2016-06-30
Just about the only people to react to the news of [Cassius] Clay's conversion with a shrug were the men in his corner. "What's in a name?" [trainer Angelo] Dundee said by way of Shakespeare. "To me he's still the same individual, same guy. Actually, I didn't know what Muslim was, really, because I thought it was a piece of cloth."

Probably no other trainer would have been so foolish as to alienate his new champion-there was too much money to be had. But Dundee really didn't care what religion his fighter belonged to as long as he showed up at the gym. "I learned that much when I was a kid," Dundee said years later. "One thing you don't mess with in a fighter is his religion. And his love life. You don't mess with that either. How to throw a left-you're better off sticking with that stuff."

But outside that small circle of handlers, Clay's conversion was a shock, not least to his family. His father, though never exactly a devout Christian, made clear his wrath in person and in the press. Clay senior told reporters that his son had been "conned" by the avaricious Muslims. "I'm not changing no name," he said. "If he wants to do it, fine. But not me. In fact, I'm gonna make good use of the name Cassius Clay. I'm gonna make money out of my own name. I'll capitalize on it."

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The relationship between father and son deteriorated to such a degree that the next time Clay went home to Louisville, he stayed in a hotel downtown. "He came out to visit us," his mother, Odessa, said, "but he stayed only 25 minutes and kept a cab waiting outside in the driveway. He's been told to stay away from his father because of the religious thing, and I imagine they've told him to stay away from me, too. Muslims don't like me because I'm too fair-complected."

The leading columnists reacted with almost as much outrage as Cassius Clay, Sr.

"The fight racket, since its rotten beginnings, has been the redlight district of sports. But this is the first time it has been turned into an instrument of hate," Jimmy Cannon wrote. "It has maimed the bodies of numerous men and ruined their minds but now, as one of Elijah Muhammad's missionaries, Clay is using it as a weapon of wickedness in an attack on the spirit. I pity Clay and abhor what he represents. In the years of hunger during the Depression, the Communists used famous people the way the Black Muslims are exploiting Clay. This is a sect that deforms the beautiful purpose of religion."

Cannon's point of racial orientation would always be Joe Louis. Clay's association with the Nation of Islam, Cannon declared, was a "more pernicious hate symbol than Schmeling and Nazism."

[Robert] Lipsyte's coverage in The New York Times was of a different order, partly because the paper's news columns did not allow for much opinion, but also because he was of a different generation and possessed of a far different set of experiences, not least his close friendship with Dick Gregory. "It's true that I wasn't freaked out about the conversion the way Cannon or [Red] Smith were," he said. "But you have to remember how scary Malcolm X was to some people, and not just white people. The New York Times, for one, never really knew how many people he could put on the street for a revolution.

Malcolm X appreciated the depth and restraint of Lipsyte's coverage and told him so. Back at the newsroom on West 43rd Street, Lipsyte recounted the compliment to one of his editors.

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"Well, that's great," the editor said. "Maybe we should put huge ads on the side of all our trucks saying, `Malcolm X Likes Bob Lipsyte!'"

The World Boxing Association suspended the new champion for "conduct detrimental to the best interests of boxing." However, the suspension had no real force to it after the key state commissions in New York, California, and Pennsylvania made it clear they would ignore it. Members of the Louisville Sponsoring Group reacted first with visceral shock. They realized, quite rightly, that Clay's conversion would cost him, and them, hundreds of thousands of dollars. What was more, they realized rather quickly that Clay would not likely renew his contract with them once it expired in 1966. "We guessed the Muslims would want to control things on their own," said Gordon Davidson. "And it was a pretty good guess."

Just about the only white politician to speak out in support of the new heavyweight champion was Richard Russell, senator from Georgia and a segregationist. Russell thought it was splendid that the Nation of Islam's goal of separating the races coincided with his own. (In fact, in 1961, Elijah Muhammad had initiated contact with the Ku Klux Klan leadership, the idea being that both groups favored the separation of black and white.)

The most complicated reactions came from black commentators and political actors. Black-run newspapers were deeply involved in and supportive of the civil rights movement, and most were suspicious of the Nation of Islam. It was February 1964, and the country had already witnessed a decade of civil rights landmarks: the murder of Emmett Till in 1955, the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955-56, the Little Rock schools crisis in 1957-58, the student sit-ins in Nashville in 1960, the Freedom Rides of 1961, James Meredith's integration of Ole Miss in 1962, the Birmingham struggle and the Sixteenth Street Church bombings in 1963, the march on Washington.

Many middle-class blacks, especially, privately admired certain aspects of the Nation-the way it rehabilitated men coming out of jails, the way it represented a certain upright morality in the home and safety on the street-but worried that such a vehement rhetoric of confrontation and religious style so alien to mainstream America would jeopardize the movement.

In Clay's hometown newspaper, the black-run Louisville Defender, Frank Stanley wrote, rather delicately, "Our difference is not with Clay's choice of a religious group, although we have our reservations about the motives of this particular sect. We are dismayed at the Louisville youth's disassociation from the desegregation movement."

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[Martin Luther] King himself, who was now at the zenith of his power and appeal in the movement, indulged no such delicacies. "When Cassius Clay joined the Black Muslims and started calling himself Cassius X he became a champion of racial segregation and that is what we are fighting against," he said. "I think perhaps Cassius should spend more time proving his boxing skill and do less talking."

Eventually King called Clay to congratulate him on his boxing triumphs-a phone call that was overheard by the FBI. According to the bureau's wiretap log of King's conversations, Clay assured King that he was "keeping up with MLK, that MLK is his brother, and [Clay is] with him 100 [percent] but can't take any chances." Clay told King to "take care of himself" and "watch out for them whities."

A month after the fight, Jackie Robinson wrote a piece for The Chicago Defender, the most prominent of all black-run papers, in which he insisted on the magnitude of the new champion's victory in the ring and a cool acceptance of his conversion to the Nation of Islam. While Robinson's putative admirers among the white columnists brayed with anger and confusion about this self-assertive new champion, Robinson himself, who did not require their fatherly acceptance, saw some virtue in this young man's decision, even if he did not share it.

"I don't think Negroes en masse will embrace Black Muslimism any more than they have embraced Communism," Robinson wrote. "Young and old, Negroes by the tens of thousands went into the streets in America and proved their willingness to suffer, fight, and even die for freedom. These people want more democracy-not less. They want to be integrated into the mainstream of American life, not invited to live in some small cubicle of this land in splendid isolation. If Negroes ever turn to the Black Muslim movement, in any numbers, it will not be because of Cassius or even Malcolm X. It will be because white America has refused to recognize the responsible leadership of the Negro people and to grant to us the same rights that any other citizen enjoys in this land."

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In the late sixties, when he was making his stand against the draft and went into exile, many voices, radical and not, celebrated Ali as a figure of defiance and courage. Eldridge Cleaver described him as a "genuine revolutionary" and the "first `free' black champion ever to confront white America." Athletes like Lew Alcindor would be radicalized to the point of converstion. Even Red Smith would come around. But at the time, in 1964, very few people, black or white, openly celebrated Clay's transformation.

"I remember in the early sixties how we felt at home about Ali," said the writer Jill Nelson, who grew up in Harlem and on the Upper West Side. "We weren't about to join the Nation, but we loved Ali for the supreme act of defiance. It was the defiance against having to be the good Negro, the good Christian waiting to be rewarded by the righteous white provider. We loved Ali because he was so beautiful and powerful and because he talked a lot of lip. But he also epitomized a lot of black people's emotions at the time, our anger, our sense of entitlement, the need to be better just to get to the median, the sense of standing up against the furies."

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