I am re-posting here Jelani Cobb’s article (The New Yorker) written around the blunder of Housing and Urban Development Secretary, Dr. Ben Carson, whereby he compared African slaves to immigrants. This is the same person who, out of the blue, claimed in 2013 that: “Obamacare is really … the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery.” The +20 million people who got insurance thanks to the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) would beg to differ.
Anyhow, Dr. Carson will, most likely, not become president of the United States. The world will thus be probably a better place. Because despite his acknowledged skills as a neurosurgeon, Carson is a mediocre student of history. Should he want to remedy that self-inflicted intellectual handicap, he would have to rethink slavery. And first of all, he must admit that the Slave Trade is “America’s Original Sin.” Consequently, it was not some migratory itch or urge that uprooted millions of Africans and dumped them on the shores of the “New World.” On the contrary, they were taken out and across the Atlantic Ocean in chains. Upon landing, and as Edward E. Baptist put it best, they toiled, from dawn to dusk and in sweat, tears and blood, for the “Making of American Capitalism.”
Tierno S. Bah
In referring to slaves as “immigrants,” Ben Carson followed a long-standing American tradition of eliding the ugliness that is part of the country’s history.
Earlier this week, Ben Carson, the somnolent surgeon dispatched to oversee the Department of Housing and Urban Development on behalf of the Trump Administration, created a stir when he referred to enslaved black people—stolen, trafficked, and sold into that status—as “immigrants” and spoke of their dreams for their children and grandchildren. In the ensuing hail of criticism, Carson doubled down, saying that it was possible for someone to be an involuntary immigrant. Carson’s defenses centered upon strict adherence to the definition of the word “immigrant” as a person who leaves one country to take up residence in another. This is roughly akin to arguing that it is technically possible to refer to a kidnapping victim as a “house guest,” presuming the latter term refers to a temporary visitor to one’s home. Carson had already displayed a propensity for gaffes during his maladroit Presidential candidacy, and it might be easy to dismiss his latest one as the least concerning element of having a neurosurgeon with no relevant experience in charge of housing policy were it not a stand-in for a broader set of concerns about the Trump Administration.
A week earlier, Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education, had described historically black colleges and universities as pioneers in school choice—a view that can only co-exist with reality if we airbrush segregation into a kind of level playing field in which ex-slaves opted to attend all-black institutions rather than being driven to them as a result of efforts to preserve the supposed sanctity of white ones. The Trump Administration is not alone in proffering this rosy view of American racial history. Last week, in a story about changes being made at Thomas Jefferson‘s estate, Monticello, the Washington Post referred to Sally Hemings, the enslaved black woman who bore several of Jefferson’s children, as his “mistress”—a term that implies far more autonomy and consent than is possible when a woman is a man’s legal property. Last fall, the textbook publisher McGraw-Hill faced criticism for a section of a history book that stated, “The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.” The word “worker” typically carries the connotation of remuneration rather than lifelong forced labor and chattel slavery.
One part of the issue here is the eliding of the ugliness of the slave past in this country. This phenomenon is neither novel nor particularly surprising. The unwillingness to confront this narrative is tied not simply to the miasma of race but to something more subtle and, in the current atmosphere, more potentially treacherous: the reluctance to countenance anything that runs contrary to the habitual optimism and self-anointed sense of the exceptionalism of American life. It is this state-sanctioned sunniness from which the view of the present as a middle ground between an admirable past and a halcyon future springs. But the only way to sustain that sort of optimism is by not looking too closely at the past. And thus the past can serve only as an imperfect guide to the troubles of the present.
In his 1948 essay “The Gangster as Tragic Hero,” Robert Warshow wrote about the mid-century efforts to pressure studios to stop producing their profitable gangster movies. The concerns focussed partly upon the violence of the films but more directly upon the fear that these films offered a fundamentally pessimistic view of life and were therefore un-American. There is a neat through-line from those critics to Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” idealism to the shopworn rhetoric of nearly every aspirant to even local public office that the nation’s “best days are ahead of us.” We are largely adherents of the state religion of optimism—and not of a particularly mature version of it, either. This was part of the reason Donald Trump’s sermons of doom were seen as so discordant throughout last year’s campaign. He offered followers a diet of catastrophe, all of it looming immediately if not already under way. He told an entire nation, in the most transparently demagogic of his statements, that he was the only one who could save it from imminent peril. And he was nonetheless elected President of the United States.
Strangely enough, many of us opted to respond to Trump’s weapons-grade pessimism in the most optimistic way possible, conjuring best-case scenarios in which he would simply be a modern version of Richard Nixon, or perhaps of Andrew Jackson. But he is neither of these. Last summer, as his rallies tipped toward violence and the rhetoric seemed increasingly jarring, it was common to hear alarmed commentators speak of us all being in “uncharted waters.” This was naïve, and, often enough, self-serving. For many of us, particularly those who reckon with the history of race, the true fear was not that we were on some unmapped terrain but that we were passing landmarks that were disconcertingly familiar. In response to the increasingly authoritarian tones of the executive branch, we plumbed the history of Europe in the twentieth century for clues and turned to the writings of Czeslaw Milosz and George Orwell. We might well have turned to the writings of W. E. B. Du Bois and James Baldwin for the more direct, domestic version of this question but looked abroad, at least in part, as a result of our tacit consensus that tragedy is a foreign locale. It has been selectively forgotten that traits of authoritarianism neatly overlap with traits of racism visible in the recent American past.
The habitual tendency to excise the most tragic elements of history creates a void in our collective understanding of what has happened in the past and, therefore, our understanding of the potential for tragedy in the present. In 1935, when Sinclair Lewis wrote “It Can’t Happen Here,” it already was happening here, and had been since the end of Reconstruction. In 1942, the N.A.A.C.P. declared a “Double V” campaign—an attempt to defeat Fascism abroad and its domestic corollary of American racism.
Similarly, it was common in the days immediately following September 11th to hear it referred to as the nation’s first large-scale experience with terrorism—or at least the worst since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, staged by Timothy McVeigh. But the nation’s first anti-terrorism law was the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, designed to stall the attempts to terrorize emancipated slaves out of political participation. McVeigh’s bombing, which claimed the lives of a hundred and sixty-eight people, was not the worst act of terrorism in the United States at that point—it was not even the worst act of terrorism in the history of Oklahoma. Seventy-four years earlier, in what became known as the Tulsa Race Riot, the city’s black population was attacked and aerially bombed; at least three hundred people were killed. Such myopia thrives in the present and confounds the reasoning of the director of the FBI, James Comey, who refused to declare Dylann Roof’s murder of nine black congregants in a South Carolina church, done in hopes of sparking a race war, as an act of terrorism—a designation he did not withhold from Omar Mateen’s murderous actions in the Pulse night club, in Orlando.
The American capacity for tragedy is much broader and far more robust than Americans—most of us, anyway—recognize. Our sense of ourselves as exceptional, of our country as a place where we habitually avert the worst-case scenario, is therefore a profound liability in times like the present. The result is a failure to recognize the parameters of human behavior and, consequently, the signs of danger as they become apparent to others who are not crippled by such optimism. A belief that we are exempt from the true horrors of human behavior and the accompanying false sense of security have led to nearly risible responses to Trumpism.
It has become a cliché of each February to present the argument that “black history is American history,” yet that shopworn ideal has new relevance. A society with a fuller sense of history and its own capacity for tragedy would have spotted Trump’s zero-sum hustle from many miles in the distance. Without it, though, it’s easy to mistake the overblown tribulations he sold his followers for candor, not a con. The sense of history as a chart of increasing bounties enabled tremendous progress but has left Americans—most of us, anyway—uniquely unsuited to look at ourselves as we truly are and at history for what it is. Our failure to reckon with this past and the centrality of race within it has led us to broadly mistake the clichés of history for novelties of current events.
Chapter One. The Mother Ship in Miami Chapter Two. God’s Angry Man
Chapter Three. “Who Made Me Is Me”
Chapter Four. In Cold Blood
Chapter Five. The Winter of Boxing
Chapter Six. Apollo
Chapter Seven. Hide Your Cat
Chapter Eight. The Great Pretender
Chapter Nine. Back to the Grave
Chapter Ten. Trouble in Miami
Chapter Eleven. The Crusade
Chapter Twelve. Free to Be Me
Chapter Thirteen. The Shakeup
Chapter Fourteen. An American Nightmare
Chapter Fifteen. King of the World
Chapter Sixteen. The Muslim Champ
Chapter Seventeen. Worthy of Death
Epilogue. Once the Hate Is Gone
Preface. A Dream Deferred
Malcolm X and Ali were like very close brothers. It was almost as if they were in love with each other.
Ferdie Pacheco, Muhammad Ali’s Physician
“What happens to a dream deferred?” Langston Hughes asked in one of his most moving and insightful poems. “Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? . . . Or does it explode?” 1
We ask the same questions about the lives of two extraordinarily gifted men, both born in a segregated land and raised amidst pain and discrimination to face a violent world. What happens to a dream deferred? Does it snake toward hopelessness, despair, drunkenness, addiction, and poverty? Or does it explode in rage? A dream deferred, Malcolm X knew, could become an American nightmare.
Our story begins with two questions: Who was Cassius Clay? And how did he become Muhammad Ali? As much as has been written about him, he remains enigmatic, a silent sphinx. He has meant different things to different people at different times. It has become increasingly difficult to know the Muhammad Ali of the 1960s. Since the end of the Vietnam War, liberal writers have manufactured an image of him as a hero of social causes, a unifying force of goodwill. He is no longer seen as controversial, threatening, or anti-American. His legacy has become distorted and trivialized 2.
In a tragic irony, Parkinson’s disease has robbed him of his verbal gifts. Once known as the Louisville Lip, Ali no longer boasts, rhymes, or raps. His silence has been filled by corporate sponsors, movie producers, and writers who have created a new voice for him, a voice that neither preaches racial separation nor acknowledges his past with Malcolm X. A minister in the Nation of Islam (NOI), Malcolm espoused racially charged rhetoric about “devilish white men,” “brainwashed Christian Negroes,” and “bloody revolution.” Many feared that he might organize the opening battle of an impending race war. Muhammad Ali called this man his brother, leading critics to vilify him as a disgrace to boxing.
At first, Cassius Clay, as he was known until 1964, hid his relationship with Malcolm. A master of deception, he proved infuriatingly elusive for journalists. “Figuring out who or what is the real Cassius Clay is a parlor game that has become unrewarding even for experts,” commented Jack Olsen, a white writer who gained unprecedented access to the fighter.
Clay’s personality is like a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces were cut by a drunken carpenter, a jumbled collection of moods and attitudes that do not seem to interlock. Sometimes, he sounds like a religious fanatic, his voice singsong and chanting, and all at once he will turn into a calm, reasoning, if confused, student of the scriptures. He is a loudmouth windbag and at the same time a remarkably sincere and dedicated athlete. He can be a kindly benefactor of the neighborhood children and a vicious bully in the ring, a prissy Puritan totally intolerant of drinkers and smokers, and a teller of dirty jokes.” 3
In 1966, when Olsen began writing Black Is Best, a lengthy profile of the boxer, piecing together the jigsaw puzzle of Muhammad Ali seemed impossible. Yet what Olsen and other writers have failed to recognize is that the real Muhammad Ali can only be seen when his many masks are uncovered. From 1960 to 1965, the half decade that framed his relationship with Malcolm X, he appeared convincingly as four different personalities, packaged and expressed at different times for different audiences.
He first emerged on the world stage as Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. of the 1960 Rome Olympics—wide-eyed, talkative, enthusiastic, and likable, a defender of the glacial progress being made in American race relations. In Rome, Cassius proudly told a Soviet reporter who asked him about the American color line, “We’ve got qualified people working on that problem, and I’m not worried about the outcome. To me, the U.S.A. is still the best country in the world, counting yours.” As Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., he was the quiet southern “Negro,” downplaying racial conflict, and avoiding controversy 4.
After turning professional toward the end of 1960, he became the Louisville Lip—boasting loudly, spouting poetry, belittling opponents, and advertising himself. As the Louisville Lip, he became the booming athletic equivalent of Little Richard and Elvis Presley, echoing the raucous notes of rock ‘n’ roll and the television antics of professional wrestler Gorgeous George.
As the civil rights movement escalated from 1962 to early 1964, he evolved into Cassius X—the loyal follower of Elijah Muhammad, the Supreme Minister of the Nation of Islam. As Cassius X, a name he adopted only for a brief time, he imitated Malcolm, appearing angry and outraged by racial injustice. Behind the walls of the Nation’s mosques, he stood up as an outspoken defender of the Black Muslim philosophy, one that promoted racial pride, self-determination, and complete separation of the races. As an acolyte of Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X, he defiantly opposed Martin Luther King’s approach to the civil rights movement and the ideals of racial integration.
Finally, after winning the heavyweight title in February 1964, he became Muhammad Ali—renamed by Elijah, pried apart from Malcolm, and the new front man for the Nation of Islam. As in his other personas, he inhabited the role of Muhammad Ali, often wearing the somber, stone-faced mask of Elijah’s paramilitary followers. As Muhammad Ali, he instantly became the most politically controversial athlete in the country’s history.
Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., the Louisville Lip, Cassius X, and Muhammad Ali—the boxer played all these roles, wearing the different masks as the occasion dictated. He was all of these characters, and sometimes more than one at the same moment. “I don’t have to be what you want me to be,” he once announced. “I’m free to be who I want.” Yet some of the men closest to him had trouble understanding exactly who he was free to be. “They say there’s fifteen sides to Clay,” his ring physician Ferdie Pacheco said. “To me he’s just a thoroughly confused person. Sure, he has sides, but they don’t mesh.” 5
Only by examining Cassius Clay’s early years in Louisville and his relationship with Malcolm X can one hope to discover Muhammad Ali. Central to his life, relationships, and career was deception. Disguise and dissemblance, of course, have been integral to African American culture since the first moments of contact between blacks and whites. From the stories of B’rer Rabbit’s trickery and indirection to such novels as Richard Wright’s Native Son and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the ability of black Americans to wear disguises and assume multiple identities has been crucial in navigating the boundaries and pathways of the color line in America.
But beyond African American culture, the volatile circumstances of young Cassius Clay’s home life created an atmosphere conducive to disguise. That he entered a profession that rewarded violence and deception, a trade that trafficked in feints, fakes, and pain, indicates how ingrained those qualities were in his life. If Olsen, Pacheco, and others could not figure out “the riddle of Cassius Clay,” that attested to how well he had learned to hide himself 6.
Like Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X was also a man of many masks. The seventh son of an itinerant Baptist preacher, Malcolm Little inherited his father’s rage against white supremacy. As a young man in the 1940s, he came of age as Detroit Red, a street hustler strutting in a zoot suit, peddling drugs and prostitutes. In the smoky pool halls and jazz clubs of Boston and New York, he developed the swagger of a trickster, cultivating the cool pose of the “hip cats” he admired.” 7
“Behind the mask of Detroit Red, he buried the pain of his past. In prison for larceny, his fellow convicts called him Satan. Voraciously reading history, sociology, and theology, he transformed himself into a puritanical follower of Elijah Muhammad, the self-proclaimed Messenger of Allah. From his cell, he absorbed and memorized Muhammad’s writings and speeches, accepting his message of separatism and strict morality. By the mid-1950s, the former convict had become the Messenger’s protégé—Malcolm X—an outspoken minister saving lost souls in bars, nightclubs, and back alleys 8.
As Malcolm X, he was a model of redemption, preaching a doctrine of abstinence from drugs, alcohol, and crime. The “angriest black man in America” divided the country with his sharp tongue and brutal honesty, openly condemning whites for terrorizing black Americans. Ultimately, the internal politics of the Nation of Islam and his own crisis of faith led him on a journey toward the universalism of Sunni Islam. In Africa and the Middle East, he was known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, but he would forever be remembered in America as Malcolm X 9.
Malcolm may have changed his name, but at his core he remained the same dedicated freedom fighter. Fiercely uncompromising, he carried himself with imperial restraint, striking a cool posture that could intimidate the most self-assured white man. For Malcolm, coolness meant speaking his mind, refusing to submit to white authority. Being cool meant being completely free.
In many ways, Malcolm X and Cassius Clay seemed the product of the same DNA. Both thrived on center stage surrounded by an audience. Standing beneath the spotlight—at Malcolm’s pulpit or in Clay’s ring—they responded to the thundering sound of applause and the deafening chorus of boos. Neither man could resist a platform, an interview, or a debate. Both enjoyed sparring with words and manipulating other men’s fears with sensational language. They were both fighters.
Before Cassius X became Muhammad Ali, Malcolm saw something in the young boxer that no one else did. “Not many people know the quality of the mind he’s got in there,” he told writer George Plimpton in 1964. Like Malcolm, he was absolutely self-assured, proud, and defiant. He carried himself with boundless confidence, boldly professing his own greatness the way that Malcolm fearlessly denounced white America. Studying Clay’s interactions with reporters, the way he spellbound audiences with his performances, Malcolm realized that he could become something more than an athlete. As the heavyweight champion of the world, Clay possessed the kind of far-reaching cultural power that could unify black people. Recognizing Clay’s global fame, Malcolm exploited him, envisioning a new movement that fused together Clay’s world and his into one built around celebrity and politics.
A myth has enshrouded the encounters between Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. The stories are told and retold, fashioned in ways that obscure the reality. An anecdote here, a quote there, and before you know it a fabricated “truth” has emerged. Drawing on a few unsubstantiated observations by writer Alex Haley and a couple of self-serving comments by Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, historians and biographers have manufactured a convenient morality play involving two men who came together, formed a deep relationship, and then suddenly and dramatically broke apart. End of story. It was almost as if the two larger-than-life figures were planets, swinging close to each other in their orbits and then moving apart on separate paths.
But it was never that simple. Although their respective biographers have neglected to show that Ali and Malcolm were much more important to one another than previously acknowledged, we have uncovered and interpreted previously unexamined documents that reveal the personal and political dynamics between them. The complex friendship between Malcolm and Ali is interred in a labyrinthine jungle of sources—the private papers of Malcolm X, Alex Haley, and others; FBI files and surveillance reports; State Department records; archived news footage and television programs; long-unexamined interview transcripts; new interviews with people who knew Ali and Malcolm intimately; the daily press; and a variety of other published and unpublished materials.
Investigating their relationship, we have reconstructed the lives and movements of Ali and Malcolm, focusing especially on the period from the time they met in June 1962 through February 1965. Plotting their daily activities provided a key to deciphering redacted FBI files, revealing the events and conversations recorded in the Bureau’s records in a new light.
Using these unique sources, we tracked their movements and, in the process, discovered how historians and biographers have misread the complicated relationship between them.
In the generally accepted narrative, writers maintain that Ali severed his friendship with Malcolm the moment Elijah renamed him. These authors have relied on a quote that Ali allegedly gave Alex Haley during an interview in Harlem, one that Haley excluded from the published account in Playboy. In fact, nowhere in the Playboy interview is there any mention of Malcolm or why Ali turned his back on him in allegiance to Elijah Muhammad. In the epilogue of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, however, published seven months after Malcolm’s death, Haley recounted his memory of the interview with Ali. According to Haley, Ali said, “You just don’t buck Mr. Muhammad and get away with it. I don’t want to talk about [Malcolm] no more.” It is likely that during his research for the epilogue, Haley read a nearly identical quote Ali gave Ebony in September 1964, when he said, “You just don’t buck Mr. Muhammad and get away with it.” 10
Using Haley’s quote, several accomplished biographers and historians have mistakenly suggested that Ali made this statement to Haley during the week after Elijah Muhammad renamed him on March 6, 1964. But Ali was not in Harlem at that time, and more importantly, Haley conducted the interview after the boxer returned from Africa on June 24, 1964. Accepting his chronology of events, writers have simplified the complex feelings Ali had for Malcolm. Yet in Haley’s unpublished notes from the Playboy interview, he scribbled on an index card a comment from Ali that revealed the champ’s hidden feelings, contradicting the epilogue in The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Haley’s index card indicated that Ali told him that although he followed Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm was “still my brother, [and] my friend.” 11
According to Haley, shortly after the interview, he mentioned his meeting with Ali to Malcolm. Curious, Malcolm asked what the champ had said about him. Haley wrote that he pulled out the index card with Ali’s comments about Malcolm and handed it to the minister. After leading readers to believe that Ali had only cross words for Malcolm, Haley wrote in the Autobiography, “Malcolm X stared at the card, then out of the window, and he got up and walked around.” It was “one of the few times I ever heard his voice betray his hurt.” Sadly, Malcolm said, “I felt like a blood big brother to him.” Taking a deep breath, he added, “I’m not against him now. He’s a fine young man. Smart. He’s just let himself be used, led astray.” 12
Under great financial stress to make The Autobiography of Malcolm X a publishing success, it appears that Haley manipulated Malcolm’s broken relationship with Ali in order to present a more sensational historical account. Throughout the epilogue, Haley selected and excluded events that fit into his agenda. In some cases, he tampered with the facts. But the truth was more complex than Haley let on. Only by carefully following the day-by-day activities of Ali and Malcolm can one see how intertwined their lives became and how their brotherhood unraveled, leading inexorably to Malcolm’s assassination at the Audubon Ballroom 13.
We have tried to rescue a story that has fallen into the hands of hagiographers. Blood Brothers explores the importance of two of the most important black men of the 1960s. By following their lives, we have discovered that Cassius Clay had begun attending meetings organized by the Nation of Islam well before any reporter caught wind of it. Even before he became a professional boxer, Clay became infatuated with the teachings of Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm.
What follows is the story of how Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali and the central role Malcolm X played in his life. It is a tale of friendship and brotherhood, love and deep affection. It is also a story of deceit, betrayal, and violence—inside and outside the ring—during a troubled time.
When Malcolm’s life was in danger, when Elijah Muhammad threatened to cast him outside the Nation of Islam, Clay became the central figure in his world. For the first time, Blood Brothers reveals that the instant Malcolm realized he might be murdered, he tethered his future—his very survival—to the life of a boxer who most people figured would never win the heavyweight championship. Malcolm had no doubt that someone inside the Nation wanted him dead. He also knew that none of Elijah’s disciples would risk Clay’s life. As long as they were together, Malcolm figured, he was safe. Cassius was the perfect shield. However,“ only ten days after they celebrated the boxer’s championship victory over Sonny Liston, Cassius stopped taking Malcolm’s phone calls. Submitting to Elijah, the champ accepted a new name and the Supreme Minister’s edict that all Muslims cease contact with Malcolm. Once Muhammad Ali sided with Elijah, Malcolm knew that he could no longer hide behind him. At that moment, he recognized that losing Ali’s cover might cost him his life.
Ali understood the violent world Malcolm inhabited. Boxing reflected a violent society. “Violence and hate,” explained former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson, were “part of the prizefighter’s world, Clay’s world and mine.” Boxing promoters paid prizefighters “to get in the ring and act out other people’s hates.” Only in that ring of hate could a black man assault a white man with impunity 14.
Like many young black men born into segregation and contained by white supremacy and the threat of mob violence, Ali channeled his fears and frustrations into the ring. In boxing gyms, he released his anger, sweating out his bile against a system of racial oppression, pummeling men who stood between him and his dreams. Ali fought not only because boxing offered him a way to make a name for himself but also because the gym offered a sanctuary from the dangers lurking outside. The gym became the one place where he could unleash his frustrations on speed bags, heavy bags, and sparring partners. At a time when black men yearned for power, he confronted the dangers of a violent world by retaliating with violence himself.
“What white America demands in her black champions,” Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver insisted, “is a brilliant, powerful body, and a dull bestial mind—a tiger in the ring and a pussycat outside the ring.” Black boxers’ lives, Cleaver maintained, were “sharply circumscribed by the ropes around the ring.” But Ali completely rejected the worn-out role. By redefining the political boundaries of sports, he ushered in the beginning of a new era: the revolt of the black athlete 15.
The seeds of the revolt were planted in the cities that transformed Cassius Clay into Muhammad Ali. Between 1960 and 1965, he traveled widely, fighting in Rome and London, New York and Los Angeles. When he left Louisville as a teenager, he entered a new world, one that exposed him to the possibilities of freedom beyond the American South. Yet the world beyond Louisville also taught him that no matter how famous he became, some white people would hate him just because he was black or because he was a Muslim.
In gyms and mosques across the country, he matured into a man influenced by the discontent in black America. In Chicago and Detroit, Miami and New York, he heard frustrated black men denounce the crimes of white men. Listening to Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X led him to change more than his name. When he won the heavyweight championship in February 1964, he broke free from the political constraints of the sports world, declaring that he would define himself on his own terms. When he boldly proclaimed, “I’m free to be who I want,” he became a source of inspiration for others who would later challenge the sports establishment. In 1969, about a year after sociologist Harry Edwards organized black athletes in an Olympic boycott movement, he observed that Ali had been the central hero in the political “revolution in sports.” Ali, he proclaimed, was “the warrior saint in the revolt of the black athlete in America.” 16
That revolt began the moment young Cassius Clay had his first talk with Malcolm. Once Clay met Malcolm—once the personal narrative became a political one—the ring and the personal narrative became a political one—the ring and the playing field were no longer sacred spaces. The relationship between Cassius Clay and Malcolm X signaled a new direction in American culture, one shaped by the forces of sports and entertainment, race and politics. When Clay befriended Malcolm and adopted his ideology, he became the most visible, politically conscious athlete in America. More than anyone else, Malcolm molded Cassius Clay into Muhammad Ali. Under Malcolm’s tutelage, he embraced the world stage, emerging as an international symbol of black pride and black independence. Without Malcolm, Muhammad Ali would have never become the “king of the world.”
Notes 1. Langston Hughes. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. Edited by Arnold Rampersad. New York: Vintage Classics, 1995. p. 426. 2. Michael Ezra. Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2009. p. 1. 3. Jack Olsen. Black Is Best: The Riddle of Cassius Clay. New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1967. p. 93–94. 4. Huston Horn, “‘Who Made Me—Is Me!’” Sports Illustrated, September 25, 1961, 42; LCJ, August 26, 1960. 5. NYT, February 27, 1964; Ferdie Pacheco interview with Jack Olsen, JOP; Olsen, Black Is Best, 94. 6. Olsen, Black Is Best, jacket copy. 7. For an interpretation of Malcolm’s “multiple masks,” see Marable, Malcolm X, 10–11. 8. Manning Marable. Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. New York: Viking, 2011. p. 10. 9. AMX, 421. 10. AMX, 447; “Playboy Interview: Cassius Clay,” Playboy, October 1964; Hans J. Massaquoi, “Mystery of Malcolm X,” Ebony, September 1964, 42. 11. “Fragments/Notes,” Box 2, Folder 3, AHP. Numerous historians and writers have mistakenly used the Ali quote cited by Haley. See Remnick, : Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero. New York : Random House, 1998., 214; Taylor Branch. Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963–1965. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998. p. 259; Marable, Malcolm X, 293; Mike Marqusee. Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties. London and New York: Verso, 2000. p. 88; Dave Kindred. Sound and Fury: Two Powerful Lives, One Fateful Friendship. New York: Free Press, 2006. p. 75. 12. AMX, 448 (emphasis ours). 13. Marable, Malcolm X, 351. Literary critic Arnold Rampersad has argued, “Haley understood that autobiographies are almost by definition projects in fiction, in which the autobiographer selects from memory such material as seems to him or her most alluringly totemic.” See Rampersad, “The Color of His Eyes: Bruce Perry’s Malcolm and Malcolm’s Malcolm,” in Malcolm X: In Our Own Image, ed. Joe Wood (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992), 119. 14. Floyd Patterson with Gay Talese, “In Defense of Cassius Clay,” in The Muhammad Ali Reader, ed. Gerald Early (New York: Robert Weisbach Books, 1998), 65. 15. Eldridge Cleaver. Soul on Ice. 1968. Reprint, New York: Dell Publishing, 1992. p. 117. 16. Harry Edwards, The Revolt of the Black Athlete. New York: Free Press, 1969. p. 89–90.
Randy Roberts and John Matthew Smith. Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. New York : Basic Books, 2016, xxiv, 362 pages : illustrations
The Mother Ship in Miami
As a kid in Louisville, the city seemed so big to me. New York seemed so big. Chicago seemed big. And London, England, seemed far away. Africa was far away. I was Cassius Clay then. I was a Negro. I ate pork. I had no confidence. I thought white people were superior. I was a Christian Baptist named Cassius Clay.
Clay is a product of our times. The minute he got back from Rome, the saga started.
—Milton Gross, New York Post
Three hundred and four mostly flat, cornfield miles after it departed Chicago’s Union Station, the South Wind passenger train rolled into Louisville’s Union Station. There, on December 17, 1960, a young man stepped aboard, toting a worn suitcase and a pocketful of dreams.
Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. was eighteen, tall and slender, with a handsome unmarked face. His body was deceptively lithe, like a dancer’s, but he was a professional prizefighter. His electric smile could light up an arena, though he was haunted by fears real and imagined. He had won a gold medal in the Rome Olympics, charmed the press corps and fellow athletes in the Eternal City, and signed a lucrative promotional contract with a collection of white Kentucky movers and shakers known as the Louisville Sponsoring Group (LSG). It was that group, most of whom were millionaires, that had paid for his train ticket.
After the brief stop in Louisville the South Wind chugged over the rolling hills of Kentucky, through a narrow, river-veined section of Tennessee, and then across the border into Alabama. Looking out the window as evening turned into night, Cassius saw mile after mile of the cotton South as the train made its way through the heart of the old Confederacy, stopping to pick up more passengers in Decatur, Birmingham, Montgomery, and Dothan.
It was those sections of Dixie, those cities ruled by King Cotton, where the civil rights struggle would soon turn bitterly violent. There, many white southerners stood armed and ready to defend their way of life, certain in their conviction of black inferiority. While in Italy, however, Cassius had felt a freedom that he had never experienced growing up in the segregated West End of Louisville. As a member of the United States Olympic team, he had witnessed black excellence. Rafer Johnson had carried the American flag in the opening ceremonies and then won the prestigious decathlon. Oscar Robertson had led the basketball team to the gold medal. And the incomparable Wilma Rudolph, who ran as gracefully as water being poured out of a pitcher, fired the imaginations of people around the globe. Together, Rafer, Oscar, Wilma, and Cassius reigned in Rome like ebony gods. If there was royalty at the Olympics, they were it.
After Alabama, the South Wind passed through the southwest corner of Georgia and entered Florida, stopping briefly in Jacksonville in the early morning before continuing its crisscrossing route through the state, stopping more often now to drop off tourists at such resort towns as Orlando, Tampa, St. Petersburg, West Palm Beach, Delray Beach, Fort Lauderdale, and Hollywood before reaching its destination of Miami.
There, roughly twenty-four hours after boarding the train, Cassius got off. It had been a long trip, but to his way of thinking, riding the train was infinitely preferable to flying. And it had given him some time to plan and dream. He was in the Deep South, a place where white residents still generally regarded Jim Crow as the accepted code of life and believed that a “Negro” should know his place. Even so, Cassius Clay had glimpsed an alternative reality, and he knew with every fiber of his being that he was destined to leave his mark on the world. “I am a Man of Destiny,” he had said less than a year before. “I’m gonna win the heavyweight championship of the world, earn a million dollars and get me a chauffeur-driven, tomato-red Cadillac with a built-in hi-fi, television and telephones.” And that was only for starters. There would be more. Later he admitted, “I guess some sort of divine power must have been with me.” 1
He had come to Miami to learn a trade that would make him rich. What he did not anticipate was that a divine message would set him on the path to becoming Muhammad Ali.
Waiting patiently for the boxer was trainer Angelo Dundee. His name, an alias that mixed the hills of Calabria with the grime of Scotland, said more about his profession than his personality. His real name was Angelo Mirena, but Dundee was such a popular name in prizefighting that his older brother Chris adopted it when he entered the profession. Soon, Angelo followed Chris and took the same name. After World War II, Chris began to promote fights in New York City, and Angelo apprenticed as a trainer 2.
In 1951, when the boxing business became sluggish in New York, Angelo followed Chris to Miami, where the older brother had established a promotional arrangement with the recently built Miami Beach Auditorium. By the mid-1950s, Angelo had been around boxing for a decade and had learned the craft of training boxers from the tobacco-crusted floor up. His was a hands-on education, learning by talking to and watching the very best trainers in the sport.
By the end of 1960, just short of his fortieth birthday, he had carved out a place for himself in the fight game. He had trained welterweight and middleweight champion Carmen Basilio as well as a stable of fighters who would soon win other titles. Short and round-faced, with bulging dark eyes, floppy ears, and thinning black hair, Dundee liked his pants high-waisted, his trainer’s bag well-ordered, and his life as peaceful as his chaotic profession allowed.
Like that of many men in his world, his personality did not seem to fit the boxing profession. Fiercely loyal to his fighters and capable of all sorts of chicanery in the pursuit of victory, he was in all other ways a gentle, gracious man who sought nothing more than tranquility. He readily chatted with strangers, he was open and friendly with sportswriters, and he did his best to please everyone. The model of discretion, he refused to get involved in marital scraps, religious controversies, or political differences. Over the years he had learned to smile, listen, and mind his own business.
Keeping his mouth shut around Cassius, Angelo learned, was easy. No sooner had Clay stepped off the South Wind than he began singing his own praises. “People say Cassius Clay fights like Sugar Ray,” he told Angelo, as well as anyone within an earshot. Dick Sadler, Archie Moore’s trainer, who had worked with Cassius for a short time in San Diego, had told Angelo if he trained the kid he deserved a Purple Heart with seven clusters. It did not take Dundee long to understand the cryptic warning 3.
From the train station Angelo drove to “Colored Town,” where he had arranged for Clay to share a room at the Charles Hotel with a Jamaican heavyweight. Dundee thought that there were two beds in the room, but there was only a double bed for two heavyweight boxers. Furthermore, since Angelo received a discount on the room, the management recouped some of its loss by not installing an air conditioner 4.
The spartan, low-rent condition of the room was matched by the neighborhood. Ferdie Pacheco, who would soon become Clay’s “fight doctor” and had a medical practice close to the Charles Hotel, called the area “a hellhole of pimps, hookers, drug dealers, winos, and general bad guys.” It was a no-man’s-land that slept till late in the morning, took a siesta in the afternoon, and then came alive with an adrenaline rush at night. Its after-midnight scene offered a thousand temptations—marijuana from the islands that could knock a smoker on his ass, heroin so pure that it was lights-out with one shot, long-legged “sisters” wearing short, glove-tight dresses, and any sort of alcohol, sex, or adventure that could be dreamt up. This was a place that would test the dedication of any innocent, handsome young man 5.
Cassius struggled to get to sleep that first night. He later complained that the worst times of training in Miami were the lonely hours after dark. “I just sit here like a little animal in a box at night,” he told a sportswriter in 1961. “I can’t go out in the street and mix with the folks out there ’cause they wouldn’t be out there if they was up to any good. I can’t do nothing except sit. . . . Here I am, just 19, surrounded by showgirls, whisky and sissies, and nobody watching me. All this temptation and me trying to train to be a boxer. It’s something to think about.” 6
The next morning Clay made his way to the 5th Street Gym, where Dundee trained his fighters. In the glory days of prizefighting, four training gymnasiums stood above all the others—Gleason’s and Stillman’s in New York, the Main Street Gym in Los Angeles, and the 5th Street Gym in Miami. Located in South Beach at the corner of 5th Street and Washington Avenue, it was in a neighborhood where nothing good was happening. Increasingly, the money and development were flowing into North Beach, leaving whole sections of South Beach for the derelicts and the druggies. The dilapidated second-story facility featured rotten “floors, cracked mirrors, accumulated grime, and the stench of sweat, jock straps, and cigarette and cigar smoke 7.
In addition to its foul smell and crusted dirt, the gym suffered from other maladies. Clogged drains in the showers, holes in the plasterboard walls, and chipping paint lent a certain grungy charm to the place, but an infestation of hungry termites threatened the entire structure. They attacked floors, walls, rings, and even chairs and desks. Possibly they were angered, or encouraged, by the heat. Hot and sweltering under its tin roof, fighters training in the gym soon realized that the place had no air conditioning, and large floor-to-ceiling windows added to everyone’s discomfort. Many of the best fighters who trained there were from Cuba and accustomed to such temperatures, but boxers from the North considered the conditions inside the gym inhumane, if not entirely illegal. But to Angelo Dundee, the place was “my little slice of heaven.” 8
For the fighters, the gym offered not so much a “slice of heaven” as the chance for salvation. With the windows open, the hot and stale air from the inside mixed with the humid blasts from the outside and the noise of the streets harmonized with the sounds of the gym—men skipping ropes; punching speed bags, heavy bags, and each other; and yelling encouragements and good-natured barbs in English and Spanish. In the 5th Street Gym, white, brown, and black men met in complete equality, fleeing from poverty and even persecution in the pursuit of a dream.
Some of the finest boxers of the early 1960s trained alongside Clay under Angelo’s guidance. In 1961, the revolutionary government of Fidel Castro outlawed professional boxing in Cuba, sending dozens of skillful Cuban boxers into exile in the United States, and especially Miami, where they added to Dundee’s pool of talent. Willie Pastrano won the light-heavyweight championship in 1963, the same year that Ralph Dupas captured the junior middleweight title, Ultiminio “Sugar” Ramos the featherweight crown, and Luis Rodríguez the welterweight belt. Every week, it seemed, Angelo and one of his contenders headed to some world capital for an important match. It was a heady time, with talk of big-money title fights and the smell of success cutting through the malodorous, low-rent atmosphere of the 5th Street Gym.
But at the center of the action was young Cassius, just beginning his professional career and fighting in small-money preliminary matches, but with an ego and energy that filled the gym. Observing the action inside the facility, sportswriter Myron Cope wrote, “Cassius reigns over the gym’s white, Negro, and Cuban fighters like the leader of a street gang who has established his authority merely by talking his subjects into submission. He jabbers away at the Cubans in homemade, simulated Spanish, and they throw up their hands and walk away, shouting, ‘Niño con boca grande!’—the “baby with a big mouth.” There was no resentment in the comment, just a statement of fact 9.
In Cassius’s case, trainer and fighter were ideally matched. Dundee saw immediately that by the standards of classic boxing Clay was a deeply flawed fighter. He kept his hands too low, often avoided punches by moving straight back, and was a dyed-in-the-wool headhunter. He did not even faintly resemble Joe Louis or Sonny Liston, hard-punching heavyweights with wonderful balance, great left jabs, and knockout power in both hands.
But for all his deficiencies, Cassius had assets. Most obviously, he had extraordinary hand and foot speed. When he arrived in Miami, he was a small heavyweight, weighing only 182 pounds, but his quickness was more than just the result of size. Probably no heavyweight had ever been as fast as Clay, certainly none in the early 1960s, when most, with the exception of Floyd Patterson, tended to be orthodox plodders.
Less readily apparent, Clay’s sense of distance was nearly perfect. This ability is crucial in boxing. Throw a punch from too far away, and it falls short of its target. Throw it too close, and it loses its full leverage. In addition, a fighter who moves too close to an opponent is easier to tie up. Clay’s speed allowed him to dart in and out; his sense of distance permitted him to throw a punch at the ideal moment, when it could reach its target with maximum force. Almost no fighter could snap out a jab as quickly or accurately as Clay, and none could deliver a faster right-hand lead. Furthermore, his quickness and sense of distance allowed him to dodge his opponent’s punches, sometimes by mere inches.
Many trainers would have winced at Clay’s glaring flaws and attempted to teach him proper technique. Dundee, however, focused on “Cassius’s magnificent assets. To be sure, he tried to refine Clay’s unorthodox style, smoothing his herky-jerky movements. He worked on his balance, convincing him to throw more flat-footed power punches, and advised him to get his weight behind his blows. But crucially, Angelo did not seek to fundamentally change Cassius’s style. He believed that every fighter was unique and should be treated that way. “There’s not two alike,” he noted. “You don’t say, ‘This guy fights like this guy.’ They don’t. They’re all individuals. They all got their own idiosyncrasies, got their own rhythm.” 10
Much as Cassius may have imagined himself as another Sugar Ray Robinson, Dundee’s primary job was to train Cassius Clay to box like Cassius Clay. After listening to Clay talk and watching him spar, Dundee told his fighter, “You, my friend, are neither Sugar Ray Robinson nor Archie Moore, and you’ve got a long way to go before you will even resemble them. Who you are is Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., and that’s the man I’m going to teach you to fight like. A guy is never going to get anywhere thinking he’s somebody else.” 11
Angelo quickly realized that, for all his bluster, Cassius was a dedicated athlete. He came to the gym on time, trained tirelessly, and learned quickly, as long as the lessons were packaged correctly. Dundee seldom told Clay what to do; rather, he made Cassius feel like he was the source of every improvement. “I didn’t train him,” Dundee recalled. “I advised him. He’d be in the gym and I’d say, ‘You’re really putting your left hand into that jab. You’re really snapping it.’ Then, when I’d see him doing something right again, I’d say, ‘Oh my God, I’ve never seen a heavyweight throw a left uppercut so perfectly. Oh boy!’ Then he’d throw it again. And again.” 12
Confronted with Clay’s ego, Dundee discarded his own, becoming the ideal second banana. If Cassius said, “I’m going to run five miles,” Angelo responded, “That’s good for your legs.” If Clay changed his mind and said, “No, I’m gonna rest,” Dundee instantly added, “Good, you need your rest.” This way the fighter was in charge even when he was not really in charge 13.
On the one critical aspect of the pace of Clay’s career, Dundee had the final word. Clay repeatedly told reporters that he wanted to break Floyd Patterson’s record as the youngest heavyweight champion of all time (twenty-one years and ten months), which meant that he had to capture the title by December 12, 1963. But that was Cassius’s obsession, not Angelo’s, who was more concerned with advancing his fighter cautiously. He had seen too many fighters pressured into a mismatch. For the first few years at least, Dundee would only take sure-bet contests for Clay, matches that he could win on his worst day. In the language of the fight game, Angelo arranged for Cassius to box “opponents,” men who had virtually no hope of reaching contender status, or one-time contenders on a steep slide down the rankings.
Beginning in the last week of 1960, Cassius began to fight a string of set-ups. The fights were not fixed, but it would have taken a virtual act of God for him to lose. Herb Siler was a drunk who had no boxing talent; Clay took him out in the fourth. Anthony “Big Tony” Esperti had just gotten out of the can on an unlawful entry conviction and was in no condition to fight; Cassius ended the match in the third. “Sweet Jimmy” Robinson had a razor cut on his cheek and no business in a prize ring; the referee stopped the fight halfway through the first. In just over a month in Miami, Cassius had improved his record to 4–0 14.
Still, matches against set-ups were little help when it came to persuading boxing fans to accept Clay’s claim that he was a great fighter. For now, what happened in a sparring match was more important. In February 1961, a handsome Swedish heavyweight and former world champion, Ingemar Johansson, came to Miami to train for his upcoming title fight with Floyd Patterson. Needing sparring partners, the Johansson camp told promotional coordinator Harold Conrad to hire a few. Conrad went to the 5th Street Gym and asked Dundee for recommendations. Calling Clay over, Dundee said, “Hey, Cash. You wanna work with Johansson?” 15
The question was a switch, lighting up Clay. “I’ll go dancin’ with Johansson,” he said, repeating, “I’ll go dancin’ with Johansson.” Conrad just looked at Angelo. “You ain’t seen nothing yet with this crazy bastard,” Conrad recalled Dundee saying.
And he hadn’t. “Johansson had a great right hand but two left feet,” Conrad said. Once the former champion and the preliminary fighter were in the ring together in front of sportswriters and two thousand spectators, Cassius literally danced circles around Ingemar, hitting him with light jabs as if he were fighting a rematch with Big Tony. “Cassius Clay, 19, advanced on Ingemar Johansson,” wrote the Miami Herald’s John Underwood. “Whap! His jab bounced off the Swede’s headpiece. Whap-Whap! Two more jabs. Clay danced lightly, shifted feet, led with the right. Zing! Ffrap! Whap! The combination explored the celebrated Johansson profile, above and around the dimpled chin.” And so it continued, Johansson, a miffed lumbering bear, chasing “the bee who had stung him.”
Talking while he moved, Clay exhorted, “I’m the one who should be fighting Patterson, not you. Come on, here I am; come and get me, sucker. Come on, what’s the matter, can’t hit me?” It was like Jack Johnson fighting Tommy Burns, like Clay was the champion and Johansson the trail horse.
“Johansson was furious,” Conrad recalled. “I mean, he was pissed.” He chased Clay around the ring, throwing amateurish punches, missing by feet, and looking, at last, “ridiculous.” After two rounds he was exhausted, and the session was stopped.
“He made a monkey out of Johansson”, remembered Sports Illustrated writer Gil Rogin. When he returned to New York he told the editors at the magazine, “This guy is going to be heavyweight champion someday. You have to write about him.” For Rogin, Underwood, and other sportswriters, this was Clay’s true Olympian moment; they recognized the emergence of a star.
The Johansson session showed Dundee that it was time to match him against more experienced boxers. Clay stopped Donnie Fleeman, a good club fighter, in the seventh round. Then he fought LaMar Clark, who possessed a gaudy 46–2 record that included a streak of forty-four straight knockouts. Against Clay, however, the heavy-punching Clark was outmatched. Cassius took him out in the second round.
Marv Jenson, Clark’s manager, was impressed. “This guy isn’t very many fights away from a championship as far as I’m concerned,” Jenson said. “He has the fastest hands of any heavyweight I’ve seen any place, including Patterson.” Black sportswriters were even more generous. Evoking the near-sacred “L” word, a Pittsburgh Courier scribe compared Clay favorably with the legendary Joe Louis. And for the first time in his professional career, New York Times feature writer Arthur Daley devoted a “Sports of the Times” column to Clay. Describing him as “a compulsive talker with the engaging personality of a youthful Archie Moore,” Daley wrote, “This good-looking boy is a charmer and is so natural that even his more extravagant statements sound like exuberance instead of braggadocio. On him they look good.” 16
With comparisons to Louis and notice in the New York Times, Clay’s career was bounding forward ahead of schedule. After a month’s vacation in Louisville and road trips to visit Wilma Rudolph and other friends from the Olympics, in the late spring of 1961 he once again boarded the South Wind for Miami, where Dundee waited to resume his education. And that was fine with the fighter who viewed any gym as safe territory—an oasis away from the nation’s racial problems and the traps and temptations that waited around every corner of the urban South.
“It’s either get rich in three hours or get poor in eight,” he liked to say: train hard for three hours (or four or five) or get a manual day job for pennies an hour. He had chosen the path to wealth and applied himself totally, and the Louisville Sponsoring Group made sure that, unlike most other fighters, Cassius did not have to get a job to make ends meet. Train and dream, dream and train, from busy days at the 5th Street Gym to lonely nights at the Charles Hotel—these formed the physical and emotional parameters of his life in Miami. Boxing, however, could not satisfy his spiritual life 17.
There was no avoiding the world outside his hotel and the boxing arena. After all, Cassius was in the South, the land of Emmett Till’s murder and his father’s gruesome tales.
Since he did not own a car, he jogged more than five miles from his hotel to the gym at the south end of Miami Beach. He ran in blue jeans and old military boots. As he crossed the Julia Tuttle Causeway, with the Miami skyline in the distance and a cool breeze blowing across the bay, Clay shadowboxed.
It was a strange sight to the white policeman who thought that a black man running across the highway, furiously punching the air, must be crazy or a thief—or both. In Miami, police frequently harassed blacks on the streets and raided black pool halls and bars. The officer stopped Clay to question him. Sweating and excited, Clay explained that he was running to Angelo Dundee’s gym. The police then called Dundee to verify his story. The trainer explained that “the kid” was his boxer. “That’s Cassius Clay,” he said 18.
The episode offered an important lesson for Clay. White policemen didn’t know his name and didn’t care to know it. To them, he was just another “Negro” living across the tracks in the “colored” district of Overtown.
After Clay returned to Miami from his visit home, Dundee upgraded him from the low-rent living quarters at the Charles Hotel to the Sir John Hotel on Little Broadway, a vibrant strip of nightclubs, theaters, diners, and shops. Some of the most famous black entertainers and athletes in America stayed at the Sir John Hotel and the Mary Elizabeth Hotel, including Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis Jr., and Sugar Ray Robinson. These celebrities did not choose to stay at the Sir John or the Mary Elizabeth because these establishments offered the finest accommodations. They had little choice. Blacks could not enter the best downtown hotels unless they waited tables, prepared meals, scoured toilets, or hauled white peoples’ bags. Not even Joe Louis could check into the Fontainebleau Hotel on Miami Beach 19.
Since the early twentieth century, real estate developers had promoted Miami as “the Magic City.” Beautiful beaches, luxurious resorts, and exotic entertainment attracted wealthy investors, tourists, and dreamers. But the city’s black citizens were barred from the beaches, restaurants, golf courses, schools, and theaters of Miami’s tropical paradise. In 1959, civil rights activists defied white supremacists, sponsoring dozens of sit-ins at department stores, drugstores, and diners. By August 1960, just before Clay arrived, their persistence and shrewd backroom negotiations with white leaders had led to the complete desegregation of the city’s downtown 20.
Yet Clay quickly learned that the city’s culture of racism remained intact. In August 1961, Flip Schulke, a white photographer from Sports Illustrated, visited Miami for a photo shoot with Clay. Schulke was a serious photojournalist who had traveled the world and taken memorable photos that appeared in leading American publications, but he had never photographed a boxer. Shopping at Burdines department store, Clay picked up a short-sleeved shirt while Schulke snapped pictures. When a white store clerk saw the tall, lean black man touching the shirts, he informed him that store policy prohibited blacks from trying on clothing. Schulke fumed. It shocked him that Cassius Clay—an Olympic champion—could not try on a shirt in an American store. But Clay was not surprised. He wasn’t even angry. This was the South. As a southerner he outwardly accepted second-class citizenship as a way of life. “Come on, Flip, don’t worry about it,” he said. “I don’t want to make a big mess here. It’s not a big deal.” 21
Clay may have been a boxer, but he was not a fighter. He disliked confrontations and avoided violence outside the ring. He preferred Overtown, where he felt safer among his own people. Throughout the neighborhood blacks greeted him warmly and made him feel important. And soon enough, one man in particular standing at the corner of Northwest Second Avenue and 6th Street, in front of Muhammad’s Temple of Islam, caught Cassius’s attention.
Sam Saxon, a burly, thirty-year-old, light-skinned black man with the arms of a blacksmith, waved a copy of Muhammad Speaks, the Nation of Islam’s newspaper. The two men started talking about the teachings of Elijah Muhammad. As he listened to Clay speak, it was clear to Saxon that he had already heard of the Nation’s leader, though he had never seen or met Elijah before. “Hey, you’re into the teaching,” Saxon said. “Well, I ain’t been to the temple, but I know what you’re talking about,” Clay replied. Then the boxer introduced himself as he always did: “I’m Cassius Clay. I’m gonna be the next heavyweight champion of the world.” Saxon, a boxing fan, recognized the name. “I know you, man,” he said, “I followed you in the Olympics.” 22
The fact that Saxon knew his name engendered a level of trust from Clay. A former gambler and poolroom hustler turned missionary, Saxon had become a devout Muslim. When he was not selling copies of Muhammad Speaks or teaching in the temple, he ran concessions at the Miami racetracks and worked as a bathroom attendant, handing towels to white men and shining their shoes. But his primary objective in life, his real love, was fishing for converts 23.
Wherever there were large concentrations of “so-called Negroes,” as the Black Muslims called them, those “lost souls” in the Kingdom of Allah, Elijah Muhammad’s ministers cast their lines. On Sundays, young Muslim men, clean-shaven and hair close-cropped, dressed in dark suits, waited outside churches, inviting Christians to hear the truth about God at the local temple. On weeknights, Muhammad’s foot soldiers, armed with Muslim literature, canvassed the streets of the ghetto, “fishing for the dead,” those “deaf, dumb, and blind—brainwashed of all self-respect and knowledge of kind by the white Slavemaster.” In nearly every large American city, Muslim officers trolled in bars, liquor stores, pool halls, barbershops, and diners. Standing on soapboxes and stepladders, Muhammad’s articulate followers preached, captivating the curious 24.
In their meetings at Temple No. 29, a vacant storefront converted into a makeshift mosque, Saxon noticed that Clay was curious about the Muslim faith. In Miami, most blacks viewed the Muslims with skepticism, rarely entering the temple. When Clay first started attending meetings there were only about thirty members. In his first visit, he heard a preacher named Brother John deliver a sermon on the history of the black man. Cassius learned that white slave owners stripped the black man of his identity, his heritage, his language, and his true name and replaced it with a slave name, a name that belonged to the white man. According to the Muslims, the word Negro derived not from the Latin niger, meaning “black,” but rather from the Greek nekros, meaning “corpse.” Thus, the man who called himself a “Negro” remained spiritually dead, buried in the grave 25.
Brother John’s sermon helped Cassius make sense of his family’s history and his own identity as a black man. He later recalled, “I could reach out and touch what Brother John was saying. It wasn’t like church teaching, where I had to have faith that what the preacher was preaching was right. And I said to myself, ‘Cassius Marcellus Clay. He was a Kentucky white man who owned my great-granddaddy and named my great-granddaddy after him. And then my granddaddy got named, and then my daddy, and now it’s me.’” 26
For the first time in his life, Clay’s name didn’t sound so magical. At that moment, when Cassius began questioning the origins of his name, Sam Saxon knew that he had hooked a big fish.
Depending on the day of the week and the whim of the moment, Cassius claimed to have first learned about the Nation of Islam in Atlanta, Chicago, or New York in 1958, 1959, or 1960. Over the years, whenever reporters asked him about his conversion to Islam, his answers were inconsistent. In his stories, Clay created an origin myth based on his scattered memories and affection for tall tales. There were hardly any witnesses who could testify about his accounts, creating a sense of mystery about his activities with the Nation. In all of his anecdotes about meeting the Muslims, one thing remained constant: whenever he left Louisville and found freedom from supervision, he gravitated toward the temples. No one understood this better than Clay’s own mother. “The big mistake was when [the Louisville Sponsoring Group] sent him to train at Miami all by himself,” she said. “That’s when the Muslims got him. That’s how Sam Saxon got him and talked that Muslim stuff to him every day.” 27
Odessa was unaware that her son had started listening to the Muslims long before he ever met Sam Saxon. As a teenager, when Cassius traveled for amateur boxing tournaments, he came across Muslim preachers proselytizing for the teachings of Elijah Muhammad. In October 1958, Clay and his brother Rudy traveled to Atlanta for a vacation. At the time, the FBI had assigned Special Agent Robert R. Nichols to investigate the activities at Muhammad’s Temple No. 15 in Atlanta. Nichols set up wiretaps on the temple’s phones and hired college students to record the minister’s speeches 28.
Nichols learned that Clay had talked with the Muslims outside the Atlanta temple on Piedmont Avenue. At the time, the information seemed unimportant. After all, Cassius was just a sixteen-year-old kid from Louisville. Yet that day in Atlanta marked the beginning of his indoctrination. That was the moment, he said, “I was fished off a street corner.” 29
When he traveled to Chicago for the Golden Gloves tournament in March 1959, he once again ran into the Muslims outside their temple. Near the Nation’s headquarters, the Muslims gave Clay a record that they said would explain everything he needed to know. When he returned to Louisville, he played the record repeatedly. Performing “A White Man’s Heaven Is a Black Man’s Hell,” Louis Eugene Wolcott, a charming and talented calypso singer, crooned over piano and guitar. Wolcott, who was then known as Louis X and would later become recognized as Louis Farrakhan, became so popular singing the song at the Nation’s rallies that it became the anthem of the Muslim movement 30.
Clay played the record over and over, memorizing the lyrics and absorbing the message. In Miami, Sam Saxon and the other members of the mosque echoed the song’s central theme, reminding him that there was no heaven or hell after death. While the black man lived in hell, they said, white Christians enjoyed heaven on earth. For a young man who dreamed of riches, Cadillacs, and mansions, the lyrics made him question his Baptist upbringing. As early as 1961, he began talking about what he had learned from the Muslims, though he was careful to ensure that not even the sharpest reporter could recognize that he was sharing what the Muslims had taught him.
When Clay started telling Sports Illustrated’s Huston Horn what he thought about heaven and hell, the writer had no idea that the boxer’s interpretation of the afterlife came directly from the Black Muslims. “Like last Sunday,” he said, “some cats I know said, ‘Cassius, Cassius, come on now and let’s go to church; otherwise you won’t get to Heaven.’ ‘Hold on a minute,’ I said to them, ‘and let me tell you something else. When I’ve got me a $100,000 house, another quarter million stuck in the bank and the world title latched onto my name, then I’ll be in heaven. Walking around making $25 a week, with four children crying at home ’cause they’re hungry, that’s my idea of Hell.” 31
Clay already knew from experience that merely talking about the Muslims could jeopardize his future. During his senior year of high school, he had written a paper about the Nation for his English class. At night, he and his brother Rudy sometimes listened to Elijah Muhammad’s national radio address. On the streets of Louisville, Cassius noticed black men dressed in dark suits, similar to the men he had seen in Atlanta and Chicago, selling copies of Muhammad Speaks. Yet when he wrote his paper, his teacher was so alarmed that she threatened to fail him, though the principal ultimately overruled her 32.
Clay continued his education about the Nation in Miami. His most important teacher was Ishmael Sabakhan, minister of the local temple. Nearly once a week, he visited with his spiritual mentor. At their meetings, he listened more than he talked. Sabakhan taught him the basic tenets of the Nation, an esoteric religious movement fabricated from Black Nationalism, Christianity, Islam, and cosmology. He explained that God was a black man—a real man on earth—and that the devil was a white man, who also inhabited the earth. Blacks and whites must separate because there could be no peace between God and the devil 33.
The Muslims’ views about God and the devil, heaven and hell, helped Cassius understand the cruel world his father had described. Clay Sr. had told him how whites had segregated, abused, and tortured his people, and the history lessons Cassius learned from the Muslims offered further proof of the white man’s wicked ways. The devil, they said, had kidnapped, shackled, and enslaved his ancestors. When the slaves arrived from Africa, whites forced them to abandon their native culture. Being black, the whites preached, was a curse; they convinced the slaves to hate everything that was black, including themselves. The devil imposed Christianity onto their slaves, manipulating them into worshiping the white man and the white man’s God—a “God having the same blond hair, pale skin, and blue eyes as the slavemaster.” 34
It all made sense to Cassius. Growing up he never understood why everything associated with blackness was considered bad.
“When I was a little kid, I always knew something was wrong,” he said. “Everything good was supposed to be white. And I’d ask my mom, why is Santa Claus white? Why is Jesus white?” He continued, “Miss America was white. The good cowboy always rode on a white horse. Angel food cake is white and devil’s food cake is black . . . even the President lived in a white house.” 35
Listening to Muhammad’s radio addresses, Cassius heard something that he had never heard before, a message that he would begin repeating over the course of his career: blacks were the strongest, most intelligent people in the world. The black man, Muhammad proclaimed, was the greatest. “The Black people in America have for many years been made to feel that they were something of a Divine Curse,” he preached. “You must not think that about yourself anymore. We the Black Nation of the Earth are the NUMBER ONE owners of it, the best of all human beings. You are the Most Powerful, the Most Beautiful, and the Wisest.” 36
The son of a poor sharecropper turned Baptist preacher, Elijah Poole was born in 1897 in south-central Georgia. Raised on his father’s fiery sermons, he became enraptured with scripture, though he struggled to read the Bible after dropping out of school around the fourth grade. Laboring on farms, at a sawmill, and as a bricklayer, he matured into a frustrated young man, disillusioned by meager wages, harsh employers, and the humiliation of Jim Crow. Seeking relief from discrimination and poverty, in 1923 Elijah followed the Great Migration north, settling in Detroit with his wife, Clara, and dreaming of a better life 37.
Failing to find work in Detroit’s auto factories, he found himself living on the dole, drinking away his misery. A tiny, light-skinned man with a pinched face and sad, almond-shaped eyes, Elijah found salvation in 1931 when he heard Wallace D. Fard (pronounced FA-rod) deliver a lecture at an old lodging hall. A year earlier, Fard, an ex-convict turned door-to-door silk salesmen, had founded the Nation of Islam. He claimed that he was a Muslim from the Holy City of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, and began using a variety of names: Wali Farrad, Professor Ford, Farrad Muhammad, and Wallace Fard Muhammad. He lectured on the history of the black man, biblical prophecy, and an unorthodox doctrine of Islam. Preaching out of basements and rented halls, he emphasized self-help and racial pride. Gradually, with Poole becoming his most devoted apostle, he built a sect with a few thousand members. Fard rewarded Poole by appointing him “supreme minister” and bestowing upon him a new name: “Elijah Muhammad.” But in 1933, Fard vanished amid accusations that he had ordered a human sacrifice. Shortly afterward, Muhammad proclaimed Fard’s deification as Allah incarnate 38.
After Fard’s disappearance, Muhammad anointed himself the Messenger of Allah and continued to build the Nation, despite dissension and death threats against him from some members. Muhammad preached about the “Original Man,” Allah, a black man who created the universe. The Muslims believed that the “so-called Negro” was a descendant of the Original Man, who belonged to the Tribe of Shabazz, an ancient group that founded the Holy City of Mecca and eventually migrated to Africa 39.
According to Muhammad, the origins of the white man could be traced back to Yacub, an evil “big head scientist.” Nearly 6,600 years ago, Yacub began preaching a dangerous version of Islam in the streets of Mecca. When authorities learned about his distortion of true Islam, he and his 59,999 followers were exiled to the island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea. There, Yacub sought revenge by creating a “devil race” that would dominate the Black Nation through tricks, lies, and deception. Mutating the germs of the black man, Yacub produced “pale-faced, blue-eyed” men who were weaker morally and physically. He planned for these devils to rule the earth for more than six thousand years, testing the strength of the Black Nation 40.
Muhammad prophesied that the white man’s rule would end in 1970 after the “Battle of Armageddon.” Destruction of the white man, he foretold, would be carried out by the Mother Ship, a wheel-shaped spacecraft a half-mile wide. Piloted by the most intelligent black men, the Mother Ship would carry fifteen hundred bombers. The plane could not be attacked, of course, because it could disappear behind the stars. In the days leading up to the resurrection, the Mother Ship would litter the earth with pamphlets printed in English and Arabic, telling Allah’s followers where to hide when the planes attacked. When the battle was over, the white man would be eliminated from the planet and the black man would rise up from the smoldering ashes. In the 1960s, purported sightings of unidentified flying objects startled many Americans, but for followers of Muhammad, the presence of flying saucers portended that the Day of Judgment was near 41.
Cassius Clay began reciting Muhammad’s lessons, leaving his friends at a loss as to what he was talking about. Ferdie Pacheco recalled driving around in his vintage Cadillac convertible on a muggy Miami night with Clay and two women. Suddenly, Clay tapped the doctor on the shoulder and told him to pull over to the side of the road. He stood up and pointed toward the stars 42.
“See that?” Cassius asked, his arm extended toward the sky. “It’s the spaceship.”
“What spaceship is that?” one of the women asked.
Clay stared at her, dumbfounded that she did not know about the spaceship. Then he launched into a lecture on Nation theology.
“One day, ’bout six thousand years ago, a bad, mad scientist named Dr. Yacub created the white race off the black.… The mad doctor made the whites superior, and pushed the blacks down into slavery. That period is coming to an end now.”
“What’s that got to do with the spaceship?” the young woman asked.
“Well, a spaceship took off with twenty-six yellow families living on it, circling the globe. They called it the Mother Ship. The non-white races are being oppressed by the whites, and soon they will come down and wipe out the white race.”
“What they been waiting for, chile?” asked the older woman.
Clay, ignoring the question, rambled on in a serious tone. “Once a year they come down from the North Pole, put down a big plastic hose, and scoop up enough oxygen and ice to last them a year,” he said.
Then, he just pointed toward the sky, looking in awe: “The Mother Ship.”
For Cassius, the Muslims’ tales about a big-headed scientist, mythical spaceships, and the coming of Armageddon were more than the stuff of fantasy. Muhammad’s prophecy offered Clay a means of survival in a hostile country. Cassius’s own belief in prophecy developed as a youth living in segregated Louisville. A schoolteacher explained,
If you can’t stand the world you live in and you can’t change it, you’ve got to believe in magic, in predictions. That’s Cassius when he was growing up, living with that wild father and all that crazy talk around the house. You’ve got to believe that things are gonna change. So predictions have a great charm and appeal. ‘Next year the white man’s gonna lose his power,’ . . . ‘1966’ll be a bad year for the white man.’ That’s great news to some people dumb enough to believe it. Believing in predictions is a way of warding off evil in the present when you can’t ward it off any other way. You can bear living miserable if you accept a prediction that tomorrow will be better. That’s why you get so much predicting and prophecy in the Negro churches. That’s why you get so much predicting and prophecy from Cassius Clay, too 43.
For Clay, the Black Muslims offered security, a sanctuary from the violent world that surrounded him, and he steadily gravitated toward the Miami temple as a result. His frequent visits excited Sabakhan and Saxon, who alerted Jeremiah X, minister of the Atlanta mosque and the chief organizer of the Nation in the Deep South. Jeremiah visited Cassius in Miami, teaching him about the Muslims’ moral code. He explained that they prayed five times a day, at sunrise, noon, midafternoon, sundown, and before bed, and that all Muslims prayed facing east, toward Mecca. But before Clay prayed, he had to make the proper ablutions: rinsing his mouth and washing his hands, feet, and arms. Cleanliness, inside and out, Jeremiah reminded him, was absolutely essential. Furthermore, Muslims were required to attend at least two temple meetings each week, though because of Clay’s schedule—and his celebrity—the minister made an exception 44.
Clay learned that Elijah Muhammad instructed his followers to live a “righteous life,” prohibiting extramarital sex, gambling, dancing, attending movies, taking long vacations, lying, stealing, defying civil authority, and disobeying ministers. Muslims, he commanded, should refrain from consuming alcohol, tobacco, and drugs, and from overeating. An overweight Muslim could be fined until he lost the excess weight. And pork was strictly forbidden. The hog was a “parasite,” “dirty, brutal, quarrelsome, greedy, ugly, foul, a scavenger which thrives on filth,” just like the white man 45.
In the process of educating Clay about the laws of the Nation of Islam, Jeremiah cultivated a personal relationship with him and later his brother Rudy, who was even more eager to join the Nation. The more Cassius learned, the more he questioned. Jeremiah recognized that Clay’s presence in the movement could create potential conflicts for the boxer and the Nation alike. The minister understood that if the public learned about Clay’s association with the Nation, the boxer might be vilified. It could ruin his career. So Jeremiah sought the counsel of John Ali, the Nation’s national secretary and adviser to Elijah Muhammad. When Jeremiah called Ali on the telephone and informed him that a fighter had attended their meetings, Ali “roundly condemned” the minister “for being involved with a boxer.” Elijah Muhammad himself later told Jeremiah that he’d “been sent to the South to make converts, not to fool around with fighters.” 46
Muhammad disapproved of sports, especially boxing, which he maintained was just another avenue for the exploitation of black youths by white, mostly Jewish men. He associated boxing with the evils of gambling, drunkenness, and crime. In his Muhammad Speaks column, he argued that sports encouraged blacks to throw away their money on the white man’s “games of chance.” The only reason the white man allowed blacks to participate in their sports, he claimed, was to distract them from their real problems. Sports were just another tool to keep the black man down 47.
Yet perhaps Clay’s pursuit of a righteous life was not as incompatible with boxing as Muhammad believed. In many ways the ritual and regimen of the Nation’s strict code of behavior mirrored the boxer’s spartan training. The Muslim ministers dictated when Clay prayed, what he ate, and how he spent his leisure time. Similarly, Angelo Dundee created his training routine: he told him when to rise in the morning, when to run, when to eat, when to spar, and when to go to bed. Clay’s spiritual mentors and boxing instructors required hard work, sobriety, and proper nutrition. Both worlds—boxing and the Nation of Islam—demanded physical fitness and a purity that rewarded resistance to temptation 48.
In Miami, Clay chose to occupy both worlds. There were two places where he felt most comfortable, two sanctuaries that provided shelter from outsiders and antagonistic white men: Muhammad’s Temple No. 29 and the 5th Street Gym. One hardened his body, the other nurtured his soul. Yet he had no idea what would happen when those two worlds collided.
Notes 1. Cottrell, Man of Destiny, 1–2. 2. For details of Angelo Dundee’s life, see: Dundee, My View from the Corner, 17–56; Dundee, I Only Talk Winning, 21–117; Anderson, In the Corner, 53–84; Fried, Corner Men, 1–28. 3. Huston Horn, “Who Made Me—Is Me!,” SI, September 25, 1961, 45; Dundee, My View from the Corner, 60–61. 4. Dundee, My View from the Corner, 62; Anderson, In the Corner, 61–62. 5. Pacheco, Fight Doctor, 22–23. 6. Horn, “Who Made Me—Is Me!,” 47. 7. For the 5th Street Gym, see: Pacheco, Tales from the 5th St. Gym, 1–48; Dundee, My View from the Corner, 47–50. 8. Dundee, My View from the Corner, 49. 9. Myron Cope, “Feats of Clay,” in Great Sports Reporting, ed. Allen Kirschner (New York: Dell, 1969), 163. 10. Fried, Corner Men, 9. 11. Horn, “Who Made Me—Is Me!,” 51. 12. Fried, Corner Men, 15. 13. Dundee, My View from the Corner, 63–64. 14. Michael Brennan, “Ali and His Educators,” Smithsonian Institution, September 22, 1980, accessed at ; LCJ, December 27, 1960, and December 28, 1960; MH, December 28, 1960. 15. For Clay-Johansson, see: Hauser, Muhammad Ali, 37–38; MH, February 5, 1961, and February 7, 1961; LCJ, February 7, 1961; BG, February 7, 1961; NYT, February 7, 1961. 16. LCJ, April 20, 1961; PC, April 29, 1961; NYT, May 14, 1961. 17. Horn, “Who Made Me—Is Me!,” 40. 18. Schulke with Schudel, Muhammad Ali, 10. 19. Horn, “Who Made Me—Is Me!,” 40; Dunn, Black Miami in the Twentieth Century, 143–156. 20. Shell-Weiss, Coming to Miami, 149; Raymond Mohl, “‘South of the South?’ Jews, Blacks, and the Civil Rights Movement in Miami, 1945–1960,” Journal of American Ethnic History 18 (Winter 1999): 20–23. 21. Schulke with Schudel, Muhammad Ali, 26–28; Muhammad Ali: Made in Miami, DVD, produced by Gaspar Gonzalez and Alan Tomlinson (PBS, 2008). 22. Abdul Rahman Muhammad (Sam Saxon) interview with author; Jack Olsen, “A Case of Conscience,” SI, April 11, 1966, n.p.; Hauser, Muhammad Ali, 89–90. 23. Hauser, Muhammad Ali, 89–90. 24. Lincoln, The Black Muslims in America, 71, 115–116. 25. Hauser, Muhammad Ali, 90; Pacheco, Muhammad Ali, 37–38; Lincoln, The Black Muslims in America, 68–69; Goldman, The Death and Life, 69–70. 26. Hauser, Muhammad Ali, 90–91. 27. Olsen, Black Is Best, 134–136, 138–139. 28. Bingham and Wallace, Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight, 63; Robert Lipsyte, “Cassius Clay, Cassius X, Muhammad Ali,” NYTM, October 25, 1964, 140; Sullivan, The Cassius Clay Story, 92; NYT, March 24, 1964; Branch, Parting the Waters, 914–915. 29. Bingham and Wallace, Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight, 63; Atlanta Journal, October 10, 1958. 30. Olsen, Black Is Best, 134; Essien-Udom, Black Nationalism, 188. 31. Horn, “Who Made Me—Is Me!,” 39. 32. Alex Haley, “The Implications of Cassius X,” 1964, Box Two, Folder 1, AHP; Sullivan, The Cassius Clay Story, 90; Bingham and Wallace, Muhammad Ali’s Greatest “Fight, 63. 33. Hauser, Muhammad Ali, 91. 34. Ibid.; AMX, 177–178. 35. Isaac Sutton, “Intimate Look at the Champ,” Ebony, November 1966, 154. 36. Monroe Berger, “The Black Muslims,” Horizon, Winter 1964, 57. 37. Clegg, An Original Man, 6–17. 38. Essien-Udom, Black Nationalism, 43–44; Lincoln, The Black Muslims in America, 10–15; Clegg, An Original Man, 20–33. 39. Lincoln, The Black Muslims in America, 75–76; Essien-Udom, Black Nationalism, 131–132; Marable, Malcolm X, 85. 40. AMX, 179–80; Clegg, An Original Man, 48–52; Lincoln, The Black Muslims in America, 76–77; Essien-Udom, Black Nationalism, 134. 41. Clegg, An Original Man, 64–65; Muhammad, Message to the Blackman in America, 290–293. 42. Pacheco, Muhammad Ali, 40–41. 43. Olsen, Black Is Best, 139–140. 44. Lincoln, The Black Muslims in America, 80. 45. Essien-Udom, Black Nationalism, 15, 207; Lincoln, The Black Muslims in America, 81. 46. Hauser, Muhammad Ali, 91–97. 47. MS, October 15, 1962. 48. Marqusee, Redemption Song, 59; David K. Wiggins, “Victory for Allah: Muhammad Ali, the Nation of Islam, and American Society,” in Muhammad Ali: The People’s Champ, ed. Elliot Gorn (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1995), 90.
Randy Roberts and John Matthew Smith. Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. New York : Basic Books, 2016, xxiv, 362 pages : illustrations
God’s Angry Man
I have no last name. Just a name some white man gave one of my ancestors a long time ago. I’d rather be called nigger.
On a cold April evening in 1957, a fight broke out between two black men at the corner of 125th Street and Lenox Avenue in Manhattan, the heart of Harlem. Swiftly, police cars arrived at the scene, sirens wailing, and officers jumped out of their vehicles. White patrolmen broke through the crowd, gripping their nightsticks, demanding the onlookers disperse. As the policemen thumped a suspect, the crowd watched in horror. “Why don’t you carry the man to jail?” Johnson Hinton asked. In Harlem, patrolmen routinely subjected black men to random searches and brutal force. The officers ignored Hinton’s protest, ordering him to move on. But he just wouldn’t listen 1.
Growing bolder and louder, he shouted: “You’re not in Alabama! This is New York!” Enraged, Officer Mike Dolan knocked Hinton to the ground. The officer unleashed his baton, cracking Hinton in the skull until blood gushed onto the sidewalk. While the police stuffed his limp body into the squad car, black and brown faces looked on in disgust, complaining in hushed tones. It seemed that there was nothing that they could say, nothing that they could do. The one black man who had challenged the police found himself behind bars, silenced by a bloody baton 2.
In Harlem, the black man’s anger toward the white man had long simmered. Everywhere he turned, the white man embarrassed, exploited, and emasculated him. The white man arrested him. The white man raised the rent. The white man got the job. The white man cut his wages. The white man denied his loan application. The white man had better schools, nicer homes, and more money. The goddamn white man.
“To live in Harlem,” Ralph Ellison wrote in 1948, “is to dwell in the very bowels of the city; it is to pass a labyrinthine existence among streets that explode monotonously skyward with the spires and crosses of churches and clutter underfoot with garbage and decay.” Black families lived in crowded tenements, crumbling buildings infested by vermin and cockroaches. In the shadows of dark alleys and on crowded street corners, men sought relief, drinking, smoking, and gambling away the little money that they had. Poverty, addiction, and violence plagued black neighborhoods. “Overcrowded and exploited politically and economically,” Ellison observed, “Harlem is the scene and symbol of the Negro’s perpetual alienation in the land of his birth.” 3
As the squad cars pulled away from the scene, a woman who witnessed the assault rushed to the Nation of Islam’s Shabazz Restaurant at 113 Lenox Avenue. She told the men that one of their Muslim brothers—Johnson X, as he was known—had been severely beaten by the police. Immediately, Joseph X, the rugged captain of the local temple’s Fruit of Islam (FOI)—the Nation‘s “secret army”—organized more than fifty men using a phone chain. Every temple had a security unit made up of an elite group of men who were held to a higher standard of discipline than other members. Trained soldiers, the FOI was responsible for enforcing the laws of the Nation and protecting Elijah Muhammad’s followers. They defended the temples and regularly drilled in paramilitary tactics, boxing, and judo, though they were forbidden from carrying arms 4.
When the Muslims arrived at the 28th Precinct on 123rd Street, the police feared that they were hiding guns under their heavy coats. The temple’s minister, a lean, copper-skinned man with a long face and square jaw, wearing thick, black horn-rimmed glasses, marched right into the station. Standing nearly six feet three inches tall and sporting a camel-hair coat, Malcolm X spoke forcefully but calmly, requesting to see Hinton. The police denied that any Muslims were held inside their jail, but as an angry throng of nearly two thousand black people gathered in front of the station, they allowed the minister to check on him. Lying on the cold cement floor of the jail, Hinton could hardly speak; an officer had struck him across the jaw with his baton when he began praying inside his cell. Containing his rage, Malcolm demanded that the lieutenant in charge take the concussed prisoner—who was actually suffering from subdural hemorrhaging—to a hospital. Fearing a riot outside the station, the police called for an ambulance 5. When the minister walked out of the precinct, he directed the brethren to follow him to the hospital.
Outside of his congregation, few people in the crowd knew much about Malcolm. They had never seen him lead a march or a picket or a boycott. The Muslims rejected the American democratic system, refusing overt political action. They didn’t even vote. Instead, the Nation occupied an insulated world of complete separation.
Elijah Muhammad taught his followers to respect civil authority and avoid confrontations. “Be polite, courteous, and respectful so that you may inspire respect from the police officers,” he preached. “If you are attacked when peaceful, God comes to our rescue. If you are aggressive, you must fight your own battle without Allah’s help.” Yet nonviolence had its limits, as Muhammad acknowledged: “If attacked the Holy Koran says fight back.” 6
Tired of wanton police violence against blacks, Harlem itched to fight back. In Harlem, most black men never dared to question a white man in uniform. So when Malcolm strode into the 28th Precinct, challenging white authorities, he inspired black Harlem. From there he marched at the front of a solid line of nearly one hundred Muslims and the sympathetic onlookers who had gathered at the precinct, leading them to the hospital.
As the Muslims advanced down Lenox Avenue, Harlem’s busiest thoroughfare, more than two thousand blacks clustered closely behind them. Shortly after they arrived at the hospital the doctors treated Hinton, but then inexplicably released him and he was taken back to jail 7.
Surging back toward the police headquarters in a fury, within an hour more than four thousand people stood in solidarity with the Nation outside the 28th Precinct. Standing in rank formation, “God’s angry men” stared straight ahead, arms crossed, waiting for the minister’s orders. Inside the station, Malcolm negotiated with the police, securing the release of two other Muslims who were arrested with Hinton. But the commanding officer refused to send the injured prisoner back to the hospital because he had to be incarcerated overnight to appear in court the next day.
By two thirty a.m., Malcolm sensed a stalemate and an opportunity to demonstrate his authority. The police pleaded with him to break up the crowd, promising that Hinton would continue to receive medical care. Fearing a violent confrontation between the police and his followers, he walked outside, turned toward one of his lieutenants, and whispered in his ear. Then he raised his fist, signaling for the Muslims to disperse. Without a word, the minister’s troops drifted into the darkness, as did the other blacks who had gathered in the street 8.
The police had never witnessed a man control a crowd the way that Malcolm X did that night. Stunned by the scene, an officer looked at James Hicks, a reporter for the Amsterdam News, and said, “No one man should have that much power.” 9
In the aftermath of the Nation’s protest against police brutality, Malcolm X became a Harlem folk hero. “For the first time,” he later recalled, “the black man, woman, and child in the streets were discussing ‘those Muslims.’” The New York City Police Department instantly became interested in “those Muslims” too, urgently seeking more information about “Mr. X.” Undercover agents in the NYPD’s surveillance program, the Bureau of Special Services (BOSS), sat in parked cars monitoring the activities of the Harlem temple. Malcolm’s increasing visibility in New York concerned the FBI too, and about a year after BOSS began its surveillance, the FBI designated him “a key figure.” For the rest of his life, government agents would track his movements, document his speeches, and record his telephone calls. Malcolm could hardly smile, frown, or smell a flower without the FBI knowing about it. Meanwhile, public curiosity led increasing numbers of blacks to visit Malcolm’s temple. Before the Johnson Hinton episode, the New York temple had only a few hundred members; afterward, several thousand became followers of Elijah Muhammad at Temple No. 7 10.
Benjamin Goodman was one such visitor. A tall young man with an angular face, Goodman was raised in the Christian churches of Virginia. After moving to New York, he bounced between unfulfilling jobs until he found a position in the shipping department of Vanguard Records. One of his friends at work insisted that he visit the temple at the corner of 116th Street and Lenox Avenue to hear “the Minister.” 11
Inside the paper-littered doorway of the storefront temple, a red hand-painted sign greeted visitors: “Welcome to MUHAMMAD’S TEMPLE No. 7. Every Wed. & Fri. at 8:00 P.M. Sun. at 2:00 P.M. Elevator Service 4th Floor.” When Goodman arrived for his first meeting, two sharply dressed men acknowledged him: “Welcome, brother.” Climbing three flights of creaking, rotting stairs, he could hear the echo of black men’s voices. When he reached the fourth floor, which was much cleaner than the others, two large men directed him into the men’s room, where four other men stood bolt upright, eyes forward, lips closed. A stocky man in a dark suit, standing only a foot away from him, leaned in close enough to smell his breath and firmly asked, “Do you have any weapons, alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs in your possession?” Had he answered affirmatively or reeked of liquor, he would have been asked to leave. After Goodman emptied his pockets, the security guard frisked him thoroughly. When the inspection was over, the guard thanked him for his cooperation and informed him that he could enter the auditorium 12.
Goodman walked inside the lecture hall and sat on a metal folding chair on the men’s side of the aisle, across from women dressed in white floor-length gowns and “ wearing head coverings. While he waited for the meeting to begin, he studied the blackboard, which was divided into two sides: one representing Christians, the other representing Muslims. On the left side, he saw an American flag framed by a cross and a silhouette of a black man hanging from a tree. In the corners of the flag, painted in bold letters, were the words Christianity, slavery, suffering, and death. On the opposite side, the corners of a red Muslim flag included the words Islam, freedom, justice, and equality. Beneath both flags, the congregation read the central question of the Nation: “WHO WILL SURVIVE THE WAR OF ARMAGEDDON?” 13
As Goodman pondered the question, an assistant minister named Brother Henry walked to the front of the room and welcomed the congregation in Arabic: “As-Salaam-Alaikum”—“Peace be unto you.” The visitors replied in unison, “Wa-Alaikum-Salaam”—“Peace also be unto you.” Only during the greetings did the Nation’s Muslims use Arabic. Not even Elijah Muhammad—the Messenger himself—spoke or wrote the language.
While Brother Henry lectured, a tall, rail-thin, bespectacled man wearing a dark blue suit, white shirt, and red tie sat at a small table studying three-by-five index cards. Occasionally he pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose while he penned notations. When Brother Henry introduced him, Malcolm X unfolded his body like a three-part extension ladder, rising from the chair. He gathered his index cards, the Bible, and the Koran, and walked toward the podium 14.
Malcolm surveyed the packed auditorium, grinning. Then he began, “As-Salaam-Alaykum.”
Malcolm lectured on a variety of topics that day: the history of slavery, “Negro” ministers who preached the “white man’s religion,” the Bible—that “book of poison”—and the evils of consuming pork. He did not say much about the Johnson Hinton case, but he promised that if the police ever attacked another Muslim brother or sister, then they would “be dealing with Malcolm X.” Goodman had never heard a black man speak with such unbridled confidence and authority. Malcolm talked plainly in a language that everyone in the audience understood, with a directness that bordered on open rebellion 15.
At the end of the meeting, visitors were invited to join the Nation. Malcolm asked them to raise their hands if they believed what he said was true. Goodman raised his hand. If a visitor could not commit to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm asserted, the Muslims would not persecute him. “You are among “the deaf, dumb, and blind,” he explained in a friendly voice. Returning to the temple for further study about “the teaching of the devil,” he said, would reveal hidden truths 16.
After visiting the temple twice more, Goodman penned an initiation letter—the same letter that every convert wrote. After reading the letter, the applicant copied it verbatim by hand:
Date Mr. W. F. Muhammad 4847 So. Woodlawn Avenue Chicago 15, Illinois Dear Savior Allah, Our Deliverer: I have been attending the teachings of Islam by one of your Ministers, two or three times. I believe in It, and I bear witness that there is no God but Thee, and that Muhammad is Thy Servant and Apostle. I desire to reclaim my own. My slave name is as follows: Name Address City and State
In Chicago, Muhammad’s lieutenants carefully examined the applicants’ letters. If the letter was written without errors, then the truth-seeker received a questionnaire regarding his or her marital status, dependents, and employment. Upon completing the application process, new members immersed themselves in the world of the Nation, submitting completely to the teachings of Muhammad. Every follower was supposed to give up dope, tobacco, alcohol, profanity, and vice of all kinds. In return, the believer was no longer a wandering “Negro,” ashamed of his or her skin color, weakened by Christianity. After initiation, new disciples proclaimed their loyalty to the Supreme Minister. In exchange for their devotion, the true believer received a new life, a new identity, and a new name 17.
All true believers retained their first name and accepted an X in place of their surname—their slave name. For example, in the New York temple, Joseph Gravitt, the FOI captain, became Joseph X. Benjamin Goodman, the second man named Benjamin to join Temple No. 7, became Benjamin 2X. Black people, Muhammad taught, did not know their true last name; it remained a mystery. The X was a temporary replacement until the Messenger gave the follower an Arabic name, their “original name,” such as Ali, Muhammad, Sharrieff, or Shabazz, though many of his disciples went years without replacing the X. In rejecting one’s slave name, the X signified crossing over and erasing the past, the legacy of slavery, and the life of self-loathing. It meant that a black man denounced what he was before he became a Muslim: an “ex-slave.” 18
In two years, Benjamin 2X became one of Malcolm’s assistant ministers. During a weekly seminar, Malcolm quizzed his assistants about religion, history, geography, politics, philosophy, economics, and current events. For every class, he required that each student bring a notebook, dictionary, thesaurus, and library card. When Benjamin and the other ministers were not working at their day jobs, they diligently studied the Bible and the Koran; they read the New York Times, the London Times, and a variety of news magazines; and they prepared for debates. Wasting time on television, movies, parties, and sports was unacceptable. Once his assistants convinced Malcolm that they were ready to do God’s work, he took them out fishing on the streets of New York 19.
Standing on congested street corners and stepladders, outside churches and drugstores, Malcolm courted lost souls, inviting them to hear the truth at Temple No. 7. Armed with a Bible and handbills, he worked the streets, talking to men who reminded him of a younger version of himself: hustlers, gamblers, and bottom-feeders, men searching for a way out of the ghetto. He understood these men, their frustration, their anger, and their language. He spoke directly, never wasting a word, appealing to their experiences—experiences that he had lived. And anyone who listened to Malcolm was invariably transfixed by his stories of his own reinvention.
The path that led Malcolm to the Nation of Islam was a tortuous one. After bouncing around predominantly white reform schools and foster homes, Malcolm, three months shy of his sixteenth birthday, with only an eighth-grade education, eagerly boarded a Greyhound bus in Lansing and traveled to Boston. There, under the care of his twenty-six-year-old sister Ella, Malcolm gravitated toward the “hip” swindlers standing on the street corners, the gangsters and bookies, dope dealers and pimps. These men educated him on the life of a “hustler.” An older man who called Malcolm “homeboy” taught him the importance of performance when he was shining the white man’s shoes. Kneeling at a foot stand, Malcolm mastered the art of polishing, brushing, and shining shoes, snapping the rag across the leather, making it “pop like a firecracker.” That popping sound was pure “jive noise,” worth two extra bits 20.
Whether he was shining shoes, cleaning dishes, or serving diners on Pullman “ cars, Malcolm hustled. He earned generous tips from white men by shucking with a sly smile, ingratiating customers with compliments. When Malcolm finished work he rushed to the nightclubs, where he danced and drank the night away, gambling his tips while he dreamed of hitting the jackpot.
Eventually he settled into the underworld of Harlem, where he came of age as “Detroit Red,” a small-time hustler sporting conked red hair and brightly colored zoot suits. His burglary spree ended in 1946 when the police nabbed him and his partner, Shorty Jarvis, and their white girlfriends. The judge gave the “twenty-one-year-old offender concurrent eight- to ten-year sentences. He wound up serving his seventy-seven-month incarceration at three Massachusetts penitentiaries. At the Charlestown State Prison, a dank, century-old fortress without running water, Malcolm festered in a dirty, cramped cell, lying on his cot, staring at the ceiling. In his misery, he yearned for the pleasures of the past: the rush of a robbery, the high from snorting cocaine. “Big Red” bragged about his criminal exploits and offered to acquire whatever the other prisoners needed: reefer, tobacco, liquor. He would later claim that he was an obstinate prisoner, a devout atheist nicknamed “Satan” for his mutinous behavior 21.
After Malcolm transferred to Concord Prison, he received a startling letter from his brother Philbert, who explained that he and other members of the family had converted to “the natural religion for the black man”: Islam. Soon, he read more letters from his brothers and sisters, educating him about the movement “designed to help black people.” In 1948, after Malcolm transferred to the Norfolk Prison Colony, his younger brother Reginald, a former hustler, visited him. He told Malcolm that there was a man who knew everything. “Who’s that Malcolm asked. “God is a man,” he answered, and “His real name is Allah.” Reginald explained that Allah had come to America and taught everything he knew to his disciple, Elijah, “a black man just like us.” Allah had instructed Elijah that the devil was also a man—the white man 22.
Malcolm thought about all the white people who had hurt him and his family: the white supremacists who killed his father; the white doctor who diagnosed his mother as “crazy”; the white social workers who broke up his family; the white kids who called him “nigger” on the playground; the white schoolteacher who told him that he was foolish for thinking that a “nigger” could “ever become a lawyer; the white judge who took ten years of his life away; and all the other white folks who had done him wrong 23.
His siblings continued to educate him through correspondence and their visits. They urged him to trust the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, the “Messenger of Allah,” a “small, gentle man” who possessed “the true knowledge of the black man.” Reginald advised him to purify his body and avoid cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, and pork. Malcolm followed his instructions, accepting Muhammad’s strict rules of morality 24.
Like many of Muhammad’s prison converts, he idolized the Nation’s patriarch. After sending Muhammad a letter he’d revised twenty-five times, they enjoyed a regular correspondence. Malcolm could not wait to meet Allah’s prophet and serve his cause. On August 7, 1952, about a month after the Massachusetts Department of Corrections transferred his parole to the State of Michigan, he walked out of prison a new man, wearing a cheap suit and shedding the cloak of Big Red 25.
Shortly after his release, Malcolm rode a bus to Detroit. Canvassing the neighborhoods of Black Bottom, he shared his story of self-emancipation, crediting Elijah Muhammad for his liberation from a life of destitution and delinquency. “Before hearing of [Muhammad],” he admitted, “I had nothing, knew nothing, and was nothing. I was addicted to and enslaved by all the evils and vices of this white civilization—dope, alcohol, adultery, thievery, and,” he added hyperbolically, “even murder.” Without Muhammad’s grace, he had “very little hope, desire, or intention of amounting to anything.” 26
After Malcolm served as an assistant minister for the Detroit temple and proved himself an effective organizer, in late 1953 Muhammad rewarded his protégé with his own ministry in Boston, where Malcolm established Temple No. 11. Shortly thereafter, Muhammad sent him to Philadelphia to further build the movement’s membership along the East Coast. In just three months, Muhammad promoted his charismatic disciple once again, naming him minister of Temple No. 7 in New York. Muhammad recognized that no one could relate to the “bottom-of-the-pile Negroes” the way that Malcolm did. Those beaten-down, dead-end blacks trusted Malcolm because he also knew life in worn-out shotgun houses and rancid tenements 27.
In the tenement neighborhoods of Harlem, Malcolm persuaded many blacks to hear him preach at the temple. But not everyone was easily convinced that Islam was the path to righteousness. When people heard him talk about the Nation’s theology, many just shook their heads in disbelief. One man yelled, “You niggers are crazy!” and marched right past him. On another occasion, when Malcolm tried to convince a Baptist into converting to Islam, the man asked, “What are the rules of your organization?” Malcolm replied, “Well, my brother, you’ll have to stop drinking, stop swearing, stop gambling, stop using dope, and stop cheating on your wife.” The man thought for a moment. “Hell,” he quipped, “I think I better remain a Christian.” 28
In the mid-1950s, during the Nation’s ascendance in the impoverished black neighborhoods of northern cities, Malcolm was fast becoming the most important symbol of the movement. The New York minister served as living proof that through the Messenger, anything was possible. If Muhammad’s message could cleanse a depraved, atheist criminal and transform him into a minister of God, a man who respected himself and his people, then Muhammad could save the most immoral degenerate. “Malcolm redeemed,” observed literature professor Michael Thelwell, “was the word incarnate, the message made flesh, the living metaphor and exemplar of the redemption of an entire race.” 29
As Muhammad’s most prized minister and one of his closest confidants, the minister’s presence was felt everywhere: Atlanta, Atlantic City, Buffalo, Jersey City, Newark, Pittsburgh, and Washington, DC. In the seven years after he left prison, the number of temples increased from ten to thirty. “I thank Allah for my Brother Minister Malcolm,” Muhammad proudly declared 30.
They became like father and son. Some of the Messenger’s aides believed that he cared more for Malcolm than for his own children. They forged a familial bond, speaking on the phone nearly every day, Muhammad advising him on all matters, professional and personal. “Anywhere you will find me,” Muhammad said, “you will find him.” In Malcolm’s devotion to Elijah, he offered blind obedience. There was no one he trusted more 31.
Whenever possible Malcolm visited Chicago. A mutual friend recalled, “I sat in Elijah Muhammad’s home one Saturday morning while he was lecturing a group of ministers. The doorbell rang, and a servant came in and announced that Malcolm had come. Elijah’s eyes lit up as if the prodigal son was home. He leaped from his seat and when Malcolm appeared they embraced and kissed.” Muhammad had no doubt that Malcolm would take a bullet for him. Malcolm had said as much: “I would give my life so that he may live. He has done so much for me.” 32
Yet Muhammad was not the only one closely following Malcolm’s growing influence within the Nation. In late 1958, a black FBI informant assessed the New York minister’s rising power: “Brother MALCOLM ranks about third in influence”—behind Muhammad and his son-in-law, Supreme Captain of the Fruit, Raymond Sharrieff. “Outside of the Messenger’s immediate family he is the most trusted follower. He is an excellent speaker, forceful and convincing. He is an expert organizer and untiring worker. . . . MALCOLM has a strong hatred for ‘blue eyed devils,’ but this hatred is not likely to erupt in violence as he is much too clever and intelligent for that. . . . He is fearless and cannot be intimidated by words or threats or personal harm. He has most of the answers at his fingertips,” and, the informant warned, “he should be carefully dealt with.” 33
More than any other event, the documentary The Hate That Hate Produced brought Malcolm into the country’s national consciousness. In New York, journalist Louis Lomax and news anchor Mike Wallace sensed that the rising popularity of the Black Muslims in Harlem and the surrounding controversy over their beliefs would spark great interest. In the summer of 1959, Lomax gained Muhammad’s cooperation through Malcolm. In a sensationalized narrative, Wallace told viewers that they were watching “a story of black racism.” The documentary portrayed the Muslims as adversaries of the civil rights movement. The growing “black supremacist group,” it declared, taught their “anti-white” and “anti-American” doctrine in more than fifty cities and claimed more than 250,000 members, an exaggerated figure that only enhanced viewers’ fears about the Nation 34.
In the documentary, Muhammad’s heir apparent, the younger, more charismatic minister Malcolm X, overshadowed the Nation’s leader. Almost overnight, Malcolm appeared on news broadcasts across the country. The national media’s reaction to the documentary convinced Muhammad that the press deliberately distorted his teachings in an effort to undermine him 35.
Widespread attacks on the Nation convinced Muhammad that Malcolm should respond directly to critics, despite accusations from some Nation officials who blamed the New York minister for seeking too much publicity. Yet Muhammad insisted that Malcolm should become more visible. If Malcolm became famous, he explained, “it will make me better known.” 36
Over the next year, Malcolm began traveling more, giving interviews on television and radio. He visited college campuses, delivered lectures, and engaged in public debates. His life became “a blur of planes and trains, speeches and sermons.” His frequent appearances on television shaped a public perception that Malcolm was the Muslims, creating envy inside the Nation’s headquarters. Muhammad warned him, “You will grow to be hated when you become well known. Because usually people get jealous of public figures.” 37
Given his recent heart attack and chronic bronchial asthma, Muhammad could never have taken on the demands of traveling as Malcolm did. The frail sexagenarian’s deteriorating health led him to move to the drier climate of Phoenix, Arizona. Separated from the national headquarters, he empowered Raymond Sharrieff, John Ali, and his sons, Herbert and Elijah Jr., to run the daily operations in Chicago.
Muhammad’s physical decline and heightened sense of mortality led him to tighten his grip on the world around him. He carefully monitored his ministers, requiring them to record their weekly sermons and send tapes to Chicago, ensuring that they did not deviate from his message. He especially depended on Sharrieff and his network of temple informants to report any conflicts or subversive activity within the Nation 38.
The more hostile attention the Muslims received from outsiders, the more paranoid Muhammad became. “He has tremendous faith in himself and Allah,” a minster told journalist William Worthy. “He trusts his subordinates to a degree, but essentially he thinks that no one is his friend. He alone is going to run the Nation of Islam and he is so strong right now that a split in the organization would be impossible at this time.” 39
In the spring and winter of 1960, thousands of college students in dozens of cities settled on a new tactic for forcing change to the civil rights landscape: the sit-in. This nonviolent direct action movement was aimed at desegregating southern lunch counters. Yet the sit-in was of little use in the North, where black people could eat at any coffee shop or lunch counter. There, the blurred color line of de facto segregation, hardened by history and custom, created separate and unequal neighborhoods, poor public schools, dilapidated housing projects, and persistent unemployment. Trapped in a cycle of poverty, blacks lived as second-class citizens, fatigued by empty promises of a better life. “The mood of the Negro, particularly in New York City,” Louis Lomax asserted, “is very, very bitter. He is losing faith. The Negro on the streets of Harlem is tired of platitudes from white liberals.” 40
On a mild Saturday afternoon in May 1960, about three months before Cassius Clay departed New York for the Rome Olympics, an estimated ten thousand Harlemites, standing shoulder to shoulder, attended an outdoor “freedom rally” at the intersection of West 125th Street and Seventh Avenue. The large assembly of people, most of whom were not Muslims, attested to Malcolm’s growing popularity as a political figure. Responding to the urban unrest, he offered a broad message of solidarity.
“As black people we must unite,” he insisted. He exhorted the masses to follow “fearless black leaders who will stand up and help the so-called American Negro get complete and immediate freedom.” While civil rights activists challenged segregation in the South, a temper of defiance swept through northern cities like an epidemic. Radicals tried to cure the disease by pressing for full citizenship, equal rights, and racial justice. Well before “Black Power” became a rallying cry, the belief in self-determination and racial pride blossomed as northern black activists fought for better jobs, quality education, and open housing 41.
No one articulated black rage against American hypocrisy and the failures of democracy more strongly than Malcolm did. Despite his calls for unity, he could hardly resist criticizing civil rights leaders who advocated integration. Although he did not call anyone out by name, he made it clear that black people wanted “leaders who are not afraid to demand freedom, justice, and equality. . . . We do not want any more Uncle Toms.” 42
Many admired Malcolm for his fearlessness. He was willing to debate anyone, anytime, anywhere. Malcolm debated the way Clay fought, swinging from the opening bell, hitting his opponent with hard cuts and fierce jabs. Unrestrained by the “conventional niceties of debate,” he played by his own rules, on his terms. He cultivated a combative style, bobbing and weaving, pivoting the conversation in the direction that he wanted. Malcolm was not interested in simply scoring points and landing a few punches. Decisions were not his goal. He swung for the knockout. Alex Haley recalled, “He would turn a radio or television program to his advantage in a way he credited to the boxing ring’s great Sugar Ray Robinson, who would dramatize a round’s last thirty seconds. Similarly, Malcolm would eye the big studio clock, and at the instant it showed thirty seconds to go, he’d pounce in and close the show with his own verbal barrage.” 43
Photographers popularized a fiery image of him lecturing at the podium, fist clenched, face masked with a snarl. Yet Malcolm’s behavior on stage belied the provocative image of the angry black man. Dressed in a conservative suit with his tie perfectly knotted, he appeared more like an intellectual than an itinerant preacher. Before responding to a question, Malcolm looked back at the moderator or his opponent, holding their full attention. Then, after calculating his response, he thoughtfully answered. Joseph Durso interviewed Malcolm, expecting “more of a platform speaker, somebody who was very militant.” But “he was more cerebral than physical. He reasoned. He was almost like a college professor.” 44
On multiple occasions Malcolm matched wits with Bayard Rustin, the veteran civil rights activist and close friend and adviser of Martin Luther King. In January 1962, they debated at Manhattan Community Church, a liberal congregation made up mostly of whites. In the past two years, they had become friendly rivals, fully aware of each other’s tricks and strategies. Rustin, an advocate of racial cooperation and direct action against segregation, argued that separatism failed to address the problems facing black people. It left them powerless to change the oppressive conditions of the society they inhabited. Without any clear plan, Rustin charged, Malcolm resorted to emotionalism 45.
“When a man is hanging on a tree,” Malcolm snapped, “and he cries out, should he cry out unemotionally?”
When a man is sitting on a hot stove and he tellsyou how it “ it feels to be there, is he supposed to speak without emotion? This is what you tell blackpeople in this country when they begin to cry outagainst the injustices that they’re suffering. As long as they describe these injustices in a way thatmakes you believe you have another one hundred years to rectify the situation, then you don’t callthat emotion. But when a man is on a hot stove, hesays, “I’m coming up. I’m getting up. Violently ornonviolently doesn’t even enter the picture—I’mcoming up, do you understand?” 46
Pleased by his decisive blow, Malcolm flashed a sardonic smile—the same satisfied grin that eased onto Jack Johnson’s face after the black boxer knocked his white opponents to the canvas.
As Malcolm’s celebrity grew, he became empowered, speaking more independently about politics. The less time he spent inside Mosque No. 7, the less he spoke about Muslim theology. Privately, Malcolm became convinced that the Nation needed to engage “in more action.” As Muhammad read news clippings and transcripts of Malcolm’s speeches and debates, he grew suspicious about his popular minister’s motives. In Chicago, Muhammad’s lieutenants whispered that Brother Malcolm was “trying to take over the Nation.” 47
Muhammad suspected that Malcolm aspired to lead the Muslims into the front lines of protests, though he feared such involvement would only attract greater scrutiny from the government. On February 15, 1962, the Messenger wrote Malcolm, reminding him not to “go too much into details on the political side; nor into the subject of a separate state here for us.” The Nation’s patriarch ordered him to speak only about what “you yourself have heard me say.” He insisted that Malcolm avoid discussing political issues, an impossible request as long as Malcolm engaged civil rights activists 48.
Less than a month after he received Muhammad’s edict, Malcolm debated James Farmer at Cornell University. Speaking first, Farmer, leader of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) shrewdly borrowed the minister’s standard speech about the white man’s crimes against blacks. He explained that everyone already knew that racism poisoned America. Then he aggressively criticized the Nation’s theology and separatist doctrine.
“The time has passed when we can look for pie in the sky, when we can depend upon someone else on high to solve the problem for us,” he said. “What we want Mr. X, the representative of the Black Muslims and Elijah Muhammad, to tell us today, is what his program is, what he proposes to do about killing this disease?” Turning toward his opponent, he attacked Malcolm’s flank, demanding an answer: “We know the disease, physician, what is your cure?” 49
The question haunted Malcolm. Farmer had set the perfect trap. Malcolm slowly rose from his seat and took the microphone. He rambled for a few minutes, searching for the answer that the black masses were waiting to hear. But he could not give them what they wanted, not as long as Elijah Muhammad was listening.” 50
Notes 1. Lomax, When the Word Is Given, 27–28. 2. Ibid.; NYAN, May 4, 1957. 3. Ralph Ellison, “Harlem Is Nowhere,” in John Callahan, ed., The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison (New York: Modern Library, 2003), 321–322. 4. NYAN, May 4, 1957; Lincoln, The Black Muslims in America, 199–203; Taylor Branch interview with Yusuf Shah (aka Captain Joseph Gravitt), October 17, 1991, TBP; Essien-Udom, Black Nationalism, 153–156. 5. AMX, 254–255. 6. Essien-Udom, Black Nationalism, 267. 7. NYAN, April 29, 1957. 8. Marable, Malcolm X, 128. 9. NYAN, April 29, 1957. 10. AMX, 256; DeCaro, On the Side of My People, 113–116; FBIMX-4. 11. Karim, Remembering Malcolm, 23–44. 12. Herbert Krosney, “America’s Black Supremacists,” The Nation, May 6, 1961, 391; Karim, Remembering Malcolm, 50–51. 13. Karim, Remembering Malcolm, 51–52. 14. Ibid., 54. 15. Ibid., 56; Goldman, The Death and Life, 60. 16. Karim, Remembering Malcolm, 56–57; Lomax, When the Word Is Given, 25. 17. Lincoln, The Black Muslims in America, 108–110. 18. Clegg, An Original Man, 27; Goldman, The Death and Life, 46. 19. Karim, Remembering Malcolm, 97–98. 20. Ibid., 39–52; AMX, 53–55. 21. AMX, 166–167; Goldman, The Death and Life, 32–33. 22. AMX, 172–175. 23. Ibid. 24. Ibid., 176–177; Marable, Malcolm X, 77. 25. AMX, 208–217. 26. NYAN, April 20, 1957 (emphasis ours). 27. AMX, 199. 28. Perry, Malcolm, 145; Lomax, When the Word Is Given, 51. 29. Gallen, Malcolm X, 33. 30. Perry, Malcolm, 162–163; Essien-Udom, Black Nationalism, 177. 31. Perry, Malcolm, 146. 32. Goldman, The Death and Life, 47; Essien-Udom, Black Nationalism, 101. 33. FBIMX-4. 34. Transcript of The Hate That Hate Produced (1959) in FBIMX-4. 35. Clegg, An Original Man, 125–129. 36. AMX, 289. 37. Ibid.; Marable, Malcolm X, 140. 38. FBIEM-6; Clegg, An Original Man, 104, 131, 176; Marable, Malcolm X, 124, 162–163. 39. William Worthy, “The Angriest Negroes,” Esquire, February 1961, 105. 40. Sugrue, Sweet Land of Liberty, 288; Joseph, Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour, 50–52. 41. NYAN, June 4, 1960; Malcolm X, “Harlem Freedom Rally, 1960,” Box 5, Folder 1, MXP (emphasis ours). 42. Malcolm X, “Harlem Freedom Rally, 1960”; FBIMX-3; Cone, Martin & Malcolm & America, 98–99. 43. Goldman, The Death and Life, 15–16; Alex Haley, “Alex Haley Remembers Malcolm X,” Essence, November 1983, 54. 44. Gallen, Malcolm X, 49, 58–60. 45. Branch, Parting the Waters, 168–172, 323–324; Goldman, The Death and Life, 14. 46. Goldman, The Death and Life of Malcolm X, 14. 47. AMX, 316–17. Note: In February 1960, shortly after Elijah Muhammad returned from his trip to the Middle East, he declared that all NOI temples would be called mosques. 48. Elijah Muhammad to Mr. Malcolm Shabazz, February 15, 1962, MXP. 49. Malcolm X and James Farmer, “Separation or Integration: A Debate,” Dialogue Magazine, May 1962, 14–18. 50. Farmer, Lay Bare the Heart, 224–225.
Entitled “Exploiting a State on the Brink of Failure: The Case of Guinea” this paper is excerpt from Part II, Country Case Studies, of J.R. Mailey‘s The Anatomy of the Resource Curse: Predatory Investment in Africa’s Extractive Industries, published by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies. Washington, D.C. Special Report No. 3. May 2015. The full PDF Report (146 pages) can be downloaded from BlogGuinée’s Documents section. Tierno S. Bah
Guinea is blessed with generous mineral endowments. It is the world’s second largest exporter of bauxite, the key ingredient in aluminum production. However, by virtually any measure, Guinea is one of the poorest countries in the world. Its annual GDP per capita is just $460.
Less than half of Guinea’s population has access to running water and electricity, and a mere 30 percent of the adult population is literate. Almost 15 percent of children born in Guinea will die before reaching the age of 5.
A widely recognized cause of Guinea’s plight is poor governance. Abuse of public office and mismanagement of public resources and institutions have been the norm in Guinea for decades. The country routinely ranks near the bottom of Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index. Corruption has crippled the state’s ability to perform basic public services and has created an environment of impunity.
Guinea has been subject to autocratic rule almost since independence in 1958.
Between 1984 and 2008, Guinea was ruled by the notoriously rapacious regime of President Lansana Conté characterized by its opacity, predatory practices, and lack of accountability. He and his associates routinely made cash withdrawals from the country’s central bank in broad daylight 213. Petty corruption was also widespread, as civil servants in the president’s good graces were free to overinvoice, misappropriate funds, and solicit bribes without fear of consequences or investigation.
On the evening of December 22, 2008, President Conté died following a long illness. Six hours after the announcement of Conte’s death, a group of military officers took to the airwaves announcing the formation of a military government calling itself the National Council for Democracy and Development (Conseil National pour la Démocratie et le Développement, CNDD). Their first act was to suspend the constitution and dissolve the National Assembly. The coup was led by Captain Moussa Dadis Camara, a junior officer who headed the army’s fuel supplies unit. On December 24, 2008, it was announced that Camara was President of the CNDD.
On the Brink of Failure : A Desperate and Isolated Regime
The African Union (AU) swiftly condemned the coup. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) suspended Guinea’s membership. The United States and European Union put on hold some key bilateral assistance programs.
Inheriting a state on the brink of failure, the CNDD promised to undertake widespread reforms. Camara pledged that the junta would organize “free, credible and transparent elections” within 2 years’ time, telling reporters “the council has no ambitions to hold on to power.” 214
The CNDD also vowed to crack down on drug trafficking and corruption. “Anyone who has misappropriated state assets for his benefit, if caught, will be judged and punished before the people,” Camara told an audience of hundreds of public representatives, including trade unionists, politicians, and clergy 215.
The mining sector was to receive particular attention as CNDD officials promised to undertake a review of all existing contracts and renegotiate those that were unfavorable. The junta’s promises of reform proved empty.
Allies of Camara were granted key posts in government and on the boards of foreign companies operating in Guinea. The junta replaced regional administrators with loyal officers who ran state institutions by fiat. Already decaying public sector institutions slid into irrelevance.
The junta tightly restricted civil liberties and political dissent. Those who criticized the government or tried to oppose the CNDD were intimidated, harassed, or attacked.
Corruption, meanwhile, actually accelerated. When he took office in 2011, President Alpha Condé estimated that the junta spent more during its 2-year tenure than the country had spent in the previous five decades 216.
Control over the country’s lucrative mining sector was concentrated within the hands of the newly appointed Minister of Mines, Mahmoud Thiam, a former Wall Street banker who held U.S. and Guinean citizenship. Though he spent extensive time abroad even after assuming office, Thiam proved extremely influential. He engineered a shakeup of the mining sector that ushered in several multibillion-dollar deals and prompted audits of several major foreign mining companies’ activities in Guinea. In reality, the changes merely re-engineered long standing patronage networks to suit Guinea’s new rulers.
Frustrations among Guineans steadily mounted.
On September 28, 2009, tens of thousands of Guineans organized by civil society activists gathered at a rally held in Conakry’s main soccer stadium to protest the junta after it became apparent that Camara would not honor his promise to sit out the presidential elections scheduled for January 2010. Shortly after opposition leaders arrived at the protest, an armed contingent of presidential guards, soldiers, police, and militia gathered at the exits of the stadium and fired tear gas at the protestors before charging the stadium and opening fire.
According to Human Rights Watch, the attackers killed 157 protesters, raped dozens of women and girls, and left more than 1,400 wounded in the massacre that ensued 217.
Foreign governments and regional organizations tightened sanctions and called for a speedy transition to civilian rule.
Whereas many investors would shy away from such a turbulent political context because of concerns about political risk and damage to corporate reputation, the Queensway Group saw opportunity.
Every Crook on Earth Shows up in Conakry
To gain access to Guinea’s lucrative mining deposits and exploration rights in its potential offshore oil fields, the Queensway Group made contact with the junta soon after the December 2008 coup by approaching Guinea’s envoy to China, Ambassador Mamadi Diaré218.
In early 2009, the Group sent a delegation to Conakry to meet with the junta. The Group’s main contact in Conakry was Mines Minister Mahmoud Thiam. Initially Thiam was skeptical, saying that:
“When a new government comes into power, especially an inexperienced one, there’s one phenomenon that never fails: every crook on earth shows up. And every crook on earth has the biggest promises, has access to billions of dollars of lines of credits, of loans.” 219
However, his concerns subsided after Sonangol CEO, Manuel Vicente, flew to Conakry shortly thereafter 220.
Still, other senior officials in the new government remained skeptical. After all, the Queensway Group was merely one of numerous international investors vying for a slice of Guinea’s resource bounty.
Hoping to separate itself from other contenders, Queensway sponsored a new national airline, Air Guinée International. Queensway hosted a celebration at Conakry International Airport to commemorate the launch of the new airline.
Camara was the guest of honor.
In attendance were Sam Pa and Lo Fong Hung, representing CIF and China Sonangol, the sponsors of the national airline. The Queensway Group was accompanied by a delegation that included François Chazelle, then Airbus Vice President of Sales, Executive & Private Aviation, who had a pre-existing business relationship with Sam Pa from China Sonangol’s purchase of three Airbus jets. Also part of the delegation was Ian Lee, then Regional Director for Africa and the Middle East at International Enterprise Singapore, a government agency that promotes Singaporean business interests abroad 221.
The partnership gained steam the following week, on June 12, 2009, when CIF and the CNDD signed a framework agreement that outlined plans to establish a joint venture company to be used as a vehicle for the Group’s investments in the country. CIF would be the majority partner in the joint venture, holding 85 percent of the company’s shares. (This 85-percent stake was ultimately divided between CIF and China Sonangol.) The Government of Guinea initially would carry a 15-percent stake with the option to purchase an additional 10 percent of the company’s shares from Queensway at a later date.
The framework agreement stipulated that the joint venture company would carry out projects in a broad range of sectors, including “energy, water treatment, electricity, transportation, housing, agriculture, fisheries, or in any other area of common interest.” 222
Indeed, as it had done elsewhere, the Group promised to undertake an ambitious and extravagant set of projects, including a new thermal power station and several large dams, as well as the construction of palatial government office buildings, valued at $650 million.
It would install a trans-Guinean railway to transport minerals from the country’s interior to a port on the coast. The Group promised to ship 100 buses to Conakry within 45 days of signing the agreement. The recently inaugurated airline, Air Guinée International, was also part of the package 223.
As in Angola, CIF committed to financing the projects and would be in charge of design and implementation. The Guinean government, in turn, would facilitate CIF’s ability to obtain all necessary permits and approvals, and “applicable exemptions.”
Importantly, the framework agreement specified that during a period of 12 months (“the exclusivity period”), the joint venture company would have exclusive rights to undertake projects in all of the specified sectors. Indeed, the government agreed “not to undertake at any time during the exclusivity period, discussions, negotiations or enter into contracts or agreements with a third party on competing projects.” 224
Importantly also, a confidentiality clause stipulated that “all information exchanged between [the parties of the deal] in connection with this Framework Agreement and all documents, materials and other information … under this Framework Agreement and on negotiations related thereto … will remain strictly confidential to the parties, both during the performance and at the end of the Project.” 225
As sweeping as it was, the framework agreement was just that, the framework for a partnership. Many of the details of the partnership’s setup and operations still needed to be ironed out. The Queensway Group sent two envoys, Jack Cheung Chun Fai, a senior aide to Sam Pa, and Adrian Lian, to represent its interests in Conakry. For the Guinean side, Camara created a “steering committee” to coordinate CIF and China Sonangol’s investments in the country. Mahmoud Thiam served as one of the steering committee’s vice presidents 226.
The “Contract of the Century”
On October 10, 2009, just 2 weeks after the September 28 massacre, representatives from the Queensway Group and the Guinean junta signed a shareholders agreement to finalize the terms of their partnership. Vicente and Cheung signed the agreement on behalf of Queensway. Two representatives from the CNDD—Minister of Finance Mamadou Sandé, and Minister of Justice Siba Nolamou—signed the agreement for the junta.
Thiam called the shareholders agreement “the contract of the century.” Although the documents governing the partnership were not released to the public, Thiam provided the press with an overview of the agreement, likening the deal to the partnership between the Queensway Group and Angola:
The $7 billion will be financed by the CIF through the same mechanisms used for the $11 billion invested by the Chinese in Angola since 2005: a combination of their own funds, private and Chinese state banks’ credit lines, and by international banks upon their signature 227.
The shareholders agreement formally created a joint venture between the Queensway Group and the Guinean state called Africa Development Corporation (ADC).
Singapore-registered subsidiaries of China Sonangol and CIF were each to hold a 42.5-percent stake in the deal, and the Government of Guinea would carry the remaining 15 percent228. The agreement stipulated that ADC would have several subsidiary companies for various business sectors operating under the label “Guinea Development Corporation” (GDC). ADC would own 85 percent of each subsidiary, and the Guinean state would control the remaining 15 percent. These companies included:
GDC Mining Oil & Gas
GDC Commercial & Logistics
GDC Water & Energy
Upon inspection, the terms of the deal were flagrantly unfavorable to the Guinean people. The agreement effectively provided ADC and the GDCs with exclusive rights to projects in a wide variety of sectors. Two clauses illustrate the scope of the deal:
The parties propose that ADC and the GDCs should be used as their joint venture vehicle to inter alia
construct and/or provide services in the following sectors: water, electricity (including power generators, power plant, hydorelectric [sic] dams), housing, port, fisheries, telecommunication, airport, airline, logistics, road, railway and all such transportation, infrastructure and other utilities projects
invest and operate diamond, iron, bauxite, gold, oil and gas and minerals concessions
such other projects as may be agreed by the Parties from time to time (the ‘Projects’), in the Republic of Guinea….
Subject to the laws and regulations in force, The Republic of Guinea shall give full exclusivity to ADC and the GDCs in respect of the sectors identified and approved by the Parties, as set out in the proposed Projects to be undertaken by the GDCs in this Agreement and the Master Agreement (‘Projects Sectors’) … 229
In essence, the shareholders agreement granted ADC control of the country’s entire economy for as long as the junta saw fit.
The composition of ADC’s three-member board of directors provides a second example of the extremely disadvantageous terms. According to the shareholders agreement, the board would consist of three members, two nominated by CIF and China Sonangol and the third nominated by the Guinean government.
According to Africa-Asia Confidential, the three initial board members were Adrian Lian, Jack Cheung, and Thiam. Requiring only a simple majority for key investment decisions, this board structure guaranteed that the Queensway Group would permanently control all key investment decision making for the company (and country)230.
The ADC’s shareholders agreement contained a confidentiality clause that each party “shall treat as confidential and not disclose or use any information of a confidential nature relating to ADC and the GDCs or the other Parties received or obtained as a result of entering into this Agreement.”
The junta had entered into an agreement that would have major implications for nearly every sector of the country’s economy yet it would be unable to discuss any specifics with its citizens about the investments or parties with whom it made this deal.
According to The Economist, the Queensway Group was “so pleased that it reportedly gave Guinea’s military ruler a helicopter as a present.” 231
The Queensway Group also helped alleviate the junta’s short-term financial woes. Media reports claim that in late October 2009, CIF’s Singapore-registered subsidiary transferred $100 million from an account in Hong Kong to the Central Bank of Guinea.
Thiam requested to use $50 million from this transfer for “emergency budgetary support” to keep the cash-strapped government afloat 232.
Correspondence between China Sonangol and the Central Bank of Guinea links Sam Pa to this bank transfer. A July 21, 2010 letter from Alhassane Barry, then Governor of the Central Bank of Guinea, to “Mr. Antonio Famtosonghiu Sampo Menezes”—a known alias of Sam Pa—confirmed that at least one $45 million bank transfer did occur from a Bank of China (Hong Kong) account under the same alias.
International criticism of the Group’s deals in Guinea came swiftly.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution condemning the deal and calling for its cancellation.
UK Minister for Europe, David Lidington, followed suit, criticizing the deals in an explanatory memorandum.
An analysis published by Chatham House stated that CIF “does not seem to regard the instability of military rule as a brake on its ambition. Far from it, the company seized on the coup to strike deals potentially giving it overwhelming control over the economy.” 233
Given the glaring deficiencies in the deal, the “contract of the century” was looking to be an economic debacle for Guineans.
Criticism Suppressed or Ignored
On October 8, 2009, several days before the deal was announced, Guinea’s Council of Ministers met to discuss “the various documents which were to govern the contractual relationship” with the Queensway Group. During this meeting, which was led by then Prime Minister Kabiné Komara, the Council of Ministers provided substantive feedback and raised several concerns about the draft shareholders agreement. However, upon review of the final version, Prime Minister Komara observed that the guidance of the Council of Ministers had largely been ignored and that “new provisions that [went] far beyond the mandate given to the Steering Committee of the Council … also emerged.” Prime Minister Komara then wrote to the steering committee responsible for coordinating investments by CIF and China Sonangol on November 4, 2009, urging that the Minister of Mines should renegotiate “certain clauses that were rather unbalanced for the Guinean side.” 234
When concerns expressed in the Prime Minister’s first letter went unaddressed, he wrote a second letter to the president of the steering committee.
On December 2, 2009, copies were also sent to the Minister of Mines as well as to the Ministers of Justice and Economy. Attached to the second letter was a six-page memorandum that provided a detailed analysis of the deficiencies of the shareholders agreement and guidelines to “facilitate and expedite the revision and renegotiation” 235 of the contract. The memo stated that the Council of Ministers specifically had decided during its October 8 meeting that exclusivity should not be granted to ADC or the GDCs, though it did recognize that CIF and China Sonangol could serve jointly as a strategic partner. “Priority would be given to the strategic partner,” Prime Minister Komara wrote, “under the condition that the prices it offers are more profitable and that its competence and reputation in the sectors concerned are proven.” 236
Furthermore, the Prime Minister contended that exclusivity should be granted to ADC only for a fixed term of no more than 12 months and that such status should only apply to projects agreed upon when the framework agreement was negotiated.
The memo reveals that the Council of Ministers was unaware that the steering committee planned to create a national mining company with CIF:
The Council of Ministers did not…discuss the issue of [the creation of] a national mining company. Moreover, it is unacceptable to promise now that a foreign investor will be a shareholder in such a company, as it would give it ipso facto ownership of all present and future wealth of the country 237.
The Prime Minister questioned the entire premise and validity of the arrangement. “The Government will not grant concessions in return for investment,” the memo stated bluntly before advising the steering committee, “this clause should be dropped altogether.” Moreover, Prime Minister Komara contended that the shareholders agreement could not be considered final, stating that “the document cannot be legally binding in the current context of the transition as the areas and subjects covered are sensitive, diverse and strategic.” 238
While few Guineans were privy to the details about the partnership with the Group, at least one activist faced consequences for speaking out against the deals.
Yéro Baldé, then Director of Project Financing at Guinea Alumina Corporation, lost his job after vocalizing concerns about the deals that the junta had negotiated with the Queensway Group.
On February 27, 2010, Baldé appeared on national television and criticized the deal. “There was something seriously wrong,” he later recalled. “The government had just raped women and killed innocent civilians, all investors were going away and yet this group stayed and signed. It’s hard to know what’s truly in it for Guinea in this contract.” 239
After Baldé’s appearance on national television, Thiam requested Guinea Alumina Corporation’s managers deal with their outspoken employee.
Baldé was fired shortly thereafter 240.
The CNDD’s Witch Hunt in the Oil and Mining Sector
As if exclusive rights to all of Guinea’s unclaimed petroleum and mineral deposits were not enough, Queensway also helped to expedite the CNDD’s shakeup of the oil and mining sector by underwriting audits of oil and mining firms already operating in the country.
Moscow-based United Company RUSAL Plc, the world’s largest aluminum company and a major player in Guinea’s mining sector, was the first subject of the audits.
One of RUSAL’s most lucrative assets in Guinea, the Friguia bauxite and alumina complex, was the main target of the CNDD’s mining sector review. RUSAL had purchased the Friguia complex in 2006 from the Conté government.
In May 2009, Thiam claimed to reporters that the Conté government had sold the complex to RUSAL for only $20 million dollars—a fraction of Friguia’s true worth—justifying the government’s legal proceedings to rectify the situation.
In early September 2009, a Guinean court determined that the 2006 sale of the Friguia complex was null and void.
According to Momo Sacko, a legal advisor to the Presidency at the time, this meant “that from now on, the [Friguia complex] is 100 percent owned by Guinea.” 241
On October 14, 2009, 6 weeks after the court decision voiding RUSAL’s ownership of Friguia and just days after the signing of the ADC shareholders agreement, the junta entered into a loan agreement with the Queensway Group. The agreement stipulated that CIF’s Singapore-registered subsidiary would extend a loan of up to $3.3 million to be used exclusively for the purpose of engaging Alex Stewart International, an international consultancy, “to perform an audit on specific mining operations in the Republic of Guinea, including RUSAL.” 242
The loan agreement was signed by Thiam, who insisted that CIF “was the only place where [the Government of Guinea] could get that money.” 243
In signing the agreement, Thiam also committed the Guinean state to pay CIF 2 percent of all funds that the junta recovered from Alex Stewart’s audit of the Russian mining giant as a “success fee entitlement.”
On January 13, 2010, Alex Stewart reported to the government that it was entitled to seek some $860 million in damages from RUSAL 244.
This meant that CIF could claim a success fee of potentially $19.2 million, a figure almost six times the original loan.
Additionally, per the ADC shareholders agreement, ADC was poised to receive exclusive rights to the Friguia complex seized from RUSAL.
RUSAL was only one of several investors targeted by the CNDD’s review of oil and mining contracts.
Houston-based oil company Hyperdynamics Corporation similarly became embroiled in a dispute with the junta that led to the forfeiture of approximately 70 percent of its offshore oil acreage. According to Africa-Asia Confidential, this holding fell directly into the hands of China Sonangol 245.
Ousmane Kaba, head of the CNDD’s audit committee, told reporters at a news conference that the audits should not be seen as “a witch hunt.” The audits, according to Kaba, were an attempt to understand how and by whom key decisions had been made previously. “If we do not try to know how our country was managed yesterday,” he continued, “we cannot claim to bequeath to our children a prosperous Guinea.” 246
The role of the Queensway Group—a potential competitor of RUSAL—in financing the audit was clearly a conflict of interest which undermined the integrity of the contract review process.
Another problematic aspect of the audit of Friguia (and the restructuring of the mining sector more broadly) were reports that Minister of Mines Thiam, Queensway’s key ally in Conakry, may have been rewarded financially for ensuring that CIF and China Sonangol benefited from the shakeup 247.
Thiam was implicated in another corruption scandal involving a major foreign investor that benefited from the mining sector review. Several reports claim that Thiam served as interlocutor for BSG Resources Ltd, a mining company controlled by Israeli billionaire Benny Steinmetz, to pay bribes to senior officials in the military. Thiam’s alleged role in these transactions subsequently became the subject of an FBI probe 248.
Queensway’s Changing Allegiances in Conakry
On December 3, 2009, the commander of the presidential guard shot and seriously wounded Captain Camara, the leader of Guinea’s junta. The following day, Camara was flown to Morocco for medical treatment.
General Sékouba Konaté, the CNDD’s Vice President and Defense Minister, stepped in to run the government.
Although many feared that the assassination attempt would send Guinea deeper into a crisis, leaders from the region worked in tandem with Konaté to hasten the country’s transition to civilian rule.
In January 2010, Konaté vowed that elections would be held within 6 months and, importantly, there would be no candidate from Guinea’s armed forces. Soon thereafter, Jean-Marie Doré, an opposition leader involved in organizing the September 28 protests, became interim Prime Minister and spearheaded preparations for presidential elections.
Although several of the Queensway Group’s key allies temporarily maintained their posts in Conakry, it became clear that major changes to the political landscape in Guinea were imminent. The Group sought to forge new relationships that would ensure that its presence in Guinea outlived the CNDD.
In late June 2010, the director of the communications unit for the interim Prime Minister dispatched a press release announcing a declaration of commitment between CIF and the interim government. The dispatch explained that Sam Pa and Thiam (still Minister of Mines) had come to meet with interim Prime Minister Doré. During the meeting, Sam Pa apparently touted China as an example of an economic model for African countries and extolled the value of the Queensway Group’s investments elsewhere on the continent.
“What China has achieved, Africa can do it too,” Sam Pa told Doré.
In a slideshow presentation, Sam Pa showcased the Queensway Group’s claimed accomplishments in Angola in an effort to demonstrate CIF’s “power and reliability.” 249 Sam Pa was reported to have suggested to the interim Prime Minister that the projects in Guinea could quickly get moving with the proper determination. Doré was quoted reciprocating Sam Pa’s enthusiasm by saying, “we want to express our commitment to working with China and, in particular, with you.” 250
Sam Pa’s courtship of the Prime Minister’s office contrasted sharply with the Queensway Group’s tense relationship with the Central Bank of Guinea during this time period. Shortly after Sam Pa met with interim Prime Minister Doré, the Queensway Group took steps to reclaim the funds it had transferred to the Central Bank of Guinea in November 2009 in the final months of the Camara junta 251.
In a series of letters in July 2010, Jack Cheung, Queensway’s representative in Conakry, wrote to the governor of Guinea’s central bank demanding that the remaining balance of the $45 million loan provided to the bank as “emergency budgetary support,” be transferred back to China Sonangol. Cheung threatened that there would be “serious political and legal consequences” if the government did not address China Sonangol’s concerns 252.
In his final demand letter, Cheung explained that the company’s auditor was “not satisfied with the controllability of the money deposited in the Central Bank of Guinea.… It is very important to transfer the money immediately…. Otherwise, our auditor and the department of finance of our group will lose confidence in investing in Guinea.” 253
Meanwhile, as Guinea’s political transition progressed, the Queensway Group heavily courted the two leading candidates in the country’s highly anticipated presidential elections.
According to Africa Confidential, the Queensway Group nominated one candidate’s wife, Mrs. Halimatou Diallo, to the board of Air Guinée International 254.
After Alpha Condé won the November 2010 presidential election, Queensway’s efforts to woo him intensified.
Just over a month after his inauguration, Condé travelled to Angola for a state visit. In addition to meeting privately with President dos Santos, President Condé was given a tour of several CIF and GRN project sites.
Angola’s Foreign Minister, George Chikoty, accompanied President Condé to the Novo Centradidade do Kilamba, the controversial public housing project linked to CIF on the outskirts of Luanda. Later he was escorted to Queensway’s cement plant located on the outskirts of the capital city 255.
Partnership with Bellzone
Hedging its risks, in May 2010, CIF also forged a partnership with Bellzone Mining, a relatively unknown firm predominantly owned by Australian investors. The company’s managing director and largest shareholder was an Australian national, Nikolajs Zuks, who held a 31.5-percent stake. CIF signed a series of agreements with Bellzone to jointly undertake projects in Guinea’s mining and infrastructure construction sectors on August 4, 2010.
The contract for the Bellzone deal was countersigned by Mines Minister Mahmoud Thiam and Minister of Economy and Finance Kerfalla Yansane—two holdover representatives from Guinea’s junta.
Upon finalizing the agreement, Bellzone’s managing director called CIF “a highly regarded group of companies with a proven track record of developing large infrastructure projects in Africa.” 256
Listing the advantages of partnering with CIF, Graham Fyfe, Bellzone’s chief operating officer, highlighted the firm’s deep pockets, stating that “from a cash point of view, yes, they do have a lot of cash.”
Speaking at a mining conference in September 2011, Fyfe also cited the Queensway Group’s “intimate relationship with Sinopec” (one of China’s largest state-owned oil companies) and said that the firm likely has “relationships at the highest levels in China.”
The official referred to CIF’s legal and commercial team as “a challenging bunch of guys” willing to engage in “tough negotiating,” but said that overall Bellzone found that CIF was “easy to do business with.” 257
CIF and Bellzone agreed to jointly explore for iron ore at two sites in Guinea, Kalia and Forécariah. CIF agreed to finance the Kalia Iron Project, which would cost approximately $4.45 billion, in return for rights to purchase all of the mine’s output at market price.
Following the signing of the CIF-Bellzone agreement, Acting President Konaté signed a decree that gave Bellzone “an exclusive corridor” to construct railway and port facilities in order to export iron ore production from Kalia.” 258
As part of its agreement with Bellzone, CIF agreed to finance and develop the needed infrastructure.
At the same time, CIF and Bellzone formed a joint venture “to undertake the accelerated exploration and development program at CIF’s Forécariah iron permits that lie between 30 and 80 kilometres from the Guinea coast.” 259
Even after securing two productive mining concessions in partnership with Bellzone, the Queensway Group continued its attempts to wrest control of mining opportunities from rival firms.
During a September 2011 meeting with officials from the Government of Guinea, officials from the CIF-Bellzone team attempted to persuade the Condé government to grant it the rights to the Simandou iron ore mine, the lucrative concession run by Rio Tinto 260.
When The Sunday Times (UK) asked if his company indeed was trying to gain control of Simandou away from the rival mining giant, Zuks simply responded, “What’s wrong with that?” 261
Sorting through the Mess
After numerous campaign promises and public statements in the weeks following his inauguration in December 2010, President Condé took concrete steps to reform the mining sector. The newly elected president enlisted the services of billionaire philanthropist George Soros, founder of the Open Society Institute, to assist with a mining sector review process.
“Guinea is currently experiencing a new era,” Soros told reporters. “Its natural resources have in the past not been used to benefit the people. Guinea now has an opportunity to change this.” 262
The review process began shortly thereafter. In a June 30, 2011 letter of intent to the IMF, the government found that only one loan of $78 million was ever contracted by the Queensway Group over the 2 years of engagement and billions promised 263. Going forward the Government of Guinea promised to “refrain from any non-concessional borrowing or the issuance of guarantees under [the CIF and China Sonangol] contract.” 264
A new mining code developed by the Condé regime was approved on September 9, 2011. International civil society organizations, several of which served as advisors to the Government of Guinea throughout the reform process, lauded the new code, highlighting both the content and the process by which it was crafted.
The mining code mandated the publication of all mining sector contracts and established a formal commitment to the principles of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. It established clear and transparent “procedures for the award, renewal, transfer, and cancellation of mining titles.”
The code required all companies in Guinea’s mining sector to sign a “code of conduct” and develop an anticorruption monitoring plan in coordination with Guinean authorities. Mohamed Lamine Fofana, the Condé government’s Minister of Mines, told reporters that “The new mining code will allow future investors in Guinea to work in transparency.” 265
On January 22, 2012, the Government of Guinea published the terms of reference for the Guinea Contract Review Process that outlined the institutions and procedures involved in the process.
In this way, the terms of reference aimed to: bolster the legitimacy of mining contracts; eliminate unchecked suspicion about contracts; prevent reforms from undermining investor confidence; and reinforce the legal basis of contracts. The document also outlined plans to establish two committees to oversee the process—the technical committee and the strategic committee—and identified the roles for each. In short, a serendipitous turn of events that catalyzed the country’s first democratic election since independence in 1958 brought a window of opportunity for reform in the mining sector.
On February 15, 2013, Guinea’s government published existing mining sector contracts online, making it one of the first African states to make all such documents available to the public 266.
Additionally, the Condé administration recognized the institutional capacity constraints it faced and sought technical and strategic assistance from leading international experts on extractive sector transparency. Revenue Watch Institute (now the Natural Resource Governance Institute) partnered with the World Bank Institute and Columbia University to set up the Web site where Guinea’s mining contracts were published 267.
The same organization also partnered with the Institut Supérieur de l’Information et de la Communication and the Thomson Reuters Foundation to conduct a 10-day training program for 15 Guinean journalists on reporting on the oil and mining industries 268.
Even after the country’s transition to civilian rule, investigating corruption remained dangerous.
In just 8 months as Director of the Treasury, Aissatou Boiro gained a reputation for being a fierce opponent of corruption and had launched official investigations into the disappearance of millions of dollars from Guinea’s state coffers during the tenure of previous regimes.
On November 9, 2012, Boiro was shot and killed by a group of men wearing military uniforms.
Former colleagues believe the assassination was an attempt to thwart an ongoing investigation. “In Guinea all of the cases of large-scale embezzlement happen at the treasury department,” one former treasury official told Reuters. “(Boiro) became inconvenient for certain economic predators who are in the government.” 269
While the reform process struggled to maintain momentum, Queensway continued to advance its agenda in Guinea’s mining sector through its partnership with Bellzone.
On March 23, 2012, Bellzone announced that it had begun production and product stockpiling at its Forécariah mine.
On August 9, 2012, Bellzone signed an offtake agreement with Glencore, a Swiss commodities trading firm, for the latter to purchase a 50-percent share of iron ore produced at the Forécariah mine.
Less than a month later, on September 4, 2012, West African Iron Ore Group, also based in Switzerland, announced that it had reached a similar agreement with CIF for the purchase of the other 50-percent share of ore produced at the mine.
China Sonangol’s partnership with Bellzone did not go entirely smoothly, however. Trading at £92 (about US$147) a share in early 2011, Bellzone stock plummeted over the next 4 years to only £0.50 (about US$0.80) a share amid plunging iron ore prices and concerns over the viability of Bellzone’s projects in Guinea. When the company’s ability to finance its operations came into question, Bellzone looked to China Sonangol to provide an urgently needed £4 million (about US$6.4 million) short-term loan in August 2014. The loan was secured against the entirety of the company’s mineral assets in Guinea and, once finalized, would require Bellzone to transfer an unspecified asset from one of its subsidiaries to another.
However, Bellzone suspended trading of its shares on September 21, 2014, as talks with China Sonangol over the loan facility stalled 270.
Turmoil continued at Bellzone for several months after trading suspended.
On September 5, 2014, Africa Mining Intelligence reported that Bellzone had entered into a “secret loan accord” with Panama-based PRVC S.A., a consulting firm headed by an Angolan businessman named Ezequiel da Cunha. The $860 million loan was not disclosed to the market, violating the rules of the London Stock Exchange 271.
In November 2014, China Sonangol negotiated a 51-percent stake in Bellzone and swiftly replaced the company’s board with its own 272.
By early December 2014, Bellzone had run into trouble with Guinean regulators. The Ministry of Mines warned the company that it had wrongfully dismissed local employees and failed to produce a plan for the safe transport of iron ore 273.
Meanwhile, the government’s new technical committee charged with reviewing Guinea’s mining sector found that Bellzone had engaged in an unapproved transfer of one of its mining licenses to an affiliated company and, on a separate occasion, pledged to sell its mineral rights without approval 274.
In early March 2015, Bellzone and China Sonangol finalized the terms of a multiyear loan to finance the company’s operations in Guinea. When trading of Bellzone’s stock resumed on March 5, 2015—after a 5-month hiatus—the company’s share price jumped 587 percent in one day.
Queensway’s operations in Guinea reveal the lengths to which it would go to preserve its ill-gotten source of wealth from an illegitimate government even after its allies fell from power.
Guinea’s political transition has provided it a chance to become a rare success story among fragile states seeking to install effective systems for management of the extractive sector.
At the same time, Guinea’s experience demonstrates the uphill battle that newly democratizing states face when seeking such reforms. Ultimately, Guinea’s ability to translate its mineral wealth into tangible development outcomes will depend on whether or not the government has the will and capacity to follow through with reforms.
J.R. Mailey Africa Center for Strategic Studies. Washington, D.C.
Notes 213. Paul Melly, Guinea: Situation Analysis and Outlook, Writenet Report (UK/Geneva: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2008), 3-11. 214. “Guinea Ministers Submit to Rebels,” BBC, December 26, 2008. 215. Victor Omoregie, “Guinea: Junta Warns Mining Sector,” Vanguard (Nigeria), December 29, 2008. 216. “Guinea bankrupted by junta – President Alpha Conde,” BBC, February 22, 2011. 217. Bloody Monday: The September 28 Massacre and Rapes by Security Forces in Guinea (New York: Human Rights Watch, December 2009), 7-8. “Guinea massacre toll put at 157,” BBC, September 29, 2009. 218. “CIF, Beijing’s stalking horse,” Africa-Asia Confidential 3, no. 7 (May 2010). 219. Murray et al. 220. Ibid. 221. Author interviews, April 2012 and May 2012. 222. Framework Agreement between the Republic of Guinea and China International Fund, June 2009. Copy on file with the author. 223. “Blood and money in the streets,” Africa-Asia Confidential 2, no. 12 (October 2009). 224. Framework Agreement between the Republic of Guinea and China International Fund, June 2009. 225. Ibid. 226. Africa-Asia Confidential (October 2009). 227. Ibid. 228. Importantly, CIF Singapore is wholly owned by China Sonangol International (S), which is, in turn, owned by a BVI shell company called Newtech Holdings Limited. 229. Shareholders Agreement between the Republic of Guinea and China International Fund, October 10, 2009. Copy on file with the author. 230. Africa-Asia Confidential (October 2009). 231. The Economist. 232. Murray et al. 233. Daniel Balint-Kurti, “Guinea: Bought by Beijing,” Chatham House, March 2, 2010. 234. Kabiné Komara, “Directives relatives aux amendements et à la renegociation du Pacte d’Actionnaires entre la République de Guinée, CIF Singapour, et China Sonangol International,” memorandum, December 2, 2009. Copy on file with the author. 235. Ibid. 236. Ibid. 237. Ibid. 238. Ibid. 239. Murray et al. 240. “Who’s Who: Abdoulaye Yéro Baldé,” Africa Mining Intelligence No. 223 (March 2010). 241. Saliou Samb “Guinea court reclaims Friguia from RUSAL,” Reuters, September 10, 2009. 242. Loan Agreement between CIF Singapore and Alex Stewart International, October 14, 2009. Copy on file with the author. 243. Murray et al. 244. Tom Burgis, “Behind the Wrangle for Guinea’s Minerals,” Financial Times, June 5, 2010. 245. “The junta rewards new friends,” Africa-Asia Confidential 3, no. 1 (November 2009). 246. Alpha Camara and Antony Sguazzin, “Guinea Asks Rusal to Return Friguia Alumina Complex,” Bloomberg, September 10, 2009. 247. The Economist. Murray et al. 248. Jesse Riseborough and Franz Wild, “Late Guinea President Wife Said to Assist Steinmetz Probe,” Bloomberg, April 19, 2013. 249. “Le Patron de la China international Fund chez le Premier ministre: des beaux jours qui s’annoncent pour les secteurs énergétique et minier guinéens,” Guinee 24, June 19, 2010. 250. Ibid. 251. Correspondence between the Central Bank of Guinea and China Sonangol indicates that the “Deposit Agreement” for the transfer of $45,000,000 to the Central Bank of Guinea was signed on November 24, 2009. Copy on file with the author. 252. Jack Cheung letter to Central Bank of Guinea dated July 21, 2010. Copy on file with the author. 253. Jack Cheung letter to Central Bank of Guinea dated July 27, 2010. Copy on file with the author. 254. “Minister Thiam covers his bases,” Africa Confidential 51, no. 14 (July 2010). 255. “Guinea Conakry’s leader visits new Luanda’s city centres,” Agência Angola Press, January 28, 2011. 256. “Binding MOU reached with China International Fund,” Bellzone Mining PLC press release, May 24, 2010. 257. Graham Fyfe, “Bellzone’s Guinea Projects” (presentation to the 82nd Minesite Mining Forum, London, United Kingdom, September 15, 2011). 258. “Kalia Rail and Port Infrastructure Update,” Bellzone Mining Plc press release, July 4, 2011. 259. “Forecariah Offtake Agreement with Glencore,” Bellzone Mining Plc press release, August 9, 2012. 260. Danny Fortson, “Chinese eye Rio’s African jewel,” The Sunday Times (UK), May 6, 2012. 261. Ibid. 262. “New Guinean Mining Code to Tackle Corruption,” Natural Resource Governance Institute, March 3, 2011. 263. Letter of Intent, Memorandum of Economic and Financial Policies, and Technical Memorandum of Understanding from the Government of Guinea to the International Monetary Fund, dated June 30, 2011, 13. 264. Ibid. 265. Code Minier de la République de Guinée (Conakry: Ministère des mines et de la géologie, Septembre 9, 2011), 72-73. 266. Saliou Samb, “Guinea adopts new mining code boosting state share,” Reuters, September 10, 2011. 267. On February 15, 2013, the Technical Committee in charge of reviewing mining titles and contracts, Comité Technique de Revue des Titres et Conventions Miniers (CTRTCM), announced the official launch of its web site . 268. Emma Tarrant Tayou, “Training for Journalists Begins in Guinea,” Revenue Resource Governance Institute blog, November 26, 2012. 269. Boubacar Diallo, “Official: Guinea treasury chief assassinated,” Associated Press, November 10, 2012. 270. Tom Burgis, “Bellzone trading halted in fight over loan terms,” Financial Times, September 22, 2014. 271. “A secret loan accord for Bellzone Mining,” Africa Mining Intelligence No. 327 (September 2014). 272. “Chinese Directors Take The Top Jobs At Bellzone, Along With James Leahy,” Minesite, November 19, 2014. 273. “Government hits out at China International Fund,” Africa Mining Intelligence No. 334 (December 2014). 274. Ibid.