In 1974, in the middle of a Michael Parkinson interview, Muhammad Ali decided to dispense with all the safe conventions of chat show etiquette.
“You say I got white friends,” he declared, “I say they are associates.”
When his host dared to suggest that the boxer’s trainer of 14 years standing, Angelo Dundee, might be a friend, Ali insisted, gruffly: “He is an associate.”
Within seconds, with Parkinson failing to get a word in edgeways, Ali had provided a detailed account of his reasoning.
“Elijah Muhammad,” he told the TV viewers of 1970s Middle England, “Is the one who preached that the white man of America, number one, is the Devil!”
The whites of America, said Ali, had “lynched us, raped us, castrated us, tarred and feathered us … Elijah Muhammad has been preaching that the white man of America – God taught him – is the blue-eyed, blond-headed Devil! No good in him, no justice, he’s gonna be destroyed!
“The white man is the Devil. We do believe that. We know it!”
In one explosive, virtuoso performance, Ali had turned “this little TV show” into an exposition of his beliefs, and the beliefs of “two million five hundred” other followers of the radically – to some white minds, dangerously – black separatist religious movement, the Nation of Islam.
At the height of his tirade, Ali drew slightly nervous laughter from the studio when he told Parkinson “You are too small mentally to tackle me on anything I represent.”
Maybe, though, it was just a judicious sense of self-preservation that prevented Parky from asking arguably the greatest boxer the world has seen to explain how “God” had taught Elijah Muhammad about white Americans being blue-eyed devils.
To explain that, Ali would have had to go back to the 1930s and an obscure door-to-door salesman in Detroit. Wallace D Fard, the founder of the Nation of Islam, appears to have arrived in Detroit in 1930 and began by selling silks to poor black families in the city. His wares, he told his customers, came from “their home country”.
Enough of them were intrigued for Fard to get a following and to be able to switch from the Bible to the Koran as the basis for his preaching.
“My name is W.D. Fard and I came from the Holy City of Mecca,” he supposedly told one early gathering. “More about myself I will not tell you yet, for the time has not yet come.”
It seems that time had still not come when in 1934, Fard mysteriously disappeared. The FBI took the opportunity to creatively fill in the gaps. It told one newspaper that Fard had in fact been a white man from New Zealand, and another that he had been a Turkish-born Nazi agent who had worked for the Germans during World War Two.
Not surprisingly the Nation of Islam has developed a different narrative. Elijah Muhammad, the man who emerged as leader of the Nation of Islam after the “departure” of its founder, came to identify Fard with Allah.
In this scheme of things, Elijah Muhammad, born Elijah Poole, the son of former slaves in Georgia, became the "Last Messenger of Allah."
In a 1996 article that is now on the Nation of Islam’s website, Elijah Muhammad’s wife Tynetta wrote that her husband was chosen as the “Divine Representative” who would preach that the “Master’s” mission had been: “to resurrect His lost and found people, who were identified as the original members of the Tribe of Shabazz from the Lost Nation of Asia. The lost people of the original nation of African descent, were captured, exploited, and dehumanized to serve as servitude slaves of America for over three centuries. “
Elijah Muhammad told the faithful that “the Blackman, the Original Man, [from whom] came all brown, yellow, red and white people,” was to overcome the oppression of whites – the “blue-eyed devils” - and form his own nation.
To some, including the black liberal Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the Nation of Islam was “run by a bunch of thugs organised from prisons and jails.”
Others, like the black Conservative commentator George Shuyler may have dismissed Elijah Muhammad as “a rogue and a charlatan” but conceded, in the ugly language of 1950s America, “When anybody can get tens of thousands of Negroes to practice economic solidarity, respect their women, alter their atrocious diet, give up liquor, stop crime, juvenile delinquency and adultery, he is doing more for Negroes' welfare than any current Negro leader I know.”
In 1959, the same year that Shuyler was writing, a teenage boxer called Cassisus Clay first heard of the Nation of Islam. He tentatively attended his first meeting in 1961.
And in 1964, the morning after the 22-year-old 7-1 underdog stunned the world by defeating Sonny Liston to become heavyweight champion of the world, he announced that he had renounced his “slave name” Cassius Clay and joined the Nation of Islam.
Beside him as he made his announcement was the man who had become his mentor – Malcolm X.
Malcolm Little had entered a Charlestown jail in 1946 as a hustler convicted of burglary. He had been paroled in 1952 as Malcolm X, a self-educated convert who had ditched his slave name and was burning to go to the Nation of Islam’s Chicago headquarters and meet Elijah Muhammad.
By the time he met Ali in 1962, Malcolm X was Elijah Muhammad’s chief spokesman and most prominent apostle.
His belief that violence was sometimes necessary, and the Nation of Islam’s insistence that followers remain separate from and avoid participation in American politics meant that not every civil rights leader welcomed Muhammad Ali joining the movement.
“When Cassius Clay joined the Black Muslims [The Nation of Islam],” said Martin Luther King, “he became a champion of racial segregation, and that is what we are fighting against.”
The bitter irony is that soon after providing the Nation of Islam with its most famous convert, Malcolm X became disillusioned with the movement. A trip to Mecca exposed him to white Muslims, shattering his belief that whites were inherently evil. He broke from the Nation of Islam and toned down his speeches.
Ali, though, remained faithful to Elijah Muhammad. “Turning my back on Malcolm,” he admitted years later, “Was one of the mistakes that I regret most in my life.”
He was never able to put it right. On February 21 1965 Malcolm X was assassinated as he gave a speech at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem.
Three members of the Nation of Islam were convicted of the killing. Prosecutors alleged that they had wanted to send a message to Malcolm X’s supporters, but the extent to which they did or did not take orders from above has not been conclusively proved.
Rumours, however, have continued to swirl. In 1993, Louis Farrakhan, by then the Nation of Islam’s new leader, was seen by some to acknowledge the possibility that the movement might somehow have been linked to Malcolm X’s murder when he told a crowd of supporters: “We don't give a damn about no white man law if you attack what we love. And frankly, it ain't none of your business.
“Did you teach Malcolm? Did you put Malcolm out before the world? Was Malcolm your traitor or ours? And if we dealt with him like a nation deals with a traitor, what the hell business is it of yours?”
By then, though, Ali’s own attitudes to the "blue-eyed devils” had long since mellowed. In 1975 he converted to the far more conventional Sunni Islam - possibly prompted by the fact that Elijah Muhammad had died of congestive heart failure in the same year, and his son Warith Deen Mohammad had moved the Nation of Islam towards inclusion in the mainstream Islamic community.
He rebranded the movement the “World Community of Islam in the West”, only for Farrakhan to break away in 1978 and create a new Nation of Islam, which he claimed remained true to the teachings of “the Master” [Fard].
Ali was not among Farrakhan’s followers.
“The Nation of Islam taught that white people were devils,” he wrote in 2004. “I don't believe that now; in fact, I never really believed that. But when I was young, I had seen and heard so many horrible stories about the white man that this made me stop and listen."
The attentive listener to the 1974 interview, might, in fact, have sensed that even then Ali wasn’t entirely convinced about white men being blue-eyed devils.
He had, after all, set the bar pretty high for “associates” like Angelo Dundee to become friends.
“I don’t have one black friend hardly,” he had said. “A friend is one who will not even consider [before] giving his life for you.”
And, despite calling Parky “the biggest hypocrite in the world” and “a joke”, he could also get a laugh by reassuring the chat show host: “I know you [are] all right.”
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