Patterson’s “Moral Crusade”: Islamophobia in Ali v. Patterson

By Michael T. Barry Jr.

One of the most anticipated sporting events of 1965, and the 1960s in general, was the North American Boxing Federation’s heavyweight championship bought between Floyd Patterson and Muhammad Ali. Muhammad Ali just came off an impressive victory over Sonny Liston, and Floyd Patterson was once a two-time world champion. Like most Ali fights, this bought was surrounded by controversy and back-and-forth trash talking between the two opponents.

Although not uncommon for an Ali fight, a new element entered the dialogue from 1964 to 1965. Following his fight with Sonny Liston, then Cassius Clay denounced his given name and avowed his allegiance to Islam, specifically the Nation of Islam. He officially became Muhammad Ali. This sparked outrage, confusion, and fervor across the nation, as Americans questioned and criticized the famous boxer. This included insults from his upcoming opponent, Floyd Patterson, an African American Roman Catholic. Not just a Catholic, Patterson was a devout Catholic. So committed to his Catholic faith, Patterson once stated, “If the Church bans boxing I would quit boxing immediately.”[1]

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that in the weeks and months leading up to the fight, Patterson continuously reiterated his allegiance to Christian America. He did this by frequently attacking Muhammad Ali’s Muslim faith. In one instance, Patterson went as far as to tell Sports Illustrated, “I have the right to call the Black Muslims a menace to the United States and a menace to the Negro race. I have a right to say the Black Muslims stink. I am a Roman Catholic… Cassius Clay is disgracing himself and the Negro race.”[2] Here, Patterson echoed the Islamophobic sentiments of many Americans at the time, especially White Americans.

“Black Muslims” or more specifically, the Nation of Islam were viewed as an aggressive, occult, militant organization. In most instances, these accusations were unwarranted and Islamophobic. Patterson espoused many such misguided ideas in making statements like “(Black Muslims’) rebellion and violence is wrong.”[3] Simply put, the idea that the Nation of Islam was “violent” is false. The Nation of Islam advocated African American self-protection and African American gun ownership under the second amendment, not unprovoked violence. The reality is, the Nation of Islam was rarely, if ever, involved in violent behavior.

Although these Islamophobic ideas about the “violent” Black Muslim were prominent, the most central dissatisfaction with Ali and Muslims stemmed from their perceived difference to the predominately White Christian society. It is a fact that the Nation of Islam has loose connections to traditional, orthodox Sunni Islam, but the organization still acted in the name of Islam, gave thanks to Allah (as Ali did on many occasions after the fight), and carried out numerous cultural activities associated with Islam and the Pan-Arab/Asiatic world. To many Americans, the Nation of Islam’s actual beliefs were irrelevant, they seemed and acted Muslim therefore they were Muslim. In most instances, it was this difference, the perceived “foreign” nature of Black Muslims’ behaviors, appearances, and connections to the East, which led to the Islamophobic rhetoric surrounding the Nation of Islam and Ali.

Americans wanted a Christian champion, one who was loyal to the White, American power structure, not a Muslim. Patterson was the champion White, Christian America desired and he embraced this, taking on their Islamophobic rhetoric before the fight. As Ali’s onetime friend, Malcolm X explained, “(Patterson) announce(ed) that as a Catholic, he wanted to fight Cassius Clay-to save the heavyweight crown from being held by a Muslim.”[4] In his own words, Patterson stated, “I love boxing. The image of a Black Muslim as the world heavyweight champion disgraces the sport and the nation.”[5] Patterson considered his fight with Ali a “moral Crusade.”[6]

It is important to note, as a Black man, living in America, Floyd Patterson, like Ali, was frequently a target of racism. At the same time, Patterson also espoused Islamophobic ideas, ideas implemented and utilized by the dominant, Christian, (the same power structure denying African Americans basic human rights). For this reason, Malcolm X called Patterson a “brainwashed Black Christian” and Muhammad Ali called him an “Uncle Tom Both Ali and Malcolm X thought Patterson was too loyal to White America, accepting the status quo and adopting White America’s culture, practices, and religion. Indeed, following his success, Patterson moved into a wealthy, White neighborhood, but at the same time was “miserable” and was often subjected to racist hate speech.[8] Therefore, Patterson presents a complicated case in the American experience. Islamophobia in America has existed since the nation’s very inception. In many instances in history, Islamophobic ideas have had clear and obvious intent and consequences, like Pastor Terry Jones’ proposed Qur’an burnings in Dearborn, MI or President Trump’s Muslim travel bans. In instances like the case of Floyd Patterson, the Islamophobia is more complex, traversing the nuances of race, gender, and class in the American experience.

For individuals like Patterson, one could be both the target of racism, while targeting others with Islamophobic ideas. To be fair to individuals like Patterson, Islamophobic ideas in America originated in the Christian values of the West. Patterson lived in a racist, Christian dominated, Western society, where acceptance of Christianity almost certainly made his life easier or at the least, more tolerable. Patterson was a consumer of Islamophobic ideas and shared Islamophobic ideas, but he and other consumers like him, were far from the creators or producers of Islamophobic ideas. Yet, they reflected the culture of America and demonstrate that participating in Islamophobia became a necessary requirement to fit in.

Islamophobic ideas are produced by major power players in the American experience, such as businessmen and women, politicians, and thinkers. Often White, rich, and Christian, these individuals utilize the media, academics, business, medicine, the arts, and sports to create, sustain, and support Islamophobic ideas for the benefit of their own self-interests. The number of individuals in this group is small, the preverbally “one-percent,” but they are powerful and are the nexus of the Islamophobic ideas we all consume. In this case, White investors and promotors stood to gain greatly from the ongoing conflict between Ali and Patterson, and religious rivalry was one such tool to drive interest. Religious and racial rivalries have long been a tool of marketers in the history of sport in America, especially in the sport of boxing, which often pit Catholics against Protestant, African Americans against White Americans, and in this case, a Catholic versus a Muslim.

For individuals like Patterson, he likely believed his Islamophobia towards Ali would ingratiate himself with the dominate White, power structure, leading to a better life in the racist America, and/or he truly believed the Islamophobic ideas he espoused as a devout Catholic. Regardless, these Islamophobic ideas are part of a long, hurtful history in the American experience, one that has yet to be eradicated.

Ultimately, Ali won the fight and became arguably one the most famous athletes in American history. Following his death, media outlets and commentators celebrated him as such, a deserved memory to be sure. At the same time though, it is important to remember Ali was not always viewed as fondly in America. Even by his own peers, like Patterson, who frequently made Ali the target of Islamophobic ideas. Today, Ali is remembered more as an “American” icon than a “Muslim American” icon, with many choosing not to acknowledge or praise his Muslim identity. Indeed, Ali should be an exemplar of courage for his work in the ring, but he should also be an exemplar of courage for his work fighting against Islamophobic ideas in America.

Michael T. Barry Jr., is a doctoral candidate at American University in Washington, DC and the Executive Editor of The Activist History Review. He studies African American and Muslim American history and is writing his dissertation on the history of Islamophobic ideas and anti-Islamophobic resistance in America. Barry has contributed writings to outlets like Black Perspectives, The Gainesville Sun, Truthout, The Blackprint, and The Worcester Telegram & Gazette. Michael is also a documentary filmmaker, specializing in oral history. His films “U Street Contested” and “The Universal Soldier: Vietnam” have won and been nominated for numerous awards, as they have screened at film festivals and historic venues across the country. Follow him on Twitter at @MTBarryJr.

[1] Mike Anscombe, “Interview with Floyd Patterson,” Sports Probe, 1978. Note: In this later interview, Anscombe asks Patterson about his comments from the 1965 Ali fight.

[2] Floyd Patterson, Sports Illustrated, October 1965.

[3] Floyd Patterson, Sports Illustrated, October 1965.

[4] Malcolm X and Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Grove Press, 1965) 315,

[5] Floyd Patterson, Sports Illustrated, October 1965.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Malcolm X and Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Grove Press, 1965) 315.

[8] Malcolm X and Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Grove Press, 1965) 315.

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