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Muhammad Ali is one of the civil rights movement icons that unashamedly challenged racial injustice. He was the boxer of the 20th century and the first to get the heavyweight boxing title thrice (UofL libraries, 2022). However, Ali was not just a sports champion but also a people’s champion. That is, he consistently called out oppression in America and was a great advocate of racial justice. Muhammad Ali’s journey of racial justice advocacy began with his experience and awareness of racism during childhood in his hometown in Louisville, Kentucky. Ali learned about racism at 13 years old when he saw the news photo of Emmet Till, a 14-year-old who was killed in Mississippi by a mob of whites (UofL libraries, 2022). After that, he played important roles in the civil rights movement, a struggle for social justice and equality for African Americans in the US. Despite his many roles in the movement, three key roles stand out. What’s more, Ali evoked black pride in the movement through his Islamic religious affiliation and change of name, pioneered the anti-Vietnam War movement by objecting to military induction, and gave racial justice speeches during his three-year boxing suspension.
Ali Aroused Black Pride
Ali’s conversion to Islam carried heavy political significance that evoked a new era of black pride in African Americans. He discovered the Nation of Islam (NOI) in 1959 during a Chicago boxing torment (Halstead, 2019). NOI aimed to empower blacks to embrace their heritage, which drew Ali. In 1962 after his heavyweight champion win against Sonny Liston, Ali joined the NOI and the civil rights movement. In 1964, he converted to Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali (Halstead, 2019). Changing his name was more than just a religious move. When asked about his religious affiliation, Ali said, “I am free to be who I want to be” (UofL libraries, 2022). In interviews and speeches, he demanded to be called Muhammad Ali and not Cassius Clay, or else he would not answer any question asked. Ali showed blacks that they could be anything they wanted because they were free. In short, these religious moves by Ali stirred a new era of black pride and black power that encouraged blacks to embrace their heritage and choices.
Ali Pioneered Anti-Vietnam War Movement
Ali’s anti-Vietnam War induction is one moment in his activism that played a massive role in the civil rights movement. On February 1966, the government classified Ali as eligible and available for military drafting. However, Ali filed for a Conscientious Objector to exempt him from serving in the military during the Vietnam War based on religious reasons (Bowman, 2019). Ali maintained his conscientious objection to American military service based on his belief that Islam prohibits its members from going to war. He said, “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” (UofL libraries, 2022). The government denied his Conscientious Objection claim, making him available for drafting. Ali also continued to show that the Vietnam War was a white supremacist way of establishing dominance and slavery of the non-white population.
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The media was critically heavy on Ali’s refusal of induction. However, he was supported by other high-profile black athletes, pushing the momentum of the civil rights movement toward supporting the anti-Vietnam War movement. Ali was convicted of draft evasion, fined ten thousand dollars, and sentenced to five years in prison (Bowman, 2019). Also, the boxing commission recalled his boxing license saying that his refusal to serve in the military negatively affected the best interests of boxing.
Ali sparked an Anti-Vietnam War movement, and the civil rights movement saw the war as a racist war aimed at oppressing non-whites. Being a friend to Malcom X, who was a minister and leader in the civil rights movement, Ali supported the civil rights movement and Black Nationalism. Ali played an essential role in the civil rights movement by pioneering anti-war sentiments.
Ali Gave Racial Justice Speeches During His Three-Year Boxing Suspension
Ali was suspended from boxing for three years after he refused to join the military, a punishment he was willing to take. The New York Athletic Commission’s (NYAC) suspension of his boxing license immediately countered his refusal of induction to the army. He got banned from boxing for those three years, and his heavyweight championship title got stripped. During these three years, Ali toured colleges giving speeches about his objection to the Vietnam War and his experience with racism. He visited colleges like the University of Pennsylvania, where he held high Elijah Muhammad’s message on black Americans (UofL libraries, 2022). In his college speeches, he explained that young black and poor men were more likely to be drafted into the Vietnam War. This disproportionate induction did not sit well with Ali; therefore, he refused military induction. He also worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., where he participated in the Poor People’s March (Bowman, 2019). In 1970, Ali got his boxing license after The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) sued the NYAC for banning the license discriminatorily.
As seen above, Muhammad Ali was not just a boxing champion. He played a considerable role in the civil rights movement. While he held a god-like position in boxing, Ali used this platform to advocate for social justice and equality for blacks. His decision to become a Muslim and change his name showed that blacks do not have to follow the mainstream religion of the white supremacist. Ali’s military draft refusal helped steer the anti-Vietnam War movement that showed the Vietnam War as a racist war. Further, he gave speeches in advocacy of racial justice and black pride. Ali’s contribution and role in the civil rights movement are undeniable and evident, worthy of recognition and celebration.
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- Bowman, W. (2019). Feat of Clay: Muhammad Ali’s Legal Fight against the Vietnam Draft. J. Sup. Ct. Hist., 44, 307. https://doi.org/10.1111/jsch.12221
- Gorn, E. J. (2020). Emmett Till, History, and Memory. In An Unfamiliar America (pp. 193-205). Routledge.
- Halstead, T. (2019). American Mecca: Examining Today’s Nation of Islam among Black Muslims on Chicago’s South Side [Unpublished doctoral dissertation]. Eastern University.
- UofL libraries. (2022): Muhammad Ali: A transcendent life: Social justice and civil rights icon. UofL Libraries at the University of Louisville. https://library.louisville.edu/ali/SocialJustice_CivilRights