Madison in the Sixties – Muhammad Ali
He was still Cassius Clay when he came to Madison in April 1959 to box at the UW Field House in the elimination trials for the Pan American Games. Just 17 years old, he was already showing great promise, winning light heavyweight titles in the Golden Gloves and Amateur Athletic Union.
Legendary State Journal sports columnist Roundy Coughlin, gave an assessment more attuned to athleticism than punctuation. “Clay is a good hard puncher especially with his right hand he needs a lot of defense coaching yet,” he wrote. “Clay is a good kid regular guy I would like to see go long ways. When Clay gets better on defense brother he will be hard to beat.”
But Clay was lackluster in the first round of his semi-final fight against Leroy Bogar of Minneapolis, and looked headed for his first defeat in 36 bouts.
“This changed with shocking speed,” State Journal sports editor Henry J McCormick wrote, as Clay knocked Bogar to the canvas in the second round and then unleashed a flashing combination that almost put him through the ropes and sent Clay into the finals against a 25-year-old Marine named Amos Johnson.
Five thousand fans were on hand on April 30 as Ali faced the southpaw leatherneck, who confused him with lefts to the face, and won a split decision. It was the only loss the younger man would suffer as Cassius Clay; a year later, he would win the light heavyweight gold medal at the Rome Olympics and in 1964 shock the world twice – first by taking the heavyweight title from Sonny Liston, then by changing his name to Muhammad Ali. After leaving the Field House in Madison in 1959, he would not lose again until he faced Joe Frazier in Madison Square Garden in 1971.
The teenage Clay was also showing the charisma that would charm most, but not all, of the world in the decades to come. Stopping in at Badger Sporting Goods on State Street, he so captivated the staff they gifted him with a new pair of athletic shoes.
It was a much different Muhammad Ali who returned to Madison on April 26, 1968, three days short of a year since he had refused induction into the United States Army and was stripped of his title, ten months since he was convicted of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in prison.
Now, as his conviction was on appeal, the Champ is headlining the International Students against War, Racism and the Draft at the Stock Pavilion. But he only wants to talk about one of those things.
“I’m not promoting anything anti- draft, and I’m not here to talk about the war,” he says. “I’m here on behalf of the honorable Elijah Muhammad” to present “The Black Muslim’s Solution to Racism.”
“We must follow a man with a solid foundation, and Elijah Muhammad is the only one with a solution to the race problem, which is worse than the Vietnam War,” he says. “We have all types of problems, but the one I’m concerned with is the struggle for freedom, justice and equality for 22 million Black people.
At first, Ali dominates the stage, just as he did the ring. The crowd chuckles when he says he doesn’t have “the complexion or the connection” to talk about his conviction while it was under appeal. And they roar when he sets forth what he calls the Black Muslim economic program: “We don’t want no pie in the sky when we die,” he says. “We want something sound on the ground while we’re still around. We’re not fighting to be equal with the white man. We’re fighting to be equal with the white man’s dollar.”
Ali’s message — freedom for all Black men and women — is unambiguous. “We believe the offer of integration is hypocritical and is made by those trying to deceive people into believing that the enemies of freedom and justice are their friends,” he says. “The time in history has arrived for a separation between Black s and whites. We want Black people to have a separate society of their own, a separate country here or elsewhere, and the land must be rich. Our contribution to this land justifies our demand for a complete separation.”
He calls on the government to provide free textbooks, schools and college buildings staffed by Black teachers, and to exempt all Black s from taxation until there is full equality. And he decries how the imposition of white culture have made American Black s socially, morally and financially dead. “We were robbed of knowledge of ourselves.”
Ali emphatically rejects violence as a means of achieving a Black state. “It’s like a bull running down a railroad track head no into a locomotive train. All the bull will leave is a monument of flesh and blood on the track.
Besides, he said, in order for riots to be successful, Blacks would have to obtain superior weaponry, but the guns are controlled by whites. “We look like fools being violent.”
Ali’s support for separatism doesn’t go over well with the largely white, civil rights-supporting student crowd. Many grumble and even boo when he declares “intermarriage and race mixing should be prohibited.”
An undercover Madison police officer, tracking Ali on special assignment, is not impressed.
“Much of Ali’s speech was repetitious and not particularly revealing,” he reports in a confidential filing filled with misspellings— even including botched versions of the names Muhammad Ali and Cassius Clay. “Many times Ali was hissed by the audience and in fielding questions, he often showed a very infantile mentality.”
The undercover officer adds he’s “certain that a large number were there only to hear the great boxer, not the Muslim preacher. This because I recognized a number of students who I know to be non- radical.”
In the years to come, Ali would become beloved by radicals and non-radicals alike as he won his appeal, then regained, lost and regain his title yet again. He made one final visit to Madison in October 1995 to sign autographs and hand out Muslim literature.
And that’s this week’s Madison in the Sixties. For your award-winning, vaccine-taking, mask-wearing, listener-supported WORT news team, I’m Stu Levitan.
Photo by J. D. Patrick courtesy Capital Newspapers