Cassius Clay and Muhammad Ali: From Anger to Peace

By Norman Marcus on June 11, 2016
Cassius Clay and Muhammad Ali: From Anger to Peace
He couldn’t find much in his bible to explain what he saw and felt. (Charles Harrity/AP)

Ali was laid to rest in his native Louisville, Kentucky. His pallbearers included Mike Tyson, Lennox Louis, George Foreman and Larry Holmes…

The young boxer was full of anger at times. A Southern Baptist, he couldn’t find much in his bible to explain what he saw and felt. He looked for some easy answers. He found them in a group called the Black Muslims. Here were some people that had the same kind of racial anger that Cassius Clay felt.

Clay was a good up-and-coming boxer. At eighteen he won the light heavyweight gold medal at the 1960 Olympics, in Rome, Italy. Four years later at twenty-two, he won the WBC and WBA heavyweight title from Sonny Liston. Shortly after, he legally changed his “slave name,” Cassius Clay, to Muhammad Ali.

In 1966 Ali refused to serve in the U.S. Army. He called the Vietnam War, “A white man’s war, fought by the black man, against the yellow man, to save a country ruled by the white man, stolen from the red man!”

This did not endear him to the U.S. government or a large part of the population. He was convicted of draft evasion and stripped of his boxing titles. Eventually the U.S. Supreme Court over turned this conviction in 1971. By that time, Ali had lost four years of his career.

Trainer Angelo Dundee said “He was robbed of his best years, his prime years.”

Muhammad returned to the ring and became a legend in his own time. He was named The Ring Magazine Fighter of the Year five times. He remains the only three-time lineal world heavyweight champion.

During those years Ali railed against the white establishment but especially the Jews and Zionists. The Black Muslims were filling him with two thousand-year-old propaganda and hate about the “chosen people” of the bible.

He preached against Jewish promoters and Zionist control of the world. Yet he developed Jewish friends over those years. Sportscaster Howard Cosell and comedian Billy Crystal, both Jews, were close with him. Ali began to see that hating whole ethnic groups just didn’t add up. In 1980 he spoke out against the American hostage situation in Iran. He said, “Those people in Iran are fanatics…the other Muslims in the world have condemned their action. Religion ain’t bad; it’s people who are bad.”

Ali began to change slowly. When Daniel Pearl of the Wall Street Journal was captured by Muslim terrorists, Ali appealed for the man’s life. “Treat him as you wish all Muslims to be treated by others.”

He later left the Black Muslims and converted again, this time to the more traditional Sunni branch of Islam. Life seemed too short to spend it hating other people.

In 2012 Ali’s grandson was called to the Torah and became a bar mitzvah at the Jewish Temple, Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia. Ali was there and sat among the Jews he once called white devils. His grandson Jacob Wertheimer, son of his daughter Ali-Wertheimer and Spencer Wertheimer had chosen to become a Jew. The mother had been raised Muslim and her husband had been raised Jewish. “No one put any pressure on Jacob to believe one way or the other,” she said. “He felt a kinship with Judaism.” The Louisville Lip” smiled, he had come a long way since 1964.

Ali was laid to rest in his native Louisville, Kentucky. His pallbearers included Mike Tyson, Lennox Louis, George Foreman and Larry Holmes. All friends he had made during his career as a boxer. By the end of his seventy-four years, it seems “The Greatest” had figured it all out.

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  1. Old Yank 08:13am, 06/13/2016

    Norm—Points well made—especially the brotherhood of men in arms. I’m no fan of the Black Muslim movement any more than I am of hard core Christian fundamentalism—but in an Occam’s Razor kind of way, Ali appeared to have struggled for a long, long time before taking what was revealed to him as a better truth than he was struggling with. I remain skeptical that abandoning the religion of his mother was an easy way out. In my humble opinion it was a tortured decision that was then backed with Ali’s brand of brash confidence. I doubt the evolution he underwent could have been possible if he truly bought into the Black Muslim path. Like many of us, the spiritual path we walk is a struggle. Fewer of us come to complete peace with it. I appreciate very much the attention you brought to his struggle.

  2. Norm Marcus 02:27pm, 06/12/2016

    Yank: what I meant by easy answers were stereotypes put forth by these Black Muslims. You see nowhere in the Koran does it say white people are all blue eyed devils. Or all Jews are cheap and the first men were black. Pure racist BS.
    If you read history you will learn that during the Crusades the Muslim Madi instructed his soldiers to protect synagogues and Jews from destruction and slaughter by the Christian crusaders.
    Or the Sultan of Turkey. Who welcomed the Jews into his empire when Ferdinand and Isabella threw them out in 1492!
    The Black Muslims just turned racism around and peddled it to their own people.
    The easy answers they sold were lumping all peoples together into certain groups and behaviors.
    Sad Ali didn’t serve in the Marines with me in 1969. We learned that there was only one color in the USMC - green. Also that we all would bleed red!
    We were all the same in the corps. Something those that didn’t serve will never comprehend.

  3. Old Yank 12:15pm, 06/12/2016

    Norman—All-in-all the ken of Ali’s transition was captured well in your piece. However, I’m not convinced Clay was looking for easy answers and found them in the Black Muslim movement. We are both old enough to have lived those days. Elijah Muhammad was a skilled recruiter—from street mosque to an organization/empire that owned real estate, businesses and more. His apostles were ordered to attempt to recruit every black celebrity that they possibly could. With the Civil Rights Movement moving at a snails pace, the Black Muslim movement had a lot of appeal to a lot of black celebrities.

    Ali saw in his father all the sins of white men—Elijah Muhammad likely filled a father role for Ali that was quite complex given the circumstances.

    I have no affinity for the Black Muslim movement, but describing it as a place that offered easy answers might more than underweight how complex it really was.

  4. Eric 11:08am, 06/12/2016

    Apparently, Eric is not a big fan of Americans losing their lives in foreign wars, apparently Eric remembers when America was a much safer place. Today we have yet another attack on American soil that might not have happened had we given ear to George Washington warning Americans about becoming involved in foreign affairs. Yet, we condemn someone like Trump who wishes to halt Muslim immigration while we sort this madness out. God bless the families and the victims of this latest attack. @Jethro’s Flute..Who cares.

  5. Steve 08:34am, 06/12/2016

    Apparently, Eric is not a big fan of Jewish people.

  6. Jethro's Flute 05:21am, 06/12/2016

    “I have actually listened to some of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speeches instead of believing the bullshit, and the man sounded pretty rational to me.”

    I am forever avoiding commenting on any article you have ever commented on because of this.

    Iran is a totalitarian state and you approve.

  7. Eric 09:37am, 06/11/2016

    Oopsie. Misspelld Sioux. Dammit Jim. Ali must have not seen all those white soldiers that I saw on those clips from Vietnam. I could have swore that I saw a lot more white soldiers than black soldiers at the time. Since Ali is now God-like, it must be my bad. I apologize for doubting you, Ali.

  8. Eric 08:23am, 06/11/2016

    ” A country ruled by the white man and stolen from the red man.” Ever hear or read about the Kennewick man? The Indian Wars were brutal on both sides and like a lot of our history, the white man has been purposedly demonized. The Amerindian specialized in torture such as skinning alive their captured victims, and other barbaric tortures. White women captured were often raped repeatedly, and pimped out after their shelf life was a tad old. There were attrocities committed on both sides and most of these wars weren’t simply red man vs. white man. Many conquered tribes who were defeated by more dominant tribes like the Souix and Cheyenne would often join forces with the white man, fighting against their former conquerers. Ali was a noble warrior, but he regurgitated a lot of scripted Marxist bullshit for the most part. I certainly have no ax to grind with the Amerindian, I truly feel they possess some admirable traits, but a lot of what we are taught is utter bullshit. The Amerindian is portrayed as some nature loving, peaceful hippie in today’s textbooks, but the truth of the matter is that tribes were constantly fighting against each other for land before the white man’s arrival. Most notably as mentioned, tribes like the Souix and Cheyenne were two of the most dominant tribes, both conquered and tortured other weaker tribes.

  9. Eric 07:57am, 06/11/2016

    “The people in Iran are fanatics.” The TRUE fanatics are the Talmudic Supremacists who have a stranglehold on our media, banking, academia, foreign, as well as domestic policies. We are told by “our” media that Iran is building WMD, TOTAL BULLSHIT. What about Israel’s 200-300 nukes? What about a country that has threatened the world with the Samson Option? Talk about “fanatical.” Iran hasn’t attacked another country in over 200 years. The propaganda is so rich that STUPID Westerners are told by “our” media that we must hate Muslims in the Middle East but we must embrace Muslims that are invading OUR countries through FORCED IMMIGRATION that is socially engineered by guess who? As far as I know there has been only one country in the Middle East that is guilty of bombing American & British installations, attacking an American ship and been invovled in spying on America throughout the years. Had America never gotten invovled in the Middle East, or had these social engineers never flooded OUR countries with Muslims, the West would have no problem with Muslims. I have actually listened to some of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speeches instead of believing the bullshit, and the man sounded pretty rational to me. Christians need to read I Thessalonians chapter 2, starting with verse 14 and/or Hebrews chapter 8.

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