Ali on Campus
In 1969, at the height of racial tensions in the country following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali—by this time stripped of his world heavyweight title due to his opposition to the Vietnam War and subsequent refusal to enlist in the U.S. Army—spoke to a “riveted” Penn State audience, questioning whether equality could ever truly be achieved.
“By nature, black Americans and white Americans will never get along,” Ali said, according to an article the following day in the Daily Collegian. “They’re opposites, like yes and no. If it’s your opposite, it’s your opposition—then it’s your opponent.”
The only peaceful solution to the racial crisis, he asserted, was total separation of the races. “This is not hatred,” he added. “It’s just nature.”
With the death of Ali over the weekend at age 74, remembrances have come from far and wide as those touched by the former champ grieve fondly and openly of a larger than life figure who was outspoken and brash, unapologetic and committed. Those who were among the reported 4,000 at Rec Hall on May 23, 1969, no doubt remember it well.
Among the students there that night was Larry Rubenstein ’71, a sophomore at the time who today is an attorney in New York City.
“It was quite a night,” recalls Rubenstein, who we reached by phone on Monday. Rubenstein was an organizer of the Colloquy series, an event that brought Ali, activist politician Ralph Nader and controversial cartoonist Al Capp to campus for a weekend of speeches and panel discussions on issues ranging from the the racial divide and Vietnam War to women’s rights and the Middle East.
Ali, then 27, focused on racism, calling it “America’s worst problem,” reinforcing the notion that the only way to maintain peace was through keeping the races separate. Says Rubenstein: “He focused on a nonviolent solution, but he had a real question about how you solved that problem in the face of many in the white population that were not necessarily embracing the advancement of African Americans.”
“It was a very direct and pointed speech, and a speech that had the student population, which at the time very much wanted to see continued advancement in civil rights, just riveted.”
Rubenstein, captured in a Collegian photo with Ali, was among a handful of students who had the chance to meet with Ali before and after the speech. “He was so well respected as a human being and as someone who really helped the county focus on racial problems.”
Though the speech was largely consistent and in the mood of the climate and attitude toward Civil Rights in America, it was controversial in questioning whether integration would work, Rubenstein says. “Yes, I think it was controversial in the way he was questioning the possibility of integration, but he had such humanity and humanity for all human beings—no matter what race—that what he really believed would be the ultimate solution, I don’t know.”
—B.J. Reyes, associate editor