In 1969, Muhammad Ali visited the historically-black Philander Smith College in downtown Little Rock during a five-day swing through the capital city, Pine Bluff and Fayetteville. Ali’s primary purpose on the trip was to advocate for key tenets of the Nation of Islam’s pro-black philosophy, which included segregation of the races. As I write in my book African-American Athletes in Arkansas: Muhammad Ali’s Tour, Black Razorbacks and other Forgotten Stories, he said:
“Black and white people do not hate each other, but it is the nature of the two races to oppose each other. When you try to integrate, you have weakened the the races because you have bucked the law of God….”
Ali certainly struck notes far from the conciliatory tone of earlier civil rights activists like Martin Luther King Jr. when he told the Philander Smith students they were not free and “here you don’t own a thing. You don’t even belong here. You have nothing with which to identify. This country only becomes ‘your country’ at draft time.”
The Arkansas Democrat reported large cheers greeted this statement.
Here’s a student newspaper clip of Ali’s visit, courtesy of the Philander Smith College Digital Archive:
About a month after Ali’s visit, Philander Smith student Robert Edgerson penned an editorial in The Panthernaut pushing back against the idea of racial separation. The column, excerpted below, provides a good historic lens through which we can learn what “Black Power” meant to at least one socially engaged African-American male in late 1960s Little Rock:
…I understand Black Power to be a plan whereby Black [sic] could or would improve their social and economic status by, and I hesitate to use the term, nonviolent methods. In the past few years, particularly in the summers, it has come to mean “grab a gun and follow the leader.” This, to me, is the tragedy of Black Power. How can rational people ever hope to attain goals of freedom, justice, and equality through anarchistic turmoil? The twenty-two million blacks in this country, even if they should unite, could not totally overthrow the government of the United States; and anything gained by revolution is insecure.
When black people as a unified group began to think about peaceful and positive methods of being equal socially, economically and politically, the progress we make may be able to compensate for the loss of life and destruction of property which has preceded it. I seriously doubt if there will be peace between the races during my lifetime (I would like to be proven wrong). There are too many obstacles, not the least of which is the feeling of revenge. Many blacks feel as though they have a right to expect a great deal from the white society of this nation merely because his ancestors were the slaves of an unjust democracy. I don’t think we should expect anything (though I won’t deny the fact that we deserve it) from the whites. What we should try to do is to compete with him on his own level. But, even this will be in vain until we can work as one group.
For those who would preach separation, I have this to say; how can we ask hope to unite ourselves outside the white community when we cannot produce effective relationships between those who share our problem inside it? To separate would be impossible anyway, since the bulk of this nation’s wealth belongs to the white society.
And here’s an image of the original column in full:
Interested in learning more about Ali’s trip to Arkansas, along with other forgotten Arkansas stories about sports and African-American history? Click here to read more in my new book.