Thiam. Invocation imméritée du Camp Boiro

Honorable Denise L. Cote, United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.
Honorable Denise L. Cote, United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.

Reconnu coupable de blanchiment d’argent et de corruption en mai dernier par le jury, Mahmoud Thiam, ancien ministre des mines et de la géologie de Guinée, a été condamné, le 25 août 2017, à sept ans de prison ferme à New York, par l’Honorable Denise Cote, Juge fédérale pour le Southern District de New York. Avant la proclamation de la sentence, l’avocat de Mahmoud Thiam a cherché à adoucir la frappe du glaive de la Justice contre son client. Dans un plaidoyer désespéré, il a fait ainsi une invocation indirecte, implicite, inappropriée, illégitime et imméritée du Camp Boiro. Je traduis et commente ici certains passages de la dépêche de l’Associated Press, qui a été largement reprise par les journaux et les sites web.

  1. D’entrée de jeu la juge Denise Cote déclare que le citoyen américain, Mahmoud Thiam, a trahi la République de Guinée en acceptant des pots-de-vin d’un montant 8.5 million dollars US. Il s’agit d’un constat matériel et d’une opinion irréfutable. A n’importe quel niveau de la hiérarchie administrative et gouvernementale, le fonctionnaire et le ministre sont censés servir les populations, et non pas s’en servir. Ils en sont les serviteurs et non pas les maîtres. En compromettant —peut-être irrémédiablement — le potentiel humain, social, culturel et économique (rural et industriel) de la Guinée, les régimes successifs du pays ont créé le cadre toxique dont Mahmoud Thiam est devenu un symbole mondial.
  2. La juge continue : Mahmoud Thiam arriva à Conakry en 2009 pour “aider” la Guinée “et non pas pour la dépouiller.” “Il vit la corruption tout autour de lui. Il décida finalement d’y succumber.”
    La juge prête ici des intentions généreuses et un motif louable à Mahmoud Thiam. Mais la réalité est différente. Car ce n’est pas à son arrivée que M. Thiam se rendit compte de la vénalité rampante en Guinée. Il connaissait les réalités du pays. Et il devait bien au courant de l’effondrement de la moralité publique dans son pays natal et du manque de confiance des dirigeants par les populations. Le fossé se creuse depuis le début des années 1960. En 2009, l’écart était devenu béant et visible de tous, à domicile comme à l’étranger.

Lire (a) Guinea: Estrangement Between the Leaders and the People
(b) Parti Démocratique de Guinée: Reform and Repression  (c) The Decline of the Guinean Revolution. The Erosion of Public Morality

  1. Lansana Conté meurt le 22 décembre 2008.Quelques heures plus tard, son remplaçant choisi et préparé, un certain capitaine Moussa Dadis Camara, chef du service carburant des Forces armées, s’empare du pouvoir. Il s’y installe, appuyé par le Conseil national pour la démocratie et le développement. Pressenti pour le poste de Premier ministre, Komara Kabinet invite Mahmoud Thiam à participer à son gouvernement. Consentant, il négocie son départ de UBS et part dare-dare pour Conaky. Son plan — et peut-être l’offre — est arrêté : obtenir un poste lucratif, offrant plein d’occasions pour des tractations plus ou moins légitimes, des commissions rondelettes, ainsi que des pourboires juteux.

    Mahmoud donne à Global Mining Observer en 2014 une version arrondie et édulcorée des circonstances de sa nomination gouvernementale. Il y expose aussi une conception superficielle, naïve, démagogique et prédatrice du développement, qui serait induit et impulsé par l’industrie extractive. Les préalables culturels lui échappent, bien sûr. Et, paradoxalement, les critères d’ordre financier ne font même pas l’objet d’une esquisse d’explicitation…

    Le 14 janvier 2009, il entre au gouvernement dirigé par Komara Kabinet, où il occupe le poste de ministre des Mines et de l’Energie, sous la présidence du petit capitaine.
    Le 3 décembre 2009, Dadis et Toumba Diakité ont une altercation orageuse au sujet du massacre de centaines de manifestants pacifiques le 28 septembre précédent au stade sportif de Conakry. La dispute vire au drame et des coups de feu sont échangés. Dadis reste sur le carreau, grièvement blessé; Touba, lui, s’enfuit et se réfugie hors de Guinée.
    En janvier 2010 un régime de Transition est créé à la place du CNDD. Il a pour mission d’organiser l’élection présidentielle avant la fin de l’année.  Général Sékouba Konaté le dirige. (A noter que cet officier est interdit de séjour aux USA depuis 2016 pour flagrant délit de trafic de devises). Et Jean-Marie Doré remplace Komara Kabinet à la Primature.
    Le 15 février 2010 Mahmoud Thiam conserve son portefeuille, désormais appelé Mines et la Géologie, moins l’Energie donc.
    Le 4 janvier 2011 Mahmoud Thiam est débarqué du gouvernement par Alpha Condé, le nouveau président “élu”. Peu après M. Thiam quittait la Guinée pour retourner dans sa patrie d’adoption, les USA. Pour son malheur, il avait déjà enfreint la loi anti-corruption étrangère connue sous le nom de Foreign Corrupt Practice Act. Dès lors, patient et méticuleux, le FBI l’attendait de pied ferme. Ainsi, dans son interview avec Global Mining Observer, Mahmoud avoue se sentir sous surveillance policière depuis 2004.

  2. “… une terre où la force de la loi n’existe pas.” Lapidaire et exacte, la formule précédente par Juge Cote dépeint bien la Guinée. Elle s’applique à ce pays, hier comme aujourd’hui, depuis 1959. Et tant que la situation durera, il ne faudrait pas s’attendre à la réalisation de gros investissements : Konkouré, Simandou, chemin de fer trans-guinéen, nouveaux ports et aéroports, universités dignes de ce nom, etc.
  3. Mahmoud Thiam “ne montra pas de remords pour sa culpabilité” affirmée par le jury. “J’ai même perçu quelqu’un qui croit exercer un droit”… de profiter des recettes de la corruption, ajoute la juge.
    Cet état d’esprit est un cancer qui s’est presque généralisé dans la fonction publique guinéenne. Lorsqu’un fonctionnaire est nommé à un poste “lucratif”, on lui dit : “C’est ta chance, saisis-la.” “Si tu n’en profites pas pour détourner le bien public à tes fins personnelles, alors tu es maudit ! »
  4. Le code pénal fédéral américain recommande 12 ans ou plus pour le genre de crime dont Mahmoud Thiam a été reconnu coupable. En imposant une peine de 7 ans, la juge a tenu compte d’un argument de l’avocat défenseur Aaron Goldsmith. Pour attirer la compassion et la grâce des jurés et de la juge, celui-ci a invoqué “la torture et le meurtre” du prisonnier politique que fut le père de Mahmoud Thiam. Zélé, l’avocat parla du “violent régime communiste à la tête de la Guinée en 1971”.
    La dictature de Sékou Touré fut d’une violence inouïe, certes. Mais le tyran n’était pas d’obédience communiste. Il était sékoutouréiste ! C’est-à-dire pire que le communisme.
  5. A s’en tenir au communiqué de l’agence de presse, l’avocat n’a pas fourni au tribunal les circonstances de la disparition de M. Thiam père. Les indications suivantes suffisent pour combler la lacune.
    De qui parle-t-on ? Il s’agit ici de Baba Hady Thiam, licencié en droit et directeur de la Banque guinéenne du Commerce Extérieur (BGCE). Intègre et rompu dans la gestion, l’inspection et l’audit bancaires, il faisait partie de l’élite de ce secteur dans les années 1960. Par malheur, le chef de l’Etat guinéen ne connaissait en matière de finance et de banque que les manigances et les magouilles. Entre la probité des professionnels et la fourberie du politicien, la collision et le choc devinrent inévitables. Le groupe de Baba Hady Thiam n’était pas dupe. Au contraire, il mesurait l’ampleur des dégâts causés par la gabegie de Sékou Touré. Se sachant démasqué, et pour éteindre la contradiction à son avantage, le président prit les devants de façon draconienne et tragique. Il accusa, sans la moindre preuve, ses cadres de banque de complicité avec le commando militaire guinéo-portugais qui attaqua Conakry le 22 novembre 1970. Ils furent arrêtés sans mandat, jugés en leur absence, et fusillés ou pendus par des pelotons d’exécution qui incluaient capitaine Diarra Traoré et lieutenant Lansana Conté. Outre Baba Hady Thiam, les victimes de la purge du secteur de la banque incluaient :

    • Ousmane Baldé, Barry III, Moriba Magassouba et Kara Soufiana Keita, pendus publiquement  le 25 janvier 1971.
    • Théodore Soumah
    • Félix Matos Gnan
      Ces pères de famille expièrent pour un crime qu’ils n’avaient pas commis. Ils ne laissèrent pas de fortune à leur famille, mais ils lèguent à la postérité une vie exemplaire et, en l’occurrence, un casier judiciaire vierge.

En plongeant délibérément dans les réseaux de corruption qui minent la Guinée, Mahmoud Thiam a pris le chemin opposé des idéaux, de la droiture et de la rectitude, incarnés par Baba Hady Thiam et sa génération.

Lire Jeunes et patriotes, rêves et carrières brisés

Tierno S. Bah

Mahmoud Thiam. Seven Years in Prison

Former Minister of Mines Mahmoud Thiam once famously said that “every crook on Earth” lands in Conakry.

Read (a) Conakry : plaque-tournante de l’Escroquerie internationale (b) Guinea Mining. Exploiting a State on the Brink of Failure

It turns out he was, himself, a big-time offender in the plundering of the country’s meager finances. Mahmoud belongs in the category of high level of corrupt officials: presidents, government ministers, administrations’ civil servants, who have ruined Guinea: from Sékou Touré to Alpha Condé, and everyone in between, i.e., Lansana Conté, Moussa Dadis Camara, Sékouba Konaté. Therefore, Mr. Thiam’s assessment couldn’t be more accurate. He knew where the bodies were buried!
In 2009 he left a job position at a New York City bank to answer the siren calls of the military junta of Dadis Camara. In Conakry he was appointed Minister of Mines… A year later, the newly “elected” president Alpha Condé decided not to keep Mr. Thiam in the  government. Soon after Mahmoud came back here to the USA… However, during his short tenure he had collected millions of dollars in bribery. He thought he had fooled everybody and that he had succeeded in stealing so much money from the Guinean people. Little did he know, perhaps, that the US Federal Government had an eye on the unscrupulous and rampant venality in Guinea. A salient case in point was President Obama’s State of the Union Address of 2010, in which he declared pointedly:

« That’s why we stand with the girl who yearns to go to school in Afghanistan; why we support the human rights of the women marching through the streets of Iran; why we advocate for the young man denied a job by corruption in Guinea. For America must always stand on the side of freedom and human dignity. (Applause.)  Always. (Applause.) »

Seven years after his heydays as a high-flying minister, and after Barack Obama’s public and generous stance, justice was served today with the sentencing of Mahmoud Thiam to seven years in a federal prison in America. Bien mal acquis ne profite pas… toujours !
I reproduce below the press release by the US Department of Justice.
Tierno S. Bah


A former Minister of Mines and Geology of the Republic of Guinea was sentenced today to seven years in prison, and three years of supervised release, for laundering bribes paid to him by executives of China Sonangol International Ltd. (China Sonangol) and China International Fund, SA (CIF).

Acting Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Blanco of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, Acting U.S. Attorney Joon H. Kim of the Southern District of New York, Assistant Director Stephen E. Richardson of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division and Assistant Director in Charge William F. Sweeney Jr. of the FBI’s New York Field Office made the announcement.

Mahmoud Thiam, 50, of New York, New York, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Denise L. Cote of the Southern District of New York. Thiam was convicted on May 3, after a seven-day trial of one count of transacting in criminally derived property and one count of money laundering.

“Mahmoud Thiam engaged in a corrupt scheme to benefit himself at the expense of the people of Guinea,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Blanco. “Corruption is a cancer on society that destabilizes institutions, inhibits fair and free competition, and imposes significant burdens on ordinary law-abiding people just trying to live their everyday lives. Today’s sentence sends a strong message to corrupt individuals like Thiam that if they attempt to use the U.S. financial system to hide their bribe money they will be investigated, held accountable, and punished.”

“As a unanimous jury found at trial, Thiam abused his position as Guinea’s Minister of Mines to take millions in bribes from a Chinese conglomerate, and then launder that money through the American financial system,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Kim. “Enriching himself at the expense of one Africa’s poorest countries, Thiam used some of the Chinese bribe money to pay his children’s Manhattan private school tuition and to buy a $3.75 million estate in Dutchess County. Today’s sentence shows that if you send your crime proceeds to New York, whether from drug dealing, tax evasion or international bribery, you may very well find yourself at the front end of long federal prison term.”

“Thiam abused his official position, but the outcome shows that no one is above the law,” said Assistant Director Stephen E. Richardson. “The FBI will not stand by while individuals attempt to live by their own rules and use the United States as a safe haven for their ill-gotten gains. I would like to applaud the dedicated investigators and prosecutors who have worked to hold those who have committed these crimes accountable for their illegal actions.”

“Today’s sentencing should remind the public that no matter who you are, or how much money you have, you’re not immune from prosecution. The FBI will continue to use all resources at our disposal to uncover crimes of this nature and expose them for what they really are,” said Assistant Director in Charge Sweeney

According to evidence presented at trial, China Sonangol, CIF and their subsidiaries signed a series of agreements with Guinea that gave them lucrative mining rights in Guinea. In exchange for bribes paid by executives of China Sonangol and CIF, Thiam used his position as Minister of Mines to influence the Guinean government’s decision to enter into those agreements while serving as Guinea’s Minister of Mines and Geology from 2009 to 2010. The evidence further showed that Thiam participated in a scheme to launder the bribe payments from 2009 to 2011, during which time China Sonangol and CIF paid him $8.5 million through a bank account in Hong Kong. Thiam then transferred approximately $3.9 million to bank accounts in the U.S. and used the money to pay for luxury goods and other expenses. To conceal the bribe payments, Thiam falsely claimed to banks in Hong Kong and the U.S. that he was employed as a consultant and that the money was income from the sale of land that he earned before he was a minister.

The trial evidence showed that the purpose of the bribes was to obtain substantial rights and interests in natural resources in Guinea, including the right to be the first and strategic shareholder with Guinea of a national mining company into which Guinea had to, among other things, transfer all of its stakes in various mining projects and future mining permits or concessions that the government decided to develop on its own. China Sonangol and CIF, through their subsidiaries, also obtained exclusive and valuable rights to conduct business operations in a broad range of sectors of the Guinean economy, including mining.

The FBI’s International Corruption Squads in New York City and Los Angeles investigated the case. Trial Attorney Lorinda Laryea of the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section and Assistant U.S. Attorneys Elisha Kobre and Christopher DiMase of the Southern District of New York prosecuted the case. Fraud Section Assistant Chief Tarek Helou and Trial Attorney Sarah Edwards, and Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section Senior Trial Attorney Stephen Parker previously investigated the case. The Criminal Division’s Office of International Affairs also provided substantial assistance in this matter.

Slavery: Carson, Trump, and the Misuse of American History

Dr. Ben Carson, Secretary, Housing and Urban Development
Dr. Ben Carson, Secretary, Housing and Urban Development

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.

Jelani Cobb
The New Yorker

Blood Brothers: Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X

Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X
Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X

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

Randy Roberts
Randy Roberts

John Matthew Smith
John Matthew Smith

Contents

Preface. A Dream Deferred
Prologue. Behind the Veil

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
Acknowledgments
Bibliography
Notes

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.

Blood Brothers: The Mother Ship In Miami

Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X
Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X

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

Randy Roberts
Randy Roberts

John Matthew Smith
John Matthew Smith

Chapter One
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.
—Muhammad Ali

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.

There had never been a heavyweight boxer like Cassius Clay. He had the fresh, unmarked face of a teenage matinee idol and a smile to match. In a division often dominated by ponderous sluggers, his jitterbug style ushered in a new age for the sport. Getty Images
There had never been a heavyweight boxer like Cassius Clay. He had the fresh, unmarked face of a teenage matinee idol and a smile to match. In a division often dominated by ponderous sluggers, his jitterbug style ushered in a new age for the sport. Getty Images

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.