February the 21st 2019 marks the 54th anniversary of Malcolm X’s murder. There is a sadness in the stories Malcolm shared with two other great Black American figures, Maya Angelou and Muhammad Ali, stories that are not widely known.
Malcolm and the Boxer
Photos are often shared of Malcolm X alongside Muhammad Ali, depicting a jovial relationship between the two legends. While the two men enjoyed a beautiful friendship for a short time, the truth is much more complicated. Muhammad Ali first met Malcolm during his previous incarnation as Cassius Clay. Malcolm saw much promise in the young fighter, both as a boxer, a potential Muslim, and a man. He began mentoring the young Cassius and made his way to Florida for Clay’s legendary World Title Fight against Sonny Liston. The group prayed together before the bout. Sitting ringside, Malcolm watched as Clay dazzled the world. After the fight, Clay joined Malcolm and singer turned activist, Sam Cooke (of “A Change is Gonna Come” fame), in his hotel, eating ice-cream late into the night.
Speaking after the fight Malcolm proclaimed, “The white press wanted him to lose. They wanted him to lose because he is a Muslim. You notice nobody cares about the religion of other athletes. But their prejudice against Clay blinded them to his ability”.
But as Malcolm’s relationship with the Nation of Islam’s (NOI) hierarchy worsened, they moved to distance the two men from each other. Scholars have spoken of the NOI’s initial disinterest in Clay, with that disinterest reversing on Clay’s World Title win. Some rumours at the time spoke of Malcolm and Clay joining forces to start a new organisation to rival the NOI, though little is known of the truth within this.
Eventually, the NOI “christened” Clay with his new “original name”, Muhammad Ali. Not long after, the relationship of the two friends ended, at the NOI’s behest. Speaking on Malcolm at one stage, Ali said on his fallout with the founder of the NOI, Elijah Muhammad, “You don’t just buck Mr. (Elijah) Muhammad and get away with it”. On Malcolm X, Ali said, “I don’t want to talk about him no more”. Muhammad Ali had chosen to side with the NOI against Malcolm.
Malcolm and the Poet
Maya Angelou first met Malcolm in 1961. Shortly after, Angelou had participated in a protest which Malcolm had attended, outside the United Nations Building in New York.
On that first meeting, the poet poeticised, “His aura was too bright and his masculine force affected me physically. A hot desert storm eddied around him and rushed to me, making my skin contract, and my pores slam shut…his hair was the color of burning embers and his eyes pierced”.
While he did not initially support her offer of political alliances, due to the NOI’s commitment to apoliticalism, when they would meet in Ghana years later in 1964, he would be free of the NOI’s constraints. They would meet several more times in Africa, joined in company by the likes of the great American sociologist and writer, W.E.B. Du Bois, and his wife Shirley.
Malcolm was in the process of building his organisation, the Organisation of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), which aimed to tackle America’s racial problems head on. He convinced Angelou to give her work in Africa as a teacher and return to the U.S. to help him build this project. When Malcolm was back in the U.S. he communicated with Angelou by letter. At one stage, Angelou warned Malcolm against talking “over the head of the masses”, as many activists tended to do. Malcolm, impressed with this critique, wrote her back telling her that she had “plenty of soul and you always keep your feet firmly on the ground. This is what makes you, you”. According to Malcom’s biographer, the late Professor Manning Marable, this touched Angelou so much, that she accelerated her plans to leave Africa and join Malcolm in his struggle.
Around one month later, Angelou arrived back to the U.S., shortly after Malcolm’s house had been firebombed. Malcolm offered to pick her up from the airport, but Angelou informed him of her plans to first visit family in San Francisco. Unfortunately, that would have been Angelou’s last chance to see Malcolm arrive. Two days later, Malcolm would be gunned down in Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom. In an even crueler twist of fate, Angelou would 3 years later be beginning her work with Dr Martin Luther King, only to see him also murdered. Fortune did eventually strike her when 1 year later her seminal autobiographical novel, ‘I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings’, was released to critical acclaim.
In the end, Muhammad Ali followed in his late brother’s footsteps, leaving the NOI in 1975 and becoming an orthodox Muslim, while Maya Angelou went on to become one of the greatest American writers and poets in the modern era. One can only wonder what greatness they might have all achieved together, had Malcolm not been denied a life beyond the age of 40.
Illustration by Shari Hermans, for Mvslim.com.