donate or subscribe
Follow Us Twitter Facebook

‘I just wanted to be free’: The radical reverberations of Muhammad Ali

June 5, 2016

by Dave Zirin

The reverberations. Not the rumbles, the reverberations. The death of Muhammad Ali will undoubtedly move people’s minds to his epic boxing matches against Joe Frazier and George Foreman, or there will be retrospectives about his epic “rumbles” against racism and war.

But it’s the reverberations that we have to understand in order to see Muhammad Ali as what he remains: the most important athlete to ever live. It’s the reverberations that are our best defense against real-time efforts to pull out his political teeth and turn him into a harmless icon suitable for mass consumption.

Muhammad Ali leaves the armed forces induction center with his entourage after refusing to be drafted into the armed forces in Houston, Texas, April 28, 1967. – Photo: AP

Muhammad Ali leaves the armed forces induction center with his entourage after refusing to be drafted into the armed forces in Houston, Texas, April 28, 1967. – Photo: AP

When Dr. Martin Luther King came out against the war in Vietnam in 1967, he was criticized by the mainstream press and his own advisors, who told him to not focus on “foreign” policy. But Dr. King forged ahead and to justify his new stand, said publicly, “Like Muhammad Ali puts it, we are all – Black and Brown and poor – victims of the same system of oppression.”

When Nelson Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island, he said that Muhammad Ali gave him hope that the walls would someday come tumbling down.

When John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists on the medal stand in Mexico City, one of their demands was to “Restore Muhammad Ali’s title.” They called Ali “the warrior-saint of the Black Athlete’s Revolt.”

When Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) volunteers in Lowndes County, Alabama, launched an independent political party in 1965, their new group was the first to use the symbol of a black panther. Beneath the jungle cat’s black silhouette was a slogan straight from the champ: “WE Are the Greatest.”

When Billie Jean King was aiming to win equal rights for women in sports, Muhammad Ali would say to her, “Billie Jean King! YOU ARE THE QUEEN!” She said that this made her feel brave in her own skin.

Dr. King said publicly, “Like Muhammad Ali puts it, we are all – Black and Brown and poor – victims of the same system of oppression.”

The question is why? Why was he able to create this kind of radical ripple throughout the culture and across the world?

What Muhammad Ali did – in a culture that worships sports and violence as well as a culture that idolizes Black athletes while criminalizing Black skin – was redefine what it meant to be tough and collectivize the very idea of courage. Through the Champ’s words on the streets and deeds in the ring, bravery was not only standing up to Sonny Liston. It was speaking truth to power, no matter the cost.

He was a boxer whose very presence taught a simple and dangerous lesson 50 years ago: “Real men” fight for peace and “real women” raise their voices and join the fray. Or as Bryant Gumbel said years ago: “Muhammad Ali refused to be afraid. And being that way, he gave other people courage.”

What Muhammad Ali did – in a culture that worships sports and violence as well as a culture that idolizes Black athletes while criminalizing Black skin – was redefine what it meant to be tough and collectivize the very idea of courage.

My favorite Ali line is not him saying: “I hospitalized a rock. I beat up a brick. I’m so bad I make medicine sick” or anything of the sort. It was when he was suspended from boxing for refusing to be drafted into the Vietnam War.

He was attending a rally for fair housing in Louisville when he said: “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over.

“This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again: The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality ….

“If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people, they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.”

Damn. This is not only an assertion of Black power, but a statement. It’s a statement of international solidarity: of oppressed people coming together in an act of collective resistance. It was a statement that connected wars abroad with attacks on the Black, Brown and poor at home, and it was said from the most hyper exalted platform our society offered at the time: the platform of being the Champ.

“If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people, they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.”

Please know that these views did not only earn him the hatred of the mainstream press and the right wing of this country. It also made him a target of liberals in the media as well as the mainstream Civil Rights Movement, who did not like Ali for his membership in the Nation of Islam and opposition to what was Lyndon Johnson’s war.

But for an emerging movement that was demanding an end to racism by any means necessary and a very young, emerging anti-war struggle, he was a transformative figure. In the mid-1960s, the anti-war and anti-racist movements were on parallel tracks.

This is not only an assertion of Black power, but a statement. It’s a statement of international solidarity: of oppressed people coming together in an act of collective resistance. It was a statement that connected wars abroad with attacks on the Black, Brown and poor at home, and it was said from the most hyper exalted platform our society offered at the time: the platform of being the Champ.

Then you had the heavyweight champ. Or as poet Sonia Sanchez put it with aching beauty: “It’s hard now to relay the emotion of that time. This was still a time when hardly any well-known people were resisting the draft. It was a war that was disproportionately killing young Black brothers and here was this beautiful, funny poetical young man standing up and saying no!

“Imagine it for a moment – the heavyweight champion, a magical man, taking his fight out of the ring and into the arena of politics and standing firm. The message was sent.” We are still attempting to hear the full message that Muhammad Ali was attempting to relay: a message about the need to fight for peace.

Full articles can and should be written about his complexities: his fallout with Malcolm X, his depoliticization in the 1970s, the ways that warmongers attempted to use him like a prop as he suffered in failing health. But the most important part of his legacy is that time in the 1960s when he refused to be afraid.

As he said years later: “Some people thought I was a hero. Some people said that what I did was wrong. But everything I did was according to my conscience. I wasn’t trying to be a leader. I just wanted to be free.” Not the fight, the reverberations. They are still being felt by a new generation of people. They ensure that the Champ’s name will outlive us all.

We are still attempting to hear the full message that Muhammad Ali was attempting to relay: a message about the need to fight for peace.

Bill Russell said it best in 1967. “I’m not worried about Muhammad Ali. I’m worried about the rest of us.” That is more true than ever.

Don’t remember Muhammad Ali as a sanctified sports hero; he was a powerful, dangerous political force

Muhammad Ali’s saga is without parallel: the champion boxer who was the most famous draft resister in history; a man whose phone was bugged by the Johnson and Nixon administrations yet who later was invited to the White House of Gerald Ford; a prodigal son whom his hometown city council in Louisville, Ky., condemned, but who a few years later had a main street renamed in his honor and today has a museum that bears his name.

Muhammad Ali, with his chief attorney, Hayden Covington, right, goes to trial on charges of refusing to be inducted into the armed services, on June 19, 1967, in Houston, Texas. – Photo: Ed Kolenovsky, AP

Muhammad Ali, with his chief attorney, Hayden Covington, right, goes to trial on charges of refusing to be inducted into the armed services, on June 19, 1967, in Houston, Texas. – Photo: Ed Kolenovsky, AP

His life was one of polarization and reconciliation, anger and love, and a ferocious, uncompromising commitment to nonviolence, all delivered through the scandalously dirty vessel of corruption known as boxing. Few have ever walked so confidently and casually from man to myth, and that journey was well earned.

As football great Jim Brown said to me last year: “It was unbelievable, the courage he had. He wasn’t just a championship athlete. He was a champion who fought for his people …. The man used his athletic ability as a platform to project himself right up there with world leaders … going after things that very few people have the courage to go after. From the standpoint of his ability to perform and his ability to be involved with the world, Ali was the most important sports figure in history.”

Or, as Bill Russell said in 1967 in supporting Ali’s decision to risk five years in prison for resisting the draft: “I envy Muhammad Ali …. He has something I have never been able to attain and something very few people possess: He has absolute and sincere faith.”

His life was one of polarization and reconciliation, anger and love, and a ferocious, uncompromising commitment to nonviolence, all delivered through the scandalously dirty vessel of corruption known as boxing.

Ali’s death, however, should be an opportunity to remember what made him so dangerous in the first place. The best place to start would be to recall the part of him that died decades ago: his voice. No athlete, no politician, no preacher ever had a voice quite like his or used it as effectively as he did.

Ali’s voice was playful, lilting, with a rhythm that matched his otherworldly footwork in the boxing ring. It’s a voice that forced you to listen lest you miss a joke, a gibe or a flash of joy.

Retired New York Times sportswriter Robert Lipsyte said to me, “Before everything else, what I’ll remember about the young Ali was that he was so much fun” and that his voice had a physical beauty that “beat you to death with his attractiveness.”

No athlete, no politician, no preacher ever had a voice quite like his or used it as effectively as he did.

With that voice, face and body, the man Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. could have been Michael Jordan before Jordan: an icon of ungodly wealth and conspicuous consumption.

But Cassius Clay chose to be Muhammad Ali and do something different with that voice. He used it to speak out from a hyper-exalted sports platform to change the world. He joined the Nation of Islam in frustration with the pace and demands of the Civil Rights Movement.

He was willing to go to jail in opposition to the war in Vietnam. But one has to hear the voice, and read the words, to understand what exactly made it so dangerous and, by extension, made it all matter.

Imagine not only an athlete but a public figure telling these kinds of unvarnished truths. To this day it is awe-inspiring that he once bellowed, “God damn the white man’s money,” at a time when such words were more than shocking – they were sacrilege.

Cassius Clay chose to be Muhammad Ali and do something different with that voice. He used it to speak out from a hyper-exalted sports platform to change the world.

It is awe-inspiring that, when facing five years in prison, Ali said: “I strongly object to the fact that so many newspapers have given the American public and the world the impression that I have only two alternatives in this stand – either I go to jail or go to the Army. There is another alternative, and that alternative is justice.

“If justice prevails, if my constitutional rights are upheld, I will be forced to go neither to the Army nor jail. In the end, I am confident that justice will come my way, for the truth must eventually prevail.”

He was equally moving when he said on another occasion: “Boxing is nothing, just satisfying to some bloodthirsty people. I’m no longer a Cassius Clay, a Negro from Kentucky. I belong to the world, the Black world. This is more than money.”

We haven’t heard Ali speak for himself in more than a generation, and it says something damning about this country that he was only truly embraced after he lost his power of speech, stripped of that beautiful voice.

Ali may have seemed like he was from another world, but his greatest gift was that he gave us quite a simple road map to walk his path. It is not about being a world-class athlete or an impossibly beautiful and charismatic person. It is simply to stand up for what you believe in.

His greatest gift was that he gave us quite a simple road map to walk his path. It is not about being a world-class athlete or an impossibly beautiful and charismatic person. It is simply to stand up for what you believe in.

Political courage might seem to be in short supply, but it was inside a young boxer from Louisville who dreamed about being King of the World. Goodbye, Champ. Rest in power and peace.

Dave Zirin is the author of several books, including “The John Carlos Story“ (Haymarket) and his latest, Brazil’s Dance with the Devil,” and sports editor for The Nation magazine, where the first part of this column first appeared. The second part first appeared in the Los Angeles Times. Receive his column every week by emailing dave@edgeofsports.com. Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com.

Tags

Filed Under: Africa and the World
Tags:

9 thoughts on “‘I just wanted to be free’: The radical reverberations of Muhammad Ali

  1. Anh Le

    Dave Zirin:

    Thank you for this wonderful remembrance of Muhammad Ali.

    Muhammad Ali's Legacy will endure for all times.

    Anh Le
    San Francisco, CA

    Reply
  2. arslan672

    The last thing you would like is to attend for hours that you ought to transfer paperwork. If you'll be moving big files that are larger when compared to a few kilobytes, you should consider the proceed speed in the drive. http://www.itstechnology.net

    Reply
  3. arslan672

    In the beginning: Men in addition to women associated with ages acquire very creative and extremely convincing in relation to justifying in addition to explaining apart why success went out of the own achieve. I don’t believe that some of the factors tend to be valid inside the physical planet. http://www.favientertainment.net

    Reply
  4. arslan672

    There are many of facts to consider when arranging an entertainer. The same as any unbiased business, there’s the variation inside the quality in a single entertainer to a different. Some are usually wonderful, some are usually good and several are possibly less than the normal you’d assume. http://www.fivestarentertainment.net

    Reply
  5. arslan672

    Amusement campaigns provide your business with a powerful platform that you'll harness your personal audience's unquenchable need to have electronic amusement. Brand new movies nevertheless draw large crowds. Rising artists still seize the actual amusement limelight. http://www.skykingentertainment.net

    Reply
  6. AU Brand Clothing

    Those gifts are really funny, i did not think anything as a gift item. we are just given something special item for gift and we should choose something better. in fact there are so many celebrating party i have join where people are only took flowers for celebrate. i have doubt that is really you think that items are used for gift.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

BayView Classifieds - ads, opportunities, announcements



Click and find the
TravelVisaPro.com