Early in the boxing career of Cassius Clay, before his Muslim name of Muhammad Ali had gained world-wide acceptance, the suspended heavyweight champion made two appearances in the city of Bridgeport. The first was in 1967, when he burned up the airwaves during a 55 minute stint on a now-extinct radio station WNAB (1450 AM).
The second was a year later when, he returned to speak at the oldest black church in Bridgeport. During both of those stopovers in the city, his heavyweight crown was under suspension by the World Boxing Association (WBA), and he was not allowed to fight. More importantly, he was under a federal indictment (eventually overturned by the Supreme Court) for not reporting for the military draft. But those two obstacles did not prevent Ali from voicing his controversial views for which he was becoming synonymous.
The talk show star
Six police officers and two detectives scrutinized a crowd of about 100, on Sep, 4, 1967, milling about the building at East Washington and Noble Avenues, where WNAB’s studios were located. The station has long since disappeared, but its personalities and shows are still remembered by many of its surviving listeners.
The name of the program that gave Ali an unrestricted opportunity to address a Connecticut audience was “Sounding Board,” and he did just that—-sounded off. What he said then was surely more inflammatory than if it were spoken today, and we can well imagine how the listeners may have been shocked at what they were hearing. It was a credit to the WNAB management and the hosts for allowing Ali to speak his views during a time in history when blacks were still called ‘negroes’ and the civil rights movement was in its infancy.
The panel of hosts that WNAB provided that day consisted of popular area radio personalities. Best known perhaps was Tiny Markle, who had gone from being a famous New Haven disc jockey at WAVZ to a talk show host in Bridgeport. He was also to be, for several years, Dick Galiette’s color announcer on Yale football broadcasts. Others on the panel that gave Ali his cues were Bridgeport radio fixtures Ray Carroll and Irene Anderson.
No tapes are apparently available of the broadcast, but judging from a report in the Bridgeport Post (“Cassius Visits in City, Gives His Racial Views,” Sept. 5, 1967), it appeares to have been a lively session. The paper’s review of the program gave an indication of how outspoken Ali was, even at the age of 25.
He said on the air that the Muslims did not believe in “sitting in … shouting and lootin” but in “brotherly love.” He referred to Elijah Muhammad, the Muslim leader in this country, as a “messenger of God” and compared him to Moses and Jesus.
On a personal level he defended his stance on rejecting the draft. “My conscience just won’t let me,” he said. “I am happy and proud to serve my religion.”
Gave up “the prettiest Negro woman”
Because of his conversion to Islam, he said he had given up “the prettiest Negro woman in America, as well as the money he would earn in boxing, movies and endorsements. “I don’t regret nothing as long as I stand up for Muhammad,” he told the radio listeners.
Things got testy when a caller questioned his opposition to military service. He replied, “You have no right to ask no Negro to go to war.”
Compared himself to George Hamilton and Joe Namath
Then he mentioned the actor George Hamilton and pro football’s Joe Namath, both white, and who both received draft deferments during the Vietnam War. He asked, “Why don’t you raise hell over these people?”
Squeezing a lot into the 55 minutes, Ali referred to himself as a slave. “It just makes me mad to see white people attack a slave.”
He affirmed that “I participate in no war. I serve Allah. I haven’t gone to Canada or burned my draft card,” referring to the practice of many so-called draft-dodgers.
Not like militants Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael
Two names that came up during the broadcast were the leading Black militants “Rap” Brown and Stokely Carmichael. “These are all our brothers who are fighting for the same thing,” he said, but pointed out that he could not agree with their methods.
“I don’t believe violence, shooting and lootin’ are the solutions,” he stated.
As for going back into the ring, Ali said that after the WBA had stripped him of his title, boxing was “dead” because he was the only one who could draw huge crowds.
When the radio show was over, Ali left the studio and many in the crowd outside called out to him as “champ.” He corrected them. “Don’t you read the papers? I’m not the champ.”
His final act in Bridgeport that day, before entering a car which would take him to a mosque in New Haven, was to sign autographs. Today those autographs, if any could be found, are probably worth their weight in gold.
Muhammad Ali did not say anything on the Bridgeport radio show that he had not expressed in the past or would in the future. But it was the first time he had done so in a public forum here in Connecticut, and because it happened on a now non-existent Bridgeport radio station, we take note of it on SportzEdge as another chapter in the history of this state.
A year later, back in Bridgeport
In March of 1968 Muhammad Ali was a guest at the Walters Memorial AME Zion Church, the oldest black church in Bridgeport, which, was founded in 1835, ironically by former slaves. It still exists at 12 Gregory Street. After he died this year (June 3rd), writer Brian Koonz of the Bridgeport Post researched the archives of the paper, which revealed that Ali arrived at the Church looking “neat in a dark blue suit and manicure.”
He was invited by the pastor, Charles R. Gordon, who was also president of the Bridgeport—Stratford chapter of the NAACP.
Rev. Gordon pointed out that when Ali came to the church “everyone was frisked. You had some people who were so excited that he was coming. But there were other people who . . . didn’t like him because of his religion and. . . thought of him as a traitor.”
During a press conference next door to the church, Ali spoke in what the Post said was a “solemn” tone.
He said he supported moves by Negro (again using the word of the times) athletes to urge others not to represent the United States in future Olympic Games and minimized athletic and military medals.
Despite the medal, still a “n—-”
“I have a gold medal (from the 1960 Olympics). It doesn’t mean anything. You are still a n—- when you go home.”
His conviction for draft evasion was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in June 1971. He went back to the ring and made more boxing history.
Right after Ali died, Brian Koonz located Cathy Gordon, now living in Ohio, who was one of the pastor’s two daughters. “I was only 11 years old, but I remember that visit so well, she told the writer. “I’ll never forget that day. I’m 59 years old now. I just retired as a teacher. It was such a different era. My mom passed away six months ago, and now, him. This really stirred up a lot of good memories. He was just a larger-than-life person. Even though his religion was not ours, we did not make a big to-do about it.”
Ali was playful at times
One of her memories was a bit of play acting that Ali engaged in with the two sisters. “He got down to our level so he could see us, my sister (Joan) and me,” Cathy Gordon remembers. He was shadow-boxing with me. I kinda laughed and did the same thing back to him. He told me, ‘You’re going to be on TV all over the world.’”
And on his way to the neighboring church after a 45-minute press conference, Ali noticed a table of snacks in an adjoining room. He wondered aloud to the Rev. Gordon whether the meat on the table was ham — a food banned by Islamic tradition. Rev. Gordon replied that the meat was lamb.”
“Lamb and not ham,” reflected Ali aloud, this time grinning, according to the Post.
Goodbye to Bridgegport
He was in Bridgeport at least on these two occasions and each time provided some lighter moments in the midst of seriousness. After the radio show on WNAB, he signed autographs. A year later, at the reception before entering the church, he made a joke about the sound-alike words lamb and ham. But he did more than that.
Muhammad Ali left a permanent mark on the Bridgeport community, just as he would do everywhere in the rest of the world where he would go.
Muhammed Ali was in the Park City once again in 1971, when he spoke to an audience of mostly college students at the University of Bridgeport. His appearance there will be the subject of another article.