Mark Wiedmer: Muhammad Ali also great for civil rights

photo In this March 8, 1971, file photo, boxer Joe Frazier, left, hits Muhammad Ali during the 15th round of their heavyweight title fight at New York's Madison Square Garden. (AP Photo, File)

On Monday, the nation again did what it always should this time of year. It put on a national holiday to honor the late Dr. Martin Luther King, who did more to bring about civil rights in this country than any other three men combined.

But the black athlete who did so much to make much of white America want to practice civil rights during the final years of King's too brief time on Earth turns 70 today.

Happy birthday, Muhammad Ali.

For far too many Americans of all colors and religions who are under the age of 40, Ali is little more than a trembling former boxer whose Parkinson's disease-ravaged body struggled to light the flame at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.

And the shame of that has more levels than Ali will have birthday candles at this week's party at the Muhammad Ali Center in his hometown, Louisville. That's because he never was only a boxer, even if he is arguably the greatest boxer of all time, especially in the heavyweight division.

Instead, Ali was once the most recognized figure on the planet, as well as one of the most important figures on the planet when it came to advancing civil rights in this country during the turbulent 1960s.

And the strength of his convictions undoubtedly altered the perception not only of civil rights but also the Vietnam War for millions in this country who might otherwise have been far more resistant to consider change.

I was 3 years old when the legend then known as Cassius Clay won a gold medal at the 1960 Olympics. Already full of confidence and charm, the young Clay drew a nation into his corner during a news conference following his medal-winning bout.

Asked by a Soviet journalist to discuss segregation, Clay said, "Tell your readers we've got qualified people working on that, and I'm not worried about the outcome. To me, the USA is still the best country in the world, including yours. It may be hard to get something to eat sometimes, but anyhow, I ain't fighting alligators and living in a mud hut."

In the age of the Cold War, Clay -- named for the 19th century Kentucky emancipationist -- became an instant hero as much for his words as his deeds.

And both his words and deeds soon became much bigger. Within four years he was the heavyweight champ -- tall, chiseled and handsome, almost without question the first American athlete to become an international superstar on the order of the Beatles or Liz Taylor.

He wrote funny poetry -- "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. His hands can't hit what his eyes can't see."

He delivered on his brash predictions, such as he said of an upcoming fight with Archie Moore in 1962 (two years before he won the title): "Archie's been living off the fat of the land. I'm here to give him his pension plan. When you come to the fight don't block the door. 'Cause you'll all go home after round four."

As if on cue, Clay knocked Moore out in the fourth round.

But it was what Clay did after he converted to Islam in the mid-1960s and became Muhammad Ali that had a profound and lasting impact on both the nation's race problems and its view of the Vietnam War.

After all, if Ali was willing to give up millions during the three years he wasn't allowed to fight from 1967 to 1970 as a conscientious objector, maybe there really was something wrong with that conflict.

Beyond that, for a guy who failed the Army intelligence test when he was first drafted -- "I have said I am the greatest. Ain't nobody ever heard me say I was the smartest" -- he eloquently combined his opposition to the war and his feelings about racial inequality when he said, "I have nothing to lose for standing up for my beliefs. So I'll go to jail [if I have to]. We've been in jail for 400 years."

Appeals kept him out of jail, but the years out of the ring cost him more than money. They came at the physical prime of his career, robbing both him and the public the chance to see a boxer in full bloom that we may never see again.

Yet all of this also helped make Ali the first black American athlete who wasn't necessarily viewed as black so much as an athlete and celebrity. Whether you loved him or hated him, he certainly embodied Dr. King's hope that everyone be judged by the content of their character rather than by the color of their skin.

Perhaps that's why King said of Ali during the height of his boxing ban: "He is giving up fame. He is giving up millions of dollars in order to stand up for what his conscience tells him is right. No matter what you think of Muhammad Ali's religion, you have to admire his courage."

Sadly, we've spent the past 30 or so years watching that courage on display mostly in the heroic way he's dealt with Parkinson's. Though we never see it, Ali still visits hospitals whenever possible as long as no media is present. He still signs autographs when asked. He never complains about the cruel hand dealt him over the last half of his life.

Or as a friend told The Associated Press this weekend in relaying Ali's response when asked how the legend stays so positive: "He'll say, 'I've got the best-known face on the planet. I'm the three-time heavyweight champion of the world. I've got no reason to be down."

No matter what you think of Ali, you have to admire the content of character in that.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at or 423-757-6273.