Ali escorted to jail April 28 1967
“Boxing legend dies”, is what most headlines say. And the news was first reported on sports pages, though it did soon move to frontpages, fast.
Muhammad Ali was so much more than a boxing legend. So much more that to mention boxing first doesn’t do him justice. Ali was first and foremost a very brave and intelligent man, who changed America for the better. Or should we say: changed Americans?
He grew up in an intensely racist, segregated and divided America, and in the arguably most divided part of that America. That shaped him. Boxing was merely his way out, his way to fight discrimination and racism.
But it didn’t come easy. His was a lonely fight, for most of it. But then, he wasn’t the greatest for nothing.
The only people who stood by him were the Nation of Islam, who made him say some crazy things and from whom he later split acrimoniously; Ali wanted peace, they, not so much. Ali found he was much closer to Martin Luther King at heart. But still.
I saw some numbers flash by earlier. America’s been at war in 223 of the 240 years of its existence since 1776.
Ali refused to go. No matter what the cost. He could easily have been killed for doing it, or locked away for the rest of his life, and he knew it. But he didn’t even flinch. He would not fight the fight of those who set their dogs on his people. He would instead fight against them.
“I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize… But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.”
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?
No, I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over.
This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here.
I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality. If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow.
I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.”
(NOTE: Whether Ali ever actually said: “No Vietcong ever called me a nigger” is not entirely clear. But he did say this:)
“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father… Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”
Whether Ali was the greatest American alive when he died a few hours ago is of course a personal view. That he was way up there is beyond dispute. And he had been there for 50 years, while he was still alive. Oh, yeah, and he was a good boxer too. And very pretty.