Wednesday, September 3, 2014

From Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali: A prophets message to a king.

I’ve spent this past week reading all about Cassius Clay, Muhammad Ali or whatever name people choose to call him. Since 1964, he’s preferred his Muslim given name: Muhammad Ali. After Ali won the Heavyweight Title he found the courage to overcome those around him who recommended denying he was a Muslim to benefit his boxing career. It is possible that through this denial, along with the gross mistreatment of the black race around this time, Ali was pushed to the far end of the spectrum when it came to defend what he believed in. Right or wrong, in April of 1967 Ali took a stand.

On April 28, 1967, Muhammad Ali reported for his induction ceremony to the United States Army, but refused to step forward when his name was called. Ali had previously refused service citing that he was a conscientious objector due to his religious beliefs. As a practicing Muslim minister, he could not in good faith participate in the Vietnam War and remained true to his loud image by stating “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.”2 He announced to the world that he was a member of the Nation of Islam after winning his first World Heavyweight Championship in 1964, it was then that Cassius Clay was reborn to Muhammad Ali in the Muslim faith.

Because of his loud mannerisms and his cocky fighting style Ali was the type of fighter that a fan could either adore or detest. His refusal to fight for his country seemed to be the straw that broke the camel’s back for many in the news. Many didn’t view his reasoning as just and felt the U.S. Justice Department was correct in its judgment that his reasons were political, and not religious.2 Ali held true to his beliefs and faced three years of exile in the boxing community which helped sway the masses in his undertaking.

As I read articles, watched interviews and was led through his life in Ali (2001) I wondered how I would have acted differently. I tried to look at the trials and tribulations of my life and I realized there is no comparison. I can’t possibly fathom being rejected over and over because of the color of my skin. I can’t imagine winning a gold medal for my country only to be told upon my return that I’m not good enough to eat at certain restaurants because my skin is darker then the owner’s skin. It was injustices such as this that Ali fought against that has allowed my generation to be free of such criticisms. Yet I wonder if being so loud for a message that was so anti-white was the healing agent? Wasn’t this message just as bad as the anti-black message that was also so strong at this time? Maybe it was the strength of the opposing forces that allowed a middle ground to find traction. Even as Ali changed his name from Clay, Harry Markson who was the president of the Madison Square Garden’s boxing program refused to use the name Muhammad Ali stating “we’ve made so much progress in eliminating color barriers that it is a pity we’re now facing such a problem, the heavyweight champion of the world preaching a hate religion.”5

One of the biggest influences on the young Clay (Ali) was Malcolm X. The influence was so prominent the young Clay (Ali) that prior to being awarded the name Muhammad, he went by the name Cassius X. Malcolm X was a strict Muslim that believed in the core teachings of the Nation of Islam (NOI). He believed that the white man fought to keep the black man down, in social status, in politics, and every other aspect of everyday life.6 Malcolm was featured in a television special titled: Hate that Breeds Hate.5 One of Malcolm’s biggest influences was Elijah Muhammad who was the leader of the NOI. Malcolm considered Elijah a living prophet until Elijah asked him to cover up affairs with multiple women in the NOI that Elijah had partaken in. This went against everything Malcolm believed and created a rift between the two.

The fall out between Malcolm and Elijah caused emotional turmoil for Ali; a prophet and his mentor head to head with Ali stuck in the middle. Prior to winning the Heavyweight Title, Elijah had told Malcolm that Clay (Ali) would disgrace the Islamic religion with his dirty profession, yet after winning the title and realizing the potential of having such a public figure to spread the message of the NOI, he gladly courted Clay (Ali) and turned him away from Malcolm X. Elijah then went on to publically approve of Ali’s fighting lifestyle and even encouraged it. At a rally for the NOI he even said: “Clay whipped a much tougher man and came through the bout unscarred because he has accepted Muhammad as the messenger of Allah.”5 As our society takes a look back on history they realize a large part of Elijah’s new acceptance of boxing was also due to the large amount of money that was in the boxing community.

If ever there was a situation where an individual was being taken advantage of it was this. Malcolm X’s wife, Betty Shabazz, said that the couple was appalled by the change of heart in Elijah’s view of Ali. In “Sucker Punch” by Jack Cashill Shabazz stated that “out of nowhere, after the winning the title, they were breaking their necks, trying to get close to the champion”.5 Ali was quoted in the book as saying “Turning my back on Malcolm, was one of the mistakes that I regret most in my life.”5 Although Malcolm helped fuel the hatred in Ali he played a true friend even prior to fame and fortune.

Ali’s decision to not step forward for Uncle Sam, not only changed his life forever, but the relationship that sports and politics shared. No longer were the likes of Howard Cosell, the face of ABC sports, and Ian Woolridge, a British sports journalist with the Daily mail, reporting on sports alone, but now were discussing the politics of the Vietnam War and the draft. The press was using terms like “conscientious objector” and “Black Muslim” and was arguing with Ali over these matters in televised interviews. Ali adamantly infused the conversations stating: “It is not Black Muslim, it is Muslim Black”, referring to the fact that a person of black skin was no different from anyone else, but his religion separated him from others.7 The printing presses did not focus on Ali the boxer, they focused on Ali, a member of the Nation of Islam. They continually posted “Black Muslim” almost in defiance of Ali’s hatred of the term.

As a young man, Ali’s three year stand for his belief showed that an athlete had the platform to spread a message to the masses not seen before. He also showed, unbeknownst to him at the time, that trust must be allocated carefully as to not have one’s talents be taken advantage of. As Ali has matured, he has realized that focusing on hatred doesn’t benefit anyone. He has since placed his focus on his humanitarian efforts to feed the hungry around the world and fight the disease of Parkinson’s, not only personally but through his Charity: The Muhammad Ali Parkinson Research Center at Barrow Neurological Institute, in Phoenix, Arizona.1 Ali was even invited to light the torch at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics. You could say it was a perfect event to show how far we’ve come as a world, as a nation, and as individuals on issues such as race and equality. If only we could transition that growth into fewer wars.

2. Maddox Jr., A. H. (2003, October 16). To be loyal or to be defiant — that’s the question. New York Amsterdam News. p. 12.
3. Stravinsky, J. (1997). The long reach of Muhammad Ali. Biography, 1(12), 50.
4. Saeed, A. (2011). ‘Worthy of all praises': Muhammad Ali and the politics of identity. Soundings (13626620), (47), 123-129.

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