Reflecting on Muhammad Ali and Dr. Martin Luther King—a Legacy of Sportsmen in Protest

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Reflecting on Muhammad Ali and Dr. Martin Luther King—a Legacy of Sportsmen in Protest

The political controversy surrounding the President-elect has made the 86th anniversary of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday even more important. In the past year, the beliefs of Donald Trump and his supporters have prompted response from the Black Lives Matter Movement, along with prominent black athletes.

Last year, Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers took a knee during “The Star-Spangled Banner,” with many more in the NFL following his lead shortly thereafter. Serena Williams raised her fist at Wimbledon in July a week after 32-year-old Philando Castile was killed during a traffic stop by a police officer in Minnesota. They follow a long line of sports activists who support equal rights, the most famous of which is probably Muhammad Ali. His connections to the greats of the 1960s civil rights and anti-war movements are well-known, including his relationship with King.

Ali converted to Islam and changed his name from Cassius Clay in 1964, after becoming involved in the black nationalism with Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam (NOI). “The Greatest,” had just won his first of three heavyweight world championships, and was beginning to channel his unifying fame toward promoting causes he felt passionate about.

Ali openly followed the NOI in criticizing King’s marches, philosophy of integration, and non-violent demonstrations. When the public began judging his alignment with the NOI, was viewed as more radical and combative than King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he defended himself.

While discussing integration of whites and African-Americans in 1964, Ali condemned King’s approach saying, “Integration is wrong. White people don’t want it, the Muslims don’t want it. So what’s wrong with the Muslims? I’ve never been in jail. I’ve never been in court. I don’t join integration marches and I never hold a sign”

But he and King found themselves on the same side when Ali refused to be conscripted into the military in 1966 as a conscientious objector. A conviction, and the stripping of his boxing titles soon followed, along with being banned from the sport altogether.

King vocally stood with Ali in his decision to refuse the draft in 1967. He told parishioners, “No matter what you think of Mr. Muhammad Ali’s religion, you certainly have to admire his courage.”

At a pivotal time where King had made the public decision to oppose his closest advisers in condemning President Johnson’s War, there were questions about how the Civil Rights movement would take this decision, with many of its own leaders having served in the U.S. military.

Ali and King grew to have a close relationship, with Ali going to a public event in his hometown of Louisville to support King’s public housing initiative. In a speech at the rally, Ali said, “In your struggle for freedom, justice and equality I am with you. I came to Louisville because I could not remain silent while my own people, many I grew up with, many I went to school with, many my blood relatives, were being beaten, stomped and kicked in the streets simply because they want freedom, and justice and equality in housing.” Later, Ali told reporters “still brothers,” when he and King talked about their religious differences, and the draft.

Their relationship was close enough for the FBI to wiretap their conversations during the infamous COINTELPRO counter intelligence program, separately from NSA wiretapping. Ali appealed to the U.S. Supreme court, which overturned his draft conviction in 1971, and his boxing license was soon reinstated. King did not live to see the victory, and was assassinated in 1968.

Today, the legacy of sportsmen involved in heated and necessary debates on race continues. Serena Williams once told the activist group Black Lives Matter, ” Keep it up. Don’t let those trolls stop you. We’ve been through so much for so many centuries, and we shall overcome this too,” in an interview with Wired.

Meanwhile, King’s work is being carried on by those who were close to him. In the days following Donald Trump’s tweets about Representative John Lewis after he called Trump, a “not legitimate president,” political leaders and Congressmen have rallied behind Lewis, who fought with King during the Civil Rights movement, most famously at Selma where he was scarred in a police mow-down of protesters.

Sarah Betancourt is a Massachusetts-based journalist who writes about health, public policy, business, and environment. Follow her on Twitter.

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