The Shocking Birth of ‘Muhammad Ali’
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
The most kickass posse of all time liked vanilla ice cream.
On the surface, the four men could not have been more different. Malcolm X, a fiery Nation of Islam minister and controversial civil rights figure. Sam Cooke, a chart-topping singer whose pop ballads dominated the airwaves. Jim Brown, the most dominant football player the young NFL had ever seen. And Cassius Clay, a brash, young Olympic gold medal boxer landing with a splash in the professional ranks. The friendships of Clay and Brown, athletes at the pinnacle of the boxing and football worlds, made some sense. But as a whole, this foursome seemed to represent completely disparate symbols of blackness, masculinity and celebrity. On the surface.
But dig deeper and the similarities become more obvious, especially for the early 1960s. A need to do things their way, consequences be damned. A refusal to have their masculinity or blackness defined by outside forces. A passion to move their race forward. An uncompromising demand for respect. In many ways, these four men were among the earliest, purest embodiments of the nascent Black Power movement. And unbeknownst to many, they were all friends.
The foursome seemed to represent completely disparate symbols of blackness, masculinity and celebrity. On the surface.They had connected in different ways. The young Clay was a fan of Cooke and took to meeting the musician at key stops on tour for partying. Cooke first met Malcolm in Harlem, shortly before a performance at the legendary Apollo Theater, when he stopped by his office to hear more of his rap about black self-sufficiency. Probably the very same rap that was alluring to Brown, who had established the Black Economic Union for providing small business loans shortly after starting his Hall of Fame career as a running back for the Cleveland Browns.
And on one glorious night in Miami in 1964, they must have felt like the entire world belonged to them. On February 25, 1964, Clay, just 22, engineered one of the greatest upsets in boxing when he defeated fearsome heavyweight Sonny Liston to claim boxing’s heavyweight championship. Most experts picked the fighter nicknamed “The Louisville Lip” to go down in defeat to the champ, so no celebration was planned for after Clay’s shocking victory.
So Clay retreated to Overtown, Miami’s African-American ghetto. In Malcolm’s tiny hotel room at the Hampton House, he, Clay, Jim and Sam spent a quiet night in conversation over bowls of vanilla ice cream. The next morning, Clay confirmed to the press that he had become a member of the Nation of Islam — followed by the announcement that his name was now Muhammad Ali. Jim Brown abruptly retired from the NFL the next year and launched an acting career during which he emerged as one of Hollywood’s first black action heroes.
On one glorious night in Miami in 1964, they must have felt like the entire world belonged to them.
Sadly, less than a year later, half the foursome was dead. First Sam, on December 11, 1964, in a Los Angeles hotel room shooting that sparked conspiracy theories that persist to this day. And then, just four days before the one-year anniversary of that momentous night in Miami, Malcolm fell in a hail of bullets in the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem.
Neither man lived to see his ascent to iconic status. Sam Cooke’s seminal civil rights anthem, “A Change is Gonna Come” (which received the Towering Song Award from the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 2013), was released posthumously, and “Live at the Harlem Square,” his historic recording made in 1963, was not released commercially until 1985. Malcolm had contracted, along with Alex Haley, to write The Autobiography of Malcolm X in 1963, but the book wasn’t published until two years later, in the wake of the human rights activist’s assassination.
None of these great men could have imagined that a February night in Miami would be their last spent together. But for those few hours on that one night, the possibilities must have seemed endless.
Kemp Powers is a playwright, editor and journalist living in Los Angeles. His play about the friendship between Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, Cassius Clay and Jim Brown, One Night in Miami…, completed an extended Los Angeles run in September and is being developed for regional playhouses around the country.