Muhammad Ali as a Global Hero in the Sixties:

Social Construction of Race and Symbolism of Black Prizefighters

Yasumasa Fujinaga

Because billion of our people in Africa, Arabia, and Asia love you blindly. . .  [Y]ou must now be forever aware of your tremendous responsibilities to them.  You must never say or do anything that will permit your enemies to distort the beautiful image you have here among our people.

In a letter to Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, 1965 [1]

The words printed in the front cover are a part of the letter that Malcolm X sent to Muhammad Ali when they met in Accra, the capital of Ghana where President Kwame Nkrumah, a leading Pan-Africanist, welcomed them as official guests for the newly independent state.  All biographers of Ali mentioned the influences of Malcolm X upon the young heavyweight boxer.  But contemporary sportswriters and social critics invariably called the Nation of Islam (NOI) the "Black Muslims" and regarded this organization as a hate group.  One of them went so far as to allude that the "Black Muslims" seduced the innocent young prizefighter into their sect in order to plunder his money.

However, the NOI was and is not categorically characterized as a hate group: It has had positive sides in its own ways, and indeed it gave an indispensable moral support to Ali when he stood against induction into the Unites States Army.

If you read only a few pages of Alifs biographies published in 1960s and 1970s, you cannot but notice that the biographers had a strong tendency to see races as immutable categories.  In other words, most stories of Ali had been written in "essentialist" perspective.  It is now a common understanding that race is a socially constructed reality and as such its meanings are contingent upon times and places.  The purpose of this presentation is not to criticize earlier biographies from present vantage point but to demonstrate how meanings of black prizefighters were constructed.  The career of Muhammad Ali will serve as one of the best examples to see changing meanings of race, which were closely related to the sociopolitical movements of global scale.

Recently, many critics noted that the last torchbearer of Atlanta Olympic was not a Muhammad Ali, for Ali was not a symbol of black capitalism but of a black insurgency.  In addition, professional boxing as a business enterprise underwent drastic transformation during the 1970s.  Thus, discussing his significance in its entirety requires much longer time than permitted, I would like to focus upon the early 1960s when Ali first provoked the heated discussion and had remained in its center.

Prizefighting and Race before the Advent of Clay

In 1743, rules for boxing were first codified in England.  Earlier professional boxers were plebian, performing at the behest of wealthy elites.  Early boxing was a kind of gamble game and elites were betting considerable money in the outcome of fights: From this financial arrangement derived the name of prizefighter.

The oft-repeated cliche about race in sports is that sports have offered black people opportunities denied them in other spheres.  Although it is important to note for the later discussion that the other spheres closely shut the door to blacks and that, more important, boxing rings were encased with such spheres, one cannot easily dismiss that it is only a myth.  For example, Nelson Mandela, who was a ranking professional heavyweight, said:

Boxing is egalitarian.  In the ring, rank, age, colour and wealth are irrelevant.  When you are circling your opponent, probing his strength and weakness, you are not thinking about his colour or social status.

In 1908, inside this egalitarian sphere, an African American named Jack Johnson became the first "colored" heavyweight champion in Sydney.  As the place of this title bout suggests, the professional boxing was one of the sports that acquired global constituencies even in the earliest development of commercialized spectator sports.  Significantly, growth of its popularity coincided with the territorial expansion of British Empire, thus covering what Paul Gilroy called "Black Atlantic."

In the wake of Johnson's victory, the black communities all over the world celebrated his feat, whereas the white communities considered the fact something that was threatening to the hegemonic ideology of white supremacy. [2]   Then novelist Jack London asked when a "Great White Hope" would emerge to "reclaim" the title, and partly responding to this call, ex-champion, Jim Jeffries, who had previously refused to fight black prizefighters, came out of the retirement in order to "punish" the black champion.

Thus, the first defense of the black champion became burdened with racial connotations and drew unprecedented public attention, in the U.S. and abroad.  In the meantime, Johnsonfs character and behavior provoked anger of the American public, including black leaders such as Booker T. Washington.  Johnson openly flouted racial conventions, marrying two white women in succession and publicly consorting with others at a time when blacks were frequently lynched just for the suspicion of touching a white woman.  Not surprisingly, the New York Times editorialized that "If the black man wins . . .  thousands of his ignorant brothers will misinterpret his victory as justifying claims to much more than mere physical equality with their white neighbors."  But Johnson successfully defended his title: He "punished" Jeffries

Immediately after the Jeffries's defeat, angry white mobs in several cities lashed out at blacks.  White anger against Johnson was so great that Congress passed a law banning the fight film from interstate commerce to prevent people (especially blacks) from seeing his victory.  (This way of censorship would become obsolete in the 1960s when telecommunication technologies made it possible to transmit images of fights through direct broadcasting by satellite).  Federal authorities also tried to jail him on trumped up charges of violating the Mann Act, which forbid the transportation of women across state lines for "illicit purposes."  Johnson was convicted but fled the country.

Unfortunately, Johnson's victory coincided with the heyday of colonial powers.  In other words, colonial ideology dictated Johnsonfs downfall once he stepped out of the egalitarian sphere of boxing ring.  However, in the different time and place, the fight between the men of different colors could have radically different meanings.  The best example of this case is a career of another pioneering black prizefighter dubbed "Brown Bomber," Joe Louis.

Joe Louis became the second black heavyweight champion in 1937.  It took almost three decades for a black prizefighter to get the opportunity to have a title match.  In the meantime, Louisfs trainers and managers patiently trained him as a title hopeful and their "training" included racial "etiquette"; one of their lessons was to say nothing other than boxing in order to avoid the situation under which he was forced say something about race. 

Thus, whereas Jack Johnson had never hesitated to express himself, Louis was noted for reticence.  It was such a black champion that fought against the white contender in 1938.  This time, the challenger, Max Schmeling was a German, and what Louis faced in the ring was the embodiment of the racism in its extreme, Herrenvolk ideology of Nazi Germany.  Thus the match became a kind of proxy war between Nazism and liberal democracy, and it was not only liberals such as Eleanor Roosevelt but also the Communist Party USA that sided with the black champion.  When Louis easily demolished Schmeling at the first round, he was hailed as a national hero.

Thus by the time of Clay's debut in the ring, there were two opposing stereotypes of black prizefighter; one was an assertive and aggressive fighter, the other humble fighter ever mindful of the words of trainers and managers, or his "superiors."  This dichotomy of the images was very similar to that of minstrelsy, "Jim Crow" and "Sambo."

Cassius Clay Turnover

Robert Lipsyte, a white sportswriter of the New York Times, had once described Ali as follows:

Muhammad Ali is a wise man and a fool, a person of principle and a greedy huckster, generous, miserly, smart, silly, kind, cruel spirit of our times who has described himself both as "the king of all kings" and as "just another nigger trying to be bigger."

Clay's verbal dexterity surprised even one of the best poets of the era, LeRoy Jones (Amiri Baraka).  A black prizefighter with this ability and the changing sociopolitical situation brought confusion to both inside and outside of the ring.  This confusion is most evident in two successive title bouts: One is Champion Sonny Liston versus Challenger Cassius Clay, the other Champion Muhammad Ali versus Challenger Floyd Patterson.  All that we can conclusively glean from what Lipsyte said is that he could not find any fitting word for Clay/ Ali.  Clay/ Ali had always been upsetting racial stereotypes, and as a result succeeded in constructing an image of his own.

Between these fights Clay discarded his Christian name.  Nowadays it is not uncommon among African Americans to give their children the name of Arabic or Swahili origins, but, in the early 1960s, American public thought Clayfs behavior "fanatic" and/ or "un-American." [3]   But exactly around the time Clay changed his name, the mood in black communities were also changing.  Lerone Bennett, Jr., an African American political critic, observed that what African Americans were trying to do "is to wrest the Negro image from white control" and in so doing, they were "beginning to re-define" themselves and "taking a more objective stance toward America."  Significantly, I would submit, such a mood was not limited to the area inside the American border.  The emerging political force of the "Third World" was also struggling to be free from colonial or white control, and some African American activists, most notably those in the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Black Panther Party for Self-defense of Oakland, California (BPP), would soon join this force.  In this context, it seems that Ali was a reflection of the era, but before concluding so, we must take closer look at the steps that Clay/ Ali had taken.

Sonny Liston versus Cassius Clay

When Clay got the gold medal in the 1960 Olympic games at Rome, he was a sort of clean-cut All-American hero (Please look at the picture of his in the last page of this handout).  Asked about race-relations in America by a Soviet reporter, he answered, "Tell your readers we've got qualified people working on that problem, and I'm not worried about the outcome. To me, the U.S.A. is still the best county in the world, counting yours.  It may be hard to get something to eat sometimes, but anyhow I ain't fighting alligators and living in a mud hut. (italics in original)"  What he said was hardly "un-American," and, to the surprise of those who saw Alifs marvelous performances in the legendary title match held in Zaire (The Democratic Republic of Congo) in which he would orchestrate the war cry of the Congolese "Ali Bombaye! (Ali kill him!)," he did not even try to hide scornful attitude toward Africa.  In 1960, he was an ordinary American patriot.

Consequently, Clay became a favorite of his hometownfs white business establishments, who soon incorporated the sports management firm for him.  After turning to pro, he became famous for his talk and got the appellation, "Big-mouthed Black Braggart."  However, it is wrong to assume that his articulate character was fitted into one of the stereotypes of black prizefighter, that of Jack Johnson.  Listening to the record, which was distributed by major record label, Columbia, it is very had to tell whether Clay invoked audiencesf laughers or he was laughed at.  "Big-mouthed Black Braggart" was a hero a la Stagger Lee -- an equivalent of Paul Bunyan in the African American folktale-- a quintessential American product.

In February, 1963, Clay's picture appeared on the cover of Time magazine, another uncommon event in those days for an African American who had just entered the professional rank.  He was counted as a champion hopeful because he was a favorite of the white public.  On the contrary, the champion Clay would face in the ring, Sonny Liston, was hated not only by the white public but also by "respectable" black people, because he was an ex-convict and allegedly had a relationship with organized crime.  Thus set the tone of buildup of title bout: Affable boxer appeared to wrest the title from the figure of dark underworld.  Importantly, the press racialized the coming title match: A sportswriter called Clay a "White Hope"

But this drumbeat soon began to ring hollow by the symbolic power of a charismatic minister of the NOI.  Malcolm X frequented Clay's camp and sportswriters began to suspect that Clay might be a member of "Black Muslims."  This precipitated the transformation of racial meanings of the fight.  Harold Conrad, a white publicist of the fight, "colorfully" described the situation:

The whole sales pitch for the fight had been Clay against Liston, white hat against black hat, and now it looked like therefd be two black hats fighting.

A "White Hope" turned out to be "blacker than Liston."  Apparently races had nothing to do with the actual color of the skin.  In this case, they were determined by the attitude and association.

In the title match, the champion failed to come forward in the seventh round.  During the upheavals of the upset outcome, Clay shouted twenty four times that "Ifm the greatest, Ifm the champion of the world" with the strong emphasis on the term the "world."  He was clearly aware of global implication of the title, for Malcolm X had helped him to realize the symbolic power of the ring.  Malcolm told him the night before the fight:

This fight is the truth . . . It is the Cross and the Crescent fighting in a prize ring -- for the fist time.  It's a modern crusade -- a Christian and a Muslim facing each other with television to beam it off by Telster for the whole world to see what happens.

The day after the fight Clay publicly announced that he was a member of the NOI. Surrounded by hostile reporters and flanked by Malcolm X, he explained that "Islam is a religion and there are seven hundred and fifty million people all over the world who believe in it, and I am one of them."  Therefore it is pointed out that Islam played a very important part in Clayfs understanding that he was a member of transnational community, and this awareness prompted him to issue a ringing declaration of independence from white America:

I know where I'm going and I know the truth and I don't have to be what you want me to be.  I' m free to be who [sic] I want.

A month later, a reporter from Turkey told Ali, "You are beloved in my country.  On the streets of Istanbul children wear pictures of you on their shirts and cry, eIfm the Greatest."  Ali in the USA and the children in Istanbul were the members of same community.

This phenomenon had happened partly on account of the advancement of the telecommunication technology: Telstar that Malcolm had intuitively referred to.  This broadcasting satellite was the media which disseminated the image of Ali:  It transmitted the fighters' casual behaviors as well as the fight itself all over the world.  Two years later, when he fought in London, his supporters were made up of not only black people from former British colonies of Africa and Caribbean but also the believers of Islam from South Asia, North Africa and the Middle East.  Considering the ever-mounting hostilities toward Ali after his conversion, he was a harbinger of the postcolonial identity rather than a mere reflection of the era.

Muhammad Ali versus Floyd Patterson

Ali himself was clearly aware what his new name meant when he said that "Cassius Clay the Clown" became "Muhammad Ali the Wise Man."  In other words, Muhammad Ali was a sign of refusal to act under the shadow of minstrelsy.  Predictably, facing the birth of such an independent-minded black prizefighter, "the autonomous Negro" in Eldridge Cleaver's terminology, American public began to wait the advent of a "White Hope," and strangely this "White Hope" was, again, black prizefighter; ex-champion Floyd Patterson.  A sportswriter illustrated that Patterson "was the knight in shining armor chosen to slay the Black Muslim dragon."  This means that the seemingly apocalyptic teaching of Malcolm X was by no means a far-fetched imagination of "fanatic black supremacist": It was a shared image.

Patterson on his part announced that he would "give the title back to America" as though championship belonged to the non-American. [4]   Before a reporter of Sports Illustrated, he declared:

The image of a Black Muslim as the world heavyweight champion disgraces the sport and the nation.  Cassius Clay must be beaten and the Black Muslims' scrooge removed from boxing. (italics added)

To these challenges, Ali flatly retorted that "Ifm not no American [sic], Ifm a black man."  Here, the identities of prizefighters had nothing to do with the racial categories they belonged to.  Socially and politically designated meanings were much more important in determining the identities.

Moreover, while Patterson thought that the NOI was a national disgrace, Ali came to think that the black identity and the national identity were different idea and that to him the black identity was more important than the national identity.  At the very least, he began to take an "objective stance toward America."

This thought of Ali was undoubtedly nurtured by the teachings of the NOI, not by the amorphous mood of the black community.  Elijah Muhammad had never called African Americans black race; rather, he called them a black nation.  On the other hand, he racialized Euro-Americans by always adding the terms race after the white.  This line of thought fits into the African American intellectual traditions which were pointed out by Barbara Fields:  "Afro-Americans invented themselves, not as a race, but as a nation."  Therefore when Ali said, "Ifm a black man," it meant that he was a member of an imagined black nation which had no territory. (The title match between them was often called a "mismatch" because Ali easily excelled the aged ex-champion, but, in order to "punish" Patterson, he intentionally prolonged fight until the referee announced TKO). 

"Black" and "Islam" are indeed the key words for the understanding of Clay/ Ali but these words have, by definition, nothing to do with the national boundaries.  It was these concepts that made it possible for him to transcend the identity defined by the borders of the nation-state.  Thus he became a global hero of the roaring Sixites.


Interestingly enough, Muhammad Ali in the late 1960s and early 1970s seems to have taken after the steps of Jack Johnson.  Department of Justice persecuted him because he intentionally violated the Selective Service Act.  Around the time when his trial began, the most famous Black Powerite of the era, Stokely Camichael (Kuwame Turé) wrote:

Those who would assume the responsibility of representing black people in this country must be able to throw off the notion that they can effectively do so and still maintain a maximum amount of security.  Jobs will have to be sacrificed, positions of prestige and status given up, favors forfeited.  It may well be . . . . that leadership and security are basically incompatible. (italics in original)

Arguably, this seems to be an apt description of the role Ali played in the Freedom Movement.  The World Boxing Association stripped him of the precious title and the State Athletic Commissions all over the USA suspended his boxing license, both without due process.  Ali, who has heretofore often ignored in most academic accounts of the Movement, was in fact a historical agency par excellence, for he had reflected as well as shaped the sociopolitical currents of the time.

This fact become all the more clear if we compare with another African American athletic genius of the 20th century, Michael Jordan.  In 1992, the members of the Congressional Black Caucasus asked him to support a Democratic candidate for the Senate in his home state, North Carolina: The candidate was challenging the Republican arch-conservative Jesse Helmes.  At around the same time, student activists of the anti-sweatshop campaign approached him in order to get his support to their cause because he was a symbol of the multinational corporation that was notorious for the fact that it had numerous sweatshops in developing countries, Nike.  In both cases, his answers were "No."

Invoking the image of Ali, the Congresspersons and student activists deplored noncommittal attitude of Jordan.  But before judging him, a historian should take sociopolitical situations into consideration.   Ali and Jordan were situated in radically different times and places.  Although the soul song devoted to Ali, entitled "The Greatest Love of All," says "Lonely place to be, so I learn to depend on me," he was far from "lonely" but had always had enormous constituencies, constituencies born out of his religious faith, of racial affinity, and of political attitude.  However, Jordan could not act as Ali did because his constituencies were product not of his attitudes but of his athletic performances, and because sociopolitical movements that had burgeoned in the 1960s and early 1970s almost completely disappeared from American political scene.  More important, one cannot find in this world the monolithic sociopolitical force called "the Third Word."

After the protest against the WTO convention in Seattle in 1999, some expect the rise of student activism.  Indeed it was recently reported that students of Harvard occupied the presidentfs room in order to force the administration to pay the living wage to workers under the richest universityfs contracts.  We cannot predict the future as Ali used to do about the round in which his opponents would fall.  The roles racial symbols will play in the new millennium are yet to see.


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Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) and Charles V. Hamilton, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation (New York: Vintage, 1967).

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[1] Surprisingly, all of major newspapers and magazines, including black newspapers such as Chicago Defender and Pittsburgh Courier, continued to call Muhammad Ali Cassius Clay in the 1960s, and Malcolm also addressed this letter to Cassius Clay.  The name of Muhammad Ali was bestowed upon him shortly after Elijah Muhammad, supreme leader of the NOI, excommunicated Malcolm X.  This letter was sent to him during the critical time when Elijah and Malcolm were engaged in severe power struggle.  Knowing that his defection from the NOI left the organization without any popular figure, Malcolm perceived renaming of Cassius Clay by Elijah as "political" because he thought that it was an effort to retain the world-famous champion inside his circle.  Thus Malcolm refused to call the young heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali although he did not hesitate to acknowledge the championfs newly attained identity as Muslim, and Cassius Clay, on his part, briefly take the name of "Cassius X." In fact, it was approximately two weeks later that Ali publicly announced that he would not side with Malcolm, and what happened to their friendship is still unclear.  I am using the name Cassius Clay when I am talking about the time before he became Muhammad Ali because of historical accuracy; no disrespect to Muhammad Ali is intended by the use of his former name.

[2] Basic tenet of the white supremacy at that time was that whites were physically as well as intellectually superior to "colored" people.  Blacks were considered so coward that they could not strike back.

[3] NOI had been put under the surveillance of the FBI and the House Un-American Activities Committee tried to summon Elijah Muhammad.

[4] Patterson was very active in the civil rights movement, and actually participated in the massive demonstration in Birmingham, Alabama.  And as a Roman Catholic, he was a close friend of Kennedys.  So he was a "respectable" black celebrity or "the best and brightest of the blacks."