American Civic Life

Still Brothers: Making Sense of the Malcolm and Ali Split

October 26, 2021

(RNS) — “Because all of the people here in Asia, Arabia, and Africa love you madly, you must be forever aware of your responsibility to these billions of dark-skinned people and never do or say anything that will distort the good image they have of you over here,” Al Hajj Malik Al Shabazz Malcolm X wrote to Muhammad Ali in 1964. “You shook up the world. Remember you were the champ in my eyesight before you defeated Liston, so you know I would not advise you wrong.”

Malcolm left his note after the two met by chance in a hotel in Ghana in May of that year, and Ali famously turned his back on Malcolm, his former mentor in the Nation of Islam. The 22- year-old boxer had already heard of Malcolm’s feud with NOI’s leader, Elijah Muhammad, and in Ghana, he was unable to process his emotions upon seeing his famous friend, transformed through his hajj experience.

As Ali describes it, Malcolm wore “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.”

Over the next half century and more, we have mourned the split between these two legendary 20th-century figures, even as the relationship fascinates us. In January, the film “One Night in Miami,” in which Malcolm and Ali spend an evening with Sam Cooke and Jim Brown, captivated Americans. Last month, an adaptation of the 2018 book “Blood Brothers: Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali” aired on Netflix with the cooperation of both men’s families.

Later in life, Ali would regret his refusal to make peace with Malcolm in Ghana deeply. Weeks before, he had fought and defeated world heavyweight champion Sonny Liston but it was so much easier to fight the enemy you knew in the ring.

For his part, Malcolm knew that many young men were brimming with hatred for him after he left the Nation of Islam, and he forgave them. He was especially sympathetic to Ali, since, for years, Malcolm had taught Ali that the honorable Elijah Muhammad was a divine messenger. Now that messenger was telling Ali that Malcolm was a deluded hypocrite.

He would say, “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.”