Muhammad Ali: icon of the civil rights movement

October 13, 2020

Mohammad Ali. Image from Dutch National Archives licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0 Netherlands license.

For Black History Month, Arjan Arenas honours a heroic, heavyweight champion, in and outside the ring

When thinking about inspirational figures during Black History Month, Muhammad Ali is one of the first names to spring to mind. His immeasurable prowess in the boxing ring was matched by his legendary quips about how he compared to his opponents (i.e. much better) and, of course, his outspokenness on issues of race and racism.

By the late 1960s, against all odds, he had stratospherically risen from an unknown boxer from Louisville, Kentucky to become not just the world heavyweight champion but, arguably, the most famous person on the planet at that point.

As an African-American man who had grown up in the segregated South, it goes without saying that Ali was no stranger to racism, by which he continued to be impacted during his career. In 1960, having won multiple boxing titles and returning home from the Olympics in Rome with a gold medal, he and two of his friends were refused service at a whites-only restaurant, and got into a fight with a group of white customers. Angered by this burning reminder that his sporting success on the international stage was no buffer to such bigotry, he threw his medal into the Ohio River.

Ali became increasingly vocal about the civil rights movement

Throughout the rest of the 1960s, Ali continued to garner public attention, not just for his boxing victories, but also for his conversion to Islam and legally changing his name from Cassius Clay, both of which accompanied his becoming increasingly vocal about the civil rights movement.

Then came the turning point. In 1966, the Vietnam War was raging, and the U.S. government were increasing the number of young men drafted to serve in the military. The Pentagon ensured that disproportionately large numbers of black men were drafted. This group constituted 32% of American frontline combatants in Vietnam, despite all African Americans making up only 11% of the national population.

Ali, who was registered as a low-priority reservist, had his status upgraded to make him eligible for the draft. When informed of this, he publicly declared he had no intention of serving in Vietnam. Citing his Muslim faith as a reason why he could not fight, he added that he “ain’t got no quarrel” with the opposing Vietnamese forces, elaborating: “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 [black] people in Louisville are treated like dogs?… 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… We’ve been in jail for 400 years.”

The following year, when attending his military induction, Ali refused three times to answer to his name. Following a warning, he refused a fourth time and was arrested. Convicted of resisting the draft, he was sentenced to five years in prison. He was stripped not just of the world heavyweight championship, but of his boxing license, effectively destroying his livelihood at an age considered to be the peak of any boxer’s career.

However, while many in the media were heavily critical of Ali’s actions, he had the support of a group of high-profile black athletes, and more importantly, the growing momentum of the burgeoning civil rights movement behind him. Having his sentence suspended during appeal, he was also able to visit universities across the country (a first for a boxer) to voice his support for civil rights and bringing wider attention to the cause.

Muhammad Ali’s boxing licence was restored in 1970, and his conviction was overturned in 1971. He won back the world title in 1974 in his infamous match, dubbed ‘the Rumble in the Jungle’, against George Foreman.

Having re-asserted his godlike status in boxing, he had also cemented himself as a civil rights icon. This Black History Month, let’s remind ourselves not just of the witty heavyweight champion who could “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee”, but also the sometimes neglected heroism of a man who suffered the consequences of standing up for his principles and his people.

Arjan Arenas studied history at King’s College London, then completed a master’s in the history of international relations at the London School of Economics. He has worked with Exposure since January 2018, and is particularly interested in history and politics, as well as books, film and television. Outside of his work with Exposure, Arjan has written reviews of films and television programmes, as well as theatre productions in London’s West End.

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