Monday, October 19, 2015
No, Muhammad Ali, Cassius Clay was not your "slave name"
In 1964, the heavyweight boxing champion of the world joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali, saying, "Cassius Clay is my slave name."
He could not be more wrong.
Ali's grandfather was the son of a slave who named his son in honor of a Southern emancipator who was willing to die so that men could be free, Cassius Marcellus Clay. Ali's father proudly passed the name along to Ali, whose a-historical rebuke was a sign of indoctrination by a church built on hate. The real story of Cassius Marcellus Clay should inspire us all to rise above our station in life to help our fellow man.
Born on October 19, 1810, into a slave-owning family at Clermont near Richmond, Kentucky, he was the youngest child of General Green Clay, a veteran of the Revolutionary War who as a general led the Kentucky militia in the War of 1812, heroically rescuing General William Henry Harrison from an attack by Tecumseh and the British army at Fort Meigs, Ohio.
The general was born in Powhatan County, Virginia, on August 14, 1757, and prospered after the revolution in Kentucky, owning slaves, farms, distilleries, a tavern, and ferries along the Kentucky River, which were in great use in the 19th century before bridges became more common. He grew hemp His cousins included Henry Clay and Alabama governor Clement Comer Clay. Kentucky named Clay County in honor of the general. He served in the Virginia House of Delegates representing Kentucky when it was a county in Virginia, before statehood. Later he served in the Kentucky legislature.
His son, Cassius Clay, attended Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, before transferring to Yale University in Connecticut. In college, he became a lawyer -- and an emancipationist. William Lloyd Garrison, the firebrand editor of the abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, greatly influenced him. The difference between the two is Clay wanted to eliminate slavery slowly, allowing former slaves to integrate into society gradually. He owned several slaves himself.
Returning back home, the people elected young Clay to the legislature in 1834. But his promotion of manumission of slaves led to his losing re-election after three terms in 1840. During an anti-slavery speech in 1843, a paid assassin named Sam Brown pulled a gun on Clay, who pulled out his Bowie knife and severely wounded his attacker.
In 1844, Clay finally freed his slaves.
In 1845, he began his own newspaper, the True American, which was “Devoted to Universal Liberty; Gradual Emancipation of Kentucky; Literature; Agriculture; the Elevation of Labor, Morally and Politically;… etc., etc.”
Opponents sent death threats. He armored his doors and brought in two four-pounder cannons,
"I furnished my office with Mexican lances, and a limited number of guns,” Clay later wrote. “There were six or eight persons who stood ready to defend me. If defeated, they were to escape by a trap-door in the roof; and I had placed a keg of powder, with a match, which I could set off and blow up the office and all my invaders; and this I should most certainly have done.”
He suffered a bout of typhoid fever. While he was home recuperating, the Committee of Sixty -- a secret society -- took over the building, seized his printing equipment, and forced him to move the operation to Cincinnati, Ohio, a hotbed of abolitionists. But he remained in Kentucky and continued to own slaves, a practice he continued even during the Civil War when he was part of Lincoln's administration.
Clay learned the names of the Committee of Sixty, sued, and won $2,500 in damages. Adjusted for inflation, that is a substantial amount of money, as well as a victory for a free press.
He also fought a duel and used his Bowie knife to gouge his opponent's eye out.
Also, Clay served as a cavalry officer -- captain -- in the Mexican War, a war most abolitionists opposed because they feared winning would cause Texas to join the Union, which would expand slavery westward.
Returning from the war, Clay continued to speaking out on slavery. In 1849, six men -- the Turner brothers -- attacked and beat him, until he pulled out his trusty Bowie knife and fought back, killing one of the attackers, Cyrus Turner.
Four years later, he gave abolitionist minister John Gregg Fee 10 acres of land on which Fee built Berea College, the first integrated college in Kentucky. Berea also was the first coed college in the state.
Clay spoke out against slavery throughout the 1850s and in 1860 met and befriended a corporate lawyer and former congressman who was running for president, Abraham Lincoln. At the Chicago Convention later that year, Clay finished second to Hannibal Hamlin of Maine in the race for the vice presidential nomination.
That led to his appointment as ambassador to Russia, but not before he organized the Clay Battalion when the Civil War broke out, which protected the White House and Navy Yard until federal troops were available.
"As commander, Clay enlivened the atmosphere at his headquarters in Willard's Hotel with his braggadocio. With three pistols strapped to his waist, and an elegant sword hanging at his side, he talked to anyone who would listen about his Mexican War exploits and his political battles," wrote Clay biographer David L. Smiley. "John Hay, private secretary to President Lincoln, could hardly suppress his laughter at the droll picture Clay presented. Hay remarked that Clay ran up and down the White House steps 'like an admirable vignette to 25-cents worth of yellow-covered romance.' At Willard's, Hay declared, Clay spent his time talking and drinking coffee."
Perhaps he said what another Cassius Clay would say a century later: I am the greatest.
Nevertheless, for protecting the White House and Navy Yard, Clay earned the title major general.
His efforts in Russia were fruitful as Ambassador Clay secured Russian support for the Union in the Civil War. He also worked on the purchase of Alaska. His ambassadorship lasted six years from May 7, 1863 through October 1, 1869, under three presidents.
But in Russia, he had an affair which led to an illegitimate son, whom he adopted. His first wife, businesswoman Mary Jane Warfield, had stayed in Richmond, Kentucky, to tend the family's stately manor, White Hall, during his stay in Russia. She left him in 1872 over his affairs, and the couple divorced in 1878 after 45 years of marriage. She became a suffragette.
He wrote his memoirs and married Dora Richardson, the daughter of a tenant farmer on his estate. She was 13, 14, or 15, and he was 84. The legal age of consent was 12 in Kentucky at the time. Regardless, the marriage caused a stir. The marriage lasted four years. After his second divorce, he lived alone. One afternoon three men broke in expecting a feeble old man. Instead, they encountered a fully armed veteran of combat. He shot and killed one man, used a Bowie knife on a second man, and scared off the third man. He was 89.
Politically, he spoke out for civil rights. But over time, his mind wandered, he lived in one room of his mansion, and in 1903, he was declared mentally incompetent, and his daughters took over his business affairs. Clay died at White Hall on July 22, 1903, of general exhaustion. He was 92.
He had set aside $100 for his funeral expenses. His friends and family would have none of that. The man was a hero and a legend of Madison County, Kentucky. Conducted by Reverend Timberlake at the First Baptist Church in Richmond, Kentucky, Clay enjoyed the largest funeral in Madison County's history.
Clay earned it.
“Never was a more striking scene witnessed on the way to Richmond, where the funeral services were to be held. From every humble Negro cottage along the roadside and at every cross roads, the mothers and large children carrying those who were too little to walk, the Negroes were lined up to pay their last respects to the man whom they honored as the Abraham Lincoln of Kentucky,” the local newspaper reported.
UPDATE: In light of Ali's death, I just want to add Rest In Peace, Ali. May the former Cassius Clay meet up with the original. Heavyweight champions the both of them.