How Muhammad Ali Changed America—And His Role in Malcolm X's Murder

Sportswriter Robert Lipsyte on the Greatest's massive, contradictory legacy in politics and culture.


Muhammad Ali & The Beatles, 1964|||Autore Sconosciuto, Wikimedia
Autore Sconosciuto, Wikimedia

Former New York Times reporter Robert Lipsyte revolutionized sportswriting in the mid-1960s when he started covering the late Muhammad Ali, then Cassius Clay, a.k.a. "The Louisville Lip."

Where other scribes and broadcasters saw a loudmouthed, uppity punk they openly wanted to lose to Sonny Liston, Jerry Quarry, Floyd Paterson, and others, Lipsyte saw a man of immense ability and intelligence who would change not just boxing but American culture.

In a 2013 interview with Reason, Lipsyte goes so far as to say "the '60s" began with Clay's surprising defeat of Liston, the brooding, terrifying heavyweight champ whom some worried would literally kill his relatively light opponent in the ring. Lipsyte recounts how he got to cover the fight because none of the Times' serious sportswriters even wanted to shlep to Miami to cover such an obvious mismatch. That began an amazing—and fraught—relationship between the writer and the boxer, who would convert to the Nation of Islam (NOI) and refuse to serve in the U.S. Army when drafted. "No Viet Cong ever called me nigger," Ali supposedly said in explaining his refusal to fight in Vietnam. There is no evidence exists that he ever said that exact phrase, though what he did say is arguably more powerful:

My conscience won't let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn't put no dogs on me, they didn't rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father… Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.

As controversially, Ali made public comments that Malcolm X, who was assassinated in 1965 at the orders of NOI leader Elijah Muhammad, got what he deserved. "Let's not forget that Nation of Islam was going up against civil rights. They believed quite openly in segregation," recalls Lipsyte. "I think he was in some abstract way an accomplice in the death of [Malcolm X]. When anybody says, 'Anybody who defies the Honorable Elijah Muhammad shouldn't live,' that was open season."

Click below to watch Reason's interview with Lipsyte, who also went on to help invent the entire genre of Young Adult fiction with the 1967 publication of The Contender, and has served as ESPN's ombudsman (his personal website is here).

The interview is cued up to the section discussing Ali as "change agent" (9:00 minutes) and the section about Malcolm X begins at 20:00 minutes. For more background and a list of other topics covered, go to the full video page.

Reason, December 2003

Related Lipsyte story: Robby Soave wrote about a Seattle University dean being suspended for recommending Dick Gregory's provocatively titled 1964 memoir, which was co-authored by Lipsyte.

Back in our December 2003, Reason celebrated its 35th anniversary by listing "35 Heroes of Freedom" whom we celebrated "for making the world a groovier and groovier place since 1968." Among the athletes who made the list were Curt Flood, the St. Louis Cardinals outfielder who pioneered free agency in baseball at the cost of a great career; Martina Navratilova, the tennis champion who fled communist Czechoslovakia so she could keep her winnings and, eventually, live an openly alternative lifestyle; and…NBA all-star Dennis Rodman:

As a cross-dressing, serially pierced, tattoo-laden, multiple National Basketball Association championship ring holder, the Worm set an X-Men-level standard for cultural mutation. His flamboyant, frequently gay-ish antics place him in apostolic succession to a madcap handful of athletes such as Joe Namath, Rollie Fingers, and Muhammad Ali, all of whom challenged the lantern-jawed stiffness that had traditionally made sports stars such dull role models.

At this late date, let me agree with several readers, friends, and even staffers who insisted at the time that Ali would have been the better pick.

[Ali-Beatles image credit]