Workers Vanguard No. 1092

1 July 2016


Black, Defiant and Proud

Muhammad Ali: An Appreciation

Muhammad Ali, heavyweight champ of the world, and by his own words, “the greatest,” died on June 3 after a lengthy battle with Parkinson’s disease. Despite the vast distance between his political outlook and ours, we hail Ali, arguably the most prominent sports figure of the 20th century, for his courageous refusal to be drafted into the anti-Communist U.S. war in Vietnam and for his struggle against racist oppression of black people at home. After the government changed his draft status in 1966 to make him eligible for induction, Ali famously responded to reporters demanding to know if he would serve if called up:

“I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.... 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‑‑‑‑r, 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.”

This searing indictment of racist U.S. imperialism resonated not only with the growing movement against the Vietnam War but spoke for a generation of black youth.

For refusing induction, Ali was convicted of draft evasion in June 1967 and sentenced to five years in prison. Though he remained free pending appeal, the racist boxing authorities immediately revoked Ali’s heavyweight title and barred him from boxing in the U.S. Stripped of his passport, Ali was unable to earn his livelihood anywhere else.

Ali’s bold opposition to the war had reverberations among black GIs walking point through the rice paddies of Vietnam. A big reason the U.S. Army lost on the battlefield was that the troops increasingly saw no reason to fight and die, and that was doubly true for black soldiers.

With antiwar sentiment growing and a wing of the American bourgeoisie wanting to cut its losses and get out of Vietnam, Ali’s boxing license was reinstated in 1970. The following year, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Ali’s conviction by an 8-0 vote. (Thurgood Marshall, the Court’s first black justice, had led the initial prosecution against Ali and recused himself.) After a three-year hiatus, Ali was finally allowed to box again. In 1974, bereft of his trademark speed of hand and foot, an aging Ali upset the heavily favored George Foreman to recapture the title in the “Rumble in the Jungle.” It is a testament to the brutality of this blood sport, whose U.S. origins were in the slaveholding South, that the onset of Ali’s Parkinson’s disease came soon after he retired in 1981—most likely a consequence of the punishment he took in the ring.

The legacy of Ali’s struggles inspired young activists in the 1960s and beyond. As one of our comrades recalled:

“I grew up in a mostly white working-class neighborhood, and I spent a lot of time with my cousins, who lived in a ghetto across the bay. Muhammad Ali was our hero. And he, first among others, was beautiful, black and proud.

“Ali played a big role molding consciousness of myself as a black man different than had been the case for those who came before me. The civil rights struggles and the Black Power movement had changed racist American society—not in any fundamental way—but I did not have the same demeanor as my father’s generation, nor was I expected to by my black friends and family. I did not have to keep my head down, be deferential or say, ‘yessuh.’ Thanks to Ali and others like him, I could be black and proud and not beaten down.”

Ali Feted by Bloodstained Imperialists

It is a slap in the face to those inspired by Ali’s courageous struggles to see his death used as campaign fodder for the same Democratic Party that—under Lyndon Johnson as president—prosecuted him in order to pursue the dirty war in Vietnam. Speaking at Ali’s memorial was Bill Clinton who, as president, carried out imperialist slaughter in Serbia and Somalia and engineered the starvation blockade of Iraq, which caused the deaths of over a million people through disease and malnutrition. President Obama issued a statement saying Ali made him believe that a “mixed kid with a funny name” could become president of the United States. In that capacity Obama rains down death —predominantly on Muslims—the world over and persecutes truth-tellers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden for exposing U.S. imperialism’s contemporary war crimes.

Little noted in the mainstream press coverage of Ali’s funeral is the tribute made by Malcolm X’s daughter, Attallah Shabazz—perhaps too much a reminder of the true Ali that the oppressed around the world revered and the racist American bourgeoisie despised. Still known as Cassius Clay, Ali became a marked man in 1964 when, after defeating Sonny Liston to capture the heavyweight title, he appeared with Malcolm X at his side and announced that he was joining the black separatist Nation of Islam (NOI). Shortly after, he was given the name Muhammad Ali by NOI leader Elijah Muhammad.

Ali captured the title at the height of struggles against Jim Crow segregation and a growing polarization within the civil rights movement. His association with Malcolm X was outside the bounds of what was deemed acceptable for a black sports figure in racist America. As young civil rights activists were becoming increasingly disillusioned with the pacifist liberalism and ties to the white ruling class of Martin Luther King, they found in Malcolm X the voice of the angry black ghetto. He was black America’s truth-teller, intransigently opposed to the racist Democratic Party as well as the “white man’s puppet Negro ‘leaders’,” as he called MLK, Bayard Rustin and others.

The NOI, a conservative religious cult, was opposed in principle to struggle against racial oppression. Malcolm fell into disfavor with Elijah Muhammad with his publicly known aspiration that the NOI abandon this abstention. When, in 1963, he refused to express sorrow after JFK’s assassination, commenting acerbically that it was a case of “chickens coming home to roost,” Malcolm was suspended by the NOI. Malcolm split from the NOI in 1964 and Ali broke relations with him. On 21 February 1965 Malcolm was assassinated in Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom. “Turning my back on Malcolm was one of the mistakes that I regret most in my life,” wrote Ali in his 2004 autobiography. “I wish I’d been able to tell Malcolm I was sorry, that he was right about so many things. But he was killed before I got the chance.”

Thanks in large part to sportscaster Howard Cosell, Ali was a regular feature on weekend sports shows, giving him a platform to condemn racist oppression and confront the torrent of abuse by the press who, for years, refused to even call him by his chosen name. Cosell continued to stand by Ali in the lean years. Through 1970, the New York Times had an explicit editorial policy of calling him Clay. Robert Lipsyte, a reporter for the Times, recalled apologizing about the insulting policy, to which Ali replied, “Don’t worry, you’re just a little brother of the white power structure.” In the absence of any credible white contenders, the boxing establishment threw at Ali a series of black boxers as their “great hope” to recapture Ali’s crown for the Christian red white and blue. Ali’s most famous response to those fighters who addressed him as “Clay” was when he stood over a prostrate Ernie Terrell during their February 1967 bout demanding, “What’s my name? What’s my name?”

Abandoned by the NOI after he was stripped of his title, in 1968 Ali spoke at 200 campuses throughout the nation in defense of black rights and in opposition to the Vietnam War. This became his prime source of income. Protests against Ali’s conviction took place around the world. When black sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists on the medal podium in the 1968 Olympics, one of their demands was to restore Muhammad Ali’s title. During his long imprisonment on Robben Island, Nelson Mandela regarded Ali as a symbol of hope and courage. For his part, Ali was active in the defense of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a middleweight boxer who was framed on murder charges because of his advocacy of black self-defense. Ali also supported Lauren Mozee and Ray Palmiero, a racially integrated couple victimized for defending their picket line during the 1983 phone workers strike.

Ali truly was the greatest and his greatness had much to do with the fights that he waged outside of the ring. He should be remembered when he was at the peak of his power, when workers and oppressed people throughout the world hailed him for his opposition to racist U.S. imperialism’s bloody war in Vietnam.