Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to include several corrections.
Like many baby-boomers who were raised in regions with very few African Americans, my education about the civil rights movement came in large part through the life of Muhammad Ali.
I first became aware of him on Feb. 25, 1964, when I was 6, living in Sheridan, Wyo., where my father taught sixth grade at the same grade school I attended. (Note 1: See below for clarification.) My parents loaded us into the car that evening to go visit Walt and Clara Lindstrom, my grandmother’s sister and her husband. I was always intrigued by visits to the Lindstroms because it was one of the few times we were allowed to be around adults who were drinking and swearing.
It’s easy to imagine the conversations leading up to these visits now, knowing how much my mom probably hated having us kids exposed to that stuff. I can just hear her telling my father that she would rather not go visit these people, and my father pointing out that they were relatives—the only relatives we had in Sheridan. They were both devoted to family, so I’m sure this provided quite a dilemma.
But there was something else about our visits to the Lindstroms, something else that was special. The main reason we usually went there was to watch boxing.
That night, an upstart had managed to work his way into a title fight against the heavyweight champion, Sonny Liston. At the time, most of us were only vaguely aware of the young man who then went by his birth name, Cassius Clay. And many of the people we knew felt the same way that my aunt and uncle did, that Clay was an “uppity nigger.”
There were very few black people in Sheridan. And the ones who were there moved quietly, under the radar, probably scared to death of what could happen to them if they made any kind of noise about their treatment. Sheridan was a town that had only recently removed the signs “No Dogs or Indians” from its storefront windows.
Even at the age of 6, I remember being shocked by the way my relatives talked about this man on the television. And although I don’t remember the specific conversation that took place on the way home, I do know that we were instructed to never use that word.
What happened that night was the beginning of the legend. Clay upset Liston, beating him in the seventh round in a fight that was controversial when Clay claimed to get some foreign substance in his eye from Liston’s glove. After Angelo Dundee cleaned the eye as well as possible between rounds, Clay went out half-blind against a man who was considered strong enough to kill his opponents, got through that round, and eventually opened up a cut on Liston’s own eye that forced him to concede the fight.
That night, the pandemonium that erupted in the ring after the fight was dramatic, especially to a 6-year-old kid in Wyoming. Clay yelled at the camera, shouting that he was the greatest, that he knew he was going to win. It was so out of character for celebrities of that time, athletes or otherwise. This was a time of great understatement, where braggadocio was considered classless, even crass. And it brought out two very distinct reactions. People either loved or hated the man. My relatives were in the first camp.
But my father, who probably despised arrogance more than any other human quality, adored Clay. And I think the reason he and so many others did was so simple. Because Clay told the truth.
Clay, who famously changed his name to Ali the very next day (Note 2: See below for clarification), bragged about his talents, his looks, his intelligence and his popularity with a sense of humor that disarmed people, black or white. Whites who would normally be offended by such brashness didn’t know how to respond to this man who was not only funny and smart, but seemed to express his anger in a way that was free of the danger of many of the militant blacks of that time. He was not threatening. And there was nothing practiced about it. That seemed to be exactly who he was.
So Ali’s decision to go to jail rather than report for military duty was completely unexpected, and is hard to imagine in today’s sports world, where such a move would mean forfeiting hundreds of millions of dollars. But the money was only one of the prices Ali paid for this decision.
Because people had so little understanding of the Muslim faith, he was seen as a coward, a traitor. But his explanation could not have been more real or more relevant to that time. “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,” he said. “No Vietnamese ever called me nigger.”
We had moved to Montana by then, and in our isolated enclave the events of the civil rights movement seemed like a world away, and we seldom felt they had any significance to us. But even as a young boy, and in large part thanks to my parents, I had the strongest sense that this man’s actions were important. That everything about his story was important.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Ali is how little he complained about how he was treated during that three-year period, where he not only served time in jail (Note 3: See below for clarification), but had his license to fight taken away. It is perhaps the best testament to the fact that the beliefs that led to this decision were sincere that he has made very little noise about the price he paid at the hands of our government.
Instead, he worked hard to become the heavyweight champion two more times, fighting some of the most epic battles we’ve seen in the history of the sport. His victory against George Foreman in Zaire is still considered one of the biggest upsets in sporting history. Many people were concerned about Ali’s safety in this fight, but like so many things, he handled the warnings with his typical humor, despite the fact that most people didn’t take his predictions seriously this time around.
I became a boxing fan because of Muhammad Ali. But like so many of the most remarkable people who have walked among us, his importance expanded into areas of my life that had nothing to do with sports. Because he made us aware of what racism looks like, what it feels like from the perspective of those who are persecuted, we as a nation developed a whole new way of looking at this issue.
Because of Muhammad Ali, I developed compassion for the Native Americans in our region who continue to be treated with the same dismissive attitude that blacks have suffered for years, but without the same degree of attention. The civil rights movement needed someone like Ali to articulate his persecution in a way that made it real, and in a way that reflected a better way. Because Ali somehow seemed to embody a lack of that same racist attitude, even toward those who hated him. He was important because he practiced what he asked the rest of us to practice.
We live in a society where athletes are told over and over again that what they do is way more important than what the rest of us do. Many have benefited from this attitude both financially and legally. Ali told us with a single act that living up to his principles was more important than what he did for a living. And that was and still is unprecedented. And perhaps most importantly, it established a very high standard for the rest of us.
Author’s note: After this article was published, several factual errors came to light. Although I would have liked to attribute them to the fact that I write fiction, it probably makes more sense to chalk them up to the fact that 50 years have scrambled some of these memories. But of course these facts don’t change the basic message of the story. Thanks to David Crisp for much more careful research than I did.
Russell Rowland is a Billings native who earned an M.A. in creative writing from Boston University. He is the author of three novels, “In Open Spaces,” “The Watershed Years” and “High and Inside,” and, most recently, a non-fiction work, “Fifty-Six Counties: A Montana Journey.” You can learn more at his website.
Note 1: In fact, the date Russell seems to have seen the fight would have been April 11, 1964, when the fight was shown on regular television. When it was shown live, it was on closed circuit in theaters.
Note 2: It was a couple of days after the fight that Clay announced he had converted to Islam and would henceforward be known as Cassius X. He didn’t become Muhammad Ali until March.
Note 3: Ali apparently never served jail time for dodging the draft. He did get a five-year sentence but appears to have stayed out of prison on appeal until the ruling was overturned.