Muhammad Ali: Brilliant but flawed icon

By Daniel Margrain

Muhammad Ali captivated the imagination of millions (this writer included) during his peak from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s. His iconic status transcended his work inside the boxing ring. His larger than life personality, good looks and quickness of thought outside the ring was matched by the speed, deftness and grace inside it. It was precisely the combination of his magnificent athleticism as a champion allied with his ability to articulate what was happening in society that made him the icon and legend that he was and will almost certainly continue to be in the decades to come. In simple terms, Ali’s legendary status as a sportsman and his civil rights activism were deeply intertwined.

Despite many of today’s leading sportsmen and women and stars of the entertainment industry having the requisite platform with which to confront the injustices that surround them, they invariably lack the integrity to do so. This was not true of Ali. Born Cassius Clay in Louisville, Kentucky on the 17th January 1942, the most famous sporting icon on the planet used the media in a brilliantly imaginative way to stand up to what he believed in and he did so in the knowledge that the personal price to be paid would be the threat of imprisonment and a massive loss of income. For Ali, following the easy path wasn’t an option.

It’s perhaps easy to underestimate the extent to which Ali helped lay the foundations for what many people today almost certainly take for granted in terms of the relative social harmony that exists within our contemporary multicultural societies. But it has to be remembered the context in which black people lived their lives when Clay came to prominence after he became world heavyweight champion in 1964. Objectively, the lives of black people in Clay’s U.S homeland hadn’t changed much for the better at the time of the boxers first major triumph in the ring.

Despite the fact that the massive expansion of U.S capitalism which followed WW2 created thousands of new jobs and thereby put strains on the racist job reservation policies that existed in many industries, considerable resistance to fundamental change remained well into the 1950s. As Kevin Ovenden points out, up until this point, the political establishment in the North of the U.S were grouped around the Republican party who remained largely indifferent to the racism and urban poverty in the South. Nor did they care that in the South everything was run by the same establishment who had fought the Civil War to preserve slavery.

The South was run as a one party state by the Democrats – the party supported by the section of the American ruling class who fought longest and hardest to keep blacks under a state of virtual apartheid. Change, when it did come, was inspired by the struggles of southern blacks themselves which theoretically began to make inroads following the 1954 American Supreme Court adjudication of the Brown versus the Topeka Board of Education case which proffered that racially segregated schooling was unconstitutional. The case which had been brought by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was, however, tokenistic and hence it did not result in widespread desegregation.

This was the context which led a member of the NAACP, Rosa Parks in 1955, to refuse to give up her seat to a white woman on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Following Parks’ arrest, activists began to organize and the Montgomery bus boycott was born. The ensuing victory a year later inspired civil rights activists everywhere and propelled the Baptist minister, Martin Luther King to nationwide prominence. Consequently, what began as a question of attaining legal rights spread to the economic and political sphere. This was the point at which Clay began to make his mark, politically.

Eight years after the successful Montgomery bus boycott, Clay at 22 years of age returned to his homeland as a world heavyweight champion after beating Sonny Liston in what was widely regarded as an upset. Despite his new found fame and status, Clay was still subjected to the humiliating institutional discrimination that blighted the lives of black people in the US. He was refused service at a ‘whites only’ restaurant and was set upon by a gang of racists. He had trouble finding a hotel to stay when he traveled to fight.

Already he displayed the outspoken bravado for which he was famous. Interviewed in the ring immediately after the fight, he said, “I don’t have a mark on my face, and I upset Sonny Liston, and I just turned twenty-two years old. I must be the greatest.” The following morning he confirmed the rumours of his involvement with the Nation of Islam or the ‘Black Muslims’ as they were also known, founded by a Middle Eastern immigrant, Wallace D Fard in 1930. It was during this period that he changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali.

Ali’s involvement with the militant black separatist movement, the Nation of Islam, which was growing in influence and challenging the hegemony of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement, coincided with the rise to prominence of Malcolm X, the Nation’s most charismatic figure and talented spokesperson who would go on to mentor him. Two years after experiencing racism first hand that followed his defeat of Liston, Ali further antagonized the white establishment by refusing to be conscripted into the U.S military citing his religious beliefs and opposition to American involvement in the Vietnam War.  Ali’s response was clear and emphatic:

“No, I am not going ten thousand 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.”

The price Ali paid was a heavy one. He was convicted by an all white jury of evading the draft and sentenced to five years imprisonment and a $10,000 fine. Though he never actually served time in jail the threat remained until his conviction was eventually overturned in June 1971. Meanwhile he was stripped of his titles and governing bodies across the world including the British Boxing Board of Control revoked his licence to box. Ali’s principled stance as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam war made him an icon for the larger counterculture generation.

Writer Mike Marqusee highlights the fact that four days after he was ordered to report for duty in April 1967 a huge 125,000 strong anti-war rally was held in Central Park. His defiant declaration was that he had nothing against the Vietnamese:

“They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father… Shoot them for what? …How can I shoot them poor people, Just take me to jail.”

Such an outspoken stance gave other dissenters and the wider anti-war and anti racist movements a huge boost. Other sporting and cultural figures were to follow his lead including the athletes who gave the famous Black Power Salute at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. However, despite his many outstanding achievements in and out of the ring, it was clear that by the early 1970s Malcolm X’s mentoring had seriously disorientated Ali. It was his proclamations of racist pseudo-science – the formal ideas of which were codified as part of the belief system of the Nation of Islam – which was to result in some of Ali’s more bizarre and eccentric rhetorical flourishes. This culminated in his famous interview with Michael Parkinson in 1971.

Three years later, Ali was back in the ring after having been stripped of his world title seven years previously. One of my earliest childhood sporting memories was the famous ‘Rumble in the Jungle‘ bout when he reclaimed his world title from George Foreman. Back then very few black people appeared on TV and when they did it was invariably as villains, who were swiftly dispatched or buffoons to be ridiculed.

Ali finally retired after humiliating defeats against his former sparring partner Larry Holmes and a journeyman Trevor Berbick in 1980 and 81. It’s a pity as far as this writer is concerned that he made the undignified decision to carry on fighting well beyond his peak. This was probably due to a combination of his own vanity and his attempt to recoup some of the money from those whose greed had exploited him throughout his career, stripping him of much of his wealth. By this time he was already suffering the early onset of the Parkinson’s Syndrome that was to afflict him so dramatically in later life.

Despite his lack of clarity of political thought, Ali along with Malcolm X, gained a reputation for what other leading black figures did not dare voice. Ultimately, it was the denunciation of the system that won them support. As far back as late 1964 Malcolm X appeared to reject the obscurantist philosophy that underpinned the Nation of Islam and began to speak openly and favourably about socialism saying white anti-racists tended to be socialists. He was also aware that the source of racism was located at the heart of capitalism. As writer George Breitman, quoting Malcolm X, put it:

“The system in this country cannot produce freedom for the Afro-American. It is impossible for this system, this economic system, this political system, this social system, this system, period. It’s impossible for this system, as it stands, to produce freedom right now for the black man in this country.”

Whether Muhammed Ali had moved towards this view during the end of his life is not clear. Nevertheless, regardless of Ali’s perceived political weaknesses, these flaws are outweighed by the fact that he remains one of the most historically outstanding cultural figures in the struggle against racism, war and imperialism of modern times.


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