The Friends Of Muhammad Ali, Now And Then

Muhammad Ali was more than a champion, and more than a fighter. He championed revolutionary ideas, in revolutionary ways. Let's remember that, before history and expedience smooths it out.
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There should be a word for this, for when a man dies beloved for the same defiance for which he was hated when it mattered most.

Martin Luther King Jr. had it, and has it. How many who celebrate him in our time for what they would have hated in the 1960s? How many, if they had been been born 30 years earlier, would have would have considered the Bus Boycott a nuisance, or the March on Washington an intolerable affront to a cherished way of life, the beloved “institutions” which held so many down? How many of those not only celebrate King today, but have made him into a weapon against the kind of activity he performed in his life? They remember him, the man who said “a riot is the language of the unheard” and that “large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity”, as something altogether softer—an engine of uplift, and an emblem of a consensus that never existed.  Indeed, one whose life was struggle, and struggle cut short, because of the consensus it was spent against.

So we need a word for that, something to describe what history does, how it sanitizes, how it turns the difficult music of a life spent crawling upwards into the purest easy-listening pop, and how it tells you that it always sounded this way.

We need this word to describe what happened to Muhammad Ali over the last silent decades of his life, and especially after his death last week. Today, what we hear most about the man is how universally he was beloved—the greatest. The greatest fighter, the greatest talker, so fast, so smart, so pretty and so beautiful.

And he was those things. But universally beloved? To say that is to say that he was not what he was, that his life was not what it was. He was great precisely because he was not, and was willing not to be, as long as it took.


It’s impossible to imagine a world in which Ali wasn’t famous. Foreman and Tyson were, and for all Foreman’s smiling goofball charm in his second incarnation as a champion, Ali’s personality was bigger than the sky. It was that charisma and his sui generis personal generosity, as much as his greatness, that made Ali perhaps the most famous athlete ever to live. But what Ali did from ’67 – ’70, when he refused to be drafted and was refused, in turn, his right to fight in the ring, also helped to make him famous—and infamous, then and still, to a great many people.

At this distance, Ali’s refusal makes so much sense. He did not want to go fight for America in Vietnam because he did not believe the war was just, and because he did not believe that his nation, America, with its generations of violence against black people, deserved his life. He said it in so many ways, so many eloquent and haunting ways, but that was what he said: how could you ask this of me when you do this to me, to my people? This was the year before the Civil Rights Act of 1968, the Fair Housing Act; it was only ten years since Eisenhower had sent the 101st Airborne to allow nine black children to go to high school in Arkansas. So who could doubt that he meant what he said, or that he had the right to say it? There are so many stories about that, and it is not my story to tell. But there is another story.

Reflect on this: Muhammad Ali was a Muslim, and he died in the middle of a presidential election campaign in which one candidate can’t stop talking about banning Muslims from traveling to America, and hasn’t entirely ruled out Muslim internment camps. In the primaries, that guy beat out another candidate—a guy who had a strong shot at the nomination and probably a stronger shot at the presidency—who suggested that American Muslim neighborhoods should be actively policed. That second guy was, relatively speaking, the moderate.

Both these men celebrated the life of Muhammad Ali this week. That’s what I mean. The greatest, a champion, a wonderful guy. Well, that’s how it is: the years steal danger from old men, and from the dead. But you can’t remember Ali without remembering how dangerous he was; that’s a crime. Who could doubt that Ali was dangerous to them? What would they have said when he was there to shout back? What would they have thought when those great, blurring fists, were cocked on the other side of the aisle? The years, and his death, finally make him safe. It seems to me that’s the last thing he was.

And it seems to me that’s the last thing he should be remembered as. Ali is gone, but the question will not dissipate. How much do all of us belong to something that does not necessarily want us?  Which will not allow us to belong, and fights to deny the benefits its more treasured children enjoy as birthright? How many who have not experienced it can feel what its like not to be one of those children? In dissenting from his court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage, the chief justice of the United States Supreme Court noted how “disheartening” it was that supporters had not merely allowed their arguments to eventually carry the day, as if America had even a halfway decent record of offering contested freedoms gradually and without intervention. As if all this were a good-hearted contest and not something upon which lives depended, and one which had not broken good people for bad reasons, casually, for generations. So it is with this—it is a childish thing to act as if Martin Luther King and Muhammad Ali, of all people, impossibly, unbelievably, never meant any harm to America as it was. To America as it, in many unfortunate ways, still remains. That was the whole point. That was the heroic thing.

Ali does not seem to have been, at heart, a separatist. He understood well just how much America would embrace him, and he embraced that as the challenge that it was. “I am America,” he said, “I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me.” He knew that this was his country, before anyone else understood it. It’s still unclear what that knowledge is worth, for him and for people like him, even after he died. How do you know if this really your country? The home you grew up in, the color of your passport? It should be the place you belong, and where you are kept safe. For how many is that dream still not a reality?

In sanitizing the hero, many people want to take the violence from Ali’s jabs. And in the process, they want to make the present cleaner; to make it the fight already won, not the one to come. The picture of Ali over Liston, not the one flat on his back in front of Frazier, the young man, not the old. And so we proceed as if we are now all agreed on the great questions Ali engaged, as if, most criminally, we would all have been with him when it matter. When  he aligned himself with the oppressed of the world and against the country that aimed to send him to war—with him when he said he said that no Viet Cong had ever called him nigger, and when he identified white America as a more urgent enemy than Ho-Chi Minh. It is easy to be Ali’s friend now. It was not always so. And it is easy to pretend America has changed more than it has.

A man has just died who said, “I wish people would love everybody else the way they love me,” and we can start doing that now. It can be our test: An America for all of us still needs to be built. A lot of people who seem like friends today are not going to like it very much; a lot of people who believe they stand with Ali now do not, and will never. Their dreams are not his dreams, they only seem like it in the half-light of a day gone by. But to ask we must give, and we can all give something. That seems like a place to start.

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