How Cassius Clay Became Muhammad Ali

By Zirin, Dave | The Progressive, April 2015 | Go to article overview

How Cassius Clay Became Muhammad Ali


Zirin, Dave, The Progressive


February 25, 1964, is a day that should be recognized as a pivot upon which a great deal of sports history--and world history--turned.

A young boxer named Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. won the heavyweight championship of the world in shocking fashion, by defeating the heavily favored and allegedly unstoppable Charles "Sonny" Liston. But that is not what makes February 25 such a seminal moment.

To understand the importance of that day, you need to look at what happened after the fight. Clay did not party or celebrate or, as his managers had feared, spend the night in the hospital. Instead, he sat in his hotel room to eat ice cream with some interesting company: musical legend Sam Cooke, football star Jim Brown, and a gentleman by the name of Malcolm X. They had not gathered just for the ice cream. Clay was considering a decision that was already a rumor in the newspapers: that he would join the Nation of Islam, a black nationalist, separatist force in sharp opposition to the civil rights movement of Martin Luther King Jr.

The next day, Clay announced to the world that he would join the Nation of Islam, saying, "I ain't no Christian. I can't be when I see all the colored people fighting for forced integration get blown up. They get hit by the stones and chewed by dogs and then these crackers blow up a Negro church. ... People are always telling me what a good example I would be if I just wasn't Muslim. I've heard over and over why couldn't I just be more like Joe Louis and Sugar Ray. Well they are gone, and the black man's condition is just the same ain't it? We're still catching hell."

Through Cassius Clay's transformation first to Cassius X and then to Muhammad Ali, he radicalized the black freedom struggle and became the most famous draft resister and anti-war activist in the world.

A series of interviews that I conducted with Jim Brown in his California home brought that famous night into even sharper perspective for me. …

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