The Resurrection: Atlanta, Racial Politics, and the Return of Muhammad Ali

By Smith, John Matthew | Southern Cultures, Summer 2015 | Go to article overview

The Resurrection: Atlanta, Racial Politics, and the Return of Muhammad Ali


Smith, John Matthew, Southern Cultures


"Truth, crushed to earth, shall rise again."

--William Cullen Bryant, "The Battle Field" (1839)

The wait was over.

On October 25, 1970, on the eve of Muhammad Ali's first professional boxing match in forty-three months, African Americans flooded the streets of Atlanta, anxiously anticipating what Ali called his "day of judgment." They came from all over: Birmingham, Chicago, Detroit, Harlem, Miami, and Philadelphia. Peachtree Street had never been more colorful. Rows of chrome covered cars, gold limos, and purple Cadillacs lined the road. One fan, a slender man smoking a foot-long pipe, wore an ankle-length mink coat matched with a tall mink hat. Another man who washed dishes for a living told a reporter that he had saved for months so he could buy a puce suit and bet one thousand dollars on Ali. Women dressed up like it was New Year's Eve, sporting bouffant Afros, fake eyelashes, and sleek sequined mini skirts. The fight attracted a wide assortment of people, politicians and celebrities, hustlers and gangsters. The biggest names in black America were in town: Bill Cosby, Sidney Poitier, Hank Aaron, Harry Belafonte, Curtis Mayfield, Diana Ross, Coretta Scott King, Whitney Young, Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, and Julian Bond. It was, Sports Illustrated observed, "the most startling assembly of black power and black money ever displayed." (1)

That evening, Ali strutted down Atlanta's thoroughfare with a loud, laughing entourage following closely behind. Black fans shouted his name as he passed the corner newsstands, clubs, hotels, theaters, and restaurants. Crowds swarmed him. In Atlanta, nothing else seemed to matter with the champ in town. He owned the city. It was a powerful scene, playwright Jack Richardson wrote, "sheer black, street-corner ebullience out for a Sunday evening promenade. When Ali's fans spilled out onto the streets of Atlanta one knew that there was a new tempo in town that was much more devastating to Old South rhythms than the gospel cadence of a freedom march." (2)

His fans last saw him in the ring on March 22,1967, when he knocked out Zora Folley in the seventh round at Madison Square Garden. About a month later in Houston, as the war in Vietnam intensified and draft calls escalated, Ali refused induction into the United States Army on religious grounds, claiming that he objected to wars not declared by Allah. Many Americans already despised him for his membership in the Nation of Islam, a separatist Muslim sect framed by the mainstream media as a subversive cult. Excoriated as an insincere, unpatriotic draft-dodger, Ali polarized the country. Immediately after he refused induction--before he had even been charged with a crime--the New York State Athletic Commission (NYSAC) suspended his boxing license and withdrew his heavyweight championship title for conduct "detrimental to the best interests of boxing." Athletic commissions across the country followed New York's example, leading critics to predict the slow death of boxing. On June 20, 1967, a federal court convicted him of draft evasion and sentenced him to the maximum five-year imprisonment and $10,000 fine. For the next three and a half years, free while his case worked its way through the courts' appeals process, Ali waited to learn his fate. (3)

Never before was his widespread support in the black community more evident than when he returned to boxing in Atlanta, a rapidly changing metropolis and the "Black Mecca" of the postwar New South. During the civil rights era, white moderates and black elites envisioned a harmonious city, proudly proclaiming Atlanta as the "City Too Busy to Hate." Atlanta's culture of racial moderation and the influence of Leroy Johnson, a black state senator who wielded significant political power, made Ali's return to boxing possible. For over three years, promoters and politicians in dozens of cities had failed to arrange an Ali match, but Johnson leveraged his unique connections with black and white municipal politicians to secure a boxing license for the former champ. …

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