Muhammed Ali’s Civil Rights  Contributions — and the superstar leaders inspired by them

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Muhammed Ali

The irrepressible Muhammed Ali (1942–2016) came onto the global stages at the height of the US Civil Rights era. His unthinkable and unorthodox mashup of dominance in the boxing ring and potent social justice proclamations left indelible imprints in the hearts, minds and efforts of some of the worlds recognized political leaders.

In 1964, then Cassius Clay, a glib 22-year-old known as “The Louisville Lip” barraged his opponents with as many psychological taunts as physical punches. And won the World Boxing Championship with his stunning and entirely unexpected defeat of Sonny Liston. After beating Liston with a technical knockout in the seventh round, Clay yelled “I’m the greatest!” Adding, “I shook up the world!”

Indeed. Two days later he announced he had changed his name to Mohammad Ali to reflect his evolving worldview and identity.

From an early age the former Clay felt connected to the Black freedom movement. He was about the same age as Emmett Till when the 14-year-old Till was murdered for having flirted with a white woman. The incident was the awakening of Ali’s race and justice consciousness. An identity that, combined with his father’s having taught him about leaders like Black separatist leader Marcus Garvey, developed and evolved as vividly as his boxing skills did.

I’m not just a boxer,” Ali explained later. “I do a lot of reading a lot of studying. I ask questions, I watch people and see how they live and I learn.” He was an astute observer of racial inequities who sprinkled humor into his guileless analyses in ways that allowed his critiques of white supremacy, though not always appreciated, to somehow be accepted in otherwise unlikely places.

His most striking personal experience with racism came after his 1960 Olympic win.Medal Winners

 “I won the Olympic Gold Medal in Rome Italy. The Russian is standing right here and the Pole right here (both    communist countries) and I’ve defeat(ed) American so-called threats. And the American flag is going up and “dum  dum dum dum dum dum.” And, I’m standing so proud. And, I’d have whopped the world for America. “dum dum dum dum dum dum.”

I said “Man I’m the one who  gave my people freedom today. I know I can eat downtown now. So I went downtown and I wore my medal and I sat down and I said, “I’ll have a cup of coffee and a hot dog.” And  the lady said: “We  don’t serve Negros.” I was so mad. I said, “I don’t eat em either, just give me a cup of hot coffee.” I said, “Three days I  fought for this country in Rome and I won the Gold Medal and I’m going to eat.”

“They put me out. I had to leave that restaurant in my home town where I went to church, and served in their Christianity and my Daddy fought in all the wars,” mourned Ali. “And that the day I became a Muslim.” Ali’s views on his and others’ spirituality were at once unambiguously specific, stubborn and sensitive.

“I was raised a Baptist. After touring the world. I learned there were 800 million Muslims. I’m not condemning any other people. You can choose any religion. All of them are good. (But) I never felt so much love. I never saw so many people loving each other. Praying five times a day. You can go to any country and you’re welcome. I choose the Islamic path because it connected to me. They welcomed me as a brother, as an equal.” 

He pulled no punches in his contrasting analysis of the differences between his experiences as a Muslim and of having been a black Christian.

“As a Christian in America I couldn’t go to the white churches. Those churches did them good, it didn’t do me good. Everything was white. Black was always bad in the Christian world. I was always wondering, even as a child. I’d be in church and I asked, “Mother, how come is Jesus white with blond hair and blue eyes? Why is the Lord’s Supper all white men? Angels are white. Mary and everything. I said: “Mama when we die do we go to heaven?” She said: “Well naturally we go to heaven.” (And I said) “Then what happened to all the black angels when they took the pictures?””


Malcolm X became a spiritual leader of Ali’s in 1962 (though the Civil Rights leader later expressed regret with his association with the Nation of Islam). A look at photos of them together reveals the lighter side of the Civil Rights martyr known for his intensity.

Initially rejected by the Nation of Islam due to his boxing career, Ali was accepted after his big 1964 win. His newly adopted name, along with his Black separatist views, was disparaged by many white commentators, to Ali’s annoyance. He’d refuse to answer to his former name, angrily retorting : “Cassius Clay was my slave name.”

MalcolmX clowning with Muhammed Ali.

Malcolm X tried to intervened on his behalf, describing the positive influences Ali provided to the U.S.

“He’s actually an all American boy or an all African boy as you will,” said MalcolmX of Ali. “An effort on the part of the press to attack him actually hurts America all over the world. I’ve gotten letters from foreign countries myself expressing confidence and pride in the clean image that Cassius represents.”

Howard Cosell interviewing Muhammad Ali

One sportscaster broke away from the pack. Howard Cosell matched Ali’s braggadocio in years of hyper-verbal sparring that belied his deep respect. At Ali’s Fiftieth birthday Cosell toasted ‘The Champ,’ “You know something? You are exactly who you said you are. You never wavered. You are free to be who you want to be.” Cosell was Jewish and understood antisemitism like Ali understood racism.  Chocking up, the famously pompous Cosell finished his tribute with a humble, “I love you.

His interest in boxing was sparked by a police officer who directed the then 12-year-old to take out his anger at having his bicycle stolen out in the ring. The officer, who was white, ran the amateur boxing club where Ali got his start.

Ali remained unbeatable until 1967. Declaring himself a conscientious objector, he was convicted for draft dodging, which cost him his boxing license and passport at the height of his playing years. “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father (…) Shoot them for what? (…) How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”

He managed to avoid jail. And for the next three years, Ali crossed the country speaking at colleges and other places of his anti-war beliefs.

Ali with students, 1968.

Ali with students, 1968.


“You won’t stand up for me and my religious beliefs and you want me to go and fight for you in some other country?” Ali rhetorically asked white students.

He was equally disinclined to fight segregation with Martin Luther King, Jr. “I’m not going to get killed trying to force myself on people who don’t want me,” he explained. “I don’t join integration marches and I never hold a sign.”

King didn’t hold Ali’s principles against him. Quite the contrary. The Civil Rights icon had been reluctant to go against President Johnson. But inspired by Ali’s pacifist position King followed Ali’s lead and began speaking against the war as well. “Like Muhammad Ali puts it, we are all — black and brown and poor, victims” said King (of the Vietcong). And, alluding to effects of American efforts against the Vietcong: “of the same system of oppression.”

In time Ali would find himself speaking for King’s efforts, too. “In your struggle for freedom, justice and equality, I am with you,” Ali said. “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.”


Ali’s ‘draft-dodging’ conviction was overturned by unanimous vote by all white Supreme Court judges, in late 1970. His first fight after that was the famed Frazier-Ali “Fight of the Century.” As always, Ali’s pregame rhetoric was as provocative as the match. Only this time his words featured racially-charged taunts aimed at his fellow black boxer. With Ali referring to Frazier as “Uncle Tom,” suggesting Frazier was a pawn of white authority. “The only people rooting for Joe Frazier are white people in suits, Alabama sheriffs, and members of the Ku Klux Klan. I’m fighting for the little man in the ghetto.” Though Ali lost in the final round — his first professional loss — Frazier remained stung by Ali’s characterization for the rest of his life.

Despite the fact that Ali lacked formal education and had an IQ of just 78, he was considered by many to be a brilliant thinker and communicator — including, notwithstanding Frazier, many of his opponents. “If you put Ali in boxing, you won’t get what he really was. The life he lived outside of the ring, what he had to say, the bravery he had, made him what he was: a prophet, a hero, a revolutionary — much more than a boxer,” said one time opponent George Foreman.

Ali’s trademark rhetoric were his lyrically visual trash-talking poems — many recited before bouts as part of his famously entertaining match-promotion efforts.

He won numerous humanitarian awards, including from President George W. Bush III, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and Presidential Citizen Awards.

Speaking to Ali’s unorthodox boxing style which, beyond his dancing feet and lightening fast hands, included his signature stance with his hands hanging almost casually by his side, his ‘rope a dope’ strategy of leaning on the ropes to absorb his opponents hits and his habit of stepping one foot back to lean away from punches, one of his trainers said of Ali:

“He did everything wrong (by technical standards), but he somehow got everything right. I’m not going to do anything to change what’s right.”


Perhaps the same thing could be said of Muhammad Ali’s activism outside the ring. Here was a man who said what others didn’t dare say. As he did he transformed the world in ways few who only saw him as an athlete might scarcely understand. But among those influenced by his leadership were none other than the penultimate ‘greatest,’ leaders whose revolutionary battles for racial freedom transcended hearts, minds, borders and decades worldwide that others couldn’t.

Perhaps the same thing could be said of Muhammad Ali’s activism outside the ring. Here was a man who said what others didn’t dare say. As he did he transformed the world in ways few who only saw him as an athlete might scarcely understand. But among those influenced by his leadership were none other than the penultimate ‘greatest,’ leaders whose revolutionary battles for racial freedom transcended hearts, minds, borders and decades worldwide that others couldn’t.

“Muhammad Ali was not just my hero, but the hero of millions of young, black South Africans,” said Nelson Mandela, the late president of South Africa and antiapartheid champion. “When I met Ali for the first time in 1990 I was extremely apprehensive. I wanted to say so many things to him. He was an inspiration to me, even in prison, because I thought of his courage and his commitment to his sport. I was overwhelmed by him.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. might have put it best, in words as relevant today as they where when he said them: “No matter what  you think of Mr. Mohammad Ali’s religion, you certainly have to admire his courage.”

Yes, he was the greatest. Especially, as he noted: “when I was fighting for something.” Yes. Mohammed Ali indeed “shook up  the world.”

Andrea Morisette Grazzini is founder of DynamicShift and Me to We Racial Healing.


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