MEETING MUHAMMAD ALI
On 14 April 1964 Malcolm had travelled to Makkah in the Middle East to make the hajj (meaning ‘effort’ in Arabic). In 1948 while in prison, his brother Reginald had introduced Malcolm to Nation of Islam [NOI] to set him on the straight and narrow. Despite a distrust in religion Malcolm became drawn to Islam and later that year he joined the NOI. While the hajj was never a requirement within the NOI, by then Malcolm had long since veered away from the NOI towards an integrated and non-racist Islam.
In 1950 while still in prison, he had written a letter to President Harry Truman. In it he expressed his moral objection to the Korean War and stated that he was a Communist. (The nickname Detroit Red was only a reference to his red beard though, an inheritance of his Scottish maternal grandfather.) He changes his name from Malcolm Little to Malcolm X in acknowledgement of his unknown African forebears and in denial of his ‘slave name’. Upon his return to the States, following this first hajj in 1964, he renames himself El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.
On completion of the hajj Malcolm set out on what was a return visit to several Arab and African states, having previously been in 1959. On 10 May Malcolm arrived in Accra and by invitation addressed the Marxist Forum, a student organisation of the University of Ghana. Ghana received Malcolm warmly. He mesmerized his audiences. He addressed various members of the Ghanaian parliament, met with the Ghanaian Minister of Defence, with academics, and he addressed a capacity audience at the University of Ghana, met with editors (the Ghana Press Club threw him a party), international diplomats, (the Cuban ambassador held a party in his honour) and he spent an entire day in the company of the Nigerian High Commissioner. He met with and dined with various members of the American expatriate community.
Malcolm was yet to meet President Kwame Nkrumah who was probably reluctant to offend the American government. However, Shirley Graham Du Bois, second wife of the illustrious African American scholar and activist Dr W.E.B. Du Bois, approached the presidential office on his behalf. Her husband had been hounded out of America and he had died in Accra on 27 August 1963 at the age of 95, barely six months after becoming a Ghanaian citizen. The following day would be marked in history by the march on Washington at which Dr Martin Luther King gave his ‘I have a dream’ speech. Ironically, it was Dr Du Bois who had first attempted to march on the nation’s capital some 60 years earlier. President Nkrumah agreed to grant Malcolm a private audience. On 15 May Malcolm also addressed 200 students of the Kwame Nkrumah Ideological Institute, just outside Accra.
Also present in town was Muhammad Ali, and he too had registered to stay at the Ambassador Hotel. Malcolm sought to avoid him because of the by now severely strained relationship over the NOI. It was on the morning of 17 May that their paths crossed. Ali had only arrived in Accra a couple of days before and after more than a month on the road, Malcolm was departing for various other African stopovers en route to Morocco. A convoy carrying Nigerian, Chinese, Cuban, Algerian and Egyptian diplomats was waiting to escort Malcolm to the airport. He had been chatting to American expatriates outside the hotel.
Among them was a young Maya Angelou. She had travelled from America to Egypt with exiled South African anti-apartheid activist Vusumzi Make in 1961. Vusi Make was the youngest accused at the Rivonia treason trial alongside Nelson Mandela. [At his inauguration in 1994 President Nelson Mandela would recite her poem Still I Rise] A year later their tempestuous relationship had ended. Angelou moved to Ghana with her son Guy and joined the small but lively expatriate African American community. As in Cairo, she was working as a journalist and also held an administrator’s position at the University of Ghana’s School of Music and Drama.
In her memoir about this part of her life, A Woman’s Heart, Angelou recalls a talkative and excited Malcolm on the day, buoyed by the support he had built for his project, a petition that would place the grievances of African Americans before the United Nations. He believed that by forging a closer relationship with Africa instead, Black Americans could gain global pressure against their domestic travails. No longer would they appeal to their White American counterparts. Angelou writes that it was an extraordinary sight to see him, so isolated and vilified in the States, yet so honoured as a leader and teacher abroad. Malcolm was dressed in traditional attire and carried a walking stick, both gifts.
Angelou writes that the gathered Americans “heard the familiar sounds of black American speech. We turned around and saw Muhammad Ali coming out of the hotel with a large retinue of black men. They were all talking and joking among themselves. One minute after we saw them, they saw Malcolm. The moment froze.” Ali greeted all courteously, but ignored Malcolm, and as he turned away, Malcolm called out, ‘Brother Muhammad, Brother Muhammad.” Ali stopped, and Malcolm said, “Brother, I still love you, and you are still the greatest.” Ali coldly repudiated him, “You left the Honourable Elijah Muhammad, and that was the wrong thing to do”. Ali proceeded to mock Malcolm’s attire and the walking stick, completely rejecting him. Maya Angelou says Malcolm smiled sadly, his shoulders sagging, as he said of his young protégé, “I’ve lost a lot, a lot, almost too much.”
Years later Ali explained that he had been conflicted between loyalty to Malcolm and commitment to Elijah Muhammad of the Nation of Islam. “When he came to greet me I turned away, making our break public. Turning my back on Malcolm was one of the mistakes that I regret most in my life. I wish I’d been able to tell Malcolm I was sorry, that he was right about so many things. But he was killed before I got the chance. He was a visionary – ahead of all of us.”
An unpleasant aftermath of Malcolm’s highly successful sojourn in Ghana was a derisive article in a government newspaper written by an aide to President Nkrumah, the exiled South African lawyer Hyman M. Basner, charging Malcolm with racialism. In 1952 Basner had briefly employed Nelson Mandela in his Johannesburg practice before Mandela left and set up practice with Oliver Tambo. The next day however saw a fierce rebuttal by the esteemed exiled African American writer, Julian Mayfield, also living in Ghana. American embassy officials in Accra reported that neither Malcolm’s visit nor his views had damaged relations with the Ghanaians since they have heard others express opinions on America’s racial situation before, “though less eloquently”.
By July Malcolm was making his way back to Africa for a third visit, totalling all of nineteen weeks.
Maya Angelou returned to America in 1965 to assist Malcolm with his recently founded Organization of Afro-American Unity. Shortly after her return however, on 21 February 1965 at the age of 39, Malcolm X was assassinated.
In 1963 Malcolm had agreed to collaborate with African American writer Alex Haley on Haley’s first book, documenting Malcolm’s life story. There had been several attempts on his life and even that of his wife Betty and their four small daughters at the time. Malcolm expressed doubt that he would live to see the work published. Indeed, almost a year to the day that he had witnessed his young protégé’s victory over Sonny Liston, Malcolm was shot and killed by associates of the Nation of Islam as he started to address a rally in a dingy Manhattan ballroom near Harlem. Betty Shabazz, pregnant with their twin daughters, witnessed the assassination of her husband. The Autobiography of Malcolm X was published months after the assassination. In 1998 TIME magazine listed it one of the ten ‘required reading’ books of nonfiction of the twentieth century.
Malcolm X, as African American and internationalist activist, then as now, remains unquestionably without equal in articulating the misgivings, the attainment of respect and equality within society, the reality and the dream, the fears and aspirations, of millions.
© Copyright Elvira van Oudtshoorn 2015