It is one of the most famous moments in sports history: the February 1964 match when a braggadocious 22-year-old named Cassius Clay beat Sonny Liston in Miami Beach to win the world heavyweight boxing championship.
Accompanying Clay to the two-story lodge were three friends who had been in the smoky, crowded Convention Hall when Liston surrendered: Nation of Islam minister Malcolm X, crossover soul singer Sam Cooke and Cleveland Browns running back and future Hall of Famer Jim Brown, then all in the prime of youth.
But what did the men rap about? Very little is known about that, which makes the conversation a perfect playground for an imaginative writer. That would be Kemp Powers, who penned the well-praised 2013 play “One Night in Miami” before writing a screenplay for the movie of the same name. The film, the first directed by Regina King, debuted on Amazon Friday to strong reviews.
The fictional debate that unfolds between the four men centers on a much more consequential fight than the one in the ring: the real-life struggle for Black equality or, at its most elemental, merely to be treated as human beings. But how to win that battle? The opinions in the hotel room and in the broader Black society were various, just as they are now.
In 1964, the rising clout and salaries of star Black athletes were granting them a new freedom to speak out on racial injustice, and with it came a new pressure to do so, said Aram Goudsouzian, a professor of history at the University of Memphis who has written about the intersection of race, sports and culture. “There is a new generation of Black superstars who can sort of write their own tickets,” he said.
In the film, Malcolm X aggressively prods the men in his hotel room to use their talent and stature to help Black people, taking particular (and some critics say unfair) aim at Sam Cooke. The back and forth between the friends, at turns passionate, poignant and funny, serves as a kind of fictional preamble to what happened afterward in the lives of the four men. Here’s the full story:
Muhammad Ali: ‘Free to be what I want’
On the morning of Feb. 26, 1964, the day after he won the championship, Cassius Clay emerged in the Miami Convention Hall and proclaimed to the throng of reporters that he had joined the Nation of Islam.
“I believe in Allah and in peace,” he said. “I don’t try to move into White neighborhoods. I don’t want to marry a White woman. I was baptized when I was 12, but I didn’t know what I was doing,” he said. “I’m not a Christian anymore. I know where I’m going, and I know the truth, and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want.”
It was classic Ali, defying racist expectations of the Black athlete as an integrationist hero who in his dignity and determination was a “credit to his race … the human race,” as boxing sportswriter Jimmy Cannon referred to early Black boxing great Joe Louis. That is, as long as he stayed focused on his sport and didn’t get riled up publicly about racial injustice.
At that time, “the model for the Black athlete is one who is exceptional to achieve equality, and that’s kind of in line with the notion of nonviolent protesters … that you have to be on higher moral plane,” Goudsouzian said. At the very vanguard of change, Brown, Clay and other star Black athletes “were just making it up as they went along.”
In a week’s time, Clay’s words would also turn out to be a declaration of freedom from Malcolm X. As Clay’s spiritual mentor who had recruited him to Islam, Malcolm X had tried to persuade the boxer to join him in leaving the Nation of Islam. He had grown disillusioned by its leader, Elijah Muhammed. Rumors swirled that Ali would soon follow him.
On March 4, Malcolm X and Clay toured the United Nations, where Clay told African delegates that he was looking forward to touring their countries and visiting Mecca, according to author Jonathan Eig in his book “Ali: A Life.” But just two days later, Muhammad announced in a radio address that Ali would receive the honor of a full Muslim name.
“This Clay name has no divine meaning,” he said. “Muhammad Ali is what I will give to him as long as he believes in Allah and follows me.”
Malcom X: Endangered icon
By the night of the Clay-Liston match, Malcolm X was well aware of the talk that he would be assassinated for breaking with the Nation of Islam. After Ali chose Muhammad over their friendship, Malcolm X openly expressed his fears to the press. According to a late-March 1964 FBI report quoted in Eig’s book, Muhammad had warned that the only way to stop Malcolm X is “to get rid of him the way Moses and others did their bad ones.”
Even so, Malcolm X moved with rebellious speed to establish the Muslim Mosque, positioning it as an alternative to Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent civil rights movement. “Concerning nonviolence, it is criminal to teach a man not to defend himself,” he said. And yet he also began to support desegregation and soon voiced regret for his earlier condemnation of the entire White race.
As he recruited members to his new organization, Malcolm X appeared hopeful that his former friend and protege would return to him. In April 1964, Malcolm embarked on the Muslim spiritual pilgrimage to Mecca known as the Hajj. Later staying at the Hotel Ambassador in Accra, Ghana, he caught a glimpse of Ali, who had also been touring Africa.
“Brother Muhammad!” Malcolm X exclaimed to Ali, who was traveling with Herbert Muhammad, the son of Elijah, according to Eig.
Ali turned to Malcolm X in the hotel lobby. “You left the Honorable Elijah Muhammad,” he said sternly. “That was the wrong thing to do.” He later made fun of Malcolm X’s long white robe and walking stick, according to news reports at the time.
On Feb. 21, 1965, just a few days shy of the first anniversary of the Ali-Liston fight, Malcolm X was shot to death at the age of 39 as he took the stage for a rally at the Audubon Ballroom in upper Harlem.
Nation of Islam members Muhammad Aziz, Mujahid Abdul Halim and Khalil Islam were later convicted of killing the civil rights leader and sentenced to life in prison, although some have questioned whether the true killers were ever brought to justice.
Decades later, in his 2004 autobiography, “The Soul of A Butterfly,” Ali wrote that spurning Malcolm X “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,” Ali, who died in 2016 at 74, wrote. “But he was killed before I got the chance.”
Sam Cooke: A song of hope and pain
In “One night in Miami,” Powers portrays Malcolm X as aggressively pushing Cooke to stop using his formidable songwriting talent to appeal to White audiences and instead train it on the cause of Black equality. He tells Cooke that he should have already written a civil rights anthem like Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which had been performed by Peter, Paul and Mary at the March on Washington the previous August and had managed to climb to the top of the pop charts.
Powers said in an interview with The Washington Post that the debate over the song was purely fictional. However, it was also grounded in history. Despite their vastly different personalities and faiths — Cooke had grown up a church boy and was uninterested in joining the Nation — Malcolm X had a great influence on Cooke. The minister’s message of “Black pride and self-determination, the principle of ownership, the need above all to control your own destiny” resonated with the lessons Sam’s father had taught him in childhood, wrote Peter Guralnick in his 2005 book “Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke.”
Cooke was indeed envious of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” as soon as he heard it on the newly released “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” album. Cooke was “so carried away with the message, and the fact that a White boy had written it, that … he was almost ashamed not to have written it himself,” Eig wrote.
“I’m going to write something,” Cooke told his friend and mentor, Black musician J.W. Alexander. Long after the civil rights movement, that song of pain and hope, “A Change is Gonna Come,” has the frustrating ring of a prophecy that must still be fulfilled. “I think my Daddy would be proud,” Alexander recalled Cooke saying, in an interview with Guralnick.
Cooke performed the song live only once, on “The Johnny Carson Show” on Feb. 7, 1964, two weeks before he joined Ali, Brown and Malcolm X in the Miami hotel.
Ten months later, on Dec. 11, the 33-year-old Cooke was shot to death at the Hacienda Motel in Los Angeles by the motel’s manager, who said Cooke had attacked her in search of a woman he had brought to his room. The woman said Cooke, who was drunk, had forced her to come to the hotel and attempted to rape her before she fled. Contradictory reports and conspiracy theories followed in the wake of the killing.
In the seat of Cooke’s candy-red Ferrari parked outside the motel, police found a bottle of whiskey and a copy of Muhammad Speaks, the official newspaper of the Nation of Islam — a detail, Powell noted, that spoke to Cooke’s connection to Malcolm X and his own internal tensions.
Jim Brown: The quest for equality
By the time of the meeting at the Hampton House, famed Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown had finished filming his first movie, “Rio Conchos,” a Western action flick in which he played a buffalo soldier. The film premiered eight months later at Cleveland’s Hippodrome Theater, on Oct. 23, 1964.
In 1966, Brown starred in the box office hit “The Dirty Dozen,” in which he played one of 12 convicts sent to France during World War II to assassinate German officers before the D-Day invasion.
Not coincidentally, in July of that year, he announced his retirement from the NFL at the height of his career to pursue acting full time at the age of 30.
In an interview with writer Alex Haley for Playboy Magazine, Brown talked about the role of Black actors in combating racism, a stance that probably would have made Malcolm X proud.
“There’s a crying need for more Negro actors, because for so long, ever since the silent screen, in fact, the whole world has been exposed to Negroes in stereotype roles,” he said. “That’s why I feel so good that Negroes are finally starting to play roles that other Negroes, watching, will feel proud of … instead of being crushed by some Uncle Tom on the screen.”
Brown also believed, much like Booker T. Washington, that Black people needed to become economically powerful to achieve equality. In 1966, the same year he retired, he founded the Negro Industrial Economic Union to support entrepreneurship in the African American community.
His political conservatism — he has supported President Trump in recent years — set him apart from Ali, Cooke and Malcolm X, but that did not appear to affect their friendship, Powers said.
“The most important thing I would love people to take away is that it’s possible to disagree with one another and still fight for the same things, to still maintain our friendships and still be allies despite the fact that we disagree,” he said. “These guys disagree pretty vocally and pretty viciously over the course of this night, but at the end of it all, they still want the same things, and they still want to get there together.”
With Malcolm X and Cooke both gone, Brown had Ali’s back. He convened a meeting in Cleveland of some of the nation’s most prominent Black athletes — among them Boston Celtic Bill Russell and the UCLA basketball center Lewis Alcindor (who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) — to discuss lending their support to the boxing champion. Ali had just been stripped of his heavyweight title and faced charges of draft dodging for his refusal as a Black Muslim to serve in the Vietnam War.
“I felt with Ali taking the position he was taking, and with him losing the crown, and with the government coming at him with everything they had, that we as a body of prominent athletes could get the truth and stand behind Ali and give him the necessary support,” Brown, now the only survivor among the four friends, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 2012.
The men at the Cleveland summit did not all agree with Ali’s stance on the war, and the gathering reportedly became impassioned at points. Yet they were all of the same mind in one way: They had the right as Black athletes and Black men to speak out about injustice, foreshadowing the actions of another NFL star, who a half-century later led his teammates to take a knee.
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