Muhammad Ali


Born Cassius Clay, the professional boxer known as Muhammad Ali was widely regarded as one of the most accomplished and controversial sports figures of the 20th century.  Known for his outspoken approach, Ali fought for Civil Rights in both words and actions.  He was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War and was banned from boxing for over three years for refusing to be inducted after being drafted.  Despite losing these years in the prime of his career, Ali’s accomplishments in the ring remain unmatched. Join Active Minds as we review the life and legacy of the man often referred to simply as “The Greatest.”

Key Lecture Points

  • Muhammad Ali was one of the greatest sports figures of the 20th century.  He was a heavyweight boxing champion, a social activist and a philanthropist.
  • Cassius M. Clay, Jr was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1942.  He grew up experiencing the segregation of the South first-hand. In 1960, Clay participated in the Rome Olympics where he won the heavyweight boxing gold medal.  In 1964 he became the world professional heavyweight champion.  He also became a member of the Nation of Islam, dropping his slave name of Clay and taking the name Muhammad Ali as given by by Elijah Muhammad of the Nation of Islam.
  • In 1967, citing his religious beliefs, Ali refused to serve in the military and was denied an exemption as a conscientious objector.  He was tried and convicted of draft evasion, stripped of his boxing title and boxing license but was able to stay out of prison while his case was being appealed.  In 1971 his appeal to the US Supreme Court was successful and his conviction was overturned.  After 3 ½ years in sports exile, Ali reclaimed his heavyweight title two more times.  Ali won 56 times in his 21-year professional career.
  • Diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome in 1984, believed to be brought on at least in part by blows received in the boxing ring, Ali spent much of his time after retirement on philanthropy, as an advocate for Parkinson’s patients and as a good will ambassador, receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005.   He died June, 2016.
  • Ali’s outspokenness on issues of race, religion and politics made him a controversial figure but also a powerful presence during the Civil Rights Movement.  As a black man, he stood up to the US government when he refused to serve during the Vietnam War, accepting the consequences when he lost his heavyweight title and his boxing license.

Exploration Questions

  • How did Muhammad Ali influence the anti-Vietnam War movement?
  • How did he influence the Civil Rights movement?

Reflective Questions

  • What do you remember most about Muhammad Ali?  Do you remember your reaction when Ali refused to be inducted into the military?
  • Do you support the current protests by sports figures like Colin Kaepernick?  Why?  Why not?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Ali, Muhammad, Richard Durham, Toni Morrison.  The Greatest: My Own Story. Graymalkin Media, 2015.  This book tells Ali’s story in his own words and is done in collaboration with a journalist who traveled and worked with Ali for 6 years.
    Click here to order
  • Hauser, Thomas.  Muhammad Ali: A Tribute to the Greatest.  Pegasus Books, 2016. 288 pages. Hauser is considered the definitive biographer of Ali.  In this book he argues that Ali’s image and legacy has been sanitized and distorted over the years from what Ali believed in and stood for.
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  • Roberts, Randy, Johnny Smith.  Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X.  Basic Books, 2016. 400 pages.  The author provides a window into the private and public lives of two of America’s greatest icons of the 20th century and the period of history they shaped.
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