How did Kentucky end up with two great men both named Cassius Marcellus Clay?
The first Cassius Clay, cousin of Henry, was an abolitionist who refused to compromise on the issue of slavery. I spoke of him in my inaugural Senate speech and do so often.
The second Cassius Clay later became Muhammad Ali and also never compromised on anything. People should remember him as a great boxing champion, but also as a tireless fighter outside the ring.
Clay grew up in segregated Louisville in the 1940s and ’50s and at the same time he was becoming a household name as the world’s greatest boxer, his fame would coincide with two of the most turbulent events of the 1960s: The civil rights movement and the Vietnam War.
Converting to Islam in 1964, Ali was a proud black American at a time when many African-Americans were not afforded their basic rights. Ali became a hero to many, particularly to black children in Louisville and beyond, at a troubling time in our history when Americans needed someone to look up to.
It is true that Ali was part of the Nation of Islam and even said some things about whites and others he would later recant.
But critics who might focus on the controversial aspects of Ali’s legacy should remember that many white politicians also said controversial things during that era, many of whom still enjoyed political careers long after the 1960s had ended.
Today, there’s still an imbalance in how African-Americans are treated by our laws and justice system. For example, although white and black Americans use marijuana at the same rate, blacks are four times more likely to be arrested for using it.
Since I entered the U.S. Senate in 2010 I’ve worked to get rid of these injustices and I’ve done so alongside many of Louisville’s civil rights champions.
But those efforts will never compare to how Ali risked his career and even personal safety to stand up for what was right in his time.
He refused to compromise or back down.
The same is true of Ali’s opposition to the Vietnam War.
There’s something that must be cleared up before any discussion of this subject can begin: Muhammad Ali was not a “draft dodger.”
When Ali was drafted, he did not run away. He did not go to Canada. He did not ask for special favors, treatment or even try to get a deferment.
He was a conscientious objector and practiced civil disobedience, a proud American tradition that runs from the Founding Fathers to Thoreau and all the way through Martin Luther King, Jr. in Ali’s own time.
The Vietnam War was regrettable for many reasons, but among them was that we forced men or women to fight in a conflict so much of the country was beginning to see as not in our national interest.
Today, we have a voluntary military that stands as the best in the world. I recently introduced an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would end any possibility of the draft occurring ever again.
This week, in honor of Muhammad Ali’s life work, I will introduce the repeal of the draft as stand-alone legislation with his name on it.
In Ali’s day, he spoke out against the War as well as the draft while many politicians defended it. Half the country cheered Ali’s stances and the other half booed.
But all can appreciate his efforts as we look back on the remarkable life of a true champion and Kentuckian who exemplified our “unbridled spirit”.
Ali said in 1975 that he would like to be remembered, “As a man who never looked down on those who looked up to him and who helped as many of his people as he could – financially and also in their fight for freedom, justice and equality.” He also wanted to be remembered “as a great boxing champion who became a preacher and a champion of his people.”
Ali ended his comments with, “And I wouldn’t even mind if folks forgot how pretty I was.”
America and Kentucky never will forget Muhammad Ali, who lived a principled life.
And yes, he was pretty. Pretty great.