Weekend Update 6/4/2016: “My conscience won’t let me…”
I had a bunch of other news links and such gathered yesterday after posting Friday Links that I had planned to post as weekend update this morning. But Muhammed Ali died last night. And he deserves a post all his own.
Muhammed Ali represented a lot of things. The best obituary I’ve found for him today is by Dave Zirin posted at The Nation: ‘I Just Wanted to Be Free’: The Radical Reverberations of Muhammad Ali. Zirin does a great job explaining the many ways Ali shaped the discussion of race, equality, war, peace, and even religion during the 60s and 70s.
The big one was his refusal to be drafted to fight in Vietnam. He made a lot of statements about it, before he was arrested and after his initial trial. One is quoted on the meme I included at the top of this post, but here’s another:
“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.”
When he was drafted in 1967, he reported at the induction station as ordered, but he refused to step forward when his name was called, and declared himself a conscientious objector. When he was warned that he was committing a felony by refusing to step forward, he repeated his statement to take him to jail. He was arrested and stood trial. The jury deliberated less than a half hour before convicting him. His lawyer appealed, and Ali was released pending the appeal. Ali was stripped of his Heavyweight Championship title, had his passport revoked, and was systematically denied licenses to box in every state.
Federal appeals courts all upheld the conviction and it went to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1971 in an 8-0 ruling (Thurgood Marshall recused himself from the case), Ali’s conviction was overturned. By that point, public opinion had shifted considerably against the war, and some have tried to tie the court’s decision to that shift. Possibly, but the court’s reason for overturning the conviction was pretty simple: the draft board had never given a reason as to why they refused to grant him conscientious objector status (which would have had him serve in an unarmed capacity). The law required that the board cite at least one of three reasons why objector status is refused, and they never did.
The evidence of the shift in public opinion toward the Vietnam War in general and Ali in particular actually came a few months before the Supreme Court ruling: 1) in September 1970 a federal court ordered the New York State Boxing Commission to reinstate Ali’s license, and 2) in August 1970 the City of Atlanta Athletic Commission granted him a license to box. In October of that year Ali returned to the ring, defeating Jerry Quarry after three rounds. Ali then defeated Oscar Bonavena in December at Madison Square Garden, which set him up to take on then reigning heavyweight champ Joe Frazier. It was called the Fight of the Century for many reasons, one being that neither Frazier nor Ali had ever been defeated in a professional fight.
Ali was famous for trash-talking his opponents, which reached some odd heights in the lead up to this match. Frazier and Ali were both African American. Ali had been raised on a “two-mule farm” in Kentucky, while Frazier was the 12th child of South Carolina sharecroppers. But Ali kept saying to the press that the only people rooting for Joe Frazier are white people in suits, Alabama sheriffs, and members of the Ku Klux Klan, while claiming that Ali was fighting for the kids in the ghetto. At one point this caused Frazier to remark within earshot of several reporters, “What the fuck does he know about the ghetto?”
Whether Ali knew anything about the ghetto, I can attest to the fact that racists like my dad and his Klan friends (yes, my dad had friends who were klansmen, though every time my Grandpa derided him for it, he insisted that he wasn’t a member; I don’t think Grandpa believed him any more than I did) were all rooting for Frazier. I know this because, while watching football with my dad was never a fun experience when I was a child, we somehow managed to watch boxing together just fine. He didn’t mind answering questions about what was happening when we watched boxing. I’m not sure why. So the most positive sports memories I have with my dad are all around boxing bouts. I’d watched boxing a lot with Dad before the Fight of the Century. I was ten years old the first time Ali fought Frazier, and I watching the whole thing with Dad. It was a little surreal, watching my dad cheer Frazier on.
Frazier beat Ali by decision. My dad’s only disappointments with the match were that Ali hadn’t gotten knocked out, and that dad hadn’t found anyone willing to bet against Frazier for the bout. A few years later, after Ali had won many more bouts, lost one and got a broken jaw out of it, and won some more, Frazier and Ali had a rematch, which Ali won. Dad had found someone to bet with this time. To say that he was pissed off at Ali’s win is putting it mildly.
Dad refused to watch Ali fight George Foreman for the world championship. He said boxing wasn’t any fun when it was only black guys fighting (he didn’t say it so politely, though). So I watched the Rumble in the Jungle with Grandpa, instead. Partway through the match, I remember telling Grandpa that I thought I was becoming an Ali fan. At the end of the match, Grandpa talked about the kind of endurance and bullheadedness it took to survive Foreman’s impossibly powerful blows, and told me he was an Ali fan now, too.
After winning the World Heavyweight Boxing championship that second time, he went on to more matches, most of which he won (Ali’s win by decision over Chuck “The Bayonne Bleeder” Wepner is the bout which Sylvester Stallone said inspired the film Rocky), before losing the title to Leon Spinks in a split decision, then win it a third time. After retiring, he even tried to win the world championship for a fourth time in 1980. Though everyone knew that his health wasn’t really up to it. His performance in the loss to Larry Holmes caused Stallone to describe it ringside as “like watching an autopsy on a man who is still alive.”
For me, Ali’s greatest acheivments happened outside the ring, as documented in articles like this: Muhammad Ali’s bouts outside the ring: Embrace of Islam and refusal to fight in Vietnam.
CNN has posted a lot of good videos (including a great interview with one of his daughters) along with their obituary: Muhammad Ali, ‘The Greatest,’ dies at 74.
Ali’s daughter, Maryum, said that her father, despite his very arrogant public persona, was always surprised long after his retirement, when strangers would come up to tell him how much he had inspired them, or how his life had convinced them to abandon the racism they’d been raised in. “He was never certain that people would remember him.”
I, for one, hope his memory outlives us all.