The cover of Sports Illustrated; 20 July 1990
On this day in 1903, the noted abolitionist (emancipationist is a more correct term) Cassius Clay passed away. Clay, known by the fetching nickname "The Lion of White Hall" was a true paradox: a southern aristocrat who became a prominent anti-slavery crusader. He was born into the Clay family, one of the wealthiest families in Kentucky. As a student at Yale, Clay was inspired to join the anti-slavery movement in the early 1830’s. He had a brief career as a military man, local politician and newspaper publisher, supporting his friend Abraham Lincoln for President, all while championing the cause of freedom for the American slaves. When the Civil War broke out, Clay declined the offer of Ambassador to Spain and instead became a diplomatic Minister to Russia (while in Russia, he witnessed the Czar’s emancipation edict, freeing serfs slaves across Russia).
President Lincoln informs his chief advisors and cabinet that he will issue a proclamation to free slaves, but adds that he will wait until the Union Army has achieved a substantial military victory to make the announcement. At the time of this meeting, things were not looking good for the Union. The Confederate Army had overcome Union troops in significant battles and Britain and France were set to officially recognize the Confederacy as a separate nation. He hoped a strong statement declaring a national policy of emancipation would stimulate a rush of the South’s slaves into the ranks of the Union Army, thus depleting the Confederacy’s labor force, on which it depended to wage war against the North. As promised, Lincoln waited to unveil the proclamation until he could do so on the heels of a successful Union military advance. On 22 September 1862, after a victory at Antietam, he publicly announced a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, declaring all slaves free in the rebellious states as of January 1, 1863. (DC connection: The original Emancipation Proclamation is stored at the National Archives, along with other historical treasures like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Want to see it yourself: click here.
Former world Heavy Weight Champion boxer Muhammad Ali was born as Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. after his father, Cassius Marcellus Clay, Sr., who was named for the emancipationist. (DC connection: you can see Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves on the second floor of the American History Museum).