As the world gathered last week to bid farewell to Muhammad Ali, greatest boxer of all time and worldwide hero born Cassius Marcellus Clay in 1942, I thought it might be worth a minute to read about the man whose name he was given at birth.
Cassius Marcellus Clay (1810–1903) was quite the interesting fellow in his day, and like the boxer who forsook his name, he was a rebel who took up unpopular causes and stood by them.
Imagine being against slavery in Kentucky in the 1830s. Clay had left his old Kentucky home and gone to Yale University. While there, he heard the noted abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison decry slavery, and was moved to oppose it as well. This could not have gone over well in his state (where it was legal at the time to own people) or his family (which owned people.)
Clay finished college and moved home to run for office, and was elected twice to the Kentucky legislature. He also published an anti-slavery journal called True American, and in so doing, took a practical stance, urging that slavery be gradually curtailed and then banned altogether through progressive legislation.
He freed his slaves in 1844, which was, for sure, a dozen years after he saw the evil in slavery, but it was still a courageous step.
A captain in the Kentucky militia, Clay and his troops fought in the Mexican-American War (1846 -1848). They were caught and lived for some 18 months in Mexico City as prisoners of war. Upon returning to Kentucky, he lost in an effort to be elected governor. Then, as he recovered from the typhoid fever he contracted in the war, his opponents stole the printing equipment he used to produce the True American journal.
Cassius Clay gave the land and money to start Berea College, the first integrated college in the South. It accepted students of all races and genders, and survives today as a tuition-free school.
Clay supported Abraham Lincoln's candidacy and was sent to Russia as American ambassador, playing a vital role in our purchase of Alaska, without which, Sarah Palin would have had to remain in the contiguous United States.
Clay said that being able to help Lincoln with the Emancipation Proclamation was “the culminating act of my life’s aspirations.”
His life also includes the interesting fact that, at age 68, he divorced his wife of 45 years and married a 15-year-old, and died of "general exhaustion" at the age of 92. That's how I plan to go, too, but I hasten to add, I will stick with my original wonderful wife.
His life was chock-full of interesting facts, to be sure, as was that of his onetime namesake, Ali the Champ of all Champions.