By George E. Curry
WASHINGTON – Muhammad Ali’s decision to risk going to jail by opposing the Vietnam War provided Dr. Martin Luther King with the strength to come out against the war publicly for the first time, according to the board chairman of King’s old organization.
Bernard Lafayette, a longtime Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) field organizer and current board chairman, said in an interview with EmergeNewsOnline.com: “He was the reason Martin Luther King had the courage to come out and take a stand against the war, even though Martin Luther King’s own board was not in favor of it.”
He added, “I don’t remember any exact quotes, but Muhammad Ali is the one that pushed Martin Luther King to take a stand.”
Ali, who was a global icon in and out of the boxing ring, died June 3 in a hospital in Scottsdale, Ariz., where he had been admitted with respiratory problems. He was 74 years old. A private funeral service will be held Thursday in his hometown of Louisville, Ky. followed by a public memorial on Friday.
On April 28, 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War, Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted into the U.S. Army, citing religious reasons. He said, “I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong.” Ali, who had converted to Islam three years earlier and changed his name from Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. to Muhammad Ali, was immediately stripped of his heavyweight championship title.
He was convicted of draft evasion on June 20, 1967, sentenced to five years in prison, fined $10,000 and banned from boxing for three years. He remained free while his case worked its way through the appeals process. On June 28, 1971, a unanimous Supreme Court overturned his conviction, granting him conscientious objector status.
Ali’s standoff with the federal government captured the attention of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the preeminent civil rights leader of that period.
Like Ali, he took a stand against the Vietnam War, a position that was opposed by many of his fellow civil rights warriors, including NAACP Executive Director Roy Wilkins and National Urban League President Whitney Young, Jr.
On April 30, 1967 – just two days after Ali refused to take a step forward to be inducted into the Army – King gave a major address against the war at Riverside Church in New York City.
While then-president Lyndon B. Johnson objected to King’s opposition to the war, the nation’s first African American president praised Ali for his unpopular stand.
In a statement, President and Mrs. Obama said, “Muhammad Ali shook up the world. And the world is better for it. We are all better for it.”
They explained, “He stood with King and Mandela; stood up when it was hard; spoke out when others wouldn’t. His fight outside the ring would cost him his title and his public standing. It would earn him enemies on the left and the right, make him reviled, and nearly send him to jail. But Ali stood his ground. And his victory helped us get used to the America we recognize today.”
The former heavyweight champion occupied a special place in Black America. Like Joe Louis had instilled mass pride in an earlier generation, he did the same for the succeeding generation.
The Louisville, Ky. native won a gold medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome and turned pro later that year. On Feb. 25, 1964, Ali scored an upset knockout over Sonny Liston in the sixth round, becoming heavyweight champion. In addition to predicting the round his opponent would fall, Ali provided the most colorful quotes of any boxer before or afterward.
“The Louisville Lip,” as he was sometimes known, was famous for saying, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee – his hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see.”
After being banned from boxing, Ali returned to the ring against Jerry Quarry in Atlanta on Oct. 26, 1970. Ali knocked him out in the third round.
Many of Ali’s fights had catchy titles, most of them supplied by him. His 1971 fight against Joe Frazier was billed as the “Fight of the Century.” He defeated George Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle” in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), knocking out Foreman in the eighth round. After splitting two bouts with Joe Frazier, Ali defeated him in 14 rounds in the “Thrilla in Manila.”
Ali retired in 1981 with a 56-5 record and the only person to hold the heavyweight championship three times. In 1984, he was diagnosed with Parkinson disease.
“Later, as his physical powers ebbed, he became an even more powerful force for peace and reconciliation around the world,” Obama said of Ali. “We saw a man who said he was so mean he’d make medicine sick reveal a soft spot, visiting children with illness and disability around the world, telling them they, too, could become the greatest. We watched a hero light a torch, and fight his greatest fight of all on the world stage once again; a battle against the disease that ravaged his body, but couldn’t take the spark from his eyes.”
Jesse L. Jackson, founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, said of Ali, “He sacrificed the heart of his career and money and glory for his religious beliefs about a war he thought unnecessary and unjust…He was a champion in the ring, but, more than that, a hero beyond the ring. When champions win, people carry them off the field on their shoulders. When heroes win, people ride on their shoulders. We rode on Muhammad Ali’s shoulders.”
Another civil rights leader, Marc H. Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League, said: “I believe Muhammad Ali was the greatest athlete of the 20th century. Whether he was the greatest boxer in history may be debated for generations. But none has had a greater impact on American culture and social justice.”
On Twitter, Rev. Al Sharpton, president and founder of the National Action Network, said Ali “was and always will be the greatest.” Sharpton said, “We should all strive to embody the virtues he possessed.”
Even Ali’s former opponents had nothing but praise for him.
“It’s like a part of me just passed w/him,” George Foreman Tweeted. “It’s hard for me to think about being in a world without Muhammad Ali being alive.”
Bernard Lafayette, the SCLC board chairman, gave two personal examples of Ali’s typical interaction with people he did not know.
In 1966, Lafayette had been organizing the Chicago Freedom Movement, which marked the expansion of SCLC’s activities from the South to northern cities. He was preparing to board a flight to Atlanta when he spotted Ali.
“I was a complete stranger,” Lafayette recalled. “I recognized him and started talking to him. He said, ‘Where are you sitting?” I told him coach. He said, ‘Give me your boarding pass.’ He took my boarding pass and got me a first-class seat next to him.”
Lafayette said Ali spent most of the flight talking to his wife on the telephone.
“When we got off, everybody went wild when they saw him. I just pretended to be his bodyguard so people wouldn’t bother him.”
The following year, Lafayette and a friend decided to drop by Ali’s residence in Chicago unannounced.
“Paul Brooks and I just rang the door bell,” Lafayette recounted. “A guy came out and we said, ‘We’re here to see the champion.’ He went back and told him we were there to see him. He told us to come on in. We went into his bedroom and Ali was shaving. He finished shaving and talked to us about an hour and a half. Ali loved to talk.”