[This is dedicated to Mark Marqusee, who taught me the history below, and Jasiri X, who inspired me to write it.]
Muhammad Ali and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. have been dominating my thoughts recently, and not only because their birthdays just passed, a mere two days apart. Ali was admitted to the hospital on Thursday for being in a “non-responsive state”. This was happening as news that Selma, the film about Dr. King’s 1965 civil rights campaign was being both snubbed at the Oscars and hammmered by President Lyndon Johnson’s old apparatchiks, aghast that the film did not give LBJ what they believed was his proper due as a civil-rights hero. The national fear that these could have been Ali’s last days, as well as the concern that LBJ wasn’t getting enough of Dr. King’s reflected glory, could cause your brain to short-circuit if you were familiar with the actuality of their history, not to mention their private friendship during the 1960s.
On the face of it, Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King would have had no reason for either friendship or common cause. Ali was a member of the Nation of Islam, an organization staunchly opposed to King’s integrationist worldview. The NOI was withering in its assessment of King, most famously with Malcolm X’s contention that King in 1963 had led not a March but a “Farce on Washington.” King, in response wrote that he believed the Nation of Islam was “made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible devil.” He said we needed a movement based in love and not “the hatred and despair of the black nationalist.” As for Muhammad Ali, he mocked King’s integrationist ideal in 1964 saying, “I’m not going to get killed trying to force myself on people who don’t want me. Integration is wrong. White people don’t want it, the Muslims don’t want it. So what’s wrong with the Muslims? I’ve never been in jail. I’ve never been in court. I don’t join integration marches and I never hold a sign.” King’s ally Roy Wilkins responded by saying that “Cassius Clay [Ali’s name at birth] may as well be an honorary member of the white citizen councils.”
And yet, as the 1960s moved forward, Muhammad Ali and Dr. Martin Luther King formed a common bond forged through the common hatred showered upon them and their loved ones. As John Carlos, famed 1968 Olympian and protester, once said to me, “If there was an Olympic sport for number of death threats received back then, King and Ali would be fighting for the gold.” I have seen some of these death threats, and they are terrifying in a way that Twitter threats, awful as they are, simply are not. They are written often with a rational hand and comprise thousands of words, with knowledge of their targets’ movements, and solemn promises of when their lives or the lives of their children would end.