(1942- ), boxer and spokesman for the Nation of Islam. The increasing militancy of African-American politics during the 1960s coincided with the transformation of Olympic gold medalist Cassius Marcellus Clay into Muhammad Ali, the most controversial and widely known of all heavyweight boxing champions. Born into a black working-class family in Louisville, Kentucky, Clay experienced the racial restrictions that fueled the civil rights protests of the late 1950s and 1960s. As a youngster, he resented being named after a white man, albeit an abolitionist. When he read news of the 1955 racial murder in Mississippi of Emmett Till, a black youngster about his age, he reacted angrily, hurling stones at an uncle sam wants you poster.
He learned to box while a teenager, and his exceptional skills quickly became evident. By 1959 he had won a national Golden Gloves championship. Following his success as a member of the 1960 U.S. Olympic boxing team, he signed a professional contract with Louisville promoters and soon became a contender for the heavyweight boxing crown. Brashly outspoken about racial issues, he also bragged about his pugilistic ability, often proclaiming, "I am the greatest." His facile rhymes and sometimes accurate knockout predictions attracted the attention of boxing fans.
As he was perfecting his boxing and promotional skills, he became affiliated with the Nation of Islam, an all-black religious group, often labeled the Black Muslims, led by Elijah Muhammad. He became close friends with the Nation's best-known spokesman, Malcolm X, but remained loyal to Elijah Muhammad after Malcolm's 1964 break with him. Recognizing that the Nation of Islam was notorious because of its advocacy of black self-defense and racial separatism, Clay kept his affiliation with the group secret until February 1964, when he defeated Sonny Liston and became heavyweight champion. He then announced his religious ties and stated that he had rejected his "slave" name in favor of the new name Muhammad Ali.
For a decade thereafter, Ali remained at the center of controversy. Many reporters and boxing officials continued to refer to him as Cassius Clay and some even demanded that his title be withdrawn. The hostility increased when he refused in 1967 to be inducted into the army, citing the fact that his religion forbade him from doing so. Government officials were unwilling to accept his claim that he was a lay Islamic minister, especially when he made clear his lack of sympathy for the war in Vietnam. "I ain't got no quarrel with the Vietcong," he explained. Although he indicated that he was simply responding to religious imperatives, Ali became a widely admired symbol of black pride and militancy because of his consistent unwillingness to back down in the face of threats from white authorities. Stripped of his title after being indicted for refusing induction, he was later convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. In June 1970, however, the Supreme Court overturned his conviction. In 1974, Ali gained further vindication when he defeated George Foreman and regained the title that had been taken from him.
Although Ali's activities in the years after 1974 were not as controversial as they had once been, he remained an internationally known public figure. After his retirement from boxing during the late 1970s, he developed Parkinson's syndrome, a condition that severely restricted his once extensive public-speaking activities.
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