Muhammad Ali had already established his boxing credentials by 1967, when he stood against racism and imperialism by resisting the Vietnam War draft. The World Boxing Association punished his defiance by taking away his championship title, and the boxing industry blacklisted him while he fought felony draft refusal charges. His banishment ended on this day (October 26) in 1970, when he beat Jerry Quarry in three rounds in Atlanta.
A 2015 retrospective by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recounts that Atlanta businessman Harry Pett and Georgia state senator Leroy Johnson joined forces to organize and promote the fight. The pair successfully organized the match despite anonymous death threats and public pushback from Georgia’s segregationist governor Lester Maddox, who declared the fight date "a day of mourning.”
"The thing that energized me was that the New York boxing commission said he’d never fight again in this country," Johnson told The Journal-Constitution. "To me, that became a challenge, a challenge against the system. Obviously we made some money out of it, and I’m glad we did. But I was more concerned about doing what the system said we couldn’t do.”
The city’s Black community leaders also rallied around the fight. An archival photo published by The Journal-Constitution shows Coretta Scott King and Ralph Abernathy congratulating Ali after he beat Quarry, who was White.
“It was a coronation; the king regaining his throne,” recalled Julian Bond in the 1992 biography, “Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times." “You had all these people from the fast lane who were there; and the style of dress was fantastic. Men in ankle-length fur coats; women wearing smiles and pearls and not much else.”
Boxing journalist Bert Sugar called the audience, as quoted by The Journal-Constitution, "probably the greatest collection of Black power and Black money ever assembled up to that time. They weren’t boxing fans, they were idolaters.”
The fight put Ali back in the athletic spotlight, and he won successive world titles throughout the 1970s—all while appearing on talk shows and at college campuses to speak about racial inequity. He notably returned to Atlanta to light the torch at the 1996 Summer Olympics. He died almost 20 years later from septic shock.
Boxing fans can watch the fight on its 47th anniversary below: