In 1960, the year that Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. won a gold medal at the Rome Olympics, segregation was law in parts of America. Marriage between the races was a crime in some states. There were restaurants and hotels that Clay was forbidden to enter.
Forty-eight years later, an African-American was elected president of the United States.
Exceptional leaders and the resolve of tens of millions of men and women were the foundation of the civil-rights movement in America. But something beyond decades of strategizing, commitment and hard work was a prerequisite to Barack Obama becoming president. The American people in their collective heart had to be willing to embrace a man of color with a strange-sounding name that originated in African and Arabic culture.
Muhammad Ali paved the road to that destination.
In the early stages of his professional career, Clay was more highly regarded for his charm and good looks than for his ring skills. He told the world that he was "The Greatest," but the brutal realities of boxing seemed to dictate otherwise.
Then, on February 25, 1964, in one of the most stunning upsets in sports history, Clay knocked out Sonny Liston to become heavyweight champion of the world. Two days later, he shocked the world again by announcing that he had accepted the teachings of a black separatist religion known as the Nation of Islam. On March 6, 1964, he took the name "Muhammad Ali," which his spiritual mentor, Elijah Muhammad, gave to him.
From 1964 through his conversion to Orthodox Islam in 1975, Ali was the Nation of Islam's most visible spokesman in America. Nation of Islam teachings were at the core of who he was and what he believed at that time in his life.
Ali opposed integration. He called white people "devils" and espoused the need for a separate black homeland. "We're not all brothers," he proclaimed. "You can say we're brothers, but we're not."
Many Americans—black and white—took issue with Ali. African-American tennis champion Arthur Ashe later declared, "I never went along with the pronouncements of Elijah Muhammad that the white man was the devil and that blacks should be striving for separate development; a sort of American apartheid. It was a racist ideology, and I didn't like it."
Still, whether or not one liked Ali's views, he was the ultimate symbol of black pride and black resistance to an unjust social order. And his demand for full entitlement for all black people was on the cutting edge of an era.
Pioneering black journalist Gil Noble later observed: "Everybody was plugged into this man, because he was taking on America. There had never been anybody in his position who directly addressed himself to racism. Racism was virulent, but you didn't talk about those things. If you wanted to make it in this country, you had to be quiet, carry yourself in a certain way, and not say anything about what was going on, even though there was a knife sticking in your chest. Ali changed all of that. He just laid it out and talked about racism and slavery and all of that stuff. He put it on the table. And everybody who was black, whether they said it overtly or covertly, said 'Amen.'"
Then, on April 28, 1967, citing his religious beliefs, Ali refused induction into the United States Army at the height of the war in Vietnam. That followed a blunt statement, voiced 14 months earlier: "I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong."
Ali's refusal to accept induction made him a lightning rod for dissent. Many Americans condemned his stand. But as civil rights leader Julian Bond later observed: "When a figure as heroic and beloved as Muhammad Ali stood up and said, 'No, I won't go,' it reverberated through the whole society. When Ali refused to take the symbolic step forward, everybody knew about it moments later. You could hear people talking about it on street corners. It was on everyone's lips. People who had never thought about the war before began to think it through because of Ali. The ripples were enormous."
The American establishment forcefully responded. Ali was indicted, convicted of refusing induction into the United States Army and sentenced to five years in prison. Four years later, the United States Supreme Court overturned his conviction. But in the interim, he had been stripped of his title and prevented from fighting for three-and-a-half years. Finally, in 1974, he journeyed to Africa and reclaimed the heavyweight championship by dethroning George Foreman in Zaire.
Meanwhile, Ali's religious views were evolving. In the mid-1970s, he began studying the Quran more seriously, focusing on Orthodox Islam. His earlier adherence to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad was replaced by a spiritual embrace of all people. He became a symbol of tolerance and understanding, and the embodiment of Martin Luther King Jr.'s message that all people are deserving of love.
As sportswriter Jerry Izenberg of the Newark Star-Ledger observed: "Ali developed a quality that only a few people have. He reached a point where, when people looked at him, they didn't see black or white. They saw Ali. For a long time, that mystified him. He expected black people to love him and crowd around him. But then he realized white people loved him too, and that made him very happy."
Ali encouraged millions of people to believe in themselves, raise their aspirations and accomplish things they might not have done without him. Every time he looked in the mirror and preened, "I'm so pretty," he was saying "black is beautiful" before it became fashionable. When he refused induction into the United States Army, he stood up to armies everywhere in support of the proposition, "Unless you have a very good reason to kill, war is wrong."
Ali wasn't just a standard-bearer for black Americans. He stood up for everyone and was loved by them.
Parts of this article first appeared in an ESPN feature about Ali written by the same author.