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Est. April 5, 2002
June 09, 2016 - Issue 657

Requiem for a Heavyweight
America's Redemption
Muhammad Ali

By Dr. Al-Tony Gilmore, PhD

"He was the epicenter of the revolt
of the black athlete, and he was the
first 'black' champion. All others before
him were considered and accepted the
race classification of Negro. Moreover,
black for Ali was considerably more
than a name, it was a movement to
restore the dignity and respect of black
people while pursuing social justice."

Though the nation honors his unique persona, courage, convictions and world-wide symbolism - Ali made his greatest contributions well over a generation ago. The lighting of the Olympic cauldron, his Presidential Medal of Freedom and universal respect and recognition all combined to bring him full circle from what he experienced and overcame, beginning with the changing of his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, and his close associations, first with Malcolm X and later Elijah Muhammad. His road to redemption and reconciliation began with Gerald Ford inviting him to the White House, but that was not an easy or simple journey for Ali or for America. It was a time of war and peace, protest and politics, race and racism, pride and prejudice, art and imagination, and an America in search of itself.

Eldridge Cleaver once said that the heavyweight champion of the world was the "real Mr. America" - but that's an underestimation of Ali who became the "real Mr. World." More has been written on Ali than on Napoleon or Abraham Lincoln - and that body of literature was written in his lifetime. The full measure of the MAN has yet to be assessed.

Ali not only positioned himself at the intersection of sport and society, it was at those crossroads where he created a new definition of black consciousness and black celebrity. In this regard, with the single exception of Paul Robeson, he demonstrated in the prime of his career that he would rather relinquish all of his wealth, prestige and fame than to compromise the core principles and integrity of his faith, and his beliefs inspired the Civil Rights Movement. Ali was the first major sports personality to embrace the teachings of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, and the first to endorse Martin Luther King , Jr. and his crusade against the War in Vietnam. He transitioned from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali five years before Lew Alcindor became Kareem Abdul Jabbar ; he championed black power before the Black Power Movement; and his defiance of conventional sports protocol and pageantry set an example for Tommy Smith, John Carlos and others who protested at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. He was the epicenter of the revolt of the black athlete, and he was the first "black" champion. All others before him were considered and accepted the race classification of Negro. Moreover, black for Ali was considerably more than a name, it was a movement to restore the dignity and respect of black people while pursuing social justice.

What is most striking about the world adulation of Ali is that much of white America came late to embrace him. Memory may be fragile, but recorded history is not. It is a fact that when Ali refused to be inducted into the United States military in 1967, he was in the words of Jackie Robinson, who rushed to his defense, "the most hated man in America" for three reasons: because he was a Muslim, because he spoke his mind, and because he championed blackness. Even some of his black competitors refused to call him by his Muslim name, and as he pummeled them from one side of the ring to the other, he took personal pleasure - as did black folks - in taunting them with his famous refrain, "what's my name? "Not only did he bring "black and proud" into boxing, he had the audacity of bringing it into the four corners of the ring. To be sure it aggravated and incensed many people, whose disingenuous collective amnesia now pretend it never happened . But it did, and while that history might be explained and analyzed, it cannot be erased with a thousand tributes and testimony to his greatness.

Frankly, in his prime, Ali caught hell from the establishment. They beat him down, but like the rope-a-dope strategy employed years later with George Foreman, and against all odds, he staged a miraculous comeback with his life and his mission. He was a divisive figure in American life and reviled for his political consciousness, and for using the bully pulpit of his popularity in bringing international attention to the issues of black people and the War in Vietnam. Because of this he embodied several anti-establishment social movements, and a vigilant J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI monitored him closely under the Johnson and Nixon administrations, most notably his bugged communications with Martin Luther King, Jr. Jimmy Cannon, the revered boxing writer who first claimed Joe Louis as "a credit to his race, the human race" had no tributes for Ali. The Champion Negro, as he saw it, had exceeded the outer perimeters of his boundaries and expected behavior. He decried "Clay" for converting boxing "into an instrument of hate"  and for using it as "a weapon of wickedness in an attack on the spirit." The chorus of other sportswriters, journalists, political officials, newspapers, and social commentators who joined Cannon's bandwagon and the crusade against Ali, was significantly larger than those who supported him. The city council of his hometown, Louisville, Kentucky, condemned him. The Los Angeles Times which refused to reference him by his name, excoriated "Clay as a Benedict Arnold." In defense of Ali, black folk wrapped themselves around the beleaguered champ. It seemed that the things that agitated his detractors most, were the identical things that uplifted the spirits of black people. One illustration of this point is the most quoted remark he ever made. " I ain't got no quarrel with those Vietcong. No Vietcong ever called me nigger." One of his least quoted but most introspective remarks, was the one he made later in life upon learning that Nelson Mandela followed his fights while he was incarcerated in South Africa, and valued his use of sports to promote social and political awareness.

Later, I was amazed to discover that Mr. Mandela used to listen to my fights when he was imprisoned on Robben Island. That humbling revelation moved me to tears. There he was, a king in exile, being lifted up by my ring exploits. Had I known he was listening to Ali-Frazier I, I probably would've beaten Joe that night. I was always the greatest when I was fighting for something.

Beginning with Jack Johnson winning the world's heavyweight title in 1908, America began it's first search for "white hopes" - those who might challenge the champion and restore the title with the Aryan race. Since there were no such credible white prospects during Ali's reign as champion, most white Americans adopted Joe Frazier and George Foreman as "black white hopes." Frazier never solicited the designation, but because he never spoke on race issues, and because he stubbornly refused to call Ali by his Muslim name, he was claimed as such against his will. When he defeated Ali in their first fight, the Confederate flag waving South Carolina State Legislature, whose black members at that time numbered in the single digits, honored Frazier at the State Assembly. Also when black Georgia State Senator Leroy Johnson engineered the restoration of Ali's boxing license - following a three-year hiatus from the ring - Georgia governor Lester Maddox publicly declared a day of mourning as a prelude to his fight with Jerry Quarry in Atlanta. Foreman became another black white hope because, unlike Ali, he not only did not speak out on race issues, he proudly walked around the ring waving the American flag after winning the Olympics in Mexico City - which stood out in contrast to Smith's and Carlos' raised clinched fists. The mood of protesting Black America in 1968 was closer to "saying it loud, I am black and I am proud" than it was to pledging allegiance to the flag.

It should be remembered that while black athletes admired Ali, few publicly aligned themselves with him during his crisis with the U.S. military. Courage and racial identity among black athletes have never been equitably distributed - then or now. In 1968 Mayor Carl Stokes of Cleveland hosted a gathering of a small cadre of black athletes who were in solidarity with Ali. Organized by Jim Brown, the luminaries included Bill Russell, Bobby Mitchell, Willie Davis, Sid Williams, Curtis McClinton, Jim Shorter, John Wooten, Walter Beach and Lew Alcindor, who created an unprecedented controversy when he declined being on the roster the U.S. Olympic basketball team. The meeting was sports version of an amendment to the Emancipation Proclamation. A year earlier sociologist Harry Edwards formed the Olympic Project for Human Rights which called for a boycott of the Olympics unless several conditions were met, one of which was the restoration of Ali's boxing title. In 1969 Curt Flood challenged baseball's reserve clause. Ali had infected sports with a contagious virus for which there was no antidote, other than cowardice.

All wrapped up into one human being - Ali was a multi-layered complex black man, and he was the "one" thing that most blacks could agree on : from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Malcolm X, to Elijah Muhammad, to the Civil Rights Movement, to the NAACP, to Paul Robeson, to Jackie Robinson, to the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, to the Black Panthers to the NAACP, to the National Urban League, to the Congress of Racial Equality, to Operation Push, to the clergy, to the pool rooms and barbershops, and especially to the professors, teachers and parents who saw in Ali a man their students and children could admire and model for the tenacity of his manhood.

Ali was the first fighter to use poetry in the promotion of his fights, usually crafted in jocularity to chastise his opponents as well as to entertain the media. On some occasions, however, there were a mixture of humor and soberness which exposed his inner feelings, sense of self meaning and commitment to the struggles of his race.  Early in his career, one such untitled  poem was written for and given to photographer Gordon Parks. Parks remembered : " I was not proud of him as I had been of Joe Louis. Muhammad was a gifted black champion and I wanted him to be a hero, but he was not making it. I also felt that he could not possibly be quite so bad as he was made out to be in the press." But after meeting Ali, spending some time in his inner circle, and reading the poem. Parks was changed. In retrospect it reminds us that Ali defined his destiny, and never once doubting who he was, or whose he was.

Since I won't let critics seal my fate

They keep hollering I'm full of hate

But they don't really hurt me none

'Cause I'm doing good and having fun

And fun to me is something bigger

Than what those critics fail to figure

Fun to me is lots of things

And along with it some good I bring

Yet while I'm busy helping my people

These critics keep writing I'm deceitful,

But I can take it on the chin

And that's the honest truth my friend.

Now from Muhammad you just heard

The latest and the truest word.

So when they ask you what's the latest Just say,

"Ask Ali, He's still the greatest."

Yes, the self proclaimed and universally acknowledged "The Greatest," in his own inimitable words, "shook up the world."

We are fortunate to have shared this planet with him, and to have witnessed his journey from the most reviled to the most beloved American. Muhammad Ali mirrors the America of our lifetime. Dr. Al-Tony Gilmore, PhD. is a noted historian of American social history, and the author of several books. He is Historian Emeritus of the National Education Association, and most recently served as a Visiting Scholar in the Estelle and Melvin Gelman Research Center of The George Washington University. Contact Dr. Gilmore.




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