Fifty years ago, “The Greatest” came to UW–Madison

MADISON, WI (April 23, 2018) — On April 26, 1968, University of Wisconsin faculty and students —3,000 of them — crowded into the campus’s Stock Pavilion to hear the world’s greatest former boxer talk about life outside the ring. Muhammad Ali wanted to talk about politics. The title of his speech was “The Black Muslim’s Solution to Racism,” and Ali was greeted with a standing ovation.

Muhammad Ali poster.

During the winter of 1967–68, however, Ali was lost.

He was no longer the heavyweight champion of the world — stripped of the title and his license to box — and was paying the price for refusing to serve in the army and fight in the Vietnam War. Sentenced to five years in prison, he was free on bail pending an appeal.

Ali felt trapped: he could not leave the country because his passport had been confiscated. “I am not allowed to work in America, and I’m not allowed to leave America,” he said. “I’m just about broke.”

Friends say that from his home in Chicago, he would escape to Wisconsin, often driving his Cadillac Eldorado toward Milwaukee, only to turn around when he got there. Those drives gave Ali time to think about his future.

Married, with a child on the way, he had to find a new means of making a living. Ali decided to begin a college speaking tour. He reportedly made $1,000 for his first lecture at Temple University in Philadelphia, but only half of that for his second stop at Cheyney State College in Cheyney, Pennsylvania. The fees were only a fraction of what he had earned in the ring.

When he came to Madison, Ali’s speech, like the man himself, was controversial. As a follower of the Nation of Islam, Ali called for America to provide black people with a separate country to call their own. He said that was the “only solution” to America’s racial crisis. Some students booed as he denounced interracial marriage.

But the crowd roared when Ali talked about injustice. “We don’t want no pie in the sky when we die,” said Ali as he broke into one of his trademark poems. “We want something sound on the ground when we’re still around.”

He did not talk about his opposition to the war, or the draft, or his boxing career. He did mention the appeal of his prison sentence but was not optimistic about winning, adding, “I don’t have the complexion or the connection.”

As that college speaking tour continued, Ali honed his message. He began speaking out about his objections to the war and racism in America. By the end of 1968, he was back — not as a boxer, but as a national leader. He was truly on his way to being the greatest.

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Contact: Tod Pritchard, tod.pritchard@supportuw.org, 608-609-5217, @WisAlumni