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Why the 'Ali Summit' remains a transformational moment in U.S. history

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The most iconic image of the late Muhammad Ali, who died Friday at 74, is likely that of him standing triumphantly over the fallen Sonny Liston in 1965.

The most important image might be something else entirely.

It was taken on this day – June 4 – in 1967, at a news conference in Cleveland. Ali is speaking into a microphone. On his right, listening intently, sits Bill Russell. On his left sits Jim Brown and Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). Assembled there, in one photo, are four of the greatest athletes in history. They are flanked by other athletes, including future NFL Hall of Famer Willie Davis, and community leaders such as Carl Stokes, who would become the first black mayor of a major U.S. city. They are not at the news conference to speak about sports.

Jim Brown presides over a meeting of top African-American athletes on June 4, 1967, to show support for boxer Muhammad Ali's refusal to fight in Vietnam. (Tony Tomsic/Getty Images)
Jim Brown presides over a meeting of top African-American athletes on June 4, 1967, to show support for boxer Muhammad Ali's refusal to fight in Vietnam. (Tony Tomsic/Getty Images)

They were there to lend visible support to Ali's decision to object to his induction into the war in Vietnam. The "Ali Summit," as it later came to be known, was pulled together by Brown at the offices of the Negro Industrial Economic Union and became a crucial step in the civil rights movement. As Bill Rhoden of the New York Times described the scene in a 2014 story, "the moment itself would be remembered as the first – and last – time that so many African-American athletes at that level came together to support a controversial cause."

It's hard to imagine anything like this happening today. There have been sporadic sports protests in recent years, like LeBron James and others decrying Clippers owner Donald Sterling's racist remarks, or NBA players wearing "I Can't Breathe" T-shirts to call out police brutality, or even the U.S. Women's National Team filing a lawsuit against U.S. Soccer, but the power of that 1967 conference is as resonant now as it was then. They are not in warm-ups or T-shirts or uniforms; they're in business suits.

"The Liston image, that's what most people wanted to see – black men fighting each other," says Lou Moore, a professor at Grand Valley State University who specializes in boxing history. "They wanted you to be a tiger in the ring but a pussycat when it comes to politics. That picture of them standing together is them being a tiger off the field."

The bravery of this is hard to overstate. This was even before the era of free agency, before the era of the seven-figure endorsement contract, long before athletes worked with consultants to come up with cute logos for their "brand." Athletes now can carve their reputations with edited essays or carefully produced ads. Back then there was no filter, and the media was often antagonistic in a way we can't grasp today. And the hate went way beyond the sports world; Ali was refused service at a whites-only restaurant after he was already an Olympic gold-medalist. His anti-war stance cost him his U.S. passport and very nearly his career. Two weeks after the news conference, he was banned from boxing and sentenced to prison.

On his Facebook page Saturday morning, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote about Ali's power:

"At a time when blacks who spoke up about injustice were labeled uppity and often arrested under one pretext or another, Muhammad willingly sacrificed the best years of his career to stand tall and fight for what he believed was right. In doing so, he made all Americans, black and white, stand taller. I may be 7'2" but I never felt taller than when standing in his shadow."

John Wooten, Jim Brown, Bill Russell, and Bobby Mitchell stand behind Muhammad Ali. They all reunited in 2014. (AP)
John Wooten, Jim Brown, Bill Russell, and Bobby Mitchell stand behind Muhammad Ali. They all reunited in 2014. (AP)

Ali didn't just mention his beliefs on occasion, or when there was a news story on a topic he cared about. Ali was a constant reminder of injustice. He made people see what they did not want to see. There were others who spoke up before and during the Civil Rights Era, like Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis, and Brown and Abdul-Jabbar voiced unpopular views for decades (and still do), but Ali was brash and flash, exposing inconvenient truths with beautiful boxing and turns of phrases.

"I am America," he once said. "I am the part you won't recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me."

There are few comparable quotes to that in today's sports world. Cam Newton drew a lot of controversy earlier this year when he said, "I'm an African-American quarterback that may scare a lot of people because they haven't seen nothing they can compare me to." That was refreshing honesty from the NFL MVP, but Newton did not risk government backlash with his words. Ali and the others risked everything.

"We didn't care about any perceived threats," former Browns lineman John Wooten told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 2012. "We weren't concerned because we weren't going to waver. We were unified. We all had a real relationship with each other and we knew we were doing something for the betterment of all."

Most of today's athletes (and people) seek to make others like them. Ali sought to disrupt, to discomfit, to dare. Saying, "I'm the greatest" and "I'm so pretty" wasn't just the trash talk we know today. It was political, cultural, iconoclastic.

"When he said, 'I'm the greatest' – people realized they treat [black people] like animals," says Moore. "People would say our skin is ugly. He's saying 'I'm pretty.' That's a big deal."

Sometimes it was crass or callous, but that's part of the genius of it: Words were never near as ugly as the truth Ali illuminated.

"There were plenty of other young activists," Moore says. "But he's an athlete. America has never allowed athletes to do that in their prime. They had to wear the mask. Ali didn't have to do that. He refused to do that."

President Barack Obama released a statement on Ali's passing on Saturday morning, saying, "His fight outside the ring would cost him his title and his public standing. It would earn him enemies on the left and the right, make him reviled, and nearly send him to jail. But Ali stood his ground. And his victory helped us get used to the America we recognize today."

Obama's presidency itself is evidence of Ali's legacy.

In his statement, Obama mentioned that he has a copy in the White House of that iconic photo of the fighter – the one of Ali standing over Liston. That moment, albeit sterling, was a sports moment.

But the photo of him, and Brown and Alcindor and the others, in Cleveland: that was a group of athletes shining a flashbulb in the faces of an incongruous, unfair society. That was bravery beyond sports.

That was the truest image of a champion.

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