Dougherty: Willie Davis stood up for Ali

Pete Dougherty
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Latest in an occasional series on living Vince Lombardi-era Packers in the Pro Football Hall of Fame

Former Cleveland Browns Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown presides over a meeting of top black athletes who supported boxer Muhammad Ali's refusal to fight in Vietnam on June 4, 1967.  Pictured: (front row, from left) Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Lew Alcindor; (back row) Carl Stokes, Walter Beach, Bobby Mitchell, Sid Williams, Curtis McClinton, Willie Davis, Jim Shorter, and John Wooten.

After Muhammad Ali died last June, the remembrances, obits and archival footage often included a famous black-and-white photo from a press conference in 1967.

In it were several of the most famous athletes in the United States at the time: Ali sitting in front of microphones, flanked by Bill Russell on his right, and Jim Brown and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Lew Alcindor at the time) to his left. And standing behind them were eight other African-Americans I didn’t recognize, along with one I did: Willie Davis.

I knew the iconic photo was a show of support for Ali, who’d refused induction into the U.S. Army as a conscientious objector of the Vietnam War on religious grounds. It was an important moment from a turbulent era; Ali suddenly had become one of the most controversial figures of his time with the volatile mix of fame, race relations and an increasingly unpopular war.

But I didn’t know any details and wondered how Davis, the Green Bay Packers Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive end from the Lombardi era, came to be in that picture. I didn’t remember ever reading or hearing that he was prominent in the Civil Rights movement, unlike, say, Brown.

“(Davis) wasn’t what you call an activist,” said Dave Robinson, one of Davis’ teammates and a fellow Hall of Famer. “But when something went on like with Ali …”

So this, in short form, is how Davis ended up at what is now known as “The Ali Summit.”

Davis had started his NFL career with the Cleveland Browns in 1958 and was traded to the Packers two years later. Among his teammates in Cleveland were Brown and John Wooten, now chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, who is standing at the far right on the photo.

According to the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, Brown in 1966 formed an organization with other African-American athletes named the Negro Industrial Economic Union, later renamed the Black Economic Union. By 1967, it had offices in Cleveland and five other U.S. cities.

Its purpose was to foster self-sustaining economic gains in African-American communities by offering loans and educational resources to open businesses and shops. In turn, that could deepen economic ties between the communities and banks.

Though Davis was traded from the Browns to the Packers in ’60 and there was no BEU office in Wisconsin, he joined the organization.

And previously, in January 1964, he and several other BEU members had gotten to know Ali.

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The Packers and Browns were in Miami at the time for the NFL’s Playoff Bowl, a meaningless game played in the ‘60s for third place in the league. Ali lived in Miami and was training for his first title fight against Sonny Liston, which would be in February in Miami Beach.

Miami was segregated at the time, and according to Wooten, the African-American players from both teams met nightly at the Sir John Hotel. Ali, whose gym was nearby, joined them.

Fast forward to June 1967. Ali was the world heavyweight boxing champion and a converted Muslim when he refused induction to the Army as a conscientious objector. He instantly became one of the most polarizing figures in the country.

Brown wanted members of the BEU to consider publicly backing Ali because the champ had been supportive of the NEIU and BEU. However, several members of the group, including Davis, Wooten and Brown, had served in the military or national guard. They’d done their duty, so why shouldn’t Ali? They needed convincing.

So on June 4, 1967, Brown invited Ali to Cleveland to make his case in front of 11 BEU members, including Davis. They grilled him for three hours.

“No lawyers could have grilled him any harder,” Wooten said. “The Ali you’ve seen hollering and screaming, that wasn’t the Ali in that room. He was totally sincere, no jokes. He explained explicitly why he was a conscientious objector. … He talked of what his religion means to him and why he’s against war. When he finished the vote was unanimous that we would go out and support him.”

After the vote, they held a press conference to demonstrate that support publicly. Davis in the photo is literally standing behind Ali. I was unable to reach Davis for this column, but the Plain-Dealer quoted him in an in-depth story from June 2012 commemorating the 45th anniversary of the summit.

(Coincidentally, Showtime announced Friday that it is producing a miniseries on the summit).

“When I look at the situation in Florida (i.e., the Trayvon Martin shooting) and when I look through all my adult life, there's always been a period where something happens that causes this country to struggle, be it racial or whatever,” Davis told the Plain-Dealer. “I look back and see that Ali Summit as one of those events. I'm very proud that I participated.”

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Ali was soon thereafter stripped of his heavyweight title and convicted of draft evasion, though he never spent time in prison and eventually saw the decision overturned by the Supreme Court in 1971. He’s now an icon.

Davis, in the meantime, was near the end of his football career in 1967 – he retired after the ’69 season at age 35. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1981, the sixth of 11 Lombardi-era players now in the Hall.

He played on all five of Lombardi’s championship teams and was a key member of the dominating defenses that finished first, first and third in the NFL in fewest points allowed in the final three of those title seasons (1965-67).

Davis’ trade is one of the great deals in Packers history. Lombardi sent the Browns receiver A.D. Williams, who was a rookie with the Packers in 1959 and would play only two more seasons in the NFL. The Browns’ legendary coach, Paul Brown, reportedly did the deal because he considered Davis too small (6-feet-3, 243) for his two-gapping, read-and-react defensive system. But Davis had exceptional quickness, and Lombardi turned him loose as a penetrating, one-gap player.

“I’d say you missed one of the great joys in life (if you didn’t see) Willie Davis play defensive end,” Robinson said.

Davis had been planning for life beyond football for years. Over six offseasons he earned his MBA from the University of Chicago, and after he retired he quickly started what would be a highly successful business career.

First he bought a beer distributorship in Los Angeles, and then in the 1970s started a career in radio broadcasting ownership with the purchase of five stations in Milwaukee and California. He also went on to serve on the corporate boards of numerous companies, including Schlitz, Alliance Bank, Dow Chemical, Johnson Controls, K-Mart, L.A. Gear, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and MGM Mirage.

Davis, now 82, lives in California with his wife, Carol.

“He’s OK,” said Jerry Kramer, his former Packers road roommate. “Still bright and still aware and still on point.”

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