Racial Inequalities of 1940s, 50s, and 60s
Louisville in the 1940s, 50s and 60s was like most American cities: it was city of racial segregation. The West side of Louisville was the designated zone for African-Americans to reside, regardless of occupation. These “colored communities” supported every class of African-American, from doctors and lawyers to artisans such as Cassius Clay Sr. Of the cities various parks, only Chickasaw Park was open for African-Americans to visit. Additionally, Fontaine Ferry, a local amusement park, was restricted to all African-Americans. Often times, young children would stand at the gates looking in (they were refused access due to the color of their skin) with disappointment and despair, while whites were free to frolic unrestricted. Many restaurants and businesses were restricted to African-Americans as well.
It was in this social atmosphere that Ali was raised. Being instructed by society that he was a second-class citizen, Ali quickly realized there were great injustices being committed. These early experiences had a tremendous influence on Ali’s life; and it is with these hardships in mind that we can gain a better understanding of Ali’s controversial journey, including his decision to become an ardent member of the Nation of Islam.
The Clay Family
Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr.)
Muhammad Ali, born January 17th, 1942 as Cassius Clay Jr., was the three-time Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World. Ali started boxing in 1953 at the age of twelve after his red Schwinn bicycle was stolen. In attempting to find his bicycle, Ali met police office and boxing trainer, Joe Martin, who told Ali he needed to learn how to defend himself if he was going to confront the thief to try to get his bicycle back. It was at this time that Ali began what would become his life’s work – training with Joe Martin and Fred Stoner, eventually winning six Kentucky Golden Gloves championships and then the Gold Medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics.
Following his first victory over then boxing champion, Sonny Liston, Ali announced his name no longer would be Cassius Clay, but rather, Cassius X – as the name ‘Clay’ was an inheritance of his family’s history with American slavery. Elijah Muhammad, the Head Minister for the Nation of Islam, would then bequeath the name “Muhammad Ali” onto the shoulders of the young Heavy Weight Champion. (Ali’s brother, Rudolph, was similarly bequeathed the name Rahaman Ali.)
In 1967, Muhammad Ali refused induction into the United States draft (during the Vietnam War era) as a conscientious objector, in line with his religious beliefs. Not only did Ali disagree with the violence of war, but was also opposed to fighting for a nation that had treated African-Americans as second-class citizens. As a result to refusing the draft, Ali was stripped of his boxing license, lost his Heavyweight Championship title, and was confined to legal battles against the United States government for the next three years. The Supreme Court overturned the initial ruling against Ali in 1971, clearing Ali of all former draft evasion charges.
Ali would go on to win the Heavyweight Championship belt two more times in his career: in 1974 against George Foreman in Zaire, Africa and again in 1978 against Leon Spinks. Soon after, in 1984, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome. Once retired from boxing, Ali turned his full-time efforts toward humanitarian work. In 1998 Ali was appointed a UN Messenger of Peace for his advocacy in supporting people of developing countries around the world.
Rahaman Ali (then Rudolph Arnett Clay)
Rahaman Ali, born on July 18th, 1943 as Rudolph Clay, is the younger brother to Muhammad Ali. In his youth a great boxer in his own right, Rahaman won several Kentucky Golden Glove Championships. Rahaman and Muhammad were best friends as children. They shared a bedroom and Muhammad would often express his early dreams of becoming the Heavyweight Champion of the World to Rahaman while the two eyed each other in bed trying to fall asleep. As a pro boxer, Rahaman, also a heavyweight contender, fought on the undercard of many of Muhammad’s biggest fights and, in addition, served as Ali’s most prolific sparing partner throughout his career.
To this day a resident of Louisville, Rahaman is a frequent visitor at The Muhammad Ali Childhood Home Museum. Always seen with a smile on his face, Rahaman is proud to be the younger brother to Muhammad Ali.
Cassius Clay Sr.
Cassius Clay Sr., Muhammad’s father, was a locally renowned commercial sign-artist during Ali’s youth. Cassius Sr. painted murals in numerous churches and buildings across the city of Louisville, several of which can still be seen today. The young Ali would often ask his father why the skin of Jesus was white in all of his paintings – this being an early identifier to the insights Ali had about racial inequality while a youngster.
In addition to painting murals, Clay was a gifted landscape and portrait artist. Two exact replicas of his paintings are on display within The Muhammad Ali Childhood Home Museum.
Odessa Clay, Muhammad’s mother, has been credited with being the greatest influence of all on Muhammad Ali’s humanitarian spirit. A church-going Christian, Odessa instilled great moral character in both of her children. It was undoubtedly this influence that allowed Ali to later find peace while living with Parkinson’s disease.
Always cooking, Odessa ensured that neither of her children went hungry, especially as their appetites grew during intense training and competition as Golden Glove Champions.
Supporters of The Museum
Lonnie Ali first met Muhammad in 1963. After Ali turned pro with the Louisville Sponsoring Group, he and the Clay family moved from their 3302 Grand Ave. home to the block of Verona Way, the same block on which Lonnie’s family had resided. At the time, Lonnie was still in school, but she and Muhammad quickly formed an endearing friendship, which later grew into a marriage. Lonnie was Muhammad’s greatest advocate, and together they traveled on Humanitarian missions throughout the world and advocated for advancements in the research to cure Parkinson’s disease.
Gordon Davidson, Esquire
Gordon Davidson, a Louisville native, was the lawyer for the Louisville Sponsoring Group – the group of ten business leaders who, seeing promise in Ali’s career after his victory at the 1960 Rome Olympics, took him pro. While Ali was under contract with the Sponsoring Group, Davidson accompanied Ali to every fight, including the night Ali defeated Sonny Liston and became the Heavyweight Champion of the World. Davidson, who was a life long supporter of Ali’s career and legacy, passed away in 2015. Shortly before his death, Davidson gave a detailed and inspirational on-camera interview to Museum Curator, Evan J. Bochetto, which can be viewed upon a tour at the Museum.