The Louisville Courier-Journal apologized for ignoring Muhammad Ali’s name-change back in the 1964 and instead predominantly using his birth name, Cassius Clay, until Dec. 1970 when the newspaper finally began referring to him only as Ali.
“It is time for the Courier-Journal to acknowledge the role it played by not accepting the name Muhammad Ali for several years after the 22-year-old Cassius Clay took on the moniker when he adopted the Muslim religion in 1964,” the newspaper wrote in a recent editorial. “During those years, in our news columns, the CJ almost always called the boxer Cassius Clay, certainly in headlines.”
Sometimes, the newspaper used Cassius Clay with Muhammad Ali in parentheses. “It really wasn’t until we started combing through the archives following his death that it struck us what was going on back then. Reporter Joe Gerth was the one who first brought it to my attention and then I did a lot of additional research/reading of stories from that era,” the Courier-Journal’s editor Neil Budde told iMediaEthics by e-mail.
The Courier-Journal editorial added, “We won’t even try to speculate what the motives of the editors in that era were. The CJ was certainly an early champion of civil rights and desegregation. Yet we took what in today’s light is an oddly hostile approach on the specific issue of Ali’s name, which did little to help race relations in a turbulent time.”
The paper’s editor Budde told iMediaEthics, “So far, the response I’ve seen has all been positive, though one letter writer said we should have done it years ago while Ali was alive and could have seen it.” He said the paper held off on publishing until after Ali’s funeral so news coverage would focus on “Ali and the celebration of his life.”
In its own article on the use of Cassius Clay, the New York Times reported, “It wasn’t until the early 1970s that The Times, for one, began to regularly call him Muhammad Ali.” The Times noted it “was not alone in this policy” with the Washington Post calling Ali Clay as well.
The Times reported that its former sports reporter and columnist Robert Lipsyte explained the newspaper used Clay instead of Ali “until Ali changed his name in a court of law.” This, Lipsyte argued, was “embarrassing” given the double standard in referring to other celebrities, like John Wayne (born Marion Morrison), by their chosen names.
The Times quoted its associate editor for standards Philip B. Corbett saying that now the newspaper doesn’t typically “impose a name on someone” and instead uses “the name people use for themselves.” However, the Times is “reluctant to use unorthodox typography,” and Corbett gave the examples of Ke$ha and ?uestlove, which will be edited to have traditional letters.
Slate‘s Laura Wagner reviewed seven newspapers to see which name — Cassius Clay or Muhammad Ali – was used more. Using news database ProQuest, she checked out headlines from 1960-1970 in the newspapers the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Defender, Baltimore Sun, and Baltimore Afro-American, she wrote.
“In 1964, those seven papers ran 617 items with ‘Clay’ in the headline compared to 13 for ‘Ali.’ In 1965, when Ali knocked out Sonny Liston in a rematch and then defended his heavyweight title against Floyd Patterson, it was 389 mentions for ‘Clay’ and 10 for ‘Ali.’ In 1966, the NYT reported that Ali ‘balked at accepting the plaque’ for a fighter of the year award because it bore the name Cassius Clay. That year, it was 783 ‘Clay’ vs. 13 ‘Ali.’”
“As the table below illustrates, it wasn’t until 1970, six years after the boxer introduced himself as Muhammad Ali, that most newspapers started heeding his wishes. And it wasn’t until 1971 that the tide turned completely.”
Hat Tip: Gautham Nagesh