Muhammad Ali’s resistance to racism and war belongs not only to the 1960s, but the common future of humanity.
By: Dave Zirin
Film footage of Muhammad Ali is used to sell everything from soft drinks to cars. The image we are spoon-fed is the improbably charismatic boxer, dancing in the ring and shouting “I am the greatest.”
The present Muhammad Ali is also a very public figure, despite his near total inability to move or speak. His voice has been silenced by both his years of boxing and Parkinson’s disease. This Ali has been embraced by the establishment as a walking saint.
In 1996, Ali was sent with his trembling hands to light the Olympic Torch in Atlanta. In 2002, he “agreed to star in a Hollywood-produced advertising campaign, designed to explain America and the war in Afghanistan to the Muslim world.”
Ali has been absorbed by the establishment as a legend — a harmless icon. There is barely a trace left of the controversial truth: There has never been an athlete more reviled by the mainstream press, more persecuted by the US government, or more defiantly beloved throughout the world than Muhammad Ali. There is now barely a mention of this Ali, who was the catalyst for bringing the issues of racism and war into professional sports.
The mere thought of athletes using their insanely exalted and hyper-commercialized platform to take stands against injustice is now almost unthinkable. Such actions would break the golden rule of big-time sports — “jocks” are not to be political, except when it comes to saluting the flag, supporting the troops, and selling war.
That is why, when Toni Smith, the basketball captain at little Division III Manhattanville College, turned her back on the flag in 2003, the attack was rabid. The same year, Wake Forest basketball All-American Josh Howard said about the US war on Iraq, “it’s all over oil…that’s how I feel.” Howard was not only derided publicly, but NBA draft reports stated, “Antiwar remarks reflect rumored erratic behavior.”
The hidden history of Muhammad Ali and the revolt of the black athlete in the 1960s is a living history. By reclaiming it from the powers that be, we can understand more than the struggles of the 1960s. We can see how struggle can shape every aspect of life under capitalism — even sports.
Fighting for Justice
No sport has chewed athletes up and spit them out — especially black athletes — quite like boxing. For the very few who “make it,” it is never the sport of choice. Boxing is for the poor, for people born at the absolute margins of society.
The first boxers in the United States were slaves. Southern plantation owners amused themselves by putting together the strongest slaves and having them fight it out while wearing iron collars.
But after the abolition of slavery, boxing was unique among sports because, unlike every other major sport, it was desegregated as early as the turn of the last century. This was not because the promoters who ran boxing were in any way progressive. Quite the contrary. The brutality of the sport itself gave promoters a stage to make a buck off of the rampant racism in American society.
Unwittingly, these early fight financiers opened up space where the white supremacist ideas of society could be challenged.
This was the era of deeply racist pseudo-science. The attitude was not only that blacks were mentally inferior but also physically inferior to whites. Blacks were cast as too lazy and too undisciplined ever to be taken seriously as athletes.
When Jack Johnson became the first black heavyweight boxing champion in 1908, his victory created a serious crisis. The media whipped up a frenzy around the need for a “A Great White Hope” to restore order to the world. Former champion Jim Jeffries came out of retirement and said, “I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro.”
At the fight, which took place in 1910, the ringside band played, “All coons look alike to me,” and promoters led the all-white crowd in the chant “Kill the nigger.” But Johnson was faster, stronger, and smarter than Jeffries. He knocked him out with ease.
After Johnson’s victory, there were race riots around the country — in Illinois, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Texas and Washington, D.C. Most of the riots consisted of white lynch mobs attacking blacks, and blacks fighting back.
This reaction to a boxing match was one of the most widespread racial uprisings in the United States until the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Right-wing religious groups immediately organized to ban boxing. Congress actually passed a law banning boxing films.
Even some black leaders, such as Booker T. Washington, pushed Johnson to condemn African Americans for rioting, and to toe the line. But Johnson remained defiant and faced harassment and persecution for most of his life. He was forced into exile in 1913 on the trumped-up charge of transporting a white women across state lines for prostitution.
The backlash against Johnson meant that it would be twenty years before the rise of another black heavyweight champ — Joe Louis, “the Brown Bomber.” Louis was quiet where Johnson was defiant. He was handled very carefully by a management team that had a set of rules Louis had to follow including, “never be photographed with a white woman, never go to a club by yourself and never speak unless spoken to.”
But he was devastating in the ring, scoring sixty-nine victories in seventy-two professional fights — fifty-five of them knockouts. Despite having an image where his handlers had him scrape and shuffle, Joe Louis — and his dominance in the ring — represented much more to poor blacks, and also to the radicalizing working class in the 1930s.
This played out most famously during Louis’s two fights against German boxer Max Schmeling in 1936 and 1938. Schmeling was heavily promoted by Adolph Hitler as proof of “Aryan greatness.” In the first bout, Schmeling knocked out Louis. Not only did Hitler and Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels have a field day, but the Southern press in the United States laughed it up. One column in the New Orleans Picayune wrote, “I guess this proves who really is the master race.”
The Louis-Schmeling rematch in 1938 was a political brouhaha — a physical referendum on Hitler, the Jim Crow South, and antiracism. The US Communist Party organized radio listenings of the fight from Harlem to Birmingham that became mass meetings. Hitler closed down movie houses so people would be compelled to listen.
Louis devastated Schmeling in one round. Hitler quickly cut the radio power in all of Germany when it was clear the knockout was coming.
“The Brown Bomber” held the heavyweight title for twelve years, the longest reign in history. He beat all comers, the overwhelming majority of them white — successfully defending his heavyweight title a record twenty-five times. As poet Maya Angelou wrote about Louis, “the one invincible Negro, the one who stood up to the white man and beat him down with his fists. He in a sense carried so many of our hopes, and maybe even our dreams of vengeance.”
Thirty years after the fight, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in Why We Can’t Wait,
More than twenty-five years ago, one of the Southern states adopted a new method of capital punishment. Poison gas supplanted the gallows. In its earliest stages a microphone was placed inside the sealed death chamber so that scientific observers might hear the words of the dying prisoner to judge how the victim reacted in this novel situation.
The first victim was a young Negro. As the pellet dropped into the container, and the gas curled upward, through the microphone came these words. “Save me Joe Louis. Save me Joe Louis. Save me Joe Louis.”
In a society so violently racist, boxing became an outlet for people’s anger — a morality play about the thwarted ability, the unrecognized talents and the relentless fighting spirit that shaped the black experience in the United States.
“King of the World”
Muhammad Ali’s identity was forged in the 1950s and 1960s, as the black freedom struggle heated up and boiled over. He was born Cassius Clay in Louisville, Kentucky in 1942. His father, a frustrated artist, made his living as a house painter. His mother was a domestic worker.
The Louisville of Ali’s youth was a segregated horse-breeding community where being black meant being seen as part of a servant class.
But young Clay could box and he could always talk. His mouth was like no fighter or athlete or public black figure anyone had ever heard. Joe Louis used to say, “My manager does my talking for me. I do my talking in the ring.” Clay talked, inside the ring and out. The press called him the “Louisville lip,” “cash the brash,” “mighty mouth,” and “gaseous cassius.”
He used to say he talked because his hero was a pro-wrestler named Gorgeous George. But in an unguarded moment he said, “Where do you think I’d be next week if I didn’t know how to shout and holler? I’d probably be down in my hometown washing windows and saying yassuh and nossuh and knowing my place.”
But Ali was more than talk. His boxing skills won him the gold medal in the 1960 Olympics at age eighteen. When he came back from the Olympics — and this is the first step in his political arc — he held a press conference at the airport, his gold medal swinging from his neck, and said:
To make America the greatest is my goal
So I beat the Russian and I beat the Pole
And for the USA won the medal of Gold.
The Greeks said you’re better than the Cassius of Old.
Clay loved his gold medal. Fellow Olympian Wilma Rudolph said, “He slept with it, he went to the cafeteria with it. He never took it off.” The week after returning home from the Olympics, Clay went to eat a cheeseburger with his medal swinging around his neck in a Louisville restaurant — and was denied service. He threw his medal in the Ohio River.
The young Clay then started actively looking for political answers and began finding them when he heard Malcolm X speak at a meeting of the Nation of Islam (NOI). He heard Malcolm say, “You might see these Negroes who believe in nonviolence and mistake us for one of them and put your hands on us thinking that we are going to turn the other cheek — and we’ll put you to death just like that.”
The young fighter and Malcolm X became both political allies and fast friends. Malcolm stayed with Clay as he trained for his fight against the “Big Ugly Bear,” the champion Sonny Liston. With Malcolm around, rumors flew through the sports pages that Clay was going to join the NOI, and the press hounded him wanting to know. At one point he said, “I might if you keep asking me.”
When everyone was predicting an easy knockout for Liston, Malcolm said,
Clay will win. He is the finest Negro athlete I have ever known and he will mean more to his people than Jackie Robinson. Robinson is an establishment hero. Clay will be our hero…. Not many people know the quality of mind he has in there. One forgets that although the clown never imitates a wise man, a wise man can imitate the clown.
Although the verdict was out on whether he was wise or a clown, no one gave him a chance against Liston, a hulking ex-con who used to work for the Mob breaking legs on picket lines. Ali — quicker, stronger and bolder than anyone knew — shocked the world and beat Liston. He then said famously, “I’m king of the world!”
When Ali said he was the greatest, it wasn’t far from the truth. His trainer Angelo Dundee once said with a smile, “He destroyed a generation of fighters by boxing with his hands down. Everyone else who did that got creamed but Ali was so quick he could get away with it.”
Ali set a new standard for ring speed. He used to say “I’m so fast, I can turn off the bedroom lights and get in bed before it gets dark.” As writer Gary Kamiya put it,
No one had ever seen anyone that big move that fast; no one had ever seen anyone that graceful hurt other people so badly. Fighting Ali was like being forced to glide across the floor with Gene Kelly in a murderous duet; a single deviation from the beat, a hundredth of a second’s pause coming out of a liquid twirl, and a baseball bat would explode against your head.
In his professional career he won fifty-six of sixty-one fights, with thirty-seven knockouts.
The day after he beat Liston, Clay announced publicly that he was a member of the NOI. There are no words for the firestorm this caused. The champ was with a group that called white people devils and stood unapologetically for self-defense and racial separation. Not surprisingly, the men of the conservative, mobbed-up, corrupt fight world lost their minds.
Ali was attacked not only by the sports world, but also by the respectable wing of the Civil Rights Movement. Roy Wilkins, of the older Civil Rights generation said, “Cassius Clay may as well be an honorary member of the white citizen councils.” Jimmy Cannon, the most famous sportswriter in America at the time, wrote: “The fight racket since its rotten beginnings has been the red light district of sports. But this is the first time it has been turned into an instrument of hate.”
Ali’s response at this point was very defensive. He repeatedly said that his wasn’t a political, but a purely religious conversion. His defense reflected the conservative politics of the Nation of Islam. Ali said,
I’m not going to get killed trying to force myself on people who don’t want me. Integration is wrong. White people don’t want it, the Muslims don’t want it. So what’s wrong with the Muslims? I’ve never been in jail. I’ve never been in court. I don’t join integration marches and I never hold a sign.
But much like Malcolm X, who at the time was engineering a political break from the Nation, Clay — much to the anger of Elijah Muhammad — found it impossible to explain his religious worldview without speaking to the mass black freedom struggle happening outside the boxing ring. He was his own worst enemy — claiming that his was a religious transformation and had nothing to do with politics, but then in the next breath saying,
I ain’t no Christian. I can’t be when I see all the colored people fighting for forced integration get blown up. They get hit by the stones and chewed by dogs and then these crackers blow up a Negro Church…. People are always telling me what a good example I would be if I just wasn’t Muslim. I’ve heard over and over why couldn’t I just be more like Joe Louis and Sugar Ray. Well they are gone and the Black man’s condition is just the same ain’t it? We’re still catching hell.
If the establishment press was outraged, a new generation of activists was electrified. As Civil Rights leader Julian Bond reminisced,
I remember when Ali joined the Nation. The act of joining was not something many of us particularly liked. But the notion that he would do it, that he’d jump out there, join this group that was so despised by mainstream America and be proud of it, sent a little thrill through you.… He was able to tell white folks for us to go to hell; that I’m going to do it my way.
At this time, he was known briefly as Cassius X, but Elijah Muhammad gave Clay the name Muhammad Ali — a tremendous honor and a way to ensure that the young Ali would side with Elijah Muhammad in his split with Malcolm X.
Ali proceeded to commit what he would later describe as his greatest mistake — turning his back on Malcolm. But the internal politics of the Nation were not what the ruling class and the media noticed. To them the name change — something that had never occurred before in sports — was another slap in the face.
Almost overnight, whether you called him Ali or Clay indicated where an individual stood on civil rights, Black Power, and eventually the war in Vietnam. The New York Times insisted on calling him Clay as an editorial policy for years thereafter.
This all took place against the backdrop of a black freedom struggle rolling from the South to the North. During the summer of 1964, there were one thousand arrests of civil rights activists, thirty buildings bombed and thirty-six churches burned by the Ku Klux Klan and their sympathizers. In 1964, the first of the urban uprisings and riots in the northern ghettos took place.
The politics of Black Power were starting to emerge and Muhammad Ali was a critical symbol in this transformation. As news anchor Bryant Gumbel said, “One of the reasons the civil rights movement went forward was that black people were able to overcome their fear. And I honestly believe that for many black Americans, that came from watching Muhammad Ali. He simply refused to be afraid. And being that way, he gave other people courage.”
A concrete sign of Ali’s early influence was seen in 1965 when Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) volunteers in Lowndes County, Alabama launched an independent political party. Their new group was the first to use the symbol of a black panther. Their bumper stickers and T-shirts were of a black silhouette of a panther and their slogan was straight from the champ: “We Are the Greatest.”
Every fight after his name change became incredible morality plays of the black revolution versus the people who opposed it. Floyd Patterson, a black ex-champion wrapped tightly in the American flag, said of his fight with Ali, “This fight is a crusade to reclaim the title from the Black Muslims. As a Catholic I am fighting Clay as a patriotic duty. I am going to return the crown to America.”
In the fight itself, Ali brutalized Patterson for nine rounds, dragging it out yelling, “Come on America! Come on white America….” Then in a fight against Ernie Terrell who also insisted upon calling him “Clay,” Ali took him apart in the ring and said repeatedly, “What’s my name? Is my name Clay? What’s my name fool?”
Future Black Panther Party leader Eldridge Cleaver wrote in his 1968 autobiography Soul on Ice, “If the Bay of Pigs can be seen as a straight right hand to the psychological jaw of white America then [Ali/Patterson] was the perfect left hook to the gut.”
Resisting the Vietnam War
In early 1966, the army came calling for Ali and he was classified 1-A — to be drafted. He heard this news surrounded by reporters and he blurted out one of the most famous phrases of the decade, “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.”
This was an astounding statement. There was little opposition to the war at the time. The antiwar movement was in its infancy and most of the country still stood behind it.
Life magazine’s cover read, “Vietnam the War is Worth Winning.” The song, “Ballad of the Green Berets” was climbing the charts. And then there was Ali. As long-time peace activist Daniel Berrigan said, “It was a major boost to an antiwar movement that was very white. He was not an academic, or a bohemian or a clergyman. He couldn’t be dismissed as cowardly.”
The reaction was immediate, hostile, ferocious and at times amusingly hysterical. Jimmy Cannon wrote,
He fits in with the famous singers no one can hear and the punks riding motorcycles and Batman and the boys with their long dirty hair and the girls with the unwashed look and the college kids dancing naked at secret proms and the revolt of students who get a check from Dad, and the painters who copy the labels off soup cans and surf bums who refuse to work and the whole pampered cult of the bored young.
Jack Olsen wrote years later in Sports Illustrated, “The noise became a din, the drumbeats of a holy war. TV and radio commentators, little old ladies…bookmakers, and parish priests, armchair strategists at the Pentagon and politicians all over the place joined in a crescendo of get Cassius get Cassius get Cassius.”
Ali was given every opportunity to recant, to apologize, to sign up on some cushy USO gig boxing for the troops and the cameras, to go back to making money. But he refused. His refusal was gargantuan because of what was bubbling over in US society. You had the black revolution over here and the draft resistance and antiwar struggle over there. And the heavyweight champ with one foot planted in both.
As poet Sonia Sanchez remembered:
It’s hard now to relay the emotion of that time. This was still a time when hardly any well-known people were resisting the draft. It was a war that was disproportionately killing young Black brothers and here was this beautiful, funny poetical young man standing up and saying no! Imagine it for a moment! The heavyweight champion, a magical man, taking his fight out of the ring and into the arena of politics and standing firm. The message was sent!
An incredible groundswell of support built up for Ali. That is why, despite the harassment and the media attacks and the taps on his phones, he stood firm. At one press conference later that year, he was expected to apologize. He was always rumored to go back on the war statement. He instead got up and said, “Keep asking me, no matter how long, On the war in Vietnam, I sing this song, I ain’t got no quarrel with the Vietcong.”
By now it was 1967 and in another huge step for the antiwar movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. came out against the war. In a press conference where King first proclaimed his opposition he said, “Like Muhammad Ali puts it, we are all — black and brown and poor — victims of the same system of oppression.”
Ali and King, to the anger of the NOI, struck up a private friendship that we know about thanks to the good people at the FBI. Here is one short wire-tapped transcript with Martin Luther King, Jr. in which Muhammad Ali is referred to derisively as “C.”
MLK spoke to C, they exchanged greetings. C invited MLK to be his guest at the next championship fight. MLK said he would like to attend. C said he is keeping up with MLK and MLK is his brother and he’s with him 100 percent but can’t take any chances, and that MLK should take care of himself and should “watch out for them whities.”
The only time these private friends came together in public was later that year, when Ali joined King in Louisville, where a bitter and violent struggle was being waged for fair housing. Ali spoke to the protesters saying,
In your struggle for freedom, justice and equality I am with you. I came to Louisville because I could not remain silent while my own people, many I grew up with, many I went too school with, many my blood relatives, were being beaten, stomped and kicked in the streets simply because they want freedom, and justice and equality in housing.
Later that day, he cemented his position as a lightning rod between the freedom struggle and the antiwar struggle when a reporter kept dogging him about the war, until finally he turned around, cameras whirring and said,
Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end.
I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality.…
If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.
Said Julian Bond, “When Ali refused to take that symbolic step forward everyone knew about it moments later. You could hear people talking about it on street corners. It was on everybody’s lips. People who had never thought about the war–Black and white–began to think it through because of Ali.”
Ali’s refusal to fight in Vietnam was front-page news all over the world. In Guyana there was a picket of support in front of the US embassy. In Karachi, young Pakistanis fasted. And there was a mass demonstration in Cairo.
On June 19, 1967, Ali was prosecuted by an all-white jury in Houston. The typical sentence was eighteen months in these cases. Ali got five years in prison and the confiscation of his passport. He immediately appealed. Ali, undefeated and untouched, was stripped of his title for refusing to serve in the military, beginning a three-and-a-half-year exile from the ring.
Support came from unlikely sources. Floyd Patterson, who was himself being shaped by the movements around him said, “What bothers me is Clay is being made to pay too stiff a penalty for doing what is right. The prize fighter in America is not supposed to shoot off of his mouth about politics, particularly if his views oppose the government’s and might influence many among the working class that follows boxing.”
One group that deeply understood Ali’s significance was the US Congress. The day of his conviction they voted 337 to 29 to extend the draft four more years. They also voted 385 to 19 to make it a federal crime to desecrate the flag.
At this time, one thousand Vietnamese noncombatants were being killed each week by US forces. One hundred soldiers were dying every day, the war cost $2 billion a month and the movement against the war was growing. Ali’s defiance is far more than a footnote in the movement. As one observer said, “He made dissent visible, audible, attractive and fearless.”
By 1968, Ali was out on bail — abandoned by the Nation of Islam and hangers-on and stripped of his title. But he was never more active because there was a young generation of blacks and whites that wanted to hear what he had to say. And Ali obliged.
In 1968, he spoke at two hundred campuses. Here is one speech, brimming with confidence — as if the US state were no more menacing than Floyd Patterson:
I’m expected to go overseas to help free people in South Vietnam and at the same time my people here are being brutalized, hell no! I would like to say to those of you who think I have lost so much, I have gained everything. I have peace of heart; I have a clear, free conscience. And I am proud. I wake up happy, I go to bed happy, and if I go to jail I’ll go to jail happy.
Down Goes Ali
Ali, who appealed his sentence, was aided by the tide against the war. A divided Supreme Court overturned his sentence in 1970, as the justices said it would “Give black people a lift,” and Ali was victorious. He returned to the ring in 1971 a slower fighter, but as intelligent as any fighter who ever laced up his gloves.
Ali lost to Joe Frazier in 1971 in an attempt to win back his title. The fifteen-round fight was so brutal it sent both fighters to the hospital. Then, in 1973, Ali lost to and then beat Ken Norton. Then came the “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire against George Foreman. In many ways it revealed the limits and ambiguity of Black Power — and the decline of both Ali’s militancy and the movement it inspired and was inspired by.
Dictator Mobutu Sese Seko — a darling of the United States who had killed Ali’s old friend Patrice Lumumba to seize power and then looted a quarter of the country’s wealth — secured the fight arm in arm with a social parasite named Don King.
Together they dressed up the fight in the colors of black nationalism. Squatter camps along the road leading from the airport were obscured by huge billboards that said: “Zaire: Where Black Power is a reality.” In the lead up to the fight, Mobutu rounded up scores of alleged criminals and had one hundred of them executed in order to ensure calm for the foreign press and dignitaries.
But if everything surrounding the fight was horrid, the fight itself was incredible. The African crowd — who like blacks in the United States saw Ali as their hero — chanted “Ali, Bomaye!” (Ali, Kill him!). But Foreman, strong and in his prime, was expected to trounce Ali.
Instead, Ali beat Foreman in one of the greatest upsets in history. He spent the first several rounds allowing Foreman to exhaust himself trying to pummel Ali, who in the weeks leading up the fight had practiced this “rope-a-dope” strategy, defending his head and body while keeping his back against the ropes.
After Foreman had spent himself, Ali suddenly exploded from the ropes, dispatching Foreman in a series of lightning blows in the eighth round. It was one of the most strategically brilliant boxing matches ever fought.
Ali’s fighting career continued as the Black Power movement and the freedom struggle declined. The American ruling class smashed a section of the movement, and accommodated others. In some respects, Ali represented both sides of that. He was both smashed and accommodated. Ali came back to the ring a much slower fighter but he found that he could take a punch. And he took them until he was physically destroyed.
Though slowed, Ali was much loved. Louisville named a thoroughfare after him. Presidents invited him to the White House, and, as mentioned, he today shows up to light the Olympic torch and shill for war. Jim Brown, one athlete who has never stopped organizing, said, “The Ali that America ended up loving was not the Ali I loved the most. The warrior I loved was gone.”
But if Ali’s present has been absorbed by the mainstream, his past is written and it belongs to us. When activists today strive to connect the war at home with the war abroad, we have the Ali of the 1960s as part of our tradition. As Tommie Smith said recently, “It’s not something I can lay on my shelf and forget about. My heart and soul are still on that team, and I still believe in everything we were trying to fight for in 1968 has not been resolved and will be part of our future.”
Smith is right: Ali’s stirring resistance to racism and war belongs not only to the 1960s, but is part of the common future of humanity.