Former world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali visited Pine Bluff in 1990, serving as the Honorary Grand Marshall of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff’s Homecoming Parade.
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In November 1990, Muhammad Ali, the former world heavyweight champion, was the Honorary Grand Marshall of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff’s Homecoming Parade. According to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Ali spent two days in Arkansas. In 2016, shortly after his death many former university staff members remembered Ali’s historic visit to the UAPB campus.
The fanfare surrounding Ali’s visit began the moment he stepped off the airplane at the Little Rock airport. In a November 10, 1990 article by the Pine Bluff Commercial, the former Chancellor Dr. Charles Walker was awestruck by Ali's response to the large crowd that welcomed him at the airport.
According to Dr. Carolyn Blakely, former UAPB Chancellor and Chancellor’s assistant during his visit, Ali's presence shook the university as word of his visit quickly spread across campus. She stated that, “Students, faculty, and staff came from everywhere. We finally assembled very informally in the lobby of the student union building. He was delighted. He was so warm and personable. He was so approachable, it was amazing." He stated that, “I thought he would never leave [the airport] because the people just kept coming to see him. He shook hands, took pictures and talked to just about everyone that approached him. He is a class individual.”
Ali spoke to students for a few hours at the L.A. Davis, Sr. Student Union. Dr. Carolyn Blakely remembered Ali being very talkative and cordial as he interacted with the students. She recalled him bragging about an illusion he could do. Blakely said, “He could make himself seem like he could walk on air. He enjoyed doing that for us and the students.”
During his visit, Ali also visited Golden Gloves Boxing Club in Little Rock to speak to kids. Ray Rodgers, a former Arkansas boxing legend and well-known cut-man was the head of the Golden Gloves Boxing Club at the time.
According to Victor Bender, a 1967 AM&N (now UAPB) alumnus and close friend of Ali, Ali enjoyed being in the parade downtown and was very complimentary of his experience at UAPB.
In 1967, Ali had refused to be drafted into the U.S. and was immediately stripped of his heavyweight title. He soon began making his living by lecturing on the college circuit. Ali’s 1990 visit wasn’t his first time in Arkansas.
In 1969, he spoke at the University of Arkansas Symposium. During that visit, Ali was not as welcomed or as celebrated but caused quite a bit of controversy. Senators Guy H. ‘Mutt’ Jones, Dan T. Sprick and Milt Earnhart openly opposed Ali speaking at the university because they believed him to be unpatriotic and in league with the communists after his draft refusal. Conversely, Senators W. D. ‘Bill’ Moore, and Jim Caldwell and UA president David Mullins believed that Ali had just as much right as anyone else to speak on campus. Ali spoke at the Symposium in favor of racial separatism and segregationist Governor George Wallace. He also expressed his Nation of Islam beliefs and their desire to set up an independent African American state.
Written by: Ninfa O. Barnard