It is no secret the U.S. government kept tabs on many high-profile and politically active celebrities during the 1960s and 70s. But newly released documents from the FBI show concern by the agency for the connection between boxing legend Muhammad Ali and the Nation of Islam.
A recently released, 140-page batch of documents by the agency shows an acute interest in Ali’s movements during 1966, reports Reuters.
The documents were released through a Freedom of Information Act request by conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch.
"Historically, it's interesting because it ... gives a snapshot of what the FBI was doing, what it was spending its time and energy on, at that time with this very notable public figure," said Chris Farrell, research director for Judicial Watch.
“I remember when Ali joined the Nation of Islam,” said Julian Bond, a civil rights activist and politician, reports The New York Times. “The act of joining was not something many of us particularly liked. But the notion he’d do it -- that he’d jump out there, join this group that was so despised by mainstream America, and be proud of it -- sent a little thrill through you.”
"Ali was an important symbol to the civil rights movement, a galvanizing force, and him running around free was a problem for the FBI," added Michael Ezra, a professor at Sonoma State University, notes Reuters.
The FBI, then under the direction J. Edgar Hoover, conducted other secretive monitoring operations of musician John Lennon and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., among others.
In 2013, it was learned from declassified files that the National Security Agency had been secretly monitoring the phone calls of Ali and other prominent Vietnam War critics from the late 1960s and into the 70s.
"If there's a lesson to be learned from all this, when we are dealing with a non-transparent society such as the intelligence community that has a vast amount of power, then abuses can and usually do happen," Matthew Aid, an intelligence historian specializing in the NSA, told The Guardian.
Ali died in June 2016 at the age of 74.