A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Billy Reed: King would have approved of Ali’s transformation into goodwill ambassador


From humble beginnings in the segregated South, they grew up to become the disparate voices of Black America in the 1960s, the dark and defining era when the nation was ripped asunder by two wars – one in the steamy jungles of Vietnam, the other in the streets and backroads of the Deep South.

When Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. was born in Louisville on Jan. 17, 1942, Martin Luther King Jr. was in Atlanta, Ga., only two days removed from his 13th birthday. Clay was the son of a sign painter, while King’s father was a Baptist minister. Almost from the cradle, they both had tongues of silver.

King followed his father into the pulpit of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, but he quickly became more than a minister. He became the leader, the symbol, of the civil-rights movement that exposed the deep-seated segregation that had been a way of life in Dixie long before President Abraham Lincoln got the Emancipation Proclamation passed by Congress during the Civil War.

Muhammad Ali with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Photo from Muhammad Ali.com)

Muhammad Ali with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Photo from Muhammad Ali.com)

Clay, too, became a preacher of sorts. Using the boxing rings of the world as his bully pulpit, he adopted the Muslim religion and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. When he refused induction into the U.S. Army in 1967 on the grounds that he was a Muslim minister, he engendered as much hatred in White America as he did idolatry among the poor, underprivileged and disenfranchised around the world.

As orators, they were decidedly different.

His grammar impeccable and his cadences perfect, Dr. King spoke in a rich voice that quivered with passion and indignation. He was the epitome of dignity, humility, and reason. On the other hand, Ali delivered long harangues that often were tinged with hate, braggadocio, and poems. He never advocated violence, but he associated with those who did – the Nation of Islam, on Black Muslims, headed by Elijah Muhammad of Chicago.

“I have a dream,” said Dr. King in his most famous speech.

“I ain’t got nothin’ against them Cong,” said Ali in his.

The voice of reason and the voice of revolution burst into the national consciousness more or less together in 1963. That spring, speaking to hundreds of thousands gathered in Washington before the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. King delivered what came to be known as his signature speech.

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down at the table of brotherhood…I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character…”

That same year, Clay emerged as the No. 1 challenger to Sonny Liston, the formidable ex-convict who had menaced his way to the world heavyweight championship. They finally met on Feb. 25, 1964, in Miami Beach, and Ali shocked the boxing world by claiming the title belt when Liston refused to answer the bell for the eighth round.

To budding media star Howard Cosell and anybody else who would listen, Ali proclaimed, “I am the greatest!” The day after the fight, he announced that he had joined the Muslims and asked the media to begin calling him by his new name, which many were reluctant to do.

In the late summer or early fall of 1964, the FBI secretly taped a telephone conversation between Dr. King and Ali after the champ’s first trip to Africa. As reported by Tom Hauser in his Ali biography, here was the summary that was found in FBI files:

“MLK spoke to Cassius, they exchanged greetings, MLK wished him well on his recent marriage. C. invited MLK to be his guest at his next championship fight, MLK said he would like to attend. C. said that he is keeping up with MLK, that MLK is his brother, and he’s with him 100 percent, but can’t take any chances, that MLK should take care of himself, that MLK is known worldwide and should watch out for them whites. Said people in Nigeria, Egypt, and Ghana asked about MLK.”

Ali had joined the Nation of Islam at least partly because of his fascination with a charismatic young leader who called himself Malcolm X. Eventually, Malcolm became disenchanted with the teachings of Elijah Muhammad and left the sect to join the more traditional Sunni Muslims. He tried to get Ali to go with him, but Ali refused and the two never spoke again.

On Feb. 21, 1965, Ali was shaken to his core when Elijah Muhammad’s henchmen murdered Malcolm X in cold blood before he was to give a speech in New York’s Audubon Ballroom. However, Ali stayed with the Nation of Islam, because, as he once told Kindred, he was afraid he would end up like Malcolm X.

The boxer and the preacher. The King and the “Greatest.” So alike in some ways, so different in others.

Although they were as vilified by white supremacists as they were adored by Black America, King and Ali remained separated by religious, political, and philosophical differences. However, on April 27, 1967, after Ali had refused to step forward and join the U.S. Army at the draft board in Houston, King took to the pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist and praised Ali for his conscientious objections to the war in Vietnam.

A month later, they met briefly in Louisville, where King and the Southern Christian Leadership Coalition were leading marches on behalf of an open-housing ordinance that whites were stridently resisting. Ali did not join the marches, and may not have even been aware of what happened at that year’s Derby Trial at Churchill Downs, which then was held the Tuesday before the Kentucky Derby.

After the race had started, some young protestors jumped onto the track and lay down in a line at the top of the stretch. It was scary for a few moments, but the protestors jumped up and ran away as the horses approached the turn for home.

Less than a year later, when Dr. King was assassinated by a sniper while standing outside his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Ali was struggling to make a living as the appeal of his draft evasion conviction moved slowly through the court system. He gave speeches on college campuses. He helped promote the Broadway play, “The Great White Hope.” He drew crowds wherever he went.

Yet even when Senator Robert F. Kennedy, running for the Democratic nomination for President was assassinated in Los Angeles only a couple of months after Dr. King’s assassination, Ali moved about freely. If he felt any fear, he never showed it.

Exonerated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1970, Ali was free to fight again, but boxing’s sanctioning organizations refused to restore the titles that had been unjustly taken from him. He lost his bid to reclaim the championship when Joe Frazier beat him in Madison Square Garden in 1971, but finally got it back by shocking the heavily favored George Foreman in Zaire in 1974.

In what amounted to a second career, Ali reinvented himself in the 1970s, both as a fighter and as a person. Realizing that the skills of his youth had eroded, he became more of a thinking man’s fighter, outsmarting opponents as much as outpunching them. He also left the Nation of Islam after Elijah Muhammad’s death in 1975 and became a Sunni Muslim, just as Malcolm X had encouraged him to do more than a decade earlier.

Ali held the title until losing it to Leon Spinks in February, 1978, but became the first man to win it a third time when he won the rematch with Spinks in New Orleans. That would have been a perfect time to retire, but he couldn’t give it up until Larry Holmes (1980 in Las Vegas) and Trevor Berbick (1981 in the Bahamas) had exposed him as a has-been.

After he finally retired from the ring, Ali decided to become a humanitarian who would travel the world preaching love and peace. Alas, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Syndrome two years after his last fight, and the disease progressed into full-blown Parkinson’s, slowly robbing the erstwhile “Louisville Lip” of his ability to talk and charm.

Had Dr. King lived, he would have undoubtedly loved the transformation in Ali. Indeed, it may be said that Ali inherited Dr. King’s mantle as a proponent of peace and non-violent protest. Although only a slow-moving shadow of his youth, Ali became a goodwill ambassador for U.S. Presidents and traveled the world to spread the teachings of Allah.

His last hurrah on the international stage came in Dr. King’s hometown of Atlanta. At the 1996 Olympic Games, he shocked and delighted the world one more time by materializing, almost mystically, from a warm Georgia night to light the Olympic torch. Although the torch shook visibly in Ali’s hand, that only made the moment more poignant.

The passing of time has softened much of the hatred White America felt toward both Ali and Dr. King. Many major cities now have streets or highways named in their honor. In Louisville, a museum dedicated to Ali’s career, the good as well as the controversial, nestles on the banks of the Ohio River.

Now that Ali is gone, it’s past time for state officials to remove the statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, from the capitol’s rotunda and replace it with one of Ali, easily the most famous Kentuckian ever (they didn’t have TV in Abraham Lincoln’s day.)

It also would be a terrific idea for the University of Louisville to remove the Confederate monument on Third Street and replace it with one of Ali. There is simply not ever going to be enough we can do to thank Ali and Dr. King for forcing this nation to find its conscience and squarely confront racism, injustice, and inequality wherever it was tolerated.

billy-reed

Billy Reed is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and the Transylvania University Hall of Fame. He has been named Kentucky Sports Writer of the Year eight times and has won the Eclipse Award twice. Reed has written about a multitude of sports events for over four decades, but he is perhaps one of media’s most knowledgeable writers on the Kentucky Derby


Related Posts

One Comment

  1. Mitch says:

    Ali’s 1975 Playboy interview where he advocated killing interracial couples and claiming Allah would destroy America was certainly violent by any reasonable measure. And there was no excuse for his treatment of fellow fighters during his career.

    It can be argued he was suffering from borderline intellectual functioning and not ultimately in control of his opinions. But if this was the case, the same certainly holds true for his “transformation” post boxing career as he suffering from even more diminished capacity.

    More a tragic figure to be pitied than placed in bronze.

Leave a Comment