Muhammad Ali and activism at the U

The famous boxer spoke at the U following the 1969 Morill Hall takeover.

Hattie Webb, a University alumni stands in front of Northrop Auditorium on June 12, the place she met and was asked to dinner by Muhammad Ali. 
Ali's interest in the University grew after Webb and a group of black students held a sit-down in Morrill Hall in 1969 in an effort to talk to the university president about discrimination.

Zach Bielinski

Hattie Webb, a University alumni stands in front of Northrop Auditorium on June 12, the place she met and was asked to dinner by Muhammad Ali. Ali’s interest in the University grew after Webb and a group of black students held a sit-down in Morrill Hall in 1969 in an effort to talk to the university president about discrimination.

Aaron Job

As many mourned the passing of Muhammad Ali last week, a University of Minnesota student from the 1960s looked back with admiration on the role his humanitarian efforts played in their activism. 

The late 1960s saw protests and demonstrations ripple across the nation’s campuses. At the University, seven members of the Afro-American Action Committee occupied the University’s administrative headquarters, Morrill Hall, on Jan. 14, 1969. The group presented then-University President Malcolm Moos a set of demands to improve racial disparities on campus.

By the end of the 24-hour sit-in, the group swelled to about 60 students, and the University pledged to meet an altered version of their demands. 

“They told us we’d get money [for the black conference], but we haven’t received it. We want to know why they lied to us. We’re just gonna have to hold that cat [Moos] until he drops some coins,” Rose Mary Freeman, then-president of the AAAC, told the Daily in 1969.

The students’ activism garnered the draft-refusing boxing champion’s attention and approval. Nearly a month after the protests, Muhammad Ali spoke at the school’s Black Conference. 

His speech left a lasting impact on many of the student activists protesting both for civil ights and against the war in Vietnam, including Hattie Webb — one of the seven students who initiated the sit-in.

Ali at the University

Ali was impressed by the students’ ability to accomplish so much with so little, Webb said. 

“We were very young, in our late teens and early twenties,” she said. “The only way to change things is to take a stand, which is why Ali was so impressed with us — because there were just a few of us in a predominantly white state, white town and white college that we had the courage to do what we did.”

The following month, Ali gave a one-hour speech kicking off the University’s “black conference.” The Daily reported that Ali spoke to an audience of about 500 about “the ideas of black Muslims.” Ali maintained a serious appearance, far from his boastful boxing persona, the Daily noted.

“He didn’t come to Minnesota as a boxer, ‘I’m Ali, and I’m big time,’ or all that kind of stuff,” Webb, who also reported for the Daily at the time, said. “He came here as a humanitarian. He came here to give support to black students for what we had done and what we continue to do and continue to fight.”

During the speech, two young black men flanked Ali at the podium, and about a half-dozen others stood along the front of the Northrop stage. Some were dressed in blue denim coats, jeans and black berets, the Daily reported. 

Ali described the racial conflict in the United States as snowballing and said black people are conditioned by white society “to unconsciously hate ourselves.”

“We’re up 100 years from slavery,” Ali said during the speech. “We blacks in America have one common enemy — white America. Black and white [will] never get along because they are two opposites.”

Ali then highlighted that he didn’t condone violence or personal hatred of white people. 

“Not that I literally hate white people. It’s just natures that won’t integrate. … We are not hate teachers; we [are] Muslims.”

Race on campus in the ’60s

As a resident of Hinckley, Minn., her entire life, Webb said she was already familiar with the discrimination she felt during her freshman year at the University. 

“There wasn’t very many black students. I think 100 total, and that included the football and basketball players,” Webb said. “We were a very close bunch. We all knew each other. We sort of became like a family.” 

Webb said she felt at home with the AAAC, and participating in the Morrill Hall takeover was a step toward better understanding the country’s ongoing civil rights issues.   

“We made national news; we made the Walter Cronkite evening news,” Webb said. “Here we were, just a few black students at a time when most people didn’t even know there were black people in Minnesota.”

Webb said not everyone supported the demonstrations. Several student groups protested their occupation, and some professors condemned their actions. 

“If you look at the old pictures from that time, [police] all had their rifles pointed at Morrill Hall. And that was during the days when students were being killed,” Webb said. “There were a couple of black teachers there who were, even to this day, very unhappy with what we did.”

To remove the black students from the building, all 50 University of Minnesota Police Department officers and at least 300 Minneapolis Police Department policemen would’ve been needed, Moos estimated, according to a a Jan. 21, 1969, Minnesota Daily article.

At the time, Moos told the Daily he thought the agreement created new avenues for the University to communicate with minority groups and represented a “long stride forward in community understanding.”

Dinner with Ali 

Webb, whose brother was deployed in Vietnam, said she had hoped to hear Ali’s stance on the war and his decision to dodge the draft. So when he approached her after the speech, she took the opportunity to get to know him. 

 “When he was done speaking … he was walking around shaking hands,” Webb said. “And he just walked up to me and asked, ‘Can I take you to dinner?’ And I said, ‘Me?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, you,’ and I said, ‘Sure.’”

Webb said she was raised on boxing; her father was a boxer in the army during World War II, and the sport was influential to her and her brother. 

When they got to Ali’s hotel restaurant in downtown Minneapolis, Ali told her to order what she wanted, Webb said. 

She said she ordered pork, not knowing Muslims didn’t eat pork. 

Webb said Ali was furious and said, “What? I ain’t paying for no pork,” and asked the waitress to bring her chicken instead. He then gave her a five minute lecture on the “evils of pork,” Webb said.  

Webb said she confided in Ali her feelings on the war and her concerns about her brother. 

“That’s where my mind was. I was naive, and I was desperate and afraid. He really supported and put a validation on my feelings about the war,” she said. “I think he was the first and only person who ever did at that time.”

Webb said Ali gave her his Chicago phone number so that she could keep him updated on her brother’s status. 

“My brother was so impressed with that,” she said.

Webb’s brother was killed in Vietnam on April 11, 1969.

Webb called Ali, who expressed his sympathies and sent a telegram to her parents. 

“It was a short period of time in my life — just three months — from the time we had the takeover to the time he came to when my brother died. … [Ali] was really my only support system; nobody else really understood,” she said. 

Webb said she thinks she was in the right place at the right time, and she’s grateful to have met and connected with Ali at the level she did. 

“All the stories people were telling, you know, that’s how he was,” she said. “That little bit of time he gave me, just talking about the war, he could’ve just brushed it off. But that’s not who he was. It seemed like in that short period of time, I saw the man, the humanitarian, the ambassador within him.”