The death of Muhammad Ali provides us with an opportunity to reflect on his impact on the freedom struggle that has come to be known as the Civil Rights Movement.
Muhammad Ali’s influence on the black organisers who formed the backbone of the Civil Rights Movement was distinctly positive and remarkably broad-based. His power as a heroic symbol bridged the entire span of the movement’s ideological spectrum. In ways that nobody else could, Ali appealed simultaneously to people and organisations who otherwise agreed on little politically. In the words of one organiser, Bob Moses, “Muhammad Ali galvanised the Civil Rights Movement.”
Almost every major civil rights organisation and leader at one time or another praised Ali and defended his decision to resist the Vietnam War.
Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr and Muhammad Ali
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s (SCLC) James Bevel rated him as “one of the great Americans”. The Congress of Racial Equality’s (CORE) Floyd McKissick said: “Ali was one of the greatest living Americans because he is one of the few people who lives by his convictions.”
The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) printed bumper stickers that said “We’re the greatest” in an obvious nod to Ali’s catchphrase. Stokely Carmichael, the Trinidadian-American political activist, called him “my hero”.
But Malcolm X was perhaps the first to realise that Ali’s magnitude registered far beyond his home country. In his famous autobiography, Malcolm declared that Ali “captured the imagination and support of the entire dark world”.
Even Martin Luther King Jr sent him a telegram saying: “I look forward to talking with you some time in the future.”
Arthur Ashe, the tennis player-turned-activist, remembered that Ali was “admired by a lot of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, who were sometimes even a little bit jealous of the following he had”.
And this is just a short list of contemporary leaders in the black freedom struggle who expressed their on-the-record admiration for Ali.
It is not an overstatement to say he was almost universally liked by the activists of the 1960s and 1970s.
The Nation of Islam
An impressive aspect of Ali’s appeal to these freedom fighters is that it occurred despite Ali’s membership in the Nation of Islam, led by Elijah Muhammad, which was for years the African American organisation that was by far the most vehemently critical of the Civil Rights Movement.
Early on, when Ali first won the heavyweight title, some civil rights leaders and activists were upset by his joining of the Nation. Roy Wilkins, of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), said that Ali “may as well be an honorary member of the [racist] white citizen councils”.
The SNCC’s Julian Bond, who would come to greatly admire Ali, said that his membership in the Nation of Islam “was not something many of us particularly liked”.
But even though Elijah Muhammad demanded political non-participation from his adherents, preventing them even from voting, Ali directly bolstered various civil rights demonstrations through appearances and words of support. Ali reached out to the movement as it reached out to him, thus bridging a gap that even Malcolm did not.
Leading the way in civil rights
Also noteworthy about Ali’s place in the civil rights era is that he was among the black freedom struggle’s vanguard. Ali incorporated strategies, tactics and worldviews into his operations that would later be adopted by much wider constituencies.
We were down there in these small, hot, dusty towns in an atmosphere thick with fear, trying to organise folk whose grandparents were slaves ... And here was this beautifully arrogant young man who made us proud to be us and proud to fight for our rights.
His criticism of the Vietnam War and his initial resistance to the draft in 1966 took place about a month after the release of the SNCC’s antiwar manifesto, which was a first of its kind for the movement. Thus, Ali’s public stance against the war took place a full year before Martin Luther King Jr’s.
Before most black power organisations were beginning to incorporate economic platforms into their everyday agendas, Ali had formed a promotional corporation called Main Bout Inc, which would earn the majority of revenues from his title defences and, for the first time, allow African Americans to enjoy the lion’s share of profits from the world’s heavyweight championship, then the most lucrative prize in sports.
Crucial to Ali’s connection to civil rights workers was their shared sense of urgency. Activists who were putting everything on the line, including their lives, could relate to Ali, who risked just about everything he had when he refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War. As Mississippi organiser Lawrence Guyot put it: “We were down there in these small, hot, dusty towns in an atmosphere thick with fear, trying to organise folk whose grandparents were slaves … And here was this beautifully arrogant young man who made us proud to be us and proud to fight for our rights.”
Yes, Ali had his occasional black critics, among them the pioneering baseball player Jackie Robinson, but the overwhelming political sentiment among African Americans was that Ali was to be admired and defended. Thus, when people talk about the transformation of Ali’s image in the US, they mean his image among white people. Since the civil rights era of the 1960s, Ali’s reputation among African Americans has been just fine.
This rehabilitation of Ali is similar to the case of King, who in the years before his death in 1968 was unfavourably viewed by two-thirds of white Americans. Only in the 1980s, after his murder and a long fight led by his widow and her political allies, was King honoured with a national holiday in the US.
Often, the African American community is decades ahead of whites in its political outlook, even when such viewpoints are reviled by a majority that will one day adopt them. Ali is perhaps the clearest example of this long-standing American phenomenon.