In March 1965, I interviewed Muhammad Ali in Chicago. My interview was published by my newspaper IL TEMPO of Rome, and the English translation appeared in the CHICAGO SUN TIMES. I am reproducing the chapter in my ebook, SCRIBE, Thirty Years of Correspondence from America (available on Amazon Books). In this chapter, I recount the circumstances of my interview and the content of an extraordinary dialogue with the champion.
CHAPTER 8: MUHAMMAD ALI AND THE STRUGGLE FOR CIVIL RIGHTS
My first year in Washington turned out to be far more interesting and challenging because of the social upheavals in the United States. My first out-of-town assignment came in February 1965 when I went to New York to report on the assassination of Malcolm X, the Muslim minister who had left the Nation of Islam after rising to the top of the organization. After founding the Organization of Afro-American unity, he was beginning to work with mainstream black civil leaders when he was shot and killed on the stage of the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan. Three Black Muslims, or members of the Nation of Islam, were arrested, tried and convicted. I started writing about the Nation of Islam and had the opportunity to learn more at the assembly of the Black Muslims in Chicago. Entering the cavernous hall where the meeting was taking place was like being engulfed by a dark atmosphere of a Franz Kafka novel. I was admitted after long questioning that was not helped by the fact that I was a foreigner, with an unpronounceable name, whose reasons for watching the proceedings of the Nation of Islam were totally unclear and therefore suspect. The Nation of Islam had been founded in 1930 preaching racial pride, discipline and separation from white society. Its leader Elijah Muhammad even called for a separate nation for African Americans. At the time, the membership of the Nation of Islam was thought to be around 50,000. One of the recent converts made by Malcolm X himself was the Olympic heavyweight champion Cassius Clay, who had taken the name of Muhammad Ali. The paroxysm that I had witnessed at the funeral service for Malcolm X in New York did not prepare me for the spectacle of the Muslim convention in the huge amphitheater of Chicago where no fewer than 3,000 Muslims, the men in black and the women in white cassocks with veils looking like Red Cross nurses. And all were shouting “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His Apostle”. Elijah Muhammad wore a beret with sparkling embroidered half moon and stars and a bow tie. He worked the crowd into frenzy. “I am the messenger of God. If the whites believe in Jesus, why did they kill him? They say they are followers of Jesus but they are followers of the devil. They hate me because they hate the messenger! And they are angry because Allah revealed the truth to us”. This story of the “revelation” of the truth was a constant in Muhammad’s preaching and elicited the continuous cry “Yeah!” But then he said something that I found important: “I could not start a revolution if I wanted. I want my people to live, to come out of slavery without loss of life”. I thought that in some way this answered a question that I often thought about: why didn’t the blacks become Communists en masse? The theme of salvation via Muhammad was far from a joyous celebration. The faces of the Muslim guards deployed all over the auditorium were dour, their jaws clinched, their faces almost threatening to an outsider. Even young boys, all dressed in black suits, had a severe look on their small faces.
I came out of the Black Muslim revival with the firm conviction that this movement was out of the mainstream of the black advance toward full social, economic and political equality. Those who preached hatred and calamities were denying the mass of Afro-Americans their right to a better life in a changing society. The fringe African organizations – with such colorful names as United African Nationalist Movement – and their condemnation of the “white power structure” had negligible impact upon the black citizenry that was perceiving the first beneficial effects of the long intense efforts of the NAACP and leaders such as Roy Wilkins, Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Whitney Young and the quickly rising imposing figure of Martin Luther King. It was clear to me that the American blacks, after rejecting the idea of the separation of the races and the violence preached by the extremists, were open to intelligent moderation and orderly progress. Communism had always been the farthest thing from their minds.
And yet, there were popular personages who did not help the push toward the achievement of political and civil rights. I went to meet one of them in the heart of south side Chicago. I had met him once before in Rome when I covered the 1960 Olympic Games. At that time, when he won the gold medal, his name was Cassius Clay. Now he was Muhammad Ali. I tracked him down in the lobby of the Roberts Motel with his brother Rudolph Valentino and seven other men, two of whom were detectives probably hired to protect him from possible reprisals by the followers of the slain Malcolm X. Muhammad Ali greeted me with the remark: “so they come from Rome to see the champ, the beautiful”. It was one of the strangest interviews that I ever conducted. He went right into a description of his faith as a Black Muslim. “Since I became a Muslim, I have gained respect. When you get sticks behind your ears and a bunch of dogs sicked on you, you know you don’t have respect. The Muslims welcome you. Being a Muslim got me a dinner with Nkrumah, with the king of Arabia, with Nasser. ‘We shall be glad when the American Negro people wake up to reality’, they all told me.”
His voice rose to a shout and he beat his chest and slapped the shoulders of his followers as he spoke. How did he explain that only a small percentage from America’s twenty-four million Negro Americans had joined the Muslims, I asked. “You will see,” he said with a smirk. “Within 24 four months, all Negroes will become Muslims. Muhammad is never wrong. He is the Messenger to twenty-four million Negroes, blind and dead Negroes”. He continued, as his second wife Sonji made a brief appearance and left: “Who brought us here? Who worked as a slave to build this country? Now they don’t give us nothing. Africa is our country”. Raising my voice, I asked him: “Would you really go back to Africa?” “Yessir!” he shouted. “Twenty-two million of us will leave this country and leave you alone. The white man is doomed!” I asked him whether he considered me, too, a “white devil”. He shot back: “Yes, you, too, are a devil”. But, I told him, Elijah Muhammad does not consider Italians devils, perhaps because the majority of them do not have blue eyes. He appeared doubtful for a moment and then clapped a big hand on my shoulder and beamed his angelic smile. Then, laughing, he went on: “The Italians cannot be devils. Hannibal and the Moors were in your country a long time. You have got some African in your blood and in your skin. The black man is the original man”. Which did he consider more important, his boxing crown or the Muslims? “I prefer to continue to be a fighter and to convert the Negroes who know me. Of course, religion is more important than fighting. If all American Negroes are not Muslims within two years, I’ll get out of the Muslims”.
When his trainer Drew Brown, a black man with a serene face, came into the conversation, Muhammad Ali said he was not a Muslim and Brown, in a quick response, said that he was not going to be “in the wonderful space ship’. Muhammed Ali did not appreciate Brown’s irony and rushed him, laughing and shouting and pretending to knock him down with right and left punches. Everybody laughed and the champion delivered a dressing down to the trainer who remained unperturbed, although his smile now appeared somewhat forced. I tried to break the tension by asking Muhammad Ali to tell me more about the space ship. “It comes from Mars. If Muhammad said it, it is certainly true”. He took up a pen and sketched wavy lines around a circle that he designated as the Earth and said: “The space ship is here, it rotates the Earth, it stops, gets closer, and then it moves out again”. To illustrate the idea of movement, he waggled a hand and then drew two more lines departing from the Earth. “The space ship has the power of 1,500 bombers. Muhammad does not want me to tell you about it”. I asked him how the destruction of the world would occur. “America will be the first continent to be destroyed. But we are like Moses, we are getting out when chaos comes. When we get out, it will be too late for those Negroes who let themselves be integrated with the white man. We must separate. This is not our country. We were here as a test in slavery….” His brother interrupted with a resounding “That’s right!”
The interview had become an oppressive experience. Luckily for me, the champion’s entourage was about to leave for Florida. I said good bye to Muhammad Ali but Rudolph Valentino detained me to tell me that all whites are “devils — the Masons, the Catholics, the Pope, they are all devils”. All I could think of was to tell him that he had a nice Italian name. “My name is Rahman Ali”, he said. “The other is my slave’s name. But had it not been given to him freely by his parents? “My parents are sick in their minds”, he said with a scornful smile. “They are victims of the white masters”. As I left the motel, I felt as relieved as if I had just stepped from the madness of an asylum where one is compelled to humor the inmates; to joke, laugh, exchange backslaps with them to avert any possible unpredictable behavior. I also was convinced that Muhammad Ali, and the Muslims, were serious in what they said, although I would have liked to believe that the champion was having some fun at the expense of the Italian journalist who had wandered into their midst.
Muhammad Ali became a legendary figure not just in the boxing arena but also on the political stage. His early opposition to the Vietnam War (“I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. No Viet Cong ever called me nigger”) even gave Martin Luther King a nudge toward condemning the conflict in a break with the Johnson Administration in spite of its drive for civil rights. Muhammad Ali broke with the Nation of Islam after Elijah Muhammad’s death in 1975 and converted to mainstream Sunni Islam.
Of a different tenor was an interview that I had in the month of March 1965 with the Executive Secretary of the NAACP Roy Wilkins. Wilkins was a tall man, with salt and pepper hair in a crew cut. After the march on Washington, he had acquired national prominence. “The theory of non-violence is a must for the black man in America”, he started out by saying. “First, the black class does not have the numeric strength. Second, it does not have the economic potential. And third, it does not have the political strength to follow a course of action that is not that of non-violence”. In a prophetic pronouncement, Wilkins stressed that besides the blacks, the whites as well would have “to adapt to a new open society that will embrace the black minority”. The NAACP looks at the situation as a “white problem” rather than a “Negro problem”, a problem that will be solved – he stated – when the whites will grant to the blacks all of the constitutional and moral rights that belong to the minority. In those very days, the voting legislation was about to be approved by Congress, the first brick in the edifice of civil rights that Lyndon Johnson was erecting. Wilkins was fully aware that the biggest task for the NAACP was to bridge the gap that still separated the organization from the explosive Harlem situation where – he said – “the protest is not racial but a class bombshell”. From Wilkins’ corner, it was easy for me to see that the NAACP was acting in the interest of the black minority, rather than pushing the blacks into action. Martin Luther King was going to take care of that. Yet, the NAACP had laid the groundwork making it possible for the Supreme Court to pass the historical verdict of May 1964 that deemed segregation in the schools unconstitutional.
I must admit that I was awed by the drama of Harlem and its roots in the preaching of a visionary black leader, Marcus Moziah Garvey, the father of black nationalism. The story of this man and his actions, at times rabble rousing and other times pathetic, had been unfolding among the old generations of the “black ghetto”. Garvey was born in the West Indies and did not waste time in Harlem in preaching to the mass of derelict blacks. His message was simple, direct, almost evangelical: “the black race must lift itself up, and reunite with mother Africa”. For years he spread his message asking blacks to develop pride in their skin and faith in the redemption of the African race. Thus, the mulatto from Jamaica became the Redeemer of Harlem and the founder of an African Empire. He even created a navigation company, the Black Star Line, to promote the commercial undertakings of the black population and, to a lesser extent, to help the return to Africa of those blacks who wanted out of the United States. The Black Star Line raised a capital of hundreds of thousands of dollars but its first ship – acquired to transport whisky to Cuba – did not bring in any money and the company ended in bankruptcy. Garvey was sentenced for fraud, sent to a penitentiary and finally pardoned by President Coolidge and deported. Completely forgotten, he died in London in 1940.
I went to Harlem to find out whether the idea of the return to Africa, refashioned by the Black Muslims, had still any traction in that black community. After a visit to the National Memorial African Bookstore I was able to track down the president of the United African Nationalist Movement, James Lawson, a tall black man with a thin mustache, and short black hair, obviously dyed. He told me early on that he was Garvey’s follower and as such he upbraided the blacks “who want to sit with the white man but do not think of becoming owners of the houses where they live”. His criticism of Martin Luther King did not surprise me, as Mr. Lawson expounded on the need to launch programs of economic development for the blacks, accusing King of being “uninterested”. Lawson was a man who did not understand the principles of King’s integration philosophy and vaguely echoed the programs of “self development” of the Black Muslims. But his development ideas had a certain validity especially when he insisted that “Harlem is for the Harlemites”. In a sense, he had refurbished Marcus Garvey’s legacy replacing the illusion of the return to Africa with an ambitious program of economic upheaval. In fact, unlike Martin Luther King, he was blackmailing the whites but the overall objective was the same, uplifting the blacks through political maneuvering. Even in Harlem, the kingdom of Marcus Garvey, a new dawn was rising through the understanding of the new dynamic of economic pressures, political alliances and the search for selective advantages in a complex but evolving society. Clearly Mr. Lawson was a front with very few members but he had found a way to channel Harlem’s business people toward getting loans from the Small Business Administration. And this was no minor feat, it was the harbinger of economic integration.
Another venue that deserved exploring was that of the black artists, especially the writers. In Harlem I found another black voice that belonged to a spiritual heir of Malcolm X, a poet, playwright and writer by the name of LeRoi Jones. I had become interested in this artist because he had drawn inspiration from Dante, with a strange mixture of racial resentment and Dante’s powerful imaging in a book title The System of Dante’s Hell. He had borrowed from Dante the idea of placing bad people in selected circles: the heretics, the seducers, the fraudulent counselors and so forth. He was particularly harsh with the heretics because, he told me: “it is heresy to escape with terror from intimate emotions and introspection. The negation of our own sentiments is the vilest sin”. He was defiant in stating: “to me there is nothing wrong if a black man hates the whites. My intention is to reeducate half a million Negroes in Harlem to draw a sense of pride from their skin”. He had staged a play called The Toilet in Harlem, a work imbued with hatred and scorn for the white man. It described the drama of a white homosexual exploited and mocked by young black men. The real problem was that the play had been staged by the Black Arts Workshop with a grant of the civic organization Haryou, which in turn had received over a million dollars from the Office of Economic Opportunity. As could be expected, the funding for the Workshop was terminated. But LeRoi Jones had already made his point.
The year 1964 had become hot with the flames of the struggle for civil rights. The spreading of protests and marches to end segregation in the south was met by police forces deployed for the indiscriminate suppression of the disorders. Tear gas was used on a large scale and dogs were unleashed against blacks and whites demonstrating in the streets of southern cities and small towns. The peak of the crisis was reached when three civil rights workers – James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner – were killed on June 21, 1964 in Nashoba County, Mississippi. “Chaos and anarchy reign in Mississippi” was the outcry of black leaders and many elected representatives in Congress. The white supremacist system in the south made it difficult to prosecute the killers in Mississippi. The very December day that Martin Luther King received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, a magistrate in Meridian ordered that nineteen of the twenty- one alleged murderers of the civil right workers, including the sheriff of Nashoba County, be freed. Finally, in 1967, seven of the men were convicted of federal conspiracy charges and sentenced to three to ten years. Another eight were acquitted by all-white juries. Three others walked because of mistrials. It was only in January 2005, four decades after the crime, that Edgar Ray Killen, then 80, was charged with murder and subsequently convicted on a lesser charge.
The following year, 1965, was no less hot, erupting into the Watts riots in August that caused the death of thirty-four people and enormous destruction of property. The five-day riots in Los Angeles and the persistent civil rights demonstrations brought an acceleration of federal programs aimed at fostering the development of depressed areas in the country through various programs for housing, transportation and education. Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, and particularly the War on Poverty, was beginning to produce benefits for the American black population. An important achievement came with the creation of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, a federal project that had met opposition in Congress but was finally approved in the summer.
When I decided to go south again to take a look at the evolving situation, it did not take long to realize that in fact “the times they were a changin’.” My visit to Birmingham, Alabama, a bastion of white supremacy, produced a couple of surprises. The sheriffs and police chiefs who had unleashed the dogs were in danger of not being reelected. The sheriff of Selma, Jim Clark, the nemesis of the city’s blacks, was opposed by the former chief of police who had acted with restraint in the dramatic days of March 1965. And the former Director of the Alabama Public Safety Department, Al Lingo, the officer in charge at the time of the Selma to Birmingham marches, had a new version of the events that he publicized while running for sheriff of Jefferson County, openly soliciting the vote of the blacks. He accused Governor Wallace of having aggravated the situation by ordering the march to be stopped in spite of Lingo’s plan to let the demonstrators march “as far as they could”.
I covered the marches in Selma, and in fact I had marched alongside Hosea Williams, a legendary figure in the fight for civil rights. He had become a close associate of Martin Luther King, who had asked him to organize the Selma to Montgomery march in March 1965 that passed to history as “Bloody Sunday”. The marchers were beaten with clubs and fired upon with tear gas. The violence by police was dramatically documented by the television crews and shook the nation. One of my friends and colleagues, Richard Valeriani of NBC, ended up in the hospital with a broken arm. The coverage of the repression at the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma acted as a powerful lever on President Johnson to force the Voting Rights Act through Congress in August 1965. Hosea Williams was not in a mood to ask nicely for civil and political rights. “The time has come to weed the boys from men”, he told me. “We must let the people in Congress know that we mean business. We are dealing with the destiny of mankind”. Williams, who was also a pastor and executive director of the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) did not mince words of defiance as he saw the black struggle in the United States as part of world upheaval for the rights of man. He repeated: “What happens here is going to happen all over the world. We have sung enough songs, now we are ready to do what we came here for”. Being arrested was the last of his preoccupations. He had been arrested more that 125 times in the south. And now he was singing: “the whole train is coming in, you don’t need a ticket to get onboard”. In the following years he ran for political office various times and was finally elected to the Georgia State Senate in 1974.
The Voting Rights Act approved in 1965, the natural sequel to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, marked a triumph for President Johnson. It had dramatic consequences as African- Americans registered to vote in great numbers to the point that by 1968 even Mississippi, the hard line segregationist state, had 59 percent of its black citizens registered. The same year, another civil rights act prohibited racial discrimination in the sale or rental of houses. Lyndon Johnson had put to good use the Democratic majority in Congress and led the way with determination to integrate blacks not just in the social but in the political arena as well.
By the time I returned to Alabama, black candidates were running for office and the black majorities made it possible for them to win. The segregationists had lost their last battle and the doctrine of “separate but equal” that had stymied for so long the progress of the blacks was gone forever. A revolt was afoot against the very symbols of white supremacy. I found out that in Alabama the emblem of the Democratic Party was a white rooster printed on the ballots, and not the traditional donkey. In Lowndes County, where the blacks constituted 82 percent of the population, a new political movement had been established, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, with a brand new emblem, a black panther. This was the beginning of the Black Panther Party in the south. I asked one of the young black activists behind the organization: Wouldn’t it be more opportune to try coexistence instead of confrontation and run with the donkey rather than trying to devour the rooster of Governor Wallace? The answer was: “The panther does not assault, it minds its business, but when pushed into a corner, it fights”. Thirty or so years earlier, I realized, he could have been lynched for saying such things. The process of transition was difficult but not confrontational, as it appeared to me that in Alabama and the south at large, political and economic interests were prevailing over passions and excesses. The era of the black sheriff had started.
One of the reasons I had come to Alabama was to meet Richmond Flowers, the former state Attorney General who had defied Governor Wallace, the icon of the fight against integration. Flowers was running for governor of Alabama in May taking on the mantle of the candidate representative of the New South, belonging to whites and blacks indistinctly, respectful of the letter and the spirit of federal institutions. The race for the governorship had taken a surprising turn. Governor Wallace had tried to get the legislature to approve an amendment to the state constitution that would allow him to serve a second term. When the proposal was turned down, he found an alter ego, his wife Lurleen, to run for Governor. Before the end of his mandate, he also tried to get Flowers sanctioned for cooperating with the federal government. This too failed.
When I met Flowers in a motel at the outskirts of Montgomery, I was perplexed. Here was a man who had staked a political position in favor of integration and had started talking about the “coexistence of races” and political and moral indemnification for the blacks. By doing so, he obviously calculated that the black voters would provide the winning margins. But what about the whites, who could be justified in thinking that he had put Alabama on the spot? To this question, Flowers had a long winded answer: “There are people who are still fighting for white supremacy. They feel surrounded by blacks. The tragedy in Alabama is that those who should play the role of moderate and responsible leaders want things to stay the same. But I say there is hope. The appeal of the segregationists has no pull. When my government says that the blacks have the same rights, the time has come to lay down the arms. The order of the day is adaptability. Those who adapt will prosper”.
Richmond Flowers looked and spoke like an actor. He was a tall, red haired man, with light colored eyes, a distinguished look and a penchant for familiarity with his interlocutor. He called himself Scotch-Irish but the Irish look seemed dominant. To me, he was indeed a new kind of man in the south. He went on: “I know that the blacks will strive to become part of the governing structure, even those who at the moment are inclined to be separate. They reason that after being kept apart for so long, it is going to be hard to work with those who kept them segregated. But I am convinced that the blacks are understanding people. They are not interested in a revolution. I don’t believe that the black leadership knows communism or is subject to communist infiltration. I know that their desires and demands are not of a communist nature. Their aspirations are of a democratic nature”.
It was obvious to me that Flowers had national ambitions as well. But I also felt that a possible compromise in Alabama would not fit the nation at large. Yet, a compromise in Alabama between those who wanted Wallace to retain the governorship and the blacks who had found an ally in Flowers was doable. However, it was difficult to tell who would derive more benefits from such a strained arrangement. At any rate, things were changing in the Yellowhammer State, where the state emblem was a finch, elevated by Darwin to a symbol of evolution in the Galapagos.
Richmond Flowers did suffer from the slings and arrows of those who called him an opportunist, while most students of those turbulent years hailed him as a courageous fighter for civil rights who saw that the political landscape in the south was changing. Flowers had even pledged to raise the U.S. flag above the state capitol where only the state and confederate flag flew at that time. He lost the race for governor to Lurleen Wallace who later died in office while her husband George launched a campaign for president claiming famously that there was “not a dime’s worth of difference between Republicans and Democrats”. In 1968, Richmond Flowers was accused of extorting payments from life insurance companies while he was Alabama Attorney General. He was sentenced to eight years in prison but was paroled in 1974. President Carter pardoned him in 1978. He always claimed that he was the victim of political machinations. But the federal courts did not buy it.