Op-Ed Contributor: Muhammad Ali: Never the White Man’s Negro

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Matt Rota

CASSIUS CLAY, born in 1942, was the grandson of a slave; in the United States of his boyhood and young manhood, the role of the black athlete, particularly the black boxer, was a forced self-effacement.

White male anxieties were, evidently, greatly roiled by the spectacle of the strong black man, and had to be assuaged. The greater the black boxer (Joe Louis, Archie Moore, Ezzard Charles), the more urgent that he assume a public role of caution and restraint. Kindly white men who advised their black charges to be a “credit to their race” were not speaking ironically.

And yet, the young Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali refused to play this emasculating role. He would not be the “white man’s Negro” — he would not be anything of the white man’s at all. Converting to the Nation of Islam at the age of 22, immediately after winning the heavyweight championship from Sonny Liston, he denounced his “slave name” (Cassius Marcellus Clay, which was also his father’s name) and the Christian religion; in refusing to serve in the Army he made his political reasons clear: “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.”

An enormous backlash followed: where the young boxer had been cheered, now he was booed. Denunciations rained upon his head. Respected publications, including The New York Times, continued to print the “slave name” Cassius Clay for years. Sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for his refusal to comply with the draft, Ali stood his ground; he did not serve time, but was fined $10,000 and his boxing license was revoked so that he could not continue his professional career, in the very prime of that career. In a gesture of sheer pettiness the State Department took away his passport so that he couldn’t fight outside the country. After he was reinstated as a professional boxer three and a half years later, he had lost much of his…

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