'The Greatest' was an icon beyond the world of boxing

GWEN IFILL: This will be a week of remembrance of the great heavyweight champ and humanitarian Muhammad Ali.

His hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, is preparing for a funeral and a public memorial service to be held Friday, as generations across the country assess the enormous scope and reach of Ali's life, a sports icon, but also a social activist and powerful political voice during turbulent times.

Tonight, we focus on one of Ali's boldest decisions.

William Brangham has our conversation.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: That moment was the pivotal time in the late 1960s when Ali was still the heavyweight champion of the world, when he resisted the draft to Vietnam, a court fight he ultimately won after more than three years. But he was stripped of his heavyweight title.

Here's Ali in 1968, talking about his Muslim faith, and the loss of his boxing title.

MUHAMMAD ALI, Boxing Heavyweight Champion: Boxing was only for self-gain, just beating up one of my brothers or somebody else's brother for money.

If I would only deny my faith, if I would only join up against my religion, I could easily go back to making millions. So, I could always say that I turned this down. I didn't lose it. I turned it down. And I go out still with my head high.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: For some perspective on that time in Ali's life, and our evolving perceptions of the man, we're joined by Gerald Early, who edited "The Muhammad Ali Reader." He's a professor of English and African-American studies at Washington University.

So, Gerald Early, I wonder if you could just remind our viewers that this was a time — Ali was at the peak of his powers. He was the heavyweight champion when he took the stance that cost him a great deal.

GERALD EARLY, Washington University in St. Louis: Yes, he was at the peak of his powers as an athlete, as a fighter, but he was also sort of at this time at the peak of his consciousness as a black man.

This stance that he takes coincides with the rise of the black power movement. And Ali has now become, really, in his own way, an icon of that movement. So here was a man who was standing up against the government and here was a man who was saying that he was willing to sacrifice his career and everything to stand up for what he believed in.

So, this was a great moment for inspiration for a particular generation.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: You have written, though, that some of us have misinterpreted Ali's stance against the war. I wonder how so.

GERALD EARLY: Well, I think people misinterpreted the stance against the war because they saw Ali, basically, as if his stance was coming from the left.

Ali was really not a leftist, nor was he ever a civil rights activist. All was — all of this was generated by his faith, and particularly his love of Elijah Muhammad. Elijah Muhammad had gone to jail for not conforming to the draft laws back during World War II. He felt that he could do no less than what his leader was doing in standing up against the draft.

And so all of this was coming out of a religious consciousness, not purely out of a political consciousness, which I think sometimes people misunderstand.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: You said there that you don't think that he was also a civil rights activist, but certainly that has been much of the commentary in the last few days, lionizing his civil rights stance.

GERALD EARLY: Well, that's unfortunate, because those people are wrong.

He belonged to the Nation of Islam. The Nation of Islam wasn't a civil rights organization. In fact, the Nation of Islam disliked the civil rights movement, disliked racial integration, because they were a separatist movement.

And Ali, really, if you go back and you read interviews with Ali during this time and so forth, he criticizes the civil rights movement and he criticizes integration. He just so happens that, at this point in history, he collides with this black activism that is going on at the time, but he is not really part of it.

Being in the Nation of Islam, he's really quite separate from it.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, during those three years when Ali has been kicked out of boxing, what was he doing during that time?

GERALD EARLY: For most of the time, when Ali was not in boxing, during the three-and-a-half years of his exile, he was touring on campuses, giving lectures.

He was very popular on college campuses giving lectures, mostly about his beliefs and his stance against the war. It turned out to be in many ways a very good and broadening experience for him, because he got to meet an entire cohort of his generation that he had not been exposed to, because, one, he hadn't gone to college. He barely had gotten out of high school.

And, two, he was a professional athlete and had really not been exposed to a great deal outside of his training to be a fighter. And it really was part of what you might call the education of Muhammad Ali, or the continuing education of Muhammad Ali in this way.

And I think it greatly affected him in a positive way.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: This Friday, obviously, we're going to see a very big memorial to the man. All the luminaries will come out and speak.

I wonder what you think would be the best tribute for us to hear this coming Friday about Ali.

GERALD EARLY: I know there are going to be a lot of dignitaries and celebrity people who will speak about him.

But I think the best tribute would actually come from the everyday people who were part of his following back when he was at the height of his popularity as an athlete and as a figure in the United States, those people who were inspired by him, who felt that, when they saw what he was doing and was willing to sacrifice because of what he believed in, were inspired by him to believe a little bit more in what they were about, who felt that I, too, could do something for myself because I see what he's doing, it would actually be a tremendous tribute to hear the voices of those people, because, in many ways, Muhammad Ali wasn't just a great athlete or even a great dissident.

In the end, he turned out, in many ways, in how he inspired people to be a great humanitarian.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, Gerald Early, thank you very much.

GERALD EARLY: Thank you.