Communication Currents

Muhammad Ali’s Fighting Words for Justice

April 1, 2011
Sports Communication

While Muhammad Ali has been the subject of countless articles and books written by sports historians and journalists, Communication researchers have largely ignored him. This oversight is surprising given both the tradition of analyzing social movements in rhetorical studies (a discipline also referred to as the study of oratory, public speaking and symbol use).  There is a great benefit from paying attention to Ali’s influential eloquence as a world renowned celebrity espousing nonviolence. Ali is commonly remembered through famous lines like, “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” and “No Viet Cong ever called me a [racial slur].” In the 1960s and beyond, Ali’s persuasive public performances played a pivotal role in radicalizing the civil rights movement as it evolved into twin forces: Black Power and anti-Vietnam war movements. Ali’s speeches and public antics unite messages of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, enabling audiences to re-envision historical evidence such as press conferences, speeches, posters, and photographs from the civil rights era.

Lost in the revisions of history and the applause for Ali’s grace facing the challenges of Parkinson’s disease is his steadfast resistance to racist violence and oppression from the 1960s to today.  It is important to retrieve from pop culture kitsch the subversive staying power of Ali’s rhetoric: his speeches and public statements to fight racism and militarism.  Ali was a fighter, a man of violence inside the ring who has worked nonviolently for peace and justice outside of it.

Our research finds that Ali’s enduring rhetoric (that is, his public speeches and statements) provides a model for analyzing speeches and other rhetorical artifacts from social movements that invoke some aspects of violence which are apparent in nonviolent civil disobedience. Ali, as a rhetorical actor, used his star power in a peaceful, nonviolent way to publicly expose and decry racism and militarism that he saw and critiqued in the United States. Ali’s celebrity status bolstered his ego, enhancing his ability to speak his own mind in public, rather than to perform the traditionally accepted second-class status that most whites at that time expected of African Americans. Ali used his persona as a wealthy sports figure to make the connection between his payment of federal taxes and his disagreement with how the U.S. government was disbursing those considerable funds, saying, “I buy a lot of bullets, at least three jet bombers a year, and pay the salary of fifty thousand fighting men with the money they take from me after my fights.” 

The record of Ali’s press conferences and speeches reveals the savvy ways that Ali was able to channel his celebrity, which was gained from the violent sport of boxing, and use it as a powerful political and social force to campaign for nonviolent social justice. For instance, Ali was and remains the most famous conscientious objector (CO) from the military draft in U.S. history.  CO status is granted by the U.S. Selective Service only to men who are determined to legitimately object to military service for moral or religious grounds.  If granted CO status, COs have the opportunity to provide alternative or non-combat service. Ali stubbornly refused to serve in the U.S. Army since he disagreed with the mission, purpose, and conduct of the Vietnam War. Ali’s publically pronounced leadership and his unflinching public remarks clarified the linkage between racism and militarism, a message which was eventually echoed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in later speeches such as King’s “Riverside Church” speech and his “Declaration of Independence from the War in Vietnam” speech. Also Ali’s unapologetically brash style of public speaking shared the sense of confidence and humor that is found in the speeches of Malcolm X

By understanding the rhetoric of Ali, we are better able to understand civil rights leaders in American history, who are sometimes pitted as if they were opposites in the unfolding drama of the chaotic 1960s, when in reality they were all working together to achieve social justice by ridding the U.S. of racist attitudes and practices, including the conduct of wars against peoples of other races, such as the war in Vietnam.

In short, Ali used his fame, gained from the violence and suffering he experienced from years slugging it out in the boxing ring, to fight a different kind of fight, a symbolic campaign against racism and militarism. Ali’s violent boxing ring exploits and often egotistical pronouncements in press conferences gave him a unique voice and social position to support the civil rights activism of Dr. King and the anti-racism platforms of various leaders from the Nation of Islam, such as Malcolm X.  As a result of Ali’s unabashed, fearless tone in public venues, Ali took a lot of heat from the media, the wider public, and from the U.S. Government. Ali’s legal case to fight his conscription into the Army went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, a case he won in 1971. 

In the meantime, Ali had lost most of what would have been his prime boxing years, while also facing financial ruin. Not many people are aware that Sylvester Stallone’s script for the original “Rocky” film was based on the come-back story of the boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Chuck Wepner. Still fewer among us are aware that during the years that Ali was banned from boxing for courageously stating his refusal to fight what he felt was a racist war in Vietnam, Ali toured the U.S., giving over two hundred speeches at university campuses and other venues.  The booming voice of Ali, as an outspoken orator, as a fighter for peace and nonviolence, may have been quieted in recent years by Parkinson’s disease, but those who seek out his words and deeds in the annals of civil rights and anti-war activism, will find his voice rings as clearly and loudly as ever.

About the author (s)

Ellen W. Gorsevski

Bowling Green State University

Ellen W. Gorsevski (Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University) is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication and School of Media and Communication at Bowling Green State University (BGSU).

Dr. Gorsevski’s articles analyzing communication of nonviolent activists for social, political and environmental justice have appeared in Quarterly Journal of Speech; Western Journal of Communication; Journal of Communication and Religion; and Environmental Communication. She has written books such as Dangerous Women: The Rhetoric of the Women Nobel Peace Laureates (Troubador Publishing, Ltd., 2014).  

Ellen W. Gorsevski

Michael L. Butterworth

Bowling Green State University