Muhammad Ali’s 1969 Visit to Philander Smith College

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:

Philander Smith

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:

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When Muhammad Ali visited UALR

In 1969, what is now the University of Arkansas-Little Rock received a surprise visit from the former heavyweight champion.

Looking through the Arkansas Gazette archives, I was surprised to learn Muhammad Ali visited Little Rock University — now known as UALR — in 1969. The legendary boxer had been banned from boxing after refusing military service two years earlier, and was on a speaking tour at college campuses nationwide. His swing through Arkansas also included speeches at the UA, Philander Smith College and what is now UAPB (where the photo in this post was taken).

The below is from March 11, 1969:

ALI’S SURROUNDED AT LRU AFTER SIDE-DOOR ENTRANCE

Muhammad Ali paid a surprise visit to Little Rock University Monday morning and spent about an hour in the student union talking with students, shaking hands and signing autographs. Ali entered the side door of the Union with several Negro students and stood talking to the Negro students inside for about five minutes before any of the white students seem to recognize him.

He was immediately encircled by students and instructors when he was recognized. Ali, who was scheduled to speak to students at Arkansas AM and N College at Pine Bluff later in the day, said he came to LRU, “to see how things are.”
He signed autographs on anything from notebook paper to textbooks. One woman asked to his hand “so I can tell my husband.”
Ali, the former world heavyweight boxing champion, answered students’ questions on subjects ranging from black separatism (he’s for it) to the Vietnam War (he’s against it.) On Vietnam, he recited a poem, which began “Hell no! I won’t go” which met some cheers.
Ali has been found guilty of refusing induction into the Army. He is appealing on the ground that he should be deferred as a black Muslim minister. He changed his name from Cassius Clay when he converted to that religion. Ali, dressed in a dark business suit, arrived on the campus in his black limousine, which he announced was as good as a car as President Nixon’s.”
Ali discussed theory of black separatism briefly with the 50 or 60 students gathered around them. He said he was against integration because it was forced. He said he was against interracial marriage and that the Negro had all the variety he needed within his own race.

“If you want a chocolate one,” he said putting his arm around a Negro student, “or a honey-gold one,” he said grabbing another girl, “or a peach one,” as he put his arm still another.

Negro students escorted Ali to the parking lot. The students gave a loud cheer as Ali rode away in his black limousine.

Ali & George Foreman: “The silent hulking brute becomes America’s sweetheart”

This is Part 2 of a fascinating discussion between sports commentator Dave Zirin and sportswriter Robert Lipstye on the proud socio-cultural legacy of Muhammad Ali. Check out Part 1 here.

The below originally aired on Zirin’s Edge of Sports show.

Zirin: You ever think about this? You talked about it being Shakespearean and whatnot. Ever notice how George Foreman, Frazier, Larry Holmes, these were not big talkers, but they became big talkers in retirement. While Ali loses his speech, almost like his powers were sent to the people he vanquished, or that they vanquished him. I always found that to be almost too cinematic for words as well.

I don’t know — I just thought I’d throw that out there to you.

Robert Lipsyte: It’s a beautiful thought.

Dave Zirin: You’ve met Larry Holmes a million times, he’s the funniest guy in any rooms he’s in, and he certainly wasn’t that when he was a boxer.

Robert Lipsyte: Yeah, and think of George Foreman.

Dave Zirin: Oh my God, that’s the ultimate one. The silent hulking brute becomes America’s sweetheart.

You know it's true.
                   You know it’s true.

Robert Lipsyte: Yeah. One thing is George, it was the end of an interview. He had been very warm and open. I said, “How did he feel that he was an accomplice in the physical destruction of Muhammad Ali?” Of what he was now.

He said, “I think about the great war heroes and how we honor them and see them take out their glass eye or remove their prosthetic arm, and we can only be grateful that they sacrificed so much for us. That’s the way I feel about Muhammad Ali.” I go, “Whoa, where did that come from?” I mean, maybe your idea of Ali transferring his energy and poetics to those he had beaten is part of that.

Dave Zirin: I gotta say, my favorite George Foreman moment is I interviewed him and I said, “What did you think the first time you learned who Muhammad Ali was?” He said, “We were terrified in my poor neighborhood in Houston because the heavyweight champ was a black Muslim.” I said, “Oh, you didn’t like Muslims?” He said, “No, we didn’t know what Muslims were. We were terrified he was calling himself black. We were Negroes!”

Robert Lipsyte: (laughs) That’s wonderful.

Dave Zirin: What was the experience like the first time you ever saw Muhammad Ali? Or I should say Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. — what was your impression?

Robert Lipsyte: I did not see him alone, as you know. The reason I had been sent to cover that first Liston fight was that at the time most everybody thought that he would be knocked out in the first round and they didn’t want to waste the time of a real reporter, so send a kid — that was me. I had yet to meet him.

I went up to the 5th street gym at the same time that The Beatles showed up for a photo op. Ali, Cassius Clay, had not yet arrived so the five of us were shoved in a deserted dressing room and the door was locked. I was the fifth beetle for that 15 minutes. They were very angry. They were really not quite The Beatles yet. They were very angry at being trapped like this. They banged on the walls and cursed.

I interviewed them and I asked them what they thought of the fight. They said, “Oh, that wanker’s going to be knocked out in the first round.” They banged and cursed and kicked at the door. Then suddenly the door burst open and the five of us in unison gasped, because there before us was the most beautiful creature we had ever seen, and probably would ever see.

He was big, he was broad, he was glowing, he was laughing. He was just gorgeous. We fell silent and he stuck his head in the room and he said, “Come on, Beatles, let’s go make some money.” Then he led them out to the ring.

…Tell your listeners to go to YouTube, type in Cassius Clay and The Beatles and you’ll see these pictures. He led them into the ring, they lined up, he tapped the first one, they all went down like dominoes. They leaped up, they formed a pyramid so that they could reach up and pretend to hit his jaw. If I hadn’t known that they had never met before I would’ve thought it was all choreographed. For five or 10 minutes it was this thrilling little play of the 5 most famous people on the planet. Then it was over.

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Muhammad Ali: “not a countercultural hero sprung from the loins of Jesus”

And other insights from renowned journalist Robert Lipsyte, who knew Ali for 55 years.

 

Of all the obituaries which have run this week about the singular life of Muhammad Ali, perhaps the greatest belongs to a New York Times writer who knew Ali for decades.

Below is an interview between that writer, Robert Lipsyte, and preeminent sports commentator Dave Zirin on Edge of Sports. The below, Part 1 of 2, is lightly edited and condensed.

…You’ve been associated with Muhammad Ali, I was thinking about this, for 55 years almost. What have the days since his passing been like for you?

Robert Lipsyte: You know what’s interesting, Dave, I’ve gotten hundreds of emails since the obit ran and I would say the overwhelming number of them are offering consolation for my grieving process, and mentioning that they had spotted him once in an elevator, he had given them a hug from across the room. It’s so hard to separate the symbolic political figure that’s powerful shaper, in a sense, of our times, from this glowing human being who made these incredible little connections with almost everybody that he ever came in contact with.

Dave Zirin: Wow. What was your reaction when you heard he passed?

Robert Lipsyte: It’s been a bizarre period because it’s been so many years since we’ve really heard him and since he’s been Ali, that at first his death felt like a formality. But the grief has been so overpowering and the remembrances, it really was like the world stopped. You’re right, but it was a combination. On the one hand as far as I’m concerned, he’s not dead. The memories, the photographs, the legacy. He’s all still there.

On the other hand, whatever grieving process there was, that was over a few years ago. He hasn’t been Muhammad Ali for some time. Coming to grips with the incredible Greek tragedy, Shakespearean, I don’t know what would you call it, irony, of this most noble and loquacious man on the planet suddenly struck dumb and twisted into an immobile hulk. It’s terrible to even think about it.

That, of course, began to be quite evident 20 years ago at the ’96 Olympics where with that shaking hand he lit the torch. The hot wax flowed back, burnt him. He never winced or showed that.

We’ve seen for some time his retreat from the camera and from the public view, until he just became invisible to so many. I hadn’t seen him for several years. Even then, it was remarkable. I would try to ask him a question, he would put his mouth to my ear and mumble something that was absolutely incomprehensible, and his wife from across the room would speak for 5 minutes and tell me what he had just said.

She really became the curator of that legend. Not to make fun of that, because I thought that’s a very well structured paragraph that he could not have written at his zenith attacking Donald Trump for Trump’s suggestion that the government keep all the Muslims out was wonderful.

Dave Zirin: Can I ask you, we talk about this idea of Greek tragedy for me. I know I’m projecting my own politics onto the tragedy here, but this idea of someone who spoke so eloquently against war, finds himself unable to speak, his face an expressionless mask, being led to George W Bush who puts a medal around his neck.

This idea of does Muhammad Ali, A — Does he know what’s happening right now? B — Does he agree with what’s happening right now? And C — is there an issue of consent here in terms of him being in the White House and getting this medal from George Bush?

Robert Lipsyte: That’s a wonderful question. Also maybe goes to the heart of something you and I have talked about so many times about Muhammad Ali as this magnetic slate on which we can put our wishes, hopes, bumper stickers, on.

Who really knows? Who really knows what went on inside. Even from the very beginning, his closest biographer Tom Hauser, spend an awful lot of time with him. Probably more concentrated time than anybody in the ’90s when he was writing that big oral biography.

I always felt that Ali was stunted emotionally, that he probably had reached the level of a 12 year old. So much of what he did and said was the quick study of a somewhat innocent mind, a child-like mind. He was capable of things that we would interpret, but exactly what did they mean?

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