By Kenneth Brown
“He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.”–Muhammad Ali
Visit of Muhammad Ali to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of History and Technology, now the National Museum of American History, March 17, 1976. During his visit he donated a pair of gloves and a robe to the museum for the “Nations of Nations” exhibition. Featured in TORCH, April 1976/Smithsonian Institution Archives. Click photo for article. (Photo by Richard K. Hofmeister)
Risk taker, sports figure and fearless social icon, Muhammad Ali, who died on June 4, is ever alive in the hearts of those who know him as the greatest boxer of the 20th century. His quotes and observations, like the one above, are legion. A quote by Shakespeare “To thine own self be true,” fits him well. The path he choose not only immortalized him to sports fans but endeared him to the general public. It was a path that led through the Smithsonian.
In 1976 the Smithsonian acquired Ali’s boxing gloves and robe for an exhibition on the American Bicentennial,”A Nation of Nations.”
In 1976 the Smithsonian acquired Ali’s boxing gloves and robe for an exhibition on the American Bicentennial, “A Nation of Nations.” At the donation ceremony, before a crowd of reporters and cheering spectators, Ali predicted that his Everlast gloves would become “the most famous thing in this building.”
The Smithsonian’s Ali objects artifacts and portraits are a testament to Ali’s life. Muhammad Ali rose from humble beginnings to become one of the most famous men in the world. Ali’s complexity matched the spirit of the tumultuous 1960s. He was at once a boxing titan, a civil rights warrior, an anti-war protester, and a charismatic celebrity.
Over the years the National Portrait Gallery, the National Postal Museum, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Museum of African American History and Culture have collected images and memorabilia of the boxer.
On the Portrait Gallery’s third-floor mezzanine is a 1981 painting of Ali from the museum’s permanent collection, “Cat’s Cradle,” by Henry C. Casselli, Jr.
Muhammad Ali by Henry C. Casselli, Jr. Oil on canvas, 1981 (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of the Sig Rogich Family Trust)
As a tribute to the man on the day of his passing, the Portrait Gallery installed a likeness that makes a statement about Ali the man. The boxer’s image, taken by photographer Yousuf Karsh in 1970, can be found near the north entrance on the first floor.
Muhammad Ali, by Yousuf Karsh, gelatin silver print, 1970. (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Estrellita Karsh in memory of Yousuf Karsh / © Estate of Yousuf Karsh)
The charismatic Ali appeared on television, in commercials, and in a film about his life, and he used his worldwide fame for humanitarian efforts as well. Much more than an outstanding boxer, the media star became a symbol of courage, independence, and determination.
A few of many Muhammad Ali-related images and items at the Smithsonia include:
Everlast boxing headgear worn by Muhammad Ali from Dundee’s 5th St. Gym in Miami Beach, Fla. It was in this gym and the surrounding neighborhood with its vibrant mix of racial, political and cultural identities, some have argued, that Cassius Clay took his first crucial steps to becoming Muhammad Ali. Click photo for video. (National Museum of African American History and Culture)
Corner stool from Dundee’s 5th St. Gym, ca. 1973, used by Muhammad Ali. Unidentified Maker. It was in this gym and the surrounding neighborhood with its vibrant mix of racial, political and cultural identities, some have argued, that Cassius Clay took his first crucial steps to becoming Muhammad Ali. (National Museum of African American History and Culture)
Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay), Unidentified artist. Gelatin silver print. (Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Kenneth B. Pearl)
Doug Jones and Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay) sparring in ring 1963 by unidentified photographer. Gelatin silver print. (Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Kenneth B. Pearl)
Document listing physical measurements for Sonny Liston and Cassius Clay, from fight press kit, Feb. 1964. Dundee-MacDonald Enterprises, Inc.Dundee’s 5th St. Gym. (National Museum of African American History and Culture)
Muhammad Ali by unidentified artist. Color photolithographic poster, 1977. (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Chisholm Larsson Gallery, New York City)
Did Muhammad Ali Throw His Gold Medal into the Ohio River? Is it true that boxing legend Muhammad Ali threw his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio River out of frustration after a racist encounter? A childhood friend weighs in on a story that has become part of the champion’s lore. Click here for Smithsonian Channel video.
Muhammad Ali’s brother on Racism and the Medal Myth. Still fresh from his Olympic win, boxing legend Muhammad Ali was, incredibly, turned away from a restaurant in his hometown that didn’t serve African Americans. The champ’s own brother recalls that fateful day. Click here for Smithsonian Channel video.