6 March 1964: Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali
We all know Muhammad Ali, of course. He’s easily history’s most famous boxer. Born in 1942, Ali was just 18 years old when he won a gold medal in the 1960 Summer Olympics.
At the time, the civil rights movement was gaining traction, and the political and religious organisation the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X were becoming emblematic of the fight to end racial segregation.
Ali tried to join the Nation of Islam in 1961. The organisation originally refused him, questioning whether a boxer would fit the highly disciplined lifestyle expected of its members. When Ali became heavyweight champion, the Nation of Islam changed its position.
The Nation of Islam required all its members to change any names they’d inherited from slave-owners who had possessed their ancestors. For Ali, the name Cassius Clay was a name associated with the slave trade, even though he was named after his father who was named after Cassius Marcellus Clay, a 19th century abolitionist.
First, Ali changed his name to Cassius X, using the system that many members of the Nation of Islam had adopted, including its most famous member Malcolm X. He then went further and officially changed his name to Muhammad Ali.
Ali regarded his old name as “a slave name” and of the man he was named after that “he may have gotten rid of his slaves, but (he) held on to white supremacy.” Despite his position as an abolitionist, Cassius Marcellus Clay had owned many slaves.
Alongside Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, in the UK the West Indies civil rights activist Michael de Freitas also changed his name to Michael X.