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World Heavyweight Boxing Champion Muhammad Ali as he sits atop his car during the drive to his hotel after arriving at the airport in Lagos, Nigeria on June 1, 1964.

The significance of Muhammad Ali’s first trip to Africa

In 1964 World Heavyweight Champion Muhammad Ali came to Africa for the first time, it was at a time of rift in the Nation of Islam between its leader Elijah Muhammad and his former protege Malcolm X. Ali, who had joined the Nation after winning the title in February from Sonny Liston, sided with the leader against his friend Malcolm X.

The text below is from “King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero” by David Remnick.

In May, Ali left for a month-long tour of Egypt, Nigeria, and Ghana with his close friend the photographer Howard Bingham and two friends from the Nation of Islam, Osman Karreim (formerly Archie Robinson) and Herbert Muhammad (the third of Elijah’s six sons and Ali’s future manager). In the years to come, the chants of “Ali! Ali!” in the remotest villages – would all be repeated many times an in many countries.

Ali with Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah in Accra
Ali with Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah in Accra

But this trip was the first of its kind, and Ali was thrilled. It thrilled him to be among Africans, “my true people,” as he put it; it thrilled him to be among such world leaders as Kwame Nkrumah; and it thrilled him to be recognized in places that would never have known, or cared about Joe Louis, much less Rocky Marciano. This was, in short, his first taste of what it would be like to Muhammad Ali, international symbol, a fighter bigger than the heavyweight championship, the most famous person in the world. This was the start of it, the start of Ali’s transfiguration.

Ali with youngsters in Lagos in 1964
Ali with youngsters in Lagos in 1964

At the same time, the reporters, who were almost as thrilled by Ali as he was by himself, were also learning that he was a complicated man, a kind and gentle soul capable nevertheless of flashes of dismissive cruelty. Malcolm X, who had now taken the Sunni name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, was also traveling in Africa after a trip to Mecca. He was wearing a goatee and the gauzy white robes of the pilgrim and carrying a walking stick. On his trip, Malcolm had encountered many light-skinned Muslims, and decided that all the talk of “blue-eyed devils” amounted to “generalizations [that] have caused injuries to some whites who did not derserve them.” Malcolm’s trip was life-altering, so much so that when a reporter asked him if it was now true that he no longer hated white people, Malcolm said, “True Sir! My trip to Mecca has opened my eyes.” Just as Martin Luther King was expanding his critique of American society to include the war in Vietnam and economic injustice, Malcolm was becoming more moderate, more universalist, in his moral outlook. The two vectors of black leadership were converging, and it was Malcolm’s trip to the Middle East and Africa that helped make it happen. At the Hotel Ambassador in Accra, just as he was about to leave for the airport, Malcolm crossed paths with Ali.

“Brother Muhammad!” Malcolm called out. “Brother Muhammad!”

Ali looked over at Malcolm, but did not greet him as a friend. “You left the Honorable Elijah Muhammad,” Ali said stiffly, “That was the wrong thing to do, Brother Malcolm.”

Ali with Malcolm during the good times
Ali with Malcolm during the good times

Malcolm did not want to make matters worse by approaching him, and Ali looked away and moved on.

It was a terrible moment for Malcolm. Despite the appearance of strength and endurance, Malcolm had lived with his losses all his life. “I’ve lost a lot,” he said after the chance meeting. “Almost too much.” As a child, he had watched his father, a Garveyite preacher named Earl Little, frightened for his life by white racists; he remembered his father’s mysterious death on the trolley tracks and his mother going mad as a result; he remembered, after declaring his intention to become a lawyer, being told by his teacher, “You’ve got to be realistic about being a nigger”; and now, thrust out of the Nation of Islam, his life threatened by the Fruit of Islam, he had been rejected in the harshest terms by Muhammad Ali, his great protege and friend.

Shortly before leaving Africa, Malcolm sent Ali a wire that still assumed the tone of their former relationship. “Because a billion of our people in Africa, Arabia, and Asia love you blindly,” Malcolm wrote to Ali, “you must now be forever aware of your tremendous responsibilities to them.” In the telegram, which soon appeared in The New York Times, Malcolm warned Ali not to let his enemies exploit his reputation; Malcolm kept his language vague, but it was clear that the exploiters he had in mind were in the Nation of Islam.

Jet magazine reports Ali's welcome to Lagos by model Joyce Ogang
Jet magazine reports Ali’s welcome to Lagos by model Joyce Ogang

Ali was in no mood to take advice. He joked with reporters that he had come to Africa to find four wives; one to shine his shoes, one to feed him grapes, one to rub olive oil on his muscles, and one named “Peaches”. He was not prepared to accept the righteous moralizing of a discredited teacher.

Note: Ali didn’t take Malcolm’s advice in 1964 but would later follow the latter’s path in faith and worldview.

The book continues:

Ali’s religious course has shifted with time. Elijah Muhammad died in 1975 and the Nation of Islam split between the followers of Muhammad’s son Wallace, who sought to soften the Nation’s doctrine by denying his father’s divinity and moving closer to traditional Islam, and Louis X (now Louis Farrakhan), who considers Wallace, a soft-minded heretic. Ali stayed with Wallace Muhammad, and one of Wallace’s first gestures of reconciliation was to rename the New York mosque in honor of his father’s old antagonist Malcolm X. In many ways, Ali has followed Malcolm’s path. At first, Ali’s membership in the Nation was largely political – a gesture of self-assertion and racial solidarity – but like Malcolm he has become more inclusive in his rhetoric and more devout. Everything about the Nation of Islam that was once so threatening or obscure – the separatist rhetoric that was greeted so heartily by the KKK, the talk of “big-headed” Yacub and mysterious spaceships – all that, for Ali has been forgotten long ago.

Ali is intensely proud of his past, but if there is anything he looks back on with regret it is his cruel and hasty rejection of Malcolm. One of the first things Ali did when I met him in Berrien Springs was to open an enormous attache case and pull out a photograph of himself and Malcolm taken by Howard Bingham in Miami just before the Liston fight.

“That was Malcolm, a great, great man,” he said in his low, whispery voice.

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