“I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.”
Now that he has passed on from this world (Allah yarhmak), I, along with millions of others, have spent some time reflecting on his life, career, and legacy. All three are more complicated than many realize. And, unless you spend more than 5 minutes studying the 1960s, Ali can be hard to “get” from the perspective of 2016.
Already people are fighting over whether he “belongs” to the African American community or to “all of humanity,” whether or not he “transcended race,” and whether claiming that he did is itself “erasure.” I would say that, inasmuch as Ali “belongs” to anyone, he belongs first and foremost to the African American community, and then to everyone else. That’s because his significance cannot be separated from what he did and what he stood for in the 1960s and ’70s–it was completely entwined with the Civil Rights movement and the racial issues of the day.
Even though, growing up, I didn’t pick up all the subtle aspects of Ali’s place in the 1960s, he was still a hero to me because of three things: his phenomenal fighting skill, his personality, and his fearlessness in matters of religion, race, and society (all of which intersected in his person in very powerful ways).
Let’s start, actually, with religion. Muhammad Ali’s commitment to Islam is an aspect of his life and career that was a good deal more controversial at the time than it was in the 1990s and after. At one point, looking back at his life, he remarked that he did not actually become a good Muslim until after he had retired (I can’t remember where I read that, might have been Hauser’s oral history biography, which I highly recommend). And yet, to hear him talk about his faith and religion during his career, his deep conviction cannot be doubted, as in this British interview from 1977:
People also forget that, much like Tim Tebow, Ali used the occasions of his fights to speak about his faith. Take for instance his post-fight interview after “The Rumble in the Jungle” with Foreman:
Yet, when he announced his conversion to Islam, shortly after winning the title from Sonny Liston in 1964, the negative reaction was enhanced by more than just racism and Islamophobia–it was because his conversion was under the aegis of the Nation of Islam, a controversial organization to say the least. People also tend to forget that Ali did not side with Malcolm X when the latter broke with the organization, but stayed true to Elijah Muhammad (he later famously said that not helping Malcolm X was one of the great mistakes of his life). People also tend to forget that not everyone in the African American community looked on Ali’s conversion positively. Ernie Terrell, for example flat-out refused to call him other than Cassius Clay, which led Ali to mercilessly pound him for 15 rounds while shouting “What’s my name?” between blows. George Foreman to this day still feels Ali was led down the wrong path by Malcolm X in 1963-4. Eddie Murphy captured the feeling of more than a few African Americans in the 1960s, in Coming to America:
So, Ali and Islam were complicated by a host of factors which are largely lost to us now, unless you dig for them.
Ali’s refusal to be drafted is another iconic moment in the legend, and one that is an integral part of his life, career, and legacy, because the punishment for refusing the draft cost him nearly four of his prime years, and when he finally was allowed back into the ring he wasn’t quite as perfect has he was before. It also set up what proved to be sad and regrettable antagonism with the man who won the championship after it had been stripped from Ali: Joe Frazier.
Frazier, of whom one could rightly use the word “noble,” was severely hurt by Ali’s use of a pretty full range of slurs–Joe was an “Uncle Tom,” a “gorilla,” the “white man’s champion,” etc., and making fun of Frazier’s physical appearance. Frazier got his own back, however, on March 8 1971, in “The Fight of the Century”:
But for all the subsequent boxing drama unleashed by Ali’s refusal of the draft, the refusal itself had tremendous significance outside the ring. You have to remember that, when he refused to take the step forward on April 28, 1967, the Civil Rights Movement had already fractured, as growing dissatisfaction with King’s non-violent methods and the half-implementation of reforms left many in African American communities feeling like more forceful approaches were needed. At the same time, the lid was about to blow on the Vietnam War and anti-Vietnam protest, culminating in October at the Battle of Ong Thanh and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. So, for the most visible person in the country to put into words what so many were feeling had a galvanizing effect on people. In fact, as Dave Zirin recently pointed out in The Nation, it was actually Ali who influenced King’s statement against the Vietnam War later in ’67.
And as the above clip indicates, Ali, left without means to earn a living and pay the bills, was also not afraid to defend himself on college campuses where, the dominant 1960s narrative notwithstanding, not everyone was liberal and anti-war. This extended to going one-on-one with William F. Buckley Jr. himself, on Firing Line (full video is here):
So, Dave Zirin is spot on when he writes in Jacobin:
Ali has been absorbed by the establishment as a legend — a harmless icon. There is barely a trace left of the controversial truth: There has never been an athlete more reviled by the mainstream press, more persecuted by the US government, or more defiantly beloved throughout the world than Muhammad Ali. There is now barely a mention of this Ali, who was the catalyst for bringing the issues of racism and war into professional sports.
The athlete who fought Superman in 1978, whose professional record was 56-5, who moved to Sunni Islam and later in life read deeply into Sufi texts, whose successes and failures were both larger than life, should be remembered, as Ben Cohen suggests, in all his complexity and in the context of his times, because it is the historical context of his times–the 1960s and 1970s–that gives him his significance. That and his phenomenal fighting ability, such as the spectacular knockout of George Foreman in 1975:
Ali was flawed. Of course he was. Personally, I like my heroes flawed–it adds to their authenticity. As a historian, I’m used to pointing out that people are never as perfect as we like to think they are. But that also means that I relish those moments when someone rises above human flaws and frailty and does what is right, and true, and noble, and just, because it is right, true, noble, and just. And Muhammad Ali had far more of those moments than most.