Martin McGuinness and “the hand of friendship to unionists”

March 21, 2017 at 6:50 am (communalism, From the archives, history, Ireland, Monarchy, nationalism, posted by JD, reformism, republicanism, RIP, strange situations)

Image result for picture Martin McGuinness met the Queen

By Sean Matgamna (first published in 2012)

In a hugely symbolic moment on 27 June, during a royal visit to Northern Ireland to mark her jubilee, the former commander of the IRA shook hands with the Queen.

The man who commanded the force responsible for, amongst other things, the death of the Queen’s cousin Lord Mountbatten, exchanged a handshake with the woman whose armed forces murdered 14 innocent civil rights marchers in his hometown of Derry. This was, all proportions guarded, a real life instance of David Low’s famous cartoon “Rendezvous” in which Hitler (“the bloody assassin of the workers”) greets Stalin as “the scum of the earth”.

The response of the press, in Britain, Ireland and internationally, was very positive.

The Guardian thought “it underlined how far we have come since the Troubles”. The Mirror contained an unusually calm and rational article from Tony Parsons who described it as “the end of something — the decades of hatred, loathing and bloodshed” as well as “the beginning of something, too — when the raw wounds of the past can perhaps begin to heal”.

The Belfast Telegraph, traditionally a Unionist paper, hailed the handshake as “bridging a gulf that spanned centuries”. The southern Irish press was unreservedly impressed. The New York Times called it “a remarkable sign of reconciliation for both figures”.

The working-class socialist response to this would seem to be fairly straightforward. McGuinness claims still to be a republican in both important senses of the word. As a “capital R” Republican he appeared to make peace with the highest symbol of British rule while her state and government continue to “occupy” the northern part of Ireland and deny his people self-determination.

Even more objectionable is his apparent suspension of “lower case” republicanism — the rejection of rule by hereditary, unelected privilege. Contempt for such an institution should be taken for granted by even the mildest democrat.

Didn’t McGuinness, by shaking the Queen’s hand, acknowledge both her right to rule and her government’s sway in Ireland?

A glance at the fiercest critics of this historic handshake is a reminder that things are more complicated.

Before the meeting the Daily Mail advised the Queen to burn her gloves after carrying out her “distasteful duty”. The Sun’s front page headline declared “We don’t blame you for wearing gloves M’am”. The Times cartoonist provided an image of the Queen putting on four pairs of gloves before shaking the bloodstained hand of McGuinness.

The idea that there might be plenty of blood on the monarch’s hands too didn’t occur to any of them.

The Daily Mail was the one paper that didn’t deem the occasion to be worth a front page story. Inside, though, they brought us arch-militarist Max Hastings under the headline “I’m sorry, even in the name of peace, it was wrong to shake his blood-soaked hand”.

Hunting for evidence that McGuinness, the deputy prime minister and latter-day conciliator, remained “a fanatic”, Hastings alighted on his principled decision not to take his full ministerial salary (£71,000).

For me, that is evidence that Sinn Fein retains some connection with its mainly working-class base. For Hastings, it shows “certitude about his own moral compass” and this, he claims, is “the foremost requirement of a fanatic”.

On what appears to be the opposite side of the spectrum, McGuinness and Sinn Fein have been attacked by harder line Irish Republicans for yet another betrayal. Protests were held by dissident republicans, and senior SF councillor Alison Morris resigned in opposition to the event.

It’s important to register clearly what the critics are opposed to. On the republican side it isn’t seriously claimed that McGuinness or his party have become soft on the monarchy. For certain McGuinness and Sinn Fein have rapidly acclimatised to being part of the establishment and clearly enjoy being normal bourgeois politicians. What took place on 27 June was, however, more than just a further shift down that road.

The justification given by Sinn Fein had nothing to do with either the Queen or British rule. McGuinness described his move as “in a very pointed, deliberate and symbolic way offering the hand of friendship to unionists through the person of Queen Elizabeth for which many unionists have a deep affinity”. There is no reason not to take that rationale at face value. He went on to claim that this sort of symbolism had the potential to define “a new relationship between Britain and Ireland and between the Irish people themselves”.

That view can be criticised as naive. It can be attacked as a top-down way of managing the communal differences without challenging the fundamental causes. In common with most elements of the “peace process” it seems to reinforce rather than undercut cultural division. It’s a different matter, however, to criticise it for “going too far” towards the unionists. The least bad fault with modern-day SF is that they are insufficiently intransigent nationalists. Yet that is the criticism most commonly levelled at them from the left.

And it’s hard not to take some pleasure from the visible discomfort this event has caused to the British right. The fact that their Queen has felt it necessary to shake the hand of the former IRA commander has opened a very old sore for reactionaries.

The most reliable of these, Peter Hitchens, summed up the problem in the Mail on Sunday. After a few predictable and gratuitous personal swipes at McGuinness he compressed all his familiar anxieties into this short sentence: “If anyone doubted that the Good Friday Agreement was a humiliating surrender by a once-great country to a criminal gang, they can’t doubt it now.”

The sort of Tories whom Hitchens and Hastings write for spent their formative years insisting that those who took up arms to fight British rule anywhere in the world were no more than criminals. They said it too of Mandela and the ANC. Time and again they have seen these claims crumble to dust as the era of direct imperialist rule has given way to triumphant independence movements. And it hurts deeply.

Hitchens’ adult life has been blighted by one episode after another of “humiliating surrender” by his “once-great country” to movements fighting to free their countries from colonial or racist rule (or “criminal gangs” as he prefers to put it).

But the Irish people have not yet won a united independent state. The British have not surrendered and nor would it matter much if they did. The key to Irish territorial unity is, and has for decades been, democratic unity between its people. What Martin McGuinness did on 27 June offended the sensibilities of democrats and socialists because of our contempt for the institution of monarchy. However, his motive at least was progressive.

It was also republican in the sense defined by the founder of modern Irish republicanism Wolfe Tone — “to replace the name Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter with the common name Irishman”. We should be bold enough to point that out.

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Derek Walcott RIP

March 17, 2017 at 8:48 pm (Jim D, literature, poetry, RIP)

Derek Alton Walcott, poet: born (Castries, St Lucia) 23 Jan 1930, died 17 Mar 2017


Sea Grapes

Sea grapes are a type of grapes indigenous to Caribbean Sea that has particularly bitter and sour taste. The title of this poem is obscure in terms of the connection between the content and the title. However, the important message or the theme of the poem lies within the sour taste of sea grapes. Furthermore, Derek Walcott was born and raised in the Caribbean, and his experiences around there inspired many of his writings. Walcott was engrossed in Greek mythology, and mentioned about it frequently in his work, comparing and contrasting it with the present situations and problems. This poem, “Sea Grapes,” written by Derek Walcott, illustrates that conflicts between obsession and responsibility must be solved, weaving them to ancient Greek myth and the hero by using allegory and metaphor.

Guardian obituary, here

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Brenda Sanders RIP

January 13, 2017 at 11:34 am (good people, posted by JD, RIP, Unite the union, women, workers)

Brenda Sanders

Above: Brenda

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.

Martin Mayer
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
Wallasey
CH44 7AS

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RIP Rabbi Lionel Blue

December 19, 2016 at 6:11 pm (BBC, good people, humanism, Jim D, religion, RIP)

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

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Jo Cox: victim of ‘Leave’ hate crime.

November 23, 2016 at 8:33 pm (assassination, crime, Europe, fascism, immigration, Jim D, Migrants, murder, populism, Racism, RIP, terror, UKIP)

Nigel Farage with the poster
Above: incitement to hatred

The individual who murdered Jo Cox a week before the EU referendum shouted “Britain First” and similar slogans as he snuffed out her life. In court, when asked his name he replied “Death to Traitors.” We now know that in the bag he carried during the attack there was a leaflet about the referendum (from the ‘Remain’ side, but quite obviously not because that’s the side he supported).

Jo Cox was, of course, a well-known ‘Remain’ campaigner and had also been outspoken in demanding that the UK did more for Syrian refugees. She was murdered on the very day that Farage unveiled his notorious ‘Breaking Point’ poster.

At the time of the slaughter, it was pretty obvious that the killer was a ultra nationalist, driven into action by the extreme nativist and anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Farage/Banks wing of the Leave campaign (which the likes of Johnson and Stuart were, of course, quite happy to go along with). But the Remain side pulled our punches on this – mainly, I suspect, because it felt distasteful to seem to be making political capital out of a human tragedy. Even Shiraz Socialist was hesitant about making the link in plain language. The likes of the SWP and Morning Star, usually quick off the mark in pointing out that politicians’ racist language (eg Cameron’s use of the word “swarm”) can have practical consequences in the streets, avoided pointing the finger – for the obvious reason that they found themselves on the same side as Farage, Johnson and Stuart, however different their motives may have been

But now it can be said – indeed, must be said: although the killer is a far from being a typical ‘Leave’ voter (he is a neo- Nazi and may well be mentally ill), he was undooubtably stirred into action when he was by the ‘Leave’ campaign. In the wise words of Alex Massie (one of the few journalists to make the link at the time, though he stopped short of holding Farage personally responsible):

When you encourage rage you cannot then feign surprise when people become enraged. You cannot turn around and say, ‘Mate, you weren’t supposed to take it so seriously. It’s just a game, just a ploy, a strategy for winning votes.’

When you shout BREAKING POINT over and over again, you don’t get to be surprised when someone breaks. When you present politics as a matter of life and death, as a question of national survival, don’t be surprised if someone takes you at your word. You didn’t make them do it, no, but you didn’t do much to stop it either.

Sometimes rhetoric has consequences. If you spend days, weeks, months, years telling people they are under threat, that their country has been stolen from them, that they have been betrayed and sold down the river, that their birthright has been pilfered, that their problem is they’re too slow to realise any of this is happening, that their problem is they’re not sufficiently mad as hell, then at some point, in some place, something or someone is going to snap. And then something terrible is going to happen

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Bobby Wellins: Starless and Bible Black

November 3, 2016 at 7:50 pm (culture, good people, jazz, music, poetry, posted by JD, RIP)

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

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RIP Jimmy Perry: Alan Coren on Dad’s Army

October 24, 2016 at 1:44 pm (anti-fascism, BBC, comedy, funny, history, posted by JD, RIP, television, tragedy, war)

RIP Jimmy Perry, creator and co-writer (with the late David Croft) of Dad’s Army.

In honour of Jimmy Perry’s greatest creation, we reproduce here the late Alan Coren’s brilliant Times review:

Dad’s Army, BBC1, by Alan Coren
They belong to the oldest regiment in the world, the men of Dad’s Army. The Sidewinder may replace the siege-engine and the Armalite the longbow, but the nature and composition of the King’s Own 17th/21st Incompetents change not at all. I watched them all troop on again last night, out of step, ragged, potty, insubordinate, inept, and who are Arthur Lowe and Clive Dunn and John Le Mesurier, I said to myself, but Bardolph and Nym and Ancient Pistol? Or, come to that, Schweik and Yossarian and Stan Laurel and Miles Gloriosus; and, though memory, not to say erudition, escapes me, I will just bet that the literatures of Sanscrit, old High Gothic and Xhosa are packed to their various margins with stories of soldiers who right-wheeled into the wall, fell over their side-arms, and shot the regimental ferret in error.

I suppose the monumental madness of war can be made tolerable only by this kind of miniaturisation; there is a wider lunacy beyond the script in the fact that Clive Dunn might well, in theory at least, have been the only thing standing between us and Dachau, and the alternative to allowing that thought to send the shrapnel shrieking round the brain is to watch him fire his Lewis gun into the ceiling of the church hall while we all fall about gasping on hilarity instead of on gas.

So much for today’s Sobering Thought. What must now be said is that these particular khaki fools do no discredit to the great tradition; the timing of their disasters is impeccable, the individuation of their character has been splendidly fleshed out so that each identity is total, and their personal conflicts are soundly based in those differences. The essential quality of mock-heroic is always sustained by the parody of Brit-in-arms (there was a superb moment last night when Arthur Lowe restrained his enfeebled warriors with a terse: “Steady! We’re not savages”), and behind the daftness there lies a certain valuable poignancy which is not altogether explained by nostalgia. I suppose what I mean is that they would have died, too, if the greater folly had demanded it.

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To the memory of père Jacques Hamel

July 26, 2016 at 4:25 pm (Andrew Coates, Catholicism, Christianity, France, islamism, poetry, posted by JD, RIP, terror, tragedy)

By Andrew Coates (reblogged from Tendance Coatesy):

A photo of Priest Jacques Hamel taken from the website of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray parish

In the memory of père Jacques Hamel.

I love my work and my children. God.

Is distant, difficult. Things happen

Too near the ancient troughs of blood.

Innocence is no earthly weapon.

Geoffrey Hill. Ovid in the Third Reich. *

Two attackers killed a priest and seriously wounded at least one other hostage in a church in northern France on Tuesday before they were shot dead by police. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack.

The two assailants entered the church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, near Rouen, during mass, taking the priest and four other people hostage, including two nuns.

Police said the men killed the priest, named as 84-year-old Jacques Hamel, by slitting his throat.

An interior ministry spokesperson said a second hostage was “between life and death”.

Le Monde says that the local Muslim leadership immediately reacted by showing their love and friendship to the victim and all those affected.

Le président du Conseil régional du culte musulman de Haute-Normandie, en charge de la mosquée de Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, inaugurée en 2000 sur une parcelle de terrain offerte par la paroisse catholique, s’est dit « effaré par le décès de [son] ami ». « C’est quelqu’un qui a donné sa vie aux autres. On est abasourdis à la mosquée », a-t-il ajouté. Le prêtre et l’imam faisaient partie d’un comité interconfessionnel depuis dix-huit mois. « Nous discutions de religion et de savoir-vivre ensemble », a précisé Mohammed Karabila.

The President of the Haute-Normandie Regional Council of Muslims, which oversees the Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray Mosque, built on a plot of land offered by the Catholic parish, has said he was “in agony” at the death of his friend. “He was somebody who devoted his life to others. At the mosque we are utterly devastated” he added. For a year and a half the Priest and the Imam had both been part of an inter-faith committee. Mohammed Karabila talked of their activity, “We discussed our faith and how we can get good community relations.”

I cite Geoffrey Hill above because the attack on a early day mass immediately made me think of seeing a priest celebrating Morning prayers  in a place the poet wrote about, the ancient St Michael the Archangel – ‘In Framlingham Church’. *

It was a weekday morning about five years ago and there was only a handful of people there.

But it was solemn and of great dignity.

Goodness is far more important than anything else. 

 

* Both in: Geoffrey Hill, Broken Hierarchies. Poems. 1952 – 2012. Oxford. 2013.

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Farewell to Karl Dallas

July 4, 2016 at 1:12 pm (Anti-Racism, culture, good people, Jim D, music, RIP, stalinism)

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 Dallas

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.

Carol Ballard

 

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Mohammed Ali: a hero of the twentieth century

June 4, 2016 at 6:39 am (Anti-Racism, black culture, celebrity, civil rights, good people, history, literature, media, posted by JD, RIP, sport, United States)

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 »

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