This post is the fourth post in our Life and Legacy of Muhammad Ali Series guest edited by Andrew R.M. Smith. Muhammad Ali was a complex figure and he had a large influence beyond the United States. The goal of these posts is to explore various aspects of Ali’s life and reflect on his legacies, offering insight into understudied themes and periods.
By Andrew McGregor
I was in Louisville on June 3, 2016 when Muhammad Ali died. Although I was in the process of having my brained turned to mush by grading thousands of AP U.S. History Exams, I felt fortunate to be there as tributes to the former world champion flowed through every medium, soothing the city’s profound sadness like a stiff bourbon. There with me were a few of my sport history compatriots – Russ Crawford, Aaron Haberman, Ryan Swanson, and Andrew R.M. Smith – grinding out the at-times torturous AP Reading after a relaxing week at NASSH in Atlanta. During our breaks we met for meals and drinks, and discussed Ali’s life and legacy. These conversations inspired this blog series.
After I returned home from the AP Reading and began to sift through the Op-Eds, Tweets, and Facebook posts, I found that Ali’s influence was much larger than I ever imagined. I learned that my own uncle met Ali while a graduate student at the University of Louisville during the 1990s, and that in 1975 Ali visited Purdue University where I teach and study. I had just finished my first year teaching an African American Studies course on “The Black Athlete,” and thought my students would enjoy hearing about it. In all of my classes, I try to find ways to make history personal and use local events to show how history happens — and has happened — around them. This post is part of my on-going effort to understand Ali and to make sense of him for my students. It is an incomplete project, but one that I hope is generative.
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Muhammad Ali’s “exile” – the time he spent away from boxing after refusing induction into the military – solidified his status as a cultural icon. As Thomas Hauser has argued, during his three and a half years away from boxing “Ali grew larger than sports.” Standard interpretations of this part of Ali’s life highlight how his anti-war stand connected him with the New Left, providing the movement with an important and powerful symbol. Ali’s speaking tours were a key component of this connection. He found an eager audience of students at dozens of colleges and universities, many of whom agreed with his anti-war stance – although they often disagreed with other aspects of his politics. The speaking fees from these campus speeches sustained Ali financially and emotionally.
Most discussions of this period of Ali’s life, however, seem superficial. We see broad connections with the “radical” 1960s. We witness the change in student rhetoric and popular attitudes on Vietnam. We know Ali benefited financially. But too often a ground level examination is missing. What did Ali say in his speeches? Where did he go? Who organized them and what kind of effect did they have after he left campus? These questions warrant further exploration to better understand Ali’s interaction with students on campuses across America and intersection with multiple social movements during the late 1960s.
Most of those questions I can’t answer–yet. I haven’t done the research or the in-depth reading to share those findings here. But I can point out a few different ideas to build on and concepts worth putting in conversation.
The first is the black studies movement. Ibram X. Kendi’s first book The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965–1972 provides an important overview of African American student life. Although the “People’s Champ” visited both HBCUs and PWIs, Kendi’s broad strokes do not leave room for a substantive discussion of Ali in this context. Mike Marqusee’s Redemption Song locates Ali squarely in the 1960s, including his connection to the black studies movement and black activism on college campuses. Specifically, Marqusee points to an intense 134-day student strike at San Francisco State University. Comments about Ali fomented a confrontation between the Black Student Union and white student newspaper that extended beyond the campus. Other Ali scholars, like Michael Ezra, discuss his relationship with the Civil Rights movement generally, and try to reconcile his influence despite his at times oppositional position.
Second, I think reading and studying the text of Ali’s speeches will give us insight into how he viewed himself and the advice he thought students needed to hear. Hauser shares some pieces of the speeches during his exile in his book along with commentary, but a fuller interrogation is needed—and perhaps a comparison between his speeches during and after his exile. Only then can we start to understand Ali as an intellectual – both as a member of the Nation of Islam as well as after he left in 1975 and his politics began to evolve.
Although he sometimes joked about being the only one in the room without a degree, he knew he was “deep” and had common sense. This self-awareness came through in many of his interviews. Ali recognized that he was an intellectual, and that he had something important to share. In a 1972 article in the Chicago Defender, Ali said that he saw himself teaching in the future. He shared critiques of black history as too brief and not long enough. Part of his goal for after his boxing days were over, he told the paper, was to tell the larger story and unite black people around the world. Although perhaps parallel to some of the demands of black students advocating for African American Studies programs, he affirmed the value of learning about one’s own culture and past.
Ali was a strong advocate of education. It was a point he stressed in many speeches and one of the most common pieces of advice that he gave young listeners. In February 1967 he donated $10,000 to the United Negro College Fund, and committed to continue supporting it during his time as champion. Ezra notes that Ali “wanted more money to fund black education and had a goal of giving $100,000 to the UNCF.”
Finally, the year 1975 seems significant. By then he had returned to the ring and reclaimed the title. No longer in exile, he arrived at Purdue – and other colleges, like Morehouse – as the champ. He had also visited the White House, invited by President Ford two months after the Rumble in the Jungle fight because, according to Chicago Defender, Ali complained about not being invited before. The trip illustrated his partially rehabilitated image. After the visit, however, A.S. Doc Young criticized Ali in his Chicago Defender column:
Muhammad Ali, if he would forsake his position at self-center, if he would familiarize himself with the real problems, if he would think out his actions and utterances (or permit experts to plot them for him), if he would quit preaching reverse bigotry, and racial separatism, could become a valuable leader among us. If he merely would, he could become as important a “leader” as was Joe Louis.
Young saw Ali as an arrogant and cocky boxer, misunderstanding Ali’s appeal and criticizing his message. Ali was not an intellectual or a leader in Young’s eyes, despite his earlier actions.
Were Ali’s speeches in 1975 a pushback against this perception of him? It is difficult to know, but with Elijah Muhammad’s death in 1975 and Ali’s departure from the Nation of Islam, the champ had the opportunity to redefine himself. These developments suggest that Ali’s motives and message changed, disrupting, or at the very least altering, the common narratives surrounding his speeches.
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Muhammad Ali’s visit to Purdue is one place where further exploration may provide insight into the complicated relationship between a rejuvenated boxing champion and emboldened black students. The speech took place after his exile and resonated in the context of Purdue’s history. As late as 1965, Purdue remained a relatively segregated and hostile campus to African American students. That year the school enrolled only 129 black students out of a total of 20,176. The poor conditions inspired a student protest on the steps of Hovde Hall (the administration building) three years later. Called “. . .Or the Fire Next Time” after James Baldwin’s famous novel, the demonstration featured over 150 students carrying bricks to the steps of the building, demanding change. In June 1969, the Trustees acceded to one of the demands, and formally established a Black Cultural Center (BCC). Faculty in the School of Humanities, Social Science, and Education met and established a plan for an African American Studies program in the Spring of 1970. The students continued voicing their concerns, publishing an independent newspaper called the Black Hurricane during the 1970-71 academic year.
The Black Cultural Center and African American Studies program were up and running by 1975, when the BCC sponsored Muhammad Ali’s visit. On the evening of November 20, 1975, 6,000 fans crowded into the Elliot Hall of Music to catch a glimpse of boxing’s world heavyweight champion. Ali’s visit to Purdue brought attention to the relatively new cultural center – celebrating the advances won by students, and providing them an important opportunity to hear from an iconic figure at the center of black activism as they continued to fight for equality on campus. Of course, because of the demographics of Purdue, most of the audience was likely white. Purdue’s student newspaper, The Exponent, reported the theme of his speech was “Friendship,” which hints at an inclusive and cooperative message, breaking from his earlier emphasis on black separatism. Indeed, during some of his early campus speeches, Ali preferred to talk to exclusively black audiences. Many took place at HBCUs like Howard and Central State. Ali eventually catered to white audiences with speeches at places like UCLA and Union College during his exile. I don’t know how much they differed from Ali’s Purdue message, but given the developments I outline above, my hunch is that there is some evolution.
Ali was a hit at Purdue. Many students recalled leaving the speech inspired and mesmerized by Ali’s message. He entertained the crowd with quips like, “I never been in no schools and I’ve lectured at Harvard,” hinting at his non-traditional intellectualism. He also relayed his belief in giving back, saying, “I get tired of this Uncle Tommin’. I just wanta see somebody do something for the little man.” Donald Mitchell, who was a professor of religion at Purdue in 1975 and attended the speech, reflected on the event in the Lafayette Journal-Courier after Ali’s death in June. “It was one of the most inspiring lectures I have ever heard. It was touching, funny, uplifting, challenging and intellectually stimulating” he wrote, “Muhammad Ali was a living example of a proud, sensitive, intelligent, cultured and successful African-American man formed by the Nation of Islam.” After the speech, students got the chance to meet the champ in a short 30-minute reception.
Black athletes at Purdue, who had a series of run-ins with administration in previous years, likely found more inspiration and encouragement in Ali’s visit than the average student. Harry Edwards has described Ali as “the father of the modern athlete, the modern athlete who stood up and spoke out for issues beyond the athletic arena, he moved sports out of the arena.” Ali’s courage particularly resonated with athletes, inspiring many of them as they began to demand black coaches and better treatment from authoritarian and unsympathetic white coaches and administrators. These issues were present at Purdue like many other campuses. A 1969 Sports Illustrated article reported, “When two black members of the Purdue track team refused to shave their mustaches, Athletic Director Red Mackey suspended them.” The incident intensified when “A third Negro, a sympathetic teammate, who had already been suspended for disciplinary reasons, passed a remark that was interpreted as a bomb threat just prior to a team flight. He was arrested.” In response, the article reported, “Black students marched on City Hall in Lafayette, Ind. The charges against the bomb talker were dismissed.”
Cheerleader Pam King also clashed with administrators, too. During the 1968-1969 school year she held her fist high, giving the Black Power Salute during football and basketball games. Eventually she was “barred from entering the basketball arena during the playing of the national anthem,” causing her to quit the cheerleading squad. During the late-1960s, the political consciousness of black students took inspiration from Ali, the Olympic Project for Human Rights led by Harry Edwards, and the Black Power movement. King’s demonstration alongside the other protests on campus illustrates these connections.
By the Spring of 1975, Purdue had a black female track coach, JoAnn Terry Grissom, who competed in the hurdles and long jump at the 1960 Olympic Games. She had met Ali that year in Rome, and greeted him when he visited Purdue. It is unclear if she had any role in bringing him to campus or was hired in response to racial tension on the track team. The latter seems likely, however, and her presence on campus is indicative of how administrators sought to build bridges and meet the demands of black athletes during this era.
While Ali’s Purdue speech occurred after the Vietnam War had officially ended, it still carried some weight. And perhaps more, since much of the controversy surrounding him had subsided and he was now the reigning champ. Yet given the activism only a few years prior to his visit, one wonders what kind of impact Ali had on campus? How did white administrators respond? Did they see him as controversial or was he used to placate the demands of black students? The student newspaper does little to answer these questions, but deeper reading into administrative records may reveal their true thoughts. From the local perspective, Ali’s visit showcased his intellect and activist philosophy, linked him to the black campus movement, and highlighted his popularity. It also showed his desire to maintain a relationship with young people.
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This post is brief, exploratory, and staccato. But I hope it teases out places that we can dig deeper into various parts of Ali’s life and legacy. I believe that exploring Ali’s campus visits across the country can help us connect him to students in the 1960s and 70s, and demonstrate how his impact remains on campuses and beyond. He helped to inspire a generation to create African American Studies courses and black cultural centers, and in cases like Purdue his visit confirmed their achievements. This ground level research further helps us broaden our understanding of Ali as an advocate for education, a teacher and intellectual, and an important figure within the New Left. Ultimately, exploring the questions and contexts I propose allows us to reshape the contours of his life and more fully appreciate his legacy.
Andrew McGregor is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at Purdue University, where he teaches courses in history and African American Studies. He is also the founder and co-editor of this blog. His current research explores the intersections of college football, race, masculinity, and politics in postwar America through the lens of Bud Wilkinson and the University of Oklahoma football dynasty. You can reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @admcgregor85.
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