The Legacy of Muhammad Ali

by Michael Eric Dyson – June 1, 2018

In March 1968, James Baldwin appeared before a House Select Subcommittee convened in New York City. He was there to testify in support of a House bill to establish a national commission on “Negro History and Culture.” At one point, Baldwin, who’d brought along Malcolm X’s widow, Betty Shabazz, to say a few words, suggested that black heroes weren’t viewed kindly by white America.

“Yes, but you must understand that, speaking as black Americans, my heroes have always been [seen] from the point of view of white Americans as bad niggers,” Baldwin said. “Cassius Clay is one of my heroes but not one of yours,” Baldwin said, using Muhammad Ali’s pre-conversion name. He asked that the Congressmen recognize the role black heroes played in American life “and the reasons why all my heroes came to such bloody ends.”

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In an open letter to President Jimmy Carter in 1977, Baldwin noted that “when Muhammad Ali decided to be true to his faith and refused to join the Army, the wrath of an entire Republic was visited on his head, he was stripped of his title, and was not allowed to work. In short, his countrymen decided to break him, and it is not their virtue that they failed. It is his virtue.”

There can be no denying that, for many white Americans, our heroes are now their heroes—well, at least our champions are theirs. Black and white folk both love Michael Jordan and, to a large degree, LeBron James. But James’s elevated stature is compromised for some because he has been outspoken on race and social issues, even sharply criticizing President Trump. A Fox News host, Laura Ingraham, shot back at James and fellow superstar Kevin Durant, who also criticized Trump, telling them to “shut up and dribble.” Many interpreted that as a racist wolf whistle to “keep your black mouth shut and entertain us.”

Ali’s countrymen decided to break him.

James recalled the earlier examples of Ali, Jim Brown, Bill Russell, and Jackie Robinson to suggest his membership in a distinguished tradition of black athletes who have spoken up for the black masses. “I will definitely not shut up and dribble,” he said. “I will definitely not do that. I mean too much to society, I mean too much to the youth, I mean too much to so many kids that feel like they don’t have a way out, and they need someone to help lead them out of the situation they’re in.”

When former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the playing of the national anthem, he was portrayed as an un-American traitor to American values. Kaepernick found himself out of a job after declaring free agency, despite being better than half the league’s backup quarterbacks. President Trump eventually referred to the mostly black players who mirrored Kaepernick in silent forms of protest as “sons of bitches.”

I met Muhammad Ali for the first time at a 1992 symposium on his life at Miami University in Ohio, which featured talks by eight thinkers and scribes, including renowned sportswriter and Ali biographer Robert Lipsyte. I was still a graduate student at Princeton and just grateful to be in the room with the champ to parse Ali’s complicated legacy in several no-holds-barred sessions.

In my talk, I imagined him as a poetic forerunner to hip hop. It made sense to me that Ali’s daughter, Maryum “May May” Ali, was a rapper who sampled and transformed her father’s prose and poetry. Ali’s outpouring of words outside the ring marked him as a man to be heard and seen.

In the early twentieth century, heavyweight champ Jack Johnson’s despised dark skin forced him to pay a steep professional and cultural price for beating up white men and winning their women too. Near midcentury, the fists of heavyweight champ Joe Louis spoke when he dropped German boxer Max Schmeling and struck a blow for American democracy and black pride.

Ali didn’t at first seem to fit their mold; the self-proclaimed “Louisville Lip” came off as little more than a cocky contender. It was soon clear that Ali’s verses were a mash-up of literature and theory—Paul Laurence Dunbar meets Noam Chomsky. Ali twisted language to suit his pugilistic purposes and transformed the political grammar of black identity. The surface structure of Ali’s brashness pointed to the deeper structure of his quest for black self-respect.

Hip hop great Jay-Z captured this idea when he said that “Muhammad Ali is one of my heroes because when he was saying, ‘I’m pretty,’ he was saying that to all of us, he made all of us feel like we were pretty. ‘I’m pretty, I’m a bad man, I’m pretty.’ You gotta figure this was a time when we were considered ugly, so he wasn’t saying that as a boast to walk inside the ring, he was saying that as a boast for all of us.”

For most of our history, black folk were viewed as ugly creatures who lacked European charm and beauty. Black folk were considered biologically ugly, too. We were the genetic junk of a race that drew from the genes and chromosomes of an impure species. Black folk were morally ugly, soulless savages seeking to satisfy appetites without higher purpose. And black folk were seen as mentally ugly, too—intellectually inferior beings incapable of divining life’s deeper meanings.

Ali, like the best rappers, spoke back to all that. He blazed the path for hip hop artists placing vernacular speech in the service of truth, though such speech is always at first seen as a mockery of taste and pedigree. That’s true whether the art in question is the sorrow song of the slave plantation, the blues of the urban enclave, or the rap of the concrete jungle.

Muhammad Ali reveled in valiant blackness, a courageous moral and philosophical argument that black life be treated with dignity and respect. He presaged our contemporary Black Lives Matter practice of both naming and resisting black animus while linking such gestures to practical politics. His was surely an intuitional rebellion, a matter of criticizing what he in his gut knew to be wrong, but his actions were also connected to broader freedom struggles in black America and throughout the black diaspora, where he was madly loved.

Ali made war on war. He held out as a conscientious objector against the bloodbath in Vietnam. He said that his 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? . . . Just take me to jail.”

Ali challenged America to face up to its political hypocrisy and to acknowledge its moral shortcomings.

Ali was even more forceful about the link between domestic and international racial terror, and colonialism and oppression, when he declared, “I’m not gonna help nobody get something my Negroes don’t have. If I’m gonna die, I’ll die now right here fighting you, if I’m gonna die. You my enemy. My enemies are white people, not Viet Congs or Chinese or Japanese. 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 won’t even stand up for me here at home.”

It is not that Ali “matured” and gave up his ferocious social conscience as much as America caught up to his progressive ideas—at least on the question and costs of the Vietnam War and, to a lesser degree, on the racial crises at home. The country has yet to acknowledge the link Ali drew between racial injustice at home and war abroad, where people of color are common targets of American politics or, as Malcolm X put it, “the victims of democracy.” But Ali challenged America to face up to its political hypocrisy and to acknowledge its moral shortcomings.

As the nation warmed up to his view of things, Ali’s image changed, too; he went from troublemaker to peacemaker, from rebel to saint. That change had as much to do with political and social amnesia—America often forgets what it seeks, or fails, to defeat—as it did with the admission that Ali’s vision of America was more compelling, freer, truer, more capacious than the cramped, crabby, clubby vision of white racial nationalism.

Like the great thinkers and leaders who preceded him—from W.E.B. Du Bois, to Anna Julia Cooper, to Ida B. Wells-Barnett, to Paul Robeson, to Pauli Murray, and to King and Malcolm—Ali’s embrace of the world’s beleaguered and downtrodden masses forced the nation to come to grips with its foul treatment of its own citizens of color. Thus, like those figures, Ali’s insistence that America do the right thing was far more loyal to the nation’s ideals than those figures who savaged the once-deposed champ in the name of American patriotism.

For many of his admirers, Ali’s transition from pariah to prophet, from scourge to icon, stands as a sharp contrast to his previous radical political activism. For them, Ali’s criticism of the nation seems to have given way to his embrace of America. That is far too simplistic a conclusion. The progress the nation made toward the ideals Ali fought for opened up space for him to fight injustice in a far less volatile environment.

Muhammad Ali reveled in valiant blackness, a courageous moral and philosophical argument that black life be treated with dignity and respect.

The price Ali paid for his moral courage was steep, including the sacrifice of riches and reputation, and the loss of time to be able to perfect his craft at the height of his transcendent and luminous powers. The price to his body for his stubborn persistence in the fight game was also incalculably grave. Ali’s physical courage in the face of debilitating Parkinson’s disease went far beyond his athletic valor—as great as that was. His management of the disease was a metaphor for other black folk’s battles, trapped inside stifling bodies of belief as they seek to negotiate their existence with a measure of grace and dignity.

Those who profess to love Ali but despise current black protest—against police brutality, against voter suppression, against environmental racism—fundamentally misunderstand his political vision and moral sophistication.

A few prominent examples suggest how those distortions work. As long as LeBron James played basketball with a smile on his face, he was celebrated, and his charitable efforts in the community were lauded. Yet when he argued that racism played a role in the fevered responses to him leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat a few years back, he was sternly taken to task, just as he was criticized in some quarters for tweeting out a photo of his Miami Heat team donning hoodies in solidarity with the fallen black teen Trayvon Martin.

When All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman quietly played his position, he was hailed, but when he said that those calling him a “thug” because of his demonstrative on-field behavior were using it as a euphemism for the “N” word, he was lambasted. Beyoncé is embraced as a global icon of black genius when she performs, but when she spoke up about police brutality and defended the Black Lives Matter movement, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani pounced on her, and some police departments swore not to protect her as she toured.

Many whites are upset and offended when they encounter black athletes who step out of character and break the mythology of a raceless and neutral American identity. This is especially true when it comes to protest: these athletes prove “they,” the wealthy and lauded, are just like the rest of “them,” the rest of “us” blacks: concerned, but more likely obsessed, with race.

It makes sense for athletes to raise their voices beyond the field of play. If they have built up cultural capital and garnered enormous success, it means that considerable quarters of white America are not only paying—they are paying attention. The money athletes make may not be as important as the mark they can leave on the minds of those who admire them. Therefore, many of them are compelled to speak up for justice, equality, and opportunity.

Sadly, the number of athletes speaking out is relatively small. Ali’s transformation from pariah to hero was aided by the silence inflicted on him by his disease. Michael Jordan, consciously or not, reversed the order: during his playing days, he was depressingly silent about the injustices that plagued his people, and now, tentatively, he speaks up when the terms are uncontroversial, his reputation safe.

The money athletes make may not be as important as the mark they can leave on the minds of those who admire them.

One of the reasons so many athletes have taken after Jordan rather than Ali has little to do with conscience and more to do with the forms such expression might take. Today’s black athletes thrive in a time that has shifted from social conscience to social service. They perform humanitarian deeds: visit a sick child at a hospital, lend a hand in building a house, raise money for the relief of hurricane disasters. These are laudable acts—and politically neutral. They risk little of the athlete’s reputation, demand very little of his or her political capital.

The stakes of going beyond the public service script are much higher for today’s athletes, because far more than compensation for their main jobs is on the table: “good” reputations lead to lucrative endorsement deals and huge financial windfalls as spokespeople for athletic brands with global economic footprints. Athletes who dare challenge the social service paradigm today risk curtailing future paydays. Talking about racial injustice might soil your reputation.

Of course, a punishing paradox is afoot: the very willingness of earlier black athletes to buck trends, speak their minds, and challenge orthodoxy put contemporary black athletes in a golden financial position today. Black baseball player Curt Flood’s 1969 challenge to the punishing system of team “ownership” of players led to free agency and billions of dollars for all major leaguers. Spencer Haywood accomplished a similar feat in basketball. Basketball superstar LeBron James has consistently spoken his mind about race and its consequences in America.

Most recently, James spoke out about having racist graffiti scrawled on his Los Angeles home. He appealed to the memory of Emmett Till to make his case. “I think back to Emmett Till’s mom actually, and the reason that she had an open casket is because she wanted to show the world what her son went through as far as a hate crime and being black in America.”

What President Trump’s Twitter fingers reveal, what his twitchy, apoplectic outrage proves, is that he is, perhaps, the most unpatriotic of all American Presidents. But his perverted vision of patriotism cannot stop the efforts of the truly righteous. Some brave souls may sacrifice their careers to highlight the oppression that everyday black folk confront.