When the great and enigmatic Muhammad Ali said he had no more use for the name Cassius Clay, the boxer explained that what he had been called until 1964 was a “slave name”.
Ali, characteristically defiant, severed ties with the name and even at times, got very aggressive with people who refused to get the memo on the name change.
Like he did to Ernie Terrell in 1967 when the boxer intentionally continued to call Ali by Ali’s former name. So Ali beat Terrell in the boxing ring for 15 rounds, all the time shouting at Terrell, “what’s my name?”
We know what Ali meant by a “slave name”. He did not feel the need to answer to a name formed out of the tradition of those who had oppressed his ancestors.
He was going to choose his own name. What’s in a name? If you are Ali, there is probably a lot in a name.
If that’s the argument, Ali could have been a bit sympathetic to Cassius Clay because the white man after whom he was named would have probably shared Ali’s frustrations about America.
Cassius Marcellus Clay, the 19th-century Kentucky politician, vehemently disagreed with slavery. Clay did not do this only in speech but also in some of the most radical actions of his time.
Born in 1810 to a wealthy southern family that owned slaves, Clay had the best upbringing American money could buy. His family was influential in the state’s politics too.
Clay’s knowledge of the praxis of politics was an accident of being a member of his family. However, his positions became clearer and more solid after attending Yale.
Before Yale, Clay had been at Transylvania University, a private Kentucky school that the likes of Clay’s family could afford.
At Yale, Clay became familiar with William Lloyd Garrison, a contemporary who was famous for his vocal opposition to slavery. Garrison’s thoughts on what America had to do for its black people were considered extreme for the time.
Garrison wanted all slaves freed. He was also one of the few Americans at the time who argued a semblance of equality between the African and the white people of America.
Most abolitionists of 19th-century America said slavery was evil but they never quite thought the Africans were their equal. When Clay met Garrison at Yale, he was convinced by Garrison’s argument.
Except Clay was a strategic incrementalist while Garrison had no time for progress in bits.
Clay wanted slaves freed too but believed that since southern society had been so dependent on free African servitude for so long, a drastic change would be met with fierce opposition from white people and the economy would probably collapse.
It has to be said that Clay’s opinion of gradual emancipation was also in the majority among most abolitionists. But even incrementalism was still not enough for the most ardent slavery defenders.
For his opposition to slavery, Clay was beaten for his seat in the House of Representatives. His life was also threatened for quite a while, so much so that he had to carry two pistols and a knife every time.
When Clay freed the slaves who had been bequeathed to him in an inheritance, the death threats against his life got worse.
But they did not stop him. He established a newspaper in Kentucky, The True American, and continued to publish anti-slavery opinions and rhetoric.
Clay moved to Cincinnatti to continue his campaign when his Kentucky office was attacked. He also gave generously to anti-slavery efforts.
In 1850, Clay gave a 10-acre property to John Fee, another abolitionist, so that Fee could build Berea College, America’s first integrated institution of higher learning in the South.
When a group of men wanted to form the Republican Party in 1954, Clay supported them. He also joined the bandwagon that wanted to make Abraham Lincoln the party’s presidential candidate in 1860 because Lincoln was anti-slavery.
But according to historian Anne Marshall, if we were to look back from now, we would have many faults to point out about Clay.
“Clay did two remarkable things: he manumitted several (but not all) of his own slaves, and he pressed charges of murder against his enslaved woman, Emily, on the accusation that she poisoned his infant son,” wrote Marshall.
What we have here is a man who was the compromise-progressive on race of his day even if he was not all black people would have wanted. Realistically, he would be a better “friend” to any Black person in the 19th-century than the majority of white people would.
Muhammad Ali would no doubt have wanted more from a white man, regardless of the politics of their time. And indeed, Ali knew about the man after whom he was named.
After all, Ali’s father was also Cassius Marcellus Clay, Sr. But Jr. was not interested.
He never answered to the name Cassius Clay after 1964 but later in his own life, Ali himself would come to appreciate the nuances of racial politics, having allowed himself to embrace the vision of Martin Luther King Jr.