When Jack Stone went to Appalachian State University President William Plemmons in 1969 and told him he wanted to invite Muhammad Ali to speak on campus, Plemmons was terrified, horrified, fit-to-be-tied.
Ali, you see, had been stripped of his heavyweight boxing championship for refusing induction into the U.S. Army, and with the anti-war movement just gaining its voice, some considered him the most polarizing figure in the country.
“Polarizing” my butt: the dude was toxic.
For Stone, then 21 and the recently elected president of the App State student government association, that meant Ali was perfect.
“My goal was to get someone to come and speak who would be controversial,” Stone told me recently as we sat in the dining room of his home on Bunn Lake in Zebulon.
Attendance for previous guest speakers at Varsity Gym had been underwhelming, although the campus had some terrific entertainers in the months prior to Ali’s visit who made me wish I’d been there: Jerry Butler, the Fifth Dimension, Johnny Mathis. I have paid to see all of them perform.
A month after Ali’s September appearance, retired Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas spoke on campus as part of the same Artists Lecture Series. Stone estimated that “maybe 100” students showed up. His topic: student dissent and disorder.
Stone already knew about dissent, even though he became SGA president “on a lark” in a campaign on which “I spent all of $5.”
He won, he said, by advocating that Boone “ought to be wet. Who’s going to be opposed to that on a college campus?”
Selling booze in Boone is one thing. Inviting and paying one of the most reviled men in the nation to speak to inquisitive college kids was viewed as more dangerous.
“President Plemmons suggested Bart Starr, who was quarterback of the Green Bay Packers,” Stone recalled.
Now, I love Bart Starr. After Unitas, he’s my favorite quarterback of all time. But to sneak a quarterback in over Ali?
“I guess,” Stone said, “he figured we’d be satisfied with any athlete.”
They weren’t, and Plemmons eventually relented – but not because of Stone’s persuasiveness. Oh no, he acceded to the wishes “because he said later that he thought Ali would be in prison before the date of the speech,” Stone said. That was a possibility, because the boxer had already been sentenced to five years in prison and was out on appeal.
What I wanted to do was bring some attention – the kind that would open people’s minds up – to Appalachian.
Jack Stone, who was student president at Appalachian State University in 1969
“N.C. State and Chapel Hill were the big boys,” Stone said, “and what I wanted to do was bring some attention – the kind that would open people’s minds up – to Appalachian.”
Stone had already brought some attention earlier in the year, when, he said, North Carolina Gov. Bob Scott invited all of the student government presidents throughout the university system for dinner at the governor’s mansion to “check the pulse” of the campuses. Are we going to have any problems with student dissent? Scott asked.
After the SGA presidents of NCSU, UNC and the other schools assured the governor that things on their campuses were copacetic, kool & the gang, couldn’t be better, he turned to Stone.
“I was a bit of a jerk,” Stone said, “so when he got to me I said, ‘We’re going to have a big problem. Your administration has just cut the budget of the Belk Library. ... It’s going to be totally closed on Sunday. We’re going to have an uproar on my campus, and I’m going to lead it.’
“When I got back to Boone, I get a call from the president. He said, ‘I don’t know what you said to the governor, but they’ve just told us to be sure we keep the library open.’”
Inviting a notorious figure to speak on campus is no big deal these days – heck, the whole notion of “notorious” seems as quaint as the word “heck” – but in 1969, infamy wasn’t a big drawing card. That was especially true on a campus such as App State where, eight years earlier, the students had to protest for the right to wear Bermuda shorts on campus. The administration said OK, but no bare knees in town or in the cafeteria.
When Ali died last month, much of the world mourned a man they knew only from his image and his words, a man to whom they’d gotten no closer than the TV screen: Stone mourned, too, but for a man with whom he spent a brief but meaningful period of time, a man he will remember forever.
Unable to fight in America or abroad – the government had revoked his passport so Ali couldn’t leave – legal fees were draining the money he had earned fighting. That’s when he decided to do what he did second-best: talk. That’s also when his path crossed with Stone’s. Stone said he’d heard Ali was going to begin a speaking tour, so he called the William Morris Agency and booked him.
President Plemmons tried one last time to dissuade Stone. “He said, ‘Look, it’s going to be dangerous. What if somebody shoots Ali while he’s here?’” Stone recalled.
That, too, was a possibility: Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy had both been assassinated the previous year.
Stone was unmoved by that argument. “I was a 21-year-old guy with no thought that anything could go wrong,” he said. “I said, ‘He’s going to fly in. I’ll pick him up at the Winston-Salem airport, we’ll drive up to Boone, we’ll have dinner and then he’ll speak Thursday night and I’ll have him back in Winston-Salem and back on a plane. He’s in here, he’s outta here.’”
Great plan, except that it wasn’t Ali’s plan. The dethroned champ decided to arrive the day before his speech – not the day of – to get to know the area.
“I said, ‘Oh crap. What am I going to do with this guy for the next day-and-a-half?’” he recalled.
Ali arrived alone, and they drove back to Boone on two-lane roads. Stone was surprised at how subdued his passenger and guest was. “He was very pleasant. All the stuff you saw to hype up a fight? One on one, you didn’t see that. He was a quiet guy,” Stone said. “He sat in the back seat and would ask a question every now and then.
“I said, ‘Champ, you’re probably tired from your flight. Would you like to check in and rest?’ He said, ‘No, I want to see the campus.’
“I figured,” Stone said, “we’d just drive through quickly and I’d take him to the Holiday Inn.”
Ali, again, had a different plan.
Jack Stone has pictures of Ali’s visit to the Boone campus, and he also has a gift Ali gave him before departing: the 5x7 cards on which Ali had written his notes for the speech.
“We pull up to the first traffic light on Highway 321, and to the right there’s a place called Tony’s Pizza. He rolls down the window and hollers out ‘THE CHAMP IS HERE!’ I’m sitting there thinking, ‘So much for sneaking him in quietly.’ We drove up to the student center and started walking. I swear, within five minutes there must’ve been 500 people. We were surrounded. There was no kind of announcement, no Twitter or Facebook, no cellphones. It was like wildfire.”
Although Ali had no entourage, the SBI sent an agent to accompany him the day after he arrived. “This must’ve been the only black SBI agent in the state in 1969,” Stone said, laughing. “We’re riding in the car back from Banner Elk, and Ali asks if he’s carrying a gun. The agent says, ‘um hmm.’ Ali says, ‘Let me see it.’ The guy pulls his gun out and hands it to him. Ali cocks it back and fires it. Right there in the car! There were no bullets in it. The agent said, ‘You didn’t think I was going to give you a loaded gun, did you?’
“They both laughed,” he said.
Stone has pictures of Ali’s visit to the Boone campus, and he also has a gift Ali gave him before departing: the 5x7 cards on which Ali had written his notes for the speech. Befitting the esteem in which he holds them, Stone keeps them in a safety deposit box at a bank and only took them out, I think, because I pleaded with him to do so.
“Talk about being toxic,” Stone said of his guest. “My God, this was the 1960s. We weren’t looking for separatism. We were looking for integration.”
Integration was indeed viewed as the Holy Grail then, but separatism is what Ali espoused in his speech, a speech in which he said, according to the Winston-Salem Journal story the next day, the only “peaceful solution” to the country’s racial ills was “for the races to go your separate ways.”
Stone said there was a “tremendous turnout” of more than 4,000 students, some of whom had participated in an anti-war rally on campus earlier that year.
The lead story in the student newspaper the next day was, of course, Ali’s speech. The second lead story was about an instructor kicking a male student out of class because he had long hair and telling him, “Don’t come back until you look like a human being.”