How Muhammad Ali Influenced the Civil Rights Movement

Malcolm X, left, and Muhammad Ali photographed outside the Trans-Lux Newsreel Theater in New York on March 1, 1964 [The Associated Press]
Malcolm X, left, and Muhammad Ali photographed outside the Trans-Lux Newsreel Theater in New York on March 1, 1964 [The Associated Press]
The death of Muhammad Ali provides us with an opportunity to reflect on his impact on the freedom struggle that has come to be known as the Civil Rights Movement.

Muhammad Ali’s influence on the black organisers who formed the backbone of the Civil Rights Movement was distinctly positive and remarkably broad-based. His power as a heroic symbol bridged the entire span of the movement’s ideological spectrum. In ways that nobody else could, Ali appealed simultaneously to people and organisations who otherwise agreed on little politically. In the words of one organiser, Bob Moses: “Muhammad Ali galvanised the Civil Rights Movement.”

Almost every major civil rights organisation and leader at one time or another praised Ali and defended his decision to resist the Vietnam War.

Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr and Muhammad Ali

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s (SCLC) James Bevel rated him as “one of the great Americans”. The Congress of Racial Equality’s (CORE) Floyd McKissick said, “Ali was one of the greatest living Americans because he is one of the few people who lives by his convictions.”

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) printed bumper stickers that said “We’re the greatest” in an obvious nod to Ali’s catchphrase. Stokely Carmichael, the Trinidadian-American political activist, called him “my hero”.

But Malcolm X was perhaps the first to realise that Ali’s magnitude registered far beyond his home country. In his famous autobiography, Malcolm declared that Ali, “captured the imagination and support of the entire dark world”.

Even Martin Luther King Jr sent him a telegram saying, “I look forward to talking with you sometime in the future.”

Arthur Ashe, the tennis player-turned-activist, remembered that Ali was “admired by a lot of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, who were sometimes even a little bit jealous of the following he had”.

And this is just a short list of contemporary leaders in the black freedom struggle who expressed their on-the-record admiration for Ali.

It is not an overstatement to say he was almost universally liked by the activists of the 1960s and 1970s.

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SOURCE: Michael Ezra 
Al Jazeera