When “The Greatest” became a Brave: A look back at Muhammad Ali’s visit to Alcorn

It was the spring semester on 1974 when then student at Alcorn State University and current Vice {resident of Student Affairs Emanual Barnes Sr. got an up close view of an icon.

He and some more students were out on the yard when they saw former Braves football head coach Marino “The Godfather” Casem cruise through their study hall parking lot on the way to the student union. All of a sudden, the passenger in the vehicle let down the window, stuck his head out and jokingly taunted the students as Casem drove by. When Barnes saw the man, he remembers thinking how familiar he looked.

“That looks like Muhammad Ali,” said Barns.

Once the car made it to its destination, Barnes realized that the man who playfully proclaimed that he could whip him and his friends indeed was the legendary Muhammad Ali. It was an exciting moment for Barnes because it was the first time in his life that he had been in the presence of a larger than life professional athlete. He recalls Ali to have been a man of the people because of how relaxed he was around those who were strangers to him.

“I remember being surprised at how big he was. I had seen him on television, but I couldn’t tell that he was that large. He loved to have fun and crack jokes. He had all of us laughing. He acted like he knew everyone. He was so approachable and good with people. When he would talk to us, he was so comfortable that it seemed like he knew us when actually, he didn’t.”

The former heavyweight champion of the world made his first of two visits to Alcorn during this time to be the keynote speaker at the University’s annual athletic banquet. According to a press release written by Alice Lewis, who was the University staff writer at the time, Ali gave a thought provoking address that garnered a standing ovation from about 500 attendees. His speech included a lesson on friendship, some of his witty poetry and a prediction that he would defeat George Foreman to regain the heavyweight title in their Sept. 30 bout in Africa that year. Ali stayed true to his word by defeating Foreman in the eighth round of the fight that is known as “The Rumble in the Jungle.”

After his initial visit, Ali loved Alcorn so much that he returned the following year to speak at the 1975 athletic banquet. The love that he had for Alcorn is a testament to how excellent the University is.

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