For Black History Month, the Louisville Political Review celebrates black stories and heroes. Today, we celebrate Louisville’s hero, the Great Muhammad Ali.
The Red Bike That Changed History
Ali was born in Louisville, Kentucky as Cassius Clay (former name until 1964) on January 17th of 1942 in a legally segregated country, in which black people could not use the same public accommodations as their white counterparts. At the age of 12, he had his brand-new bike stolen. Clay filed a police report with the help of Officer Joe Martin. A fired-up Ali sought revenge, he wanted to “whup’ whoever it was who stole his bike”, Officer Martin suggested he first begin to learn how to fight before he starts actually fighting. This act of petty theft would be the beginning of a glamourous boxing career for Clay. under the training from Martin at Columbia Gym, which is now a part of the campus of Spalding University. He would go on to accumulate six Kentucky Golden Gloves ( a segregated tournament due to the Plessy v. Ferguson case that established the separate but equal doctrine preserving segregation in public facilities before the 1959 Supreme Court decision of Dorsey v. State Athletic Commission) alongside other amateur prizes.
In 1960, he participated in the Olympic games in Rome, where he won all of his fights with ease and defeated three-time European champion Zbigniew Pietrzykowski to win the gold medal at the tender age of 18. Ali would carry this momentum into his extensive boxing career by defeating Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight World Championship in 1964. Ali would continuously defend his title 9 times in four years. Ali would return to boxing after a short exile in 1970. The famous Rumble in the Jungle, a fight between Ali and George Foreman in Kinshasa Zaire (the current capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo) in 1974 allowed Ali to regain the heavyweight belt. Ali would end his blistering boxing career with an unfortunate loss to Trevor Berbick at the age of 39 in 1981, but his impact on the boxing community remains ever-present.
Vietnam War and Exile
The Military Selective Service Act of 1917 (50 U.S. Code § 3801.) declares that an “armed strength must be achieved and maintained to ensure the security of this nation . . . in a free society the obligations and privileges of serving in the armed forces and the reserve components thereof should be shared generally, in accordance with a system of selection which is fair and just, and which is consistent with the maintenance of an effective national economy.” What this means is that if there is a war impending. The draft, which mandates anybody selected to serve in a specific conflict, can be used by Congress.
Ali registered for the draft at age 18 as he was required to do so. He was listed 1-Y (used in national emergency only) because of his dyslexia. That would change in 1966 when the standards were lowered. Now Ali was listed at 1-A, which meant that he was eligible to be drafted due to the new guidelines championed by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, known as Project 100,000. McNamara decreased the criterion that would fulfill military personnel requirements on the Armed Forces Qualifying Exam, an intelligence exam. As the U.S. was involved in the Vietnam War, Ali was drafted, but he refused to serve because he had converted to Islam and the war was against the teachings of the Qur’an. Ali defended his stance in an interview by saying that “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.” Ali noted that he had no quarrel with the people of Vietnam. He raised the question of why should he drop bombs on people who have not harmed him and his people when “so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights”. As a result of his refusal to be inducted into the armed forces on April 28, 1967, he was arrested and stripped of his New York boxing license the same day. Other boxing commissions such as the World Boxing Association suspended his boxing license and stripped him of all titles he earned.
Ali was blackballed from the boxing scene as virtually all states refused to give him a boxing license for three years. And on June 20, 1967, Ali was sentenced to 5 years after the grand jury took just 20 minutes to deliberate. In 1971, the case of Clay v. the United States went to the Supreme Court of the United States where they ruled in a per curiam opinion that the Appeal Board gave no substantial reason for their denial of a conscientious objector exemption to Ali and promptly ordered the conviction to be reversed. The generational impact of Ali’s courageous act to refuse the draft is immense. He has inspired countless black athletes such as Gwen Berry at the Tokyo Olympics last summer, and Colin Kaepernick in his refusal to stand for the national anthem because of what the American flag stood for in his eyes. Ali was willing to walk away from boxing for his beliefs and likewise, Kaepernick says that “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color . . . this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” Kaepernick and Ali have similar phrases and positions. Having the bravery to leave all behind to uphold their values.
The legacy left behind
As a part of his Islamic responsibility of doing charitable acts and virtuous deeds, Ali has donated millions to charitable organizations all over the world. Examples of the humanitarian support that Ali displayed in his lifetime include visiting a Palestinian refugee camp in 1974. He declared that “the United States is the stronghold of Zionism and imperialism”, and he stated, “In my name and the name of all Muslims in America, I declare support for the Palestinian struggle to liberate their homeland and oust the Zionist invaders.” Ali also demonstrated his support for Indigenous tribes in the United States by participating in the Longest Walk, which is a spiritual walk across the country in solidarity with Native American tribes. His lifelong fight against Parkinson’s disease led him to collaborate with Michael J. Fox to appear in a congressional hearing where they pleaded for more funding to research Parkinson’s. Unfortunately, on June 3rd of 2016, Muhammad Ali passed away. The world came to a halt, as non-stop coverage of his death and celebration of his life aired across all forms of media, with his memorial being watched by an estimated 1 billion viewers worldwide.
The city of Louisville continues to honor the legacy of Muhammad Ali by having various murals throughout the city, changing Walnut Street to Muhammad Ali Boulevard, having the airport name changed to the Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport, and with the help of the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, people all over the world can come and observe the life that he lived. As we celebrate Black History Month, I challenge you to find inspiration through black historical figures like Ali that share similar values as you do. I have found mine and I will continue to honor his fight for social justice and humanitarian aid as I have been inspired by the greatest boxer the world has ever seen.