Bob Costas To Muhammad Ali—"Well Actually..."

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Bob Costas went on national television and made the kind of statement that typifies the ongoing dialogue around racism in this country:

A lot of what Ali said was profound. Some of it was hyperbolic. When he said that Cassius Clay was a slave name that was ironic because the original Cassius Clay was a white abolitionist who was shot by a pro-slavery guy in Kentucky in the 1840s. Now that doesn’t mean that Ali didn’t have the right to do what he did and didn’t do it for good reasons. But, just to correct the historical record, Cassius Clay was an abolitionist.

No he wasn’t. The anti-slavery movement in the antebellum period encompassed a wide-range of views—some of them white supremacist, some of them deeply humanist, some of them conservative and some of them radical. Abolitionism was the radical wing of the movement, favoring the immediate and total destruction of slavery. Clay thought that enslavement was a moral evil and bad for his native Kentucky, but, much like George Washington, Clay believed in the gradual freeing of the slaves.

This is not mere categorical pedantry—Abraham Lincoln and Wendell Phillips aren’t interchangable. Part of why Clay wasn’t an abolitionist was that he was a slave-holder living in the South. At times Clay did the kind of things slave-holders tended to do—like sell people:

On September, 1843, when his second son, Cassius, Jr., became ill, Emily, the boy's Negro nurse, was suspected of having poisoned him. Although the boy died, no action was taken against Emily until 1845 when another son became ill under similar circumstances. Thereupon Emily was charged with having administered "a deadly poison called arsenide, to wit five grains." Even a pro-slavery jury found the evidence inconclusive and Emily was acquitted. Then Clay aroused a storm of protest by selling Emily, her mother, and a brother under the express provision that they be shipped "down the river."*

Even as Clay freed those people whom he personally held enslaved on his estate, he “retained in slavery a number of Negroes who were attached to the estate without being his personal property.” When you are black and your namesake is literally a slave-holder, there is nothing ironic about calling it a “slave name.”

Now, I find Clay heroic. Clay did not ask to be a slave-holder. He was born into slave-holding and, at great financial loss to himself, freed those he personally held in bondage. This was not a small thing—collectively, enslaved people, represented the greatest asset in the country at that time. Clay, himself, took a $50,000 loss—in 1860 dollars—in order to live out his principles. He went even further—loudly denouncing slavery as evil, and thus constantly courting danger. This isn’t enough for Bob Costas. Clay can’t be a brave and complicated human. Clay has to be the wholly innocent, wholly righteous white guy in the black movie.

But Muhammad Ali would not define himself through Clay’s legacy. Ali was more interested in the legacy of Emily, the enslaved woman whom Clay sold away. That was the entire point of Ali changing his name. Unfortunately none of that could save Ali from Bob Costas’s need to be all loud an the smug of chorus of “Well, actually...” that must dog us all into our very graves.

*The Anti-Slavery Career of Cassius M. Clay.” Lowell H. Harrison. The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, Vol. 59, No. 4 (October, 1961), pp. 295-317