MINNEAPOLIS — Although the U.S. government praised the legacy of the late Muhammad Ali, it also placed him under surveillance for his outspoken resistance to U.S. imperialism and institutional racism.
As the world mourns a man that many consider one of the greatest and most influential sports figures of all time, the president and other current and former government officials were eager to memorialize Ali.
Ali was “not just as skilled a poet on the mic as he was a fighter in the ring, but a man who fought for what was right,” President Barack Obama said in a June 4 statement.
“Later, as his physical powers ebbed, he became an even more powerful force for peace and reconciliation around the world,” he added.
An Olympic gold medal-winning boxer, Ali won the world heavyweight boxing title on three separate occasions. But his actions outside the ring as an activist for equal rights for oppressed minorities and an opponent of U.S. imperialism brought him as much or even more fame and notoriety. He was arrested in 1967 for resisting the Vietnam War draft, resulting in a lengthy legal battle and the suspension of his boxing license during three of the peak years of his career.
Ali famously spoke out against what he saw as the racist origins of the Vietnam War and U.S. empire-building, saying in 1967:
”Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over.”
Ali also opposed the U.S.-backed oppression of Palestinians by Israel.
Although widely regarded as an inspirational American sports legend, the U.S. government monitored Ali as it did so many other critics of foreign and domestic policy, treating him much like it has treated suspected enemies of the state.
In 1971, a group of activists called the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, taking advantage of the excitement over Ali’s fight with Joe Frazier to provide cover for their operation.
The files they stole revealed that the FBI was keeping tabs on Ali, among many other famous personalities, in what Betty Medsger, writing for The Intercept on Monday, called “poetic justice”:
“As more and more secret FBI files became public as a result of the break-in, it was revealed that the FBI had kept tabs on Ali, beginning with its investigation of his Selective Service case. Some of his phone conversations were tapped, and FBI informers gained access to, of all things, his elementary school records in Louisville (teachers said little Cassius Clay, his original name, loved art). Informers also had diligently monitored and typed, word for word, what Ali said on his appearances on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.”
Formerly top secret documents revealed in 2013 by a lawsuit also showed that Ali was monitored on an NSA watchlist which included journalists and other racial justice activists like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“The surveillance was justified as necessary to identify ‘domestic terrorist and foreign radical suspects,’” Slate’s Ryan Gallagher reported. “But it appears to have been directed primarily at eavesdropping on government critics—opponents of the Vietnam War, for instance, such as Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho, Whitney Young, and Muhammad Ali.”
As news of Ali’s death spread this week, WikiLeaks shared its own contribution to the discussion:
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) June 4, 2016
WikiLeaks archives — in particular, its Public Library of U.S. Diplomacy, a collection of decades of cables from U.S. embassies and ambassadors — show the government closely monitored Ali’s travel to places like the Soviet Union and Bangladesh. And WikiLeaks’ archive of Hillary Clinton’s private email server also shows that Ali’s actions sometimes coincided with U.S. government interests, such as when he interceded on behalf of a group of hikers imprisoned in Iran.
The most shocking details may be forthcoming. Because his death means his entire FBI file could soon be released to the public, it’s likely that more information about government surveillance of “The Greatest of All Time” will soon come to light:
Muhammad Ali being arrested for resisting the draft, 1967. His FBI file will make interesting reading. pic.twitter.com/ZPSsAFNMac
— Matthew Sweet (@DrMatthewSweet) June 4, 2016
Watch “John Legend Reads Muhammad Ali’s 1966 Antiwar Speech: ‘The Real Enemy of My People is Right Here’” from Democracy Now!: