Fifty-five years ago Cassius Clay defeated overwhelming odds and Sonny Liston to claim the heavyweight boxing title. It was a position he would lose and regain through personal and societal changes for nearly fifteen years.
Within weeks, in a sign that he would be a controversial figure, Mr. Clay announced that he had converted to the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali, saying that “Cassius Clay” was his slave name.
His mentor was was Malcolm X but Malcolm soon left the Nation of Islam after breaking with its leader Elijah Muhammad.
Ali stayed with the Nation, breaking off from Malcolm: “Malcolm X and anybody else who attacks or talks about attacking Elijah Muhammad will die.”
Three gunmen, all of whom were Nation of Islam members, assassinated Malcolm X in February 1965.
Decades later, Ali said: “I wish I’d been able to tell Malcolm I was sorry, that he was right about so many things. . . . If I could go back and do it over again, I would never have turned my back on him.”
“Turning my back on Malcolm,” Ali wrote in his autobiography The Soul of a Butterfly, “was one of the mistakes that I regret most in my life.
Two questions present themselves.
First, why did Ali reject Malcolm X?
The possible answer: fear.
Cassius Marcellus Clay
In a 2016 book “Blood Brothers The Fatal Frienship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X,” authors Randy Robert and Johnny Smith write that boxing great Sugar Ray Robinson thought that Ali could not cross the Nation.
They recount a conversation reported by Mr Robinson about Ali’s rejection of the military draft which Mr. Robinson was worries would lead to a prison term for Mr. Ali:
“Forget the old man,” Robinson urged. “Is Elijah going to go to jail, and all those other Muslims?”
“But I’m afraid, Ray,” he admitted with tears in his eyes. “I’m really afraid.”
“Afraid of what? Of the Muslims if you don’t do what they told you?”
Ali would not answer. Robinson pressed, but the champ remained silent. When Robinson recalled the story for a writer, he said, “If you ask me, he wasn’t afraid of jail. He was scared of being killed by the Muslims.”
Second, was “Cassius Clay” reasonably a “slave name”?
The name “Cassius Clay” came to Mr. Ali from his father who had been named after Cassius Marcellus Clay (1810-1903) a Kentucky planter who freed his slaves before the Civil War and worked for the abolition of slavery. He founded an abolitionist newspaper “True American” in Kentucky.
Clay was elected to multiple terms in the Kentucky House of Representatives but eventually lost support because of his fervently anti-slavery activism. His life was often threatened and he carried a pistol for protection.
One particularly grisly story sums up the harsh and dangerous political climate of the time. In 1843, during a political debate Clay was shot in the chest by a hired assassin named Sam Brown. Despite being shot, Clay drew a knife that he carried and tackled the fleeing man, butchering him right on the debate floor. (That’s something to think about when certain political pundits claim we live in the most polarized political climate in history)
Clay’s views were so unpopular to the pro-slavery elements in Kentucky that he had cannons set up on the roof of his newspaper office. This Cassius Clay is little-remembered in history but was a formidable man, standing against the climate of opinion of his time in the antebellum South.
Cassius Clay a relative of the statesman Henry Clay had a distinguished career. Abraham Lincoln appointed him ambassador to Russia and he is credited with getting Russian support for the Union cause. Ambassador Clay also helped negotiate the acquisition of Alaska from the Russians.
Muhammad Ali (1942-2016) was a great champion and an American icon. His life should not be defined by the turbulent events of the mid-1960s. He later left the Nation for a more moderate version of Islam.
But it still begs the question: Which was the real “slave name”?
The name his father gave him? Or the one bestowed upon him by the very man that likely murdered his best friend and intimidated him into silence for most of his life?
Perhaps, when his friend Malcolm X was in trouble, Ali could have gained some inspiration and courage from his birth name, Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr.