“I’ve got another Joe Louis,” his father, Cassius Clay, exclaimed, full of pride, the first time he saw his young namesake fight, and he was both right and wrong. His son, who later decided to change his name to Muhammad Ali in rejection of a long and unequal past, became a celebrated champion, like Joe Louis; but he did not sell the perks of Uncle Sam nor was he forced to end life as a Vegas doorman.
Ali objected, conscientiously, during the Vietnam war, which he refused to join as a soldier. At the time, a disproportionate number of young blacks were dying over in Asia, on foreign soil. Over thirty percent of these segregated, ostracized individuals were giving their lives for democracy elsewhere when, in their native land, they were only eleven percent of the population. The Vietcong were not his enemies, and he did not want to “drop bombs and bullets” on the brown people he was being asked to kill. “They never called me nigger, they never lynched me,” he said at the time in an interview. “They didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father.”
Ali was also aware that his own genes were the carriers of a much confused and convoluted history. “I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize,” Ali said when he announced his name change in the 1960s, following his trip to the continent of Africa with Malcolm X. That was when he realized that he was not just a hero at home. He was a figure relevant across a wider geography. Back in the country, he saw himself as “Black, confidant, cocky.” And then thinking, perhaps of the white Clays, who mixed their blood in his family’s, likely under cover of night, with hardly a word of recognition in the day, he continued. “My name, not yours. My religion, not yours. My goal, my own. Get used to me.”
Uncle Sam, in his top hat and striped pants, had long taunted him with an outstretched finger. He noticed him first in 1955, soon after a thirteen year-old Emmett Till was tortured and killed in Sunflower County, Mississippi. Till and Clay were the same age, and Clay could not at all fathom why Till was so brutally punished. A fighter even then, he decided that doing something was much better than doing nothing. So he convinced a friend to join him in the scheme he hatched. “It was late at night when we reached the old railroad station,” he recalls in his autobiography, The Greatest. “I remember a poster of a thin white man … who pointed at us above the words: UNCLE SAM WANTS YOU. We stopped and hurled stones at it, and then broke into the shoeshine boy’s shed and stole two iron shoe rests and took them to the railroad track. We planted them deep on the tracks and waited. When a big blue diesel engine came around the bend, it hit the shoe rests and pushed them nearly thirty feet before one of the wheels locked and sprang from the tracks. … I broke out running … and then I looked back. I’ll never forget the eyes of the man … staring at us: UNCLE SAM WANTS YOU. … It took two days to get up enough nerve to go back there. A work crew was still clearing up the debris, and the man in the poster was still pointing. I always knew that sooner or later he would confront me, and I would confront him.”
Clay, the wily Kentucky boy, figured out what he could do to symbolically take a segregated world momentarily off its clear, fast-forward agenda of pushing him and those who looked like him out of the way, telling them they could not eat, drink water, sit or live in the same spaces as whites. And, for a time, he achieved that disruption, making America notice and see a black man who was not afraid, a black man with punch and power, a black man with lip and sass, a black man with nerve and intelligence.
When Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. took on the odds that are stacked high against the have-nots in America, he already could see that young men of his appearance and background were targeted as the enemy. And sixty-one years post Till, when Ali stopped breathing, his perception was still a national fact.
The men who killed Till and weighed his mutilated body down at the bottom of a river in the second half of the 20th century were quickly exonerated in Money, Mississippi; and then they boasted about and admitted their deed in Look magazine, proud of what they had done plus what they interpreted as the public applause condoning that they got away scot free to revel even more in their deed. And now there are men, in the first half of the 21st century, who have taken the lives of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin, and many others, including women and children. And they too have been cleared of all wrongdoing. In his time, Ali was a virtual army alone, on his own, a figurehead made to suffer, like the photograph of him on the Esquire cover in 1968, taken by George Lois, which shows a martyr’s symbolic death, his body pierced by many arrows, like St. Sebastian.
But Ali found kind allies in unlikely places and faces. One of them was Gorgeous George, a boxer, who befriended the young gold medalist in 1960, telling him: “A lot of people will pay to see someone shut your mouth. So keep on bragging, keep on sassing, and always be outrageous.” Bertrand Russell, the Welsh philosopher and Nobel Laureate was another friend, who wrote to him after he was convicted of dodging the draft in 1967 in Kentucky: “I am sure you know that you spoke for your people and the oppressed everywhere in the courageous defiance of American power. They will try to break you because you are a symbol of a force they are unable to destroy, namely, the aroused consciousness of a people determined no longer to be butchered and debased with fear and oppression.” And those words from Russell, then in his nineties, are no less relevant today, as the national conscience is realigning.
In the end, disease took away Ali’s stability and his voice, which, in its stridency, had been, perhaps, more lethal than his fists, and at least as fast as his feet. When he was in training in Louisville, he would run the tracks at Churchill Downs, with the thoroughbred horses. He admired their beauty and worked his body to be as fast and as strong and as sleek as theirs. For a long and stunning time, no one was stronger or faster. He took the Gold in Rome at the Olympics, beat Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson, Joe Frazier (not the first but the second time), and George Forman. When he retired, his record was 56-5. But he had won fights that were not just in the ring, and his biggest victory came in 1977 when the Supreme Court reversed an earlier ruling to jail him for refusing Uncle Sam’s call. He had grounds to religiously object, the justices said. America’s highest court gave him the benefit of the doubt. And he became, for the 20th and 21st centuries, the hero who really did float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.
And what is his legacy? That he championed and gave voice and pride to the underdog, in this country and abroad, naming the ill and pushing back, with courage, against the proud killing of black minors. And he paid, in full, the price of his convictions. He lived the truth that sports and fair play are one and the same, even if they require you to stand alone and take the unpopular, courageous position that few others dare. He was a black champion who stood with his community. A figure of transition from the isolated black sports hero made plaything, Ali exemplified a higher calling, the sportsman as icon of proud, assertive times able to set a new thrust, apart from a routinized past, as he moved ahead and remapped traffic as usual. And he inspired others to use their brawn to stand for community, as John Carlos and Tommie Smith did at the Olympics in 1968 and as the Missouri university football team did in response to racial and religious insults bandied across campus in 2015. The team quoted Dr. King about the danger of injustice given wide berth everywhere and hit the cash register to show that tolerance of a politics of disrespect and disregard is no longer the modus operandi to be condoned.
Let me end with the words of Gerald Early, historian, who understood, deep in his heart, why Muhammad Ali, said an emphatic no to one particular brand and kind of history, the kind that was moving fast down the tracks of time and paying no heed to the people who had laid down those tracks, mixing their blood deep into the ground. “I felt something greater than pride. I felt as though my honor as a black boy had been defended, my honor as a human being. … The day that Ali refused the draft, I cried in my room, I cried for him and for myself, for my future and for his, for all our black possibilities.”
And now we cry again, with gratitude, that Ali, once Clay, lived among us and used his talents, day and night, as long as breath would hold, to champion the true national prerogative to live together, in peace and safety, as American people of the same blood, which requires that structures laid to race our lives are met with strength and just a bit of verve, for leavening – plus a pinch and a sprinkle of sass.