It’s a scene that doesn’t fit with our memories of Ali, but one that reflects the complexity of his years in the public eye and his complicated politics.
Celebrity endorsements happen all the time, of course, and a legendary black athlete supporting a Republican wasn’t unique. Jackie Robinson was a high-profile Republican until he broke with the party over its nominations of Sen. Barry Goldwater in 1964 and former vice president Richard Nixon in 1968. In 1984, heavyweight boxing champions Floyd Patterson and Joe Frazier also publicly declared their support for President Reagan.
But Ali’s endorsement was remarkable because of who he was and what he represented. His radicalism. His unapologetic blackness. His athletic dominance. His embrace of Islam and his relationship with Malcolm X. His unwavering belief in justice for his people and all people — he was first known as an activist for his stand against the Vietnam War, which lead to a conviction (later overturned by the Supreme Court) for draft evasion. He was, as Walter Mosley writes, “sweat and bone, blood and pain,” a man who transformed the world with “sweat and strain.”
Ali, writes the Nation’s Dave Zirin, also earned the “hatred of the mainstream press and the right wing of this country,” while making him a “target of liberals in the media as well as the mainstream civil rights movement.” Among Ali’s conservative critics during the civil rights era was Reagan. In 1970, then-Governor Reagan shot down an attempt to reinstate Ali’s California boxing license — revoked after he refused to register for the draft. “Forget it. That draft-dodger will never fight in my state,” Reagan warned.
Two years later, in a chance encounter with Ali’s promoter Harold Conrad, Reagan had seemingly (or conveniently) forgotten. “He’s marvelous, that Ali,” Reagan said, apparently oblivious to the way his prior comments had contributed to Ali being robbed of years of his professional career. Ali didn’t forget. During the 1980 presidential campaign he coolly rebuffed Reagan’s attempts to woo his support, electing, instead, to endorse Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter for president and leading “Athletes for Carter.” Carter won 83 percent of the black vote in 1980, so Ali’s support wasn’t particularly shocking. And, Ali explained, “I’m just naturally for President Carter because he truly and deeply believes in God,” a refrain akin to the school-prayer rationale, given four years later, for backing Reagan.
One writer mused that Ali inserting himself this way in party politics was emblematic of a kind of “revived patriotism” — a stance, presumably, that he viewed as an ideological turnaround from Ali’s prior activism — even characterizing Ali’s political transformation to that of “a good anti-Communist Muslim” in the context of his backing of Carter’s proposed boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
By 1984, though, Ali was a different man. His doctors acknowledged that he had been taking stabilizing medication for years, masking the mental and physical symptoms of Parkinson’s before his diagnosis was made public. He was no longer a member of the Nation of Islam, having followed Elijah Muhammad’s son, W. Deen Muhammad, in his conversion to Sunni Islam. Then there was the Reagan endorsement.
Ali didn’t set out to endorse Reagan in 1984. He originally supported Rev. Jesse Jackson. When Jackson lost the Democratic nomination, Ali abruptly switched his political allegiance. “If a black man was running,” Ali explained, that’s the candidate he would have endorsed. But he didn’t see much difference in the remaining presidential contenders. “I don’t know nothing about him,” Ali responded when asked about the Democratic nominee, former vice president Walter Mondale. Pressed by a reporter to explain how Reagan’s social and civil rights platforms compared to Mondale’s agendas, Ali replied that all politicians “cut social programs” and “made commitments that they never really fulfill.” Closing out the endorsement presser, Ali added a final twist, confessing that the white candidates “all looked alike to me.” He paused, appearing to listen intently as his handler whispered in his ear. “Wallace Muhammad, the leader of all Muslims,” he softly stated, “says Reagan is our man.”
Reagan’s campaign capitalized. As Reagan adviser Ed Rollins recalls, the campaign erected billboards in black neighborhoods depicting Reagan playfully sparring with a smiling Ali, with Frazier and Patterson in the background as the phrase “We’re Voting for the Man!” hung above their heads. It was “sort of an ‘America loves a champion’ moment.” True, as long as he or she is benign enough for a mainstream audience. As historian Michael Ezra describes in his academic research and in his book, “Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon,” Ali gained currency as a safe pop cultural figure at a moment when he was clearly showing the effects of Parkinson’s, not able to express himself forcefully, as he once did, when he was no longer a member of the Nation of Islam and no longer “posed the threat that he did during the 1960s.” Republican strategists organized around Ali, despite publicly and privately admitting that he demonstrated serious signs of confusion. They hoped his image would help make Reagan more attractive to black voters, resolving that they would take “what they can get” in black communities.
They didn’t get very much.
African Americans were, for the most part, appalled. Some simply ignored the announcement, separating their respect for Ali from their disdain for Reagan, whose approval rating among black Americans stood at 18 percent. Others attributed Ali’s political shift to physical and mental deterioration. The New York Amsterdam News reported that in Los Angeles, people were beginning to conclude that the “former heavyweight champ is losing his mental marbles,” while syndicated columnist Carl Rowan asked, “Is this evidence enough that brain-brutal boxing must be banned?” Jesse Jackson argued that Parkinson’s was to blame. “He’s not thinking very fast these days. He’s a little punch drunk.” Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young was reportedly so distressed by the announcement that he flew from Atlanta to Los Angeles to plead with Ali to withdraw his endorsement. “I don’t know why he’s doing it, but it makes me feel bad,” said activist Julian Bond. “Ronald Reagan and George Bush have been tragedies for black Americans. … I’d love to sit down with Ali and discuss it. I wish I could say to him, ‘Listen, don’t do that.’ ”
In the end, Reagan received only 9 percent of the black vote in 1984, a decrease from the 14 percent that he had won four years earlier. By some accounts, Ali would later blame his controversial decision to endorse Reagan on bad advice.
Ali’s endorsement of Reagan reflects, in part, black Muslims’ occasional overlap with the GOP and the conservative movement on the role of religion in public life. In this case, though, Republicans, principally, were willing and able to use Ali’s stature in the black community to promote an incumbent president who was particularly unpopular with black voters. Ali’s support for Reagan didn’t reflect his broader legacy. But as Americans reflect on the complicated truth of Ali’s politics, it’s worth remembering, as Ebony did, “the truth about Ali has been about as elusive as he was inside the ring.”