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When Did Cassius Clay Become Muhammad Ali?

At the urging of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, heavyweight boxer Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali in March 1964. In a radio address, Muhammad said that Clay was the fighter’s slave name, and that he would have the new name as long as “he believes in Allah and follows me.” But newspapers of the era were slow to make the change, and as New York Times editor Abe Rosenthal explained at the time, they would use “Cassius Clay until he changed his name in a court of law.” By 1970, when the Associated Press changed its stylebook from Clay to Ali, U.S. newspapers finally began to comply.

Clay in the Sixties, Ali in the Seventies:

  • From 1964 to 1968, The New York Times used the name Cassius Clay in more than 1,000 stories, and Muhammad Ali in about 150, a 2016 survey by the Times' Victor Mather found.
  • The Chicago Defender and The Baltimore Afro-American were quicker to make the change, but still used “Clay" until the late 1960s.
  • When UCLA basketball player Lew Alcindor changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1971, most newspapers made the switch by the following year.
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