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10/27/2014 04:05 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Why the Story of Muhammad Ali's Rebellion Matters Today: Part 1

As we recognize that American sports and culture are not 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 first of several 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.

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George Lois for Esquire magazine.

"I am America. I am the past you won't recognize; but get used to me. Black, confident, cocky. My name, not yours. My religion, not yours. My goal, my own. Get used to me." -- Muhammad Ali

In 1908, Jack Johnson shook up world of boxing, becoming the first African-American heavyweight champion of the world. Determined to prove "that a white man is better than a Negro", former heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries came out of retirement just to fight him. Johnson demolished his opponent, causing riots to break out across the country. No racial event until the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. would have such a violent reaction. As a black man with unrepentant masculinity and confident assertion of superiority, Johnson embodied the fear of White America. Subsequent African-American boxing champions such as Joe Louis and Floyd Patterson were careful to present themselves as clean, patriotic and non-threatening black men. Louis in particular was beloved by White America for his humility and service in World War II. But Johnson represented the potential that boxing had to shake the racial hierarchy, a potential that would not be realized until Muhammad Ali.

The 1960's were a time of tremendous social upheaval in the United States, especially for an African-American man. In addition to the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War had a profound impact on Black America. While blacks only made up 11 percent of the total population, they accounted for 27 percent of those who died in the war. The war was unpopular, but it would be Muhammad Ali, already the most controversial heavyweight champion in history, who would take a stand.

Muhammad Ali was the 1960s reincarnation of the ever-feared Jack Johnson and represented an attitude and perspective that has revolutionized American social consciousness through the 1960s to the present day. His radical decisions, particularly his draft refusal, caused much of White America, as well as the black establishment, to portray the boxer as un-American. On the other hand, liberal elites and other radical African-American leaders rallied behind Ali, lauding him as a hero and a martyr. He was equally as divisive within the black community. But Ali, through self-discipline and force of personality, forged a new black identity: entitled to agency and confidence. Ali had a singular impact on how Black America came to view itself, and how White America perceived African Americans and their role in the United States.

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On January 17, 1942, Cassius Marcellus Clay was born to Odessa O'Grady Clay and Cassius Marcellus Clay Sr. In 1954, at the age of twelve, young Cassius, who had his bike stolen by a local bully, decided to pick up boxing in order to fight back. But it was the murder of Emmett Till in 1955 that left the greatest impression on the young boxing prodigy. As Ali reflected in his later years, seeing the grotesque image of Emmett Till's open casket profoundly scarred the 13-year-old. Furthermore, it was the murder of Emmett Till that forced the young Cassius Clay to recognize the discrimination that he faced and would face as a black man living in Louisville, Kentucky. He was disgusted that a fellow teenage African-American boy living only a few hundred miles away could be brutalized for next to nothing. His mother later maintained that this disgust would bring about a desire for radical change within her eldest son. The treatment of blacks in his hometown and neighboring states convinced Clay that boxing "was the fastest way for a black person to make it in [the Unites States]". Clay pushed on with his highly promising boxing career, winning many local and regional amateur fights. Yet it would be the call to Rome in 1960 which would set off a course of events that would completely redefine the young boxer and the image of the black man in America.

Clay's Olympic journey foreshadowed his future outspokenness. Before departing for the Olympics, 18-year-old Cassius Clay ventured to New York City. In New York's Harlem neighborhood, Clay, for the first time in his life, would witness an African-American man standing in the center of a crowd, advocating for the resistance to White America. It was like nothing the young Kentuckian had seen in all his teenage years. Despite his growing awareness of discrimination within the United States, Clay arrived in Rome proud of his country and ready to compete. He would go on to defeat his Polish opponent, Tadeusz Walasek, in the ring for the light-heavyweight gold medal. Clay was met with resounding applause in both Rome and at a brief stop in New York City. But it was the reaction in his hometown of Louisville that most shocked the 18-year-old. Clay believed for much of his young life that success within the ring would translate to respect when the gloves were off. He received a parade on his return to Louisville, but this glory would be short-lived. Later, Clay and a friend of his sat down at a local restaurant counter only to be threatened: "I done told you. We don't serve no niggers!" It was this event that would bring the young Clay to realize a sense of betrayal at the contradictions of the American dream; he struggled to represent and have pride for a nation which had no respect for him.

Soon after his return from Rome, Clay left Louisville to begin working with famed boxing trainer Angelo Dundee. While the young boxer had lived in a black neighborhood in Louisville for his entire life, he had never experienced anything like Overtown in Miami, where Dundee had arranged for his young trainee to board. In the words of Marvin Dunn, author of Black Miami in the 1920's: "Anything you could find in Harlem, you could find in Overtown." This African-American section of Miami was, in fact, a center of black culture and education, as well as a progressive force in the Civil Rights Movement. While racial segregation in Miami was not as harsh as in other Southern urban centers, it was still very much present. Yet with a resource such as Overtown, African-Americans were able to respond to the injustices of segregation in a much more radical way than could the less organized and more repressed blacks of Louisville. Miami, and specifically Overtown, was where Cassius Clay began his transformation into Muhammad Ali and where the radicalization that would lead the boxer to reject his call to fight the war truly took form.

Clay's new celebrity also provided him the resources that he needed to experiment with a new persona. At 19, Clay met renowned wrestler "Gorgeous" George Raymond Wagner at a Las Vegas radio station. The then forty-six year-old gaudy professional wrestler ranted about how he would kill his opponent and tear him limb from limb. He then shared a word of advice for the young boxer whose boastfulness at the time paled in comparison: "A lot of people will pay to see someone shut your mouth. So keep on bragging, keep on sassing, and always be outrageous." And young Cassius Clay immediately took these words to heart. This loud and pompous attitude served at first to promote his fights and sell tickets for Cassius Clay, but it would later give Muhammad Ali the voice to challenge authority on the social and racial issues of the era.

Cassius Clay continued his training in Miami and both his boxing career and involvement with black activism steadily evolved. From October 29, 1960 to June 18, 1963, the young boxing prodigy managed to win his first nineteen professional fights without tremendous opposition and often with authority. These nineteen victories became the ticket for the rising star to have his true shot at glory and boxing immortality, a shot at the heavyweight title belt. Outside of the ring, Clay's life began a change that many whites and blacks would view as disturbingly radical. Louis Farrakhan stated that it was his album, A White Man's Heaven is a Black Man's Hell, that truly pushed the boxer to seriously consider the Black Muslim movement. In addition, the Kentucky native was now surrounded by a much more urbanized Miami where the Black Muslims had an environment to thrive. Like the Black Muslims, and unlike the NAACP, Cassius did not want to overcome someday, he desired to overcome yesterday. And what had the most profound impact on Clay's conversion to Islam, and perhaps the most tremendous influence of his life, was a minister of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X.

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