Cassius X: When Muhammad Met Malcolm

Fightland Blog

By Sarah Kurchak

Photos by Bob Gomel/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

Malcolm X and Cassius Clay became fast friends, but a rift in the Nation of Islam forced the man now known as Muhammad Ali to turn his back on the man who introduced him to faith and black pride. We take a look back at their friendship, and the betrayal that Ali now considers one of the biggest regrets of his life.

On February 26, 1964, the day after a 22-year-old Cassius Clay defeated Heavyweight Champion Sonny Liston and claimed his belt, a reporter at a press conference asked him if he was a card-carrying member of the Nation of Islam.

Rumors had been surrounding the young boxer’s association with the polarizing religious organization for a while by then, thanks to Clay’s developing friendship with noted NOI member Malcolm X and a recent interview in which Cassius Clay Sr. told the press that his sons (Cassius and Rudolph Valentino) had been “brainwashed” by the sect. Clay Jr. originally refused to comment on his father’s claim, telling the press “I don’t care what my father said. I’m not interested. I’m not talking. I’m here training for a fight and that’s all I’m going to say.”

Now that he was the champ, though, he was willing to make a more direct comment.

“Card-carrying – what does that mean?” the fighter mused. “I know where I’m going, and I know the truth, and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want to be.” He went on to reject the name Clay, because black American’s last names were often inherited from their slave masters. “I will be known as Cassius X,” he said.

Cassius first met Nation of Islam leaders Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X through friends who belonged to the Islamic Temple and was moved by the way that Malcolm X spoke.

“My first impression was how could a Black man talk about the government, White people, and be so bold and not be shot at?” he said in a 1989 interview with Sam Pollard and Judy Richardson. “Talking about, just a whole movement, totally different from others and so bold. How could he say these things? And only God must be protecting him. [...] he walked with nobody, he was fearless. That, that really attracted me.”

Clay secretly joined the Nation of Islam, and somewhat less secretly befriended Malcolm X, who soon proved to be a kindred spirit. “X and Ali were one in the same,” J. Tinsley writes for Uproxx. “Both were young, handsome, intelligent, outspoken African American men who scared the shit out the White America during a time period when racial tension was the norm.”

For three years, Clay kept his association with the NOI as private as possible, “sneaking around, keeping it quiet, acting like I was crazy,” because he was concerned about the impact that his religious and political affiliation with the organization would have on his still growing boxing career.

“Well I figured they would pressure me if I revealed it so I kept it quiet for about three years. I sneaked into meetings, sneak in the back door, look around for the police officer, pass me in, before going in. But after beating Sonny Liston, after getting more regulation and my power finally is straight, I said, I don’t know, I told them that night I fought Liston and revealed it after that fight.”

“The Nation of Islam was then widely regarded by the American media as a highly dangerous group,” the Saturday Night Post’s Jeff Nilsson writes in his look back at the press generation by the event. “There were fearful rumors that the Black Muslims would forcibly create a separate nation for black Americans. So when Ali announced his conversion, the media reacted as if they had been betrayed.”

This is the same media, mind you, that had already been so worked up about the young boxer that they shaped Sonny Liston—a man they had previously portrayed, literally, as a gorilla—into a de facto Great White Hope against the uppity upstart. One sports reporter when so far as to write “Liston used to be a hoodlum; now he is our cop; he was the big Negro we pay to keep sassy Negroes in line.”

After the announcement, prominent boxing writer Jimmy Cannon accused Cassius of using boxing as “an instrument of mass hate... as a weapon of wickedness.”

Outside of the media, the move was polarizing at best and Cassius Clay Sr. was decidedly on the anti-Nation side. He was personally hurt by the renunciation of his name. He was suspicious that the organization was taking his son’s money (“The Nation denied this, but Herbert Muhammad, the son of leader Elijah Muhammad, soon became Cassius’s manager, charging as much as 40 percent of his income for services,” Mikal Gilmore wrote in Men’s Journal. He was also troubled by the organization’s beliefs. “The Muslims tell my boys to hate white people; to hate women; to hate their mother. The Muslims call me bad because I believe in God. All they want is money,” Clay Sr. opined.

In a 1964 profile for The Saturday Evening Post written by Myron Cope, Cassius Jr. addressed the “white devil” concerns. “I’m stressing just the works that the whites generally have been doing. They blow up all these little colored people in church, wash down people in the street with water hoses. It’s not the color that make you a devil, just the deeds that you do,” he said. “It’s as our leader Elijah Muhammad teaches us. Couldn’t nobody argue it. I’m no authority on Islam. I am just a follower. If you be a blue race, and you do the works of the devil, then we call you a devil. You got white people who died under demonstrations, died under tractor wheels for colored people. I wouldn’t call them no devil.”

Sr. was not reassured. One night, he got drunk and took a knife to the gym his son was training at, vowing to “kill all the Black Muslims.”

“What the father didn’t understand—or perhaps did, deepening his rage—was that his son had found in the Nation of Islam a new kind of family he hadn’t known before,” Gilmore writes in How Muhammad Ali Conquered Fear and Changed the World. “In Malcolm X, in particular, Cassius had discovered a comrade and a role model, but it proved to be the most troubling relationship of his life.”

Tensions between Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X were hitting a breaking point by the time Cassius X publicly aligned himself with the Nation. Among the ideological points of contention between the two leaders was Cassius himself.

“Others in the Nation, though, pointed to the friendship with Cassius Clay, ‘a fool fighter,’ as irresponsible on Malcolm’s part. Leader Elijah Muhammad had believed there was ‘no way Clay would win’ against Sonny Liston and wanted the Nation to keep a distance from him.”

Muhammad changed his tune after Liston’s defeat, but the greater damage was already done.  Just over a week after the Liston fight, Malcolm X publicly discussed his departure from the Nation of Islam, denounced Elijah Muhammad and declared his intent to continue his activism with a new group of his own. Mere days after that, Muhammad gave Cassius X a new name: Muhammad Ali.

When Sam Pollard asked Ali about the importance of changing his name in their 1989 interview, the fighter responded with:

“Sam Pollard is White. He's originally got a European name. I met a brother, he had dashiki, African robes, sandals, real Black, I said, "What's your name?" He said, "George Washington." Afro named George Washington. I said, "Mr. Clay here, 200 years ago they called Clay property, so the Jones is Jones. These are names that are names that identified us as the property of certain masters. But the day you're free, you don't belong to Clay and Jones. So, you know how you look, well, in Africa, what's your name? George Washington? There are Africans all over Africa. They don't know if a Negro Christian is a any other. They're all over Chicago. They're in California. Africans, other people, how does the White man know? What's your name? Ching Chong. A White man named Ching Chong. That's Chinese there. That's their culture. So, not too many Muhammad Ali, all of a sudden they start saying, "He's the world's most known man." It's not because I box, Sugar Ray is good, Floyd Patterson is good, Joe Louis was good. It was because Muhammad Ali is in Africa, all over Africa, the name is in Ethiopia, Morocco, Syria, Indonesia, Pakistan, Turkey, Algiers, Saudi Arabia. Muhammad Ali is common when I traveled. Muhammad is the most common name in the world. There are more people on Earth, every third a person is a Muslim in the world. So when I took the name Muhammad Ali and I fought, I'd say this, Floyd Patterson, "In this corner Muhammad Ali!" All the people in the arena says, "What?" The whole world jumped because this is a common name. You mean in America we have a Muhammad Ali fighting? So, my father's name was Cassius Clay. His father's name was Cassius and myself's name, and my great-grandaddy, who was a slave, worked for the original Cassius Clay from Kentucky. So, we know I'm not no slave now. It's funny, that's how an old name, how one name for a good amount of people, it all started in Kentucky. You saw Roots? Alex Haley? Alex Haley knows that we was made slaves. He knows that this happened, they took our names, but after making that movie, I was surprised to see he still kept the name Alex Haley, so. If I say, here come Ching Chong, you look for a Chinaman, here comes Lumumba, Africa, here comes Weinstein, Jew, here come Morningstar, Indian. Here come Miltonberger, German. Here come Jones, don't know what color he is 'til you see him. So we don't have our names. There's something about the American Black people still got slave names. I hear that. I love truth, I don't care if you go to church or mosque or synagogue. I don't care if your Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, I don't care what you are. When I hear the name, I want the truth. People watching this interview now, got slave names if they're Black. So, Muhammad Ali, you go away, you go to Syria Indonesia, Africa, put it over on them, you won't know who you are until you tell them your name. "What's your name?" "George Washington." They say, "He's a Negro." Man, nobody could argue with this. I challenge anybody watching the show, I'm embarrassing the nation. Prove I'm wrong, if you're Black and you have a European name, that's not your name. Now if you hear White people in the government, somebody tell me, "You ain't Muhammad Ali. You're wrong." No, nobody never said that's wrong. So, if you leave this country and go to Asia and Africa, all you is hear is national names is Hassan, Omar, Ishmael, Elijah, Muhammad, Ali, Akbar. These are the names of dark people. So, when we were made slaves in America and the names, we took their names. But our people are still slaves mentally. We can hear this, you can here what I'm saying, I don't know if you might or might not but you might keep your name when you leave here. This is a known fact. It's a White man's slave name. Hey now, you're free, why not buck Uncle Sam and pick you a pretty name to fit your Black people? Some people they don't admit it mentally 'til only dead men can hear. So why don't they wake up and we all want a beautiful name. My daughter wanted Rasheeda, not Sue-Ellen Mary, one named Jamillah. One name Laila. One named Hana. One named Miya, Kaliah. Pretty names that fit our people. So, that's why I changed my name.“

But the name came with a personal price. As Gilmore puts it in his story: “The young fighter’s proud acceptance of the designation made plain his choice between the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X.”

Ali chose Muhammad. “Elijah Muhammad had given me my name, Muhammad Ali. I felt that he had set me free!” the champ wrote about his choice in his 2004 autobiography The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life’s Journey. “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 teachings. I was forced to make a choice when Elijah Muhammad insisted that I break with Malcolm.”

He only saw his former friend once more after that. “I was on a tour of Egypt, Nigeria, and Ghana. I saw Malcolm in Ghana where he stopped on his way back to America. He’d just finished a holy journey to Mecca that devout Muslins are required to make once in their lives, and he was wearing the traditional Muslim white robes, further signifying his break with Elijah Muhammad. He walked with a cane that looked like a prophet’s stick and he wore a beard. I thought he’d gone too far. When he came up to greet me, I turned away, making our break public,” Ali writes of the encounter.

“Ali’s legend in the ring was continuing to take shape. Meanwhile, X marched forward on what he believed was his mandated path of righteousness following his return from Mecca. I’m not one to claim to know what either was thinking throughout the year of 1964, some 22 years before my own birth. But one thing I’m positive of is despite the smiles and speeches, Ali thought about X and X about Ali,” J. Tinsley writes for Uproxx. “Both had fought so much alongside each other, while becoming the faces of their respective professions, for a cause neither were sure would be seen in their own lifetimes. They thought about one another. Both probably wanted to make things right. Pride, especially a man’s pride, is a helluva drug, however; the knife man has willingly stuck in his own back since the beginning of time.”

Malcolm X was assassinated on February 21, 1965, as he was about to speak in Harlem, before Ali or America as a whole could even begin to come around to his way of thinking.

Ali, at least, sees it now, and, as he says in his book, he’s truly sorry that he never had to chance to tell his old friend himself.

“Turning my back on Malcolm was one of the mistakes that I regret most in my life. I wish I’d been able to tell Malcolm I was sorry, that he was right about so many things. But he was killed before I got the chance. He was a visionary – ahead of us all,” he writes. “Malcolm was the first to discover the truth, that color doesn’t make a man a devil. It is the heart, soul, and mind that define a person. Malcolm was a great thinker and an even greater friend. I might never have become a Muslim if it hadn’t been for Malcolm. If I could go back and do it over again, I would never have turned my back on him.”


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