Identifying changes in Ali’s public persona is one thing historians have significantly argued throughout history. Previous historians have argued that many athletes and entertainers before Muhammad Ali adopted new names, often to make themselves more relatable or more exciting to audiences. The argument with Ali’s change resides as though he had a different effect as the magnitude of his cultural presence changed a cultural viewpoint due to him being arguably the most socially significant athlete in American history.
The argument presents itself as how Ali, was one of the first major black public figures to change his name for religious ideology shifting a cultural paradigm in the United States. Ali’s name change was significant because of his fame as his birth name and his Islamic name were intertwined with deep cultural meanings. Solidifying his commitment to the Nation of Islam just two weeks after defeating Sonny Liston Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. “shook up the world” by changing his name. In the days before taking his new name, the boxer told a room of reporters: “I don’t have to be what you want me to be, I’m free to be who I want.” Americans were unwilling to grant Ali that freedom as they knew the man as Cassius Clay to be arrogant, abrasive, immature and unlikely to threaten order. However, Muhammad Ali was another matter as this new name signified and preached the broadcasted beliefs from a national platform, angering those who advocated more moderate approaches to the country’s racial problems. Ali was righteous, controversial, aggressive and now was a symbol.
In many accounts of Ali’s life, his two names serve important functions as historians have used them to describe his persona, and the effects it had on the American public. Although this is a common theme in the Ali literature, there are multiple thoughts as to when the effect began. In King of the World, David Remnick suggests that Muhammad Ali’s persona surpassed Cassius Clay in 1965, after his racially charged bout with Floyd Patterson. Before the fight, Patterson exclaimed to American’s that he would take back the heavyweight crown for Christian values refusing to call Ali by his Muslim name. The final chapter of Remnick’s book titled “What’s in a Name?” depicts how the refusal to use the Muslim name was the popular rejection of Ali’s controversial persona. Remnick concludes this chapter by depicting how after his defeat, “Patterson paid the champion the highest compliment he could think of. He called him by his proper name [Ali]” displaying how if Patterson could embrace Ali’s Muslim name, then the rest of the country would eventually too.
Sportswriters alike have shared their views on the pivotal influence the name change had on American culture such as where it began. Sportswriter Mike Marqusee positions Ali’s 1964 trip to Ghana as the most pivotal moment in the cultural shift surrounding his name arguing that afterwards “Cassius Clay was buried and Muhammad Ali superseded him.” Blood Brothers, written by sport historians Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith, focuses on Ali’s time with Malcolm X in 1964 and 1965, and suggests that “more than anyone else Malcolm molded Cassius Clay into Muhammad Ali.” The conclusions reached by these authors indicate a varied, and ultimately conflicted, range of possibilities about when, and under what circumstances, Cassius Clay ‘became’ Muhammad Ali.
Historians analyzing how Muhammad Ali’s names were used on the pages of American newspapers allows us to see how the public interpreted him throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Like many others, American journalists were uncomfortable with Ali’s racial and religious convictions. Ali’s new name according to Marqusee, “was a black man signaling by his name change, not a desire to integrate himself with mainstream America, but a comprehensive rejection of it.” Initially, newspapers almost entirely refused to print the name Muhammad Ali and referred to him as Cassius Clay. Attempts to determine for how long this practice continued are often vague however journalists persisted with the rejection of Ali’s Islamic name “through the 60s,” into “the late sixties,” for “many years,” or “long after he changed his name.” A variety of factors have stymied more precise analyses of when exactly the American printed press accepted the name Muhammad Ali along with its associated meanings.
When Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. changed his name to Muhammad Ali he sent signals to the world about how he wished to be seen. The name Muhammad Ali became a site of struggle, where conflicts between visions for the future of black Americans were played out. This struggle was mainly found in the pages of American newspapers throughout the 1960s and 1970s. America adopted the name Muhammad Ali in March 1971 however, American journalists did not come to accept Ali’s Islamic name, or the identity it represented. Opinions of Ali radically shifted throughout the years based on the representation of the modern and radical newspapers shifting the cultural viewpoint of the Vietnam War.
Cassius Clay had been a popular figure after winning a gold medal at the Rome Olympics in 1960. In the days after the Liston bout, Clay confirmed his allegiance to the Nation of Islam and adopted the name Muhammad Ali. During the period directly following this, the nation’s journalists went back and forth with the notion of a heavyweight champion whose name represented his belief in black nationalism and racial separatism. Between March 1964 and August 1967 the journalists from black and white newspapers rejected his newfound name as a way of protesting the racial and religious ties the name accompanied. Ali was most frequently referred to by his birth name (Cassius Clay). His Muslim name (Muhammad Ali) remained in complete absence of any major newspaper. On the rare occasions it did appear in print, Ali’s chosen name was almost always used to mock him. In March 1964, two weeks following his announcement of his name change, the Los Angeles Times began a story about the possibility of Ali losing his title as the heavyweight champion by way of introducing him in the article as, ‘Cassius Clay – pardon, Muhammad Ali…’ The opening line of a column by Sid Ziff in the same publication reads, ‘Cassius Clay, er, excuse me, Muhammad Ali’. Months later, Washington Post writer Dave Brady opened an article by deliberately acknowledging that his subject ‘prefers to be known’ as Muhammad Ali. Even with the scrutinizing introduction, Brady wrote his entire piece without using the Muslim name once rather, referring to his subject as Clay or Cassius no less than thirteen times. The New York Times also left no doubt regarding their dislike to Ali’s Muslim name. Arthur Daley a renowned author, was also an enthusiastic critic of Ali and rarely missed a chance to criticize the famous boxer. Daley’s description of an interview with ‘Cassius’ in 1966 is telling as:
“…he frowned at the mention of a sympathetic article Floyd Patterson had written about him, ‘It was nice, but he insists on calling me Cassius Clay,’ said the young man who prefers his Black Muslim name of Muhammad Ali. Don’t let it bother you, Cassius, old boy. He’s not the only one.”
Daley, along with his editors insisted that the New York Times should never refer to Ali by his Muslim name until he changed it legally, in which Ali never would. Black publications also clearly preferred Clay to Ali. Al Monroe, a regular sports columnist for the Chicago Daily Defender, recalled announcer Harry Markson’s refusal to use Ali’s Muslim name when introducing him to the crowd at Madison Square Garden. Ali was a ringside guest at the March 1964 fight between Holly Mims and Luis Rodriguez and left the arena before the fight. As the events went on, “the fans forgot about Cassius Clay and the announcer’s refusal to introduce him as Muhammad Ali. Even the booing of Clay evaporated once the ring action was on.” Monroe mocked Ali’s of the athlete’s desire to be called by his Muslim name. This was hardly unique amongst black journalists even as the New York Amsterdam News and the Los Angeles Sentinel would not write ‘Muhammad Ali’ without adding ‘Cassius Clay That Is…’ or ‘Don’t Call Me Cassius Clay’. The Chicago Defender sarcastically reported that ‘Clay (Oops, Ali)’ had attended a Nation of Islam meeting in Boston, whilst the Baltimore Afro-American exclaimed that ‘Cassius, er Ali, is the Greatest!’ Just as their counterparts at white publications did, black journalists took pleasure in mocking Clay’s new name. This was often a representation of the unease that developed from with what the name represented.
The years directly after Ali’s name change saw the culmination of more than a decade of civil rights struggle. The Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Selma marches, the fair housing movement, the Watts and Harlem riots, and the Long Hot Summer all occurred between March 1964 and August 1967. During this period, multiple groups such as the Nation of Islam, offered competing visions for the future of black America. Many organizations pushed for racial integration and peacefully protested to attempt to achieve their goals. Groups such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People did lobby for their voices to be heard. On the other hand, the Nation of Islam called for separation of the races and the establishment of an autonomous black state. Most newspapers, black and white, supported the moderate integration movement. However, black and white journalists also understood race and the struggle for equality in very different ways. These differences created a range of nuanced opinions about Ali.
White journalists viewed Ali’s disregard for the Vietnam War as one of an unamerican point of view. This along with a combination of Islam, established fears about the group’s assumed radicalism and their potential for violence. Elements of the Nation’s establishment and Ali’s extremist tendencies created a negative mindset. Ali, like his onetime mentor Malcom X, used provocative language to highlight his disapproval of what he saw from civil rights leaders. Ali’s outbursts and disproval ensured that the Nation of Islam was both feared and misunderstood by the white press.
By comparison, the integration movement appeared peaceful and moderate appealing to the press. Integrationists promised to work with the white establishment. They believed in lasting, legal change and therefore had to secure the cooperation of the white powerbrokers who controlled America’s legislative frameworks. Civil rights leaders, especially King, used this contrast as an advantage. By using the white presses fears against the Nation of Islam’s threat of violence, integrationists positioned themselves as the reasonable alternative displaying their own case for equality through the white press. The white press rejected Ali. Journalists alike broadcasted a fear of the Nation of Islam and rather than seeking to better understand the meanings that underpinned the name Ali white journalists treated it with a fearful message. Their refusal to use the name revealed an unwillingness to engage with Ali or the Nation of Islam as a legitimate voice for black America. Refusing to acknowledge Ali’s Muslim name meant they did not have to take him, or the Nation of Islam, seriously. They saw Ali’s association with the group as outrageous, but hardly worthy of thoughtful critique. Consequently, the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post dismissed Ali. Of these publications, the Los Angeles Times targeted Ali in an aggressive manner. Jim Murray the Los Angeles Times’ most famous sportswriter turned his talent toward bashing Ali at any chance he could. One of Murray’s articles, titled ‘The Sheik of Araby’, demonstrated his work as he wrote:
“Cassius is like the guy in the movie who has wandered into the haunted house to use the phone and hasn’t noticed the butler is a werewolf, that’s blood on the floor, and he thinks the suit of armor in the corner is empty”
He continued by discussing hos thought towards Ali by stating, “I think Cassius sees himself as Lawrence of Arabia or the Red Shadow rather than a guy licking stamps for hate literature”. To Murray Ali was an out of line, boisterous and too rambunctious because rather than be a young man actively seeking to engage his blackness through religion Ali did the opposite and create conflict. In the same article appearing as if he was not set with only questioning Ali’s intelligence, Murray attacked Ali through racial stereotypes stating “Cassius always had a lively imagination and it was only a question of time before he’d wrap a towel around his head and begin to play Saladin the Saracen” By stating that Ali’s interest in the Nation of Islam was a product of pure boredom or casual sudden interest, Murray was doing more than simply ridiculing his beliefs, he was casting broader skepticism upon the notion that young, black men like Ali might look to Africa for spiritual and cultural fulfillment. Over the next few years, as Ali’s ties for the Nation of Islam were refuted as writers at the Los Angeles Times tweaked their narrative. They posited that by remaining with the Nation, Ali might be more than merely stupid, or bored as he might also be mentally unstable. John Hall questioned the boxer about his continued devotion to the Nation of Islam and wrote that, ‘the pressure of being both Cassius Clay and Muhammad Ali has finally caught up with and choked the heavyweight champion’. The article did its best to portray Ali as unhinged when it came to matters of race and religion. Hall continued to write how when Ali was pressed on his beliefs, and he cracked, becoming unnerving and hysterical. Ali was not attempting to be both Clay and Ali rather he wanted only to be Ali but was denied that right by journalists. Sid Ziff reinforced this crazy Clay narrative in his later column. He recalled Ali’s appearance on a CBS television program on which he discussed his religious beliefs. Ziff called him ‘Clay the dreamer’ and described him as having ‘sailed clear into outer space’. According to Ziff, Clay was ‘living in a world of his own’ or on a ‘cloud of dreams’ as he ‘babbled mysterious predictions’ and was ‘spinning dizzily in a heady atmosphere full of contradictions’.
Many who remained critical of Ali throughout the 1960s, weighed in on the name variance and in 1966 would write how Ali’s actions were orbiting frantically around the upper reaches of Alice in Wonderland or alighting a time or two somewhere over the rainbow. Although the Los Angeles Times was notably persistent in attacking the boxer’s mental stability, articles from the Washington Post and the New York Times also frequently published doubtfully on Ali’s mental clarity. Writers covering Ali’s 1965 fight with Floyd Patterson for the Washington Post wrote how Clay was confused mentally about his Black Muslim beliefs. Writers continued to follow ‘Clay’ on his 1966 trip to London and wrote of a naturally delightful you man distracted and ruined by his own thinking. The heavyweight champ was a portrayed as a troubled young man whose logic was wrong as he remained true to his Black Muslim beliefs. White journalists like Daley, Brady, Ziff and Murray belonged to a group of white sportswriters that were referred to as the crusty, cigar smoking crowd of old school reporters of their time. As talented as they were, when they wrote about Ali and the Nation of Islam they refused to consider what it was about the group that might appeal to a young, black American like Cassius. They decided to dismiss his beliefs as a product of youthfulness or mental instability. This absence of critical engagement sent a direct message about how the white press saw the Nation of Islam’s place in the broader struggle for black equality. Ali and the Nation of Islam were a falling symptom of continued oppression. They attempted to serve as warning that limited change in society would lead to a drastic fallout but white newspapers would not, or could not, relate to this idea. This attitude was not restricted to reporting on the Nation as most of the White press was content to cover civil rights simply as a breaking news story instead of exposing the underlying injustices and social problems Blacks faced. The white press chose instead to separate Ali’s racial and religious beliefs as a further extension of the refusal of white newspapers to meaningfully engage with the racial politics of the Nation of Islam. By painting Ali as mentally unstable or completely deranged, they sought to disarm the Nation of Islam as a legitimate voice for black America. Refusing to accept Ali’s chosen name was symptomatic of the dismissive attitude that many white papers held toward him.