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When we were human

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The death of Muhammad Ali earlier this year generated an outpouring of love, admiration and respect seldom seen for any public figure, let alone one as controversial as Ali once was. And Ali was perhaps the most controversial sports figure of the 20th Century—if not the most influential and important. His refusal to be inducted into the Vietnam War, his refusal to accept integration as the goal of the Civil Rights Movement and his rejection of his “slave name” Cassius Clay, all marked him as an outsider and even an enemy of the state. He was certainly the most hated man in sports, just as he was becoming one of the most beloved.

Authors Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith document a particular moment in Ali’s career (roughly 1962 to 1965) in Blood Brothers, which coincides with his rise to heavyweight champion after his defeat of Sonny Liston in Miami in 1964.

But the writers are less interested in Ali’s boxing prowess (though their descriptions of his fights are remarkably visual and effective), and much more interested in the rise of the influence of the Nation of Islam on Ali. And of course on his relationship with NOI minister Malcolm X.

During this same time period, Malcolm X was becoming a champion as well. He became the most recognizable figure in the black separatist movement and the intellectual weight of the Nation of Islam, surpassing NOI leader Elijah Mohammad, which did not sit well with Elijah. According to Roberts and Smith, Mohammad Ali winds up the valuable chess piece in a growing war between Malcolm and Elijah—whoever won the affection and loyalty of Ali would acquire position and power within the Nation of Islam. Eventually Ali chooses sides, and Malcolm X is murdered, to which Ali responded, “He got what he deserved.”

Whatever we think of Ali now, there is no way to defend Ali’s rejection of his friend Malcolm in the weeks before Malcolm’s assassination by NOI enforcers. The authors use exhaustive research (often supplied by unclassified FBI documents) that provides hour-by-hour accounts of the whereabouts of X and Ali in the days leading up to X’s bloody end. Malcolm had rejected Elijah Mohammad—largely because of his gross misuse of power and hypocritical behavior—and knew he was in a struggle for his life because the NOI (like most fundamentalist organizations) could not tolerate dissent.

Roberts and Smith suggest that Ali was Malcolm’s only hope for survival, but once Ali chose Elijah Mohammad and the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X was left out to die. To what extent were Ali’s actions fueled by a fear for his own life? Did he abandon X because he knew to do otherwise was to risk the NOI’s murderous wrath? Perhaps. As a kind of coda, Blood Brothers checks in on Ali after Elijah Mohammad’s death in 1975, and Ali’s sense of relief is apparent. Forty years later, Ali was fully apologetic about his abandonment of Malcolm: “I wish I’d been able to tell Malcolm I was sorry, that he was right about so many things…. If I could go back and do it over again, I would never have turned my back on him.”

For a man so obviously courageous, Ali failed to step up and protect Malcolm. Blood Brothers is a good reminder that we’re all human, fallible, and even the greatest among us have moments of weakness. There are many reasons to idolize Ali, but it’s better to have a full historical accounting of the man.

The murder of Malcolm X suffers from its own absence of a full accounting. Greensboro’s Civil Rights Museum obfuscates the historical facts around X’s death by suggesting the culprits behind his assassination are difficult to ascertain. They’re not. Roberts and Smith provide a specific and detailed momentby-moment description of the murder by a handful of NOI operatives. At least one of those operatives was also an FBI informant, and the FBI was fully engaging in COINTELPRO-style disruption of the NOI with disinformation campaigns, but there is no doubt that the Nation of Islam was hell bent on killing Malcolm and eventually did so.

Ironically, the famous photo of Malcolm peering out his front window with a rifle in his hands (often seen on posters with his most quoted words: “By Any Means Necessary”), depicts Malcolm in full self-defense from the NOI assassins, and not white authority (though, for sure, there were plenty of white people— many of them in power—who cheered Malcolm’s death).

Blood Brothers never fails to acknowledge the greatness of Ali and X, while also exposing the complicated motivations behind their convictions. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ali and X are the largest figures in the Civil Rights Era. Ali is the only one who survives to receive the love and adoration of the world they all deserve. !

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