“I wish I could have lived my life with as much human kindness, forgiveness and humility as Muhammad Ali. He was and is a black man that I know I could always hang my hat on.”
— Derrick C. Jones ASU 1979
Muhammad Ali means worthy of praise, commendable, highly exalted one. Muhammad Ali’s name carried a descriptive message, which is the case within the historically African culture.
Muhammad Ali’s name was an investment of “hope” for a child to aspire and demonstrate inspirational growth. Muhammad demonstrated in life a true vitality of humility. He never sought praise, however he will be praised today, tomorrow and for years.
When traveling to Africa with activist and comedian Dick Gregory, Muhammad went into a village hospital which had been quarantined. He picked up a sickly baby which he was not supposed to touch. When basketball great Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s home was destroyed in a fire, Ali immediately went to his home to add support to him and his family. Kindness was exhibited even during his boxing matches. Ali would seldom continue hitting an opponent during a boxing match when he recognized that the opponent was hurt. These are examples of his human kindness and humility that were built within his faith. He never doubted that his needs would not be addressed by the “All Mighty.”
He was born Cassius Marsellus Clay Jr. Numerous publications have his middle name spelled Marcellus, however his high school’s “Commencement Exercise Program” spelled his middle name Marsellus.
His father, M. Clay Sr. labored with a commercial sign mural painting business. His mother, Odessa, maintained the household providing an upbeat family atmosphere for him and his brother, Rudolph.
Some of the first words out of his mouth were Gee Gee, which turned into, “I Am the Greatest.” As a family unit, resources were limited, but they were rich in desire and they, including Rudolph, craved success.
The Clay brothers were well known around the neighborhood. As brothers they would cut their neighbors’ grass for money or do other little odd jobs. Cassius Marsellus Clay Jr. was born Jan. 17, 1942, just five years, three months and two days before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League baseball.
The cost for Ali’s parents in the early 1940s to rent a house was about $35 per month and a Coca Cola was 5 cents. The minimum draft age was lowered from 21 to 18 and one of the popular films was “Bambi.”
Clay’s hometown became a major war provision center during World War II for cargo planes and other aircraft. He attended Virginia Avenue Elementary School in the late 1940s and mid-1950s. At the age of 12, Clay used his red bicycle to go to Columbia Auditorium. To his dismay, when he was leaving and returning to ride his bicycle, he realized that his bicycle had been stolen. He became furious and upset. He was informed that if he went down to the basement of the building that a police officer was there. Clay went to the basement, which was being used as a boxing gym. The police officer, who was in his late 30s, was Joe Elsby Martin Sr. and he listened to Clay squabble with verbal threats against the person that had stolen his bicycle.
Martin defused his emotions and squashed his rage for that moment. Martin encouraged Cassius to come back to the gym and he would teach him some lessons about boxing. After a month and a half, he had his first fight and won. He continued to train under the tutelage of Martin. The training eventually resulted with Cassius Clay winning six Kentucky Golden Gloves Championships and two Nationals. By the time he graduated from high school he had 100 wins and less than 10 losses. That red bicycle incident may have given birth to the “Greatest Boxer of All Time.”
The year Clay was born in 1942, Central Colored High School was a three-year co-educational institution that offered academic, commercial, manual training and trade courses. The 1942 graduation class was around 165. Today, Central High School is a magnet Career Academy graduating about 340 yearly.
Clay graduated with the class of 1960, maybe demonstrating limited academic effort and academic success. During a 1973 interview Ali shared that he, “did not study in school and disliked bookwork.”
After high school graduation he won a Gold Medal at the 1960 summer August-September in the Rome Olympics. On April 18, 1960, Cassius Clay registered with the Selective Services which would have been three months and one day after his 18th birthday. He announced his conversion to the Islamic faith in 1964. He used the name Cassius X during that period of time until Elijah Muhammad gave him the name Muhammad Ali.
He went on in 1964 to win his first heavyweight title at the age of 22 against Sonny Liston. The years during that reign, he opposed the Vietnam War and refused induction into the United States Army due to his faith. Between 1964-1973, the United States military drafted 2.2 million American men out of an eligible pool of 27 million. Ali’s issues were related to his Selective Service Status and his opposition to the Vietnam War as a general principle. Ali also refused a deal with the government to be a boxer as a cash cow for them. The military, however was coming to his doorsteps. In 1967, the draft board changed the cut-off score for eligible draftees from 18 to 15. There were 218,700 drafted, and Ali was drafted with a score above the cut off score. In 1967, he was in the prime of his boxing career (age 25) and he had a 29-0 record, including winning the heavyweight title in 1964 from Sonny Liston.
In March 1967, he declared his legal residence as Houston, Texas, and his court records were forwarded from Kentucky to Texas. Ali declined to accept induction into the Army on April 28, 1967, and within less than two months, on June 20, 1967, in a Houston, Texas courtroom he was convicted and fined $10,000 and sentenced to five years imprisonment. All of his appeal requests were denied. He was ordered to surrender his passport and he would not be allowed to fight in the United States. Consequently, he had to vacate his heavyweight titles. He was unable to retain all his International Titles because he could not travel to defend those titles. He did not go to jail as his case worked itself through the court system.
During the 1960s, people of color were conditioned to say only certain things and behave in certain ways. Because he spoke up and challenged the selective services system on behalf of his Islamic religious faith, including giving up his heavyweight title, he would need to secure a vehicle for making money. He decided to take his youthful innocence and travel and speak at college campuses across the country. He would share his thoughts about the government, religious beliefs, Vietnam War and race relations in America. His verbal doctrine was based on life experiences.
An elder African American male such as Georgia’s Congressman John Lewis maybe would have told him, “Boy, you are still wet behind the ears.” At this point in his life, his youthful innocence would prevail. Nevertheless, one could say that Muhammad Ali’s efforts were to rescue African-American hyperconsciousness from oblivion. He made you believe that he could breathe fresh air into warm embers and provide life into the ashes for human warmth. One would believe that Ali’s greatest wins were outside the boxing ring and out of the public eye.
Ali demonstrated that he was thankful that he had God-given talents. He was grounded in gratitude and grounded within his religious beliefs. He understood from a biblical sense that pride can be perceived as a sin. He recognized that pride goeth before one’s fall. Ali did not think more of himself than he was. He held others to a higher regard than himself. He demonstrated respect for others and in a biblical sense, he saw himself as he was and not an inch more. He loved people from all walks of life. Some felt threatened by him and others marveled at his every word. Yes, he was poet laureate, controversial, fearsome in and outside the ring, maligned, defensive, witty, free-spirited, a maverick, a one man show and complex. Muhammad Ali had the right to live his life as he desired. On the other hand, he was defined as a draft dodger, Muslim preacher, racist and braggadocious black man.
He took all his experiences on tour in order to survive financially. His financial responsibilities included business deals, alimony payments and lawyer/legal fees. One of the earliest colleges he spoke at was Appalachian State University. The same year 1967 that Muhammad Ali was convicted and fined for not accepting induction into the Army was the same year that Appalachian Teacher’s College changed its name to Appalachian State University.
Tucked away in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Boone, N.C., Appalachian State is one of the most educationally engaging, peaceful, tranquil academic campuses this side of the Mississippi River. The mountains surrounding the campus are filled with beautiful trails, waterfalls and scenic mountain tops. We often referred to it as “High Country.”
In 1969, there were about 15 African Americans enrolled at App State. Fifty years later, the African American enrollment has increased by 53% to about 800. The Student Government President in 1969 at App State was Jack R. Stone. Stone receives total credit for working through a difficult request to bring the “Champ” to the front door of App’s campus.
It may be an understatement that Stone tackled an arduous task with valiant actions. His actions should not be diminished over time for the history of the university. Stone’s parents, Hall Stone, a minister and Mary Stone, a housewife, provided love and psychological security for him and his older brother. Jack Stone would tell you “that salvation and education” were the primary focuses in their lives as a family.
Stone recalls when he and his dad horsed around and shared his father’s boxing skills. Hall Stone participated in exhibition prize fights in Florida in the early 1930s. Jack Stone deserves credit for working through a difficult request with courage, confidence and commitment with the University officials to invite Ali to campus.
The one administrative staff member who supported Jack Stone’s efforts for Muhammad Ali to speak at App State was Lee H. McCaskey. In 1969, McCaskey became director of Student Government Affairs. He worked to ensure that clubs, organizations, student leadership opportunities, student publications and student government activities were available. The Lee McCaskey Center for Student Involvement & Leadership is named in his heavenly honor.
Stone explained a bit about the resistance from the administration: “The administration, led by Chancellor Dr. William Plemmons, felt that Ali was too controversial. Plemmons thought another athlete such as Green Bay Packers, quarterback Bart Starr would be better.
The controversy, of course swirled around the fact that Ali was a Black Muslim, a conscientious objector and outspoken. I did not back away from wanting Ali as the speaker. Plemmons retired on June 30,1969, and was replaced by Dr. Herb Wey effective July 1, 1969. The administration became very concerned that someone might try to assassinate Ali. My retort was that Ali would fly into the Winston-Salem airport on Thursday afternoon, speak at ASU on Thursday night and I would have him back on his way to the airport after the speech.
It appears that Stone had preventative plans. Stone felt that his plans were fool-proof, but Ali’s plans indicated that he was a people person and very disciplined about his intentions on campus.
Stone’s recollection after he picked Ali from the Hickory airport speaks volumes: “When I asked Ali if he wanted to check into the Holiday Inn and get some rest from his trip, he insisted that he wanted to see the campus. When we stopped at the traffic light where Tony’s Pizza was on the right of the campus entrance and the administration building was on the left, he rolled down the right back window and yelled out, “The Champ is here.” Please bear in mind that he flew in a day early to the Hickory airport. This had everyone concerned about his safety. Hence, I drove him to the student center where he immediately drew a huge crowd.”
Stone describes Ali’s unplanned visit at the student center in the following manner: “The student center at that time had an open area, a corner of the building with the second floor above just outside the student’s post office. As students began to see Ali, a crowd quickly formed. Ali began to demonstrate the Ali shuffle which helped to draw attention. Within five minutes there must have been a crowd of 500 students in the area. How the word spread so quickly is remarkable! President Wey had gotten word and he was there.”
Ali’s activities on campus and in the community Wednesday and Thursday included visiting the student center upon arrival to campus, dinner at Holiday Inn with African-American students, a five-mile run through Boone, WBTV Charlotte Television poolside interview at Holiday Inn, dinner at Lee McCaskey’s home, reception with Dr. Kenneth Webb and his wife at their home and a Varsity Gym speaking engagement.
Ali’s speech at Varsity Gym on Sept. 18, 1969, at 8 p.m. was a historical moment for Appalachian State University. There is clearly a significant discrepancy between the speech which he wrote on the index cards while traveling in the vehicle to Boone with Stone and the actual speech he delivered on Thursday evening. He may have used some objectionable words at Varsity Gym for that period of time. His personal and professional circumstances were still at the youthful innocence level. He was old enough to know some things, but maybe not wise enough to comprehend the impact of his words. His vitality and youthful innocence allowed him to address App State’s student body and faculty and share psycho-social misconceptions that had been perpetuated over the years. These misconceptions were associated with his life experiences.
He said, “Everything good is not always white.” “The slave was taught to love white and hate black.” “Everything good and with authority is white.” “Miss America, white, Miss Universe, white, Miss World white.” “And Tarzan the king of the jungle in Africa, he even white.” He spoke about the impact of slavery on blacks and the English slave dealer John Hawkins. He spoke about the Black Muslim leader Elijah Muhammad and the Islamic faith. Ali knew as a man he had the right to practice Muslim, just as any man had the right to practice Catholicism or as a member of an evangelical Protestant church.
Ali gave the index cards to Stone which he wrote notes on, in preparation for the Varsity Gym speech. There are a total of 24 index cards. An examination of the index cards reveals that the focus topics for his speech would be about the issue of blacks and whites getting along in America. There were major spelling errors on many of the cards. Ali admits in an interview with poet and author Nikki Giovanni that spelling was difficult for him. He indicated on index card No. 2, “This problem is worse then Cathloc& Prodeucl… PROBLEM in Irland.” It is worse then then Egypt Israily PROBLEM.” He goes on to indicate on index card No. 3 “It is Worse than the War in Ven Nam Problem” He indicates that the reason for the problem, “It is because the Grorement’s Program for intergration is aginest the Law of NATURE.” Index card No. 8 indicates, “The Race problem started When a slave trader nane John Hopkins of England. Brought the First sTave here.” Part of index card No. 10 indicates, “They were Robed of their true Religion Islam and Given CHRISTIANINY.” Index card No. 14 indicates, “part of the trouble with race relations, “Live with White. Marry White and this is the worse thing the two people. Can do. (intermarry)” Moving forward to index card No. 20 he indicates, Now, Today We Have Two Different People trying to push force Intergation.” Finally, the final index card No.24 indicates, “There is a differend in hateing, something and knowning it. Throughout his index cards he used the letters T.A. which stood for Talk About. A final analysis of his notes on the index cards yields that he appears to have had limited thoughts about blacks living as first class citizens and living harmoniously with whites would be very difficult.
Finally, there were various local newspaper publications that recognized Ali’s visit and the Varsity Gym event. On the Sept. 12, 1969, edition of The Appalachian, page 2, Ali’s visit was advertised with date, time and location. The advertisement used both names Cassius Clay and Muhammad Ali with an image of him. The Watauga Democrat had a similar advertisement on Thursday Sept. 18, 1969. That edition included the specifics about the event, including recognizing the Student Government Association as the sponsor.
The Appalachian news dated Sept. 19 wrote a narrative one day after the Varsity Gym event. The topic of the narrative was, “The Black Muslim opinion of Racial Conflict.” A photo of Ali and Wey was included in this edition. The writer basically shares points which Ali made in his speech. The Winston-Salem Journal’s Friday Sept 18, 1969, edition focused on comments that Ali made about a ”Separate Black Nation.” The headline read, “Cassius Clay Visits ASU, with a subhead line, “Officials Not Too Happy.” There was a photo of him peeking through a Charlotte Television camera, during his poolside interview. It appears that these publications were written with a sobering reminder of our history during the late 1960s.
To some degree one may reminisce about a period of time which there was hope for racial intolerance. The publications are priceless relics. Later in Ali’s life, due to the social and civil rights successes of Dr. Martin L. King, Jr., Ali appears to temper his language about Black nationalism and Blacks living separate from whites.
Seven days later, Sept. 25,1969, editor Rachel Rivers of the Watauga Democrat detailed an accurate account of his speech. Her account relayed just facts and statements which Ali made during his presentation with the students. The 1970 App State Yearbook Vol. 48 recognizes Ali’s visit from the previous year. Page 437 is titled, “Professional Talent on Campus.” Ali is pictured with Wey at the Student Center, two images of Ali interacting with students and an image of Ali standing at the podium speaking in Varsity Gym. A short narrative is included which expresses Ali’s feelings about race relations. At the time of this yearbook publication, Ali had gone more than three years without a professional fight. Not until October 20, 1970 did any officials give Ali permission to fight again.
Fifty years later, former App State graduates who witnessed Ali’s visit have shared their recollection of those moments on campus. Sam McEwen’s comments, “He was a muscular, good looking man. He was the first big T.V. star that I had ever seen in person. It was a kind of cool thing.” Teresa Engle, “At the time it was very unusual to have an outstanding African-American on campus. Students lined up 10 feet deep to see him as he used a soft southern voice. He had an element of polarization about him, he was entertaining. It was outstanding that it happened.” Lee McCaskey’s son, John, also App State graduate, recalls that, “Dad did not mention we were having special guest for dinner. I was sitting at the kitchen table watching the cooking process and a very tall African-American man walked into the kitchen. He yelled something about how he was invited over for dinner and homemade raw noodles were hanging everywhere. He spread his arms and moved them as he was talking to Dad. I am sure my eyes looked like a deer in headlights. Muhammad was the largest and loudest person I had met in my life. As my dad finished the chicken noodle soup, Muhammad and Dad continued to talk. We later sat down to family dinner with Muhammad Ali. This was an exciting experience for a 9-year-old living in the small town of Boone, N.C. Most people do not believe me when I say the first African-American I had dinner with was Muhammad Ali.”
This narrative account was made to document a historical moment for a University which is “dear” to my heart. During my 2015 Residency for Diversity Celebration, Chancellor Dr. Sheri N. Everts’ first year, she was front and center at many of my presentations. Her dedication to App State as “La Madre of the Mountaineers” keeps the main thing the main thing… education. Ali’s visit in 1969 was dittoed in 2019 by a visit from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter, Dr. Bernice King.
A great deal more can be said about Muhammad Ali, the late 1960s, Appalachian State University then and now; however, had it not been for Jack R. Stone, this educational and historical event would not have happened. He gave resolution towards the perplexity for a special quest to the university, which gave a lifetime rainbow of light to the enigma of Ali on behalf of our fellow schoolmates.
By Derrick C. Jones, ASU class of 1979.