As Americans we are a people wrapped up in sports. Young, old, Black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, straight and gay – most of us think sports at some point on almost every given day. So when we heard this weekend about the death of Muhammad Ali, we thought about those iconic fights in which the Champ bested Frazier and Forman.
All of us agree, as we were reminded this weekend by all the on and offline media, that Ali was the greatest fighter ever to have come upon the world scene. The same media that is all too complacent in pushing the narrative that Black people are criminals had no difficulty this weekend in praising a Black athlete. Somehow in our love of sports and violence, Black athletes can escape the harsh treatment the media gives to Black people who fight for justice and sometimes get a bit loud when they do so.
I would like to take this opportunity to put in a word for what I think was the Champ’s greatest fight – his unremitting, relentless fight for Peace.
That fight and the taking of that fight into the realm of politics, is a fight they haven’t talked as much about on TV this weekend. They focused more on aspects of the Champ that, in the eyes of the powers that be, made him an “acceptable” hero. The Champ shadow boxing with President Bush or before him President Reagan were two of those “acceptable” scenes which to my mind were two of countless attempts by the ruling class to make a real people’s hero safer.
When I was 17 years old, a year before I could be drafted to go to fight in Vietnam, I heard the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak in New York. King had said it was time to break his silence on the war, a move many cautioned him against. “Keep civil rights and peace separate,” they said. “It’s President Johnson’s war and he is a friend of civil rights.” But King said he could be silent no more and he actually quoted the Champ who had beaten all well known personalities, including Dr. King, in coming out against the war: King quoted Ali who had declared: “We are all – Black, brown and poor whites – victims of the same system of oppression.”
As a teenager thinking about a war into which older teenagers were being sent to die, I was inspired by Ali’s act of resistance and by his willingness to face imprisonment for his action. Far greater men then me, in their time, were inspired by the Champ. Nelson Mandela reportedly said whenever he was about to lose hope during his long years of imprisonment in South Africa he that thought of Muhammad Ali.
I am a long time member of the CPUSA. One of the things about my party’s history that makes me proudest is its role in “the fight for peace.” Many say “fighting” for peace is a contradiction. Muhammad Ali showed, however, that a fight is precisely what it takes to win the peace. The iconic, tough, fighting athlete showed the country and the world what it is that real fighters do. They fight for peace.
Over the past weekend they aired many of Ali’s “tough guys” quotes: “I’m the greatest,” “I’m so bad I make medicine sick,” “I sent a stone to the hospital,” etc. etc.
His greatest “tough guy” quote was not aired as much however. It was a quote that won Ali the enmity of the right wing, the press and unfortunately even too many liberals. It was the quote that got him suspended for three years from boxing. Dave Zirin mentioned it in his article in the Nation. I repeat it here:
“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 over 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 will cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it now 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. We’ve been in jail 400 years.”
Even in the context of today’s events this was a powerful statement. Ali brought together the struggles for peace and the fight for justice on the domestic front. Up until that speech, the civil rights movements and the peace movements, both growing rapidly on the American scene, were separate from one another. The conventional wisdom, even in liberal circles, was that you didn’t mix civil rights with anti-war work. Even today we’d be better off if the presidential candidates challenging the right wing would, as did Ali, do more to make this connection.
But in his day Ali was a pioneer in the effort to join together the two then-separate movements. The Champ played a key role in uniting those movements thereby strengthening both.
It had a profound effect on us teenagers in those days Here was the strong, powerful and clever sports hero of the day, just a few years our senior, the fighting Champ taking on a second fight – this one outside the boxing ring. He took this second fight to the halls of power. He did it on behalf of his Black brothers and sisters who were dying in larger numbers than anyone else in Vietnam and dying from lack of opportunity in cities here at home. He did it in behalf of the rest of us too – everyone else victimized in any way by an oppressive system. What he did in waging that fight for peace will make him live forever.
Photo: In this March 29, 1967, file photo, heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, center left, and Dr. Martin Luther King speak to reporters. | AP