Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., as Muhammad Ali was once known, was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on January 17, 1942—a time when blacks were the servant class in Louisville. They held jobs such as tending the backstretch at Churchill Downs (the famous race track where the Kentucky Derby is held) and cleaning other people’s homes. In Louisville in the 1940s, the highest career goal that most black people could realistically set for their children was that they join the clergy or teach at an all-black public school. Ali’s father, Cassius Marcellus Clay Sr., supported a wife and two sons by painting billboards and signs. Ali’s mother, Odessa Grady Clay, worked on occasion as a household domestic.
“I remember one time when Cassius was small, ” Mrs. Clay later recalled. “We were downtown at a five-and-ten-cents store. He wanted a drink of water, and they wouldn’t give him one because of his color. That really affected him. He didn’t like that at all, being a child and thirsty. He started crying, and I said, ‘Come on; I’ll take you someplace and get you some water.’ But it really hurt him.”
When Cassius Clay was twelve years old, his bike was stolen. That led him to take up boxing under the tutelage of a Louisville policeman named Joe Martin. Clay advanced through the amateur ranks, won a gold medal at the age of eighteen at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, and turned professional under the guidance of the Louisville Sponsoring Group, a syndicate comprised of eleven wealthy white men.
In the early stages of his professional career, Cassius Clay was more highly regarded for his charm and personality than for his ring skills. He told the world that he was “the Greatest, ” but the brutal realities of boxing seemed to indicate otherwise.
Then, on February 25, 1964, at age twenty-two, Clay knocked out Charles “Sonny” Liston in one of the most stunning upsets in sports history to become heavyweight champion of the world. Two days later, he shocked the world again by announcing that he had accepted the teachings of a black separatist religion known as the Nation of Islam. On March 6, 1964, he took the name “Muhammad Ali, ” which was given to him by his spiritual mentor, Elijah Muhammad.
For the next three years, Ali dominated boxing as thoroughly and magnificently as any fighter ever. But outside the ring, his persona was being sculpted in ways that were even more important. “My first impression of Cassius Clay, ” author Alex Haley later recalled, “was of someone with an incredibly versatile personality. You never knew quite where he was in psychic posture. But he had a belief in himself and convictions far stronger than anybody dreamed he would.”
As the 1960s grew more tumultuous, Ali became a lightning rod for dissent in America. His message of black pride and resistance to white domination was on the cutting edge of the era. Not everything he preached was wise, and Ali himself later rejected some of the beliefs that he adhered to then. One might find an allegory for his life in a remark he once made to fellow 1960 Olympian Ralph Boston. “I played golf, ” Ali said. “And I hit the thing long, but I never knew where it was going.”
Sometimes, though, Ali knew precisely where he was going. On April 28, 1967, citing his religious beliefs, he refused induction into the United States Army at the height of the war in Vietnam. Ali’s refusal followed a blunt statement, voiced fourteen months earlier: “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.” And the American establishment responded with a vengeance, demanding, “Since when did war become a matter of personal quarrels? War is duty. Your country calls; you answer.”
On June 20, 1967, Ali was convicted of refusing induction into the United States Armed Forces and sentenced to five years in prison. Four years later, his conviction was overturned unanimously by the US Supreme Court. But in the interim, he was stripped of his title and barred from fighting for three-and-a-half years. “He did not believe he would ever fight again, ” Ali’s wife at the time, Belinda Ali, said of her husband’s “exile” from boxing. “He wanted to, but he truly believed that he would never fight again.”
Meanwhile, Ali’s impact was growing—among black Americans, among those who opposed the war in Vietnam, among all people with grievances against “the system.”
“It’s hard to imagine that a sports figure could have so much political influence on so many people, ” civil rights activist Julian Bond observed. Jerry Izenberg of the Newark Star-Ledger confirmed Bond’s observation when he recalled the scene in October 1970, when at long last Ali was allowed to return to the ring:
About two days before the fight against Jerry Quarry, it became clear to me that something had changed. Long lines of people were checking into the hotel. They were dressed differently than the people who used to go to fights. I saw men wearing capes and hats with plumes, and women wearing next-to-nothing at all. Limousines were lined up at the curb. Money was being flashed everywhere. And I was confused, until a friend of mine who was black said to me, “You don’t get it. Don’t you understand? This is the heavyweight champion who beat The Man. The Man said he would never fight again, and here he is, fighting in Atlanta, Georgia.”
Four months later, Ali’s comeback was temporarily derailed when he lost to Joe Frazier. It was a fight of truly historic proportions. Nobody in America was neutral that night. Ali avenged his loss to Frazier twice with victories in later bouts. Ultimately, he won the heavyweight championship of the world an unprecedented three times.
Meanwhile, Ali’s religious views were evolving. In the mid-1970s, he began studying the Qur’an more seriously, focusing on Orthodox Islam. His earlier adherence to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad—that white people are “devils” and there is no heaven or hell—was replaced by a spiritual embrace of all people and preparation for his own afterlife. In 1984, Ali spoke out publicly against the separatist doctrine of Nation of Islam representative Louis Farrakhan, declaring, “What he teaches is not at all what we believe in. He represents the time of our struggle in the dark and a time of confusion in us, and we don’t want to be associated with that at all.”
Ali today is a deeply religious man. Although his health is not what it once was, he is still one of the most recognizable and most loved people in the world. And with the passage of time, what he means to the world can be viewed from an ever-deepening perspective.