Dave Hannigan: Muhammad Ali’s eight days in prison before Christmas
In 1968 he learned ‘the only real equality is in the jail . . . and in the graveyard’
Muhammad Ali served eight days in prison in 1968 for a road traffic offence. File photograph: Getty Images
Nine days before Christmas, 1968. On the way to Dade County Jail, Muhammad Ali insisted the car stop at Sonny Armbrister’s Barber Shop, one of his favourite haunts since he first fetched up in Miami as callow teenage Cassius Clay back in 1960.
The proprietor greeted him at the door and, suddenly, a whole slew of new customers followed him inside from the street. “Let me serve a couple of days for you, champ!” shouted one man. In the corner, his lawyer, Henry Arrington fretted and looked nervously at his watch. They were already behind schedule.
Outside the prison, fans had gathered to glimpse their hero and journalists had come to write the story of the fighter who’d been stripped of his title now about to spend the holiday season in pokey. Wearing a white turtle-neck sweater and dark pin-striped pants, Ali stopped to sign autographs and to give the inevitable, impromptu press conference. Just to make him even later for his appointment with the authorities.
“Going to jail may be good for me,” he said. “I’ve never suffered. I’ve never been confined or experienced the loneliness and suffering of some of my fellow blacks. This will give me an understanding of how they feel. Also, I might have to do time for that Army thing (he was then appealing his five-year sentence for refusing to fight in Vietnam) and this might be good conditioning.”
Nineteen months earlier, Robert Elliot, a motorcycle cop, spotted Ali driving his grey Cadillac along the city’s Airport Expressway and remembered the boxer had failed to show up in court when he’d booked him the previous year for making an improper turn. Pulling him over again, he discovered Ali, a notoriously bad driver, had no valid license, and his full-time chauffeur was actually sitting in the passenger seat.
That was the official reason he was going to jail. Some begged to differ.
“He got sentenced for being Cassius Clay,” said Arrington, deliberately using Ali’s birth name which was still being deployed by many newspapers reporting the story. “Everyone is caught up in the hate Clay hysteria.”
As he finally surrendered himself to begin a 10-day sentence, somebody pressed two pens into Ali’s hand in case he needed them for autographs or writing poetry. He patted the bars on a sturdy electronic gate blocking his path and quipped, “So this is what a jail is like, huh?” Assigning him to a cell with eight other men, Sergeant Gene Phillips, the booking officer, asked whether he wanted to work in the kitchen, the laundry or as a janitor. Tipping the scales at 16 stone, he chose the one that offered the closest proximity to food.
“I’d steal chicken legs and put them in my pocket and wrap it,” said Ali. “And the fellows would help me and I’d go back to my room and eat that chicken. Then then next day I had to hide the bones so I’d carry the bones back there and throw them in the garbage.”
“Every day you wake up looking at the bars and those sad little hallways"
Twenty-one months into his enforced exile from boxing because of his refusal to be inducted in the draft, Ali donned prison garb, a white t-shirt and grey pants, and pocketed 40 cents per week for working from 10 am to 7pm, washing dishes, filling trays and delivering food. In the evenings, he held Muslim prayer services and lectures about black pride in his cell and while the prison guards thought him a hilarious character, some of the white inmates were not fans.
“Real equality is practiced in jail,” Ali told John Crittenden, sports editor of The Miami News, who was brought in to see him at work in the kitchen three days into his sojourn. “They tell me, ‘Boy, clean that tray!’ And see that white man sitting there? They say the same thing to him. They call him boy too. The only real equality is in the jail . . . and in the graveyard.”
Ali was in a hurry to do his time because Champburger, the first of what he hoped would become a chain of fast-food restaurants, was set to open on 62nd Street in Miami on December 28th. With the idea of locating in predominantly black neighbourhoods and empowering African-American franchisees, investors had brought Ali on board by offering him six per cent of the company.
While he’d repeatedly mentioned this putative rival to McDonald’s to journalists covering his arrival at the jail, his budding corporate portfolio was soon very far from his mind.
“Every day you wake up looking at the bars and those sad little hallways,” said Ali. “Couldn’t see outside. And then you start thinking how can I get out of here? They can’t be that damn smart, let me look at these bars! I know I can get out if I can make a run for it. Let me look over the wall. But I can’t!! Then you say, ‘Can’t get out of here, no God-damned way!’”
On December 23rd, as per the annual tradition, prisoners serving time for traffic and other minor offences were released early as part of the Christmas amnesty. Fifty men walked out the door of Dade County Jail that morning. Only one was met by a chauffeur-driven limousine with his wife Belinda in the back.
“You don’t appreciate being well until you go to a hospital,” said Ali. “You don’t appreciate being free until you go to jail.”