Cassius Clay lived in segregated Kentucky during his boyhood. Segregation is, quite simply, institutional racism. He became Olympic champion in 1960 in Rome aged 18, where he defeated white men. On his return, the grim reality of segregated Kentucky became unbearable and obnoxious to him. He’d become aware that ‘white supremacy’ was nonsense. A few years later Clay became a Muslim, emphasising his changed status by taking the name Muhammed Ali.
Kentucky passed dozens of segregationist laws after their defeat in the American Civil War, 1861-5. For example these statutes were passed in 1956, when Clay was 14 years old,
“Firms were prohibited from permitting on their premises any dancing, social functions, entertainments, athletic training, games, sports or contests in which the participants are members of the white and Negro races.”
Black-Americans were characterised as being a health hazard,
“All public parks, recreation centers, playgrounds, etc. would be segregated. This provision was made “for the purpose of protecting the public health, morals and the peace and good order in the state and not because of race.” (my emphasis)
In 1960, as Clay returned to Kentucky, legislators passed a statute to prevent ‘accidental’ electoral success by Black-Americans,
“Required that the race of all candidates named on ballots be designated.”1
“….segregation and racism had deep roots in Louisville, Kentucky’s biggest city. A New York Times report stated that the boxer was publicly referred to in Louisville as ‘the Olympic nigger’”2
Clay, as a black superstar, suffered from repressive segregation laws like all Black-Americans. He wasn’t served in a white-only coffee bar, and refused to leave. He was thrown out by the police. Clay was officially second class in Kentucky in 1960. Successfully representing his country was irrelevant in a segregated society. White Kentucky worshipped racial purity, which has very uncomfortable echoes with Hitler’s Germany.
Clay identified Christianity as part of the problem. The burial of black soldiers in segregated cemeteries became an outrage during the Vietnam war. Soldiers, who’d sacrificed their lives, were denied burial in their towns’ principal cemeteries. This came to a head in 1970 when it took a Federal court judgement for a soldier to be buried in his parish church.
“He [Billy Terry] was killed July 3, 1969, shortly after his son’s first birthday, and his body arrived home a week later. But he was buried in Shadow Lawn, an all‐Negro cemetery, because officials at Elmwood refused to sell his widow and his mother a plot. The white families who owned spaces in Elmwood had purchased them through contracts that stipulated the prohibition of Negro burials, the two women were told.”3
Black-Americans, who sacrificed their lives for their country, were still second class to racial purists. Vietnam hardened Clay’s attitude as he made his political journey. His close friend Malcolm X4 closed the circle and Clay became Muhammed Ali.
When Ali was drafted he claimed conscientious objection rights, which was refused. As such he was liable to both a fine and imprisonment. His reply demonstrated his political education,
“I ain’t draft dodging. I ain’t burning no flag. I ain’t running to Canada. I’m staying right here. You want to send me to jail? Fine, you go right ahead. I’ve been in jail for 400 years. I could be there for 4 or 5 more, but I ain’t going no 10,000 miles to help murder and kill other poor people. If I want to die, I’ll die right here, right now, fightin’ you, if I want to die. You my enemy, not no Chinese, no Vietcong, no Japanese. You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality. Want me to go somewhere and fight for you? You won’t even stand up for me right here in America, for my rights and my religious beliefs. You won’t even stand up for my right here at home.”
He further developed,
“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. … Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”5
Muhammed Ali had come a long way from the 18 year old who proudly stood on the podium in Rome celebrating his victory for the USA. His political education was informed by religion and by an awareness of the inclusivity of Islam. Segregation and Christianity went hand-in-hand in Kentucky, extending even to cemeteries. In 1996 Ali lit the Olympic flame as an iconic athlete and human rights activist. A wonderful end to a career born in the horrors of segregated Kentucky.
1 Kentucky Jim Crow (sourcesfinding.com) This is a comprehensive list and is invaluable to understand the culture of racism as expressed in segregationist laws.
2 Did Muhammad Ali Throw His Olympic Medal in the Ohio River? – Ireland’s Own (irelandsown.ie)
3 Black Soldier Buried Among Whites – The New York Times (nytimes.com) Black soldiers were also systematically disrespected having far fewer promotion opportunities and being given the worst tasks Military history of African Americans in the Vietnam War – Wikipedia
5 See Dramatic Monologue for Men – Will Smith as Muhammad Ali in Ali | monologuedb (first quote) Muhammad Ali’s Religion: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know | Heavy.com (second quotation)