Muhammad Ali's death reignites 1960's debates on war and race

The death of boxing legend Mohammad Ali has brought back memories from the 1960's and 70's when America was even more divided than it is today over issues of war and peace and racial justice.

Ali, who changed his name from Cassius Clay after winning the heavyweight title in 1964, was a member of the Nation of Islam, at that time headed up by its founder Elijah Muhammad. Muhammad was a flim flam man who created a religion that had very little to do with Islam. It's central tenet - that white people were devils created by evil black scientists - rarely got reported by the mainstream press when Ali's religion was mentioned.

Along with crooked promoter Don King, NoI manipulated the barely literate young Ali into parting with most of his winnings. No matter how often someone warned Ali about King and Muhammad, he dismissed the criticism.

Later in life, Ali abandoned the Nation of Islam, but not before he tried to use his faith to escape military service.

It's unclear whether Ali knew the consequences of his refusal to be drafted. Being stripped of his heavyweight crown would not in and of itself prevented him from boxing. The sport has no central licensing authority, so boxers and matches had to go through the requirements set by all 50 states. Ali may have thought he could continue fighting exhibitions.

Such was not the case. He was prevented from leaving the country to fight overseas by his conviction for draft evasion and all 50 state boxing authorities refused to license him. He was out of the ring for 3 1/2 years.

After winning the Olympic Gold medal in Rome in 1960, Ali took the standard cold war line about the Soviet Union. But after his conversion, that changed.

"My enemy is the white people, not Vietcongs or Chinese or Japanese," Ali told one white student who challenged his draft avoidance. "You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality. You won't even stand up for me in America for my religious beliefs and you want me to go somewhere and fight but you won't even stand up for me here at home."

Ali's fiery commentary was praised by antiwar activists and black nationalists and vilified by conservatives, including many other athletes and sportswriters.

His appeal took four years to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, which in June 1971 reversed the conviction in a unanimous decision that found the Department of Justice had improperly told the draft board that Ali's stance wasn't motivated by religious belief.

Later in life, Ali became a beloved figure as the countours of the vicious debates in the 60's and 70's softened around the edges. Now, news of his death has brought those debates back into focus.

There will be thousands of well-deserved tributes to Muhammad Ali, and all will talk about his transformation from heavyweight boxing champion to international humanitarian. And that is important to note. But the thing most will miss is how Ali’s voice, a bold black and Muslim voice that spoke eloquently for the aspirations of oppressed peoples in America and throughout the world, was reviled by most of white America at its height, and rendered nearly mute as Parkinson’s disease overtook his neurological functions. As his physical voice disappeared, Ali gradually moved from being a complex human being to a safe idea, a living icon defined by an America that loves to believe that in its essence, it is as great as the black man who boldly stated that he was the greatest of all time.

To this day, the Nation of Islam is a hate group, as virulently anti-white as the KKK is anti-black. That this was self-evident at the time Ali became a member has rarely been mentioned. Nor has the obvious influence of NoI racial teachings had on the boxing legend.

I loved watching Ali fight and laughed at his running patter about himself. He was a genius at self promotion - a godsend to the boxing game in a time of decline. His anti-war stance has always seemed problematic to me as he apparently had a change of heart only after Elijah Muhammad and his thugs got their claws into him. His extreme statements on race and racism also spoke to the nefarious influence of the black racists.

Was he "The Greatest"? Most boxing experts say he wasn't. Joe Louis is generally recognized as the greatest heavyweight champion of all time. And there have been fighters in lower weight classes who were more dangerous pound for pound. But Ali was certainly one of the greatest entertaining boxers in history and will be remembered as an iconic figure not just in sports but in the culture as well. 

 

The death of boxing legend Mohammad Ali has brought back memories from the 1960's and 70's when America was even more divided than it is today over issues of war and peace and racial justice.

Ali, who changed his name from Cassius Clay after winning the heavyweight title in 1964, was a member of the Nation of Islam, at that time headed up by its founder Elijah Muhammad. Muhammad was a flim flam man who created a religion that had very little to do with Islam. It's central tenet - that white people were devils created by evil black scientists - rarely got reported by the mainstream press when Ali's religion was mentioned.

Along with crooked promoter Don King, NoI manipulated the barely literate young Ali into parting with most of his winnings. No matter how often someone warned Ali about King and Muhammad, he dismissed the criticism.

Later in life, Ali abandoned the Nation of Islam, but not before he tried to use his faith to escape military service.

It's unclear whether Ali knew the consequences of his refusal to be drafted. Being stripped of his heavyweight crown would not in and of itself prevented him from boxing. The sport has no central licensing authority, so boxers and matches had to go through the requirements set by all 50 states. Ali may have thought he could continue fighting exhibitions.

Such was not the case. He was prevented from leaving the country to fight overseas by his conviction for draft evasion and all 50 state boxing authorities refused to license him. He was out of the ring for 3 1/2 years.

After winning the Olympic Gold medal in Rome in 1960, Ali took the standard cold war line about the Soviet Union. But after his conversion, that changed.

"My enemy is the white people, not Vietcongs or Chinese or Japanese," Ali told one white student who challenged his draft avoidance. "You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality. You won't even stand up for me in America for my religious beliefs and you want me to go somewhere and fight but you won't even stand up for me here at home."

Ali's fiery commentary was praised by antiwar activists and black nationalists and vilified by conservatives, including many other athletes and sportswriters.

His appeal took four years to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, which in June 1971 reversed the conviction in a unanimous decision that found the Department of Justice had improperly told the draft board that Ali's stance wasn't motivated by religious belief.

Later in life, Ali became a beloved figure as the countours of the vicious debates in the 60's and 70's softened around the edges. Now, news of his death has brought those debates back into focus.

There will be thousands of well-deserved tributes to Muhammad Ali, and all will talk about his transformation from heavyweight boxing champion to international humanitarian. And that is important to note. But the thing most will miss is how Ali’s voice, a bold black and Muslim voice that spoke eloquently for the aspirations of oppressed peoples in America and throughout the world, was reviled by most of white America at its height, and rendered nearly mute as Parkinson’s disease overtook his neurological functions. As his physical voice disappeared, Ali gradually moved from being a complex human being to a safe idea, a living icon defined by an America that loves to believe that in its essence, it is as great as the black man who boldly stated that he was the greatest of all time.

To this day, the Nation of Islam is a hate group, as virulently anti-white as the KKK is anti-black. That this was self-evident at the time Ali became a member has rarely been mentioned. Nor has the obvious influence of NoI racial teachings had on the boxing legend.

I loved watching Ali fight and laughed at his running patter about himself. He was a genius at self promotion - a godsend to the boxing game in a time of decline. His anti-war stance has always seemed problematic to me as he apparently had a change of heart only after Elijah Muhammad and his thugs got their claws into him. His extreme statements on race and racism also spoke to the nefarious influence of the black racists.

Was he "The Greatest"? Most boxing experts say he wasn't. Joe Louis is generally recognized as the greatest heavyweight champion of all time. And there have been fighters in lower weight classes who were more dangerous pound for pound. But Ali was certainly one of the greatest entertaining boxers in history and will be remembered as an iconic figure not just in sports but in the culture as well.