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Here’s what we know happened Feb. 25, 1964: 22-year-old Cassius Clay (soon to become Muhammad Ali) became the heavyweight boxing champion of the world by defeating Sonny Liston. Clay’s close friend, NFL superstar Jim Brown, was a ringside radio announcer. After the fight, Brown had planned a lavish celebration that Clay nixed in favor of hanging out at a small Black motel along with his other friends, Malcolm X and Sam Cooke. We don’t know what they talked about, but the next morning Clay announced to the press that he had converted to the Nation of Islam. The riveting new movie One Night in Miami imagines what took place among those four Black powerhouses, distilling many of the key struggles facing prominent African Americans into a series of tense, playful, combative and emotional conversations. One conversation that especially resonated with me was the heated debate between political activist Malcolm X and music mogul Cooke about the responsibility of successful Blacks to be the public face of the fight for civil rights. It is the same debate I’ve had with myself and others for the past 50 years.
Here’s what else we know: All four of them had lived with discrimination their entire lives. All four had been called the N-word since childhood. All four had been refused service in restaurants, hotels and stores, even at the height of their fame. Two were killed within the year. Cooke was shot to death under suspicious circumstances 10 months later. Malcolm X was assassinated 12 months later. Three years later, Ali would be stripped of his title and sentenced to prison. The context of their night of celebration in Miami is that it was a dangerous time to be Black in America — and an even more dangerous time to be a famous Black.
As the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer showed, not much has changed. Unarmed African Americans are still murdered by the police. Because of inequities in the health care system, Blacks have a shorter life span and receive less quality medical care than whites. COVID-19 has highlighted the differences: Blacks have a death rate 2.8 times higher than that of whites and are hospitalized 3.7 times more than whites.
Which is why the movie’s argument between Cooke and Malcolm X is so relevant today. Malcolm X argues that famous Blacks like Cooke have a responsibility to use their fame to publicly demand civil rights, while Cooke believes he should be able to choose to work quietly behind the scenes building his business empire to gain economic power and freedom. By being entertaining but nonconfrontational, Cooke thinks, Blacks will find that whites are more accepting of them.
In one memorable conscience-versus-commerce scene, after reprimanding Cooke for not writing more political songs, Malcolm X plays Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”: “This is a white boy … from Minnesota who has nothing to gain from writing a song that speaks more to the struggles of our people, more to the movement, than anything that you have ever penned in your life. Now, I know I’m not the shrewd businessperson you are, my brother, but since you say being vocally in the struggle is bad for business, why has this song gone higher on the pop charts than anything you’ve got out?” Cooke has no response, though I would have said Dylan’s song was successful because it was sung by a white boy from Minnesota and not a Black man from Chicago. Whites needed a nonthreatening white Pied Piper to lead them from the sunny suburbs into the murky shadows of civil rights. After that acceptable introduction to Black struggles, they were more receptive to Black voices telling their own stories.
I had my own go-tell-it-on-the-mountain moment in 1967, when Jim Brown asked me to be part of the Cleveland Summit, a group of Black athletes tasked with deciding whether we would support Muhammad Ali’s decision to refuse the draft as a conscientious objector. I was only 20, a sophomore at UCLA, surrounded by veteran athletes, some of them also military veterans who were not pleased with Ali’s stance. It was not a rubber-stamp group. We grilled Ali for hours. Some in the group had come with the intention of trying to convince Ali to accept military service, especially since the government had promised he would only do boxing exhibitions and never be sent to Vietnam. So great was Ali’s spiritual conviction that he convinced us all of his sincerity. We voted to support Ali. Two weeks later, he was convicted of draft evasion, sentenced to five years in prison, fined $10,000 and banned from boxing for three years. Although he remained out of prison while appealing his case (which he eventually won), the ban alone cost him millions of dollars. Seeing Ali willing to sacrifice his career and even face imprisonment for the sake of his conscience inspired me to speak out against inequality whenever I could.
Clearly, Black athletes, entertainers and businesspeople risk so much when they openly and publicly speak out for equality that I don’t think we should bully anyone into becoming a target. That’s a choice each person has to arrive at on their own. During much of his career, Michael Jordan chose not to use his position as a platform, explaining, “I do commend Muhammad Ali for standing up for what he believed in. But I never thought of myself as an activist. I thought of myself as a basketball player. I wasn’t a politician when I was playing my sport. I was focused on my craft. Was that selfish? Probably. But that was my energy. That’s where my energy was.” That pretty much sums up Cooke’s position in the movie. But in May 2020, Jordan changed his mind, issuing a defense of BLM protests: “I stand with those who are calling out the ingrained racism and violence toward people of color in our country. We have had enough.”
When famous Black athletes like Jordan join Brown, Bill Russell, Colin Kaepernick, LeBron James, Eric Reid, Steph Curry, Maya Moore, Tina Charles, Naomi Osaka and many more, it becomes more difficult for mainstream white society to portray protesters as outliers or complainers. Last summer, between 15 million and 26 million Americans protested in support of BLM, the largest movement in U.S. history. Part of the reason the crowds were so large and so passionate was that the people were made aware of heinous injustices because famous Blacks consistently spoke out against them. So, yeah, I’ve got to side with Malcolm on this issue.
As it turned out, Sam Cooke was not that far apart philosophically, because in reality, he released “A Change Is Gonna Come” a few days before that night in Miami, with these lyrics:
It’s been a long /
A long time coming /
But I know a change gonna come /
Oh, yes it will.
The businessman Sam Cooke was right that “being vocally in the struggle” was bad business; the song was never as popular as his other hits. But Sam Cooke the artist and Sam Cooke the African American was proud because he had finally found his own voice and, in doing so, the voice of his people. The song quickly became an anthem for the civil rights movement. It also was performed at the celebration of Barack Obama’s 2008 inauguration and at his Nobel Peace Prize Concert. Speaking after his election, President Obama referenced the song: “It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, change has come to America.”
Despite Cooke’s reluctance to risk his career by speaking out, when he finally did, he added a mighty strength that helped us all roll that rock farther up the hill.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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