Cassius Marcellus Clay

Cassius Marcellus Clay

Cassius Marcellus Clay

How the son of a wealthy slave-owning family became an anti-racist.

Cassius Marcellus Clay
Cassius Marcellus Clay
by Lynn Burnett –

In 1810, Cassius Marcellus Clay was born into one of the wealthiest slave-owning families in Kentucky.

However, while studying at Yale, he heard the radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison speak. It was a powerful experience that seriously challenged the beliefs Cassius was raised with, and set him on the path to embracing abolition.

This prominent son of wealthy slave owners later served three terms in the Kentucky House of Representatives, where, due to his anti-slavery views, he was attacked and threatened.

The stories of Cassius Clay fighting off assailants sound like the stuff of legend. During a heated public debate, for example, a hired killer fired a bullet into Cassius’ chest … just as Cassius was unsheathing his bowie knife, which took the hit and saved his life. Despite having just taken the impact of a bullet, Cassius tossed the would-be assassin over an embankment—after slicing off his nose and one of his ears. When six men wielding knives and clubs attacked Cassius at a public meeting, he was stabbed in the back, but was still able to end the fight by gutting one of them and causing the rest to flee.

In 1845, Cassius Clay began publishing an anti-slavery newspaper called True American. He installed armored doors at the printing press, as well as two cannons. It didn’t stop a mob of 60 men from storming the press, and forcing the publication to relocate to a free state (even as Cassius himself remained in Kentucky).

A decade-and-a-half later, Cassius Clay would organize the defense unit that protected the White House when the Civil War erupted. He served as minister to Russia during the war, where he helped to secure Russia’s support for the Union. When President Lincoln recalled him from Russia in 1862 to serve as a general in the Union Army, Cassius publicly refused the position unless the president issued a proclamation freeing all slaves under Confederate control, which Lincoln did later that same year.

Nine years after Cassius Clay’s death in 1903, a man named Herman Heaton Clay—whose ancestors had been enslaved by the Clay family—named his son after the knife-wielding abolitionist. That Cassius Clay, born in 1912, would later name his son Cassius Clay, Jr., better known to the world as Muhammad Ali.

This story is part of the White Antiracist Ancestry Project’s efforts to mobilize White people for racial justice.

The White Antiracist Ancestry Project is working to build stronger support for Black- and Brown-led racial justice efforts by providing powerful examples of White antiracism. Read more stories about White Antiracists in US history at crossculturalsolidarity.com/short-portraits-of-white-antiracists-in-u-s-history.

Cross Cultural Solidarity

Achieving racial equity and building a strong, robust democracy requires all of us to unite, as Black, Brown, and White. At the core of Cross Cultural Solidarity’s vision is that multiracial unity is strengthened when we know one another’s histories, and when we see powerful examples of embodied solidarity. Cross Cultural Solidarity lifts up all things racial justice, while bringing a special focus to Black/Brown solidarity and White antiracism in US history.

More information can be found at crossculturalsolidarity.com.

 

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Cassius Marcellus Clay

Cassius Marcellus Clay

Cassius Marcellus Clay

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