Sunday, February 23, 2014

Remembering Cassius Clay

Boxing is not my favorite sport, to say the least. But in the early 1960s June and I followed with considerable interest the up-and-coming career of a flashy Louisville boxer.
That boxer was Cassius Clay, who won the heavyweight championship of the world 50 years ago, in February 1964. Partly in recognition of Black History Month, this column is about Clay, who later became known around the world as Muhammad Ali.
Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., was born on January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky. His parents were members of the Southern black middle class, certainly not wealthy but better off than most African-Americans of that time.
Still, young Cassius grew up feeling the discomforts of racism and prejudice. According to Anthony O. Edmonds’s biography Muhammad Ali (2006), “the defining moment in his racial education” came when his father told him about the murder of Emmett Till in August 1954.
Even though I am 3½ years older than Ali, I don’t even remember hearing about that tragic event at the time. But, of course, I was not a black boy in the South.
It was that same year, when Cassius was 12, that he first began training to be a boxer. His amateur career, especially at the beginning, was not an overwhelming success. Still, he won the national Golden Gloves titles in both1959 and 1960.
Then in September 1960, while still only 18, Clay won the light-heavyweight gold medal at the Summer Olympics in Rome. That was, no doubt, when June and I began to hear about him, for we had moved to Kentucky the year before and were regular readers of his hometown newspaper, The Courier-Journal.

In spite of the latent racism in and around Louisville, Clay enjoyed considerable acclaim when he came back from Rome with a gold medal. Later that year he turned pro and began a stellar career as a professional boxer.
He later claimed that he started boxing because “it was the fastest way for a young black man to achieve social and economic mobility” (Edmonds, p. 17). Especially up to and including the time of his stunning defeat of world heavyweight champion Sonny Liston on February 25, 1964, more and more accolades were heaped upon him.
By then he had, indeed, achieved celebrity status and considerable wealth. But public opinion quickly began to change when Clay changed his religion. Just the day after the Liston fight, Clay announced that he had given up Christianity and had become a member of the Nation of Islam.
Then on March 6, 1964, he announced that he had given up his “slave name” and that his new name was Muhammad Ali. His name change is a bit ironic in light of the fact that Cassius Marcellus Clay (1810-1903), the noted Kentucky planter and politician for whom he was named, was an ardent abolitionist.
There is much more to Ali’s story: his conviction in 1968 for refusing induction into the Army, his contracting Parkinson’s disease in 1984, his lighting the torch for the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, his being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005 and the $80 million Muhammad Ali Center opening in Louisville that same year.
Sadly, Ali, who now lives in Arizona, is said to be in “terminal decline” from his Parkinson’s. But the “Louisville Lip” was a colorful man I remember well from more than fifty years ago. Some of what he said is worth remembering, too.
Here is one of his notable quotes: “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.” Good words, indeed.


  1. I never followed him very closely outside media reports, but I admired Muhammad Ali’s courageous stands against the domination of our culture and to the suppression of minority voices by white Christians (mostly Protestant), as well as to the paranoid anti-communism that were so evident back in the 1950s and 60s.

    Because of age and class, I came to the game late, but in the late 1960s I became an avid student of African-American history. I suppose I read every major history and biography I could find at the time, and would spend hours combing through bookstores in St. Louis, sometimes without success, looking for more books in black studies.

    Those studies put me in a kind of rage about white racism. My stepfather at that time (I experienced several stepfathers) was very racist, and sometimes he would storm out of the house during dinner and in the middle of an argument with me over black history and race relations. It upset mother terribly. It scared the bejesus out of her when I brought my African-American date home one evening, and mother tried to isolate her and me in the living room while keeping stepdad unawares in the back bedroom.

    I sometimes wonder what I would have done had I not been a pacifist evangelical Christian. Were there any white-skinned Black Panthers? ☺

    I know we’ve come a long way in race relations, but I think we still see the destructive consequences of centuries of slavery and discrimination. I agree with those who argue for reparative policies.

    1. Anton, thanks for sharing this about your rage over white racism. I am glad you were a pacifist evangelical Christian then. (And that is not a bad thing for a person to be now!)

      I will be posting more explicitly about racism tomorrow.

  2. One of the regular readers of this blog asked, "Wasn’t his name/religion change part of trying to avoid military service as a conscientious objector?"

    No, that doesn't seem to be the case at all. Clay failed the mental aptitude part of the military qualifying examination in January 1964, the month before his announced conversion to Islam, and failed it again in March 1964, the month of his name change.

    In February 1966, though, after the standards were changed he was declared eligible for military service. The following month, two years after his conversion/name change, for the first time he claimed CO status based on his Islamic beliefs.

  3. John Bush, my 91-year-old Thinking Friend and fellow church member, wrote (by email): "Great post, Leroy. His daughter is quite a boxer, too."

    I have not seen her box (I am far less a fan of female boxers than male boxers), but Ali's daughter Laila (b. 1977) retired in 2007 after eight years as a professional boxer. Her record was 24-0.

    As John said, she was "quite a boxer, too"!

  4. Very articulate and witty, the Will Rogers of our time. I miss him.