Muhammad Ali—the three-time heavyweight-boxing champion, the incredible humanitarian, the inspiration for the activism of athletes all over the nation—passed away on Friday, June 3, and the world is in mourning.
For many people, Ali was more icon than athlete. Like Jim Brown or John Carlos, he was someone who inspired African Americans and Muslims to fight oppression, move beyond the comfort of success and speak out against injustice no matter the cost or inconvenience. Between the Will Smith-led biopic and various tributes over the years, most Americans know that Ali spoke out against the Vietnam War, converted to the Nation of Islam and was a global humanitarian. However, there are lots of facts about his life that haven’t been picked up by the mainstream press.
Here are the top three political facts you didn’t know about Muhammad Ali.
The man we know and mourn as Muhammad Ali was given the name Cassius Clay at birth to honor the white abolitionist and anti-slavery activist Cassius Marcellus Clay. While Ali was beaten in the ring and shunned in public for his politics, Cassius Marcellus Clay was beaten, stabbed and shot several times for his anti-slavery activism. Demonstrating his newfound conversion to the Nation of Islam and friendship with Malcolm X in February of 1964, Cassius Clay announced that he was revoking his “slave” surname and dubbed himself “Cassius X.” However, his “X” phase lasted about as long as “the Artist Formerly Known as,” because within months he was given a new name that we all know today.
After Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam, Cassius X wanted a new name to demonstrate his deepening commitment to the faith and his choice to follow the Honorable Elijah Muhammad rather than Malcolm X. In March of 1964, “Cassius X” became “Muhammad Ali,” a name that brought with it scorn from white newspapers, praise from the Muslim world and confusion on the part of many African Americans. The New York Times, as an official policy, refused to refer to the heavyweight champion as Muhammad Ali and continued to refer to him as “Cassius Clay” in print until about 1970.
Imagine today if ESPN or even TMZ decided to write “Bruce” instead of “Kaitlyn” Jenner in every headline as an official company policy. But it was a different time, and Ali’s singular act of blackness in choosing a name of both religious and African-American strength was too much for media to bear back in the ’60s.
It would be great to imagine Muhammad Ali jumping out of an airplane, sneaking into Baghdad and punching Saddam Hussein in the face to save some hostages like in a Naked Gun sketch, but his actual rescue was no less surprising or heroic. In the 1980s and ’90s, black activists were all the rage when it came to negotiating with “dictators” abroad. Dating back to the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s negotiations with Iran, Middle Eastern leaders loved the idea of thumbing their noses at America by empowering a representative of oppressed people to accomplish something that the mighty American government could not do.
In 1990, after Hussein invaded Kuwait, he took 15 very public hostages as a human shield against what he thought would be an inevitable United States invasion. Against the wishes (and public attacks) of the George H.W. Bush administration, Muhammad Ali flew into Iraq in an attempt to free the hostages. Hussein made Ali wait a week before even meeting with him, but eventually the leader spoke to the humanitarian boxer and allowed him to bring the 15 hostages home—not because Hussein was such a big boxing fan, but because he respected that Ali had spoken out against the oppression and hypocrisies of the American government in the 1960s. That, and the fact that Ali was a steadfast proud, practicing Muslim. The entire negotiations and rescues were a part of a 30 for 30 special on ESPN.
While Tom Brady was kissing Donald Trump’s butt and many athletes were ignoring or kissing up to the GOP candidate’s grotesquely racist antics, Ali wasn’t having any of it. In perhaps his last fight and greatest knockout, he called Trump out for being the liar and the racist that he is. Soon after Trump proposed his “ban” on Muslims coming to America, Ali same out with a 132-word statement:
I am a Muslim and there is nothing Islamic about killing innocent people in Paris, San Bernardino, or anywhere else in the world. True Muslims know that the ruthless violence of so-called Islamic jihadists goes against the very tenets of our religion.
We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda. They have alienated many from learning about Islam. True Muslims know or should know that it goes against our religion to try and force Islam on anybody.
Speaking as someone who has never been accused of political correctness, I believe that our political leaders should use their position to bring understanding about the religion of Islam and clarify that these misguided murderers have perverted people's views on what Islam really is.
Ali proved that even at the end of his life, he could still land a punch. Sometimes better than anybody else in the field.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.