SJSU Alumnus Harry Edwards Reflects on Muhammad Ali’s Legacy

Harry Edwards in May 2016 at the Smith/Carlos sculpture on the grounds of San Jose State University (David Schmitz photo).

Harry Edwards in May 2016 at the Smith/Carlos sculpture on the grounds of San Jose State University (David Schmitz photo).

The following statement should be attributed to pioneering sports sociologist and human rights leader Harry Edwards, ’64 Sociology:

I first met Muhammad Ali just before my freshman year at San Jose State. Ali —
then Cassius Clay — was training for the 1960 Rome Olympics at San Jose State in the summer of that year. The boxing coach was Julie Menendez, who was the boxing coach at San Jose State as well. Both Julie and I were from East St. Louis, Ill., and he invited me over to meet some of the boxers — especially the younger ones (Ali was born in January of 1942; I in November of that same year).

Julie warned me that he couldn’t “stop Clay from talking,” and he was right. I thought at the time that “Clay” was “nuts.” Of course he wasn’t nuts, just brashly, wonderfully unique and iconoclastic, especially for a “Negro” athlete in those times. There was no way that I could’ve anticipated that our paths would intersect as they have over the years or the auspices under which that would happen.

It is only when a GIANT passes from among us, and we stand blinking and rubbing our eyes in the glaring reality of our loss, that we come truly to appreciate the extent to which we all have really been just living in his shadow. So it is with Muhammad Ali: He was an athlete of unparalleled brilliance, beauty, and bravado at a time when black athletes (other than the Harlem Globetrotters) were expected to be seen, not heard — silent, self-effacing “producers,” not loquacious, verbose entertaining performers in the arena.

In popular culture, he almost single-handedly deepened our understanding of  “religious freedom” as something more than an American “historical and political cliche.” He influenced people from the most powerful (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, for example) to the most naive college students and “draft vulnerable” youths in the community to rethink their positions on the issue of “war and peace.”

He was the model for generations of athletes on questions of the political relevance of sports and athletes’ activist potential and involvement in political causes, from the Olympic Project for Human Rights in 1968 to the threatened boycott by the University of Missouri black football players in support of University of Missouri students protesting racism on campus in 2015.

He taught us all by word and example that there can be no “for sale” sign, no “price tag” on principles, human dignity, and freedom, among so many of his other contributions. “THE GREATEST?” Compared to who? Compared to what, of his era or any other? “The Greatest” doesn’t begin to truly capture the magnitude and measure of his broad scope, contributions and legacy.

He stood astride the last four decades of the 20th Century like a statuesque athlete colossus, the most recognizable human face on Earth, one foot firmly planted in the sports arena, the other in the world beyond, eventually dwarfing us all in both spheres. His athletic brilliance long since faded, now his very physical presence among us will be missed, but his spirit of principled courage, commitment, and sacrifice will always be with us because it has so penetrated our visions of who we are as a people and impacted our standards of what we should and could become as a society.

It was a blessing and a profound privilege to have known him. WELL DONE, CHAMP, AND GODSPEED, MY BROTHER!