Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali
Reflections on race in America
The Netflix 2021 documentary, “Blood Brothers: Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali,” directed by Marcus A. Clarke, recently aired on Cuban television. The documentary is based on the 2016 book Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, authored by Randy Roberts of Purdue University and Johnny Smith, a sports history professor at Georgia Tech. My commentary today reviews the documentary and the book.
The Nation of Islam
The doctrines of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam on racial separation and the evil of the white man were fundamentally inconsistent with the revelations of the Prophet Muhammad, which constitute the sacred textual foundation for orthodox Islam. According to the Koranic revelation, there is no natural division among human beings on the basis of skin color or ethnicity, and there is no theological, philosophical, nor moral distinction between the so-called white man and so-called black man. Moreover, all human beings are by nature moral, and they therefore are fully capable of being educated toward the correct road of belief and obedience. Evil results from ignorance and/or individuals freely choosing the path of disobeying God’s word. The notion that the “white man” is evil is an error.
To be sure, orthodox Islamic theology teaches that societies can develop a norm of justice, which is conducive to peace and prosperity; but conversely, some societies deviate from divine teachings as a norm, creating confusion and division. But when the latter occurs, not all individuals will follow sinful ways, and the pious can educate the unbelievers toward the correct road, inasmuch as the unbelievers are not evil by nature. Following his break with the Nation of Islam, in the context of the systemic racism of the United States in 1964, Malcolm correctly called upon sincere whites to educate whites with respect to the sin of racism, educating them toward the correct road, in accordance with possibilities proclaimed by Islamic theology.
The belief that the white man is the devil is a direct conclusion from the black experience in America, without the mediation of Islamic theological reflection. Elijah Muhammad decided for the dissemination of what appeared to be the truth, in the context of the direct experiences of African Americans. Certainly, whites behaved as though they were devils, and even “good whites” were complicit. So the provocative declaration that the “the white man is the devil” had a certain degree of popular appeal in the black community, more appeal than the more truthful, but more nuanced and more challenging, Islamic theological reflection. It was hardly the first nor the last time that public figures in America opted for a simplistic message with popular appeal, even though it distorts reality.
As is well-known, Malcolm X found the teachings of Elijah Muhammad to be the source of liberation from self-destructive ways. For Malcolm, the teaching on the evil nature of the white man was powerfully exemplified by the killing of his own father by a gang of whites for his Garveyite Christian preaching. But beyond that one teaching, all aspects of the teachings and the social organization of the Nation of Islam were liberating for Malcolm: self-discipline with respect to drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and sexuality; and the possibility to channel his creativity and intelligence toward an important contribution to the growth of a meaningful social movement.
Malcolm’s rupture with Elijah Muhammad, although painful for Malcolm, provided the foundation for a second liberation. It deepened his appreciation for orthodox Islamic teachings, enabling him to move far closer to Islamic teachings on the attributes of God and on human nature and race. In addition, it freed him from the Nation’s idealistic proposal that U.S. blacks be compensated with territory, on which they would be able to develop a separate black nation and society. Following the break with the Nation, Malcolm rethought the meaning of black separation from white society. Building upon the evident fact that blacks and whites were living in separate neighborhoods in the metropolitan areas of the nation, Malcolm arrived to propose black control of the institutions of the black community. For Malcolm, the problem was not the separation of the races but the pernicious reality of white control of the separate black society. In 1964, he repeatedly called for black control of the economic and political institutions of the black community. He reiterated on numerous occasions during the last year of his life that “all of the institutions of your community should be under your control.” He referred to this political-economic perspective as “the philosophy of black nationalism.” (See “The black awakening of 1964 to 1972,” April 16, 2021).
The rupture with the Nation of Islam also freed Malcolm to develop a global perspective. This is to some extent recognized in the documentary, which discusses Malcolm’s trips to Africa and his proposal that African governments place before the United Nations the charge that the United States of America was denying the human rights of its citizens of African descent. But this was merely the beginning of what without question would have been a long journey. He was in these initial steps in 1964 beginning to identify colonialism as the source of racial inequality in the world and in the USA, as was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1967. I have often wondered of the possible direction that these two iconic figures of the era would have taken black America and the nation if they had lived.
The black experience and white understanding
In a review published in The Guardian, Radheyan Simonpillai observes that Roberts and Smith, the authors of the book, are white, whereas the director of the documentary, Marcus Clarke, was born in Brooklyn to Jamaican parents. For his part, Clarke expressed appreciation for the value of the research done by Roberts and Smith, irrespective of their race. On the other hand, Simonpillai opines that Clarke’s documentary colors Roberts and Smith’s book “with an understanding of what it means to be Black in America. He latches on to how Muhammad Ali, who was then known as Cassius Clay, would have been affected in transformative ways by the lynching of Emmett Till, comparing that experience to how Black youth today respond to images of police brutality.”
Any suggestion that Roberts and Smith did not appreciate the importance of racial violence in America cannot be reasonably sustained. The book is a detailed account of facts relevant to the lives of Malcolm and Ali and their relation, framed from a perspective of the systemic racial violence and ideology of white supremacy in America during that period. Moreover, Roberts and Smith understand that racial violence begets further violence in various forms, such that violence is central to the African-American experience; and they leave the reader with the suggestion that Ali turned his back on his blood brother Malcolm out of fear of possible violence against him (Ali) by the Nation of Islam.
Ali, of course, will be eternally remembered with justice for his principled and courageous resistance to the military draft during the Vietnam War, costing him his heavyweight boxing title. Has there been a comparable self-sacrificing political statement in the history of sport? And how powerfully he declared his reasons! It was the white man who had oppressed and abused his people, he declared, not the government or people of Vietnam, communist or otherwise. “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong,” he truthfully declared in his eloquent Black English Vernacular.
But did Ali also have to endure feelings of betrayal and remorse with respect to Malcolm? If so, he was freed from this hell when Elijah Muhammad died and his son Wallace Muhammad took the Nation in the direction of Orthodox Islam, renaming Malcolm’s historic New York City temple in his memory. But Roberts and Smith recognize that Ali was not completely liberated. Ali’s ordeals had taken their toll. The rehabilitated Ali of the last quarter of the twentieth century was incapable of following the road that Malcolm tried to teach him, that of serving as the informal, but universally recognized, diplomat and delegate of the colonized and neocolonized peoples of the earth. Not able to resurrect Malcolm’s vision for him as guide for his conduct, Ali began to function in the 1980s as an international diplomat for the U.S. liberal political establishment of the last quarter of the twentieth century. In this way, Ali’s final persona symbolized what the USA had lost when Malcolm was taken from us.
The documentary and the book appreciate that Malcolm and Ali represented black pride and black assertiveness in the face of white supremacy and its constraints on black expressiveness and aspirations. But the book goes further. It explains Malcolm’s turn to the philosophy of black nationalism beginning around 1963, which he formulated by 1964 as black control of the institutions of the black community. Because Roberts and Smith were on a mission of sorting out previously unavailable or unexamined documents, they tend to stress the recently discovered moments of confusion and fear that Malcolm experienced in the last year of his life. As a result, they tend to understate how much Malcolm was politically and ideologically present during his last year. As the recordings and transcripts of his public speeches make abundantly clear, Malcolm was a consistent, clear, and strong voice in defense of black nationalism and black community control in the last year of his life, in spite of the constant death threats and his fears and anxieties with respect to his safety and that of his family. Of course, Malcolm had not yet worked out in his mind the specific strategies, programs, and alliances; but there can be no doubt concerning the road that he was on, and for which he was prepared to pay any price.
Which leads us to questions. What would Malcolm have to say today concerning the extent to which racial customs and norms have changed since the elite supported reforms of 1964 and 1965? What would he have had to say about the outmigration of the black middle class from the traditional black neighborhoods, leaving the black poor to its fate? What would he have had to say about the anti-racist theories in vogue today that emphasize black victimization and fail to call the black community to take collective responsibility for its own liberation?
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, black radicals said to white radicals, “stay out of the black community,” and we have. We (white radicals) have worked in the institutions of white society, explaining to whites the fundamental concepts that emerge from the black experience, learning them from the insight of radical black intellectuals. In this commitment, we were following the teachings of Malcolm, who called upon sincere whites to educate white society concerning the evils of white racism, as I noted above. And our work has had a profound impact, even though it is not in vogue today to recognize this fact. But there is overwhelming evidence of a fundamental change, a gradual but steady change in racial attitudes and customs in the last quarter of the twentieth century, even if a more subtle form of racism persisted (which we also named and criticized), and even if there were cases of violence by a few isolated extremists (who today grow in numbers in the context of a toxic ideologically superficial civil war). In essence, great progress was being made, as white radicals of the late 1960s entered the professions of education, journalism, law, and religion.
The black radical demand in the late 1960s and early 1970s for white radicals to disengage from the black community was based on the premise that black leaders were responsible for the development of the black community. Have black leaders assumed this responsibility? Have they followed the teachings of Malcolm concerning black control of the institutions of the black community, as the foundation for the socioeconomic development of the community? Or have they instead developed forms of social service employment for the black middle class, in the context of structures that perpetuate social inequalities in the black community, as black conservative thought today maintains? Meanwhile, the anti-racist ideology in vogue today, with the cynical support of the corporate elite, functions to profoundly divide U.S. society at a historic moment in which the unity of the people is needed. (See “Free Black Thought,” May 11, 2021; and “Rescuing American History from Race Hustlers: An alternative theory and practice,” 6/4/2021)?
Islamic theology teaches that there is a reality independent of human thought and perception, and the duty of human beings is to seek to understand that reality. In the same vein, the twentieth century Catholic philosopher Bernard Lonergan taught that human beings can approach an understanding of objective reality, not completely and with certainty but with sufficient practical applicability, if we listen to one another and take seriously the understandings of one another. There is not my truth versus your truth, or the truth of my group as against the truth of your group. There is one objective reality that we must endeavor to understand together, on a basis of personal encounter, listening, and mutual respect.
Seeking consensual understanding on the basis of mutually respectful listening is the only possible foundation for the people to act with unity to rescue the nation from decadence, and to work in cooperation with other nations and peoples in the development of a stable and prosperous world.
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