June 23rd, 2015
Blog post by Lori Hostuttler, Digital Projects and Outreach Archivist, WVRHC.
In November 1969, Heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali spoke to WVU students as part of the Festival of Ideas speaker series.
Ali faces the audience on November 5, 1969 in the Mountainlair Ballrooms.
Ali, whose birth name was Cassius Clay, was known as much for his brash and confident personality as he was for his boxing prowess. He was a superstar loved by many and reviled by many more. Some even called him the fifth Beatle.
In 1964, Ali (Cassius Clay at the time) “knocks out” the Beatles. Photograph copyright Charles Trainor.
Beyond his public persona, Ali was interested in spiritual development and social activism. He converted to Islam in 1966. The next year, he was banned from boxing following his conviction for refusing to be drafted into military service in Vietnam. Ali appealed the decision and eventually won the right to box again, but not without a lengthy court battle.
During the three and a half years he was prohibited from fighting, Muhammad Ali spoke at college campuses across the country. His opposition to the Vietnam War made him a popular speaker at universities where anti-Vietnam sentiment was strong. In 1969, he was invited by student leaders to participate in WVU’s Festival of Ideas speaker series.
The Festival was established in 1966-67 by then Student Body President David Hardesty to bring dynamic and provocative speakers to campus. It was held for a few years in the 1960s and then was revived in 1995 during Hardesty’s tenure as University President. The 1969 Festival line-up included a number of high quality speakers in addition to Muhammad Ali. Jazz concerts and clinics were presented by Julian “Cannonball” Adderly and his quintet. Sentator Birch Bayh and Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm were on the agenda. The series also included panel discussions on prison reform and urbanization.
A news brief appeared in the September 18, 1969 issue of the Daily Athenaeum (DA) announcing Ali, Adderly, and Chisholm’s visits. Student Festival organizer Frank Pietranton asserted that the line-up would “bring in contemporary ideas involving the student today.” After the series was announced, negative reactions to Ali’s appearance began to appear in local newspapers as well as WVU President James Harlow’s mailbox.
WVU Faculty Member Stanley Farr had concerns about Ali’s visit and sent this letter to the Morgantown Dominion News. It was published on September 24, 1969.
An anonymous letter to Harlow threatening to withdraw support if Ali was allowed to speak on campus.
Despite the concerns of parents and local citizens, the talk went forward as planned. Michael Hise, a member of the WVU Black Unity Organization, was quoted in the DA just before Ali’s visit: “we think he has something to say to us (Blacks) and the whites on campus.” On November 5, 1969, Muhammad Ali visited the WVU campus. A public luncheon was held at noon and then Ali spoke as a guest lecturer in a sociology course in Music Hall (now Eisland). After his classroom appearance, Ali held an open press conference in the Monongahela Room of the Mountainlair.
Students flock around Ali on University Avenue.
Ali made the most of his visit to Morgantown. He traveled to the coal mining community of Osage to meet with children and adult fans, saying they would have little other chance to meet a celebrity. News reports indicate his visit was a smashing success. That evening, he spoke in the Lair Ballrooms to a large audience. Mountaineer fullback Jim Braxton served as an impromptu sparring partner, so Ali could show off his moves. According to the DA, his talk centered on race issues and the ideology of Elijah Muhammad and his Muslim movement.
The DA recounts Ali’s time in West Virginia.
The following year, Ali’s draft case ruling was overturned by the Supreme Court and he was free to box again. In the 1970s, Ali’s rivalry with Joe Frazier and high profile matches, the Rumble in the Jungle and the Thrilla in Manilla, escalated his fame and cemented his place in popular culture. In 1984, Muhammad Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He has since dedicated much of his time to philanthropy and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005.