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Cassius Marcellus Clay and Muhammed Ali: What’s in a Name?

A new documentary on Muhammed Ali, What’s my name? is debuting on HBO, depicting the life and career of the man once known as Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. 

What is in a name? 

To Ali his name meant everything. 

Said Ali: 

“Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn’t choose it and I don’t want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name – it means beloved of God, and I insist people use it when people speak to me,” said a newly converted Ali when addressing the media

Ali was not joking. During a pre-fight interview between Ali and Ernie Terrell before their February 1967 fight at the Astrodome, Ali, as he was called by ABC’s Howard Cosell, regaled viewers with one of his patented poems to taunt Terrell, who responded by calling him Clay. Ali was not amused, questioning why he insisted on calling him Clay, portending that he was going to pay

“What’s my name?” yelled Ali in the eighth round, as he pounded Terrell with jab after jab breaking his eye socket, on the way to a 15-round decision, one of the more merciless beatings in boxing history to not end in a knockout. He had only one more fightin his career: he lost his boxing license for refusing to be drafted into the United States Army on religious grounds. 

When asked what his new Muslim name meant, the man heretofore known as Muhammed Ali responded “Worthy of praise, the most-high.”

Ali is more than an icon of sport. Ali’s life was emblematic of so many social identities: race, capitalism, war and peace, civil disobedience, freedom of religion; ostracization and redemption. He transcended sport; he was overtly political. Ali became a cultural touchstone and symbol of change, during a time when race and religion, then as now, was a defining paradigm of national discourse. Most importantly, he spoke his truth. 

But what about the name Cassius Marcellus Clay? Said a young Ali when interviewed before the Olympic trials: 

“I am Cassius Marcellus Clay VI; my great grandfather was a slave and was named after some great Kentuckian…Cassius Marcellus Clay is great name in Kentucky and really where he was from, I couldn't tell you. Now that obtained a little fame people want to know where I am from now, I am going to or have to look it up and see what it's all about now that I am getting a [few] interviews.”

The man for whom Ali was named, Cassius Marcellus Clay, also risked his livelihood and even his life to stand up for what he believed. 

Cassius Marcellus Clay turned his back on his own culture, put himself at the fore of social change and became one of the leading Southern Abolitionists of the 19th century. Like Ali, he was born in Kentucky and like Ali, it was American racial inequality and social unrest that changed Clay’s life and sent him on a course of political activism. Like Ali he was steadfast in his beliefs and had the force of personality to match.

He was a descendent of the famed Whig politician Henry Clay, who espoused antislavery ideas but owned slaves throughout his life. His father was the largest slaveholder in Kentucky, and it was in that milieu his conscience was first awakened to the evils of slavery. Abolitionism became the defining theme of Clay’s political career and life. 

As a Yale student with political connections he had the fortune to encounter many of the leading Northern Abolitionists, first meeting Daniel Webster and then William Lloyd Garrison whom he heard speak. Garrison’s rhetoric and unrelenting political action served as a catalyst to inspire the young Clay:  “the good seed which Garrison had watered, and which my own bitter experience had sown, aroused my whole soul.”

When he went back to Kentucky he continued to fight for the cause of abolition. Kentucky was at the epicenter of the debate over slavery and union. 

Clay was elected to congress for three terms as a Whig in 1836, but eventually followed in the footsteps of Garrison and started the True American abolitionist newspaper. The newspaper was repeatedly threatened and denounced by decree. Clay wrote in his 1885 memoir: 

My object was to use a State and National Constitutional right—the Freedom of the Press — to change our National and State laws, so as, by a legal majority, to abolish slavery. There was danger, of course, of mob-violence…and I determined to defend my rights by force, if need be. 

In the 1850’s he joined the newly formed Republican Party, though he didn’t always see eye-to-eye with them. He eventually aligned himself with Abraham Lincoln, with whom he shared many of the same views. Clay vigorously campaigned for Lincoln, rousing audiences with speeches and shouting down those who wanted to silence him. In one of the hotbeds of political unrest, on the precipice of Civil War, Clay stood for what he believed in, republicanism and the abolishment of slavery.

Clay, as one can tell by his memoirs, like Ali never one for humility, notes his name was bandied about for Vice-President and if he were present at the Republican Convention of 1860, he might have been chosen over Hannibal Hamlin of Maine. 

As it was, he was promised a position in what Doris Kearns Goodwin coined the “Team of Rivals,” but the cabinet was full.

Eventually, he was given the position as the Ambassador to the Empire of Russia, where he was instrumental in gaining recognition for the Union and preventing countries like Britain from recognizing the Confederacy for economic gain. Though, seldom spoke of, his contribution was essential to the war effort. 

Clay also advocated for Emancipation as an act of war as early as 1856. He writes that he urged Lincoln to write the Emancipation 1862. He did object, however, that the Emancipation Proclamation only applied to those areas annexed by the Union. Although he was in Russia and not there so see it, Clay received many a laudatory letter when Emancipation became a reality from men like Garrison and Wendell Phillips. 

For Ali, his stand against the Vietnam War nearly ended his sporting career, for Clay his political stance was a matter of life and death. While debating the merits of abolitionism – he opposed the annexation of Texas despite fighting in the Mexican War because of slavery – what began as a peaceful engagement became violent. Clay was shot by a mob planning to kill him. He had to defend his life with his knife, killing one of his assailants in self-defense. 

It is ironic that Ali who made his living as a pugilist, took a peaceful political stance, while his namesake who made his living as a political figure on the soapbox, almost had his life and career cut short by violence. Yet they share a common bond, each willing to risk ostracization for what they believed.

For Ali, that meant standing up for his religious beliefs, and for a time becoming something of a national pariah among many who didn’t understand his conversion or agree with his opposition to fight in the war. He had only one more fight in his career: he lost his boxing license for refusing to be drafted into the United States Army on religious grounds. Eventually Ali would be vindicated by the law of the land, a 8-0 Supreme Court vote overturning his conviction on the grounds of conscientious objection. He became one of the most beloved and  recognized men on earth and many see him as a symbol of greatness and national pride. Ali lit the torch  at the 1996 Olympic Games and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 

Like Ali, Clay would not be silenced.

Said Pulitzer’s New World: 

Cassius M. Clay won another victory for free speech, and struck a good blow in behalf of Republicanism…Mr. Clay had publicly announced, through both the papers issued at Richmond, that he intended to speak on this occasion, and the subject was much canvassed in the streets. The more violent portion of the Revolutionary Committee, we learn, were for silencing him.

Each felt a call to action that changed his life.Each eschewed public opinion and mounting vitriol to assert their ideals and stand for what they believed while using their gift of rhetoric to let people know just what they thought. Each man has markedly impacted what are some of the pervading narratives of American history -- race, social equality and national identity.

The two men, born Cassius Marcellus Clay, have a lot in common, showing that name, birth and background don’t necessarily dictate one’s impact, rather acculturation and moral courage that does. Both Ali and his namesake are connected with one moniker and while one man eschewed the name Cassius Clay, the abolitionist and the athlete are synonymous with courage and social change.