On Jan. 17, 1942, Cassius Clay was born in Louisville, Ken. Clay would go on to have an incredible career in the brutal sport of boxing, but his position as one of the greatest Americans of the 20th century extends far beyond his 56-5 record in the ring.
Cassius Clay symbolizes the struggle of African-Americans in the United States, that much is obvious. But Cassius Clay - aka Muhammad Ali - also symbolizes the true triumph of the United States in the Cold War. The young republic did not defeat a foreign enemy so much as it, through the lens of Muhammad Ali’s life, defeated the racism that had characterized much of the world prior to the end of World War II.
Born into Kentucky’s Upper South society, Cassius Clay grew up in a segregated society that had two sets of laws, one for first-class citizens and one for second-class citizens. In that America, class citizenship was determined by skin color rather than by, say, religion or income or family land-holding status. At the age of 12, he took up boxing to help keep him out of trouble and 10 years later he was the world champion of his sport.
That was in 1964, a time of great racial strife in the United States.
It was also the heyday of the Cold War, a nearly 50-year struggle for power between the liberal-capitalist United States and the socialist Soviet Union. The struggle was real (as the kids say today). The United States and its allies were losing, too, at least in the realm of ideas. The Soviet Union was funding groups that would today be considered progressive -- anti-racist and anti-capitalist -- around the world. One of the sticks that Moscow used to beat the West with was racism in the United States, especially in the officially segregated South.
It is doubtful that most of the African-American groups who took part in the struggle for liberty were funded, or even indirectly influenced by Soviet propaganda. The clear, powerful contrast between black and white in the United States was enough for most African-Americans to take part in the Civil Rights revolution. Yet Soviet propaganda still pestered Washington, and Moscow wasn’t wrong. The American diplomatic corps, which lives in a different world than most American citizens, was sensitive to the fact that the South was explicitly racist and, if anything, Moscow’s propaganda regarding American racism helped turn the tide in favor of reform in the place that needed it most: the seat of the federal government.
With Washington’s help, African-Americans got their political liberties back after century-long hiatus (black Americans got their political liberties after the Civil War but those liberties were slowly rolled back as Washington tuned its focus elsewhere).
It would be inaccurate to portray Washington as the leading actor for reform, though. The federal government helped, but it was people who stepped up to make the change actually happen. One of those remarkable human beings was Cassius Clay. After he won the world boxing title in 1964, Clay announced publicly that he had changed his name to Muhammad Ali and that he was a member of the Nation of Islam. Cassius Clay was Ali’s “slave name” and it would no longer apply to the heavyweight boxing champion of the world. This announcement rocked the white establishment and helped bring the fight that African-Americans were fighting to the rest of the world.
Just imagine: a black American from Louisville’s segregated slums changing the world with his talents and his God-given ability to think for himself. How American!
Standing up for justice had its drawbacks, too. It always does. The name change and the alliance with the Nation of Islam put Muhammad Ali in the crosshairs of factions that earnestly believed that racial segregation was good for the republic. When Ali refused to go to war in Vietnam, he was stripped of his title and sentenced to five years in prison (though he never saw the inside of a prison cell). Ali publicly, candidly spoke about the hypocrisy of not only the draft, but the war itself.
"Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights," he asked.
Ali’s stance against the Vietnam War cost him his world titles, and he was robbed of the prime years of his athletic life (25-29). Because he refused to join the armed forces, no state would grant him a boxing license and he was stripped of his passport.
That didn’t stop him from speaking out against the war and against the racist policies of governments throughout the republic. In 1971, Ali was allowed to return to boxing and he fought Joe Frazier in the first of three legendary matches.
Muhammad Ali took the sport of boxing and, by extension, the struggles of black Americans global, fighting title bouts in Manila and Kinshasa. Although the Civil Rights Act passed through the federal government’s entire system of checks and balances, racism lingered and Ali’s mere name bore testament to the long road ahead for the African-American community.
As a libertarian it is hard for me to acknowledge the positive role that the federal government and the socialist Soviet Union played in helping African-Americans achieve more liberty, but I cannot argue with facts. It is also worth pointing out that competition makes everybody better. Without a Soviet Union pointing out that black Americans were treated poorly in the capitalist United States, it is difficult to imagine political or economic progress for blacks in the republic. After all, it’s hard to find any examples of a society where long-oppressed minorities like African-Americans have so many opportunities and so much to live for, even taking into account some of the perceived negatives they live with, and less extreme segregation.
That the United States of America has been able to achieve a modicum of racial progress is a testament to the greatness that can be achieved by self-governance in the goal of liberty. Muhammad Ali, who eventually dumped the Nation of Islam and embraced Sunni Islam, is indeed a lesson in greatness, and not just in the realm of sport. Muhammad Ali took advantage of the little freedom he had, and dared to make everybody around him a little freer, too. That makes him one of the 20th century’s greatest Americans.