On the week of the 50th anniversary of her death, the family of Mary Jo Kopechne released a passionate letter that Muhammad Ali sent them in 1969, shortly after she died.
Kopechne was a passenger in a car being driven by a drunken Ted Kennedy on July 18, 1969. Kennedy lost control of the car going over a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts, and the car went into Poucha Pond. Kennedy swam out of the car and left Kopechne to drown. Worse, he did not report the accident for ten hours. Kopechne’s lifeless body was recovered the next morning. She was only 28.
After Kopechne died, famed boxer Muhammad Ali sent a letter to the victim’s family urging them to sue the Kennedys, the Times Leader reported.
The July 31, 1969, letter was released to the paper by William Nelson and his mother, Georgetta Nelson Potoski, who are Kopechne’s cousins. The letter has never been released to the public until now.
“Shortly after Mary Jo’s death, a young fighter who knew prejudice and injustice when he saw it and fought against them both in his professional and personal life, wrote this letter to the parents of Mary Jo Kopechne,” the pair said of the letter. “This letter is an example of the fire and passion that propelled Muhammad Ali to the champion he became in the boxing world as well as the champion he became for the downtrodden in everyday life.”
In the letter, Ali urged the family to sue Kennedy for “for everything he’s got.” Ali also said he felt that the woman died in suspicious circumstances and that he thought there was “an illicit sexual encounter” between the victim and the Sen.
The Kopechne relatives also noted that when he wrote the letter, Ali had just had his titles stripped from him because of his draft evasion and that Ali was “angry at the establishment” for taking away the things he worked so hard to achieve.
“This letter is written by a man swinging with all of his might for justice for a fellow victim,” the two added upon releasing the letter, “and telling Mary Jo’s parents ‘You still have some power.’ Despite his own struggles, Muhammad Ali had the courage to come to Mary Jo’s defense at a time when her character and reputation were being destroyed. Mary Jo was being treated as a footnote in her own death when Muhammad Ali took the time to passionately speak out, and that meant a lot to her parents Gwen. and Joe and it means a lot to us today.”
The pair also noted that Ali was not the only one to urge the Kopechne family to take action against the Kennedys. They said that literally thousands of letters came urging them to sue Ted Kennedy.
“We want to thank Muhammad Ali for defending Mary Jo with the passion and bravery he showed his entire life. God bless him, and God bless Mary Jo,” they said.
Nelson and Potoski are co-authors of the book, Our Mary Jo, and are also co-founders of the Mary Jo Kopechne scholarship fund at Misericordia University.
FULL TEXT OF LETTER
The following is our statement on the Muhammad Ali letter to the Kopechne:
“July 18th, 2019 is the 50th anniversary of Mary Jo Kopechne’s death. Today, we want to take a minute not only to reflect on the memory, character, and potential of our girl Mary Jo, but to thank those who came to her defense those many years ago.
“Shortly after Mary Jo’s death, a young fighter who knew prejudice and injustice when he saw it and fought against them both in his professional and personal life wrote this letter to the parents of Mary Jo Kopechne. This letter is an example of the fire and passion that propelled Muhammad Ali to the champion he became in the boxing world as well as the champion he became for the downtrodden in everyday life. To start to understand why Muhammad Ali wrote this letter, you have to consider his mindset at the time in which he wrote it.
“It was 1969, and amongst all the other challenges he faced, Muhammad Ali had recently had his heavyweight title stripped from him, he was convicted in a court of law for not reporting for service and had lost his means of providing for his family. He was by all reports frustrated and angry at the “establishment” for taking away the life he had fought for, earned, and deserved. Days after Kennedy’s televised speech on the Chappaquiddick incident and witnessing Mary Jo becoming a victim of the “establishment” herself, Muhammad Ali lashed out in her defense. This letter is written by a man swinging with all of his might for justice for a fellow victim and telling Mary Jo’s parents “You still have some power”. Despite his own struggles, Muhammad Ali had the courage to come to Mary Jo’s defense at a time when her character and reputation were being destroyed. Mary Jo was being treated as a footnote in her own death when Muhammad Ali took the time to passionately speak out, and that meant a lot to her parents Gwen and Joe and it means a lot to us today.
“This letter has been in our family’s possession for the past fifty years, and although it has been authenticated by renowned experts in the sports world, there are some in a boxing community who are against releasing it. There are a select few who are against showing the world this side of Muhammad Ali because it may taint his “public image” or his “brand.” His stance in this letter may not fit the narrative and image they want to portray of him today just as his acts of defiance over fifty years ago didn’t fit into their narrative then. So once again, fifty years later, there are some who are seeking to silence Muhammad Ali’s voice.
“What critics may not realize, however, is that Muhammad Ali was not alone. After her death, Mary Jo’s parents received thousands of letters from all walks of life. Muhammad Ali was not the only one who wrote passionate, strongly-worded letters to Mary Jo’s parents in support of her and in order to help ease a parent’s anguish of losing their only child.
“Those familiar with the Chappaquiddick incident know that time after time politics overshadowed the truth as privilege steamrolled justice and to allow this to happen today would be an injustice to Mary Jo’s memory as well as Muhammad Ali’s character and spirit.
“Although colorfully written, we couldn’t be prouder of Muhammad Ali’s act of support and compassion at a time when it was the exception to the rule. We wanted to honor and thank Muhammad Ali by sharing this moment in history with the world and we should use this letter going forward as an example when faced with the choice to defend those who cannot defend themselves. We want to thank Muhammad Ali for defending Mary Jo with the passion and bravery he showed his entire life. God bless him and God bless Mary Jo.
William Nelson, Georgetta Potoski
Follow Warner Todd Huston on Twitter @warnerthuston.