10/30/2014 02:09 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Why the Story of Muhammad Ali's Rebellion Matters Today: Part 2

As we recognize that American sports and culture do not represent a "post-racial society" after all, it's important to look back at the '60s, the era where there was perhaps the greatest change in the relationship between African-Americans and White America. This article is the second in my series about the meaning of Muhammad Ali in America and the world. Furthermore, Ali's embrace of Islam resonates in light of today's confrontations.

You may access the other parts of this piece, as well as my other articles here.


George Lois for Esquire magazine.

Malcolm X completely transformed Clay's belief system, political intelligence, and ultimately his name. Malcolm served as more than just a mentor and religious leader for the former Olympic champion, but also acted as an older sibling. While they were both astonishingly charismatic, the thirty-seven year-old Omaha, Nebraska native possessed a certain wisdom and poise that genuinely attracted the young Cassius. Furthermore, the sense of freedom that was to be attained by joining the Black Muslim cause was tremendously appealing for the soon-to-be Muhammad Ali. He dreamed throughout his teenage years that success in the ring would ultimately lead to respect wherever he traveled, but the reality was that no black man, even if he were an Olympic gold medalist, could sit down at a Louisville lunch counter and order a burger and fries. Clay recognized that White American society often repressed him, and he sought a way to rise up. He found this in the Nation of Islam. Under the wing of Malcolm X and Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, Cassius began to believe that Christianity contributed to constraining the black man in the United States; Christianity turned Africans into slaves while Islam could change slaves into powerful black people. Furthermore, an exclusively black group that preached black supremacy and that African-Americans should be proud of themselves, would be extremely appealing to the young Clay who felt like he had been grossly mistreated. Needless to say, the Black Muslims seemed like a tremendous threat to white society and the work of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as well. As Clay's bout against the then-heavyweight champion of the world Sonny Liston approached, the status of the contender's political and religious ideology came into question. He would soon shock the world, both within and outside of the boxing ring.

As the loudmouth Clay garnered attention for his upcoming fight with the seemingly unbeatable Sonny Liston, the social and racial turmoil of the Civil Rights Movement erupted on a whole new scale. April 1963 saw massive demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama, resulting in the arrest of Martin Luther King and thousands of other blacks protesting segregation. August of that year saw the historic march on Washington, attracting a quarter of a million people from all over the country. The march pushed President John Fitzgerald Kennedy toward support for broad Civil Rights legislation. In November, Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated the forty-six year-old President while in Dallas, Texas. It was impossible, especially as an African-American at this time, to not have been profoundly affected by the turbulence of events unfolding throughout 1963 and 1964. This chaos was the background for the soon-to-be historic Cassius Clay vs Sonny Liston match.

Clay's patrons at the Louisville Sponsoring Group, which had underwritten his professional career, advised their star to keep his passion for Islam out of the press. Yet rumors of Cassius's connection to the movement, as well as his friendship with Malcolm X, continuously swirled in anticipation of the Liston fight. Many of the young boxer's patrons believed that the discovery of Clay's religious affiliation might offend White America and cause the fight to be called off. However, Cassius never confirmed his involvement, and February 25, 1964 arrived without a cancellation of the big fight. Clay entered the weigh-in with the utmost bombasity on the morning of February the 25th. He had displayed playful immaturity and ridiculous banter in his early career and leading up to the fight, but even in the face of Liston, hours before the biggest fight of his life, Cassius Clay was as convincingly mad and dangerously outrageous as he had ever been. At this point, the entire United States was his stage, and he responded by building up his act even more. He shouted at Liston, predicting that the heavyweight champion would hang up the gloves after six rounds. He ranted to the press, proclaiming that he had to be restrained as his staff held him back. His attitude was unlike anything that America, much less the boxing world, had ever seen from a black man, and Clay gleamed in the spotlight. He entered boxing at a time when a black fighter was expected to behave himself with complete obedience to white sensibilities, but he could not have been further from the expectation bestowed upon him.

The general consensus heading into the fight was that Liston, nicknamed the Bear, would easily finish off the Louisville Lip without much contention. However, after seven rounds of sweat and surprise in the ring, Clay emerged as the victor by way of technical knockout. This nearly unparalleled underdog victory catapulted the soon-to-be Muhammad Ali to a level of fame, both in America and internationally, that he had never experienced before. It would not be the only time he would "shake up the world", the phrase he hollered into a camera broadcasting nationally seconds after the conclusion of the fight.

While the match to this day stands as one of the most significant in the history of boxing, the press conference the day after had a much more profound cultural impact. After his defeat of Sonny Liston, the masses and the media could not dismiss the young Cassius Clay as an overly hyped up loudmouth in the same way they could before the fight. While this one fight may not have been Liston's best performance, the kid from Kentucky looked like a legitimate champion. The heavyweight title belt allowed Clay to take the stage and announce to the press that he did indeed have affiliations with the Nation of Islam and that he had changed his name from Cassius Marcellus Clay to Cassius X, which served as a temporary moniker until Elijah Muhammad bequeathed to him the name Muhammad Ali. Later, when asked about his name, Ali informed the press: "Cassius Clay is my slave name! Clay means dirt. I didn't choose it and I don't want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name - Muhammad means free and Ali means most high." He asked the press to respect his name change and to refer to him as Muhammad Ali in the future. But he would soon learn that "Muhammad Ali" would transcend a mere name; it would instead have serious racial and social implications for both White and Black America.

You may access the other parts of this piece, as well as my other articles here.