The FBI, which monitored several figures during the 50s and 60s they considered to be “subversive” including Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, and many others, also kept Muhammad Ali under close scrutiny over his ties to the Nation of Islam, newly released documents from the agency show.
The 142-page document, created in 1966 and added to the bureaus list of released files last month, outlines how the agency monitored the daily life of the heavyweight champ who, two years prior had changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, reflecting his religious conversion to Islam. A series of informants, whose names were redacted from the document, and which the FBI had placed close to the NOI, kept notes on the minute details of his life in order to monitor the happenings within the group and the movements of its leader, Elijah Muhammad.
Among the details the FBI was so intricately interested in was the management of Ali’s career by the NOI, fights he had scheduled around the country, his divorce proceedings from then-wife Sonji (including his alimony payments to her), NOI conventions that Ali had been involved with, a Chicago traffic arrest, and much of the media coverage surrounding Ali from the Chicago Sun-Times to Sports Illustrated to a 1966 JET gossip blurb about rumors that Muhammad had arranged a marriage between Ali and a daughter of former Egyptian president Gamal Nasser. The rumor turned out to be untrue, but the magazine was retained in an FBI file.
They also detail his behavior within the Nation of Islam and dissatisfaction among some leaders in the group about his outspokenness and that there was even talk of forcing Ali to join the Fruit of Islam, the NOI’s paramilitary arm.
The bureau also paid close attention to any possibility that Ali would claim conscientious objector status if he were to be drafted. It apparently began to ask people who he may have known while living in hotels around Los Angeles about how he felt about becoming part of the military in an attempt to see if he would try to evade service.
One FBI memo, taken by an informant monitoring an NOI meeting reads:
A source who attends meetings of MM (Muhammad’s Mosque) #29 advised on April 27, 1966 that CASSIUS CLAY spoke to about 30 persons attending the April 24, 1966 meeting of MM #29. CLAY told those in attendance that the “White man” was trying to take his title away from him but that he and his associates were too smart for him. He also said that people were now staying away from the white man because the white man lies and makes promises that he does not keep. This source also said that CLAY told his listeners that the Muslims did not want to fight anyone, white or black.
The next year, Ali did declare publicly his refusal to be drafted. He was tried, found guilty of draft evasion, and stripped of his heavyweight title. Although he was fined and sentenced to five years in prison, he successfully appealed his case but did not return to the ring until 1970 and eventually won the title back in 1974.
The document admits that the FBI had been continuously monitoring the Nation of Islam and its operations for years, but claims that Ali himself was not the under any “active investigation.” It seems to infer that Ali’s worth to the NOI was his notoriety as a boxing champ. “He holds no policy-making position in the NOI,” the document said. “His chief value is the publicity he brings this organization and the funds he contributes to it. Officials recommended that no investigation of Ali should take place because they feared he could charge the bureau with harassment.
Muhammad Ali died in June at age 74.
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