…than when standing in his shadow

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 4, 2016)

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No longer presidents but prophets

They’re all dreaming they’re gonna bear the prophet

He’s gonna run through the fields dreaming in animation

It’s all gonna split his skull

It’s gonna come out like a black bouquet shining

Like a fist that’s gonna shoot them up

Like light, like Muhammad boxer

Take them up up up up up up

— From “Birdland”, by Patti Smith

Some people have a special light. Not a light that you can necessarily “see”, per se; yet in the wake of their departure from this world, one senses a few less lumens within it. Muhammad Ali was one such individual. Normally, when a sports legend dies, you expect the usual accolades from peers and young up-and-coming athletes, citing the personal inspiration and offering admiring kudos for the accomplishments he or she made within the profession. But how many sports figures also incur this manner of observation:

For my generation and so many other people, we didn’t have a President Barack Obama; and so for my generation, in terms of exemplars—people of high achievement, high integrity (beyond my dad, my brothers, and my mom), Muhammad Ali was that for me.

That was from Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed, in an interview on CNN this morning. For that matter, President Barack Obama didn’t have a, erm, President Barack Obama, either:

In my private study, just off the Oval Office, I keep a pair of his gloves on display, just under that iconic photograph of him – the young champ, just 22 years old, roaring like a lion over a fallen Sonny Liston. I was too young when it was taken to understand who he was – still Cassius Clay, already an Olympic Gold Medal winner, yet to set out on a spiritual journey that would lead him to his Muslim faith, exile him at the peak of his power, and set the stage for his return to greatness with a name as familiar to the downtrodden in the slums of Southeast Asia and the villages of Africa as it was to cheering crowds in Madison Square Garden.

That was from the President’s statement earlier today (Digby put the entire text up in her tribute this morning). Yes, even the current leader of the free world has drawn inspiration from Muhammad Ali. Clearly, Ali’s impact on our planet is more substantial than achieving status as the greatest ever heavyweight boxing champion of said world.

This is borne out by the fact that amongst those championship belts, Olympic medals and other sundry sports trophies crowding Ali’s shelf, there is also the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2005), the Dr. Martin Luther King Memorial Award (1970), and the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage (1997)…to name a few. That’s because throughout his life, Ali lent his considerable clout, eloquence and sense of conviction to a number of humanitarian and social causes. Personally, I admire him most for his unapologetic stand against the Vietnam War in the 60s; undaunted by the fact that by doing so, he was committing career suicide.  I’m in good company…here’s today’s most touching tribute:

Muhammad willingly sacrificed the best years of his career to stand tall and fight for what he believed was right. In doing so, he made all Americans, black and white, stand together. I may be 7’2”, but I never felt taller than when standing in his shadow.

– Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, from a Facebook posting earlier today.

Than when standing in his shadow.” Wow. I think we’re all feeling taller today. As a tribute, I’m reposting the following review/essay that I originally published on Digby’s Hullabaloo in November 2013 regarding the documentary, The Trials of Muhammad Ali:

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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 n***er, 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.

-Muhammad Ali

There have been a number of films documenting and dramatizing the extraordinary life of Muhammad Ali, but they all share a curious anomaly. Most have tended to gloss over Ali’s politically volatile “exile years” (1967-1970), during which the American sports icon was officially stripped of his heavyweight crown and essentially “banned” from professional boxing after his very public refusal to be inducted into the Army on the grounds of conscientious objection to the Vietnam War. In a new documentary, The Trials of Muhammad Ali (not to be confused with Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight, the 2013 made-for-cable drama that HBO has been running in heavy rotation) filmmaker Bill Siegel (The Weather Underground) fills in those blanks.

As we know, Time heals (most) wounds…and Siegel opens his film with a fascinatingly dichotomous illustration. We witness a young Ali in a TV talk show appearance as he is being lambasted by an apoplectic David Susskind, who calls him (among other things) “…a disgrace to his country, his race and what he laughably describes as his profession.” (Ali deflects the insulting rant with a Zen-like calm). Cut to 2005, and footage of President G.W. Bush Jr. awarding Ali the Medal of Freedom. It’s easy to forget how vilified Ali was for taking his stand (scars from the politically polarizing Vietnam era run deep; I know a few folks who still refer to Jane Fonda as “Hanoi Jane”).

Sigel then traces the evolution of Ali’s controversial stance, which had its roots in the early 60s, when the wildly popular Olympic champion then known as Cassius Clay became interested in the Nation of Islam, guided by the teachings of the movement’s leader at the time, Elijah Muhammad. Interviewees Kahlilah Camacho-Ali (Ali’s first wife, whom he met through the Nation of Islam) and a longtime friend only identified as “Captain Sam” provide a lot of interesting background on this spiritual side of Ali’s life, which eventually led to the adaptation of a new name and his refusal to serve in Vietnam.

As you watch the film, you begin to understand how Ali the sports icon transmogrified into an influential sociopolitical figure, even if he didn’t set out to become the latter. It was more an accident of history; Ali’s affiliation with the Nation of Islam and stance against the Vietnam War put him at the confluence of both the burgeoning Black Power and anti-war movements. Either way, it took balls, especially considering that when he was convicted of draft evasion (later overturned by the Supreme Court), he was not only stripped of his heavyweight title (and primary source of income), but had his passport taken away by the government. This was not grandstanding; it was a true example of standing on the courage of one’s convictions.

Sigel has unearthed some revelatory archival footage from Ali’s three years in the wilderness. He still had to pay rent and feed his family, so Ali essentially found a second career during that period as a professional speaker (likely making him the only world-famous athlete to have inserted that phase of life usually associated with post-retirement into the middle of one’s career). During this time he represented himself as a minister of the Nation of Islam, giving speeches against racism and the Vietnam War (he shows to have been quite an effective and charismatic speaker). One mind-blower is footage of Ali performing a musical number from a Broadway play called Big Time Buck White.

It’s hard to see this film and not draw parallels with Edward Snowden; specifically to ponder how he will be viewed in the fullness of time. Granted, Snowden is not as likely to get bestowed with the Medal of Freedom-but god knows he’s being vilified now (remember, Ali didn’t just catch flak from the usual suspects for standing firmly on his principles, but even from dyed-in-the-wool liberals like Susskind).

Another takeaway is that there was more going on than cloaked racism; Ali’s vilification was America’s pre-9/11 flirt with Islamophobia. Ali was “safe” and acceptable as a sports celebrity (as long as he played the face-pulling, poetry-spouting ham with Howard Cosell), but was recast as a dangerous black radical once he declared himself a Muslim and began to speak his mind on hot-button issues.

As one interviewee comments on the Islam quotient “…Since 9/11, ‘Islam’ has acquired so many layers and dimensions and textures. When the Nation of Islam was considered as a ‘threatening’ religion, traditional Islam was seen as a gentle alternative. And now, quite the contrary […] Muhammad Ali occupies a weird kind of place in that shifting interpretation of Islam.” Welcome to Bizarro World.

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