The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

50 Years Ago:
The Emergence of Muhammad Ali

Mar 3, 2014

Fifty years ago, a young boxer named Cassius Clay challenged champion Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship. Liston was a heavy favorite; Vegas odds against Clay were 8-1. The much heavier Liston had knocked out former champ Floyd Patterson in his two most recent fights.

Clay already was rubbing many white reporters and racists in the population the wrong way with his outspoken, confident, and brash style outside the ring. He referred to his own boxing style as “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” Despite the odds against him, Clay employed graceful boxing finesse, dancing at a distance and causing Liston to mostly swing wildly and miss. By the third round, Clay had badly cut Liston’s left eye open, and at the start of Round 7, Liston was not able to answer the bell.

Right after his crushing victory, Clay announced that he joined The Nation of Islam and had changed his name to Muhammad Ali. After that, the racists came out of the woodwork to attack him. And many whites rooted for Ali to lose every fight.

But Ali was a hero to black people, both here and around the world, and to others moved by the struggles for equality being waged by the black population.

Unlike others who had made a name for themselves, Ali used his fame to champion black people’s cause. When in 1966 he refused to be drafted into the Army in opposition to the Vietnam War, he spoke to a whole generation. Many never forgot his statement that “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong. No Viet Cong ever called me Nigger.” The following year he added, “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 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? No, I'm not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality. If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn't have to draft me, I'd join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I'll go to jail, so what? We've been in jail for 400 years."

Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title in April 1967 for refusing the draft. He never wavered in his stance, though, saying, “Those who want to take it and start a series of auction-type bouts not only do me a disservice, but actually disgrace themselves ... Sports fans and fair-minded people throughout America would never accept such a title holder.”

Ali’s stance, personally and politically, inspired millions of others to say, we’re not fighting a war overseas, we’re fighting for ourselves.