Source: Associated Press
CHICAGO (AP) — As a young boxer, Muhammad Ali searched for a faith to guide him as he confronted the indignities of racial discrimination. What he found was the Nation of Islam, the controversial black Muslims who preached a doctrine of strict separation of the races and described white people as devils.
The move to a group feared by whites and rejected by many blacks stunned fans who were dazzled by the showmanship, quick wit, and fast fists of the boxer who had won an Olympic gold medal as Cassius Clay. But Ali, who adopted a Muslim name, didn’t waver amid withering criticism. He resisted calls to join black civil rights activists, declaring that forced integration wouldn’t work.
Ali parted ways with the Nation after about a decade, embracing mainstream Islam, which teaches that believers should embrace all races and ethnicities. He remained a devout Muslim until his death last week at age 74. As one of the most famous Muslims in the world, he traveled widely as a goodwill ambassador, spreading the message of Islam as a religion of peace.
But Ali’s decision to join the Chicago-based Nation of Islam more than 50 years ago reflected a recurring theme in his life: a willingness to defy the establishment and do what he believed was right. He offered no apologies for aligning himself with the polarizing group. He found comfort there.
“The Nation did provide him a sense of belonging and group support,” says Larry Mamiya, professor emeritus at Vassar College who has studied the group for four decades. “It enabled him to be himself in a world where his sport was controlled by whites. But his charismatic presence also enabled the Nation to attract new members. So it worked both ways.”
While Martin Luther King Jr. preached nonviolence, Ali preferred the Nation’s emphasis on self-defense, says Mamiya, pointing to the group’s most celebrated member, Malcolm X, who believed “if you hit me, I’ll hit you back.” Ali also was attracted to the group’s core principles —”’know yourself” and “do for self,” a message of financial independence that led to many Nation members becoming merchants, the professor adds.
Ali went public with his membership in the Nation in 1964, shortly after defeating Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title. He abandoned what he called his slave name, Cassius Clay, and briefly was known by Cassius X before declaring: “I am Muhammad Ali, a free name — it means beloved of God and I insist people use it when speaking to me and of me.”