Muhammad Ali’s Civil War Inheritance: A Historical Note

Muhammad Ali’s Civil War Inheritance: A Historical Note

The death of Muhammad Ali reminded people here in America and across the world of the many ways in which his life had meaning beyond his triumphs in the boxing ring. As numerous people have recalled in recent days, Ali was more than a fierce boxer; he lived a fierce life. He fought for recognition of his dignity, integrity, intellect, and humanity and that of black people everywhere. He refused to fight in the Vietnam War, insisting that as a black man, he had no fight there and for that saw his right to earn a living in his profession and to travel abroad stripped away. As the 150th anniversaries of the Civil War and Reconstruction merge and collide, it is worth thinking about the legacy Ali leaves—and remembering the one he inherited. He was the great-grandson of a black Civil War soldier and the grandson of a man who challenged in his own way the racial determinations imposed on black people. His life of resistance to racial discrimination and dehumanization stands as a memoir of the generations-long struggle of black people to give meaning to the freedom won during the Civil War and the enduring legacy of that fight in the ongoing contest over what it means to be free.

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Muhammad Ali in Zaire, 1974. Photo by Howard L. Bingham. [1]

Ali’s fight against injustice—his very sense of injustice—rightfully belongs to the long history of the black freedom struggle that began in the first days of black people’s enslavement in this country. In the War for Independence, black men fought on the side of the revolutionaries and others took advantage of opportunities offered by the British to flee slavery and secure their freedom. They fought again in the War of 1812 and then, on their own, in revolts and every day resistance. When the nation split in 1861 over slavery, they took this struggle to the Union side. Over 180,000 black men served as soldiers in the United States Army and Navy during the Civil War, and hundreds of thousands more enslaved men, women, and children put their lives on the line to resist slavery and defeat slaveholders’ attempt to establish an unabashedly proud pro-slavery nation.

The Civil War generation of African Americans, wherever they were, helped to defeat the Confederacy and, as President Lincoln acknowledged, black soldiers were critical to victory. Freedom for the enslaved and the “use of colored troops,” Lincoln wrote to a critic of the Emancipation Proclamation in the late summer of 1864, “constitute the heaviest blow yet dealt to the rebellion.” Without them, he had concluded, “we can not longer maintain the contest.” Military necessity had forced Lincoln to join the chorus of abolitionists like Frederick Douglass who called for the enlistment of black men and argued that military service translated into a right to freedom and citizenship. “Drive back to the support of the rebellion the physical force which the colored people now give, and promise us, and neither the present, nor any coming administration, can save the Union,” Lincoln wrote. “Take from us, and give to the enemy, the hundred and thirty, forty, or fifty thousand colored persons now serving us as soldiers, seamen, and laborers, and we can not longer maintain the contest.”[2] For black men, military service in the Civil War entailed unique dangers. Those who left slavery to become soldiers faced an enemy that refused to acknowledge them as enemy combatants and a U.S War Department that discriminated against them in matters of pay and disproportionate assignments to noncombat duties. Their families were vulnerable to retaliation from slaveholders. Even so, a future of slavery meant they had to make the sacrifice. Muhammad Ali’s maternal great-grandfather, Thomas Morehead, was among those who reached this conclusion.

Muster roll descriptive information for Thomas Morehead, Ali's maternal great-grandfather. Image from Ancestry.com. [3]
Muster roll descriptive information for Thomas Morehead, Ali’s maternal great-grandfather. Image from Ancestry.com. [3]

Enslaved in Kentucky, one of the four border states whose allegiance to the Union Lincoln saw as critical to Union victory, Thomas Morehead, like many black men, left behind a wife and two children when he mustered in at Bowling Green, Kentucky in September 1864. Morehead served in the 122nd United Stated Colored Infantry (USCI) organized at Louisville in December 1864. Within two months he had been promoted to 1st Sergeant. He was with the 122nd when it was ordered to the front in Virginia where Morehead and his comrades participated in the siege operations against Petersburg and Richmond. After the Civil War, the 122nd USCI was ordered to Brazos Santiago, Texas. Morehead was one of some 10,000 black soldiers stationed in Texas in the fall of 1865. After his discharge on September 24, 1865 at Corpus Christi, Sergeant Morehead made his way back to his family in Kentucky.  In 1891, at the age of 51, Thomas Morehead married Lizzy, a woman 30 years his junior.[4] To this union was born Bertie (Birdie) Morehead, Muhammad Ali’s maternal grandmother. In adulthood, Bertie married John L. Grady, Sr. Ali’s mother, Odessa Grady Clay, was their child. Morehead passed along more than his name. He left to his descendants a love for and a politics of freedom. The experience of soldiering in Texas taught black soldiers important lessons in what it meant to serve a country that begrudged them basic civil rights.

In changing his name, his religion, and taking a stand against the war, Skip Gates writes, Muhammad Ali “helped move black radicalism into the mainstream.”[5] In this, Ali showed something of his inheritance from Thomas Morehead and his grandfather, John L. Grady, Sr. Asserting that he was a “Natural Born Citizen,” on his World War I Draft Registration card, the Kentucky coal miner listed his race as Ethiopian.[6]

Draft registration card for John Louis Grady, Ali's maternal grandfather. Image from Ancestry.com.
Draft registration card for John Louis Grady, Ali’s maternal grandfather. Image from Ancestry.com.

[1] “Muhammad Ali,” Los Angeles Times, June 9, 2016, http://www.latimes.com/sports/sportsnow/lat-sp-5-muhammad-ali-20141228-photo.html.

[2] A. Lincoln to Hon. Charles D. Robinson, August 17, 1864, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, vol. 7, p. 501.

[3] Thomas Morehead, Compiled Military Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers Who Served the United States Colored Troops: 56th-138th USCT Infantry, 1864-1866, Fold3 Database from Carded Records Showing Military Service of Soldiers Who Fought in Volunteer Organizations During the American Civil War, (USCT 122, Box 28, RG 94, NARA). See also Soldiers and Sailors Database, https://www.nps.gov/civilwar/soldiers-and-sailors-database.htm.

[4] It appears that he had six children with his first wife, Georgia Morehead.

[5] Henry Louis Gates, “Muhammad Ali, the Political Poet,” New York Times, June 9, 2016.

[6] John Louis [Lewis] Grady, World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918, Fold3 Database (RG 163, M1509, NARA).

Thavolia Glymph

Thavolia Glymph is associate professor of History and African & African American Studies at Duke University.

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