Jun 6, 2016
With the death of Muhammad Ali, at the age of 74, the media have been filled with paeans about Ali’s “humanity,” his “courage,” his style, even his well-known lip.
The bitter irony is that the people praising him today are the same kind who attempted to put him in prison in 1967 and did strip him of his boxing title.
In early 1964, a brash young boxer named Cassius Clay burst on the public scene when he challenged champion Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship.
Despite 8-1 odds against him, Clay controlled the bout. With a graceful boxing finesse, he danced at a distance, causing Liston to swing wildly and miss. At the start of Round 7, Liston was not able to answer the bell, and Clay, who appeared to be unmarked, declared himself the winner.
Clay already had rubbed many reporters the wrong way with his outspoken and confident style outside the ring. But right after his crushing victory, he announced, with Malcolm X by his side, that he had joined the Nation of Islam. Soon he announced he had changed his name to Muhammad Ali.
The racists in and out of the press attacked him.
But Ali became a hero to black people, and to others moved by the struggles of the black population.
Unlike other sport figures who made a name for themselves, Ali used his fame to champion black people’s cause. When in 1966 he refused to be drafted into the Army in opposition to the Vietnam War, he spoke to a whole generation. Many never forgot his statement that “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong. No Viet Cong ever called me Nigger.”
The following year he added, “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.”
Ali’s refusal to be drafted reinforced the young working class soldiers already resisting the war from within the military. It also encouraged other athletes to take a stand, particularly basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title in April 1967 for refusing the draft. On June 20, he was convicted of a felony. For taking his stand, Ali was banned from boxing during his prime.
And he paid this price: when he came back three and a half years older, he had lost some of his edge. After three more years, he won back the title, then kept it in one of the most punishing fights ever seen, the one in Manila.
Ali famously had referred to his own boxing style as “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” He was to discover that “floating like a butterfly” did not protect him from punishment in the ring. As with many other boxers, accumulated punishment led to the form of Parkinson’s disease he was afflicted with – and which eventually silenced his voice.
Even before he stopped boxing, his speech had become a little slurred. Eventually, he was unable to express his own thoughts and others often spoke for him.
After 9/11, he denounced those who had carried out the attacks as unfitting to be Muslims, saying “Islam is not a killer religion.” He added, “Whatever decision, they [i.e., the U.S. government] decide, I’m behind 100 per cent.”
It was a statement dredged up and rebroadcast to support wars carried out in the Middle East.
He became officially rehabilitated, turned into a global ambassador for the U.S., a sad end for someone who had once stood up for those in other countries who struggled against U.S. domination.
Nonetheless, Muhammad Ali will hold a special place in the memories of several generations who decided the only reasonable choice was to fight against racism and war.