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Ali’s defiance helped change history

Speaking truth to power, the champ spoke for those who couldn’t

The greatest pillar in the Parthenon of unbowed black athletes has been removed. Muhammad Ali was one of a relative few who danced in the ring, circled the bases, rumbled across football fields, and sprinted down the track, knowing the match, game and race were not over until their feats led to social change in the stands, streets, and even government.

On this rarefied Acropolis strode the likes of Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, Curt Flood, Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Jim Brown, Paul Robeson, Arthur Ashe, Tommie Smith and John Carlos. They all, in their own ways, took abolitionist Frederick Douglass to heart: Power concedes nothing without a demand.

Perhaps Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who joined this number of the defiant when he changed his name from Lew Alcindor in the prime of his basketball career, said it best upon the news of Ali’s death this weekend at 74: “I may be 7 feet, 2 inches, but I never felt taller than when standing in his shadow.”

Ali was the most successful at parlaying the power of his fists into a demand for human dignity. His story must never be the current version that has been anesthetized by the passing of time, his crippling Parkinson’s disease and America’s advance to its first black president. He must not be buried as such a cuddly, harmless teddy bear that the three top remaining candidates for president can claim him with a straight face.

On Friday, a public memorial service will be held at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Kentucky, where President Clinton, actor Billy Crystal, journalist Bryant Gumbel and U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R, Utah) will be among those delivering eulogies.

Lost in all that is that Ali forced white America to take stock of its own humanity and lack of courage. When Ali changed his name from Cassius Clay and declared himself a member of the separatist Nation of Islam, he was condemned by many white sports columnists. When he refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War and lost three prime years of his career as society’s punishment, the greatest sportswriter of the era, Red Smith, wrote, “Squealing over the possibility that the military may call him up, Cassius makes himself as sorry a spectacle as those unwashed punks who picket and demonstrate against the war.”

Heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali, center, leaves the Armed Forces induction center with his entourage after refusing to be drafted into the Armed Forces in Houston, April 28, 1967. Hundreds of Ali fans and supporters filled the streets to greet him when he left the building.

Heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali, center, leaves the Armed Forces induction center with his entourage after refusing to be drafted into the Armed Forces in Houston, April 28, 1967. Hundreds of Ali fans and supporters filled the streets to greet him when he left the building.

AP Photo

But for ordinary African-Americans, whose voices were yet to be heard in the still largely segregated white media of the 1960s, Ali was the rebel my black working-class neighborhood on Milwaukee’s North side cheered on, even if we never walked a protest line or traded a Christian cross for a Nation of Islam crescent. Ali’s opposition was a key part of the dawning realization that Vietnam was killing black men overseas while draining domestic resources from President Lyndon B. Johnson’s so-called War on Poverty. As civil rights activist Julian Bond said in Thomas Hauser’s 1991 book on Ali:

“Certainly, there were others among the black leadership who took a stand against the war in Vietnam, most notably Martin Luther King with his Vietnam Summer. But most of the people who took an antiwar position tended to be organizational figures. … Because Ali stood on his own, his impact was special. He wasn’t pursuing a political agenda; he wasn’t bolstered by organizational support. He was simply a guy, not sophisticated, not well-learned, not an expert in foreign policy, but someone who knew right from wrong.”

Ali’s enduring sense of right from wrong and his legacy of questioning America’s authority can be felt a half-century later in today’s wars. With African-Americans disproportionately making up 19 percent of the active-duty enlisted military, black folks were the leading racial group saying the Iraq war was a mistake. It was launched in 2003 by President George W. Bush under the false pretense that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

In 2000 the percentage of Army recruits who were African-American was 23.5 percent. By 2005, it was 13.9 percent, causing me to write in a Boston Globe column: “The drop in African-American enrollment in the military may be as powerful a collective political statement about Iraq as when Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted.” In that column, David Bositis, the former political analyst for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, told me, “African-Americans are always more sensitive to anything that smacks of neocolonialism, which this war did smack of.”

Which meant that Ali’s fists, even though his body was long lost to the trembling of Parkinson’s, still smacked the government. Echoing Ali’s famous, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong,” it is black America that still most questions whom our government should have a quarrel with.

That is what makes Ali the greatest pillar. Others on the Acropolis performed admirable feats of courage, from Robinson and Aaron enduring racist taunts and hate mail to the free-agency baseball and basketball lawsuits by Flood and Robertson to Smith and Carlos being thrown out of Mexico City after thrusting their black power fists into the air from the victory stand at the 1968 Olympics.

Ali sometimes, though, carried his brand of blackness too far, intimating that some opponents were Uncle Toms and horribly gorilla-icing Joe Frazier.

Ali took consciousness to the next level, both domestically and abroad. Before his stance on Vietnam, he was as clear as any black athlete about realities within his home country, saying, “I’m the heavyweight champion, but right now there are some neighborhoods I can’t move into.”

With his refusal to be drafted, Ali sacrificed what surely was the absolute prime of his career in the most geopolitical action an athlete ever has taken and likely will ever take. This man from the most brutal of sports saw the nation’s brutality as more important than that which he gave or received in the ring. In 1970, during his purgatory from boxing, Ali told Black Scholar magazine, “I was determined to be one n—– that the white man didn’t get.”

Close-up of American boxer Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Clay) (left) and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan (born Louis Walcott) as they listen to a speaker during the Saviour's Day celebrations at the International Ampitheatre, Chicago, Illinois, February 27, 1966.

Close-up of American boxer Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Clay) (left) and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan (born Louis Walcott) as they listen to a speaker during the Saviour’s Day celebrations at the International Amphitheatre in Chicago, Feb. 27, 1966.

Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images

That echoed the courage exhibited by Robeson in the 1930s when the Republican Party tried to recruit the college football star-turned actor and singer to lure black voters away from President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Robeson refused, knowing he was turning down a chance to “write my own ticket” in Hollywood. Robeson decided “no one was going to lead me around by a golden chain.”

The question now is whether the Parthenon Ali and Robeson helped build will continue to stand or will crumble into the antique of the real thing in Athens. Ali said in 1984 that the physical toll of boxing was worth his accomplishments in life, remaining utterly conscious of his platform. He quipped in 1984, “People say I talk so slow today. That’s no surprise. I calculated I’ve taken 29,000 punches. But I earned $57 million and I saved half of it. So I took a few hard knocks. Do you know how many black men are killed every year by guns and knives without a penny to their names?”

It’s easy to presume that Ali’s stand on Vietnam paved the way for Ashe and entertainers to get arrested protesting apartheid.

The general political silence of the modern athlete, showered with momentary riches amid pernicious racial disparities in America, was most starkly exposed in the 1990s failure of Michael Jordan, then probably the most visible athlete in the world, to openly support African-American Harvey Gantt against incumbent U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms in a North Carolina senatorial race.

Such silence has rightfully been criticized by no less than the first African-American president, who happens to be a former high school basketball player. Amid the refreshing sight of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose and other pro basketball players wearing “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts to protest the New York City police choking death of Eric Garner, Obama told People magazine in 2014 that James did the right thing.

“We forget the role that Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe and Bill Russell played in raising consciousness,” Obama said. “We went through a long stretch there where [with] well-paid athletes, the notion was: just be quiet and get your endorsements and don’t make waves . . . I’d like to see more athletes do that. Not just around this issue, but around a range of issues.”

James, currently playing in his sixth straight NBA Finals, appears to intellectually understand this, telling ESPN on Friday that Ali, along with Brown, Robertson, Abdul-Jabbar, Russell and Robinson “stood for something. He’s part of the reason why African-Americans today can do what we do in the sports world. We’re free. They allow us to have access to anything we want.”

If James and the new generation of athletes are truly free, then the way they can truly honor Ali’s legacy is to stand for something, until everyone is free, until everyone has the access they want.

Derrick Z. Jackson is a nine-time winner of news and sports reporting and commentary from the National Association of Black Journalists, a Pulitzer finalist and co-author of Project Puffin: The Improbable Quest to Bring a Beloved Seabird Back to Egg Rock.