Updated: May 8, 2020
Six long years. That’s how long it took for the Associated Press and the New York Times to respect Muhummad Ali’s wishes and call him by the name he took when he became a Muslim. People change names for a variety of reasons: many women (and a few men) change their last names when they marry and later when they divorce. Some folks change first names that reflect their gender identity, and laws are changing to make this process easier, which is a good thing. And many entertainers take on new names, but this is usually done early on in their careers before achieving wide-spread recognition.
Navigating a name change is far more difficult for someone who is already a public figure, and Muhammad Ali paved the way for those who followed. It wasn’t just about his name, it was about the religion and the fact that he was a proud black man who didn't back down. When Kareem Abdul-Jabbar changed his name, the press was less hostile, but the experience had some similarities to Ali's. In a thoughtful opinion piece, Abdul-Jabbar speaks about his conversion to Islam and I include it here as it touches on issues I explore in my blog and the Stairwell Teatro episodes. It's about identity, respect, and social justice. Click here to read.
When Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali, he was already quite famous. The 18-year old won the Gold Medal at the Summer Olympics in Rome in 1960. He was 22 when he dethroned the Heavyweight Boxing Champion, Sonny Liston, considered one of the finest boxers ever. Ali’s face had been on the cover of many major national magazines and he had appeared in hometown newspapers, big and small, all over the United States.
Not only was he a great boxer, but Ali was also a handsome, charismatic, and a proud trash-talking showboat. He was a magnificent quote machine, who often spoke in rhyme.
Among my favorites:
"Float like a butterfly,
Sting like a bee.
His hands can't hit
What his eyes can't see."
"I've wrestled with alligators,
I've tussled with a whale
I done handcuffed lightning
And throw thunder in jail.
You know I'm bad.
Just last week, I murdered a rock,
Injured a stone. Hospitalized a brick.
I'm so mean, I make medicine sick."
Cassius Clay shocked the sports world when he announced he had joined the Nation of Islam, and changed this name. This was just days after winning his first Heavyweight Title. He told the press that Cassius Clay was a slave name. He didn’t pick it and he didn’t want it. Moving forward he was to be addressed as Muhammad Ali, a name that meant Beloved of God. The name was given to him by Elijah Muhammad.
Clay was named after his father, who in turn had been named after Kentucky politician and abolitionist Cassius Marcellus Clay. That Clay, who was from a wealthy Kentucky family, heard William Lloyd Garrison give a speech at Yale and that led him to oppose slavery, which made him very unpopular in his home state. He was friends with Abraham Lincoln and served Lincoln’s Administration as the Representative to Russia and helped the United States acquire the state of Alaska from Russia. Muhammad Ali’s ancestors had ancestral ties to the plantation owned by the Cassius Marcellus Clay family. They had lived there in the 1800s.
But I digress. The Heavyweight Champion's wishes were disregarded by the press and other boxing opponents as well who continued calling him Cassius Clay. In a famous Heavyweight Title Fight, Muhammad Ali punished and taunted Ernie Terrell calling out, “What’s My Name?” while landing brutal angry punches. The fight became known as the What’s My Name Fight.
There was one notable exception among the press. Howard Cosell, a loquacious lawyer turned sportscaster respected Ali’s wishes and addressed him by his chosen name. The two hyper talkative men were fixtures on television, jousting and insulting each other, and became life long friends.
Ali was famous not just as a boxer but also for refusing to serve in the US Military at the height of the Vietnam War. Although he reported to the Induction Center in Houston, Texas as commanded by law, he refused to be drafted because it violated his religious convictions. He also made clear that he had no quarrel against the Vietcong.
“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America,” he told the press. “And shoot them for what? They never called me n-----, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father . . . Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”
His refusal to serve in the military came with a very heavy price tag. He was immediately stripped of his Heavyweight title and banned from boxing for three years. Two months later he was convicted of draft evasion, a felony, and sentenced to five years in prison and fined $10,000. He was allowed to remain free on bail while he appealed his case.
Ali was viewed as a radical and polarizing force by many in this country. Ali preached black pride and never shied away from calling out racism and criticizing the United States for its many shortcomings.
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?"
The views about Muhammad Ali changed over time in our country, probably in no small part because the Vietnam War became unpopular, and because the racism that Ali called out became more and more evident to all Americans as the civil rights movement brought greater attention to the inequities and injustices, Ali pointed out. He became one of the most celebrated and recognized people on the planet. He used his fame to raise awareness about issues that mattered to him, among them civil rights and Parkinson's disease. He was a beloved activist, humanitarian, and philanthropist. Muhammad Ali, The Greatest, died in 2016.
Click below to watch Episode 6 – Float Like a Butterfly. If you enjoy this Stairwell Teatro Series, please share it with friends.
To see a beautiful tribute to Muhammad Ali by Sports Illustrated, click here.