The Civil Rights Movement
Pre-war struggles and the events of the second world war set the conditions for a mass civil rights movement, beginning in the early 1950's, that would last nearly three decades. It brought about a lot of struggles, particularly for African Americans. Although Ali didn't deal with the majority of the issues that most lower class African Americans had to deal with, Ali still felt obligated to defend his people using his celebrity status as a way for people to listen. (Pierre)
"I know i got it made while other black folks are out there catchin hell, but as long as they ain't free, i ain't free."
-Muhammad Ali (Ali)
While the Constitution declares that “all men are created equal with certain unalienable rights” minority groups within the United States struggled for nearly a century to gain racial equality. In the mid 1940s a movement began assembling that would later bring about change, it was known as the Civil Rights movement. It reached its apex in the mid 1960s, around the same time a heavy-weight fighter named Cassius Clay was making his bid for a belt. In 1964, the young boxer shocked the world, making his conversion to Islam and his new name public. He announced that he had become a member of the Nation of Islam, a group that would influence his ideology and involvement with Civil Rights. (Pierre)
His success in the ring became a beacon of hope that galvanized black Americans to continue their struggle for racial equality. It is widely believed that Ali joined the Nation of Islam because of his friendship with another Civil Rights activist of the time, Malcolm X. Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam urged blacks not to cooperate with the Mass Civil Rights movement and not to coalesce with their white suppressers (Black History Month). The radical views of Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the group, warranted the Nation of Islam a racist and militant reputation. The Nation believed that segregation should be maintained because of the violence and turbulence caused by integration. Malcolm X eventually broke away from the Nation of Islam after becoming more liberal with his ideas and siding with the Mass Civil Rights movement, led by Dr. Martin Luther King. (McElrath)
In early 1965, Malcolm was assassinated by two members of the Nation of Islam because of his conflicting ideas with Elijah Muhammad. Ten years later Ali would leave Nation of Islam, and converting to Sunni, a more traditional form of Islam. Ali’s tendency to speak his mind made him a very controversial figure politically and professionally. In 1965 Ali sparked debate with his contender, Floyd Patterson over their conflicting beliefs about fighting for Civil Rights. The next year (1966) Ali’s bold demeanor landed him in hot water once again. He refused to serve in the Vietnam war claiming he was opposed to fighting for a country that still denied racial equality to blacks (Taylor). His “draft- dodging” warranted him five years in jail in addition to having his title stripped by the World Boxing Association. While his bold statement carried some harsh consequences, it was a symbol of the great personal sacrifice so many blacks made that galvanized followers of the Civil Rights movement. (Black History Month)
Picture: King, Thomas, "The Long Civil Rights Movement and Political Uses of the Past", The Journal of American History, Vol.91 #4, March 2005 <http://www.historycooperative.org/cgi-bin/justtop.cgi?act=justtop&url=http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/jah/91.4/hall.html>
Ali, Muhammad, "Muhammad Ali Quotes", Think Exist, 2006 <http://thinkexist.com/quotes/muhammad_ali/3.html>
Taylor, B. Kimberly. " Black History: Muhammad Ali." Contemporary Black Biography, Vol. 16. 1997. Gale cengage. 27May 2008.
McElrath, Jessica, "Muhammad Ali: World Heavyweight Champion", About.com, 2001. <http://afroamhistory.about.com/od/muhammadali/a/bio_ali_m.htm>
"Muhammad Ali: Black History Month" Free Resources: Biographies, 2008, Gale Cengage Learning. <http://www.gale.cengage.com/free_resources/bhm/bio/ali_m.htm>
Pierre, Hugo. "Ali & the black struggles of the 1960s" Socialist View, 2002. <http://www.geocities.com/socialistparty/Documents/Ali.htm>