Interviewer: Sam Pollard and Judy Richardson
Production Team: C
Interview Date: February 16, 1989
Camera Rolls: 2092-2093
Sound Rolls: 241
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Muhammad Ali, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on February 16, 1989, for Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 to 1985. Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.
OK Muhammad first question. What were Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X saying that attracted you to the Nation?
Well, I had friends belong to the Islamic Temple and he called me in, in Miami. I heard Malcolm X and what attracted me he says, "Why we called Negroes? Chinese are named after China. Cubans are named after Cuba, Russians after Russia, Germans after Germany. All people are named after the country. What country is called Negro?" I said, "Man, so true." He said, "We don't have our names." So, I said to him, "Weinstein, you know is a Jew, here come Lumumba, Africa, here come Chan, Chow, Chinaman, here come Redkala, Indian. Here come George, or Joe, Jim. He could be Black or White. We all got the same name. We don't have our names. They named us in slavery, so I got me a name from Elijah Muhammad, Muhammad Ali. And as soon as I said the name Muhammad Ali, I've been recognized by Muslims all over the Islamic world.
OK, let's, let's cut. That was good. That was real good.
What was your first impression of Malcolm X when you first met him?
My first impression was how could a Black man talk about the government, White people, and so bold and not be shot at? Talking about, just a whole movement, totally different from others and so bold. How could he say these things? And only God must be protecting him. He's saying to the Southerner things that, that was, ah, Civil Rights things, or a Christian dude, taking Paul and then Peter and Malcolm X calling them devils and everything. --he was aware of at that time, and yet he walked with nobody, he was fearless. That, that really attracted me.
That's great. When you joined the Nation did you think it would hurt your, your career as a boxer? Were you concerned about hurting your career as a boxer?
Well, I figured they would pressure me if I revealed it so I kept it quiet for about three years. I sneaked into meetings, sneak in the back door, look around for the police officer, pass me in, before going in. But after beating Sonny Liston, after getting more regulation and my power finally is straight, I said, I don't know, I told them that night I fought Liston and revealed it after that fight.
So, when had you joined the Nation?
1961, the fight was in '64.
So you joined it--
You thought about joining the Nation?
Three years I was sneaking around, keeping it quiet, acting like I was crazy.
OK, let's cut. That was good.
Now, did you purposely act like you were crazy in those days?
Well, I knew to draw money to make people, the, or the rich people, meaning the White people at the time who could buy ring side seats. So I had to talk, act crazy, supreme, "I am the greatest of all times. I'm pretty. Tell Joe I'll win the fight." They said, "The nigger talks too much. The nigger needs to go over." So that's what made me so attractive, a Black man said, "I'm the greatest." We weren't taught like that. We were taught the Black had the bad luck. For 300 years while Blacks were here. In college you got Black-balled and Black was, Black was bad and White was good. So, me being Black. "I am the greatest. I'm pretty". That would get more people come to hear this and it put me on such a spot, I had to fight to back up my words. Blacks was supposed to be humble, me, and then me being the supreme. They showed us a White Jesus, all the Last Supper is White. All the angels are White. Some miracle White. Tarzan he came from Africa, he's White. Angels became White and Devil became chocolate, and here's a Black man, "I'm the greatest. I'm supreme". Superior, superior attitude, it's made me so hated by many Southerners, Whites and Blacks. But confident and cocky and different, that's what me so popular.
When you fought Floyd Patterson, what was so special with that fight? What made you feel so good about that fight?
Me and Floyd, the fight's over now, and I don't want to say nothing bad about the man, I just, he was indifferent, he was different from me, so, he wouldn't call me Clay. He says, "Muhammad ain't no Clay." He wouldn't call me Ali. He says, "Muhammad ain't Clay. He's going to stay Clay." So I took the offensive and says, "I'm going to whoop you, 'til you tell me my name." Round one, I said, "What's my name?" He didn't say nothing. So round 2, round 3, I hit him with my right hand, he said, Muhammad Ali, Muhammad Ali.
That's good. Cut.
Now, the press conference in Miami in '66, you said, "Keep asking me, no matter how long on the war in Vietnam, I sing a song. I ain't got no quarrel with the Vietcong." Now, why'd you say that?
Because it's true. At that time, I could see they were wrong, the war was wrong, and my conscience didn't allow me to be killing people, so I really was willing to go to jail. The Supreme Court said I was right, because they recognized me as a minister, but, what was your question?
Why did you say, "I'm not going to fight the Vietcong?"
Because I wasn't. And I didn't, and it was wrong for, America got in trouble, and it really was a war, and it was a just war, I'd go. But I wasn't the only one. A million people protested, and some went to jail, but me being so famous, it was publicized. But now, I'm right. The war is wrong, we pulled out, and now they've admitted it was bad. I saw it then.
All right, let's cut there. That was good.
How did you feel about seeing, you know, other Black men go over to Vietnam, fight in that war and then come back to the racism in America?
I felt bad and felt sorry for them and really struggled to talk to them, I wish they believed like I did. Because they came back to, they weren't recognized and didn't make us no freer and I realized that and I knew they would soon find it out. Basically, I just felt bad knowing that they went there and many got killed, got maimed and then come back and they were considered wrong.
I saw that early. I said if, "America was in trouble and real war came, I'd be on the front line if we had been attacked." But I could see that it wasn't right and what happened to the boys, that I can't believe, when they get back is further proof that I was right.
Let's cut. That's good.
The day you went for induction in Houston, that day in '60, '68, '67, what were thinking that day and how did you feel?
I felt happy because I knew I wasn't going and people didn't think I had the nerve or they don't have the nerve to buck the draft board or the government. And I almost ran there, hurried. I couldn't wait to not take the step. And the moment I did that, all the boys looked surprised. The guy who asked me to take the step looked surprised, and we went into the back room and they talked to him, told him what's going to happen. If I go, I don't have to fight, or just do exhibitions and things. I told them I still won't go because they're leading more boys to their death. And I says, "I'd rather go to jail." So they say, "You are ready?" And I never did. I fought going to the war, the world was watching, the Blacks mainly, looking, to see if I had the nerve to buck Uncle Sam, and I just couldn't wait for the man to call my name, so I wouldn't step forward. I enjoyed that day. I loved that. And after I left, say, "Look it everybody. He didn't go. He going to jail." I said, "I'd rather be in jail fed, then in Vietnam dead." You see, I know I had gone to Vietnam somebody says, "I'm going to get the nigger now." I might have got shot accidentally. I was just that controversial.
It's great. Let's cut.
Because I'm a bad nigger.
Last question. Why was it important to you, and I know why but I want you to tell the audience, to change your name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali?
Well, why it was important to me when I first heard the teachings that when Blacks came here, the people watching this interview, what's your name?
Sam Pollard is White. He's originally got a European name. I met a brother, he had dashiki, African robes, sandals, real Black, I said, "What's your name?" He said, "George Washington." Afro named George Washington. I said, "Mr. Clay here, 200 years ago they called Clay property, so the Jones is Jones. These are names that are names that identified us as the property of certain masters. But the day you're free, you don't belong to Clay and Jones. So, you know how you look, well, in Africa, what's your name? George Washington? There are Africans all over Africa. They don't know if a Negro Christian is a any other. They're all over Chicago. They're in California. Africans, other people, how does the White man know? What's your name? Ching Chong. A White man named Ching Chong. That's Chinese there. That's their culture. So, not too many Muhammad Ali, all of a sudden they start saying, "He's the world's most known man." It's not because I box, Sugar Ray is good, Floyd Patterson is good, Joe Louis was good. It was because Muhammad Ali is in Africa, all over Africa, the name is in Ethiopia, Morocco, Syria, Indonesia, Pakistan, Turkey, Algiers, Saudi Arabia. Muhammad Ali is common when I traveled. Muhammad is the most common name in the world. There are more people on Earth, every third a person is a Muslim in the world. So when I took the name Muhammad Ali and I fought, I'd say this, Floyd Patterson, "In this corner Muhammad Ali!" All the people in the arena says, "What?" The whole world jumped because this is a common name. You mean in America we have a Muhammad Ali fighting? So, my father's name was Cassius Clay. His father's name was Cassius and myself's name, and my great-grandaddy, who was a slave, worked for the original Cassius Clay from Kentucky. So, we know I'm not no slave now. It's funny, that's how an old name, how one name for a good amount of people, it all started in Kentucky. You saw Roots? Alex Haley? Alex Haley knows that we was made slaves. He knows that this happened, they took our names, but after making that movie, I was surprised to see he still kept the name Alex Haley, so. If I say, here come Ching Chong, you look for a Chinaman, here comes Lumumba, Africa, here comes Weinstein, Jew, here come Morningstar, Indian. Here come Miltonberger, German. Here come Jones, don't know what color he is 'til you see him. So we don't have our names. There's something about the American Black people still got slave names. I hear that. I love truth, I don't care if you go to church or mosque or synagogue. I don't care if your Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, I don't care what you are. When I hear the name, I want the truth. People watching this interview now, got slave names if they're Black. So, Muhammad Ali, you go away, you go to Syria Indonesia, Africa, put it over on them, you won't know who you are until you tell them your name. "What's your name?" "George Washington." They say, "He's a Negro." Man, nobody could argue with this. I challenge anybody watching the show, I'm embarrassing the nation. Prove I'm wrong, if you're Black and you have a European name, that's not your name. Now if you hear White people in the government, somebody tell me, "You ain't Muhammad Ali. You're wrong." No, nobody never said that's wrong. So, if you leave this country and go to Asia and Africa, all you is hear is national names is Hassan, Omar, Ishmael, Elijah, Muhammad, Ali, Akbar. These are the names of dark people. So, when we were made slaves in America and the names, we took their names. But our people are still slaves mentally. We can hear this, you can here what I'm saying, I don't know if you might or might not but you might keep your name when you leave here. This is a known fact. It's a White man's slave name. Hey now, you're free, why not buck Uncle Sam and pick you a pretty name to fit your Black people? Some people they don't admit it mentally 'til only dead men can hear. So why don't they wake up and we all want a beautiful name. My daughter wanted Rasheeda, not Sue-Ellen Mary, one named Jamillah. One name Laila. One named Hana. One named Miya, Kaliah. Pretty names that fit our people. So, that's why I changed my name.
That's an answer. OK.
What kind of role model and image did you present for young Black people back then?
First I wasn't thinking about myself first and then my people, White people, all of our people are brothers and all need help, mainly to my people. I liked being who I was because they put it on television and when I say, "I'm the greatest, I'm pretty," it means that little Black children and people who felt like they were nothing, "We got our champion. Look what he's doing, look at the way he's living." So, when they see, they go to the store, they see White Owl cigars, White Swan soap, King White soap, White Cloud tissue paper, White , phew, it's a White tornado. Tornadoes are Black. You can see them coming but they made them White. And they say Jesus is White, the Last Supper, White, all the angels are White, nation of America, White. In the movies, the hero always rides on White horse and certainly men in White. And for me to come along, "I'm the greatest of all times." That's all I needed to do. A Black man saying, he's the greatest. And if all of them can do it, I'm their father, this is why I use boxing to promote that idea. Maybe if you see me today, I feel so bad, when I was a kid I did dumb things, you help me in the school, made me feel better. I have people today telling me that. I'm still the greatest of all times. Of all times.
Little Black kids, little Black kids see that.
That's perfect. I'll tell you what, before you get up--