Remembering ‘The Ali Summit,’ 51 years later

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June 4 marks the 51st anniversary of “The Ali Summit” — a momentous meeting between top black athletes in the United States at the height of the civil rights movement. Famous athletes were drawn together by Muhammad Ali’s historic refusal to be drafted into the U.S. Army in 1967.

Ali’s decision to refuse the draft caused a major upheaval — retraction of his boxing title and suspension of his boxing license were among some of the penalties. Ali’s manager Herbert Muhammad called Jim Brown, asking him to try to convince Ali to be drafted in order to keep his boxing career intact.

Recognizing the political impact of Ali’s decision, Brown and John Wooten assembled the top black athletes in the country — including Bill Russell, Lew Alcindor (aka Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) — to band together and provide a united perspective on Ali’s actions. This became known as “The Ali Summit.”

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At the summit, the athletes wanted to get to the root of Ali’s convictions. They brought up tough questions on the issues of race, religion, politics, age, and war. But in the end, Ali’s staunch faith in his decision convinced the athletes to support him — despite the forthcoming controversy.

But only two weeks after “The Ali Summit” — Ali was banned from boxing for three years, convicted of draft evasion, sentenced to five years in prison, and fined $10,000.

In 1971, Ali’s case was appealed and the Supreme Court overturned his conviction for refusing to enter the Army. He ultimately did not have to serve time in prison and regained his heavyweight title in 1974.  

But beyond the Supreme Court’s decision, “The Ali Summit” has a long-lasting impact on race and politics and the athletes will not only be remembered as prominent sports figures, but also historic civil rights heroes and activists.

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