Interviewer: Sam Pollard
Production Team: C
Interview Date: June 4, 1989
Camera Rolls: 2129-2131
Sound Rolls: 261
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Herbert Muhammad, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on June 4, 1989, for Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 to 1985. Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.
Mr. Muhammad, my first question to you is: the Nation of Islam attracted a lot of young men like Cassius Clay; why, why did it, in the early 60s, attract such young men like Cassius Clay?
Well, ah, the Nation of Islam, ah, had a great attraction to it, not only young mens of, of, ah, half of these, ah, boxers ah, th- they had, they had an attraction for, I would say more or less the downtrodden, ah, people that feel that they have been oppressed by their society and especially, ah, White supremacy in their society. So they was attracted to the Nation of Islam because the Nation of Islam gave them hope that this wasn't, ah, something that was going to prevail all the time, that God had, had came to deliv- deliver them from their oppressor.
When did you first meet Ali, how did you first meet Muhammad Ali?
Well, I first met Ali, um, sometime after he fought Sonny Liston, but my, ah, first acquaintance with him was--he used to come to our affairs, especially our national meetings and I would see him in the crowd and that's how, we just knowed him as, as Muhammad Ali, the fighter. He hadn't fought Sonny Liston. And then, ah, when it came, ah, time with his fights--
He was known as Cassius Clay the fighter, at the time.
Beg your pardon?
Had his name been changed to Muhammad Ali?
Yes, his na- no, his name was, ah, Cassius Clay, his name was, was, since--
Why don't you start from the top.
Yes, it was, OK, ah, you want me to start at the top, you mean go back, OK, the first time I met Ali was after he had fought, ah, Sonny Liston, but his name then was Cassius Clay, before then. And, ah, it was, ah, at one time, and I was in my studio, had my own camera studio, My father called me that night and asked me did I know how to get in touch with, ah, Cassius Clay. And I told him, "Yes, I can call somebody in Miami." He said, "Well, get in touch with him and let him know that his name is not, ah, Cassius Clay no more, his name is Muhammad Ali**, and also his brother, ah, Rudy[SIC], ah, Rock, Rock, Rurudy, his name is M- Mus- ah, we--"
Let take a second.
Now I'm forgetting his old name.
Rudy, wasn't, Rudie Clay, but no, his name was not Rudy, Rudolph, so I'll try to save that for another interview.
OK, Mr. Muhammad, tell me the story about when you first met Ali.
Oh yes, well, I first, when I first met Ali, ah, he came by my studio, I had a studio called Star Studio on 79th and, ah, near, near K- near, ah, what's, 79th, ah, take it off again--
OK, tell me about the first time you met Ali.
The first time I met Ali was in 1964, ah, at my studio, I was a, a photographer, and I had a studio. And he came in and he said "I heard that you was the greatest, ah, portrait photographer, so I thought you ought to shoot a portrait of the greatest." Ah, we, I was flattered at that time cause, ah, I, I wa- was the greatest photographer, that was no joke, like he saying he was the greatest, I really felt that I was the greatest portrait to- photographer. So I shot his picture, ah, and it came out very well. Now, if you wanted me to tell the story behind that picture then, OK--
OK, tell me about, ah, why members of the Nation changed your name, then you father telling you that you should have Ali, he gave Ali a new name.
Ah yes, because first a, the, ah, Nation of Islam, under the leadership of my father, Elijah Muhammad, it had a great attraction for the down un- for the downtrodden people, those people that feel that they was oppressed from a White supremacist society. That's why most of the people was, ah, of the Blacks, and was of the, more or less the unlettered man, at first. Ali personally was attracted by it because the philosophy and the teaching itself. The philosophy was that he saw that this was a Black, Black group, calling, ah, Black man calling all White people devils, and then he say he went back home and he looked on his, ah, the picture on his wall where he had Jesus and, ah, all of the twelve disciples of Jesus, The Last Supper, and he noticed everybody was White. And so, so then he started having a conflict in his self about what, what effect would this, would be on the White society if it was reversed, if these people was all Black and they had to live with a Black Jesus, and a Black, ah, ah, what we called disciples. What kind of effect would it be on thei- their mind. And he come to the conclusion that this would definitely have a bad effect on any society u- using racism in, in, in divinity. So then he saw that this wasn't right, and he joined, ah, my father because that this little Black man was, has bold enough to tell the world that they was, all Whites was devils. Then he got bold enough to tell everybody he was the greatest and he can beat any man on the, on, alive. So this promoted him and to saying he was the greatest, 'cause my father, philosopher of the Blacks, was the greatest. And they was the, the greater, you know, human beings, than the physically and then, ah, and mentally, if they was given the chance to express themselves.
Great, great, let's cut. That's good, that was a good answer. Now what I want to ask you is--
Tell me, Mr. Muhammad, members of the, when people joined the Nation they had to change their name--what was the reason behind that?
Uh well, before the, we was carrying the names of our slave masters and, ah, we felt that if we was free we shouldn't be identified with our slave master in our names, that if I marry a young lady and her name is Bogatonga and I, and my name Suana, then her name should be, ah, from a free person. And I'm, and, ah, wh- and the Black person is supposed to have been free, so they went back into their own names, and not identify them with the o- oppressors, or the White slave masters or any derivative from them. Ah, you have to realize in this context now, this was in the context of the 60s. Ah, a lot of the things that we know is not going on in our society, they wouldn't go on then, and now we don't call White folks devils, there was a, just because they're our oppressors still, in some form.
OK, Mr. Muhammad, tell me the story about your father talking to you about calling Cassius, about changing his name.
Yes, ah, yes, ah, why, when, ah, my father called me on the phone about changing, ah, ah, Cassius Clay name to Muhammad Ali--Ali was in training for this upcoming Sonny Liston fight, and he told me that get in touch with him if I could and let him know that his name was, has been changed, he was changing his name from Cassius Marcellus Clay, to Muhammad Ali. And that this name would connect him with five billion Muslims all around the world, and they would rally behind him and he would become like a Statue of Liberty in the harbor of New York, that everyone would want to see him and, ah, that everyone would want his autograph. And this have became a fact.
I want to ask you that one again
OK, Mr. Ali, Mr. Muhammad, tell me about your father talking to you about calling Ali, to change his name Clay.
Yes. My, my father called me concerning to change, ah, Mu- Cassius Clay name at the time, to Muhammad Ali, because in our, ah, religious organization at that time, we, our philosophy was that the Black people, the once slaves should not carry the name of their once slave masters, that theys[SIC], they name should be identified with, with their origin, and since Muhammad Ali was a Muslim, he should carry a Muslim name. And that name he gave him was "Muhammad Ali," and he told me if--
That was good, they ran out, that was good, that was good, you ran out--
OK, Mr. Muhammad, tell me about your father calling and talking to you about calling Clay and changing his name and why he had to change his name and what it would mean.
Yes, my father called me, this was in the early '60s, in February, ah, when Ali was, ah, at that time called Cassius Clay, but he was getting ready for his upcoming fight against Sonny Liston. My father called me and told me that, ah, to call Ali and get in touch with him and let him know that his name should not be Cassius Clay, that Cassius Clay identifies him with his slave master. And since he's a Muslim he's a free man, and he's a free person, and he's, and a Muslim, and id- identifies him with five billion Muslim all around the world, and his name would be known as Muhammad Ali, ah, from and on. And--
OK, what did he say it would do, what would Muhammad, I mean people would do what?
Yes, he, he informed me that, ah, let him know that, ah, the people, by his name being Muhammad Ali, all the Muslim around the world would rally around his, his name and rally around him, and they'll see him as the Statue of Liberty, and that when they come they would want to get his pictures and autograph and that that would be a good way for him to let the world know that he's a Muslim from the Nation of Islam.
Very good, excellent, excellent. Now you and Ali went to Europe, went to Africa in `64. What, what were some of the nations you went to and who were some of the leaders you met; what was the, what was the reception like from the people?
Well, ah, before Ali, when Ali met me I was in my studio and, ah, this is how he came to meet me personally after I had informed him about his name. And he came in my studio and just about a week before then I had shot the, a photograph of his first wife, Sonji Clay. And I had delivered her picture to him, to her about two days after I met Ali. And so she signed an autograph, only never meeting Ali, but she signed her picture, 11 by 14--from one champ to another--and never seen Ali, that's his first wife, Sonji Aur- Sonji Aurora, at that time. And Ali, from right then, Ali told me that he was invited to go to, ah, make a African tour and did I come, I care to come along. He went to my father and asked my, asked my father 'cause I was working there with my father. My father told him, yes, that I would be the one to go. And I think these were the words that tied me with Ali for 25 years now, my father told him that, ah, "My son, Herbert," my name was called Herbert then, Herbert Muhammad, and he said, "my son, Herbert, will be the one to go with you." 'Cause he knows how I would answer any question that you want to ask me, just ask my son Herbert, and he would tell you. This was a bounding, binding factor from, ah, me and Ali career, from that day to this, that Ali knows that, ah, when he's speaking, he ask me a question, that I would answer them like my father would answer them to him, and this is the person that really Ali loved and followed, into his career.
So when you went to Africa, where did you go in Africa?
When we went to Africa, we went to Ghana--
Start again, I'm sorry, I jumped on top of you.
I jumped on top of you, go ahead.
OK, OK. Well, we went, went to, ah, Ghana and, ah, we went to Nigeria, we went to Egypt. There was the three main countries we went to first. And, ah, by me, had been traveling those some path already in 1959 with my father, that was also the reason my father told Ali I should go with him, 'cause Gamal Abdel Nasser, the, the President of Egypt, ah, when they got there, they, ah, he had an invitation for Rah- for Rahan and Ali to come visit him. And the security, they would not accept me, they say he just, they bring Ali in and his brother. So, but when Ali got there they, Nasser asked him, "Where's Herbert Muhammad?" And he said that he is not here. He said, "Well, you all go back, I won't see you unt- I won't see you until we, you, you bring Herbert back." So the next day they brought me back and that's how, ah, the trip went from then on, Ali saw that the Nation of Islam, through the leadership of my father had, it was respected over there, because his son was respected. So--
How was he received by, by the people over there?
He was received by the people--
I'm sorry, I'm just going to stop you--
Well, Ali was, ah, and the people received Ali very good, they received him as though he was the president of their country, or a king actually, and most people say that Ali got more attention from the pu- the masses, than their president or their king gets. So their people was very warmly received, and also the kings and president received him also very great**.
Yes, in 1964, ah, we was, Ali was invited to go to several African countries. Ah, the three that, ah, I remember very distinctly is, is, ah, Ghana and Nigeria and Egypt. And he was received very well from all the mass of the people. Ah, they came out in hundreds of thousands. In fact, in Ghana, I thought I might even get killed, just so many people was running to Ali, I ran away from him to get, to save my life. Ah, and the same thing happened in, in Egypt**. They would almost turn over the cars that Ali was, ah, in--they just, it was just, you just really can't even believe how it was, it was worse than they showed the Beetles, when the people come out to the Beetles or Michael Jackson. Yes, it was very, very good.
Great, let's cut, that's good, that's a very good answer.
OK, Mr. Muhammad, Ali had been told he needed to go before the Illinois State Commission to apologize if he was going to, if they were going to sanction the fight with Ernie Turrell. What did you counsel, what was your counsel to Ali before he went before the Commission?
Ah, my counsel with him before he went, uh--
You got to include Ali's name.
Yes, ah, is, ah, is Muhammad Ali?
Yes, you say my co- you know, I counseled Ali before he went before the Commission and--
Yes, yes, yes. Yes, my counsel, ah, my discussion with Muhammad Ali before he went before the, ah, State Commission, was that he was, ah, you know, he must stand up for what he believe in, and that if he, he believe in Islam and he was following my father, then it must be reflected in his decision that he make, he make today. And then, ah, he said he's stand, taking th- the stand that he did, where everybody know, but he had no cause with the Vietcong, he was not going to be a party to anybody killing the innocent womens and childrens and thing- or even being associated, a hospital, nothing like that. So he told them, "Clean out my cell and take my tail to jail before I do something like that."
And tell me about what you were saying that you were soldiers and, and no one, and nobody who was a member of the Nation spoke to your, your father about what they should do.
Oh yes, being, when like Muhammad Ali or myself or anyone else, I was also in that time, and my brother Wallace, who's now the head of our community, he went to jail, my br- I had three or four brothers went to jail before we even saw Ali. So, ah, everyone knowed at that time, there's no need of going to ask the Honorable Elijah Muhammad what should they do because that would show that they was weak in their faith. They would believe that I must be wea- in, weak in my faith, after I know my leader done taken a st- a stand, in his life, and spent five years in jail for not going to the Army, they were, "How can I feel to go and ask that same leader, 'what should I do?'" His record speaks for itself what he should tell you. So, but he wouldn't get, ah, my father would not let his self be a party to that because they kn- he know the that was, that person can go and tell the draft people that the Honorable Elijah Muhammad say "I'm not going, I'm not going," then they'll go and charge my father. So my father would never give them a answer what they should do, said, "Do whatever your conscious leads you to do, follow your own conscious."
Great, let's cut.
This was right before Ali went to the Houston Induction that you spoke with him constantly all the time. What was some of the counseling that you gave Ali before he was supposed to appear, appear before the Houston Induction Board?
Well, before he was, ah, to appear before the Induction Board--
Before Ali was in, ah--
Say, start again--
OK, yes, Before Ali was, ah, to appear before the Induction Board, he called me that morning, as he do most mornings and most nights, and he was asking me, you know, like what do you think going to happen, not that what he should do. I think Ali was already convinced in his own conscious that he was going to stand up for his principles but he always liked to bounce it off to me how I felt about it because we also realized the repercussion that this could have about his career**. So he had made up his mind that he was going to stand up for his principles and that what, what else can he, I, I tell him? I said, "No, you just must, you know, be convinced in your own mind and conscious that what you are doing is right, 'cause whatever come after, you're going to be the person that is required to, to get any reward or any punishment." So he, he had made up his mind, he was convinced that he would take a stand on the side of what we called the injustice. Ah, that he would not be a party to a, an unjust war.
Great. Cut. Good, good, that's a very good answer.
Mr. Muhammad, tell me the kind of reaction he was getting,I mean calls, people shooting at his house, when he had made his anti-Vietnam statements.
Yes, you say, ah, when Muhammad made an anti-V- ah, Vietnam statement, I think he made a pro Vietnam statement. When you say anti-against it, you say he was against the, ah, you mean the war, anti-war statement that he--
--OK, that he was against the wa- the war on them.
Let's do it again.
OK, when Ali made his anti-war statements, what was some of the reaction, he was getting phone calls--
Yes, When Ali ma- made his, ah, his statement that he was not going to be a party to an unjust war against the Vietcong, ah, Vietnam, the Vietcong people, that, ah, it was a backlash from the White community. Some of them would call him all times of night, threaten to bump[SIC] up his house, they would throw rocks at his house, some even drive by in cars hollering and drunk and shooting at his place, and different things like that**. And then he had a lot of, of bad press, some of the, ah, people like Dick Young, they would always write very bad and negative about what he was doing. So he had a lot of, you know, things to overcome, and they'd go out on the street and some of the people would curse him and call him out of his names, yes, a lot of things like that happened.
And he had phone calls, what were the phone calls like?
Phone call was threatening calls. Ah, they would, they would threaten Muhammad Ali on, by mak- making calls, that, ah, someone would call him name, all kind of derogatory name you can think of back in those days in the 60s, that a White person would call a Black person that they didn't like. So he got all the, the, the whole nine yards of it. So, it didn't effect him in no way because he always felt that these people had a devilish nature anyway.
OK, so, ah, this is the wrap up, this is the, this is the last one. I just want you to tell me again the kind of reaction he was getting when he made his anti-war statements, ah, the kind of calls he was getting, people you know, coming to his house and stuff like that.
Yes, well, Muhammad Ali, when he made his statement that he would not have anything to do with the Vietnam War, that, ah, he began to get a lot of statements from different, people in the White community, especially White community, they would throw rocks at his house, they'd shoot his house at night, they would give, they would call him all times of day and night, because they, they, they was very hurt themselves because they, some of their family members or their socially loved ones had been killed in, in the war, and they didn't feel, "Why did Muhammad Ali can make this kind of money an- and of the people in the United States and he don't go to war," you know, and then so they would, ah, threaten him, ah, shoot, shoot at his house, do all these kind of things. On the street they would spit on him, spit at him or something, call him out of his name, they'd do a lot of bad things. And, ah, this didn't effect Ali in no way, ah, and, ah, against the peoples, because he know that there was some people that had that kind of men- mentality.
Great, thank you, cut.