By now, we know that the late Muhammad Ali’s rise to become the greatest boxer of all time – in terms of athletic prowess, in-ring charisma and his influence outside the sport – was in tandem with his spiritual journey toward Allah. And many of those pathways detoured through Detroit.
We know that Cassius Clay was born in 1942, but he is memorialized as Ali, having taken the name after becoming a member of the Nation of Islam in 1964. Perhaps the second-most visible member of the religious sect at the time (the first would be Malcolm X), Ali was the latest recruit in a rapidly growing organization that sought to publicly condemn white prejudice against Blacks. Ali would later leave the NOI in the 1970s, but his affiliation brought the nascent organization, founded in Detroit, prominence.
The NOI was founded in Detroit in 1930 by Wallace Ford Muhammad (born Wallace Fard). Muhammad’s origins are unknown, but what we do know is that the NOI’s growth was guided by Elijah Muhammad, the controversial leader who oversaw the organization’s operations until his death in 1975.
The Nation of Islam’s founding in Detroit coincided with the migration of Blacks from the South to Detroit, and the rise of the automotive industry. Elijah Muhammad himself was a Georgia transplant, having arrived in Detroit as Elijah Poole in the 1930s to work in the factories. Black autoworkers were infamously given the lowest-paying yet most labor-intensive jobs in the industry – if they were allowed to work in the factories at all. It took years for Black workers to be accepted into unions. And conditions for Black Detroiters in Detroit for the majority of the 20th century – the slums of Black Bottom, the Brewster Projects, housing covenants, and so forth – were less than ideal. The NOI, it seemed, was a safe haven for thousands of Blacks, to worship, to organize, and to be respected.
It’s no wonder Clay was fascinated with the inner workings of the organization. Becoming a Black hero under the glare of white scrutiny couldn’t have been easy, so an organization that espoused Black pride while embracing the peaceful doctrines of Islam proved attractive to a young athlete. As Anthony O. Edmonds writes in "Muhammad Ali: A Biography":
“When he first heard about the NOI in Chicago in 1959, Cassius apparently met some Muslims in their south-side homes. One of his aunts recalls that he returned to Louisville after a Goldne Gloves tournament in Chicago with a recording of some of Elijah Muhammad’s sermons. Clay also apparently read the official NOI newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, and tried, unsuccessfully, to convince one of his high school teachers to let him write a term paper on the group,”
Over the next few years, Clay studied the NOI, reading Muhammad Speaks every week, listening to the teachings of Malcolm X, and meeting with Black Muslims in his travels, including one personally dispatched by Elijah Muhammad. It was a meeting with Muhammad and Malcolm X, his first time meeting both, in Detroit that seemed to make his path toward the religion a little more clear. Edmonds writes more:
“In early 1962, Clay went to Detroit where he met both Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X. He was profoundly impressed: Elijah Muhammad was a “good man” who tried to “lift up” black Americans, while Malcolm “was very intelligent, with a good sense of humor, a wise man”…The two became mentor and mentee, a relationship that would have a profound impact on Clay’s life. Cassius Clay was clearly on his way to becoming Muhammad Ali.”
As Clay became closer with Elijah Muhammad and the NOI, the Detroit-based organization worked to keep their affiliation secret. As Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith wrote in 2016’s “Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X,” all parties were at risk if the increasingly famous boxer would have been known to have ties with the organization.
Clay’s fascination with the Nation evolved alongside his growing notoriety as a boxer. At a time when the government planned an extensive, if unwarranted, investigation into the organization, Clay risked his boxing career by associating with the Nation. Remarkably, the blacks who saw him in Detroit and St. Louis never shared that information with reporters. If a black writer recognized him at one of the rallies or noticed his picture in "Muhammad Speaks," or a white writer caught wind of him shaking hands with Malcolm X, it could have ended his career.
By 1964, those sentiments had changed. Ali and Malcolm X's relationship notably soured around this period as Malcolm left the organization that year. (Ali would later go on to say he regretted losing that friendship). But that same year, it was widely known Ali was not only a convert, demanding that he be no longer be known as Cassius Clay interviews, but was also an NOI affiliate. Here’s video of Elijah Muhammad and Muhammad Ali in 1964 at a NOI rally in Harlem:
Ali left the NOI in 1975, but never abandoned the Muslim faith. He embraced Sunni Islam that year, and was devout until his death — more recently criticizing Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump on his views on Muslims in the United States. "I am a Muslim and there is nothing Islamic about killing innocent people in Paris, San Bernardino, or anywhere else in the world," Ali said. "True Muslims know that the ruthless violence of so called Islamic Jihadists goes against the very tenets of our religion."