Ali: An Imperfect Icon
A journalist describes his encounter with the champ and the discovery of a different side of Ali
I clearly remember the raw, overcast afternoon, standing in the driveway in front of the White House briefing room on Feb. 11, 1980. Just a Howard University journalism student, I was reporting for our newspaper, The Hilltop, and standing smack dab in the middle of a press scrum awaiting the arrival of Muhammad Ali. “The Greatest” had just returned from a five-nation tour of Africa, where he was trying to drum up support for President Jimmy Carter’s planned boycott of the summer Olympics in Moscow to protest the Soviet Union’s military invasion of Afghanistan the previous Christmas.
Like many young African-Americans, Ali was my hero, not only for his exploits in the ring, but for the strong political stands he had taken, specifically his refusal to be inducted into the U.S. Army in April 1967. I had even visited him with my older brother, Peter, at his Deer Lake, Penn., training camp five years previously. But this time, I was not a fan; I was a reporter.
My encounter with Ali would leave me with the troubling realization that “The Greatest” was an imperfect icon — not intellectually deep, not without hypocrisy, and more prone to follow than to lead.
Ali finally emerged and stood before a phalanx of microphones and television cameras to make a statement and answer questions.
The former champion’s Africa mission, as Carter’s diplomatic emissary, had not gone well. He was snubbed by one of Africa’s most respected elder statesmen, President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, on the first leg of his tour. And although he would meet the leaders of Kenya, Liberia and Senegal, only Liberia, a virtual American colony since its creation in 1847, had joined the proposed boycott.
Given that the United States had long ignored African diplomatic initiatives toward ending white rule in Southern Africa, it was clear to many that Ali’s diplomatic mission had been a fool’s errand.
To add insult to injury, Ali had been peppered with questions by local reporters and appeared lost trying to comment on U.S. foreign policy toward Africa, where he was a hero of mythical proportions. “President Carter sent me to Africa to be America’s whipping boy,” the ill-prepared former champion told reporters in Tanzania, before recovering at his next stop in Kenya.
Fresh from meeting Carter in the Oval Office, Ali, who had been banned from fighting for 3 1/2 years for refusing to join the Army as a conscientious objector, told reporters that he supported reinstituting the draft to fight “Soviet aggression.”
“Now, when we were in Vietnam, I figured we were wrong,” said Ali. “Now, we’re right. I’d be the first to join. I’d get a rifle and jump in an airplane and jump out. Say Russia attacks America and America has to go some to stop Russia, I’d be the first to get into an airplane to go against that, especially if they’re attacking Islamic Muslims. So I think the draft is right.”
It was astonishing to me, but not surprising. I had followed Ali’s career and knew that he had been “handled” and advised by the Nation of Islam (NOI) for years. His manager and spiritual adviser was Herbert Muhammad, perhaps the most notorious of former leader Elijah Muhammad’s sons who ran the race-centered religious group. Herbert Muhammad had empowered his top lieutenants to keep Ali toeing the company line. It was well-known within the Nation that Ali did nothing outside the ring, and sometimes inside it, without first seeking Herbert Muhammad’s approval.
Despite his charismatic personality and his gift for gab, Ali was not a leader in the Nation of Islam, which later became, under Warith Muhammad, Elijah Muhammad’s immediate successor, the more mainstream Sunni Muslim World Community of al-Islam in the West. Ali had been exploited and manipulated by the NOI’s leadership after he won the heavyweight boxing title in 1964.
Ali’s first mentor, Malcolm X, had warned of this before he was drummed out of the Nation in March 1964, before subsequently striking out on his own and being assassinated on Feb. 21, 1965. (According to Talmadge Hayer, who was one of three NOI members convicted of the murder, Malcolm was killed by a six-man New Jersey NOI “special squad,” although he claims he was the only one arrested.)
While in Ghana in May 1964, Malcolm X ran into Ali, who was making his own tour of Africa, at the airport in the capital, Accra. The two talked briefly and shook hands. Afterward, Malcolm X sent the 22-year-old world heavyweight champion a telegram, which read:
“Because a billion of our people in Africa, Arabia and Asia love you blindly, you must now forever be aware of your tremendous responsibilities to them. You must never say or do anything that will permit your enemies to distort the beautiful image you have among our people.”
I printed a copy of the telegram before I left for the White House, read it to him at the press conference and asked him to respond.
Ali lashed out at me. He asked if I was a Muslim, and I replied that I was. Then the champ asked: “You’re not for America?” I told him that I was for the truth. Then, he unloaded.
“You take your Muslim self to another Muslim country and you’ll be glad to get here,” he said. “You’ll get out of there once you find out they don’t have no ice water.”
Ali then launched into a litany of derogatory comments about the very nations where he was held in near mythic esteem. Among other things, he said Muslim countries lacked modern amenities, such as television, reliable electricity and clean water. Ali said that at least in America, prisoners could watch television in their jail cells. Over the years, Ali would repeatedly make contemptuous remarks about the Third World.
(It also should be pointed out that two years before he won back his heavyweight crown in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, against George Foreman in 1974, Ali had signed to fight American Al Jones before a racially segregated audience in Johannesburg, South Africa. This was during the apartheid era and the agreement was struck over the objections of the black opposition. The match never took place because promoters did not meet a deadline to post letters of credit.)
Ali brushed off another question I had asking him to explain U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East and South Africa, where Washington had sided against Muslim and African countries. When the press conference ended soon after, Ali and I glared at each other briefly. I then took off for campus. I wrote a front-page story about Ali’s mission and an editorial critical of the champ, entitled, “Clay Pigeon.”
Ali’s suddenly contradictory progression from defiant, anti-war activist and racial and cultural icon in the 1960s to pro-establishment mouthpiece 20 years later should not have been surprising. Ali had always deferred to his advisers, from Herbert Muhammad and his various NOI handlers to his discredited lawyer Richard Hirschfield, (who ultimately hanged himself in a federal prison) who was accused of impersonating Ali in telephone calls and aligning Ali with various right-wing Republican politicians in his later years.
“Don’t blame Cassius [Ali],” Malcolm X told an Audubon Ballroom audience in June 1964. “You can’t blame him, no. Find out who is instructing him, who’s advising him. He’s just a child … When he wakes up, he’ll be all right. When everybody knows the truth, we’ll be all right.”
Somehow, despite some glaring contradictions over the years, things did turn out “all right” for Ali. The champ’s unique contributions to the global discourse, especially throughout the African diaspora, remain largely untarnished.
First, there was his public conversion to Islam after defeating Sonny Liston in February 1964. Adopting the name Muhammad Ali created an immediate religious, political and cultural solidarity with a billion Muslims around the world. This was soon cemented when Ali traveled to Egypt a few months later to meet with the charismatic President Gamal Abdel Nasser. While in Cairo, the new champion was repeatedly mobbed by enthusiastic crowds. This reception would be repeated in countries throughout the Muslim world, from Morocco to Saudi Arabia to Indonesia until the end of his life.
Then, of course, the defining moment was Ali’s refusal to join the armed forces in April 1967.
Even before refusing induction, Ali had drawn headlines for his reaction to his draft status being reclassified from 1-Y to 1-A. “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong,” Ali told reporters outside his home in Miami. “The Viet Cong never called me n—–.” This bold statement, of course, was made against the backdrop of a massive escalation of the American war effort in Vietnam, the height of the civil rights movement and roiling political and cultural divisions.
Although Ali had indeed made the statement, it was actually a line fed to him by a minder and sometime cornerman who later admitted to instructing the champion to repeat the line to the media.
This, of course, raises the possibility that Ali’s decision to resist induction was not his own, but was dictated by the NOI leadership in Chicago.
It should not be forgotten that during the 1960s, the Nation was a hierarchical organization in which discipline was often brutally enforced by the Fruit of Islam, the organization’s security arm.
There is at least some anecdotal evidence that Ali was simply following orders. There is a chapter in Sugar Ray Robinson’s autobiography, Sugar Ray, in which Ali’s fistic idol tells of a visit to the heavyweight champion’s New York hotel room shortly before his March 1967 title defense against Zora Folley. According to Robinson, he advised a reluctant and confused Ali to join the U.S. Army, after the champion told him he was being pressured by the NOI’s leadership to refuse.
Both Elijah Muhammad and his son Warith (born Wallace), had gone to prison after being convicted for refusing to serve in the armed forces. It was part of the Nation’s doctrine not to participate in wars from which the group had nothing to gain until its demands to be given territory to establish a separate state were met.
Regardless, the NOI kept especially tight rein on Ali in the months leading up to April 1967, posting a coterie of FOI bodyguards around him. This was amid a bloody internecine war between various NOI factions after Malcolm X’s murder, with Ali reportedly being targeted for retribution. Would Ali’s personal safety have been in doubt if he had decided to join the Army? Was Ali a reluctant captive of the movement? The truth may never be known.
The NOI had been in steady decline, at least since the early ’60s, because of rampant high-level corruption. Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad’s national spokesman, had begun to question the direction of the organization and its leadership, and he was being eased out. Ali, who was initially shunned by the leadership, became the group’s most valuable asset after he became champion. He was considered a crucial propaganda tool to bring in new recruits.
This had little to do with the raging ideological or moral debate over the Vietnam War as much as it had to do with the viability of the Nation of Islam. In truth, the movement was not revolutionary, but socially conservative and insular. It was never a part of the civil rights movement and never joined the anti-war protests.
Whether or not Ali chose or was pressured into not joining the army makes little difference to millions of his fans.
“It took amazing courage to take that stance,” said Jack White, a former longtime correspondent with Time magazine, who reported on race relations. “[Ali’s decision] bolstered the anti-war movement. Back then, it should be remembered that it was a minority position within America. Not to cooperate in the American war effort took guts. It was a principled decision. This guy was the heavyweight champion of the world. Whether it was his decision or not, he delivered.”
While the once-defrocked heavyweight champion became perhaps the most polarizing figure in America during the Vietnam era, it only added to his tremendous popularity as a revolutionary icon, especially in a Third World still emerging from centuries of colonial domination.
It did not seem to matter to his legions of supporters that Ali was a member of a socially conservative and anti-revolutionary, religious cult and was himself largely incapable of complex, political thought. The boxer had long ago transcended the limits of his background and his sport.
And he had a tremendous impact on my life. He was a magnetic figure whose public persona was infectious, especially to young African-American boys, including a teenager who grew up in Detroit in that era. Like many others, I tried to emulate Ali, becoming more self-confident and outspoken. It led to my modest foray into amateur boxing, my lifelong interest in Africa, as well as my initial interest in and subsequent conversion to Islam.
And, despite his faults as an icon and a man, it could be argued that without the powerful symbol he has become, without a Muhammad Ali, there would not be a Sunni Khalid. And for that, I am eternally grateful.
Sunni Khalid, an award-winning journalist, lives in Oakland, California. The former foreign correspondent and amateur boxer is currently writing a book on Egypt.