Muhammad Ali has lost his last fight, but he went down with the courage that characterised his entire life. He is now mourned and celebrated as the athlete of the century and a hero by the media and politicians in the United States and throughout the world – very often the same people who in the 1960s and ’70s villified him for his opposition to the Vietnam war and for his radical black politics. He died a celebrity, and he richly deserved his fame. But it is a bad habit of our age merely to celebrate celebrity.The late Mike Marqusee‘s Redemption Song (Verso, 1999) is by far the best book dealing with Ali’s social and political significance. Marquesee wrote:
We should look at how his celebrity was established and what it means. And I do not believe that his fame rests only on what he achieved in the ring – although if you are a sports fan you have to be awed by that. More important was what he achieved outside the ring.
We must re-insert Ali in his historical context, and that means principally his relationship to the great social movements of the 1960s. The young Cassius Clay was very much a typical patriotic, Cold War chauvinist. Representing the US in the Rome Olympics of 1960, at the age of 18, he won a gold medal in the Light Heavyweight division. And to commemorate the victory he published his first poem:
To make America the greatest is my goal,
So I beat the Russian, and I beat the Pole.
And for the USA I won the medal of Gold.
A crude start for someone who would travel a long way in the next few years. The key to understanding Ali’s movement away from this unexamined national chauvinism is the impact of the civil rights movement of the first half of the 1960s. In the years between 1960 and 1965, hundreds of thousands of young black people from precisely Muhammad Ali’s background – from working class homes in Southern American cities – took to the streets to challenge Jim Crow, America’s version of Apartheid, and to challenge a century of institutionalised racism of a type we can barely imagine today.
At one point it was estimated that 60% of all black college students from across the South were directly involved in this mass movement. And a terrible price was paid – some were murdered, many were beaten, huge numbers were arrested. It was one of the great battles of our era. Ali was driven by the same social forces which drove his contemporaries into the streets; but he was driven in a different direction. His response to all-pervasive racism was different because – after his Olympic triumph – he met the Nation of Islam (NoI) in the streets of Miami.
Over the next few years, as a promising Heavyweight contender, travelling around the country, fighting his way up the ladder, looking for a title shot, he met many more Muslims. Most famously he met Malcolm X and formed a friendship with him. Through the NoI, this young, quite uneducated man encountered the tradition of black nationalism whose origins go back to the beginnings of the twentieth century and which flourished under Marcus Garvey. Black nationalism had enjoyed a kind of underground existence up to this point and when Cassius Clay encountered the NoI in the early ’60s it was the longest standing, wealthiest, best-organised black nationalist organisation in America (albeit a nationalism of a peculiar kind). Clay kept his interest in the NoI secret – if it had become public he would never have become the Heavyweight champion, he would never have had a chance to face Sonny Liston in the ring and we would not be discussing him today.
He got a title shot in 1964, in Miami, against Liston, who was said to be unbeatable. To the world’s surprise, at the age of 22, Cassius Clay did beat Sonny Liston and became the World Heavyweight champion. Instead of going to a big party at a luxury downtown hotel, as was expected of newly-crowned champions, Cassius Clay went back to the black motel, in the black area of Miami – at that time, effectively a segregated city – and had a quiet evening, without any drink, discussing what he would do with the title he had just won, with his friends, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, the great gospel and R&B singer, and Jim Brown, a famous US football player who later became an actor. The next morning, after these discussions, Cassius Clay met the press – which in those days was exclusively white and male – and told them, “I don’t have to be what you want me to be, I’m free to be what I want.” In retrospect that doesn’t sound like a big deal, but, at the time it was earthshaking. Firstly because sportstars, and particularly young black sportstars, were expected to be what they were told to be; secondly because what Cassius Clay wanted to be was a public member of the NoI – probably the most reviled organisation in America at the time. And at his side was Malcolm X – probably the most reviled individual in the US at the time. In announcing his embrace of the NoI Cassius Clay was repudiating Christianity, in a predominately Christian country, at a time when Islam was an exotic and little know faith in America. He was repudiating the integrationist racial agenda, in favour of a separatist agenda, at a time when the Civil Rights movement, led by Martin Luther King, for whom “integrationism” was a central shibboleth, was at the height of its prestige and power. So Cassius Clay angered both the white and the black liberals – and, most importantly, he was repudiating his American national identity in favour of another national identity, that of a member of the Nation of Islam, a nation whose borders had nothing to do with the borders of the US.
Up till this time, no black sports star or celebrity had attempted to do or say anything like this without being crushed – as had Paul Robeson and WEB DuBois in an earlier generation. This stand was widely seen as a terrible tragedy for the young fighter. After all, he had the world at his feet and here he was, embracing an unpopular cause, thereby narrowing down his appeal. Or so it was thought. The reality is that by joining the NoI and redefining who he was, Clay was walking into a new world – ultimately presenting himself to an international constituency – which changed what he meant to people all over the world and which changed his destiny inside and outside the ring.
Shortly after the fight he went to New York and was seen everywhere with Malcolm X. But only a week later Malcolm X announced his departure from the NoI, his famous break with Elija Muhammad. Ali chose to stick with the NoI, and renounced his friendship with Malcolm. Why Cassius Clay did this is an interesting question. Malcolm was moving in a more political direction, away from the conservative and quietistic side of the NoI, towards a direct battle against racism. Ali – who had just been renamed as Ali by Elija Muhammad – was looking for a refuge from racism, and that was what he had found in the NoI. Ali was, ironically, trying to avoid political engagement by sticking to close to the NoI and staying away from Malcolm.
But the 1960s did not allow Ali the luxury of avoiding politics. As the years went by he was drawn deeper into political controversy. Ali went to Africa in 1964, at a time when no American sportstar – of any colour – had even noticed that continent’s existence. He went to Ghana where he was greeted by the President, Kwame Nkrumah, famous anti-colonialist and founder Pan African movement. Nkrumah was the first head of state to shake Ali’s hand. It was to be another eleven years before a US President would deign to shake Ali’s hand (since then, of course, they all want to shake his hand). In Ghana tens of thousands poured out to welcome Ali. They chanted his new name. Observers on this trip say that this was the moment Cassius Clay really became Muhammad Ali. Why did so many Ghanaians came to greet him – after all very few spoke English, almost none had access to a television? Why did they come to see Ali? First, boxing was popular there.
The Heavyweight championship of the world was a pretty transparent idea and people were pleased that such an eminent figure had recognised their newly independent country. More importantly, Ali was a an African American world champ who had repudiated his American identity and taken on an Islamic name and embraced his African patrimony. The Ghanaian masses knew that this was something new and exciting. They understood the meaning of this transformation long before it became apparent to American commentators.
The impact of this trip on Ali was tremendous. It was during this trip that Ali came to understand that he was accountable to a broader, international constituency, a constituency of the oppressed, and this new sense of accountability was to guide him over the next turbulent decade.
The test of his new identity came over Vietnam. By early 1966, the US was finding it difficult to impose its will on the Vietnamese and the draft call was expanded; the Heavyweight champion of the world was reclassified as 1A, eligible for military service. Ali was told the news at a training camp in Miami and, badgered all day by the press, he came out with the line: “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” It may have been a spontaneous remark, but he stuck to it over the following years and even turned it into a poem:
Keep asking me, no matter how long,
On the war in Vietnam, I’ll still sing this song:
I ain’t got no quarrel with no Viet Cong.
At the time the critics asked: what does Muhammad Ali know about Vietnam?
He’s being misled by black militants. But on the day he made his “no quarrel” remark he also amplified his feelings to a New York Times reporter: “Boxing is nothing, just satisfying to some bloodthirsty people. I am no longer Cassius Clay, a Negro from Kentucky. I belong to the world, the black world. I will always have a home in Pakistan, in Algeria, in Ethiopia. This is more than money.”
Here we see how Ali’s redefinition of his personal identity had led to a political conclusion, and a confrontation with the state. The ordinary loyal American was expected to take on the enemies of the American government as his own personal enemies. Ali was moved by a different loyalty – a loyalty to a global constituency of colour whose interests were at odds with those of the US establishment. When Ali declared his alienation from the war in Vietnam, in early 1966, not one mainstream politician or newspaper of any kind had come out against the war. That month, February 1966, the Number One record was the truly execrable song called “The Ballad of the Green Berets”, celebrating the special forces units who were at that moment running a systematic campaign of torture against the Vietnamese people. The response of the American establishment – both black and white – to Ali’s impudence was virulent. There has probably never been a sports figure anywhere as thoroughly reviled as Muhammad Ali was in his homeland in 1966. He was routinely dubbed a traitor and a coward. It very rapidly became impossible for him to fight in America. The American establishment, in its infinite stupidity, chased Muhammad Ali out of the country – but in the end this only helped strengthen and enlarge his global audience.
Muhammad Ali, for years to come, was the best known American individual opposed to the Vietnam war. Far more than more political figures – he had the greater recognition.
In 1966 he came to Britain to fight Henry Cooper in the Arsenal stadium. Although Wilson’s government was backing the American war, public opinion was turning against the war and the British press was less disturbed in all sorts of way by Ali’s presence, than were the Americans.
In 1966, in Britain, black communities were still establishing themselves, and just becoming conscious of themselves, just forming identities as diaspora communities. Mid-’60s Britain also saw the rise of “Paki bashing” – Britain’s own unique contribution to the world-wide plague of racist violence. Of course “Paki bashing” was never about only attacking people known to be of Pakistani origin – but Pakistanis were singled out because their religion, dress and language, and because they were perceived by the racists -falsely – as a soft touch. In this context to the visit of the World Heavyweight champion – someone who was definitely not a soft touch – a fighting and proud Muslim – was hugely strengthening.
But Ali’s impact in Britain went beyond Islam. He spent time with Michael X, a well known – notorious, if you like – black power activist in Britain at the time. With Michael X he toured playgrounds in Brixton and Notting Hill and he gave the seal of approval to the black consciousness movement which was spreading among the more militant second generation black youth. He was one of a series of visitors from the US who brought the language, the model and the style of the American black liberation struggle into Britain. Martin Luther King came in ’64, Malcolm X came in ’65, Ali came in ’66, Stokely Carmichael came in ’67 (and was promptly deported by Labour Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins).
When Ali returned to America in early 1967 he faced a daunting choice – give in, sign up with the army and cut a deal with them (it was always made plain to him that he would not have to fight), or, go to jail, loose his Heavyweight crown and never fight again. But his conscience would not let him back down.
Martin Luther King, after a period of equivocation which he later regretted, came out very strongly against the Vietnam war in early 1967. He was denounced by all his former liberal allies, people in the Democratic party, by the established black leadership. King was a Gandhian, a pacifist, and therefore believed that young American males should resist the draft. He looked around for a role model and the only one he could find was the Heavyweight champion of the world, Muhammad Ali. King lauded Ali in his sermons sermons and publicly embraced him, praising him for giving up everything for his conscience.
Nowadays it is a commonplace to say that Muhammad Ali is a role-model; but it should be remembered that the first two men to make this point were Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, and that it was considered a shocking assertion at the time.
Ali was stripped of his title, charged, convicted, sentenced to five years in prison, released on bail. His passport was taken away from him and for three and a half years he was not allowed to leave the United States and not allowed to fight at all. He got a top team of lawyers who tied up the state with legal challenges, and meanwhile, toured the campuses with his message of opposition to the war in Vietnam, of black pride, and also of the religious conservatism which was always part of the NoI. In 1967 no sane person would have predicted that Ali would ever fight again, no less reclaim the Heavyweight title, no less become universally adored as the most popular sporting figure of the twentieth century. And the reason is that no one predicted that the anti-war movement would grow to mass proportions. In 1970, the Supreme Court fudged the issue and allowed Ali escape conscription and return to the ring because at this stage it had become too risky to put him in jail. Remember that the invasion of Cambodia of spring 1970 was greeted by student strikes in universities, high schools that took out some 60-70% of all American youth. Black Power was in its heyday. The establishment could not afford to turn Ali into a super-martyr.
During the next few years Ali fought his way back and got his chance to reclaim his crown at the famous Rumble in the Jungle in Kinshasa, in the Congo – then known as Zaire – in 1974, against George Foreman. Once again he was the underdog. Ali was said to be too old, Foreman was said to be unbeatable. But Ali upset Foreman and recaptured the title that had been unjustly taken away from him. It was probably the most symbolically resonant contest in sporting history – just before he went into the ring Ali turned to the camera (and this bit is not in the film, When We Were Kings) and tried to define what he was doing. He said, “I’m fightin’ for God and my people, I’m not fighting for fame or for money. I’m not fighting for me, I’m fighting for the black people on welfare, the black people who have no future, the black people who are wine-heads and dope addicts. I am a politician for Allah.” Then he added, “I wish Lumumba was here to see me.” Patrice Lumumba was, of course, the first elected leader of the Congo after it received its independence from Belgium. Lumumba was one of the heroes of the wave of African independence struggles. He had met Malcolm X and overwhelmed him; Malcolm had clearly taught the young Cassius Clay who Lumumba was and what he meant. But Lumumba had been assassinated, in 1961, by the CIA and Mobuto – and Mobuto was, by this time, in 1974, the ruler of Zaire and indeed the paymaster for the Ali-Foreman Rumble in the Jungle.
This is one of a number of instructive ironies in Ali’s career.
- The man inspired by the vision of Lumumba ends up as a puppet, not for the white paymasters of America, but for the black paymasters of Africa. Mobuto is one of the worst tyrants of the twentieth century and Ali helped, inadvertently, to stabilise his rule.
- The Rumble in the Jungle was also a major stepping stone in the career of Don King, who has ruled heavyweight boxing ever since then, and whose contribution is most aptly summarised by Tim Witherspoon – an excellent black boxer whose career was pretty much ruined by Don King – who called him “the master of black-on-black crime”.
- It was also a stepping stone for Rupert Murdoch – even though he was not around at the time. This fight was held at 4am in Zaire – why? Because this is prime time in the US. This was one of the first big internationally televised sportscasts and one of the landmark events in the evolution of what might be called the global media-corporate-sport nexus. The fight helped alert big business to the huge commercial potential (in America) of African identity; they learned that they could commodify the militant blackness which Muhammad Ali had come to symbolise (at great cost to himself), that they could package and market gestures of rebellion.
Because Ali had put his body on the line for millions of people he did not know, in countries he had never visited, who spoke languages he did not understand, his global audience felt they had a share in his upset victory.
His stance of conscience was one that translates across all boundaries, across all cultural barriers. But at this very moment the movement on the American streets was in retreat. Economic crisis was hitting the US ghettos – a crisis which has not lifted from those ghettos to this day.
Here you have the beginning of the great bifurcation between the black American sports stars and the communities they come from. Now we are told Michael Jordan is the new Muhammad Ali – because Michael Jordan is so famous. And it is true, Michael Jordan is very famous. He is incredibly rich. But in what possible way can he be a role model for the black communities who look to him? They simply don’t have his money, and mostly don’t have his talent. No one can emulate what Ali did in the ring, or his style outside it, but his act of solidarity and sacrifice, his resistance to the pressure of power, is something we can all draw strength from.
Michael Jordan is a symbol for Nike. Because he put conscience before his country, and before personal convenience, Muhammad Ali is a symbol for something infinitely richer.