Tony Messenger Had Perfect Response to a Caller Who Refused to Say Muhammad Ali's Name


Is there anything better than hanging up on a jerk? - KTRS 550
  • KTRS 550
  • Is there anything better than hanging up on a jerk?
Substituting for McGraw Milhaven on KTRS (550 AM) Tuesday morning, St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Tony Messenger came out swinging when a caller insisted on calling Muhammad Ali by his birth name, Cassius Clay. 

Ali, the legendary boxer and outspoken activist who passed away last week, changed his name in 1964 after converting to Islam. But that didn't seem to register with the caller, identified only as Barry from Potosi, who began his question, "I can't quite understand the news media going absolutely berserk over Cassius Clay. He was a great fighter..."

Messenger cut him off. "His name was Muhammad Ali, sir." 

Barry wouldn't be easily cowed. He responded by repeating Clay's name, with some oomph behind it. "Cassius Clay," said Barry, attempting to continue with something along the lines of, "that's the name he was born with..."

Messenger was having none of it. 

"Get off the phone, Barry," Messenger shot back. "Barry, get off the phone." 

Messenger wasn't done, though. The columnist launched into an defense of Ali's name and faith, castigating the Barrys of the world who have a problem with the boxer's legacy as an athlete and Muslim. 

"I get it," continued Messenger, "His name was Cassius Clay, but this is where we are as a society, the man converted to Islam, that was his faith. And I respect that that was his faith and his name was Muhammad Ali. And people who want to call him Cassius Clay today disrespect him and they disrespect the man's faith. And they disrespect my Christian faith." 

Messenger was raised a Roman Catholic. He reflected on air about his faith's tradition of adding a name at confirmation. 

"Now we don't in our faith tradition change our name, but people who convert from Christianity to Islam do. And I respect that because the man was faithful  to his faith. And I'm sorry Barry, I appreciate the phone call, but I'm not going to sit here and talk to people who want to disrespect the man's faith and the man's life after he died by using his former name. That's just disrespectful."

That Messenger can deliver an eloquent defense of decency should come as no surprise. As the paper's editorial page director, in 2014 he dropped conservative columnist George Will like bad habit over an opinion column that callously belittled rape victims. 

More recently, in a column titled "Standing with American Muslims because love beats fear every time," Messenger laid out his common-sense philosophy for tolerance in the face of mounting religious paranoia and bigotry

"The way to defeat fear is with love," Messenger wrote. "And the way we love our neighbors is to understand and respect them.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story included the incorrect title for Tony Messenger. He is currently a columnist. We regret the error.

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Riverfront Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Riverfront Times Club for as little as $5 a month.