The boxing champion won many battles in and outside the ring during the 1960s and 1970s. Ali’s life illustrates the role of African Americans in sports and its relationship to the broader struggle against national oppression.
Muhammad Ali passed away on June 3 after a decades-long battle against Parkinson’s disease.
Ali, then known as Cassius Marcellous Clay, Jr., came to world attention in 1960 after winning a gold medal for the U.S. in light heavyweight boxing at the Olympics in Rome. He was only 18 years old and from the southern city of Louisville, Kentucky.
Prior to traveling to Italy for the 1960 games, he had made his mark in amateur boxing by winning the Chicago Golden Gloves title in 1959 and 1960. In Rome, Ali won his first fight against Yvon Becot of Belgium.
In subsequent bouts he won unanimous decisions over Gennady Shatkov of the Soviet Union and Tony Madigan of Australia advancing to the final match against Zbigniew Pietrzykowski of Poland. Pietrzykowski was considered the favorite, however the-then Clay, won decisively in the final round.
The 1960 Olympics highlighted the advancements that African Americans had made within the area of international sports. That same year the youth in the southern U.S. initiated the sit-in movement demanding an end to legalized segregation in restaurants and other commercial establishments.
Beginning on February 1 in Greensboro, four students from the North Carolina Agricultural and Industrial College attended by African Americans sat down at Woolworth’s Department store in a section reserved for whites only. They sparked a nationwide struggle where by April the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was formed.
This militancy related to social issues was matched by the strong and dominant presence of African American athletes in Rome that summer. Their presence in the games was a direct challenge to segregationists still controlling southern and national politics.
In an article published in 2012 during the last Olympic Games held in London, the Examiner recalled that “Not since Jesse Owens in the 1936 Summer Games in Germany had African-American athletes captured the Olympic world stage as in 1960…. Sprinter Wilma Rudolph was the first woman to win 3 Olympic Gold Medals. Decathlon Gold Medal winner Rafer Johnson was the first African-American Olympic Captain. African-American athletes won a total of 22 medals, 16 of which were gold.”
Becoming Muhammad Ali
Later in 1964 after he won the heavyweight boxing championship against the favored title holder Sonny Liston on February 25, Clay announced his membership in the Nation of Islam. Soon he declared that his new name was Muhammad Ali and consequently became a target for the ruling class and the corporate press.
Malcolm X, who had been silenced for ninety days by NOI leader the Honorable Elijah Muhammad in early December 1963 over a statement made at the Manhattan Center in New York about the recent assassination of President John F. Kennedy, was invited by Ali to Miami for the Clay vs. Liston fight. After returning to New York City, Malcolm X took Ali on a tour of the United Nations introducing him to African and other diplomats.
Nonetheless, developments in March 1964 would break the relationship between Ali and Malcolm X. Malcolm was informed by the NOI headquarters in Chicago that his suspension would be indefinite and he was still not allowed to speak in the mosques or publicly on behalf of the organization that he had made famous internationally.
On March 12, Malcolm held a press conference in Harlem announcing that he was forming a separate mosque, saying he could serve Elijah Muhammad better outside the organization than inside. His efforts took on a more direct political character when he announced that the new Muslim Mosque, Inc. would engage in voter registration and perhaps the formation of a Black political party.
Ali and Malcolm X met for the last time publicly in the West Africa state of Ghana in May 1964 when both were in the country then led by President Kwame Nkrumah, the founder of modern Africa and a proponent of Pan-Africanism and Socialism. When encountering Malcolm in the Ambassador Hotel in Accra, Ali turned away from the former spokesman for the NOI refusing to address him.
Acrimony between Malcolm X, who had in June 1964 formed the Organization of Afro American Unity (OAAU), and the NOI escalated into an ideological and personal conflict. Relations were so strained that at the time of the assassination of Malcolm X on February 21, 1965, the federal government and the corporate media sought to place the blame on the NOI.
Resistance to the draft
In 1966 Ali was drafted into the military and refused induction several months later in early 1967, saying he had no qualms with the Vietnamese people. The boxing establishment took his title while the U.S. courts convicted him of violating the selective service act sentencing the champion to five years in prison. He was allowed to remain free on bond while fighting the sentence in the courts and through speaking engagements across the country.
Ali’s stance was shared by thousands of African Americans, whites and others who objected to serving in a war of genocide against the Vietnamese people. In addition to the NOI, numerous organizations in the struggle such as SNCC and the Black Panther Party opposed the war and pledged their solidarity with the National Liberation Front of Vietnam.
Ali would prevail in his effort to win back his right to participate in professional boxing in 1970 through a ruling allowing him fight again for the first time in over three years. By March 1971 he contended unsuccessfully to win his title again from Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden in New York. Later on March 28 he had his conviction for refusing the draft overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 8-0 decision.
He would later regain the title in Zaire defeating George Foreman the gold medal winner in heavyweight boxing at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo, in October 1974 the country was visited by thousands of people from throughout Africa and the world. A coterie of the most famous Black artists including James Brown, B.B. King, the O’Jays and Mariam Makeba performed in a series of concerts.
Even though Zaire was a neo-colonial outpost for reaction and counter-revolution across Africa, the African masses expressed their solidarity with Ali as illustrated in the documentary “When We Were Kings.”
Ali would go on to fight another victorious bout with Joe Frazier in the Philippines in 1975. His contests afterwards led to both victories and defeats before his retirement.
The later period
Ali’s greatest contributions to the anti-racist and anti-war movements were during the period of 1960 and 1975. On February 25, 1975, Elijah Muhammad died of congestive heart failure in Chicago.
Several months later the religious and ideological orientation of the NOI shifted dramatically away from being an all-Black organization advocating for a separate state to embracing what was described as a more orthodox form of Islam. Malcolm X was posthumously reinstated and the mosque in Harlem named after him.
Nonetheless, by 1977, Minister Louis Farrakhan had left the World Community of Islam, the former NOI, with the intent to rebuilding the organization along the lines established by its founder W.D. Fard and successor Elijah Muhammad.
Elijah Muhammad’s son Wallace took control of the NOI in 1975 and oversaw the reforms away from a form of religious nationalism to its new orientation. Both the revived NOI and the movement associated with Wallace Muhammad remain in existence.
Ali’s life illustrates the role of African Americans in sports and its relationship to the broader struggle against national oppression.
* Abayomi Azikiwe is Editor, Pan-African News Wire.
* THE VIEWS OF THE ABOVE ARTICLE ARE THOSE OF THE AUTHOR AND DO NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT THE VIEWS OF THE PAMBAZUKA NEWS EDITORIAL TEAM
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