like, wow, where did that come from?
If we go back again to the idea of who is Cassius Clay, we talk in the book about his different faces. We talk about the Cassius Clay at the Olympic Games, Cassius Marcellus Clay, the Louisville Lip, and Cassius X, and finally Muhammad Ali. But trying to figure out exactly who he is, that’s a pretty difficult chore.
You write about these different masks that Clay puts on in the early 60s. But even though he was convincing as he took up these different masks, he also appears to be – how to put it? – easily led. He’s certainly young, and he appears to be pulled in different directions.
Johnny: I think he recognizes that the more time he spends with Nation of Islam, certainly by the spring of 1962, he can’t divulge to the public his involvement. He’s conscious that the Nation of Islam is known as a hate cult, as a violent sect. Malcolm X is the most hated black man in America. He’s a demagogue. So Cassius is shrewd. He knows he can’t share his share his relationship with the ministers in the Nation of Islam. At the same time, he tells reporters that he reads his Bible, while in private he goes to meetings and learns about Islam.
Cassius Clay presents himself one way in public, while at the same time, when he’s in these meetings and at the Nation of Islam mosques, he presents himself another way. I think that between 1962 and 1964 he is conflicted in some ways. He was raised in the church. His mother had taken him to the Baptist church. What happens when he goes to the Nation of Islam meetings, though, is that he questions Christianity and what he’s learned in the church. What the Muslim ministers are telling him seems to make more sense, that the white man’s heaven is the black man’s hell. That is something that’s concrete for him, as he looks around America and sees how white people are living and how the majority of black people are living.
Randy: Let me make an analogy with Cassius Clay. He loved magic all of his life. I was actually with him a few times and saw him do this, I saw him do tricks for people. He had a few tricks he would do all the time. Well, the key to magic is you do the trick once and boom, it’s magic. You don’t do it again. You don’t repeat it, repeat it, repeat it, and let people closely scrutinize it and figure out what the trick is. But Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali would do that. He would do the trick, and he would do it over, and do it over, and then do it over again. It was almost like he was trying to fool you, to trick you, to show you that it was magic. But then you wanted you to see what the truth was.
This was the way he lived his life. He was disguising what he was doing. He wasn’t saying he was joining the Nation of Islam. He was keeping the Nation an arm’s length away. Yet he would give the Nation’s patter, the speech, the ideology. He would say to somebody, “I wonder if there’s spaceship up there in the sky,” referring to a Nation of Islam belief. He’s this odd character, hiding his true feelings but trying to reveal his true feelings. It makes him a really interesting character to study.
As your book closes, the picture that we get of Muhammad Ali is definitely not the conventional one that we have today in American culture. You have a picture of a very different man after Malcolm X’s death in February 1965.
Johnny: This is one that we often forgot. Randy and I thought that it was important to show how Ali responds in this moment, when Malcolm has been murdered in front of his wife and children. Ali has nothing to say about how it’s incredibly sad, how he’s grieving this loss. And the irony is . . . when Martin Luther King was killed in 1968, Muhammad Ali didn’t want to say a whole lot, he told reporters, because he didn’t want anyone to think to he was making a political statement about his own situation with Vietnam. But he did say that Martin Luther King was a great man and he will be missed, and that it was sad day. You never heard anything like that in 1965 when Malcolm X was killed. And Malcolm X was far closer to Ali than Martin Luther King was.
Randy: And the year before, Ali had been playing with Malcolm’s children in Miami, bouncing them on his knee. But there’s nothing [after the assassination].
Something that you write in the preface is that your book is an attempt to “rescue a story that’s fallen into the hands of hagiographers.” How does this book rescue the story of Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X?
Randy: The question to ask is, did Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali change that much or did America change that much? Partly, the way we see him today and the way see the arc of his career really has to do with his stand on Vietnam, which was unpopular when he took it, when he opposed the Vietnam War and refused to be inducted. But as Vietnam has become America’s bête noir, suddenly we look at Muhammad Ali and say, “Here was a prophet. This is what we should have done.” In a sense, the politics of America made America – at least, liberal America – embrace Muhammad Ali. It’s not that he changed radically, although later I think he does change as the Nation of Islam changes, as Wallace Muhammad adopts a more orthodox position.
Johnny: I think the other thing, building on everything Randy said, is that in our recent memory, in the last twenty years, there’s been a revived interest in Muhammad Ali, but portraying him as a hero. That starts with the Olympics in 1996 in Atlanta. When Muhammad Ali is lighting the cauldron, he’s trembling, suffering from Parkinson’s. And there’s a silence. We look at him and see him in heroic terms, battling this disease. In that silence, though, corporate sponsors, moviemakers, writers, ESPN, they have crafted an image of Ali as a goodwill ambassador, a hero of all social causes, a man of peace. He may be some of those things today. However, those same media producers have reframed the Ali of the 1960s as a hero then. But the reality is – and I think our book shows this – Ali was not a unifying force of peace and goodwill in the 1960s. He was divisive, he was controversial, he was hated by many Americans. What we wanted to do with our book is return to the man in his time, in his moment, and show how he evolved from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, and to introduce readers to a man who was not considered an All-American hero.
Johnny Smith is a historian at Georgia Tech and the author of The Sons of Westwood: John Wooden, UCLA, and the Dynasty That Changed College Basketball. He is on Twitter @
Their complete interview can be heard on the New Books in Sports podcast.