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A case of conscience

Call him Cassias Clay or Muhammad Ali, the Muslim name he prefers. He is the best-known athlete in the world. He is also the most hated, and an enigma even to those closest to him.

This story originally appeared in the April 11, 1966 issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.

It is one of those houses that always seem stuffy, where the warm smell of dinner hangs around till the next morning, and you can reconstruct the previous night's menu by spilling in corners. In this house there is the constant presence of Negroes, of too many humans for the size of the place, whatever their color. They drift in and out: celebrity Negroes, little pickaninny Negroes, big sparring-partner Negroes, door-to-door salesman Negroes, neatly dressed Muslim Negroes, old Negroes in skinny yellow shoes, young Negroes in porkpie hats, affluent Negroes driving black Cadillacs. In this house, kept neat and tidy by three uniformed Muslim "sisters," there remains something of the atmosphere of a "colored only" waiting room on the main line of the Florida East Coast Railway.

In a tiny front bedroom of the small bungalow in a shabby section of northwest Miami, the world's heavyweight champion lay half awake, undergoing an interview about his early life, trying not to tell too much, partially because there are portions that are painful to him and partially because he is under the impression that his "whole life story, as told by me myself," is a precious commodity worth a minimum of $50,000. The telephone rang on the cluttered dresser next to the bed, and Cassius Clay, in his role as Muhammad Ali, picked it up and said a dignified "hello." The caller was a local television personality, a man who could generate publicity; so the champ loosened up.

"Hello, Mis-ter Ed Lane," he said cheerfully. This is one of Clay's trademarks: calling white men by both their names. He likes to spot you approaching, and when you come into range he beams and throws out with mock pomposity and careful syllabilization: "Ange-lo Dun-dee!" "Gor-don Da-vid-son!" "Gil-bert Ro-gin!" That is, if he remembers your name. It takes many exposures to a white man before his name sinks into the consciousness of Cassius Clay. This is because he has erected a sort of racial curtain that screens whites out of his emotional life. A white man's name is of no importance to him, nor are "whiteys" themselves, except insofar as they can further his career.

Mr. Ed ("Mark 'Em Down") Lane, who until his recent death conducted conversational television interviews on a Miami station, fell in this latter category. "How you feeling?" Cassius asked. Lane remarked that the champion's name was all over the newspapers again that morning, whereupon Cassius began one of his Greek-chorus speeches, a mock lament that sounded as though it had been written the night before, rehearsed for several hours and saved for just such an auspicious occasion as a telephone call from Lane.

"I stay in the paper, don't I?" Cassius said softly into the phone. "Poor old me. Always in the press. Man, man! What do people think about me? A young 24-year-old boy, just a athlete, in the headlines eight times out of 10 for something other than boxing and always something controversial, exciting and drama. Year in, year out. Month after month, never dies, and I manage to come through it strong, and trained, too. What do people think about me?"

Seldom in the long history of rhetorical questions has one been answered so quickly and thoroughly. Within a few days Cassius had popped off about the draft, and newspaper editorial writers and columnists and statesmen and Bowery bums were telling the world heavyweight champion what they thought about him in some of the strongest language ever used to describe a sports figure. He was "a self-centered spoiled brat of a child," "a sad apology for a man," "the all-time jerk of the boxing world," "the most disgusting character in memory to appear on the sports scene." "Bum of the month. Bum of the year. Bum of all time."

The governor of Illinois found Clay "disgusting." and the governor of Maine said Clay "should be held in utter contempt by every patriotic American." An American Legion post in Miami asked people to "join in condemnation of this unpatriotic, loudmouthed, bombastic individual," and dirty mail began to arrive at Clay's Miami address. ("You're nothing but a yellow nigger." said a typical correspondent, one of many who forgot to sign their names.) The Chicago Tribune waged a choleric campaign against holding the next Clay tight in Chicago; the newspaper's attitude seemed to be that thousands of impressionable young Chicagoans would go over to the Viet Cong if Cassius were allowed to engage in fisticuffs in that sensitive city.

Amplified by the newspaper (on one day it ran 11 items about Clay), the noise became a din, the drumbeats of a holy war. TV and radio commentators, little old ladies from Champaign-Urbana, bookmakers and parish priests, armchair strategists at the Pentagon and politicians all over the place joined in a crescendo of get-Cassius clamor.

There were a few amateur psychologists who wondered if there might have been more to the public uproar than simple patriotism. "Doesn't it seem that people got madder than they should have?" an observer asked. "The thing is, Americans have become so guilty about Negroes that they bend over further than they want to in their attitude toward them. Then along comes somebody like Cassius, and they feel free to unload their resentment and pour it on."

Did he mean that some of the complainants might have been motivated by some factor as evil as race prejudice?

"Well, the people who made the biggest fuss about him arc the same ones who blew their tops when he became a Muslim. This made him antiwhite, and it inflamed their own prejudices. So they could scream about him, and what makes it nice is it's socially acceptable."

Whatever the underlying reasons, the bombilating Kentucky Negro had managed to rub the whole country the wrong way, and it had become necessary for the whole country to rise up in anger. As Clay's personal physician, the astute Ferdie Pacheco of Miami, explained: "Were getting back to the Korean war status, where the guy who goes into the Army is no longer a jerk but a man who's doing his duty and is to be applauded. Now comes Cassius saying he ain't got nothing against no Viet Congs. Had become out a year ago with that, many people might have said, 'Well, another Clay witticism.' Now he says it and he sounds like a traitor. And then he compounds the problem by saying it's a white man's war when there's a lot of colored people over there dying."

Said a Miami newspaperman who had studied and enjoyed Clay for six years: "Every time I begin to think that he really has the makings of a sweet person he does something like this, something so outrageous. Some of that stuff he's spouting is almost treason. Can you imagine what's gonna happen when he goes in the Army with some sergeant from south Georgia who's had about eight buddies killed in Vietnam?"

Even one of Clay's favorite people, his aunt, Mary Turner, a mathematics teacher in Louisville, spoke out. "He's gonna mess himself up so won't nobody go see him," Mrs. Turner said, with typical Clay-family bluntness. "Most folks feel like I do: when their sons get ready to go to the Army, they'll just pack the suitcases and go."

No one who was around Clay during those days when the draft board was getting ready to reclassify him believed that Cassius would "just pack the suitcases and go." Clay himself was the most surprised person in Miami when the draft board moved him into 1-A; right up to the moment of the announcement he had steadfastly believed that he and the Black Muslims and Leader Elijah Muhammad held some sort of power over the government. As Clay confided to a friend one morning, "They're trying to call me to the Army. Man, they know I ain't going in no Army! They ain't gonna bother me! There's too many people in the world watching me, see, and all of those black people overseas, they're Muslims, they're not Christians. And America's trying to make peace with 'em, and if they give me...."

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His voice trailed off, and then he resumed his soliloquy in mocking, strident tones: "But Uncle Sam is a powerful man, and when Uncle Sam say 'Greeeeeeeeetings,' you go! Yeh, man!" His voice turned serious again. "Yeh, Elijah Muhammad's a powerful man. Whatever he say goes. Uncle Sam is in wars, wars everywhere, wars all over the country, everybody's at war today...."

Now he began an explanation of how he was sacrificing millions of dollars by being a Muslim, but how in the long run he could do more for the cause of the Negro by sticking to his adopted religion and letting the cash go. "All this stuff I turned down," he said, "and I'll show you where it make me bigger. Look how big I am. I got a call from Washington, the Pentagon called me. They said, 'We won't draft you. We've got to fake it because of the public. This has never happened before. We've never had to cope with no one like this before. This is a high office calling!" That's power. They know I'm not going."

He took a short telephone call, then went on: "I got invitations now. Haile Selassie want to see me in Ethiopia. That's a Moslem country. Ben Bella want to see me in Algeria. King Saud want to see me in Saudi Arabia. King Feisal want to sec me in Sudan. President Nasser of Egypt want to see me. These are men own their own countries. Powerful men, man! They own the land, they own millions of acres and control millions of people....

"The white want me hugging on a white woman, or endorsing some whiskey, or some skin bleach, lightening the skin when I'm promoting black as the best.... They want me advertising all this stuff that'd make me rich but hurt so many others. But by me sacrificing a little wealth I'm helping so many others. Little children can come by and meet the champ. Little kids in the alleys and slums of Florida and New York, they can come and see me where they never could walk up on Patterson and Liston. Can't see them niggers when they come to town! So the white man see the power in this. He see that I'm getting away with the Army backing offa me.... They see who's not flying the flag, not going in the Army; we get more respect...."

Clay picked up a few back issues of Muhammad Speaks, the house organ of the Black Muslim movement, and pointed out several vicious cartoons. One of them showed Uncle Sam whispering to the President: "Hurry! Sign all those niggers into war so they won't be left behind us!... Let our own sons stay behind in colleges and universities!... No, we know we can't win!" In his hand Uncle Sam holds a paper titled: BILLS TO GIVE NEGROES DEATH IN THIS WAR. A young Negro man stands to one side, thinking, "What shall I do or say?" and a tough-looking white man stands behind him saying, "G'wan, nigger, don't ask no questions!"

Another cartoon showed a Ku Klux Klansman starting to hang a Negro. Uncle Sam is grabbing the Klansman and saying, "Hold it, stupid! We don't lynch niggers like that nowadays—we can draft them and get the same results."

"Look at those cartoons," Clay instructed. "Look how bold our leader is. You know I gotta respect and obey a man as bold as that. If the government don't do nothing about it, then I gotta respect him."

A few nights later, after Cassius had been firmly entrenched in 1-A, a group of young men assembled in the living room of Clay's small house in Miami. "We're here to sec something big!" Clay advised me as I entered.

"Have a seat!" said Sam Saxon, one of the most enigmatic figures about Clay. "Cap'n Sam" functions as a sergeant at arms in a Miami mosque of the Muslims, and Cassius himself has referred to Saxon as "my bodyguard" (and at other times complained about newspapermen who used the same word to describe Saxon). Sam was one of Clay's earliest mentors in Black Muslimism and now has been promoted to the post of aide-de-training-camp at a salary of $150 a week, more than he makes on his regular job as a shoeshiner at racetracks around Miami. Saxon is a powerful Negro with blacksmith's arms, light reddish-brown skin and brownish-amber eyes, a graceful man with an easy step and a shy smile that shows thin gold linings on his teeth. When he gets excited, his voice rises an octave and his words double in tempo, like a caricature Negro in an early film. But most of the time he is quiet and steady, a rock for Cassius to lean on, and although many oldtimers claim that Saxon is one of the foremost white-haters in the Muslim movement, he is capable of an occasional act of fellowship, such as borrowing your car or shaking your hand. "Sometimes I get the feeling that Sam is putting me on, or putting the Muslims on, Or putting somebody on," says a friend. Perhaps this is because Saxon has at least a slight sense of humor, the rarest personality trait in the confraternity of the Black Muslims.

Sitting at the dining room table that night was Rudolph Arnett Clay, whose father belatedly rechristened him Rudolph Valentino Clay and who has re-rechristened himself Rahman Ali. The younger brother of Cassius Clay, Rahman (pronounced Rockmon) was writing a letter home to his young wife in Chicago. He was giving the task intense concentration except for occasional glances toward the television set that had been rolled into the stuffy living-dining area for the occasion. Rudolph is a very black, mustached man of 22 years and striking appearance. Another of Elijah Muhammad's true believers, he is also said to be an extreme hater of whites, although he is civil to white devils. It is only after several talks with him that you begin to realize he is giving you the bare minimum of shrift with a friendly smile on his face.

Reggie, a taciturn driver and general helper, was also in the assemblage that warm evening in Miami, as were a few anonymous Negroes, the kind who wander off the street and are invited inside by Cassius because he admires their pigmentation. In the kitchen three Muslim "sisters" puttered about in their severe white dresses, disassembling the evening meal. Back in a corner of the living room, out of the way of the men in the true Muslim tradition, sat an attractive Negro girl who conspicuously was not introduced to me. She remained silent throughout the evening. The entertainment before the house was the CBS news, and Senator Wayne Morse was denouncing the U.S. role in Vietnam.

"See that?" said Cassius. "All of them big men, they're saying we shouldn't go."

The group watched silently as Senator Russell Long asked General Maxwell Taylor if the United States was the international good guy or the international bad guy. Then the camera zoomed in on a newsman interviewing a GI at the front while shells exploded in the background. Cassius craned forward and said, "Is that real shooting going on?" He was assured it was. The GI told his interviewer that "if I had anything to say about it, I'd go home and spend a little time and come back again." This brought a titter to the room.

Inmates of the Indiana Girls' School rioted on the TV screen, moving Clay to shout, "It's the end of time," a favorite theme of his that he shares with his real father, Cassius Clay Sr., and his spiritual father, Elijah Muhammad. "We're in the last days! The last days!"

And suddenly a hush came over the room. Cassius Clay, the one and only Muhammad Ali, was on TV spitting out his antidraft speech to Interviewer Bob Halloran. "Yes, sir, that was a great surprise to me. It was not me who said that I was classified 1-Y the last time.... It was the government who said that I'm not able.... Now in order to be 1-A I do not remember being called nowhere to be reclassified as 1-A. These fellows got together and made the statement that I'm 1-A without knowing if I'm as good as I was the last time or better. Now they had 30 men to pick from in Louisville, and I'm also sure that there are at least 30 young men that they could have picked from. Instead they picked out the heavyweight champion of the whole world. There's just one in my class. You have a lot of men in baseball they could have called. You have a lot of men in football they coulda called. You have a lotta men that they coulda called that are of school age and have taken the test that are 1-A. Now, I was not 1-A the last time I was tested. All of a sudden they seem to be anxious to push me in the Army.... And another thing I don't understand: Why me? A man who pays the salary of at least 50,000 men in Vietnam, a man who the government gets $6 million from a year from two fights, a man who can pay in two fights for three bumma planes—"

The undignified interview came to an undignified end in mid-sentence, and Cassius was on his feet in the room.

"That was a good one, wasn't it?" he asked nobody and everybody. "Did Lyndon Johnson watch that? Is he watching this news or the other one?"

Saxon said, "He's got 'em both on: one set on one and one on the other. Even if he missed it, he'll get the tape of it."

Cassius let that sink in, found it reasonable and began to muse. "Yes, sir, three bumma planes.... That told 'em.... That make it clear...."

Billy Graham came on the screen, and a dialogue began between the North Carolina evangelist, inside the tube, and Sam Saxon, sitting on the sofa.

Graham: We know that things cannot go on as they are. History is about to reach an impasse.

Saxon: You tell 'em.

Graham: We are now on a collision course. Something is about to give!

Saxon: That's right!

Graham: Hard major decisions have to be made!

Saxon: Yeh!

Graham: Crisis presses in around us!

Saxon: Teach!

Graham faded and President Johnson came on, telling about a letter he had received from a woman whose son had died in Vietnam. From his first words—"In these troubled times"—the group found the President vastly amusing.

"Listen to Johnson," Saxon said with a wide grin.

"...I am sustained by much more than my own prayer," the President said.

"Talk to "em!" Saxon said as someone giggled.

President Johnson read the letter that ended "So we asked God to bless you and your little family."

"Sing it, President!" Saxon said.

When the newscast ended, Clay announced: "Elijah Muhammad been saying 1966 will be the end," as though the program Newsnight had confirmed that the final year was at hand. "Years ago he was saying the same thing. Thirty years ago." Clay mumbled aloud about the President for a few seconds, but all I could make out clearly was, "I wonder if he had me on." Stars in My Crown, a homey movie about a southern preacher, came to the screen, but it did not suit the champion's taste. "C'mon," he said brusquely to the mystery girl in the corner, "we goin' fo' a walk."

The next morning the champion had an early telephone call from Chicago. He was told that Chicago newspapers were on the street with stories that he would have to go in the Army, and the fight would be canceled. The stories would kill the gate, Cassius was told, and he'd better correct them if he wanted to make any money out of the fight.

Clay sat in his underwear next to the living room phone and began burning up the long-distance wires. "Hello, may I speak to Leo Fischer? Hello, Mr. Fischer? This is Muhammad Ali, the world heavyweight champion. Ben Bentley was talking to my lawyers about the fight. Something was out up there about the fight was off.... Well, it's not. We're gonna appeal.... Well, it's in the Islamic belief. We don't bear weapons. We don't fight in wars unless it's a war declared by Allah...Allah...Allah...AlLAH! That right. Anyone who understands the Holy Qur-an or the Islamic religion, this is nothin' new or nothing...I see where the whites themselves are arguing, even in the White House they're on TV arguing every day. They're saying they're gonna get out, and they don't like it. I see whites burning up their draft cards, and they say it's a nasty war and we shouldn't be in it. That's what the senators and officials of the government themselves are saying. So our religion teaches me we don't participate in wars to take the lives of other humans.... Well, I don't think they could be mad at me about my religion.... Yeh, well, if their religion don't teach it, I guess they go...."

After a few such calls he dialed a reporter (perhaps from the Tribune) who wanted to debate the subject, and Cassius went to the bedroom phone, shut the-door and accepted the challenge. An occasional phrase was audible: "Well, we'll make the appeal, and the fight'll go on.... We don't take up no weapons in no war unless it's a war declared In Allah himself. We arc taught to defend ourselves if attacked.... No, I don't know nothing about no Viet Congs.... Well, the whites themselves have been demonstrating against the war. They're mad at the war...."

When the argument finally ended and Cassius stomped back through the living room in his battle raiment of undershirt, undershorts and socks, I said, "Haven't you got enough to do?"

"Don't they keep me going?" he said, and laughed, pleased with his busy morning's work. Later, when his words on the draft were thrown back at him by editorial writers and columnists, he claimed that they had "taken my words as though I'm a politician." and he issued broad hints to the effect that he was just a poor little ignorant tighter and he had been tricked and it was unfair to quote him on Vietnam and the draft and such weight) matters.

"As usual, you know me and my big mouth." he said. "It didn't get me in trouble in the past, but I spoke out on a few things that could be considered politics and I had no business doing it.... I feel a lot better after calling, apologizing to the commission and the boxing authorities who I put on a limb and caused 'em national embarrassment.... I'm known for talking a lot."

These weaselly alibis were not the real Cassius. They were dreamed up by people close to the money end of the fight, and he was mouthing the words as a personal favor to them. But his explosive remarks to the press on the phone that morning had represented the most serious side of Cassius Clay, a fanatically religious side that only his closest friends understand. They were not surprised when Clay journeyed to the Illinois Athletic Commission and refused to recant. After all, Clay is a Black Muslim; his god is Allah; his hero is Elijah Poole, now known as Elijah Muhammad. Muhammad, the "Messenger of Allah," served three years in prison during World War II for urging his flock not to go to war, and by his own reckoning, nearly a hundred Black Muslims went to jail for taking his advice. Clay identifies closely with Elijah Muhammad and takes orders from no one else.

"Cassius was searching for a father,"' said a close relative, "and Elijah Muhammad is it. If Elijah tell him don't go to war, go to jail, he'll go to jail. That man have Cassius by the nose."

Muhammad's book Message to the Blackman, is studied by Cassius like a Bible. (Since his reading speed is below average, Clay often has passages read to him. He even enlisted me for the task once.) The dominant theme of Muhammad's book is hatred of the whiles. Beneath the fanciful tales about half-mile "wheels" in the sky, "1,500 bombing planes" preparing to wing down to earth and drop steel bombs into the earth on behalf of Allah, hidden in all the wild-eyed prognostication is a simple genocidal declaration of war: "The only way to end war between man and man is to destroy the warmaker.... According to the history of the white race (devils), they are guilty of making trouble, causing war among the people and themselves ever since they have been on our planet, Earth. So God...has decided to remove them from the face of the Earth.... Allah will fight this war for the sake of His people (the black people), and especially, for the American so-called Negroes.... We are Allah's choice to give life, and we will be put on top of civilization." America will fall, Elijah predicts, "in 1965 and 1966."

Cassius Clay has a blind and total belief in every word of Message to the Blackman, and thus he becomes a rare individual: a genuine, if misguided, conscientious objector. As a professional observer and friend of Clay's pointed out: "The government may say his religion is nutty as a fruitcake, but the government can't say it's not his religion. Now how the hell are you gonna send a kid like that to tight against people of color, his people? How the hell are you gonna send him into battle alongside white Americans that he regards as the real enemy? That kid has a sincere, true, deep hatred of whites that goes all the way back to his childhood and the way his father brought him up. You meet the-old man, and you'll know exactly what I'm talking about. He set up an environment that made the Black Muslims or some other hate-white movement perfect for the kid. Some of these Black Muslims arc just tough while-haters who find it convenient to belong. It keeps 'em out of the hot sun, and a lot of 'em are making a buck off the religion, but Clay's really and truly hooked. The William Morris Agency told him he'd make a quarter of a million dollars a year in endorsements and advertising. About a week later he announced he was a Black Muslim and the William Morris deal was as dead as a duck. He hasn't made a nickel off it since. Does that sound like somebody who's faking his religion."

The idea of Cassius Clay's going to jail for draft-dodging would have brought a loud horselaugh not many years ago. "I am going to be a clean and sparkling champion." the young man from Louisville had said, and he was. No smoking. No drinking. No messing around (well, not much messing around). He was hailed as "the new while hope," of boxing by at least one enthusiastic writer. His cheerful pronouncements ('if Cassius say a mosquito can pull a plow, don't argue. Hitch him up!") brought laughs from people who had had no previous interest in boxing, and attendance climbed. Boxing had hit bottom in 1950, with total receipts down to less than $4 million. With Cassius carrying on, the sport took in $7.8 million in 1963, $18.1 million in 1964, another $8.9 million in 1965.

His antics benefited every division, and if he was a little wide in the mouth, who cared? It was all in a spirit of good humor; the public knew the kid was just building gates, and wasn't he good to his mother and father? His Buddha-shaped nun her, Odessa Grady Clay, the very prototype of the sweet, kindly southern Negro mammy, raved about him to the press: "He used to say, 'When I become champ I'm gonna buy you this and buy you that.' And he'd sit and talk for hours at a time when he was 12 years old. He was gonna get me a house and furniture and a car and travel. And he have done all those things."

Even allowing for the ex post facto mythmaking that grows up around champions, Clay seems to have called the shot on an impressive number of achievements, including his Golden Gloves championship, his Olympic gold medal and his heavyweight championship of the world. His knockout predictions ("Powell must fall in three" were usually about stiffs, but it is not easy to flatten even a stiff in an appointed round, and the forecasts added zest to his appearances.

But as he got bigger and bigger, Clay began losing his sense of proportion. He seemed to skate right to the edge of mama in his prefight scenes. He lost track of the difference between buffoonery and nastiness, and the public began to sour on him. People close to him tried to make explanations and apologies. "I'll never understand the resentment of his popping off." said Angelo Dundee, the best trainer in the fight business. "I remember when I was younger, hearing the people talk about, 'Gee, Joe Louis is a great fighter, but he can't talk,' and today, you have a fellow who talks and fights, and there's resentment. There's no figuring the public. The public is a tough customer to be satisfied."

So were the writers, especially after Clay began openly espousing the principles of Elijah Muhammad. "Clay is likely to hurt the sport badly by his ideologization of it." William F. Buckley wrote. "One can only hope that, to put it ineptly, someone will succeed in knocking some sense into Clay's head before he is done damaging the sport and the country, which, however much he now disdains it. gave him the opportunity to hate it from a throne." George Sullivan wrote: "There was fun and amiability in Cassius Clay when he began his rise to national prominence. He was a popular good-looking youngster—precisely what the stricken fight industry needed. Clay was regarded as the potential savior of the sport, but some people feel he has been more of a hangman."

When Sonny Liston remained affixed to his stool at the beginning of the seventh round in Miami Beach two years ago, Cassius Clay automatically became the best-known sports figure in the world. Europeans may never have heard of America's Koufax, and North Americans may know little about Brazil's Pelè, and neither Americans nor Europeans know about Red China's Chuang Tse-lung, but who doesn't know who the heavyweight champion is?

Clay mounted his pedestal and used all his power and glamour to become the most hated figure in sport. Long before his unfortunate remarks about "them Viet Congs," domestic and foreign reporters alike (whose accuracy and sophistication were erratic) were lambasting him—for his lack of sportsmanship, for his tasteless braggadocio, for his cruelty and his contempt of others. The "clean and sparkling champion" was now being portrayed as a clean and sparkling bum, and more than a few people were taking nervous second glances at a remark made by Clay to Louisville Sportswriter Dean Eagle. Full of himself and his glory, Cassius had said, "I am the champion who will end all boxing."

Like most matters concerning Clay, the quote was paradoxical. His life is a symphony of paradoxes, and the biggest of all is that hundreds of thousands of words have been written about him, and yet his essential character, his attitudes, the fears and forces that drive him, remain unknown. The major public relations victory of Cassius Clay's career may lie in what he has kept hidden.