03/06 – Cassius Becomes Muhammad

Muhammad Ali seconds after knocking out Sonny Liston. The 1964 victory raised Ali’s profile and enabled him to join the Nation of Islam. (Time)

On this day in 1964, Cassius Clay – African American heavyweight boxer and activist – changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Ali had converted to Islam in 1961 and became friends with Malcolm X, one of the most high-profile Black Muslims in the United States at the time. Initially denied entry into the Nation of Islam due to his boxing career, Ali’s crushing victory over Sonny Liston in early 1964 forced the Nation’s leadership to change their minds. Ali continued boxing, winning several high-profile fights and founding Main Bout, a Muslim-owned promotion company. At the height of the Vietnam War, Ali was stripped of his titles for his refusal to enlist in the US army. The Supreme Court eventually pardoned him, however, and he returned to boxing, beating Joe Frazier at the Thrilla in Manila in 1975.

Ali with Malcolm X. Ali’s association with X – one of the FBI’s least favourite Americans at the time – caused the athlete untold problems. (NBC)

Ali’s newfound status as a Muslim made life difficult for him, and many clubs and promoters refused to associate with him. At the time, the Nation of Islam – a controversial Black Muslim movement founded by Elijah Muhammad – was the subject of great controversy for its perceived violent ambitions. Additionally, the Nation maintained a firmly anti-integrationist policy (unlike the de-segregationist Martin Luther King Jr and his more mainstream counterparts in the Civil Rights movement). Although Ali eventually broke off with the Nation and converted to Sunni Islam, he remained an important figure in two distinct movements: the anti-war movement and American civil rights. The cost to Ali was tremendous – he was unable to box for four years and he endured FBI surveillance – but he never wavered in his commitment to doing what he believed was right.

The fact that he was proud to be a black man and that he had so much talent  … made some people think that he was dangerous. But for those very reasons, I enjoyed him.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

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