Muhammad Ali – Black activist and 60’s icon

Bill Scott looks at a sporting star who played a significant role in the civil rights struggles of the US in the 1960’s and 70’s.

Muhammed Ali
Image: Olebrat on flickr under Creative Commons licence

“A Change Is Gonna Come”

I was born by the river in a little tent
And just like that river I’ve been running ever since
It’s been a long time coming
But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will
It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die
Cos I don’t know what’s out there beyond the sky
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will

I go to the movie
And I go down town
somebody keep telling me don’t hang around
It’s been a long time coming
But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will

Then I go to my brother
And I say brother help me please
But he winds up knockin’ me
Back down on my knees

There were times when I thought I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able to carry on
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gone come, oh yes it will

Muhammad Ali is 70.  For those who did not see him box in his prime or hear his denunciations of the racist, white American state that might not mean much.  But for those who were witness to his personal struggle he remains much more than a great sportsman. He was an inspirational figure for a generation of activists.

Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Clay, in January 1942, to a poor, black working-class family in Louisville, Kentucky. Kentucky was in the upper South but scarred by the racist Jim Crow laws that prevented Black Americans from accessing decent homes, jobs and services or even drinking from the same water fountains as Whites. From his teenage years Clay strove to escape the poverty that the vast majority of Black Americans were destined to by becoming a boxer.  He proved a highly skilled one winning the Gold medal as a light heavyweight at the 1960 Olympics.


Clay then set out on a professional career.  But boxing and other sports had also been scarred by America’s racism. When Jack Johnson became the first black world heavyweight champion in 1908 white America was horrified. How could a cowardly “nigger” have beaten the flower of white manhood? Jim Jeffries, the ex-world champion, came out of retirement ‘for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro’.  Johnson reacted by giving Jeffries a boxing lesson and inflicting a crushing defeat, whilst the crowd chanted ‘kill the nigger!’ Blacks celebrated across the US, but racist reaction resulted in lynchings and white race riots. Johnson was eventually forced to flee the country after he was basically charged with sleeping with a white woman. There would not be another Black American permitted to fight for the heavyweight title until the “Brown Bomber”, Joe Louis, some 20 odd years later. But it was not only boxing where racism flourished. Baseball was segregated until after the Second World War and American Football imposed a ban on black players until the 1950s.

The price of being allowed to compete and win against whites was that the Black sporting champions had to show respect and deference to whites. No uppity Black sportsmen were tolerated. For example Jackie Robinson, the first Black baseball star, was forced to prove his loyalty to White America by testifying against Paul Robeson to the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was told that if he failed to do so his career would be over.

Civil Rights Struggle

This was the sporting world that Clay had entered.  But other things were happening in America during this period.  A black seamstress called Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man beginning the Montgomery bus boycott. From this struggle a new Black leader emerged in the form of a local minister, the Reverend Martin Luther King.  By 1956, the Montgomery buses were desegregated, and the boycott tactic spread into retail settings like restaurants and shops and even industry.

The young Cassius Clay was influenced by these events and attended a number of civil rights demonstrations but after a white woman soaked him on a march, he declared “that’s the last one of these I’m coming to”.

However Clay became attracted to another emerging Black movement in the form of the Nation of Islam. Its founder Elijah Muhammad taught that Blacks should have pride in themselves and that Whites were evil. Unsurprisingly Clay kept his interest in the Nation secret – otherwise he might never have been given a chance to fight the then world heavyweight champion, Sonny Liston. But his pride in his ethnicity was given an outlet.  He developed a bombastic, boastful, public persona which expressed itself in rhyming couplets such as “Float like a butterfly, Sting like a bee”. In fact he has a real claim to being the progenitor of Rap as his popularity and rhyming surely inspired others. Even in his early career Ali seemed the antithesis of his quiet, respectful predecessors – boxers such as Joe Louis and Floyd Paterson.

The Nation’s most popular spokesperson and radical leader was Malcolm X. Popular with young Blacks that is but reviled by the white press and media. Malcolm became a close friend of Ali’s.  On the night that Clay first won the world championship in 1964 he did not party the night away but instead spent his time discussing his and Black America’s future with Malcolm X and the singer and activist Sam Cooke.

Malcolm X

The next morning Cassius Clay met the press in the company of Malcolm X and told them that he was a member of the Nation of Islam and henceforth wished to be known by his free name of Muhammad Ali and not his slave name, Cassius Clay. This stunned and infuriated White America. Here was a Black champion not deferential and god-fearing like a good Coloured person who knew their place but instead proclaiming that he was not even Christian but a Muslim who disowned America’s racist slave heritage.

Elijah Muhammad vehemently opposed members of the Nation of Islam participating in the civil rights movement, calling instead for separation of blacks from ‘White’ America.  But events were already making Malcolm X question that stance and his loyalty to Elijah Muhammad.  In 1962 Los Angeles police invaded a Nation of Islam Mosque shooting and killing one of its members. Malcolm X quickly organised an alliance of black groups and workers’ organisations to defend Black Muslims from further attacks but was ordered by the Nation’s leadership to desist.

Malcolm X began to think that he and other Black radicals should become directly involved in the struggle for black rights and that economic justice for Black Americans might mean forming alliances with progressive white workers. Malcolm then expressed open criticism of Elijah Muhammad and the idea of black separation.  Malcolm X’s developing political ideas strained his close friendship with Mohammed Ali as Ali remained loyal to Elijah Muhammad. However Ali was devastated by Malcolm’s assassination in 1965. Probably an act colluded in, if not carried out by, the FBI and Nation of Islam.

Because of his loyalty to Elijah Muhammad Ali initially opposed the struggle for Civil Rights but over time his views changed.  The key issue in Ali’s evolving political consciousness was the Vietnam War.


The war was massively opposed by Black Americans who were disproportionately more likely to be drafted into the army and even more disproportionately represented at the frontline. Responding to this the young Black activists of the Civil Rights Movement, SNCC (Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee) came out against the war. So too did the Civil Rights Movement’s leader, Martin Luther King. He did so against the wishes of the rest of the Movement’s more moderate leadership who feared being seen as unpatriotic. It was only after he expressed his opposition to the war that King was described by arch-reactionary Edgar J. Hoover as “the most dangerous man in America”.

King like Malcolm X was being radicalized by events. Race riots erupted in America’s black inner city ghettos between 1964 and 1968. The repression of rioters was massive –  nearly 250 black protestors were killed, 10,000 were injured, and 60,000 were arrested. In the rubble left after the Los Angeles Watts riots in 1965, King declared this, ” …was a class revolt of the under-privileged against the privileged”. In 1967 he concluded: “We have moved into an era which must be an era of revolution…”

Early in 1966 Ali became eligible to be called up to fight but he refused to be conscripted, saying that he was a conscientious objector. His vocal response to the draft – “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.  They ain’t never called me nigger” – thrust him into the forefront of the infant anti-war movement. Ali then took part in speaking tours around the college campuses often sharing the same platform as Martin Luther King.

Ali was the best known and most eloquent opponent of the war and more influential amongst Black youth and  anti-war activists than any politician. In 1966 Ali came to Britain to fight Henry Cooper. But he also came to give his support to the infant British Black consciousness movement. He toured playgrounds and spoke to crowds of adoring black youngsters in Brixton and Notting Hill. He was also a source of pride to Britain’s growing Muslim population.

In 1967 Ali was sentenced to 5 years imprisonment and stripped of his title for refusing to be drafted. Ali refused to be cowed but instead continued to speak out against injustice.  He not only continued to speak on anti-war platforms but in 1968 also marched alongside his friend King and striking cleansing workers the day before King’s assassination. He faced death threats and hardship for his anti-war stance. He was at the very peak of his prowess as a boxer but was prevented from practicing his craft by the boxing authorities – losing millions of dollars in potential prize money. Because of his previous generosity Ali was not particularly wealthy and was quite quickly reduced to near poverty.  His future boxing opponent Joe Frazier generously helped him out financially during this period.

Back to Boxing

Eventually, in 1970, Ali’s conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court (which upheld his right to be a religious conscientious objector), and the World Boxing Association had to reinstate him. Ali by then had become a folk hero to Black America, genuinely the “People’s Champion”. Eventually allowed to box again, he fought his way back into contention for the official world title – though it was far from an easy process as several powerful, younger Black boxers such as Joe Frazier and Ken Norton had emerged during Ali’s hiatus.

In 1974 Ali became only the second heavyweight ever to recapture the heavyweight world title when he beat the apparently invincible and fearsome champion George Foreman.  He later became the only boxer ever to regain the world heavyweight title for a second time.

But like many other Black sportsmen Ali’s escape from poverty came at a bitter price.  Grueling contests with Frazier, Norton and Foreman damaged Ali’s brain and body.  Since 1984 he has suffered from Parkinson’s Syndrome brought on by repeated blows to his head and vital organs. For much of every day this extremely intelligent and articulate man is a voiceless prisoner of his own body. That is why so many of us who remember him in his prime shed a silent tear when he took faltering steps to light the Olympic flame in 1996.  His enduring pride and courage was there for all to see. At the end of 1999 Muhammad Ali was named the athlete of the century but he was, and is, so much more than that.

Sam Cooke: The enormously talented singer and song-writer Sam Cooke had 29 top-40 hits in the U.S. between 1957 and 1964 and is recognized as one of the founders and pioneers of Soul Music.  He was also very active in the Civil Rights Movement.  He was shot dead by his manager just months after Ali won his heavyweight title. “A Change is Gonna Come” is one of his most moving and political songs.


2 thoughts on “Muhammad Ali – Black activist and 60’s icon”

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