The Role Model of Muhammad Ali

Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., as Muhammad Ali was once known, was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on January 17, 1942—a time when blacks were the servant class in Louisville. They held jobs such as tending the backstretch at Churchill Downs (the famous race track where the Kentucky Derby is held) and cleaning other people’s homes. In Louisville in the 1940s, the highest career goal that most black people could realistically set for their children was that they join the clergy or teach at an all-black public school. Ali’s father, Cassius Marcellus Clay Sr., supported a wife and two sons by painting billboards and signs. Ali’s mother, Odessa Grady Clay, worked on occasion as a household domestic.

“I remember one time when Cassius was small,” Mrs. Clay later recalled. “We were downtown at a five-and-ten-cents store. He wanted a drink of water, and they wouldn’t give him one because of his color. That really affected him. He didn’t like that at all, being a child and thirsty. He started crying, and I said, ‘Come on; I’ll take you someplace and get you some water.’ But it really hurt him.”

When Cassius Clay was twelve years old, his bike was stolen. That led him to take up boxing under the tutelage of a Louisville policeman named Joe Martin. Clay advanced through the amateur ranks, won a gold medal at the age of eighteen at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, and turned professional under the guidance of the Louisville Sponsoring Group, a syndicate comprised of eleven wealthy white men.

In the early stages of his professional career, Cassius Clay was more highly regarded for his charm and personality than for his ring skills. He told the world that he was “the Greatest,” but the brutal realities of boxing seemed to indicate otherwise.

Then, on February 25, 1964, at age twenty-two, Clay knocked out Charles “Sonny” Liston in one of the most stunning upsets in sports history to become heavyweight champion of the world. Two days later, he shocked the world again by...