When heavyweight boxing champion Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali after converting to Islam, he stated that his birth name was “a slave name,” adding, “I didn’t choose it and I don’t want it.” His new name, he noted, is “a free name” meaning “beloved of God.”
The name Ali inherited from his father — Cassius Marcellus Clay — was in fact given to his dad in honor of Cassius M. Clay, a fervent abolitionist who graduated from Yale in 1832.*
Judith Schiff, chief research archivist in the Yale University Library’s Manuscripts and Archives, alerted YaleNews to the connection following Ali’s death on June 3 at the age of 74.
Schiff noted that in “Memorials of Eminent Yale Men,” Anson Phelps Stokes said of the Yale-educated abolitionist: “no Southern man was so active in the anti-slavery case as Clay.”
The Yale alumnus was born in White Hall, Kentucky, in 1810, the son of Green Clay, a land speculator who was one of the wealthiest slaveholders in that state. He attended Transylvania University (1829-1831) and Yale College (1831-1832), where he received his bachelor’s degree and heard abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison speak. He returned to Transylvania to study law. Afterwards, he joined the antislavery movement and made the abolition of slavery his life’s work. According to “American National Biography,” Clay “developed an economic critique of slavery that some historians consider to be the most penetrating analysis of slavery produced by a Southerner.”
Like the heavyweight champion who shared his name, Clay was a survivor. After serving three terms in the Kentucky House of Representatives, he lost support from his voters because of his views about slavery. During a political debate in 1843, he survived an assassination attempt. That same year, the most famous of his works was published, “Slavery: The Evil — The Remedy.” In 1845-1846 he published an antislavery newspaper, the True American, in the slaveholding town of Lexington, Kentucky. He began receiving death threats and had to barricade the armored doors of his newspaper office for protection. A mob broke into his office and seized his printing equipment in August 1845; the temporary suppression of the publication made Clay a hero in the anti-slavery movement.
The Yale alumnus later served as a captain in the Mexican-American War and in 1861 was appointed by Abraham Lincoln, his friend, as the minister to Russia. Lincoln recalled him to the United States in 1862 to become major general with the Union Army, a post Clay publicly refused to accept unless Lincoln agreed to emancipate slaves under Confederate control. Lincoln issued the proclamation in late 1862.
Clay returned to Russia and served there until 1869. In his later years, he supported the Cuban independence movement of Jose Marti. He died in 1903, and his family home, White Hall, is a historic site.
Nine years after his death, Herman Heaton Clay — Muhammad Ali’s grandfather — named his son Cassius Marcellus Clay in tribute to the abolitionist. While the renowned boxer shed that name, he shared with his father’s namesake the quality of having some passionate convictions. He was a devoted Muslim. As a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War (his draft resistance case was heard by the Supreme Court in 1971), Ali was banned from professional boxing during his prime fighting years, a sacrifice that earned him international praise.
* Yale's Department of History awards the Cassius Marcellus Clay Postdoctoral Fellowship in memory of the Yale alumnus. The two-year fellowship supports research in U.S. history with a specialization in the history of ethnicity, race, indigeneity, or migration.
[Correction: This article originally stated that Muhammad Ali might not have known the origin of his birth name — which is not the case, as shown in this New York Times article.]