From Martin Mayer:
It is with great sadness that I have to report the death of Brenda Sanders, our first and only woman Chair of the T&G Executive Council. She died in hospital on Saturday after being poorly for some time.
Brenda was a calm and firm woman with strong convictions and steely determination, very often under-estimated by those who did not know her well. She was at the head of the T&G Executive Council in its final period of existence prior to the historic merger with AMICUS to form UNITE in 2008. This was a tense and difficult time for the Executive members as the merger plans developed. She always ensured that the views and concerns of T&G Executive Council members were heard by both General Secretaries – even when that was unpopular!
Brenda was proud and honoured to be the first woman Chair of the union’s Executive Council. It marked a very important stage in T&G women’s fight for equality in our union. She was certainly a credit to her T&G sisters who helped to create some of the most progressive equalities structures in any union.
Brenda we remember you with immense pride and a great deal of sadness.
Chair United Left
The Funeral will take place on the 26th January at 1.30pm, at St Hillary’s Church, Wallasey Village
then 2.30pm at Landican Cemetery
It will only be family flowers. Contributions can be made to a charity – to be confirmed.
Cards and letters of condolence are to be sent to:
10 Primrose Grove
In general, I believe there’s too much (uncritical) time devoted to religion on the BBC. I particularly hate Thought for the Day on the Radio 4 Today programme.
But Rabbi Lionel Blue was different: not a proselytiser for his own religion, or even for religion in general, he talked about his doubts and failures with warmth, humanity and gentle, self-deprecating humour. He once, memorably, outed himself as gay during Thought for the Day.
He said, more than once, that his only aim when he broadcast, was to make life more bearable for people getting out of bed on a Monday morning and facing the everyday worries and problems of life.
I know I’m not the only atheist who will miss him.
Guardian obit here
Sad and (for me, at least) unexpected news in today’s Graun: the great saxophonist Bobby Wellins has died.
He was one of the finest jazz players these isles have produced (he was Scottish) and could play in a variety of settings, from fairly conventional modern-mainstream groups through straight-ahead hard bop, to more adventurous avant garde scenes, whilst always retaining his distinctive and highly individual sound.
He was also, by all accounts, a thoroughly decent and likable human being.
As a general rule I’m not that keen on attempts to marry jazz and poetry, but Bobby’s contribution to the 1965 recording of Stan Tracey’s Under Milk Wood suite ensures his lasting reputation as one of the greats; this track is his masterpiece, IMHO:
Obit in the Herald Scotland
BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week is Upbeat, Paul MacAlindin’s inspiring account of the creation of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq.
I’m proud to recall that back in 2009 Shiraz Socialist publicised and supported this initiative and its brave young founder, Zuhal Sultan, then 18.
Inevitably, an “anti-imperialist” idiot sent in a BTL comment to the effect that Zuhal and the Orchestra were collaborators: we were surprised and honoured to receive this reply from Zuhal herself:
I wonder, if creating a youth orchestra is a propaganda? As the one who created it, it took me a year of hard work and sacrifice, and yes, I needed help from abroad as my voice wasn’t heard by my own governement when this initiative was just an idea. I needed help from abroad as there were no coaches to teach those young musicians, I needed help for reasons beyond anything you can think of. Later on, the office of the deputy prime minister noticed and helped funding a large amount of the project. It has nothing to do with politics.
I really hope that you can appreciate all the hard work that went into this by myself, the team who pulled this through and the hard working young musicians rather than being cynical.
Founder and Artistic Director of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq.
Anyway, here’s what we posted back in August 2009; you can still follow the justgiving link to make a donation, as well:
Iraq: amidst the carnage, the music of hope
As the fascists who seek to deny the peoples of Iraq any form of reconciliation, stability or civil society strike again in Baghdad, it is easy to despair. Perhaps, then, this is the right moment to draw your attention to another face of Iraq, the inspiring young Baghdad pianist Zuhal Sultan.
Zuhal, still just 18 years old, has formed the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq (NYOI), bringing together 35 young musicians from across the religious, racial and regional/national divides. It includes Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds. The orchestra’s repertoire includes Beethoven, Haydn, Gershwin, a commissioned piece by NYOI’s composer-in -residence Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, and new pieces by Iraqi Kurdish and Arab composers. They have toured throughout Iraq and Zuhal has visited the Wigmore Hall in London as a soloist and accompanist for the British tenor Andrew Staples. She would like nothing more than to take the orchestra on a similar tour. Internationalists, liberals, the left and humanitarians have, quite rightly, hailed the bridge-building work of Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Zuhal Sultan and her young colleagues deserve similar support as they embark on their brave musical journey of hope and reconciliation: send a donation, large or small, to the grassroots fundraising site http://www.justgiving.com/nyoiraq/
You’ll not only be supporting a brave young woman and her colleagues, but putting another nail in the coffin of sectarianism, nihilism and fascism.
Tatchell’s reasoned argument from last year needs to be repeated and taken to heart right now:
I’m backing Jeremy Corbyn for Labour leadership, despite his unsavoury “friends”
International Business Times – London, UK – 3 September 2015
By Peter Tatchell
Like many others, I face a real dilemma. I’ve known Jeremy Corbyn for over 30 years and love nearly everything he stands for. Yet there are a few important issues on which I profoundly disagree with him. Does this mean he should no longer have my support?
Jeremy is not a saint. He’s never claimed to be. Even the best, most admirable politicians usually get some things wrong. Jeremy is no exception. On a majority of UK and foreign policy issues he’s spot on, with real vision and an inspiring alternative. On a small number of issues he has made lamentable misjudgements. Despite these shortcomings, I’m backing his bid for the Labour leadership. Here’s why:
I look at the big picture and judge politicians on their overall record. What are their ideals, motives and aims? What kind of society are they striving for? How would their policies impact on the average person? On all these assessment criteria, Jeremy is on the right side and is the most progressive candidate on nearly every issue.
He has strong, unique policies for social justice and equality – to secure a kinder, gentler, fairer and more inclusive, harmonious Britain. I am with him in opposing austerity. So is much of the country – including the Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru, with whom I hope Jeremy and Labour will make common cause in a quadruple alliance.
Jeremy’s plan to invest in infrastructure to reboot the economy is backed by 41 economists (http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/aug/22/jeremy-corbyn-economists-backing-anti-austerity-policies-corbynomics) , including a former advisor to the Bank of England. His strategy echoes FDR’s New Deal and proposals from the International Monetary Fund.
A Corbyn premiership would reverse damaging, cruel welfare cuts and the privatisation of vital public services. He’d tackle climate destruction and rocketing rents and house prices. Trident renewal, foreign wars and the sinister Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership would be nixed. His administration would bring rail and energy companies back into a new, decentralised form of public ownership. These are sensible, compassionate policies. Good for him.
In my book, he is head and shoulders above all the other Labour leadership candidates, both in terms of his past political record and his political agenda for the future.
But the single most important over-arching reason for supporting Jeremy is that Britain needs to turn away from the flawed and failed policies of business as usual. He is shaking up the Establishment and breaking with the cosy political consensus that has been shared by Labour, Conservatives, Lib Dems and UKIP. The mainstream, middle-of-the-road policies of the last decade are not the answer. All they offer is more of the same, which is what got us into the current mess.
Jeremy is thinking beyond what is. He’s imagining what could be. It’s a much needed political rethink, which leaves his rivals lagging far behind.
Now that he has a serious chance of winning the Labour leadership, Jeremy has faced a barrage of accusations over his contacts with anti-Semites, Holocaust deniers and Islamist extremists (http://www.thejc.com/news/uk-news/142706/jeremy-corbyns-friends-re-examined) .
This puts me in a very difficult position, given my advocacy for human rights. At what point do links with bad people put a politician beyond the pale? How many flawed judgements does it take to cancel out all the good that a MP might have done and espoused?
Some of the accusations against Jeremy are exaggerations and distortions. Others involve McCarthyite smears of guilt by association. Jeremy has made reassuring noises and given plausible explanations for several of the allegations (http://www.thejc.com/news/uk-news/142656/jeremy-corbyn-responds-jc%E2%80%99s-seven-questions) .
He says, for example, he was not aware of the Holocaust revisionist views of Paul Eisen when he attended meetings of his Deir Yassin Remembered organisation. I can believe that. Some extremists hide their views and politicians sometimes lend their support to what they genuinely believe to be legitimate campaign groups.
On the basis that Jeremy has his heart in the right place and that he is not an Islamist, Holocaust denier or anti-Semite, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.
Nevertheless, it is true that he has been often careless in not checking out who he shares platforms with and has been too willing to associate uncritically with the Islamist far right.
While I’m certain that Jeremy doesn’t share their extremist views, he does need to explain in more detail why he has attended and spoken at meetings alongside some pretty unsavoury bigots who advocate human rights abuses – and especially why he did so without publicly criticising their totalitarian politics.
Jeremy supported, for example, the visit to parliament of Sheikh Raed Saleh, who has reportedly slurred Jews as “monkeys” and repeated the anti-Semitic “blood libel” which claims that Jews used the blood of gentile children to make their bread. He called Saleh “a very honoured citizen who represents his people extremely well.” What? Just because Saleh opposes the Israeli occupation and supports Palestinian self-determination does not make him a good person deserving such praise.
While Jeremy is right to dialogue with Hamas and Hezbollah as part of a peace initiative, as Tony Blair and the Israeli government have done, he was wrong to call them “friends”. These are Islamist political parties with poor human rights records that are not consistent with humanitarian – let alone left-wing – values.
Jeremy says he doesn’t agree with their views but I have not been able find any instance, until very recently, where he has publicly criticised either Hezbollah or Hamas, both of which are guilty (alongside Israel) of war crimes (https://www.hrw.org/news/2006/10/05/hezbollah-needs-answer) and the abuse of their own citizens (https://www.hrw.org/news/2012/10/03/gaza-arbitrary-arrests-torture-unfair-trials) .
Jeremy was also wrong to call the Islamist extremist Ibrahim Hewitt “my very good friend” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d-g5jmXLRUM&feature=youtu.be) and to share platforms with him, given that Hewitt allegedly supports the death penalty for apostates, blasphemers, adulterers and LGBT people.
I don’t buy the excuse that Jeremy’s use of the term “friends” was “diplomatic” language to win over extremists and encourage dialogue. He would rightly not accept a similar explanation by a MP who used those words about, and shared a platform with, the BNP, EDL or European fascist parties.
Islamists are a religious version of the far right. They want a clerical dictatorship, without democracy and human rights. They do not merit friendship, praise or uncritical association of any kind.
Jeremy has also made misjudgements on Russia, Ukraine, Syria and Iran. He says he wants dialogue and negotiations, not war. I agree. But this should not include collusion – even if unintentional – with human rights abusing regimes.
We don’t often hear Jeremy condemning Putin’s oligarchs, show trials and tamed media and judiciary. Where is his solidarity with democracy and human rights campaigners, beleaguered civil society organisations and harassed journalists, LGBT advocates and left-wing activists? I’m sure he opposes all these abuses but he rarely says so publicly.
Halya Coynash of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group is one of the most respected human rights figures in Ukraine. Fearless in tackling all abusers from all sides, she says some of Jeremy’s views on Russia and Ukraine echo Putin’s propaganda (http://www.hscentre.org/russia-and-eurasia/corbyn-wrong-says-ukrainian-human-rights-legend) .
Other rights campaigners have confirmed (http://www.equalrightstrust.org/news/equal-rights-trust-launches-first-comprehensive-report-inequality-ukraine) that the dominance of pro-Russian factions in Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk has led to increased persecution of ethnic, religious and sexual minorities. Jeremy has not spoken out clearly enough against these abuses by Russia and its local allies.
On Syria, Jeremy seems to have no policies, apart from “Don’t Bomb Syria.” I concur. We don’t want escalation and war. But surely 250,000 dead, 1.5 million wounded and 10 million refugees merits some action? Total inaction aids the survival of Assad and ISIS.
A good start might be a UN General Assembly authorised no-fly-zone, arms embargo, peacekeepers and civilian safe havens – plus cutting funding to the ISIS and Assad armies by a UN blockade of oil sales. Such measures – enforced by non-western states such as Argentina, India, Brazil, Nigeria and South Africa – would help deescalate the conflict and reduce casualties. Jeremy’s wariness of intervention is understandable. I share it. But surely a UN mandate designed to limit war fighting is reasonable and legitimate for a left-wing candidate?
Like Jeremy, I don’t want war with Iran. I opposed the indiscriminate, blanket Western sanctions that hurt ordinary Iranians. But I’ve struggled to find examples of where he has spoken out against Iran’s mass jailing and torture of trade unionists, students, journalists, lawyers, feminists, human rights defenders and sexual, religious and ethnic minorities (such as the Arabs, Kurds, Azeris and Baluchs). Why the silence? He often and loudly criticises Saudi Arabia. Why not Iran?
It is very distressing to see Jeremy appear on the Iranian regime’s propaganda channel Press TV; especially after it defamed peaceful protesters and covered up state violence at the time of the rigged presidential elections in 2009. Moreover, how can Jeremy (and George Galloway) appear on Press TV, despite it broadcasting forced confessions by democrats and human rights defenders (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/feb/13/iran-middleeast) who’ve been tortured into admitting false charges and who are later executed?
Based on these serious lapses, Jeremy’s critics say his foreign policies make him unfit to be Labour leader and Prime Minister. I understand some of their reservations but they ignore all the international issues where Jeremy has a superb record, including support for serious action against global poverty and the arms trade, and his opposition to the Saudi Arabian and Bahraini dictatorships (two tyrannies that most other MPs ignore and which Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron have actively colluded with).
Moreover, Jeremy’s been a long-time champion of the dispossessed Chagos Islanders, Kurds, Palestinians and Western Sahrawis. Few other MPs have shown similar concern about the fate of most of these peoples.
That’s one of many reasons why, despite misgivings about some of Jeremy’s policies and associations, I support his bid to be Labour leader. Taking into account his overall agenda, on balance he’s the best contender. I am confident that he will respond to fair criticism and reconsider some of his past associations. And I’m certain that if he became Prime Minister he’d adopt a somewhat different stance. Already he’s modified his position on NATO and the EU, from withdrawal to reform.
Some of Jeremy’s supporters may accuse me of betrayal and of aligning myself with his right-wing critics. Not so. My criticisms are rooted in a leftist, human rights politics that is democratic, secular and internationalist.
Support for Jeremy does not require suspension of our critical faculties and a knee-jerk unthinking allegiance. As he himself has often said, it is a citizen’s responsibility to hold politicians to account – including those we support. Nobody is entitled to a free pass – not Jeremy, me or anyone.
Jim Denham writes:
A born-again Christian semi-Stalinist folk musician may seen a strange friend for Shiraz Socialist and for me in particular. Karl Dallas and I never met in person, but had a number of exchanges by email and via below-the-line comments here at Shiraz. We had some especially sharp disagreements over the saxophonist Gild Atzmon, who Karl continued to defend -and, indeed, to promote in both senses of the word – long after it should have been obvious to him that Atzmon was a vicious antisemite and dangerous reactionary. Mind you, Karl was far from being alone on the left in his softness on Atzmon, and at least (unlike, say the SWP) seems to have been motivated by naivety rather than cynicism and sectarianism.
But for all of that, Karl remained courteous and friendly. I never doubted his fundamental decency, his often personally courageous commitment to what he understood to be socialism and the self-evident sincerity he demonstarted in every aspect of his life. He was living proof of something I’ve long believed: that it’s possible (on the broad left, at least) to have sharp political differences with people, yet still like and respect them. Our shared love of music certainly helped maintain friendly terms. Karl was a frequent contributor to the Morning Star (and its forunner, the Daily Worker), and it only seems right and proper to reproduce that paper’s tribute to him (NB: we’ve only republished the main obituary; it’s worth following the link for several other appreciations):
KARL FREDERICK DALLAS, who died on June 21 at the age of 85, will go down in history as the father of British folk-rock journalism.
But for those who worked with him at the Morning Star or assisted him organising gigs to raise awareness and funds for numerous movements and for those who stood next to him as human shields in Iraq, joined his hunger strikes or even watched him don donkey ears to keep our community swimming baths open, he’ll be remembered for his solidarity wherever human injustices and inequalities prevailed. He was one with us, the people.
Dallas was brought up in a socialist family and was named after Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. From the age of seven, he was a peace activist. It was then that he accompanied his mother, a single parent, on a demonstration against Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler.
From an early age he set his heart on a career as a poet and lyricist. He understood the value of the arts, specifically the protest song, as a cultural unifier.
Describing his most political songs as “love songs with a universal message,” Dallas summed this up in an encouraging declaration of hope: “People survive despite everything.”
Via a stint as a publicist for Billy Smart’s Circus, he came to journalism and his work was informed by his own considerable skill as a musician. Dallas had a knack of scouting out the best talent around.
At first using the name Fred Dallas, it would be the mid-’60s before he became widely know as Karl Dallas, having established himself as the most influential music journalist in Britain.
He was a contributor to Melody Maker from the 1950s to the 1970s and continued his political interests by writing for the Daily Worker — later the Morning Star — and self-published the magazines Folk News, Acoustic Music and Jazz Music News among others.
Dallas was a popular figure, gaining interviews from even the most elusive of all artists such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Davey Graham and he was known to gain access to Pink Floyd when no other journalist could.
Throughout his career, he kept his professional integrity by writing what he thought was important and never allowed friendship to influence what he would write.
At some point, he came to the conclusion that “music was a murderous business,” having seen too many creative sensibilities destroyed by a capitalist industry and those controlling it.
Dallas was a rock and folk survivor. A recovering alcoholic and a member of Alcoholics Anonymous since the early 1980s, he never forgot October 9 1979, the day he had his last drink. It was this personal struggle with his own demons that, perhaps, made Dallas so akin to those whom he affectionately called “the walking wounded” who “soldiered on.” Having considering himself an atheist with an inclination towards paganism, Dallas converted to Christianity in 1983.
He retired from full-time journalism in 1999. Even so, he continued to work ceaselessly, celebrating the multicultural richness and diversity of Bradford where he made his home — he had left London and moved there with his wife in 1989.
Speaking out against the EDL, he assembled crowds in peaceful, multifaith opposition to racism and fascism. Having had his songs recorded by the likes of Ewan MacColl and The Spinners, Dallas ran songwriting workshops and he was a regular at Bradford’s Topic venue, where his composition Hamba Khalie, Sala Khalie, with its lyrics: “Go well, stay well, safe journey home” became the folk club’s signature finale.
He wrote plays, novels and poetry like there was no tomorrow, along with online music reviews and he remained a loyal contributor to the Morning Star. His work for Bradford Radio included weekly debates, a jazz show and film reviews and he was at times a quirky broadcaster. His marathon eight-hour Midsummer Night’s Radio Madness Show — at Midnight is remembered with particular fondness.
He was a regular guest at Fairport’s Cropredy Convention and set up his tent there for the last time in 2013, meeting briefly with old friends and enthusing over the raw energy of the Yorkshire band The Dunwells. The most poignant moment of that weekend for me had to be sitting next to him when Fairport sang Who Knows Where the Time Goes. He had seen so many bright lights cut down in their prime but it was the loss of Sandy Denny that seemed to haunt him most.
Back in 1981, on the occasion of Dallas’s 50th birthday, folk-rock musician Roy Harper predicted: “Karl Dallas will outlive us all.” With a massive backlog of writing, published and unpublished, he leaves enough of a mark to ensure his voice will live on.
He lives on also in the most vulnerable and would-be silenced of society to whom he gave his support, at times risking his own safety and even his life. A man of words, a maker of songs and verse and a teller of tales, he embraced new technologies and was an eager advocate of the selfie-broadcast.
Shortly before his death Dallas announced on Facebook: “I’m living one day at a time and planning a fun-filled funeral. Try and be there.”
A lifelong activist and comrade, he will be sorely missed. But it is a small comfort to know he remained with us for the summer solstice, when the tilt of the earth was most inclined towards the sun.
Our kind thoughts and condolences are with his wife Gloria, his children Molly and Steven and their families.
Jo Cox was both a dedicated constituency MP and a true internationalist. This is what she said in Parliament on 3 May this year about Aleppo, the betrayal of Syria and our duty to refugee children:
I’m not sure whether or not it’s entirely seemly to bring this up just at the moment; but I really do think that as well as honouring a heroic, courageous human being, we also need to ponder what boxing did to Mohammed Ali in the end, and has done to thousands of other fighters over the years.
I wrote this nearly ten years ago, on the occasion of Ali’s 65th birthday:
Above: a bloodied Henry Cooper battles Cassius Clay (as he then was) in 1963 (Getty images)
Muhammad Ali is 65 today and suffering from Parkinson’s disease – a cruel fate for a man once renowned for his physical and mental speed and agility. Perhaps surprisingly, the most fulsome tribute to Ali I’ve seen today is from the Daily Telegraph, which devotes five pages of its sports section to a splendidly illustrated tribute, plus part of the main paper’s leader column:
“…Who can rival him as a sporting hero? His achievement in a sport of which some disapprove was not just to knock men out. He was an artist, not a psychopath; knocked down by Henry Cooper in 1963, 40 years later he telephoned him to reminisce. Psychic presence and witty self-promotion brought him double success in the ring and as a civil rights champion.
“Ali showed moral as well as physical courage. He refused to serve in Vietnam out of religious principle, he explained, but added ‘No Viet Cong ever called me a nigger’. His career seemed at an end, yet he made an amazing comeback in 1974 in the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’. More recently, when asked why he thought he would have beaten Mike Tyson, Ali simply tapped his temple: he was always the cleverer fighter.
“We need heroes, and Ali really is the greatest”.
Once over the shock of the voice of the retired colonels of Tory middle England praising a black, Muslim, civil rights activist and opponent of the Vietnam war, I have to say that I don’t dissent from any of that. Ali most certainly was (and is) a brave, generous and thoroughly admirable human being.
But the “sport” at which he excelled (and that may also be responsible for his Parkinson’s) is a foul business. I don’t think it should be called a “sport” at all: the object of boxing, unlike any other sport (including dangerous sports), is to render the opponent unconscious by repeated blows to the head and body. Since 1945 there have been 361 deaths in the ring, and the number of boxers reduced to shambling, punch-drunk wrecks by brain damage is uncounted. That’s not to mention permanent eye damage (up to and including blindness), ruptured eardrums, broken noses and jaws, smashed teeth, the famous ‘cauliflower ear’ and renal damage.
It has long amazed me that so few liberals and lefties seem at all concerned about boxing, and some even support it. The main reason for this is, I suspect, because boxing is traditionally a proletarian “sport” and a way for poor young men (often black or from other ethnic minorities) to achieve something in life. But that’s exactly the reason that socialists should oppose boxing: we want a society where that sort of barbarism simply isn’t required as a way to escape poverty, prejudice and lack of opportunity.
One of the few socialists to write extensively opposing boxing was the American Trotskyist James P. Cannon. Commenting on the death of 20-year-old Georgie Flores in the ring at Madison Square Garden, he wrote:
“It is a commentary on the times and the social environment out of which the boxing business rises like a poisonous flower from the dunghill, that nobody came forward with the simple demand to outlaw prize fighting, as it was outlawed in most states of this country up till the turn of the century. Cock-fighting is illegal; it is considered inhumane to put a couple of roosters in a pit and incite them to spur each other until one of them keels over. It is also against the law to put bulldogs into the pit to fight for a side bet. But our civilisation – which is on the march to be sure – has not yet advanced to the point where law and public opinion forbid men, who have nothing against each other, to fight for money and the amusement of paying spectators. Such spectacles are part of our highly touted way of life”.
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? Read the rest of this entry »