The Truth About Muhammad Ali's Relationship With Malcolm X

By the beginning of the 1960s, the civil rights movement had already made many strides in the United States. Notably, the Brown v. The Board of Education decision in 1954 ended segregation in public schools around the country. Elsewhere, History reports that the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56 marked another turning point in the movement. The event successfully desegregated the bus system in Montgomery, illustrated the mobilization and strategy that was used throughout the next decade, and launched its lead organizer — Martin Luther King Jr. — into the national spotlight.

However, these were just parts of the larger civil rights struggle. In the north, African Americans took a more militant approach to the movement, and no organization or individual was more the antithesis to the southern approach than the Nation of Islam and its most well-known minister, Malcolm X.

Malcolm X was ideologically opposed to the southern approach, as evident in this interview, where he criticized King. The Nation of Islam, led by Elijah Muhammad, desired a separate Black state in the south and encouraged Black self-sufficiency, Britannica reports. In the 1950s, the NOI received a massive jolt when one of its ministers, Malcolm X of the New York Temple, became a national figure who appealed to many African Americans opposed to the southern approach. One of the individuals enticed by Malcolm was a young, upstart, soon-to-be global icon boxer. Here is the truth about Muhammad Ali's relationship with Malcolm X.

Muhammad Ali learned about the Nation of Islam in 1959

In 1959, the 17-year-old Muhammad Ali — then named Cassius Clay — traveled to Chicago to participate in a Golden Gloves tournament, as told by Patch. The young boxing star was hoping to be able to compete in the 1960 Rome Olympics Games, but the trip did more than just build his resume. While in the Windy City, Clay first learned about the Nation of Islam.

For the teenage Clay, the NOI was an eye-opening discovery that occupied a place in his mind. Here is what he said about learning about the organization: "The Nation of Islam was led by Elijah Muhammad, and what he and his followers were saying about Black pride really got me thinking. Their self-confidence and military discipline also caught my attention."

According to Biography, the following year, Clay won an Olympic gold medal in the light-heavyweight division, and it was clear that the young fighter would become a future star in the world of boxing. As detailed by BoxRec, Clay entered the professional levels as a heavyweight in 1960 and ended the year winning his first two professional fights. It would be a decade before Clay would lose his first fight, and during this time, the young boxer maintained a fascination with the Nation of Islam. And in the spring of 1962, with a 14-0 professional record, Clay's life outside the ring would change forever when he met Malcolm X — the man who would become his teacher.

Meeting Malcolm X

The Nation of Islam did not have a more passionate speaker and tireless worker than Malcolm X. According to PBS, when Elijah Muhammad appointed Malcolm the chief minister of Temple No. 7 in Harlem in 1954, his recruiting efforts over the next five years led to 40,000 new members and the building of 49 more temples.

According to Time, in June 1962, Cassius Clay and his brother Rudy were invited by a friend named Sam Saxon to Detroit to hear Elijah Muhammad speak. Clay agreed and Saxon drove the brothers from their home in Louisville to Detroit to attend the Black Muslim rally. However, Saxon also wanted to introduce the boxer to Minister Malcolm. Sitting in a luncheonette, the Muslim minister walked in to meet the brothers. Malcolm had not followed sports and did not know anything about Cassius' career, though the 21-year-old boxer did leave an impression on him. In particular, Malcolm said Clay had a "contagious quality ... simply a likeable, friendly, clean-cut, down-to-earth" charm.

At the rally, Malcolm's fiery speech emblazoned the young fighter, like he had so many in the NOI. As told by Biography, Cassius had grown up in segregated Louisville, Kentucky, and to hear Malcolm and the NOI speak of the true realities of black Americans floored him. "My first impression of Malcolm X was how could a Black man talk about the government and white people and act so bold and not be shot at?" he said. "He was fearless. That really attracted me."

Muhammad Ali had to hide his relationship with the Nation of Islam

According to Patch, when Cassius Clay first learned about the Nation of Islam while in high school, he wanted to write a paper about the organization but was denied by his teacher. "I tried to do a term paper on them, but my teacher wouldn't let me because many White people, and some Blacks as well, thought the Nation of Islam was a pretty scary bunch," he said.

It was clear for Clay that if he wanted to have any chance of having a career in professional boxing, he would have to hide his relationship with Malcolm X and the NOI. This was almost undone two months later. According to Time, Cassius traveled to St. Louis to hear Elijah Muhammad speak and to meet with Malcolm once again. During his time in St. Louis, a picture was taken of Clay at the rally and featured in the NOI's official newspaper, "Muhammad Speaks."

While the picture was ignored outside the NOI community, on the eve of the biggest fight of his career — a shot at the heavyweight championship against Sonny Liston in 1964 — the secret finally got out. Days before the fight, Cassius Clay Sr. told reporters about his son's involvement in the NOI and his relationship with Malcolm X. Per The Pittsburgh Press, he claimed that the organization had "brainwashed" his son, and he was "so confused now that he does not know where he's at." Biography reports the fight was almost called off because of this revelation.

Malcolm X began to separate from the Nation of Islam

In spite of becoming Cassius Clay's mentor as the young boxer began his conversion, behind the scenes, Malcolm X was beginning to have doubts about the movement. According to PBS, in 1961, failing health forced Elijah Muhammad to relocate from Chicago to Phoenix, prompting him to make Malcolm the national representative of the NOI. Despite (or because) of his popularity in the organization and in the public, high officials in the Nation began to resent the New York minister.

The same year, Malcolm's image of his mentor would forever change when he learned Muhammad had fathered children with at least three of his young former secretaries, violating his own teachings. Malcolm said upon learning about the affairs that he "felt almost out of my mind." Still, in April 1963, Malcolm spoke with his leader and Wallace, Elijah's son, about finding Biblical text to justify his teacher's actions. He also spoke with other leaders in the NOI, but they all looked at Malcolm as inflaming the situation. The next month, he apologized to Muhammad in a letter.

On November 22, 1963, President John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. According to Smithsonian, Muhammad suspended public speaking for the rest of the year and told each minister not to address the assassination. Two weeks later, Malcolm gave public comments on the assassination, prompting Muhammad to suspend him from his ministerial duties and bar him from public speaking for 90 days.

Malcolm X saw Muhammad Ali as his friend and brother

When Malcolm X and Cassius Clay first met, Clay was not even old enough to legally drink, while Malcolm was a decade and a half his elder with a full family. As reported by The Independent, Clay wrote about his friend and mentor in his autobiography, which was released years after Malcolm's departure from the Nation of Islam, the pair's relationship ending, and his assassination. "Malcolm and I were so close and had been through so much, but there were many things for me to consider," he wrote.

In the documentary "Blood Brothers," Ali's brother Rahman Ali said he and his late brother "loved" being around Malcolm. Maryum Ali, Muhammad's daughter, had this to say about Malcolm's influence on her father: "My father wanted to be great. There are things that Malcolm taught him that my father kept with him until his last day."

On the other side, Malcolm loved and trusted his student. During his suspension, Malcolm took his family down to Cassius' home as he prepared for his title fight against Sonny Liston. Malcolm's daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz, had this to say about the trip: "For my father to take his wife and his babies and go to his home meant that my father trusted him 100%. And In an interview, Malcolm said of his student, "He's my brother and my friend. I express what I know and understand around him, and he has a mind of his own and an understanding of his own."

One Night in Miami

The plot to Regina King's directorial debut, "One Night in Miami," almost seems like a piece of biographic fan fiction. On the night after Cassius Clay (soon to be Cassius X then Muhammad Ali) upset the heavyweight champion Sonny Liston to become the youngest heavyweight champion, the boxer spent the night hanging out with his colleagues, Malcolm X, football star Jim Brown, and singer Sam Cooke. However, as the only living attendee, Brown can attest the story is as real as Evander "The Real Deal" Holyfield!

According to Esquire, while much of the dialogue in the film was fictionalized, the four men did in fact meet in Malcolm X's hotel room at the famed black-owned Hampton House to celebrate their friend's victory — one that most people did not expect. Forty-six out of 49 sportswriters picked Sonny Liston to win, and even Elijah Muhammad instructed the Nation of Islam to distance themselves from Cassius in the event he lost. However, Malcolm had no doubt in his student's success.

When discussing her film, King said this about what she was trying to portray. "They were able to be men and brothers; able to have the opportunity to express their feelings without having to censor themselves in any way and be in a space that was safe." Unfortunately, that February night in Miami would be one of the last positive interactions that Malcolm and the soon-to-be Cassius X would have.

Post-Liston fight and Malcolm leaving the Nation of Islam

As detailed by "Sportscentury," after defeating Sonny Liston and becoming the heavyweight champion, Cassius Clay no longer had to hide his true relationship with the Nation of Islam. To the shock of millions around the world, Clay told the media that he was a member of the organization and his name would be Cassius X. Despite still being barred from public speaking by the NOI, Malcolm still routinely stayed by the boxing star's side, as evident by this interview conducted featuring the two men.

According to Britannica, in March 1964, Malcolm X officially left the Nation of Islam. The next month, he founded a new organization, Muslim Mosque Inc. This left the new heavyweight champion between a rock and a hard place in terms of who he would show loyalty to. Despite disavowing much of the NOI philosophy, Malcolm still only spoke highly of his friend while criticizing his old organization. When asked whether Cassius was a sincere follower, Malcolm said this: "I do believe Cassius is sincere in what he is doing ... whether he has the understanding to equal his sincerity is another thing."

It was not a hard decision for Cassius X. According to Esquire, he told Jim Brown the day of the fight he knew he would have to separate from his mentor. Even so, the moment of truth came less than two weeks after winning the heavyweight championship when his mentor left the organization, and the heavyweight champ stayed.

Muhammad Ali ends the relationship

Once he left the Nation of Islam, Malcolm and NOI high officials did not hold back their feelings for each other. As detailed by "Sportscentury," the departure left the 22-year-old Cassius X in the middle of a raging storm. On one hand, Malcolm had been his mentor, friend, and brother over the past two and a half years. At the same time, Malcolm's own teachings had pushed him towards the Nation and Elijah Muhammad, who gave the young boxer the name he would keep for the rest of his life — Muhammad Ali. Ali ignored his mentor, as per request from the NOI, which disavowed their former national spokesman.

At this time, Malcolm revealed Muhammad's infidelities to the public, which placed a greater target on his back. After leaving the NOI, Malcolm participated in the Hajj to Mecca, adopted traditional Sunni Islam, and worked closely with African nations in forming unified Pan-Africanist organizations. While Ali originally still saw Malcolm as a brother, as he said in this interview, this feeling would not last. As his criticisms of Muhammad continued, Ali said, "Malcolm X and anybody else who talks of attacking Elijah Muhammad will die."

According to NPR, the two last met in the spring of 1964 in Ghana. While Malcolm greeted his student with open arms, Ali, who was with Muhammad's son, simply replied, "Brother Malcolm, you shouldn't have crossed the Honorable Elijah Muhammad" and turned his back on him.

Muhammad Ali's Reaction to Malcolm X's assassination

By 1965, Malcolm X was a targeted man by members of the Nation of Islam and the United States government, as The Washington Post details. Malcolm discussed his own mortality in an interview after leaving the NOI and exposing Elijah Muhammad's affairs to the public. Muhammad Ali said this about his former mentor (per Oregon Live): "I don't even think about him. He's nothing but a fellow who was an ex-dope addict, a prisoner, a jailbird who had no education, couldn't read or write, who heard about the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, who took him off the streets, cleaned him up, and educated him."

However, unlike before when he was censored, the civil rights icon could not turn to his boxing friend anymore and, on February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated while giving a speech in Harlem's Audubon Ballroom. According to Biography, on the day of the funeral, Muhammad was in Chicago having fun in an NOI-sponsored boxing exhibition. Internally, the boxer was "surprised and shocked" by his mentor's violent death, but he did not show any sympathy in the public. In fact, when asked while training for his rematch to Sonny Liston later that year if he worried about retaliation from "Malcolm's people," the boxer snapped back at the report saying, "What people? Malcolm ain't got no people!" Despite Malcolm's death, Ali remained loyal to the NOI and still resented his mentor for "betraying" Elijah Muhammad, NPR reports.

Muhammad Ali mirrored Malcolm X's conversion

Despite their differences by the end of Malcolm X's life, Muhammad Ali followed his mentor's example by the time he reached the age Malcolm was when they first met. In 1972, inspired by Malcolm X's own pilgrimage to Mecca, Ali went to the Hajj, as told by EMEL. By 1975, after the passing of Elijah Muhammad and his son Wallace's appointment as the head of the Nation of Islam, Ali and some in the organization adopted a traditional form of Sunni Islam, Biography reports. According to Britannica, by 1978, the movement had split into two camps: Wallace Mohammed's Sunni teachings and Louis Farrakhan's camp, which rebuilt the organization with the traditional NOI teachings.

Also in 1978, Ali met with Attallah Shabazz, Malcolm's eldest daughter, at an event. The two stayed by each other's side throughout the entire day, and the boxing star opened up to her privately about his feelings about her late father. Whether it was the maturity of age or the death of Elijah Muhammad that allowed him to be more open, Ali's philosophy and outlook on race evolved at a similar point that Malcolm's did. Still, according to Ali's wife Lonnie, her husband never regretted joining the NOI even if he eventually left the original philosophy. "Joining the Nation was not something he regrets since it opened the doorway to the concept of Islam and provided the vehicle that got him to the Islam he has today," she said.

Muhammad Ali looking back at Malcolm X's influence in his life

In 2005, Muhammad Ali announced he had converted to Sufism, CNN reports. Ali's friend and author David Miller wrote of Ali's thoughts — as well as his own — on converting to another sect of Islam. "Sufism is arguably the most peaceful sect of any major or minor religion," he wrote in "Approaching Ali." "Sufis believe that to purposely harm any person is to harm all of humanity, to harm each of us, and to damage the world. It is the perfect fit for Ali, who had been living in the ways that Sufis do for decades before he'd heard of the religion."

Muhammad Ali passed away in 2016 at 74 years old. The last time that Malcolm X and Ali met, the boxer turned his back on his teacher. In an interview with NPR, Randy Roberts — author of the book "Blood Brothers," which is about the two men's friendship and break-up — said Ali regretted the moment until his death. "One of Ali's greatest regrets — and he said as much — is that he never patched things up with Malcolm, that he never told Malcolm how important he was to him."

Roberts also points out the lasting legacy of Ali's mixing of sports and politics. Notably, this is something Malcolm felt strongly about his student being able to achieve, as evidenced in this interview. "Once, we viewed sports as a world apart, untouched by the political and economic and racial problems of the day," he said. "Well, since Muhammad Ali, we can never maintain that fiction."