Five years of lobbying comes to fruition on September 1, 2001, as the U.S. Postal Service releases the first American stamp celebrating Muslim holidays. A blue stamp featuring gold calligraphy celebrating Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, along with the English words “EID GREETINGS,” the stamp is included alongside stamps celebrating other religious holidays, a victory for Muslim representation in America.
For years, many American Muslims pushed for the creation of a holiday stamp of their own, arguing that their two holiest days (Eid al-Fitr marks the end of Ramadan fasting, while Eid al-Adha marks the culmination of the haj) deserved the same level of recognition as Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. After a letter-writing campaign in which more than 5,000 Muslim children sent messages to the Postmaster General, the Postal Service announced the new stamp in August of 2021. Calligrapher Mohamed Zakariya designed the stamp, which was released as part of the Postal Service’s “Holiday Celebration Series.”
The Eid stamp would receive unwelcome attention, due largely to the 9/11 attacks which took place just ten days after its release. In the wake of the attacks and the subsequent wave of anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States, activists lobbied to make the stamp permanent, symbolizing the right of American Muslims to live peacefully and on equal footing with their fellow Americans. The stamp was reissued in October of 2001 and many times after that—its re-issuing in 2009 sparked rumors among right-wing reactionaries that new President Barack Obama, whom many falsely believed to be Muslim, had ordered its creation. Despite the unfortunate coincidence of its original release, the stamp is a mainstay of the U.S. Postal Service’s holiday series, and an updated version is currently available as a Forever stamp.
American runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos ascend the podium to receive the gold and bronze medals for the men’s 200-meter race at the Mexico City Olympics on October 16, 1968. Once their medals have been placed around their necks, as the American flag is raised and “The Star-Spangled Banner” begins to play over the loudspeakers, Smith and Jones each raise a fist in the Black Power salute, one of the most famous moments of political speech in the history of the Olympics, and of American sport.
The photo of Smith and Carlos with their fists raised on the podium caused a media sensation and remains one of the most iconic images of 20th century sports. But far from a singular incident, their protest was one of a series of antiracist actions undertaken by Black athletes that year. Smith and Carlos were both active in the Olympic Project for Human Rights, a program of boycotts and protests that was largely the brainchild of San Jose State sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards. The OPHR sought to use sports, specifically the Olympics and related events, to expose the myriad ways in which Black athletes were exploited and mistreated.
Formed by Edwards and a group of college athletes, many of whom were in contention for the next summer’s Olympics, the OPHR first made headlines when Black football players at San Jose State threatened not to play the opening game of the season unless the school addressed the systemic racism that Black students faced on campus and in the community. SJSU’s president preemptively cancelled the game, but quickly acceded to many of the players’ demands. Just a few months later, in February of 1968, OPHR members led by Smith and sprinter Lee Evans launched a boycott of the New York Athletic Club’s annual indoor track meet that included over 100 Black athletes, including many future Olympians. The boycott of NYAC, which barred Puerto Ricans, Jews and African Americans from membership, drew further media attention to the OPHR’s cause and led to large protests outside of Madison Square Garden, where the meet was held.
OPHR’s original goal was a Black boycott of the Olympics themselves. Among other institutional issues, activists pointed to the overt anti-Semitism of Avery Brundage, president of the International Olympic Committee, and his attempt to bring apartheid South Africa to the games, which drew threats of a boycott from Black athletes and African nations. Still, many athletes felt they simply could not pass up the opportunity to compete at the Olympics.
The 1968 Olympics were destined to be politically charged, beginning just a few months after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and immediately preceded by a horrendous massacre of hundreds student activists—the exact number remains unknown—by the Mexican government in Tlatelolco Plaza. Against this backdrop, and after a year of strident athlete activism and some progress, Smith and Carlos felt compelled to raise their fists on the podium. Carlos wore black socks with no shoes in recognition of Black poverty, and a beaded necklace to protest lynching. He and Smith shared a pair of black gloves (hence Smith raised his right hand, Carlos his left) while Peter Norman, the Australian who had taken silver, wore an OPHR pin in solidarity with them. Smith and Carlos’ actions were met with boos, and they were vilified by the American press—broadcaster Brent Musburger, then a writer for the Chicago American, called them “a couple of black-skinned storm troopers”—as well as the IOC, which expelled them from the Games.
Smith and Carlos went on to successful careers as athletes and speakers, and continued their activism. “It was a cry for freedom and for human rights,” Smith later said of the protest. “We had to be seen because we couldn’t be heard.”
An enormous crowd consisting mostly of African American men demonstrates on the National Mall on October 16, 1995, an event known as the Million Man March. Driven by their desire to see Congress act in the interests of African Americans, and to combat negative stereotypes of Black men, a disputed but undeniably high number of attendees converge for over 12 hours of speeches by leaders from many different corners of the civil rights movement.
The Million Man March was the brainchild of Louis Farrakahn, leader of the Nation of Islam, and was organized by the National African American Leadership Summit and a number of other groups. The march was largely a response to the politics of the time—with a Republican-controlled Congress and a conservative-leaning Democratic president, Bill Clinton, Washington was gripped by a desire to lower taxes and cut government spending on education, housing and social programs. Organizers also expressed a desire to change the public’s image of African American men in response to high-profile scandals like the O.J. Simpson trial and Mike Tyson’s rape conviction, arguing that Black men were often treated by the government and media as “sacrificial lambs” for the sins of all American men.
The event began with a Muslim call to prayer and a Christian invocation. Attendees took in speeches and performances by representatives from Africa and the Caribbean, a number of Christian ministers and other figures such as Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King III, Maya Angelou, Dr. Cornel West and many more in a program that lasted more than 12 hours. Speakers and attendees emphasized responsibility, with the crowd taking a pledge to support their families, refrain from abusive behavior toward women and children, and renounce violence except in self-defense, in addition to building up Black businesses and institutions in their communities. Some critics took issue with this aspect of the march, arguing that it amounted to a performance of responsibility by Black men that was chiefly meant to impress the media and corporate America. The march’s focus on men also received criticism from feminists, including Angela Davis. During the march, the Rev. Jesse Jackson railed against the Republican-controlled House of Representatives for cutting funding to public schools in poor areas, while other speakers condemned racial inequities in law enforcement and the closing of inner-city hospitals.
The U.S. Park Police estimated that 400,000 people had attended, angering the Million Man March’s organizers. A later estimate put the number at 870,000 with a 20 percent margin of error, just high enough to leave open the possibility that a million men had attended. Like the attendance total, the march’s long-term impact is difficult to assess, but organizers point to the fact that over 1.5 million Black men registered to vote for the first time over the course of the next year as evidence of their success.
On January 2, 1965, quarterback Joe Namath spurns the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals to sign with the American Football League’s New York Jets. The contract, reportedly for $427,000, is the most lucrative signed by a rookie in any sport. The deal with Namath, a star at the University of Alabama for head coach Bear Bryant, is a coup for the AFL.
“I took both teams into consideration,” Namath told reporters in Miami Beach, Florida, where he signed the contract. “I wanted more than money. I was interested in the coach and the organization. New York City is a fine place. The sports fans are great and Weeb Ewbank is an outstanding coach.”
Said Ewbank: “I see in this young man the same qualities as [Baltimore Colts star quarterback] Johnny Unitas. He has size, quickness, courage and a wonderful arm.”
The AFL, founded in July 1959, was willing to do almost anything to lessen the NFL’s grip on the sport. With television contracts beginning to pump big money into professional football, the league offered lucrative signing bonuses to the best players in college football.
“We feel that in getting Joe, we got the No. 1 college football player in America,” Jets owner Sonny Werblin said at the news conference.
At least one New York columnist was impressed by Namath: “I’m convinced of one thing,” wrote Dick Young of the New York Daily News. “The Jets aren’t paying him enough.”
Like almost any record-setting contract that would follow, however, Namath’s deal was met with heavy criticism. Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell griped that ”contracts like the one Namath got can be the ruination of the game.”
In 1969, before New York played Unitas’ Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III, Namath famously guaranteed a victory. The future Hall of Famer’s Jets beat the Colts, 16-7, in one of the greatest upsets in sports history.
In 1964, the fighter was up for the music honor for a comedy album. Twelve years later, he was nominated again.
The accomplishments of Muhammad Ali are renowned: Olympic gold medalist, heavyweight boxing champion, humanitarian, civil rights activist. But would you believe he also was a Grammy Award nominee in 1964 and 1976?
Trading in his boxing gloves and shorts for black tie and tails, Ali cut a comedy album inside the Manhattan studios of Columbia Records in early August 1963. A live audience hooted and hollered as the fighter unleased a volley of jabs and right hooks, but the punches really thrown by the 21-year-old Ali during the recording were of the verbal variety.
The pugilist who stepped before the microphone was not yet heavyweight champ. He wasn’t even Muhammad Ali at that point. Still known as Cassius Clay, he may only have been a contender for the heavyweight title, but he was already a world-champion entertainer.
“Ali’s genius for marketing was off the charts,” says Jonathan Eig, author of the biography Ali: A Life. “He figured out early on that being an entertainer was good for the boxing business. If he could generate more publicity for himself, he would attract more people to his fights and get an earlier shot at the heavyweight championship.”
Ali’s Rhyming Couplets Land Him a Record Deal
With quips as quick as his fists, Ali had earned his “Louisville Lip” nickname. He wielded rhyming couplets like weapons to stagger opponents before bouts and to bolster his fight game.
“The rhythm of my poetry gives me an unprecedented rhythm in the ring,” Ali told the media. Before a March 1963 fight against Doug Jones in New York, the loquacious boxer even took to the stage of a dimly lit Greenwich Village coffeehouse for a poetry battle against seven of the city’s top beatnik poets, a fight he won by popular acclaim.
Ali’s entertaining doggerel and growing fame led Columbia Records to sign him to record a spoken-word album entitled—naturally—“I Am the Greatest.” The tracks, rechristened “rounds” for the album, opened with the sound of a ring bell and featured a blend of stand-up comedy, rhyming verses and comedic sketches. The live audience clapped and cackled as if it were open-mic night at a comedy club as Ali spouted braggadocio such as “This kid fights great; he’s got speed and endurance/But if you sign to fight him, increase your insurance.”
Ali mercilessly taunted the reigning heavyweight champion Charles “Sonny” Liston throughout the album. His track “Will the Real Sonny Liston Please Fall Down” is a masterclass in trash-talking. “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears. I come to bury Liston, not to praise him,” the “Bard of Boxing” told the audience. “He can’t fight,” Ali said of Liston. “I watched him shadow boxing and his shadow won—in the first round.”
The boxer wasn’t afraid to turn his humor upon himself and give a wink to the audience to let them in on the joke. “Mr. Clay, have you ever been in love?” asked an audience member with a planted question. “Not with anyone else,” the fighter quipped.
Although Ali had a quick wit, he wasn’t freestyling on the album. Columbia Records hired veteran comedy writer Gary Belkin to assist Ali as a ghostwriter. The album’s original liner notes listed Belkin as a producer, but he wasn’t credited as a co-writer until a 1999 re-issue of the album.
Belkin later claimed that he wrote most of the album’s content, but Ali told the Miami News he never paid anybody to write a poem for him—although he conceded Columbia Records could have.
“He put in some of the comedy, some skits,” Ali said of Belkin. “But all my poems are mine.” Evidence submitted to a Senate subcommittee probing boxing corruption in March 1964 suggested otherwise. Included in payments made by Ali’s backers is a $600 expense to Belkin for crafting a poem for Ali’s appearance on the “Jack Parr Show.”
No matter who wrote the material, Ali’s critics weren’t impressed. “Cassius, if you look under the surface, is merely loud-mouthing to build a big gate against the retirement into which Liston will blast him,” wrote United Press International sportswriter Oscar Fraley.
Ali’s Album Soars Up the Charts
When Ali fought Liston on February 25, 1964, he was a 7-1 underdog. Even inside Columbia Records doubts surfaced. “Get the money/Before Clay fights Sonny,” an aspiring poet tacked on a company bulletin board. After pummeling Liston in verse, Ali knocked him out in the ring to become heavyweight champion.
According to Columbia Records, sales of “I Am the Greatest!” after the fight topped those of Barbra Streisand and even the Beatles. The record company rushed the new champion back into the recording studio to croon a cover of the Ben E. King hit “Stand by Me]” and a version of “The Gang’s All Here” with assistance from singer and friend Sam Cooke.
“Ali used to hang around the rhythm-and-blues clubs in Louisville and was a great fan of pop music. He even had a record player in his car,” Eig says. “If he had a chance to become a singer, he would have loved it.”
A quickly issued single featuring a re-worked title track from “I Am the Greatest!” and “Stand by Me” sold 100,000 copies in its first week. Critical acclaim followed as “I Am the Greatest!” received a Grammy Award nomination for best comedy performance alongside comedians such as Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner and The Smothers Brothers. All lost that year to Allan Sherman’s recording of “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah.”
A second Grammy nomination followed for Ali in 1976, after he returned to the recording studio to take on a tougher foe than Liston—tartar. In “The Adventures of Ali and His Gang vs. Mr. Tooth Decay,” the boxer known for his mouth promoted good oral hygiene to kids. The album, which also featured the voices of Frank Sinatra and sportscaster Howard Cosell, received a Grammy nod for best children’s recording.
Although Ali never won a Grammy, his musical legacy endures. His swagger and rhymes have been cited as precursors to the exchange of lyrical blows in modern-day rap battles, and the heavyweight champion has been credited as a hip-hop pioneer by artists such as Chuck D.
On January 8, 1972, the NCAA grants freshmen eligibility in its two biggest team sports, basketball and football. An overwhelming majority of representatives at the annual NCAA convention vote for freshmen participation in basketball; a closer majority vote in favor of freshmen participation in football.
Before freshmen were eligible to play on varsity, they played on junior varsity teams, no matter how dominant they might be in their sport. The consensus for decades was that freshmen were not ready to compete at the varsity level, especially in football.
It was no coincidence that this vote came shortly after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s legendary collegiate career and during Bill Walton’s equally impressive college tenure. The two UCLA stars were among the best college basketball players ever, yet both could not play during their freshman seasons at UCLA—1965-66 for Abdul-Jabbar and 1970-71 for Walton.
Abdul-Jabbar, then known as Lew Alcindor, famously led the freshmen UCLA team to an easy victory in an exhibition game against the two-time defending champion Bruins varsity team, 75-60. Walton won the John Naismith Award as college basketball’s top player in all three of his varsity-eligible seasons at UCLA.
College coaches and administrators were not universally pleased with the groundbreaking move.
When asked about the rule change, Rutgers football coach John Bateman told the media, “If freshmen can play, you don’t have a very good program.” Chuck Neinas, commissioner of the Big Eight Conference (which eventually became the Big 12 Conference), said, “Our football coaches are unanimously against freshman on varsity teams.”
Missouri athletic director Sparky Stalcup told the Kansas City Star that freshmen eligibility in basketball and football would be “a whole new ballgame.”
“If the other major conferences do it, we’ll have to.” he said. “It’s a recruiting gimmick.”
The 1972 season was not the first that freshmen were eligible to play varsity basketball or football—freshmen were given varsity status during the Korean War from 1950-51. In 1970, freshmen were allowed to play varsity in sports other than football and basketball.