Religion Steps into the Boxing Ring: Ali in ’64

Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali, now 70 years old, is one of America’s most admired athletes. He has received an honorary doctorate at Princeton University, the Spirit of America award, the Presidential Citizens Medal, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

All these honors in late life could obscure the fact that Muhammad Ali, in his youth, was a highly controversial figure—a racial revolutionary, some feared.

Ali had been generally popular up to the day he beat Sonny Liston in 1964 to become boxing’s heavyweight champion. Shortly afterward, though, he announced that he’d joined the Nation of Islam, and changed his name from Cassius Marcellus Clay.

The Nation of Islam was then widely regarded by the American media as a highly dangerous group. There were fearful rumors that the Black Muslims would forcibly create a separate nation for black Americans. So when Ali announced his conversion, the media reacted as if they had been betrayed. A Post editorial from ’64 captures the tone of dismissal and fear.

For a time, when he was confining himself to bad poetry, Cassius was a loudmouth but a likable character who seemed to be harmless in or out of the ring. Then he won the championship and became, in his own estimation, “The Greatest.” After the fight, he acknowledged that he was a Black Muslim, converted by the arch-extremist, Malcolm X, the man who crowed that President Kennedy’s assassination was “a case of the chickens coming home to roost.” Malcolm X was separated from the Black Muslim movement after that remark and is now attempting to organize his own black nation. He wants to arm all the Negroes in the U.S. and ultimately take them back to Africa.

One Post writer went so far as to hint that Ali was simply using his status as a Black Muslim to increase ticket sales.

Muhammad Ali training in 1964.

Clay’s history of calculated deceptions now prompts the suspicion, of course, that his present case of galloping religion is but another decoy to serve who knows what end. Clay himself strengthened the suspicion when he declared, “Just by my being a Muslim, that should draw a bigger gate…”

On re-examination, however, Clay’s remarks were nothing more than cute verbiage. He well knows… that his commitment to Islam has cost him roughly two million dollars in commercial endorsements.

The quote came from a ’64 Post article, “Muslim Champ,” by Myron Cope, which generally overlooked Ali the boxer to focus on Ali the Muslim. Cope regarded Ali’s new faith with frank derision.

Cassius Marcellus Clay, who now calls himself Brother Muhammad Ali… is convinced he is a beacon of righteousness in a wicked world.

Having succeeded Malcolm X as the loudest [sic] Black Muslim, Clay has been fighting a socio-religious battle with the Christian world, and this, more than anything else, seems to have taken away his former exuberance. He still acts the clown for TV cameras but only to sell fight tickets.

Ali in Harlem.

Reading the article today, it’s clear that Cope’s preconceptions were obscuring his view of Ali. He claimed that Ali had “completely severed communication with whites,” even though Ali spoke freely with Cope for this article. Ali also proves himself to be more tolerant than Cope concerning the use of his old name.

“Call me Muhammad or call me Ali,” Clay advised as we drove to his house, “but if you forget and call me Cassius, that won’t bother me none.”

Cope didn’t forget. He deliberately referred to him throughout the article as Cassius Clay. And though he portrayed Ali as a zealot of his new “cult,” the champion voiced rather middle-of-the-road political opinions.

Cruising along, the new Clay discussed politics. “Kennedy,” he said, “just seemed so nice, he didn’t seem like a President.” He expressed an admiration for Barry Goldwater, saying that “he say what he thinks.”

In fact, Ali showed himself to be little changed from the spirited, sociable boxer Cope had traveled with in his pre-championship days.

I had been unwilling to believe that a young man with so bright a gift for teasing the world could hate. Henry H. Arrington, a Negro attorney and adviser to Martin Luther King, Jr., told me; “I can assure you I have never seen any indication whatsoever of Cassius disliking white people generally.”

Muhammad Ali in 1964.

Whatever the actual teaching propounded in the Muslim meetings, Clay denies that he considers all whites to be devils. “I’m stressing just the works that the whites generally have been doing,” he said in his dressing room. “They blow up all these little colored people in church, wash people down the street with water hoses. It’s not the color that make you a devil, just the deeds that you do.

“It’s as our leader Elijah Muhammad teaches us. Couldn’t nobody argue it. I’m no authority on Islam. I am just a follower. If you be a blue race, and you do the works of the devil, then we can call you a devil. You got white people who died under demonstrations, died under tractor wheels for colored people. I wouldn’t call them no devil.”

He was attracted to the cult, he explained, because its people neither drank nor smoked, and they deported themselves well.

“I am an American; I was born here,” he said softly, trying to make himself understood. “Our leader and teacher will tell you himself, we respect America and respect whites for coming here and making a paradise from nothing. It’s not hate or fighting or arguing. We just want freedom.”

Ali’s religion was still a hot issue in 1965, when he fought former heavyweight champion Floyd Paterson. In an unpublished story, Post writer Bill Bridges described how the Ali-Patterson bout was being regarded as a test of Christianity and Muslim faiths. Some of Ali’s supporters, who had become estranged when he joined the Nation of Islam, were hoping that a Patterson victory would convince Ali to return to his old faith. After Patterson was defeated, however, there was no more talk about the match proving which was the superior faith.
The following photos were taken for Bill Bridges’ unpublished Post feature and were never printed.

Photo at top left: Ali exchanges angry looks at his former trainer, who had departed after Ali joined the Nation of Islam. Bottom left: the trainer can be seen mid-picture, with the arm of sports writer George Plimpton around his shoulders. He had hoped a defeat would return Ali to the Christian faith. Instead, with Ali victorious, the trainer returned to Ali who forgave him and rehired him as trainer.