Activists Investigating the FBI Used the 1971 Ali-Frazier Fight as Cover

The fight made history in an unexpected way

Boxer Muhammad Ali steps away from a punch thrown by boxer Joe Frazier during their heavyweight title fight at Madison Square Garden in 1971.
Bettmann Archive

In 1971, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier faced one another in Madison Square Garden in an event dubbed the “Fight of the Century.” From a boxing standpoint, it featured two greats of the sport in competition; from a historical standpoint, it resonated far more deeply than that. But the Ali-Frazier fight was also the backdrop for another historically significant act that took place far from New York City — a bold effort by an activist group to expose wrongdoing at the FBI.

A new article at The Washington Post provides more details on this unexpected historical convergence. A group known as the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, based around Philadelphia, chose the night of the Ali-Frazier fight to break into an FBI office and steal documents that revealed some of the agency’s most shocking actions, including the work of the COINTELPRO program.

To offer a sense of historical perspective, a 2014 article in The New York Times made a connection between the work done by the activists in 1971 and the actions a few decades later taken by Edward Snowden.

According to the Post‘s article, the timing of the break-in was synced with the Ali-Frazier fight for a simple reason: almost everyone would be paying attention to the bout. Keith Forsyth, one of the participants, recalled one of his fellow activists pointing out that “a lot of people, including the cops, would be listening to that fight, and that would give us cover.”

The account of the break-in — and how it lined up with the fight — makes for thrilling reading. Turns out that night in 1971 was historic for more ways than one.

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