Segregated America, White Supremacy: The Lives of the Fathers of Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X

The following is an excerpt from the new book Blood Brothers by Rander Roberts & Johnny Smith (Basic Books, 2016): 


Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. grew up living in fear—fear of his father’s raised fist, the smell of alcohol on his breath, and his rising, angry voice bursting through the front door. He also feared what would happen if he did not heed his father’s warnings about the dangers lurking outside their home. Repeatedly, the man exhorted his boys: Don’t leave our neighborhood. Don’t go into white people’s stores. Don’t contradict a white man. Don’t look at white women. Don’t disobey policemen. And most importantly, don’t get arrested. “Our parents taught us to be safe,” said Bob Coleman, a childhood friend of Cassius Clay. “And they knew that if I got arrested by a policeman, there was nothing they could do to help me. It would be like I was lost to them. I would be on my own. That scared them as much as me.”

Cassius Clay Sr. told parables that taught young Cassius and his brother Rudy about the world. All the stories had the same general theme: black men die after seemingly harmless encounters with white men. The murders, Clay Sr. insisted, were “legal lynchings.” They happened all the time, he said. “When I was a boy, seemed like every darned day you’d read in the paper about something like that: a lynching, a burning of a Negro, every day. Now wouldn’t that turn you against the white man? Nine or ten or twelve or fifteen cases like that a week?”

The past haunted Clay Sr., and it lived on in the stories he told his sons. Living in a world of intolerable racism and violence, Clay Sr.’s frustration manifested in outward rage and loathing for the white man. As James Baldwin wrote in 1962, “The Negro’s past [was one] of rope, fire, torture, castration, infanticide, rape; death and humiliation; fear by day and night, fear as deep as the marrow of the bone; doubt that he was worthy of life, since everyone around him denied it; sorrow for his women, for his kinfolk, for his children, who needed his protection, and whom he could not protect.” In the words of Baldwin, this “hatred for white men [ran] so deep that it often turned against him and his own, and made all love, all trust, all joy impossible.”

Clay Sr. threw his entire body into the stories he told, twisting, snorting, huffing, and punctuating key points with a loud “Ummmmhmmmma” or an inopportune laugh. A natural storyteller, he moved gracefully from humor to tragedy, carrying the listener along with him.

He was an exasperated artist who earned a living as a sign painter. A wiry, dark-skinned man, opinionated and outspoken, he was not much of a fighter, except when he was drunk. Then he was apt to turn on his family. But he was also a teller of tall tales, most of which centered on his fantasy life. Given his mood of the moment, he might claim to be a Mexican, a Hindu, or an Arab. During his Mexican phase he wore a serape and took siestas. During his Arab period he called his second son Rudolph Valentino, after the actor who portrayed the Hollywood sheikh. A friend recalled that during Clay Sr.’s time as an Arab, he observed certain rituals. “At noon he used to get down off his painting ladder and in his little box he had a carpet and he’d put the carpet down and bow to the east and then bow to the west.”

All his life Clay Sr. struggled. A friend of the family said he “enjoyed life,” by which he meant he took his pleasures where he found them and didn’t worry excessively about propriety and consequences. But a streak of anger, a sense of opportunities denied, ran like a river through his life. Had he been white, he thought, he would have been famous and wealthy. His murals on walls and churches in the West End of Louisville attested to his talents, and he could sing any song in his thin baritone. Yes, sir, he said, he could have been a great artist or recording star. Like the other greats, all he needed was a little more training. “Nat King Cole was nothing when he started out,” he said. “And Dean Martin was nothing. Frank Sinatra was sickening. Frank Sinatra was sickening!”

Cassius Clay Jr. was a mama’s boy, handsome, sweet, and well liked. He feared his father, avoided violence, and abhorred alcohol. But in fundamental ways he was his father’s son, and he would become more so as the years passed. His father’s stories made all too much sense of the violent world inside and outside his home.

Two events were enough to confirm all of his father’s gruesome tales of horror. The first happened within a four- or five-minute drive of Clay’s home on Grand Avenue. In 1954 Andrew Wade IV, an African American electrician, and his wife, Charlotte, arranged for a white couple to purchase a house for them in an all-white suburban neighborhood. Their new neighbors immediately and angrily reacted, insisting that the Wades sell their house and move. When the Wades refused, they received ominous threats followed by a cross burning on their lawn. Later someone fired a rifle through a window in their house. Still, the Wades stayed put. Finally, on the night of June 27, 1954, while the Wades were gone for the evening, someone dynamited the house.

There was no justice in the case. The person who ignited the bomb was never identified. And the Wades were forced to move into the segregated West End. It was another example of what Clay Sr. told his son: the white man doesn’t want you around. He explained that in America, the black man could never get ahead. Cassius asked why. If he worked hard, why couldn’t he become a rich man? Why couldn’t he share in the American Dream? His father pointed to the skin on Cassius’s arm: “Look there, that’s why you can’t be rich.”

The second event—and for Cassius the more emotionally searing— occurred the following summer. Emmett Till’s mother had packed him off to visit family members in Money, Mississippi, and not long after his arrival in the small town, he and his cousin and several local boys went to Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market to buy some candy. While in the store, Till whistled while speaking to Carolyn Bryant. It may have been a wolf whistle, as some recalled, or perhaps due to his problem pronouncing “b”-words, he whistled before asking for bubble gum. Regardless, Bryant later told her husband that Till had made a pass at her. Enraged, Roy Bryant and his half-brother J. W. Milam went after Till. They pulled him from his uncle’s home, pistol-whipped him, beat him, and finally shot him in the head. Then they attached a heavy cotton-gin fan to his neck with barbed wire and dumped him into the Tallahatchie River.

In a sensational five-day trial, held in a packed courthouse and attended by nationally prominent reporters, Bryant and Milam were tried for kidnapping and murder. After listening to all the evidence, the all-white jury deliberated for sixty-seven minutes before voting to acquit the two men. “If we hadn’t stopped to drink a pop,” commented a juror, “it wouldn’t have taken that long.”

The trial, along with Till’s shocking open-casket funeral in Chicago, energized the civil rights movement and stood as a stark confirmation of what black males had long been taught. Justice was not color-blind. That lesson was not lost on young Cassius Clay. Twenty years after the event, he recalled looking at the pictures of Till’s mutilated face in the pages of Jet magazine, horrified by the sight of “his eyes bulging out of their sockets and his mouth twisted and broken.” He would never forget those images or the grizzly stories his father told him about the crime.

Mississippi justice was not confined to the South. Malcolm Little felt trapped by the same realities that pained Blyden Jackson, frustrated Clay Sr., frightened Cassius Jr., and killed Emmett Till. Writers often asked Malcolm when he first experienced racial inequality, as if he were a test subject whose anger could easily be reduced to some isolated incident. In March 1964, shortly after Clay won the heavyweight championship, a Swedish television reporter inquired about the psychological scars that Malcolm carried from his youth. When did segregation first hurt him? Irritated, he quipped, “When I was born. I was born in a segregated hospital of a segregated mother and father.”

Intrigued by his provocative answer, the writer pressed further. “The first was when we were living in Lansing, Michigan, in an integrated neighborhood.” One evening, when Malcolm was only six years old, he “woke up and found the house on fire. The good Christians of the neighborhood had come out and set the house afire. The second was when my father was found under a streetcar where he had been thrown by the good Christians—that’s my second.” Grinning derisively he paused, looking directly into the television camera. “You want my third and fourth and fifth and sixth and seventh?”

He never knew for sure how his father ended up under the streetcar—the coroner ruled Earl Little Sr.’s death accidental—but growing up fatherless, all but certain that white supremacists had killed his dad, Malcolm was embittered from an early age. He often told white journalists, “Your father isn’t here to pay his debts. My father isn’t here to collect. But I’m here to collect, and you’re here to pay.”

Burdened by their fathers’ broken dreams and shattered lives, Malcolm Little and Cassius Clay transformed the deep pain and anger that they felt into an unshakeable pride. Tormented by the past, they resisted the brutality of America, relentlessly pursuing redemption. One man was scarred by his father’s absence, the other by his father’s presence. They shared the kind of anguish and love that only a brother could understand. 

Excerpted from Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X by Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2016.

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