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        Muhammad Ali | Boxer and Civil Rights Activist

        Muhammad Ali, considered one of the greatest boxers of all time, fought not only within the boxing ring but also as a vocal advocate for civil rights and other causes. Ali earned the world heavyweight championship three times, despite being banned from boxing for three years for his resistance to serving in the military which he felt served only White interests. By watching a short video and engaging in two primary source activities, students will examine the career of this tenacious champion.

        Lesson Summary

        Students will learn about the remarkable athletic achievements and advocacy of Muhammad Ali. After watching a biographical video, students will analyze a photograph taken during the height of the controversy over Ali’s refusal to fight in the Vietnam War, and they will read the transcript of a revealing interview Ali gave and answer questions about it. To conclude the lesson, students will choose a quotation to use for a motivational poster.

        Time Allotment

        20 - 40 minutes



        • Taunt - to make fun of in order to provoke a reaction
        • Controversial - likely to cause disagreement within society
        • Degenerative - tending to deteriorate or worsen
        • Philanthropy - generous charitable donations


        Nation of Islam - A religious movement created in Detroit, Michigan, by W.D. Fard in the 1930s, the Nation of Islam advocates self-reliance and empowerment of the African American community. It shares important principles with the Islamic religion, including the Five Pillars of Islam (belief in one God, fasting for Ramadan, praying five times a day, charity, pilgrimage to Mecca); however, it is an independent religion with its own political objectives, theology, and understanding of history.

        For more information on the Nation of Islam:

        Malcolm X - Born in 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska, Malcolm Little transformed his life from one of crime and indulgence to one of religion and civil rights activism after he converted to the Nation of Islam while in prison. It was there that he changed his name to Malcolm X, and he went on to become a leading spokesperson for the Nation of Islam and gained many converts to the religion during the 1950s and 1960s. As a vocal and aggressive advocate for civil rights, Malcolm X was seen in contrast to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was committed to non-violence and interracial harmony. Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam in 1964 to focus on the struggle for civil rights and to create a racially inclusive movement; however, his crusade was cut short when he was assassinated while giving a speech in 1965.

        For more information on Malcolm X:

        Background on Muhammad Ali | Boxer and Civil Rights Activist

        Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Clay, the oldest son of Cassius Clay, Sr. and Odessa Grady Clay on Jan. 17, 1942, in Louisville, KY. When he was 12, Clay’s bike was stolen. He reported it to the police, and Officer Joe Martin listened to the young man say he would beat up whoever had stolen his bike. Officer Martin answered, “You better learn how to fight first.”

        Martin, a leader in the Louisville civil rights movement, trained the young boxer for the next six years. In just six weeks Clay won his first fight. He then won the 1956 Golden Gloves beginners tournament. In 1959, he won the National Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions, and the Amateur Athletic Union's national title. At 6-foot-3-inches, Clay made boxing an art with his lightening speed and fancy footwork. He was just as fast with his words as he was with his jabs and his feet.

        In 1960, Clay won a gold medal on the U.S. Olympic boxing team in Rome, Italy. Upon returning home, he was denied service at a diner in Kentucky based solely on the color of his skin. Clay used his words to diffuse the situation. When the owner told him, “We don’t serve n*****s,” Clay replied, “That’s OK, I don’t eat ‘em.” The boxer’s never-ending quips earned him the nickname the “Louisville Lip”.

        Prior to his win against Sonny Liston in 1964, Clay attended Nation of Islam meetings. After the fight, he surprised the world when he announced he accepted the teachings of Islam under Malcolm X’s influence. He denounced the name “Cassius Clay” as a slave name, calling himself Muhammad Ali.

        Ali shocked the world again in 1967 when he refused to report after being drafted into the US military, citing his religious beliefs and opposition to American involvement in the Vietnam War. He also pointed out that Black men were disproportionally drafted and killed in Vietnam, while those who returned after fighting heroically still faced racism in their own country. Ali was found guilty of draft evasion and stripped of his boxing title. He was also banned from boxing for three years. He did not serve time in prison due to the appeals process.

        In 1970, Ali began boxing again, and in 1971 the Supreme Court overturned his conviction. But he had missed three years of boxing at the peak of his career. After regaining his boxing license, Ali fought against famous boxers, including Joe Frazier, Leon Spinks, George Foreman, and Larry Holmes. He was called “The People’s Champion and “The Greatest”. Ali’s first professional loss was against Joe Frazier, whom he had publicly taunted and insulted. But Ali won the heavyweight title back at the age of 32 against George Foreman. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, his hands can't hit what his eyes can't see,” Ali said before his fight with George Foreman.

        He lost to Leon Spinks in 1978, but defeated him in a rematch, making Ali the first boxer ever to win three heavyweight championships. He was the people’s hero, always coming back under what seemed impossible odds. Finally, after losing a unanimous decision to Trevor Berbick, Ali hung up the gloves for good in 1981, retiring with an overall professional record of 56-5.

        Although Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had denounced the Nation of Islam, he and Ali joined together at a rally in Louisville, KY. “In your struggle for freedom, justice and equality, I am with you,” Ali told Dr. King.

        Ali married his fourth wife, Yolanda Williams in 1986. The couple has one son, Asaad, and Ali has several children from previous relationships, including daughter Laila, who also became a champion boxer.

        In 1984, three years after retiring from boxing, Ali announced he had Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative neurological condition. Ali turned his attention to philanthropy and making life better for others. He supported Parkinson's research and became active in the Special Olympics and the Make a Wish Foundation. In 1998 he became a United Nations Messenger of Peace for his work overseas, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005.

        In 1990, Ali helped negotiate the release of 15 American hostages from Iraq. In 1998 he became a United Nations Messenger of Peace for his work overseas, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005. Muhammad Ali died in 2016.

        “Many fans wanted to build a museum to acknowledge my achievements,” Ali said. “I wanted more than a building to house my memorabilia. I wanted a place that would inspire people to be the best that they could be at whatever they chose to do, and to encourage them to be respectful of one another.”

        Introductory Activity

        (5 minutes)

        Ask students: Have you ever stood up for something you believed in strongly, even though your belief was not a popular one? How did you do it--using words, actions, or a combination of the two?

        Introduce Muhammad Ali:

        Muhammad Ali, a champion boxer, fought not only within the boxing ring but also as a vocal advocate for civil rights and other causes.


        Learning Activities

        Video and Class Discussion (10 minutes)

        Distribute the Graphic Organizer for students to fill out while viewing the video.

        Download the Graphic Organizer [PDF].

        Play the Video:


        Discussion questions after viewing:

        1. What do you think should be considered Muhammad Ali’s greatest contribution to American society?

        2. How might growing up during an era of segregation have influenced Ali’s choices about when and how to speak out? 

        3. Do you know of any current athletes who are following in Ali’s footsteps of being both an athlete and an advocate?

        Examining Primary Sources

        Visual Primary Source Activity (10 minutes)

        Project or make copies of the image to the right. On June 4, 1967, in Cleveland, Ohio, a remarkable gathering took place. In what later became known as the “Ali Summit,” leading African American sports figures questioned Muhammad Ali at length about his decision to refuse to fight in the Vietnam War. Ali persuaded the athletes, several of whom had military backgrounds, that his motivation to evade the draft was his deep faith in Islam and not his reluctance to leave boxing at the peak of his career. There was a press conference following the meeting at which this photograph was taken. The people in the photo from left to right are:

        Back Row: U.S. Representative Carl Stokes who later became the mayor of Cleveland, the first African American mayor of a major city; NFL players Walter Beach, Bobby Mitchell, Sid Williams, Curtis McClinton, Willie Davis, Jim Shorter, and John Wooten Front Row: NBA player Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, former NFL player Jim Brown who organized the meeting, and Lew Alcindor, a player at UCLA who changed his name when he joined the NBA to Kareem Abdul Jabbar.


        1. What adjectives can you use to describe the facial expressions of the men in the photograph? 
        2. Why would it have been helpful for Muhammad Ali to have the support of other African American athletes as he defied the U.S. Government? What risk were the other athletes taking by appearing with Ali at this news conference?
        3. Jim Brown called the meeting at the request of Ali’s manager, who hoped he could be convinced to join the army and not sacrifice his career. What does it indicate about Ali, who was dyslexic and struggled to graduate from high school, that he could convince a group of college-educated individuals that his convictions were sincere? 
        Written Primary Source Activity (10 minutes)

        Students will read excerpts from the transcript of a 1971 interview of Muhammad Ali by British journalist Michael Parkinson. The entire interview is available at

        After examining this source, students will gain a clearer understanding of Ali’s childhood experiences in the segregated South that influenced his decision to become a boxer, and to stand up for causes he believed in outside of the boxing ring. Click here.

        Download the Primary Source Activity [PDF].

        Culminating Activity

        This can be done as an in-class follow-up to the lesson, as a homework assignment, or as a multi-day in-class project.

         To be completed the using graphic organizer.

        Download the Graphic Organizer [PDF].

        Muhammad Ali was well known for making clever quips and comments. Choose an Ali quotation that you think would make a good motivational statement to see in your classroom. Write a paragraph explaining why you chose this quotation and then create a poster displaying the quotation. Ali quotations can be found at the following sites:



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