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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