Who Was The Real Cassius Clay?

Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed The World by David Maraniss is an excellent read that provides a rare glimpse into the 1960 Summer Olympics and the spy vs. spy mentality so prevalent in that era of cold-war diplomacy.

Set in Rome, just 15 years removed from World War II and the fascist regime of Mussolini, these Games really did represent a fulcrum point in so many ways — in civil rights, women’s athletics, doping scandals, and world politics. The rivalry between the United States and Russia was fevered, on and off the playing fields in Rome.

Cassius Clay, center, at the Gold Medal ceremony, 1960 Oylmpics, Rome.

The stars of those Olympics were Abebe Bikila, the bare-footed marathon runner from Ethiopia, and three Americans — decathlete and flag-bearer Rafer Johnson, sprinter Wilma Rudolph and an 18-year-old light-heavyweight boxer from Louisville known as Cassius Clay.

Clay, who was on his way to becoming Muhammad Ali, the greatest, the heavyweight champion of the world. But as a young black man from Kentucky he won Olympic gold by beating Poland’s Zbigniew Piertzykowski in three rounds.

On the flight back home from Rome, Ali wrote a simple rhyme, later to become a trademark of this boxing poet. It began:

To make America the greatest is my goal,
So I beat the Russian and I beat the Pole.

Ali was named the third greatest athlete of the 20th Century according to ESPN, behind only Michael Jordan and Babe Ruth. Many feel that Ali is the most recognized man, or at least the most recognizable athlete, of the 20th Century.

The Great Emancipationist
But who was the real Cassius Clay?

Cassius Marcellus Clay, nicknamed “The Lion of White Hall” 1810 –1903) was an emancipationist from Madison County, Kentucky, and a second cousin of famous politician Henry Clay.

The wealthy Southerner became a prominent anti-slavery crusader in the 1830s and 1840s. He worked toward emancipation, both as a Kentucky state representative and as an early member of the Republican Party.

In the late 1830s and early 1840s, Clay served three terms in the Kentucky General Assembly, but he lost support among Kentucky voters as his platform became more focused on ending slavery. In 1845, he began publishing an anti-slavery newspaper called the True American in Lexington, Kentucky.

Within a month he received death threats and was forced to barricade the doors of his newspaper office for protection. Shortly thereafter, a mob of about 60 broke into his office and seized his printing equipment. Clay later continued publication in Cincinnati.

His connections to the northern anti-slavery movement remained strong, and Clay was among the founders of the Republican party and a friend of Abraham Lincoln, whom he also supported for the Presidency.

In 1861, Lincoln named Clay Minister to Russia, where he witnessed the Czar’s emancipation edict. After being recalled to the United States to accept a commission as Union major general from Lincoln, he publicly refused to accept the commission unless Lincoln would sign an emancipation proclamation.  Although it is unclear how significant Clay was in Lincoln’s decision, following Clay’s return Lincoln issued the proclamation.

In Clay’s later years he became burdened by debt, increasingly eccentric and paranoid. He died in 1903 at the age of 92.

Muhammad Ali’s father, Cassius Marcellus Clay, Sr., was named for the emancipationist and passed the name along to his son.

And so it goes.

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