Of all the notable passings this year, Muhammad Ali’s might be the most profound.
In our lifetime, he’s perhaps the country’s most recognizable and globally loved individual. He was a lot of things to a lot of people. Not always good. He made some people’s heads explode. In that way, I think he got everything right. He made the right people mad and gave inspiration, courage and hope to those who needed it most.
Many years ago, I was on a public bus in Washington, D.C., coming home from school. I heard two men behind me in a conversation that was rapidly increasing in hostility. One said, “His name is Muhammad Ali.” The other loudly spoke over him, “You mean CLAY?!” They went back and forth like this a few times. It took me years to understand what this exchange was about.
I spent years of my youth knowing that Muhammad Ali was a heavyweight champion boxer, but I didn’t know much else about him. I knew what the Rumble in the Jungle and the Thrilla in Manila were. I knew who George Foreman, Joe Frazier and Howard Cosell were, all lumped together in my mind.
My father never spoke of Ali. His conversion to Islam, conscientious objection to the Vietnam War and banishment from boxing were never taught to me in school. It was as if a major part of Ali’s life had simply never happened.
As a young adult, I started learning about the daunting challenges that Ali faced, and his incredible activism, and it occurred to me that his greatest achievements happened outside the ring. In the late 1980s, I rented video documentaries on Ali and, when opportunity allowed, bought copies so I could watch them over and over. The footage captured him fearlessly taking on members of the press, who showed equal signs of respect and consternation as this young man, who spoke a mile a minute, used his platform as an athlete to promote civil rights. It wasn’t what they wanted to hear, but it absolutely needed to be said. I always liked the scowl Ali had when he was schooling people, as if he was admonishing them for their bad behavior and knew they knew better.
The Watergate burglars made their infamous entry on March 8, 1971. This was the night of the Ali-Frazier fight. They figured it was a good distraction. The plumbers got busted, Ali lost by decision.
If you get a chance, watch the footage of Ali on The Mike Douglas Show from 1974 and imagine his American history lesson going into thousands of households all over the country — and how fast the channel was changed. Just these few minutes of footage from a little over 40 years ago, which seem like such a vastly different version of America, show you how evolved this conversation has become and how much more evolved it needs to get. Ali is a large part of why things are, in many ways, better than they were.
I think one of the most amazing things about Ali is that he wasn’t assassinated. If you read what he was saying when he was saying it, it’s almost unbelievable that a bullet didn’t find him. Unsurprisingly, Ali was targeted by J. Edgar Hoover’s Counter Intelligence Program, or COINTELPRO. It would be amazing to read the files the FBI had on Ali.
If high-minded ideas and great songs could lead to momentous change, everything would be different. Dylan’s music would have prevented future wars, Marley’s would have made peace the law of all humanity. What Ali was laying on people was, at its most palatable, quite a wake-up call — and at its most severe reactionary, alienating and self-defeating.
Not to defend bad behavior, but I can understand someone getting frustrated. A good example of Ali taking his logic up a dry creek can be heard on a British TV talk show hosted by Michael Parkinson. Ali appeared on the show in June 1971. It’s worth watching because his delivery is so great, but what he’s saying isn’t attempting to bring people together:
“There are many white people who mean right and in their hearts wanna do right. If 10,000 snakes were coming down that aisle now, and I had a door that I could shut, and in that 10,000, 1,000 meant right, 1,000 rattlesnakes didn’t want to bite me, I knew they were good ... should I let all these rattlesnakes come down, hoping that that thousand get together and form a shield? Or should I just close the door and stay safe?”
I’d like to think that I would be one of the 1,000 rattlesnakes. I can understand Ali’s anger and exasperation, but if you push away those who are on your side, you won’t get far.
To try to put Ali’s statement in context, the Kent State shootings had happened the summer before, the Vietnam War was still raging, Nixon’s resignation was about three weeks away. The times were turbulent, and attitudes slammed into the red on a regular basis. I think it was in this time that Ali started seeing a bigger idea of the world and his place in it, and started pulling himself upward. By the time he’s connecting with kids on the streets of Zaire before the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle as depicted in When We Were Kings, he was a true global force. One guy! The U.S. has never had an export like Ali and likely never will again.
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The great efforts and innumerable victories for humanity carried out by Muhammad Ali are proof that no single person or act will right all wrongs or set things on a better course forever. It is almost always a dangerous and grim task to improve human relations, but these stones must be lifted and trudged up the mountain again and again. Since it is impossible to thank the great Muhammad Ali enough, the best thing to do is keep his message forever moving forward.