This might come as a surprise: Many White and Black sports fans in 1964 despised Muhammad Ali after he announced his conversion to the Nation of Islam. White codes about Black athlete behavior were well-entrenched; Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis had both learned the lessons of the badass Jack Johnson of the early twentieth century: Speak quietly and do nothing to upset the racial status quo. Or leave the country.
The Nation of Islam represented Allah and not Jesus. For Black Christians Cassius Clay’s conversion to Muhammad Ali was sacrilegious and racial suicide. “Why hast thou forsaken us?” Black people seemed to ask. He was speaking the language of The Nation that was unfamiliar to Black people. Ali sent many Black folks cringing and running in the other direction. Ali was considered by many to be “ruining” it (the chances at social equality) for everyone else. Not that this was Ali’s burden to change on his own.
Ali as the “Big Bang” for Black Sporting Expression
What Ali did was push the boundaries of social behavior by Black Athletes. And thus the die was cast for Black athletes to mimic and live up to the Ali persona of self-love, Black love, religious freedom, ego-centered self-expression, celebration, psychological warfare (later repackaged by the media as the more negative “taunting”), self-promotion and norm-crashing individual style. About the only “in your face” thing he didn’t engage in was shaving his head, preferring instead the Afro hairstyle that was itself a political statement in the 1960s.
His continued resistance to social power as embodied in the white-run institutions of 1) the penal system, 2) the military establishment, 3) the draft board, 4) the boxing syndicates, and 5) the federal government – at the expense of his career, his livelihood, his means of supporting his family and religion – was a bold expression of local Black power that ultimately sent a shockwave throughout the Black community. Black folks had to question their own commitment to larger social causes, the Black power movement, and how far we would go to fight for social justice. Most were in no way prepared to sacrifice as much as Ali was for the race, their jobs, or their families. Some things were more important than racial pride. Eating, for one. And you can’t eat unless you have a job.
With the advent of the Black Panther party and social upheavals in the last half of the 1960s, many Blacks began to see Ali as a hero and a leader; he was just a bit ahead of his time. Even the black military servicemen fighting in Vietnam, who at first chastised and disliked Ali for his negative stance on the war, began to see him as a social prophet of sorts.
And, in truth, that is what Ali represented to Black people – a modern-day prophet living by a religious and social code none of us knew anything about. Ali was willing to sacrifice everything for a higher purpose. We are not supposed to whisper that, the prophet thing, but that’s what we felt. He lived in a time of other prophets named King and X, and he was the only one who survived.
Slowly but surely, with Ali setting the example, other athletes didn’t feel so constrained by the tight rules, codes, and restrictions on their behavior. San Jose State University Olympians Tommy Smith and John Carlos protested in Mexico City in 1968 with black sunglasses, black socks – and with clenched fists. Sports protest, aided in 1968 by Black Panther imagery, was now okay; Ali had set the bar high. Athletes across college campuses began to protest – with beards, mustaches, Afro haircuts, dashikis, and Afrocentric jewelry. Campuses and power structures began fighting back by instituting rules that forbid facial hair and long hair.
These rules, of course, were for all athletes, not just African Americans. White athletes were upset because they had to cut long hair that protested the older, more conventional system. Hippies and the hippie lifestyle, exemplified by people like UCLA Basketball star Bill Walton, promoted freedom of expression, devalued money, and challenged bodily conventions such as crew-cut hair – and no facial hair.
White athletes, just like Black athletes, were caught in the middle of a social revolution and had to make tough social choices. Compromise and cut your hair – or challenge the system? Many athletes, both Black and white, challenged the status quo and lost the battle. Many were kicked off of teams, thus ending careers, and others were blacklisted. Athletes – both Black and White – were learning the high price of living up to the social justice in sport and society set in motion by Muhammad Ali.
End-zone celebrations in professional and collegiate football followed soon after in the early 1970s. No, end-zone dances were not political in the traditional sense. There were no raised fists or Black gloves after touchdowns. Ali broke the door down, but people ran into the house and did what suited their individual fancy. And thus the “freedom of cultural expression” for Black folks in integrated sport has its birth with the man we now call “The Greatest.”
Vernon Andrews teaches history of sport and physical education in the Kinesiology Department at San Jose State University. This article is excerpted from a chapter in his Kindle eBook The Control of Black Expression in American Sport and Society.