When Martin met Muhammad
Probably the most famed boxer of all time, Olympic gold medallist Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Clay, won many historic battles against the likes of Joe Frazier and George Foreman.
Arguably the most outspoken athlete of all time, his “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee” taunt has become much-admired around the world.
Similarly, oratory was in the blood of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, who, like his father became a Baptist preacher. From a young age, King used his superior rhetoric skills to spread the word of God and equality, and went on to create one of the most renowned speeches of all time, “I Have A Dream”.
King was 13-years-old when Ali was born in Louisville, Kentucky on January 17, 1942. Unknown to both, they would become two of the most powerful and iconic men in American history, for very different reasons.
Both born in racially segregated parts of southern America – King, from Atlanta, Georgia, was the son of a middle class Baptist missionary reverend, whilst Clay’s father painted billboards and his mother served as a domestic worker.
The development of the two men couldn’t have been more different, with Clay opting for a life of boxing at the age of 12, and King attending Morehouse University when he was 15-years-old, due to his advanced intelligence. But it would be the actions of the men later in life that would define them forever.
In 1965, at the height of their careers, the usually separate lives of Clay – who by now had joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali – and Dr King collided when they both publicly opposed the sending of black men to fight in the US war against Vietnam.
Although King had already organised the successful boycott of buses in the southern states and a multitude of massive protests against racial inequality for many years, it was the first time he had aligned himself with the boxer.
Ali was often rejected by a variety of high ranking civil rights activists, including the executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), Roy Wilkins, because his views were considered too controversial.
In fact, Wilkins once described the heavyweight champion as a “voluntary member of the White Citizens’ Council”, who were an American white supremacist organisation.
King rejecting the war was to put him in direct conflict with President Lyndon Johnson and was an extremely dangerous stance for the minister, who had always advocated peaceful protests and negotiations between the black community and the government.
Only two years before, the preacher had met President Johnson and politician Robert Kennedy, in a bid to garner support for the civil rights movement.
As a result of his speech “Beyond Vietnam”, in which King called the US government the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world”, the minister lost significant support from his white allies, including the Press and the President.
A conscientious objector to the military action, Ali was drafted by the army to serve in Vietnam, but famously refused to become a solider because of his religious beliefs.
In his ever-eloquent style, he summed up his condemnation of the war and the tension that black Americans felt at the hands of a racist society, saying: “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam, while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”
Found guilty in 1967 by the US Justice Department of refusing induction into the armed forces, Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title and banned from boxing for three-and-a-half years.
Now both seen as enemies of the state, Dr King – already suspected of being a communist by the US government and under constant investigation by the FBI – commended Ali by saying: “No matter what you think of Mr Muhammad Ali’s religion, you certainly have to admire his courage.”
Also in 1967, the two men met at a demonstration for fair housing in Louisville, Ali’s hometown. To the public, it would seem that this was the one and only time they met.
But in actual fact, the FBI’s intrusive surveillance of Dr King’s life led to the previously unknown meetings between the two being recorded.
The recorded tapes only came to light in 1971 after a group of anonymous activists broke into a small FBI office and stole 1 000 documents that revealed years of systematic wiretapping and media manipulation.
Interestingly the activists forced their way into the office whilst much of the country was watching the Ali vs Joe Frazier fight on March 8, 1971.
However, in 1977, nine years after the assassination of Dr King – and following pressure from civil rights groups, who were angered by the discovery of the FBI’s secret surveillance on the pastor – a district judge ordered all known copies of the recorded audio tapes and written transcriptions to be sealed from public access until 2027.
But what is known is that as the opposition to the Vietnam war built, both men played a vital role in trying to end the oppression of the black people in America, until King’s death in March 1968, at the age of 39.
But the fight did not end for Ali who tirelessly continued to campaign for equality not only in the US, but also South Africa and around the world.
As Ali turns 71 (January 17) and we remember the life of Dr King, who would have been 84, we are reminded that the legacy of these icons is immeasurable. – The Voice (UK)