Brainwashing the King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Nation of Islam

Ali’s defiant words encapsulated his powerful defense of his Black manhood. They expressed his freedom of conscience—his freedom to be who he wanted to be. When Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali, he did not simply proclaim a new religious identity; he defied a white establishment that felt entitled to curtail his freedom.

Lecture Description

When Muhammad Ali announced that he had joined the Nation of Islam in 1964, his father told reporters that his son had been “brainwashed” by Elijah Muhammad. This idea–that the physically powerful boxer had a weak mind–persisted throughout his career, often cited to discredit his activism against the war in Vietnam and to mock his chosen religion. But it also resonates in today’s debates over the presence of African Americans (especially Black men) in national conversations about faith, power, and authentic self-definition.

CATEGORIES

African American Religion

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