Muhammad Ali was the symbol for strength and courage inside and outside the boxing ring. He was the “Greatest of All Time”, the “People’s Champion” and was one hell of a trash talker. He knew how to sell a fight. He also was a major figure during the Civil Rights Movement. He fought for equal rights for African Americans at a time when African Americans weren’t even seen as humans. African Americans were being mistreated and killed by the police. Constant segregation didn’t allow blacks to study in the same schools as whites. They couldn’t eat in the same diners as whites. African Americans couldn’t even use the same water fountains as whites. In a time of hatred and divide Muhammad Ali made the boldest decision that any American has ever made. Refusing to serve in the Vietnam War. What would follow is the Cleveland Summit in June 4th, 1967 when he would meet with many of the top, socially aware black athletes of that time. Sit back and relax as I tell you about one of the most important events in not only sports history but black history.
The 1960s weren’t a nice time for African Americans in this country. Black people were still facing the wrath of Jim Crow and its hateful segregation. Lots of African Americans especially in the South faced hardship as laws prevented them basic human rights. Powerful black figures were needed to fight for these rights and to assert their place in society. Muhammad Ali was one of them. An outspoken talent, Ali used his platform to speak out on these injustices. Muhammad Ali at that time was the best boxer in the world. Formerly known as Cassius Clay, he would later convert to Islam in 1964. He would follow the teachings of Elijah Muhammad and join the Nation of Islam. Due to his beliefs in Islam he refused to serve in the army as it went against his religion. “Ali stated: “War is against the teachings of the Qur’an. I’m not trying to dodge the draft. We are not supposed to take part in no wars unless declared by Allah or The Messenger. We don’t take part in Christian wars or wars of any unbelievers.” This was so groundbreaking and shocking. A man was standing up to the government and at that a black man. He would face lots of disrespect and even death threats. He would be stripped of his heavyweight title and be banned from boxing for three years. With such a bold move Ali would need some support in his decision. Some of the nation’s top black athletes would come to his aid.
June 4th, 1967
On a sunny afternoon in June 1967, several hundred citizens and media outlets would crowd outside the offices of the Negro Industrial Economic Union in lower University Circle. Muhammad Ali would meet with some of the greatest athletes of all time. He would be joined with the likes of Bill Russell, Lew Alcindor (later to be known as Kareem Adbul-Jabbar), Jim Brown, Bobby Mitchell, Walter Beach, Willie Davis, John Wooten, Jim Shorter, Sid Williams, Curtis McClinton, and former mayor of Cleveland Carl Stokes. This was not a sports event. This was a meeting for justice. These men shared the same beliefs as Ali and were meeting with him to see if Ali stood strong by his beliefs. “When I look at the situation in Florida and when I look through all my adult life, there’s always been a period where something happens that causes this country to struggle, be it racial or whatever,” said former Green Bay standout Willie Davis. “I look back and see that Ali Summit as one of those events. I’m very proud that I participated.”
The visual of the best black athletes standing together showing unity is an inspiration to me as a young black man. 50 years later we are still seeing black athletes fight for what they believe in. We face the threat of police brutality and systematic oppression and as normal citizens we don’t have the same voice as someone who is in the national spotlight. What Muhammad Ali did showed that his stance against the Vietnam War surpassed not only sports, but politics. The Vietnam War was a very controversial topic as to whether the United States should get involved or not. To see a black man in the 1960s stand up for his beliefs and refuse to serve is something beyond words. He went into that knowing he would be the most hated man in America and would put his boxing career at jeopardy. He did it to show all the black men, women, and children to stand up for what you believe in. Then to have the top black athletes come together and show support to way they did is something we might not ever see. Yes, we have seen group protest here and there, like some NBA players protesting Donald Sterling for his remarks on African Americans, but it doesn’t hold the same power as that conference in 1967. The players protested in their warm-ups about to play a basketball game rather than the athletes off the field and court in suits prepared for business.
From Muhammad Ali’s rejection of the Vietnam War to Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest, black athletes continue their fight for justice. Facing the fact of losing their jobs to stand up for what is right is truly inspiring. I hope one day to follow in their footsteps and fight for my people.