The Meaning of Friendship: Civil Rights, Respect and that ‘One Night in Miami’

What can the movie ‘One Night in Miami’ teach us about the Civil Rights Movement and the importance of forming deep relationships with mutual purpose and respect?

Since it was Martin Luther King Jr. day, I figured it would be a fitting evening to watch the movie which I had heard about a couple days prior. The movie was the very first suggestion on Amazon Prime so clearly I was not the only one with this thought.

The film is an inexact but historically relevant re-enactment of the events that surrounded Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) on the night he became Heavyweight Champion of the boxing world and famously chanted “I am the greatest.” Anyone who knows about Muhammad Ali, knows that he had been saying this frequently and would continue to proclaim himself “the greatest.” On this night, Cassius Clay finally earned the bragging rights to ‘back it up.’

After the fight, Clay joined his friends and allies in the social justice movement: Malcolm X, Jim Brown, and last but not least, Sam Cooke. It would be a night of celebration, deliberation, and drama at Malcolm’s quite humble and run-down abode. It was the early 1960s and at the time, the Civil Rights Movement was gaining tremendous steam.

Anyone who suffered from the injustices of the era developed and demonstrated strength in the face of harsh adversity. From Rosa Parks’ refusal to obey unjust demands, to Ruby Bridges being threatened and harassed after proving herself to be “smart enough” to attend a White Elementary school, the amount of will and strength that these individuals had to carry with them is unimaginable to a modern human. The four men depicted in the film successfully leveraged the events of the time, as well as something within each other to carry forward.

Social Justice and racial justice is a basic truth that is as self-evident as the words in the US Declaration of Independence.
Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

Each of the four men in the movie carried the burden in their own way. The movie conveyed the struggle of African Americans at the time in a manner that exceeded my expectations. However, to my surprise the themes of the movie transcended politics and racism. The major theme that stood out to me was friendship.

The Foundation of Friendship is Tested

Now, approximately 60 years later, if any normal, compassionate human being takes a break from the constant distractions of modern life, we can learn a lot about how to overcome the division that plagues our society today. Anyone who has truly lived knows that friendship and relationships are far more important than making our petty little political points.

In the movie these men demonstrated their respect while freely and candidly criticizing each other. It reminded me how some of my relationships with friends and family have transformed my life. We can use a periodic reminder that the quality of our relationships can either transform or severely hinder our lives.

Despite some sporadic efforts from Sam and Cassius to party in celebration of the moment, the men discussed the future of African Americans and the role each played in the movement. Through a notable portion of the movie, Sam and Malcolm discussed which tactics were most appropriate. Since the men had vastly different approaches and temperaments, this tension was inevitable.  

“Then I go to my brother and I say, brother, help me please. …But he winds up, knockin’ me back down on my knees” – Sam Cooke

Both men criticized each other sharply as only true friends can do in a heated argument. Sam criticized Malcolm for using unnecessarily incendiary language such as referring to White people as “devils.” Throughout the movie, Sam encourages him to lighten up and accuses him of becoming too consumed by the movement and too radical.

Malcolm criticized Sam sharply for not doing enough for the movement with his platform as arguably the most talented signer in all the land. Sam defended himself by pointing to his business skills including how he receives royalties for songs being recorded for himself and other artists, including White Artists.

To drive his point home, Malcolm grabbed a record, put it into the player and exclaimed to Sam, “I heard a song on the radio the other day. This song made me think of you.”

As the song began. Malcolm smiled, bobbed his head and began snapping his fingers.

The song played.

“How many roads must a man walk down, before you call him a man. How many seas must the white dove sail, before she sleeps in the sand. How many times must the cannon balls fly, before they’re forever banned.”

The camera shows the four men as they reacted to hearing the song and the lyrics. Malcolm turned off the record after the first verse and turned to Sam.

“Wooo.” Malcolm said with enthusiasm. “I just love those lyrics. Especially in the beginning. ‘How many roads must a man walk down, before you can call him a man?’

It’s as though he is asking how much do the oppressed have to do before they can be recognized as human beings.”

Sam informs Malcolm that he’s familiar with Bob Dylan’s song. Malcolm responds by asking Sam if hearing it made him angry? Given all they had just discussed about ownership rights and Sam’s business tactics, Sam appears perplexed and annoyed by the question.

Malcolm explains. “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, brotha.”

Malcolm goes on. “I know I’m not the shrewd business person you are, my brotha but since you say being vocal in the struggle is bad for business, why has this ole’ pop song gone higher on the charts than anything you got out?”

Sam stares in a silent rage. Malcolm asks again, even more forcefully this time.

Sam turns to his friend Cassius who is looking on with intrigue then turns to look back at Malcolm as he storms off in frustration. Jim and Cassius call out to Sam as he heads for the door to encourage him to stay but he had his mind made up and left the room in a silent rage. Without saying anything, other than a scornful look back at Malcolm as the door slams shut.

“Good Riddance.” Malcolm says as he waves in frustration in the direction of the door.

Cassius Clay, sympathetic to his friend Sam turns to Malcolm, “that wasn’t necessary.” He says.

Malcolm responds in a fiery tone, “YES, that absolutely was necessary.”

“We’re supposed to be FRIENDS, man!” An impassioned Cassius responds.

An equally impassioned Malcolm responds. “Yes, I am his friend and that is why I am trying to give him a wake-up call.” He goes on, “there is NO MORE ROOM for ANYONE, not you, not me, not Jimmy, not Sam, no one to be standing on the fence anymore. Our people are literally dying in the streets every day. Black people are DYING. Everyday!”

Malcolm continues. “And a line has got to be drawn in the sand, Jimmy. A line that says, either you stand on this side with us, or you stand over on that side against us ‘Cass’ and I, I, I,” Malcolm trembles in passion, “I believe. I believe in that brotha’s potential Jimmy too much, too much to let him stay over on the other side.

Cassius goes downtown to retrieve Sam while Jim and Malcolm have a conversation. The group has split over the tensions.

The Bonds That Tie Us Together:

“It’s been too hard livin’. But I’m afraid to die. I don’t know what’s up there, beyond the sky.” Sam Cooke

Are you lucky enough to have friends like this? Do you have a friend who you have such a bond with where you can speak so frankly, so candidly, so emphatically and with such intensity. Can your disputes with your most trusted friends withstand storm tides like this that can test the very foundation of the friendship?

When Cassius tracks down Sam, the two have a dialogue in the car outside a liquor store. Cassius accuses Sam of taking for granted the power that he holds from the way he conducts his business activities.

“Power just means a world where we’re safe to be ourselves. To look like we want. To think like we want. Without havin’ to answer to anybody for it.” Cassius explains. “Now with all that we’ve put in, don’t Black folks deserve that much? We can do whatever we want now brotha. So tell me, what do you want to do?”

A lesson in what it takes to be a quality friend has been put on display here and throughout the movie. These men know themselves well and they know they all stand to gain when they lean on each other for strength, growth, support, and guidance. Despite the severity and intensity of their divisions, viewers of the movie can sense that these divisions do not stand a chance against the bond and respect they share for one another.

How do your friends handle you when divisions exist between the two of you, or within your friend group? How do you handle your friends when they disagree with you?

The Road to Respect in our Relationships

People may define friends differently and many talk about the difference between true friends and fake friends, acquaintances and best friends, enemies and “frienemies.” How many of us truly act on our vision of proper friendships?

As a friendship forms, in its infancy there is a connection of some sort. It could be over circumstances, shared beliefs, mutual purpose, or something else. This connection will turn into a bond as the friendship grows in its early stages.

There are 2 distinct definitions of the term ‘respect.’ This is reflected in the Google search provided “Oxford Language” definition of the term.

Respect: (1) Due regard for the feelings, wishes, rights, or traditions of others.

In order to have the foundation of a transformative friendship, this definition must be satisfied. This is a minimum threshold that must be crossed to get to the deeper layers of friendship. The deeper two people are able to go, the more transformational the friendship can become – for better or for worse.

When we seek connection and mutual purpose with potential friends, we instinctively discover areas in which we can bond. When this happens, the developing new friendship can go in 3 distinct directions.

  1. The friendship can progress as it approaches “best friend” status.

As this happens trust and mutual respect deepen as both individuals experience a more enriching, satisfying and rewarding life

2. The friendship can remain the same.

In this case, the two or more parties’ bond over something they share but it doesn’t move into a deeper level.

3. The friendship can also regress.

In this case both parties could either agree not to continue for mutual reasons, or they can grow apart due to the after effects of malice in some form.

Once a friendship satisfies the first of the above 3 directions, it begins to meet the second, more transformative and meaningful definition of respect. Once a friendship enters this territory, it can become transformative and uplifting.

“Friendship is the hardest thing in the world to explain. It’s not something you learn in school. But if you haven’t learned the meaning of friendship, you really haven’t learned anything.” — Muhammad Ali

Okay Malcolm X: Challenge Accepted

Respect: (2) A feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements.

A scene later in the movie has Sam Cooke on a talk show performing one of his catchy, non-political songs.

“Come on and let the good times roalll. We gonna stay here till we soooothe our souls, if it take alll night longgg.”

After performing the song, Sam sits down for the interview portion of his appearance. The host encourages Sam to perform one more encore song. Unsure what to sing, he reluctantly agrees.

Sam stands up and walks over to the stage, preparing his “mountain moving” voice to deliver a sound and a message so soothing, it was capable of shaking the foundation of an entire nation. Malcolm knew that Sam could do this in a way that Cassius, Jim, and himself could not. Where Malcolm X carried much of the rage, fury, and burden of the Civil Rights movement, Sam provided the soul.

Sam stands up on stage and prepares his voice to deliver a new message, for the first time.

“I was boooorrrrnnnnn by the river.” Sam sings. “In a little tent. Oooohh and just like the river, I’ve been runnin…’ ever since. It’s been a looong time. A loong time comin’ but I know-oh oh. I change gon’ come.”

“Oh yes it will.”

The Wise Have few Friends

On the surface, one could say that these men held together because they shared a bond over racial injustice – a mutual purpose of significance to all of them. We should not stop there however, because that would be overly simplistic.

The actual reason they could remain friends has more to do with their respect for each other’s character, talent, and skill. They offered their open ears and spoke their minds without any reason for fear or suspicion that they would need to censor themselves for the sake of protecting each other’s emotions.

Not everyone can have such contentious, personal conversations about such emotionally charged topics as the politics of this era. Typically individuals’ respective egos will prevent the conversation from the layers of depth it wants to grow to. Given the accomplishments of these men, they naturally had healthy egos and self-confidence but these could not stand in their way.

Throughout the night in Miami they raised their voices to each other, they cried together, and experienced many disagreements. Despite this, the pain they inflicted on each other never had a chance to erode the respect that had already been established. The reason they stuck together was not circumstance, it was not chance, it was the level of authentic respect they had for each other.

“Don’t make friends who are comfortable to be with. Make friends who will force you to lever yourself up.” — Thomas J. Watson

Friends should bring out the best in us. They should know our deepest desires and take our best interest into consideration. The men in this movie are great examples of how to treat true friends with the dignity and respect they deserve. When we choose friends wisely, identify the positive in each other, and reciprocate with authenticity our lives can transform.

With the right friends, the right attitude, and the right behavior we can reach new personal heights we never could have previously imagined.

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