Firing Line with William F. Buckley Jr., Program 130, “Muhammad Ali and the Negro Movement,” Firing Line broadcast records, Hoover Institution Archives.
BUCKLEY: In 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky, Mr. and Mrs. Cassius Marcellus Clay christened their newborn son Cassius Clay, Jr. 22 years later, Cassius Clay renounced his name and its associations and elected to call himself Mohammed Ali, which is, of course, how we shall refer to him tonight, even as tomorrow if he were to change his name back, we would refer to him as Cassius Clay. In changing his name, Mohammed Ali intended to disavow his culture, and to adopt membership in the Black Muslim movement of which he is an apostle. When, a little bit later he was called by the Selective service Board to serve in the Armed Forces, Mohammed Ali explained that he was proof against such laws as a miner of the Islamic faith as taught by Elijah Mohammed. The courts were not impressed, the Boxing Commission has stripped him of his boxing crown and very soon, assuming the Supreme Court of the United states goes along, Mohammed Ali will go to jail or renounce his citizenship and forfeit his bail. Mohammed Ali defended his world heavyweight crown six times in 11 months and won them all. His career as a boxer until he dropped Sonny Liston dead in his tracks was ridiculed as primarily an act of self-promotion, an art at which young Cassius Clay was greatly proficient. I’m the greatest, he told everyone, they all must fall in the round I call, he versified, and just about the time that he had established his supremacy beyond reasonable doubt~ he felt the afflatus of Elijah Mohammed and here we are. He had been something very special. “I was the onliest boxer in history people asked questions like a senator,” he had said, but even so, he wouldn’t have it otherwise. I should like to begin by asking Mr. Ali what makes him believe that the same country that glorified Joe Louis would want to persecute you?
ALI: Well, first of all, I would like to thank you for the brief introduction. You covered a lot of space in such a short time. You did make a few points that I would like to straighten up, and I’m sure you did this without knowledge of what you were saying. I did not take the name, I just named myself Cassius Clay, this is a honorable, Mohammed Ali, given to me by my religious leader and teacher, the Honorable Elijah Mohammed, and I would like to say that Mohammed means in Arabic “one who is worthy of praise” and one praiseworthy, and Ali means the most High, but the slave name Clay meant dirt with no ingredients.
BU: The slave word, which?
AL: Clay, meant dirt with no ingredients. Names have meanings in different countries. And I also would like to say that I am not an apostle of the Muslim religion. We believe that the Honorable Elijah Mohammed is the apostle of Allah, God, but I’m only a helper and a minister of his, and I also would like to say that you mentioned that I’d, when I’d accepted Cassius Clay I disowned, or disannounced my culture. Well, I did not disregard my culture, if I did, it was the white American culture, and I accepted my true culture, when I accepted Mohammed Ali, because this is a black name, Islam is the black man’s religion, and so I would like to say, that I would like to clarify that point that I reclaimed my real culture, and that’s being a black man and wearing a black name with a black body, and not a white name, so I would never say that I didn’t disown my culture. But I would say that I put down a lot of the white American culture, and ways, and beliefs, and answering your last question about Joe Louis and me, why was he so praised, and he not? Well, I would like to speak from my knowledge, and the reason I can see is Joe Louis is what you would call, or what a white would call a good, red-blooded American boy who went to the Army and told the world, we must fight for our country, and he, in his times, he didn’t have the protestin’ and the things they are havin’ today, but I would say that I receive respect by not only blacks around the world, now that I’m a Muslim, but also all throughout white America, more so than any boxer including Joe Louis. And mainly by the college youth of today. So, I’m just a lot different from, I would say, Joe Louis, I guess that’s why I’m looked at different.
BU: Well, I understand the point that you make, and I think you make it very well, but you have in fact said, publicly, on a number of occasions, that America was looking for a way to get back at you because we are a white culture, and I’m asking you if we were looking for a way to get at you, why was it that Joe Louis was so popular with the same white America? Why do we have it in for you?
AL: Well, I can’t recall saying white, as a whole, was out to get me, because many know nothing about me, or care nothin’ about me, or what I believe, and what I believe or what I do will never harm ‘em, nor will they have to come in my path. But I did make a statement that the men of the Boxing Authority and the people who own it to get me out of the way couldn’t do it physically, and many people I was sure in government, so the legal way they could say take the title, and then make it look justifiable to the public was to say that he wouldn’t serve his country. Twice, if you recall, I was denounced by the draft. In Florida I was illiterate, they didn’t want me, then they had a special psychiatrist to come to Kentucky, they checked and they didn’t want me. But as soon as my name was Mohammed Ali, as soon as I announced I was a Muslim, then all of a sudden I became smart.
BU: Well, then, you do believe that. You believe that you were drafted only because you changed your name to Mohammed Ali and joined the Muslim religion, is that correct?
AL: Yes, sir. They knew that I wouldn’t go. And they know the government, they know the Honorable Elijah Mohammed and his followers, the jails are packed with Muslims, but this would justify uh my title being taken, and this
BU: Yeah. Well, now, if you hadn’t changed your name and your religion, in your judgment, you would have continued to have been listed as undraftable?
AL: I believe so, yes. But it’s debatable, you know, you have a right to say what you believe, and I have a right
BU: Oh, sure. Let’s not fight over it (LAUGHTER). The reason I ask this is because I’m anxious to know in the course of appealing to the courts, your lawyer must have made that point. But apparently made that point unsuccessfully. So, did they in fact ask the draft board to explain how come all of a sudden they reclassified you? Did the draft board give a
AL: Well, they asked the draft board
BU: give a plausible reason for doing so?
AL: They asked the draft board to explain a lot. As a matter of fact, I have about 675 documents I have, of handwritten letters by Baptist preachers, some white, and Muslim ministers and Honorable Elijah Mohammed and the question was is he really sincere? And like right now I consider myself in court now. I done faced one white judge and now I’m lookin’ at you, and I already had one white jury and audience such as I have here now, and it really makes, I have to be real cool and not savage and radical, because it makes me angry when I think about it when I see the white boys, who are really the number one citizens, the future rulers, when I see them by the hundreds leaving the country uh see the white preachers breaking into draft board houses in Wisconsin and Baltimore, tearing the files outta of the walls and makin’ a bonfire out of 45,000 draft cards, pouring blood on them, and I see them go to court and the juries say two years, and I get five years for legally doin’ what’s legal, I say if I
BU: Now, wait a minute. When you say legally
AL: I mean, you can denounce the draft on any grounds you have to go to court, if you lose, you pay, you have to be a man, and pay your sentence, which I said I’m gonna do, I’m not leavin’ the country, but this is legal, what I’m doin’ is legal. If you’re guilty you gotta pay. What I’m doin’ is legal. So, the people, I’m not usin’ these people as an excuse, to do
BU: Now, wait a minute. The five years that you’re talking about is for doing something illegal in the eyes of the court system of the United States, right?
AL: No, sir. It’s not illegal in the court system to not take the step, if your grounds are justifiable and you can prove it. And then you can lose
BU: All right but you couldn’t prove it.
AL: Yes, we had the prove. Here’s what I was gittin’ ready to say then, that makes a black man hot, if you understand, my first wife I had to divorce, this was before the draft come up, because she wouldn’t wear her dresses long, I think you remember this, this was headline news. It cost me 250,000 dollars, I’m payin’ $1200 a month now in alimony, I paid $96,000 in lawyers’ fees now, if this is not sincerity, I don’t know what (LAUGHTER), I’m not tryin’ to be funny
BU: No, no, no, I don’t oubt your sincerity. I’m talking about, no legality and sincerity are two different things. You can be perfectly sincere, for instance, and in desiring to break a law, but it’s still a broken law.
AL: Well, this sincerity, all I’m sayin’ is that this sincerity was not recognized, I mean, the files, the papers everything we had, you asked me a question
AL: But did you say to the draft board, that when you accepted Mohammed Ali they seemed to change and if you had used Cassius Clay, they wouldn’t have. Well, all these things were brought up and they completely overlooked it.
BU: Well, let’s grant the sincerity of a couple of judges and quote them. I think it’s only fair to do so under the circumstances. One of them, the first one you approached said that Cassius Clay quotes “claims to be a minister of the lost-found nation of Islam and maintains he was due a ministerial exemption from the draft. His vocation is clearly that of a professional boxer.” His point was that in fact you were a professional boxer not a minister.
AL: Yes, well, what did we tell the judge there, he said, if you are a minister why are you a boxer? At the time I heard the Islamic teachings as taught by the Honorable Elijah Mohammed, I was in about $138,000 worth of debt. And this debt had to be paid, and boxin’ was my way of payin’ my debt, but I would say one thing, I was asked in a way when he said take the step, choose between the wealth of America and the millions of dollars and the title, the ministry. So, I chose the ministry. If I was not sincere, then I would have easily went to Vietnam, boxin’ exhibitions, and made a couple of cool million
BU: I don’t think anybody in his right mind would doubt your sincerity,
AL: Well, this is what the whole thing’s about.
BU: No, I don’t think so. The question is whether or not you fit into certain specifications as defined by the law.
BU: Now, for instance, the judge in the next higher court, ruling against you, said that you “claimed objections to participating in war, insofar as they are based upon the teachings of the nation of Islam, resting on grounds which primarily are political and racial. These constitute only objections to certain types of war in certain circumstances rather than a general scruple against participation in war of any form. However, under the law, only a general scruple against participation in war in any form can support an exemption as a conscientious objector. Now, that makes sense, doesn’t it, that’s not anti-you, is it?
AL: Right. One thing I would like to say is that I’d have to admit, and tell you this, my first lawyer who was a black man, he was pretty well versed, but not versed enough, and I was a minister at the time that they called me. I was doing the ministerial work throughout the country, for the teachings of Islam, as taught by Honorable Elijah Mohammed, and he, hardship was my first case, he said this is what we’ll do. Then they were gonna grant us the paying on hardship, but still I would have to work in a hospital or something, and not carry weapons, well I couldn’t do this.
AL: Well, we uh the Holy Koran, our religious book, teaches us, that we who declare ourselves to be righteous Muslims, do not participate in no wars, in no way, fashion or form, that take the lives of other humans. And so what I’m sayin’ is that I should have told him, it’s my fault in a way, too, I should have told the lawyer that I’m not participatin’ in no kind of way, so but the two, and after he failed that, he went on another ground, I had to support my mother, which was not enough to keep me from going in some kind of way. So, then Hayden Coventry (?), a wiser lawyer from Washington, who we hired. He said you’re a minister. I said that’s right. He said well this is how you should have went in first (?), because a minister don’t have to take part in nothin’, a hospital, nothin’. He said the onliest way you’re gonna get out is to go in as a minister, and I didn’t know it, and my first lawyer, he come up talkin’ about this is not so, the other lawyer proved to me that it was so, then we filed ____ I have to admit that it did look phony to the public, well at first he tried to get by because he’s a conscientious objector, secondly, he had to support his mother, now he’s a minister, but if we had went in first with the ministry, I’m sure it would have been much easier. So, this is why the judges say this and say that, because it did look funny, because we made the wrong move at first.
BU: Well, but then, if that’s the case, it’s incorrect to blame them, isn’t it?
AL: the lawyers?
BU: No, no, no, the judges.
BU: In other words, the judges take whatever argument you present.
AL: Well, I’m not blaming the judges, and I’m not cryin’, I told them my bags are packed, and clean out my sail, because I’m ready to go to jail. I’m not cryin’, I’m not hijackin’ no planes, I have my draft card, it’s not burnt. So, what I would say is that the lawyers should have went at it another way. And I would say that they should know better, but I’m not cryin’ about it. I’m a man. And I would like to say that the judges can look at this as a fraud in the beginning, if they want, and then they can still look at the third case, is he sincere as a minister, or is he real? But, I’m not, I’m just talkin’ about this because you brought it up, but you don’t hear me protestin’ over things that are happenin’ to me, I’m just playin’ it by ear, I’m relyin’ on Almighty God, Allah, and whatever happens happens. I’m not tryin’ to convince the jury or the judge that I’m sincere. We took the papers in, we did the best, we go under the law, and what happens, happens. But we’re sure that they know that I am.
BU: Mr. Ali, you say that your religion prohibits participation in any war at all. My own understanding from reading the works of Mohammed Elijah is that the prohibition is against “white Christian wars.” Now, do you mean that your own religion is different from his in this particular respect that you consider yourself a pacificist?
AL: My religion is different from whose?
BU: From Mohammed Elijah, Elijah Mohammed.
AL: No, I follow him, I can’t be different from him. I follow him.
BU: You follow him. So, you would take his word for it if he says that the only wars that are forbidden are participation in white Christian wars. This leaves some wars in which you would be willing to participate?
AL: The Koran say that we take part in no wars, in no way, fashion or form, that take the lives of other humans, and it also says that unless there’s a Holy War declared by Allah or one of his prophets, or messengers (UNINTELLIGIBLE)
BU: Well, but in fact the Black Muslims in America, as you know, have made considerable modifications on the Koran
AL: I’d like to say one thing, sir. We cannot change the Koran or make no modifications, this cannot be done, or it would no longer be holy, if we did, but I would say, I’d like to say another thing while we’re here, the people here, college students look intelligent, and I understand you well intellect, intelligent man, we are not Black Muslims we are Muslims. You see, you have Catholics. You have Chinese Catholics, you have Indian Catholics, you have black Catholics and white Catholics. But I’m sure you don’t ask a man are you a white Catholic? Are you a Chinese are you a yellow Catholic, a red Catholic, or a white Catholic? He’s just a Catholic. We have black Muslims, we have brown Muslims, we have red Muslims, we have yellow Muslims, we have even white complected Muslims, so I’d like to clear that point, this is a press word, Black Muslims. Islam religion has no color distinction, we are just Muslims, and I’d like to (UNINTELLIGIBLE)
BU: I know that you’re aware, though, Mr. Ali, that rigorous members of the Islamic faith have denounced the American Muslim movement
AL: Well, I would like
BU: The one that we’re referring to on the grounds of its heterodoxy. They say simply that a lot of rules are sort of made in Chicago, which have really no bearing. For instance, the whole notion of sainted race, and all that kind of business.
AL: I’d like to say one thing. Many people are quick to say that we are not recognized by Muslims in the East (?). And I start with the Honorable Elijah Mohammed. In 1959, he went throughout the Holy City of Mecca to dine and wine with Nasser of Egypt and all of the black, mainly the rulers of the Islamic countries. I left his house a few days ago, and about 7 or 8 scholars of Islam constantly come to his house from Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, when I was sentenced to jail, Mohammed awaited the Supreme Council of all Islamic affairs, it was in the paper, it was on the back page, real small writin’, they didn’t want too many people to see it, it said in the name of 600-million Muslims, Mohammed Ali is a Muslim, he is recognized by us, also, and do not jail him. The President of Turkey, it was in the papers here in America wrote over bearing witness that I was a Muslim and recognized. The President of Syria and Lebanon have ate dinner with Nasser three times in his palace, I was invited by King Faisal to open the pilgrimage to Mecca with him, hand in hand, where 600-million Muslims from all over the world come, and Elijah Mohammed’s son, Hurbin (?) Mohammed has just left for Kuwait, invited by the government, so daily Muslims come to our mosque in Cleveland, Washington, wherever we have colleges they all come to our cellars (?), we all are recognized, this is false propaganda, I just want to say.
BU: Yeah. Well, if it’s false propaganda why, for instance, should it have been propagated by Malcolm X?
AL: What, I’d like to say I’m not trying to be funny, and I hope the people don’t laugh.
AL: But I barely got out of high school, and the word propagated by Malcolm X, what do you mean?
BU: Well, Malcolm X came back, as you know, from the Mid-East, and renounced the movement of Elijah Mohammed precisely on the grounds that it was not the same kind of Islam faith which he found very attractive.
AL: Well, I would like to say, I would like to say one thing about, I don’t know too much about what he saw, but he was there in 1959, I think, before, and he saw there were white Muslims, but Malcolm X got famous mainly by being hard on people like you, white people, white devils, you blue-eyed blond-headed dog. Oh, he got famous like this. And he had so many white enemies, white card nothin’ about Malcolm nor so-called Negroes when he was really down ___ Elijah Mohammed, but they seemed to love and follow uh dead leaders, but I’d like to say this.
BU: White people didn’t kill him.
AL: No. I would like to say this, he was a man everything he had came from Elijah Mohammed and when he denounced or was put out for various reasons in the faith, then he had to from what I understood, this is me talkin’, I’ll be to blame if I say anything wrong, he had to get back with you all, so, in other words, he had to be apologizing, for things that he had said, because the protection of Allah, and the Muslims, were not with him. But I would like to say,
BU: You mean you think that he tried to make himself pleasing to the white community, because he had antagonized Elijah Mohammed.
AL: This is what I’m sayin’, this is me talkin’. Not antagonized him, but antagonized you.
BU: No, but you say
AL: I would like to say that whites jumped right behind him. They’re makin’ a book about him, it’s required readin’ in all colleges now, and they’re makin’ a movie about him, and projectin’ him as the leader and if you read his book and see the movie that’s comin’ out, it’ll make you hate Elijah Mohammed and the Muslims. Mainly, this is done to turn the black people against the real leader and I’d like to say that this is the way white people rule. This is your history, divide and conquer, you see, the first whites, your fathers, when they came over, they told Cochise that Runnin’ Bull stole his horses then after they got through fightin’ they came in and took over. And whites have always put one against another and now they have a dead man who was nothin’ but a, he admitted it himself, Malcolm, was a tramp or had white women sellin’ their body for him, he was nothin’ until the Honorable Elijah Mohammed made him great, made him great, taught him, even his name X come from Elijah. He gave him his name, the Honorable Elijah Mohammed was the established leader before he was born, now you seem to try to make it look liike he was a leader, and he was powerful, everything he, everything I have, let me say one thing, I barely got out of school, I got out of school, mainly, because I was a champ, and I actually didn’t pass. I won’t name the teachers that put me through, but I want, you’re a wise man, you’re an intelligent man, and if I was not a Muslim, or a follower of the Honorable Elijah Mohammed I couldn’t talk to you for two minutes. And I believe I can hold my own as an intelligent conversation with you, but it all come from the Honorable Elijah Mohammed. But people praise me, oh, you should be the leader, well, you don’t have to follow Elijah. Man, are you a fool? Everything I got comes from him. He taught me who I was, he made me proud, he made me fearless, he made me love my own, I’ve turned down millions to keep from selling out my people, the beautiful name Mohammed Ali, I now have 56 (UNINTELLIGIBLE) invitations by governments, all they ask me about when I go to those countries, how is Elijah Mohammed? White people twice a day, 65 and 70 their bus stop in front of Elijah Mohammed’s house hoping to get a glimpse of him. And you cannot destroy me like you have other big ministers of his in the past by telling us oh, you speak good, you should be the leader. See? This is to get me thinkin’ that I’m smart, and as soon as I leave Elijah you can get me. But as long as I stay with the Honorable Elijah Mohammed I’m safe. And if Malcolm X had stayed with the man that made him great, taught him everything he knew, today, he’d have been, big, big, big. But as soon as, in other words, how can I come to your son, and say you are wrong for spankin’ when you fed him, you clothed him, you gave him his name, you brought him into the world, who am I to come in and be the judge and say, why did you spank that boy? You taught him, you have a right to spank him, and Malcolm X did some things, he said sumpin’ about Kennedy that he shouldn’t have said, 130 whites died tragically on a jet, he praised it, and the Honorable Elijah Mohammed is not the kind of man to ordain it, so he had to spank him, and after you white people had told him how good he talked, he should be the leader, he couldn’t take the spankin’. He had to run out and start him a movement, and that’s when he destroyed him, you understand? So, I would say whites destroyed Malcolm X, not Elijah Mohammed, not the Muslims.
BU: No, I understand what you say and I don’t doubt either the sincerity or the eloquence of your tribute to Elijah Mohammed, but I do say that assuming that we are prepared to question the divinity of Elijah Mohammed, then one has to assume that somebody like Malcolm X, when he turned against him, might have been doing so for honest, sincere reasons. That is to say, he might have thought, well, I’ve been following this man for a number of years, but all of a sudden I have reached a level of understanding which permits me to see that he is pretty human after all, and beyond a certain point, he doesn’t have anything to teach me.
AL: He should have always known that he was human, and not having nothin’ to teach him, this is silly.
BU: Yeah, but some people treat him as though he were divine, you know, the way they did Father Divine, which would be another example.
AL: Well, he’s dead now, and we don’t talk about dead people, they’re dead and they’re gone.
BU: Who’s dead?
AL: Malcolm X is dead.
BU: Oh, yes.
AL: And we followed the Honorable Elijah Mohammed, who is the boss. And we don’t, rather not to stay here on the show and waste a lot of time arguin’ about a dead black man, when the whites are our common enemies.
BU: Well, no doubt of course he teaches you that, and no doubt you understand
AL: Well, we don’t have, you don’t have to teach a black man that the whites are his enemy.
BU: Well, you see, from my point of view, what Elijah Mohammed is doing to you, is diseasing your mind. You sit and tell me that we white people would like to divide and conquer.
AL: Well, you do.
BU: I grew up as a white child. I heard much more talk against Democrats than I did against black people. (LAUGHTER) And I grant that there is a lot of division in the sense that the Republicans are divided
AL: The Democrats and Republicans don’t lynch each other and castrate each other
BU: Oh, yes they do
AL: burn each other, tar and feather each other, and rape
BU: Yes, they do, yes they do
AL: And slay people
BU: Now, wait a minute, wait a minute, this is one of the difficulties.
AL: I would like to ask you a question, I’d like to ask you a question.
AL: Who, 22-million black people in America, who would you say our every day common enemy is? What other country? Or what nationality? I mean, you know, you have the nerve to be on a TV show like this
BU: I think the
AL: And look at me like I’m wrong for sayin’ Elijah Mohammed is poisoning me by telling you that we’re your enemies, and I feel it and see it every day, and every black man watching this show know you are our enemies, and you have the nerve to stand up here and say Elijah Mohammed is poisonin’ my mind. He can teach us that you are our enemies, you taught us. And your people delude (?), Martin Luther King was bumped off unjustly, Adam Clayton Powell was bumped off unjustly, they took my title unjustly, they killed Megers Ever unjustly, all the integrators who love white folks, was unjustly kicked out of Washington, they’ve been deprived of education and poverty throughout the country; they just came back from Vietnam, 12 boys in Chicago, and they said on the television and they told how white soldiers are teaching Viet Congs to hate ‘em, they fly rebel Communist flags, and they’re doin’ everything that they can to ‘em, right there in Vietnam, and you’re gonna tell me that Elijah Mohammed and trying to make the public think that he’s poisonin’ me by teachin’ us the truth. Here’s his latest newspaper
BU: Now, wait a minute, wait a minute.
AL: Here’s his latest newspaper, hold it, man, here’s his latest newspaper “Mohammed Speaks,” and it’s full of truth, and you can get the paper in every city, you can buy Mohammed Speak, and if this, I mean, you’re a wise man, but I don’t think you’re too much wiser than the ones who run the country in the White House
BU: Much wiser. (LAUGHTER – APPLAUSE) Let me try to make this point.
AL: No, no one challenges nothin’ he teach, I mean, you’re intelligent, and I’m intelligent, and we all know he’s here, so, I’m not here to tell you sumpin’ you don’t know about.
BU: No, no, I’m simply telling you that you believe something which I happen to know isn’t true. See?
AL: Now, hold it. Now, what is that I believe that’s not
BU: You believe that the entire white community is your enemy. I happen to know it’s not your enemy. I doubt if there’s anybody in this room who is your enemy. But I do believe that just as a Hitler persuaded all the Germans that all the Jews were their enemy that people are engaged in spreading this kind of virulence, and that some very, very sincere people get caught up in it. You’re an example of it. And under the circumstances you end up doing a disservice to the cause that you really want to serve.
AL: Would you say Martin Luther King was doin’ a disservice?
BU: Well, now, what is the relevance of that remark? Now, whether you went to school or not, explain to me the relevancy of that remark.
AL: No, I’m askin’ you the question. I said, you said I’m doing a disservice, who’s doin’ the disservice
BU: You mean because he was killed by a white man? So, Malcolm X was killed by a black man. So what? So, what else is new.
AL: No, I’m not talkin’ about, no, you’re gittin’ upset. I’m not talkin’ about that. All I ask you was Elijah Mohammed is doin’ a disservice, or whatever it is that he’s doin’, well,
BU: Yeah. At one level, he’s doing this.
AL: Well, what’s the level?
BU: At the level of trying to persuade people that all white people are the same, and despise Negro people, at the level in which he urges you to (BOTH TALKING SIMULTANEOUSLY)
AL: All right, let’s look at some of the things he’s doin’
BU: Okay. Excuse me just one second. Be right with you.
BU: Go ahead, Mr. Ali, excuse me.
AL: You say one thing that he’s doing that’s not so good is tryin’ to persuade black people that all white people are no good
BU: That’s correct.
AL: Uh, you have about 180-million whites in America, and Madison Square Garden holds about how many people?
BU: You’d know better than I would.
AL: About 20,000.
BU: Something like that, yeah.
AL: If you could, which is impossible, fill up Madison Square Garden with white liberals who will die for blacks, or color means nothin’, and will give up their whole system, and their own people, and their richness, I mean, just all out, color means nothin’, if you could get 20,000, which is impossible, excuse me, which is impossible to fill, but
BU: I don’t say color doesn’t mean nothing
AL: Excuse me, if you had an arena with 10-million people in it, of whites, all who you say are really good, and mean right, if you had 10-million, you’d have 170-million to rule them out, so what I’m tryin’ to say, I see a white man die in a riot, he didn’t wanta die, or in a demonstration for blacks, America’s in Vietnam, droppin’ bombs now,
BU: Now, wait a minute, let’s get back to Madison Square Garden, because it’s one thing to say that white people aren’t the enemies of black people, and another thing to say that color doesn’t make any difference. It does. So does race, so does religion. For instance, the Italians and the Irish, and we all get along pretty well. But this doesn’t mean that the fact that somebody’s an Italian makes no difference at all, or that he’s an Irishman makes no difference at all. The question is are they enemies?
BU: What I was referrin’ to, what I was referrin’ to, say that you had some whites that didn’t pay any attention to color, you know, what I mean, we’re all equal, that’s what I meant to say, it would help the problem. I mean, they’re so few. For every one white, you can find me that you may say is liberal, and means right, I’m sure that you could find 5,000 to every one who would kill him for tryin’ to help. So, they’re so few until, here’s what I’m
BU: Why aren’t there more dead, white liberals? How many can you count? As a matter of fact, I did count as recently as two months ago, because I did a story on it, and I counted 12.
AL: Well, the NAACP, the Core, the Urban League, and all these organizations, and many, many, many of ‘em, they’ve completely dropped out, it was not too long ago, in the news, where that all the whites have dropped out of all these organizations things are gettin’ so critical, until the liberal you don’t see him no more, he just had to flee back into
BU: Oh, come on, they’re coming out of the ceiling. They’re all over the place, they’re right here, you’ll meet them in just a moment, very articulate liberals. Look, try to understand me, do you accept as a matter of faith that Elijah Mohammed can’t deceive you?
AL: Do what?
BU: Do you take it as a matter of faith that he can’t deceive you?
AL: I imagine he can deceive anybody if he wants to.
BU: Uh, huh. Well, now is it conceivable that he would want to deceive you
AL: For what reason?
BU: by suggesting that people feel about you the way in fact they don’t? Or for the reason because
AL: Well, he’s not deceivin’ us about white people.
BU: Well, some people of course insist that he is, including Malcolm X.
AL: No sir. No, sir. Not about white people. I know he’s right. Everything he say about white people right. Even when he say you’re the devil.
BU: Um. And that’s correct, too?
AL: Yes, sir. All the way. (LAUGHTER).
BU: How did the devil make out so wel?
AL: Make out so well, how?
BU: Dominates the United States.
AL: Oh, the Bible predicted that the devil would rule the earth for 6,000 years.
BU: Well, now far into those 6,000 years are we?
AL: Now exactly I don’t know. If you want to know,
BU: About half-way?
AL: If you really wanted to know, (LAUGHTER) if you really, really really wanted to know about Islam and, I’m just a student of the Honorable Elijah Mohammed, is the man who could really go deep into this, you know. But
BU: How do you account for the fact that he has been rejected by, according to his own figures, 97% of the black people of America?
BU: How do you account for the fact that none of the prominent, with the exception of you, none of the prominent black leaders of America are subscribers to Elijah Mohammed?
AL: Subscribers to what, now?
BU: To his religion, to his movement.
AL: They all read his newspaper.
BU: Not even James Baldwin.
AL: I would say this to you, everything the black people are doing today comes from the Honorable Elijah Mohammed. They’re havin’ school problems. We want black schools, we want black teachers. This is his program. Being natural. They are black now, they don’t want to be called Negroes. This come from the Honorable Elijah Mohammed.
BU: Is that going to make any difference?
AL: Hold it. At the latest Black Power Conference, all the black leaders got together and said we want separate states from whites. This is stolen from the Honorable Elijah Mohammed.
T: They want their own schools, they want their own businesses, super-markets, they’re not talkin’ about
BU: Now, wait a minute. If you say they stole it from him, suppose I say he stole it from the Communists. They were preaching this in the early ‘30s.
AL: Now, hold it, hold it. What I’m trying to say, is that everything that our people are doing today, every leader that you can bring up from Ron Corina (?), the Black Panthers’ Elgis Cleaver, Malcolm X, uh Stokely Carmichael, Rap Brown, people such as myself, in the struggle, everybody you can name, talkin’ black or preachin’ anything black, they are ex-Muslims, they heard it from the Honorable, when you say why they don’t follow him, they are followin’ him and they don’t know it, but they haven’t yet accepted him religiously.
BU: If you say, if you say that there is a correspondence between what he preaches and what other black leaders preach, the answer is yes, that’s true. The question is what is the significance of that correspondence? Is there correspondence between what the Democratic Party wants and the Communist Party wants? It doesn’t mean that one dominates the other.
AL: Your major, I understand, your major question was, how come 97% rejects him, then 97%, 97% of the people really don’t know enough about him to really reject him or hate him, but they’re enticin’ by the wealth of America. For example, I have a black friend, I could be a Muslim, I go for what you go for. I believe the white man’s a devil, but not the woman. I gotta pretty white girl. So, he can’t join, because he’s gotta white girl friend.
BU: He’s not sincere.
AL: You understand. So, this is why he haven’t joined. Another fellow. I go for the Muslims, I go for everything you preach, but I gotta have my poke chops and ham hocks, I can’t quit eatin’ my pork. Another fellow. What’s wrong with a little reefer, you understand? To be a follower of The Honorable Elijah Mohammed, you have to completely extain from alcohol, or fornication, adultered, killin’, stealin’, lyin’
BU: It gets tougher, and tougher. (LAUGHTER).
AL: Well, yes. Even in the days of Jesus, in the days of Moses, and everything that the Honorable Elijah Mohammed preaches in the way of livin’ clean, Christianity preaches, but they just don’t, you can be a Christian and commit adultery, you can drink, you can smoke, you can drink wine, because Jesus drinked it, and you can nightclub and party, but you can’t wear mini, mini skirts, and be followers of Jesus, but not bein’ a Muslim, so, I would say that the people are not rejectin’ the Honorable Elijah Mohammed because they don’t believe what he teach
BU: But, it’s too tough, it’s to otough.
AL: Right. Well, it’s not that it’s too tough, but they just haven’t looked in it enough to really check it out.
BU: They’re not committed. Well, I think that’s a very good point. I think that there might be other reasons for rejecting him, too, because somebody said his religion is a curious mixture of Calvary and the O.K. Corral.
AL: One more thing I’d like to say. Uh, fear of white people stops a lot now. I’m not namin’ the names, but many of them black people who come on your TV shows every week, slip to our meetins, donates to ‘em financially, Mohammed Speaks is always in his house, under his bed, but when he sees you, yassah, boss, he just
BU: I haven’t run into any of those. (LAUGHER)
AL: Well, they’re around.
BU: Give me their names and phone numbers.
AL: Many, many, many, many, many big black, many of the black leaders slip in his back door, civil rights leaders, but they don’t want the press to know it. And fear keeps a lot of our from comin’ to what the Honorable Elijah Mohammed is preachin’.
BU: Now, that fear, as related to your own experience, gets us back to the first point, which is you believe that you were reclassified because you became a follower of Elijah Mohammed, right? Otherwise, you
AL: I wouldn’t say that’s totally all of it, that’s got mainly a lot to do with it.
BU: Because I see from the Liberator Magazine, the Socialist magazine, published by the Afro-American Organization, they say whatever the government’s reasons, most black people are convinced that Mohammed Ali was victimized because he is black, because he is a member of the country’s most vulnerable minority. Now, this magazine, which is sympathetic to you, didn’t say because you were Muslim, (BOTH TALKING SIMULTANEOUSLY) or a follower of Elijah Mohammed, but because you were black.
AL: Well, I would say that whoever wrote that actually believed that this is the reason, but this is not, no, no not because I’m black. As much money as the white people could make on me
BU: Well, why wouldn’t the devils go after you? Just because of that.
AL: As much money as the devils could make on me, commercials, advertisements, movies, heavyweight title fights, man, whew, millions of dollars was made when I fought. Let me tell you sumpin’
BU: Well, why didn’t they stick with you then?
AL: The government is so out to get me because of who I am, so that I can’t donate to the works of the Honorable Elijah Mohammed, a man who can take a dollar and make 10-thousand dollars come from it.
BU: Well, you have written that Elijah Mohammed refused to take your money.
AL: Right. Let me say one thing to you, let me say one thing. I owe him money, as a matter of fact. A hundred dollars. Let me say one thing to you, (PAUSE) I forgot what I was gonna say (LAUGHTER) What were we talkin’ about
BU: Well, you were saying about why they went after you because
AL: Oh, right. Thank you. I’m thinkin’ ahead of myself. You see, you’re a wise man, and you make a man think. (LAUGHTER)
BU: Is that ___ in the ring?
AL: No, boxers don’t think as fast as you. They’re slow. But what I would like to say is that Washington, the government, now, the reason I say the government’s behind all this, is because I tried to box a exhibition for the poor people in Mississippi, I could have donated at least 70 or 50-thousand dollars, they came together — the Boxing Commission — and they said well, he probably could, donate a couple a hundred thousand to ‘em, but that’s just a drop in the bucket, as
BU: Who said that?
AL: if to say, the Commission of California, Boxing Commissioners if to say Negroes are not worth than a drop in the bucket, and they wouldn’t do that for ‘em, and the government had to call ‘em, because the commissioners were frightened, as if somebody from Washington had called ‘em, and then we had another boxing match okayed in Columbus, Ohio, and I’m just showin’ you why I know where it’s comin’ from, everybody had okayed, the Mayor’s assistant, the Governor’s assistant, and the Commission gave me a license; somebody forgot to ask the Mayor about it, and he came back hollowin’, I don’t want no draft dodger here, git him out, and like he had a speech written out, somebody told him. And then we said, we’re not fightin’ in America until we go to jail and do some time, or win the case, so, we went to the Indian (?), friend of mine, said I can get you out, I’m not pushin’ the fights, I have various people, Negroes who know you all good, figure that somebody can make a way for me to make a livin’ in America. I say it’s impossible, it ain’t gonna work, I’m a Muslim. I’m followin’ the most hated man in the country, the most powerfulest, the onliest one that tells the truth, and they don’t want his works to spread, and keepin’ me down, hopin’ they can stop his progress. So, they said, oh, man, they ain’t that ___, Elijah Mohammed ain’t nothin’ that powerful, the government ain’t worried about it. I said Washington is not the White House, and not gonna let me fight. They went to the Indian Reservation, 15 Indian Chiefs all got together, okayed the fight,
BU: On the reservation?
AL: Yeah. It was all __, contracts had been signed. It got to Washington. And their food supply or something was threatened. Government surplies was threatened if you let him fight. And the next day no comment, but the fight’s off.
BU: Why can’t you fight outside the country?
AL: Oh, they took my passport. They got that early. Well, I had about, I’ll tell you why, I have about 3-million dollars in Asian, African and European exhibitions. Not fights, just in the Muslim country, they’re dyin’ to see me, so, now, 3-million dollars, the prosecutin’ attorney from Washington came to Houston and told the judge I was goin’ to Japan for the first exhibition, had about 500,000 dollars to pick up, the end of it me makin’ money. I didn’t even need America, I was so popular outside the country, until the prosecutin’ attorney came from Washington, and said, judge, we cannot let this man go to Japan and fight, because they are anti-American, they’re gonna praise him and hail him, and meet him, we understand, at the airport, make a hero out of him, they might make him a millionaire fugitive, his penalty is so serious, five years in prison, ten-thousand dollar fine, he might not return to the country. Now, if I want to leave the country, I know how to leave. Tomorrow. Quick. Easy. If I really want to leave. That’s not the intention. The intention is to stop me from makin’ a livin’. To punish me, you understand.
BU: Be right with you.
BU: Mr. Ali, if you believe that, why don’t you leave the country?
AL: Well, I’d like to say one thing. He was right, I could be a millionaire fugitive, if I was greedy and worried about myself
BU: Well, you could give it away.
AL: No, one thing I’d like to say.
BU: I mean, you could become a Canadian and fight and send the money to Elijah.
AL: Well, no, no. No, this is not my purpose and he don’t need my pennies.
BU: Well, but some people do.
AL: So, I would like to say this, that the flesh and the blood of my people, and their freedom is more important. And one thing I’d like to say real quick, because you say you have some questions, when the whites first came to America from England, they didn’t have the air-conditions, the Buckley Show, and the jet planes. They had to ride stagecoaches, watch Indians stab and kill their wives, no medicine, no penicillin, but nevertheless the first whites kept comin’. They cut down the trees, underbrush, until they made a way for you, then they went and got ‘em some slaves, and worked them them ___ to build a country, but they died, but they never saw this, but they made a way for you, and the World War II, the Japanese, his life didn’t mean nothin’ some of ‘em, they had planes called suicide missions, he knew he would die, he ran the plane directly into the ship for his people in the future, the children. Now, but black people we’ve been taught that we will never be free, until some will have to die, some will have to give up wealth, their loved ones, and their health, So, what I’m doin’ is for myself and for justice for black people, runnin’ will kill it all, it’ll make me a coward, you understand.
BU: I see what you mean, yeah.
AL: So, I would rather go to jail.
AL: Mr. Greenfield.
GR: I’ve heard you speak before about what you’re doin’ now, and how you enjoy it, but I just wonder, being quite honest with us, are there times when you miss being heavyweight champ of the world?
AL: No, they miss me. (LAUGHTER)
GR: I know that.
AL: No, I don’t miss it. I’ve not been missin’ it. You see, I would like to say one thing, whites have been, you may say why is he always talkin’ about whites and blacks, because everything that happens to me is racial, is all based on race and religion, you understand. Many boys I know, name of George Hamilton, get out of the army, and do everything, so I’m the scapegoat, so I got to think like this, because I’m a victim of all this.
GR: You know there are white kids in jail for five years, in fact, those Baltimore guys didn’t get two years, they got six, which is more than you.
AL: Well, they got two and a half.
GR: No, no, Berigan got six.
AL: That must have been in Wisconsin, but what I would like to say is this, your question was
GR: Do you miss it sometimes? Do you miss being the best fighter in the world?
AL: I am the best. I don’t miss being the best.
GR: But, you’ll never be able to prove that again.
AL: I don’t have to prove it. Can you name somebody that could as much as hit me?
GR: Not right now.
AL: No. So, I’m not, you’ve been brainwashed to think that I’m not the champ.
GR: Nope, nope. I just wonder if you miss what you were doin’.
AL: No, I miss the money, not boxing. (LAUGHTER) I’m bein’ truthful. I can box tomorrow, I can go to the gymnasium, call up my sparring partners, and we can box all day, but I won’t get no money for it. You understand?
BU: Miss Williams.
WI: Mr. Ali, you’ve said that you’re against war. I wonder how you feel about the Black Panthers domestic war here.
AL: Well, we black people, as a whole, are at war we’ll say with the white power structure. Not physically, but we have definite protests to win the battle. Like, for example, when America is in Vietnam, one American is fightin’ from the air, the other American is fightin’ on the land, another one is on the shore, shootin’ with the ships, another is a secret spy and another is in a submarine, they’re all fightin’ the same common enemy. They say the Viet Cong but they have different approaches. You see, black people ALL are fightin’ you all for freedom, justice and equality. One believes that intermarriage is gonna solve it, and 200 years from now we all will be a beautiful cream color. He really believes it. One believe that gittin’ some rifles and shootin’ up the country is gonna solve it, another believes that education. One day we’ll be the president. One believe that we gotta git into the white man’s pockets and get all the money. You’ve got hundreds of billions of dollars that he’ll never see or git to, but he believes that one day he’s gonna git most of the money. But we believe that the problem, the answer, is separation and marryin’ our own kind, cleanin’ up for self, and gittin’ some land, and buildin’ our own nation. So, the Black Panthers are a group who figure that they are right, and doin’ the thing the way they see it, but we don’t all agree with each other, but we’re not here to talk about it, but I will say, on violence Elijah Mohammed teaches us it’s impossible to be violent against the most powerful military country on the planet. It’s impossible.
BU: Mr. Gaynor.
GA: Mr. Ali, if you feel that the white man is your common enemy, do you foresee eventual physical conflicts between your movement and the white community?
AL: No, sir. I would like to say that, when you say my movement, it’s not my movement.
GA: Well, the movement of Elijah Mohammed.
AL: Right. You gotta watch all this, because you’ll have me thinkin’ it’s my movement. That’s the way they did Malcolm X and he wouldn’t straighten it out. He talked like it’s his movement. It’s not our movement. It’s the Honorable Elijah Mohammed, God’s, it’s God’s movement. And the Honorable Elijah Mohammed is teachin’ it to us.
GA: Well, do you think there will be eventual conflict?
AL: Not with Muslims, unless you attack us. You see, after each meetin’ we say that we don’t believe in bein’ the aggressor, but fight like hell against those who fight against you. But not be the aggressor. Which is not, there’s nothin’ wrong with that. But I’d like to say that Muslims are never in violence with white people. It’s the black man who love you. See, you don’t let him in your toilet, you don’t let him in your restroom, you don’t let him marry your daughter, you gotta fight. So, we’re not gonna be botherin’ you, you understand. Muslims don’t come in, we don’t have no trouble with you. It’s just the integrator.
GA: Do you allow white men in your meetings?
AL: No, sir, not in religious meetings. No, sir. It’s a family problem, a discussion, and you would feel out of place. You know. I’m sure you all have many meetings we can’t go to.
GA: A few. (LAUGHTER)
AL: A few. A whole lot of them.
BU: I can’t think of any. As a matter of fact, I can’t think of any.
BU: No, I really can’t.
AL: You can’t think of any meetings that white folks have
AL: That black folks can’t go to?
BU: No, no, no I can’t.
AL: You should be ashamed of yourself.
FROM AUDIENCE: Klan
BU: Oh, the Klan. How could they tell?
AL: I’m sure there’s a whole lot of ‘em.
BU: Mr. __?__ (ALL TALKING SIMULTANEOUSLY)
?: Mr. Ali, from your conversation with Mr. Buckley I have assumed, that, if given chance, and your appeal is won in the Supreme Court, you would return to the ring. Now, wouldn’t this conflict with your being an ordained minister of Islam and therefore pacifistic?
AL: You can look at it that way, that’s all right, I understand you, I’ve been asked this question a million times in colleges. Uh, I have, I’m in about 485-thousand dollars worth of debt, now, which the courts say I don’t have to pay until I can earn it, and I will have paid my debt, and git right out of the ring, but I would like to say boxing cannot compared with war. We have gloves on, we have cushions, we have referees, we have judges, we have ambulances there, the intention not to kill, we don’t have steel there, we don’t have bullets, we don’t kill momma, kill daddy, kill baby, our intention is a sport, and we’re not there to kill, so boxing cannot be compared in no way with machineguns and bombs and everything that they use
BU: Yeah, I think that’s fair enough
AL: Thank you.
BU: And uh well, just, in closing, Mr. Ali, do you feel that you will be able to repay this money that you owe by professional, you only have five seconds,
AL: If I’m allowed to pursue my profession again, yes.
BU: Thank you very much. I enjoyed talking to you very much.
AL: I enjoyed talking to you.
BU: And thank you all.
Firing Line with William F. Buckley Jr., Program 130, “Muhammad Ali and the Negro Movement,” Firing Line broadcast records, Hoover Institution Archives.