Muhammed Ali’s Passing and Reflections on Boxing and Race Relations

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Michael J. Gallagher’s print, “End of the Round”

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

After a three decade bout with Parkinson’s, three-time World Heavyweight Boxing Champion, Muhammed Ali passed away this last Friday. Born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1942, Cassius Marcellus Clay first caught the world’s attention when he won a gold medal in the lightweight division at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. Soon afterwards, Clay turned professional, moving to Miami in order to train with Angelo Dundee at the 5th Street Gym in Miami Beach. Clay/Ali became infamous for his poetic and outrageous taunting of his opponents. In 1964, he justified his boastful claims by defeating Sonny Liston in an upset that won him the World Heavyweight Championship title.

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Flip Schulke Photograph of Muhammed Ali and Angelo Dundee at the 5th Street Gym, 1961

But it was not only in the boxing ring that Ali won worldwide notoriety. Soon after the Liston fight, he changed his name to Muhammed Ali and publicly revealed his conversion to the Nation of Islam. The announcement generated considerable controversy given the sect’s advocacy of racial separation and rejection of nonviolence in the struggle for racial equality. Ali used his boxing celebrity and eloquence to become a pugnacious advocate for civil rights. In March of 1966, he refused induction into the Armed Forces, stating that he had “no quarrel with them Vietcong,” and maintaining that his conscience wouldn’t permit him to “go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud” who had “never call me n****r…” After his conviction for draft evasion, Ali was stripped of his championship title and U.S. passport and denied a boxing license in every state. The Supreme Court finally overturned his conviction in a unanimous decision in 1971, after which he made an incredible comeback.

Ali’s passing had me thinking about the important role played by sports celebrities in confronting racism and in helping to forward the cause of Civil Rights in America—a subject which is explored tangentially in a new library installation, Boxeo y Béisbol: The Cuba-U.S. Sports Exchange.

Boxing & BAseball View4

If Ali was one of the more vocal civil rights advocates in the boxing world, he certainly was neither the first nor the most controversial. The child of former slaves in Texas, Jack Johnson (1878–1946) gained renown as the “Galveston Giant,” winning the heavyweight title in 1908. Many white Americans were bitterly upset that an African-American held the title, and Johnson’s open flouting of “Jim Crow” social conventions made him a target of racist law enforcement. Soon after the suicide of his white socialite wife in September, 1912, Johnson was arrested for violating the Mann Act. Because he supplied his new white fiancé, Lucille Cameron, with a train ticket to see him fight in another state, he was charged with “transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes.” Convicted by an all-white jury, and facing a year and a day prison sentence, Johnson skipped bail and fled the country with Lucille, living in Europe, South America, and Mexico. As Johnson could not return to the United States, a fight to defend his World Heavyweight championship title was arranged at the Oriental Park Racetrack in Havana, Cuba, outside the bounds of American law enforcement. A crowd of 25,000 attended the match on April 5, 1915, which pitted Johnson against Jess Willard. While Johnson won nearly all of the first twenty rounds, he began to tire and lost the match by a knock-out in the 26th. Many white Americans rejoiced in Johnson’s defeat at the hands of the white boxer.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

Even as Adolf Hitler and the Nazis seized power in Germany in 1933, Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated president in the United States, with his wife, Eleanor, becoming a vociferous advocate of a progressive civil rights agenda. When the German fighter, Max Schmeling defeated African-American boxer, Joe Louis in 1936, Nazi officials bragged that this was proof of their doctrine of Aryan superiority. The African-American athlete, Jesse Owens, helped repudiate the myth of the Aryan master race with his gold medal victories at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

But it was Joe Louis who delivered the knock-out to Hitler’s racist ideology during his rematch against Max Schmeling in 1938. A few weeks before the fight, Louis visited the White House where President Roosevelt met with him and told him, “Joe, we need muscles like yours to beat Germany.” With the Nazi press boasting that Schmeling’s prize money would be used to build tanks in Germany, and with the “whole damned country” depending on him, Louis took down Schmeling in just over two minutes. The match fought at Yankee Stadium was broadcast to millions of listeners worldwide.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

After the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor brought the United States into the Second World War, Louis enlisted in the Army despite the military’s policy of racial segregation. When reporters questioned his decision, the “Brown Bomber” acknowledged that there were “Lots of things wrong with America, but Hitler ain’t going to fix them.”

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1938 editorial cartoon by Vaughn Shoemaker, The Wolfsonian–FIU, anonymous donor

Joe Louis reigned as World Heavyweight Boxing Champion from 1937 until 1948. He was celebrated in this stone sculpture carved by Ruth Yates; the bust is on display in the Wolfsonian library foyer.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

These African-American heavyweight boxing champions pioneered a path and created opportunities for Afro-Cuban contenders such as Kid Chocolate and Kid Gavilán to make names for themselves in the American sports arena.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

Eligio Sardiñas Montalvo (Cuban, 1926–2003), known as “Kid Chocolate,” won 136 of his 152 bouts, 51 by knockout. He traveled to the United States with his manager in 1928, where he became a notable figure in the New York boxing scene, winning the World Super Featherweight title in 1931. Kid Chocolate retired in 1938 and returned to Cuba, where he opened up a gym; he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1994. The photograph below shows him praying to the Yoruba spirit, Shango.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

Born in Camaguey, Cuba, Gerardo González (1926–2003) was known as “Kid Gavilán” and “The Cuban Hawk.” He is reputed to have created the Bolo punch, a wide circular movement that he acquired in his youth when using a machete to cut sugar cane. Kid Gavilán split his time between Havana and the U.S. East Coast until he took up indefinate residence in the U.S. in 1948; on May 18, 1951, he won the World Welterweight title. In 1952, Gavilán fought a match against Bobby Dykes in segregated Miami. “I got a few death threats,” Dykes told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in 2000. “That was when blacks went to the back of the bus. Two whites could fight and two blacks could fight, but not a black and a white. They told me, ‘Bobby, you’re giving up your heritage by fighting a black.’ It was a big thing in those days.” Gavilán’s bout with Billy Graham in Philadelphia later the same year generated less controversy and racial tension.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

Be sure to visit the Boxeo y Béisbol exhibit at The Wolfsonian museum library to learn more about sports and evolving race relations in the United States and Cuba.

~ by "The Chief" on June 5, 2016.

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