Malcolm X And Sport: A Championship Without Winning

On May 19, 1925, Malcolm Little was born in Omaha, Nebraska. His relationship with athletics evolved throughout his brief life- a microcosm of his personal philosophy. As a youth, he and his siblings moved through a series of foster homes after his mother Louise was mentally institutionalized. In the seventh and eighth grades, he played on his school basketball team. After Malcolm dropped out of school and moved in with family in Boston, the 6'3" young adult had minimal brushes with sport. His buddy and eventual burglary accomplice, “Shorty” Jarvis, wrote that Malcolm was a good boxer capable of felling a street rival in “a minute flat”. Shorty and Malcolm were imprisoned in 1946, the year Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Malcolm was released from prison in 1952, a year after Joe Louis retired. He often spoke of how his community looked up to entertainers and athletes. In his late twenties, Malcolm became minister of the Nation of Islam’s Temple No. 11 in Boston. There, he was surrounded by young cohorts with athletic experience. Gene Walcott was a college hurdler who dropped out of Winston Salem State Teachers College to marry the former Betsy Ross. Walcott was given the name Louis X, and today is Louis Farrakhan. Brother Manny Williams was crafty pitcher on the Boston Selkirks semipro baseball team, and the brother of Evelyn X Williams, with whom Malcolm was in love. Temple Brothers Rodney and Gerald were basketball players, the latter had played at Morgan State, and later with the semipro Boston Bruins and Cambridge Comets. Within the mosque, the sole outlet for most sporting inclinations was martial arts training.

Because both Black and mainstream media coverage of Black U.S. celebrities and public figures often focused on college and pro athletes, while the Nation of Islam discouraged its adherents from following or playing competitive sports, in part due to the association with gambling, Malcolm was aware of accomplished athletes. In one speech he used the term “…as Black as Minnie Minoso”, invoking a Cuban big league baseball star. Of course, the athlete with whom he is most closely associated was Cassius Clay/Cassius X/Muhammad Ali, who converted to the Nation’s version of Islam without general public knowledge in 1962.

As Clay prepared to challenge heavyweight champion Sonny Liston in Miami in February 1964, sightings of the then-suspended (for having made controversial public statements about the assassination of JFK after all NOI ministers had been ordered not to comment on the president’s murder) Minister Malcolm in Clay’s training camp, prompted the fight’s promoter Bill Faversham to ask the challenger to denounce Malcolm because rumors of the association were hurting ticket sales for a bout already difficult to hype with Clay an 8–1 underdog. Clay refused, but agreed not to publicly announce his conversion until after the match. Malcolm stayed put.

Journalist George Plimpton asked Malcolm about physical pursuits. “I take walk. Long walks. We believe in exercise, physical fitness, but as for commercial sport, that’s a racket. Commercial sport is the pleasure of the idle rich. The vice of gambling stems from it. The Negro never comes out ahead — never one in the history of sport” What Malcolm meant was that while promoters and managers retired in material comfort, fighters such as Sam Langford, Jack Johnson, Beau Jack were virtually penniless in their old age, and even the great Joe Louis was broke because of income tax debt. As for Clay, Malcolm told Plimpton and others, what attracted him to the fighter was his agile mind.

Malcolm was famously never reinstated as an NOI minister. After his ties to Muhammad Ali were severed, the role of sport diminished in the final two years of his life. A connection that had began in youthful admiration, was confined based on tenets of faith, earned headlines when a champion of the race was linked to a champion of the ring, faded short of victory or consummation.

Bijan C. Bayne wrote the essay on the assassination of Malcolm X, for the forthcoming book 50 Events That Shaped Black History (ABL-CIO Press 2017).

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