• February 26, 2014
In recognizing Black Heritage Month we can revisit historic events in Rochester history, share common memories, and reflect upon the passage of time.
One such dramatic moment occurred on December 20th, 1967 when then-deposed heavyweight boxing champion Mohammad Ali came to Rochester. That day, Ali toured and spoke with students at Franklin and Madison High Schools and the George Mather Forbes (#4) Elementary School. Ali also addressed a large crowd at the Shabazz restaurant at 349 Joseph Avenue, preached at Muhammad’s Mosque on 416 North Clinton, and later that evening for two hours to 450 Muslim followers at a private ceremony at the War Memorial.
At the time of the 1967 visit, Ali was at the center of tumultuous national debates over war and race. Earlier that year, Ali had refused to be conscripted into the U.S. military, citing his religious beliefs as a Black Muslim minister (he had converted from Christianity to Islam and changed his name from Cassius Clay three years earlier) and his opposition to the Vietnam War. Ali was eventually found guilty on draft evasion charges (later overturned by the Supreme Court), and stripped of his boxing title. Ali did not fight again for nearly during four years. During his exile, he frequently toured the nation promoting his religion and his ministry.
During this period, Ali was a polarizing figure: a martyr and heroic rebel to the anti-war left and anti-establishment counter culture; for pro-war advocates a traitor to his country; for young African Americans a symbol of black pride against white supremacy; to others a black racist whose ideology of racial separation undermined progress. These controversies were on display when Ali was here that December day.
While the Times Union headline highlighted Ali’s non-violent position, both article’s emphasized Ali’s philosophy advocating “total racial separation” and the need for some kind of black homeland. While Ali’s speeches at the schools were apolitical, at the Shabazz, Mohammad’s Mosque and the War Memorial he elaborated on what the Nation of Islam then believed: “The only way we [the black people] can be independent is to separate on some land of our own,” adding, “By nature blacks and whites cannot live together since our lives and cultures differ. All people want to be with their own.” Ali concluded ominously, “Even Negroes who refuse to separate will be destroyed.”
As the nation and world changed, so did Ali’s views as he moved away from separatism in favor of integration. As described by local sportswriter Scott Pitoniak, in Ali’s recent visits to Rochester he has been greeted as beloved icon.
I was too young to remember Ali’s visit. But I would love to hear from those who were there. Set against that most tumultuous of years, 1967, what were/are your impressions of Ali the man and his message, then and now?
UPDATE: In Leo Roth’s (6/13/16)Ali’s greatness hit home in Rochester, Leo provides some new information about Ali’s 1967 visit.