In 1961, an athlete named Cassius Clay prepared for a bout with Duke Sabedong in Las Vegas. The 10-round boxing match was the young boxer’s seventh, but his swagger and charm had already gained him admirers.

That day, the man who would soon become Muhammad Ali received a telegram from an unexpected correspondent. “Your youthful good humor, physical prowess, and flippant charm have made you an idol to many American young people,” it read. “May God protect you and your opponent in the coming contest.” It was signed Martin Luther King Jr.

It was an overture to an unlikely friendship, one that took place on the stormy stage of the Civil Rights Movement. Though it is uncertain how many times MLK and Ali met during their lifetimes, they were friends. 

But publicly, the two men couldn’t have been more opposed — and their secret friendship was only revealed to the public through surveillance files that showed the FBI had long been following them.

Despite their differences, King and Ali had a strong bond

The bond between King and Ali was surprising: Ali was the world’s most famous boxer, and an outspoken member of the Nation of Islam, a Black separatist group that preached non-integration and revolution. That was the opposite of King’s ideals of nonviolent protest and integration.

During the 1960s, the men found themselves on two different sides of a growing rift between King’s Civil Rights Movement, on the one hand, and the NOI’S turbulent vision of Black power, on the other.

But the men had much in common. Both had grown up in the segregated South. They were arguably the two most famous Black men in America — King for his protests and preaching, Ali for his astonishing athleticism. 

And by the end of the 1960s, they were two of the most hated men in the United States, too. Racists branded them both with ugly stereotypes. They decried King’s insistence on the dignity and worth of Black men and his agitation on behalf of the poor, and derided Ali’s insistence on Black pride, from his name change in 1964 to his resistance to the Vietnam War as a white man’s fight.

Publicly, the men could not seem more opposed. “Integration is wrong,” Ali said in 1964 when King was at the height of his visibility for nonviolent protests and calls to integrate Black people into a white-dominated society. “White people don’t want it, the Muslims don’t want it… I don’t join integration marches and I never hold a sign.” 

Meanwhile, King repeatedly declined to engage with the Nation of Islam and turned down an invitation by Malcolm X, the NOI’s most visible figure, to march together. “I totally disagree with many of his political and philosophical views,” King said later.

Muhammad Ali with Black Muslim leader Malcolm X in New York City, 1964 Photo: John Peodincuk/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images

He may just as well have been speaking of Ali. But ironically, the issue that made Ali one of the most hated Black men in America brought both men together. In 1966, Ali announced that he would refuse to serve in the Vietnam War. “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” he said. To Ali, the war was both unethical and not his to fight.

King supported Ali even when the boxer evaded the draft

That decision ignited a tinderbox. The war was already unpopular, and men around the country had begun to dodge the draft and declare themselves conscientious objectors.

The United States tried to broker a behind-the-scenes deal with Ali, offering him a deal to allow him to serve without seeing actual combat in the hopes of avoiding his becoming a public conscientious objector. It failed, and Ali was arrested and charged with draft evasion.

Ali paid a heavy price for his actions: His heavyweight title and boxing license were stripped from him, leaving him unable to box and the subject of derision and hatred from those who supported the war.

But not King: He publicly supported Ali and his actions. “He’s doing what he’s doing on the basis of conscience,” he said in a news conference. “He’s absolutely sincere. I strongly endorse his actions.”

This was a change in tune for King, who had opposed the war in private but only addressed his opposition in public in 1967 after Ali took his stand. Friends later told Ali’s biographer, Michael Ezra, that they thought Ali’s public stance had helped prompt King’s public opposition to the war.

King mentioned Ali to his parishioners, too. “No matter what you think of Mr. Muhammad Ali’s religion, you certainly have to admire his courage,” he said.

 A telegram to a jailed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from Muhammad Ali.  Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Ali called King his “brother”

In private, the men had already long been friends. FBI notes from a 1964 wiretap of their conversation show Ali telling King that he is keeping up with his work and “that MLK is his brother and is with him 100 percent but can’t take any chances.”

They continued to talk on the phone after Ali refused the draft, and when King was imprisoned in 1967 after organizing what police characterized as an un-permitted protest, Ali sent a telegram to jail that read “Hope you are comfortable not suffering.”

During Ali’s trial for draft evasion, the men’s conversations became public during discovery materials that unexpectedly revealed the FBI had been wiretapping King’s phones without a warrant for years. Though a judge later ruled that the transcripts of the calls did not affect Ali’s conviction for draft evasion, they were big news and confirmation of the widespread fear of both men.

In 1967, King and Ali appeared together in public, standing together at a rally for fair housing in Louisville, Kentucky. “In your struggle for justice, freedom, and equality, I am with you,” Ali told King as cameras rolled.

Though they remained opposed on many points, it makes sense that two of the most prominent, and vulnerable, Black men in the United States would bond. But the friendship was cut tragically short in 1968 when King was assassinated on a hotel balcony in Memphis. “Dr. King was my great Black Brother,” Ali later recalled. “He’ll be remembered for thousands of years to come.” 

AP Photo
Photo: John Peodincuk/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images
Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images