Inevitably, when one hears that a new Muhammad Ali book has just been published, there is a pause. Ali is one of the most widely covered athletes in history. What new can be offered? Most readers, however, quickly realize that there is usually something new to offer about Ali, because he was such a complex figure. Blood Brothers, by Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith, gives us something new by exploring how two of the most polarizing men of the early 1960s, Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, became friends, and then pawns, in a deadly game of racial politics.
Because the lives of both men have been well documented, the background information is brief. Thus, the reader is left with a significant [End Page 697] amount of material on the meeting, mentoring, and events that led to the murder of Malcolm X. This also allows the authors to highlight some under-examined sources, including FBI files on Malcolm X and other members of the Nation of Islam (NOI), which reveal the fractured relationship between Malcolm X and high-ranking members of the NOI and the developing political consciousness of Cassius Clay.
Their treatment of Cassius Clay moves beyond Clay the fighter to examine the "Louisville Lip," the trickster persona he used to mask his growing political independence and interest in the NOI. Clay often dropped hints of his developing religious and political philosophy to writers, but they paid him no mind because they saw him as the perpetual child, the "Louisville Lip." The authors assert that if the media had discovered that Clay was attending NOI meetings, it would have ruined his career. Then, in 1963, Clay met Malcolm X, the most controversial man in America.
The triumph of this book is how the two authors bring the reader on a rocky ride as they follow the fatal friendship of Clay and Malcolm X. Clay was on the rise to the championship and also climbing the ranks of the NOI, while Malcolm X was being pushed out of the group. The reader knows how this ends, but Roberts and Smith keep the reader intrigued by turning these developments into a power struggle between Malcolm X and the NOI. Malcolm X, we learn, believed his relationship with Clay would help him get back into the good graces of Elijah Muhammad and the NOI, but Muhammad, bent on maintaining his tyrannical power over the NOI, checked Malcolm X's move. After Clay won the heavyweight championship in February 1964, Muhammad kicked Malcolm X out of the NOI, renamed Clay Muhammad Ali, made Ali the new face of the movement, and put out a death warrant on Malcolm X. These developments, we learn, scared Muhammad Ali and kept him in the organization.
In the end, Blood Brothers is an intriguing sports book about the civil rights movement; it provides the crucial missing history on the relationship between two icons. The reader, however, is left wondering [End Page 698] how much autonomy the fiercely independent Ali had in his own life, especially in his battle against the Vietnam War. Although the epilogue rightly concludes that the NOI used Ali for publicity during his fight against his draft status, the reader is left wishing Roberts and Smith had more to say about the Vietnam years, where Ali's politics are most defined. But, to be fair, this is not the aim of the book, and the authors conclude with the assassination of Malcolm X. Overall, Blood Brothers is a fascinating read and will easily fit reading lists in a number of college courses.
LOUIS MOORE is an associate professor of history at Grand Valley State University. He is the author of I Fight for a Living: Boxing and the Battle for Black Manhood, 1880–1915 (2017).