The authors may have said it best near the end of the book: Malcolm X “died in the struggle for Black power.” It was not the “Black Power” so fiercely espoused by more radical civil rights leaders of the 1960s but, rather, Malcolm X’s death being the result of a vindictive struggle within the upper echelon of the Nation of Islam that found sports icon Muhammad Ali caught in the crosshairs. Such revelations of the inner workings of the socio-religious group are brought to bare in “Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X” (Basic Books, 2016, $28.99). The book provides a revealing and noteworthy look inside the relationship with, arguably, the most famous representative of the Nation of Islam, and a brash, outspoken boxer from Louisville, Ky. who “shocked the world” when he became heavyweight champion and, possibly, may have played an unwitting role in the assassination of the outspoken civil rights leader.
Authors Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith poured over hundreds of books, articles, personal papers and essays chronicling the fatal friendship of two of the most famous African Americans of the mid 20th century. The book reveals how the talented boxer was torn between an early friendship with Malcolm X—the man who more than anyone else introduced then-Cassius Clay to the public—and the Hon. Elijah Muhammad whom Clay promised unwavering fealty right in the middle of a brutal, bloody internal dynamic within the often vilified group that would ultimately determine who speaks for the organization.
Readers will naturally gravitate to Miami, Fla. for Clay’s first fight against Sonny Liston. They will come away with unexpected insight about the ex-bouncer and mob enforcer (Liston) as well as how Malcolm X early on saw the potential of his young protégé (Ali) to not only reach the pinnacle of the boxing world but also become a lightning rod of religious and social controversy spanning both Black and White households. Older Black readers may remember the strong division between Southern Baptists and the Nation of Islam and exactly who was better suited for the urgent press of civil rights.
The rift between the World War II generation of [Christian] African Americans and the Nation of Islam was striking. When Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali shortly after winning the heavyweight title in 1964, Black sports heroes such as Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson and Sugar Ray Robinson at first refused to call him by his new name not because he was not a representative of a presumed “anti-White” organization, but because he had abandoned Christianity which for centuries had served as the backbone of Black courage, character and advancement within a largely segregated landscape.
The authors reveal that it was Elijah Muhammad and not Malcolm X nor Clay who officially submitted the new name to the world. At that point in what would soon become a tangled triangle of egos, the reader gets the perception that Elijah Muhammad (the “Messenger”) and Malcolm X (somewhat of a “Messenger” de facto in terms of media attention and self aggrandizement) each had a firm grip on Ali’s future as the era’s most powerful voice of Black pride and nationalism. Both Malcolm X and Muhammad believed that Ali could affect positive publicity for the Nation of Islam because of his fame and infectious personality which by mid decade had drawn millions of admirers, particularly in African nations such as Ghana, Egypt, Kenya and Nigeria.
Roberts and Smith did a remarkable job in researching the book, culling information from Malcolm X’s personal files to FBI records. They provide an in-depth look at why the slain activist was barred from the Nation of Islam for criticizing the philandering and improprieties of Elijah Muhammad in terms of women giving birth to his numerous children (or in today’s unseemly vernacular “baby mamas”) which was what caused the rift at the top of the organization and what would lead to Malcom X’s death. It was not an untimely death. Malcolm X saw it coming at least three years earlier, but forged ahead with a worldwide message of Black nationalism even as Elijah Muhammad warned privately against strident talk of this subject, yet encouraged his followers to rail against so-called “blue-eyed devils.”
Boxing fans will find just the right amount of pugilism laced with the uncanny Ali rhymes and witticisms (appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show, the host asks: “Cassius, suppose I were to box you. How far would I go?” Clay: “Well, Ed, if you run, I’ll have to cut it to one.” “Sullivan: “One round?” Clay: “No, one punch.”) The paramount backstory, however, is the philosophical sway that both Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad held over “The Greatest” and how history has come to accept the many successes and failures of this noble corner of the Civil Rights Movement.
“Blood Brothers” is recommended reading for those wishing to refresh themselves on the early days of Muhammad Ali, as well as important, vital details about Black America’s often misunderstood contribution to Islam.