“As a man who never looked down on those who looked up to him and who helped as many of his people as he could … I guess I’d settle for being remembered only as a great boxing champion who became a preacher and a champion of his people. And I wouldn’t even mind if folks forgot how pretty I was.” Muhammad Ali in his 1975 Playboy Magazine interview when asked how he would like to be remembered.
Late yesterday afternoon, my wife and I were discussing death. Not a pleasant topic but one that, as we get older, we face more and more often. Friends from school pass away, family members go to their rest, church members die, and icons from our past go to their grave.
I’m not sure that I have been impacted by the latter ever as much as I am upon hearing of the passing of The Greatist, Muhammad Ali. As I watched the video homages memories of my childhood rushed back to me. Those weekends sitting in the living room with my father, watching ABC’s Wide World of Sports, watching Ali’s domineering presence in the ring, at the weigh-in’s, during interviews (especially those exchanges with Howard Cosell). My father loved boxing and would explain the “sweet science” to me as I sat in awe of Ali’s speed and grace. It was more than entertainment though. A special bond was developing with my father over his love for this sport. I remember seeing pictures of my Dad (my dad worked for Hickok Manufacturing, which awarded the belt) wearing the S. Rae Hickok Athlete of the Year Award, an award that Ali won in 1974. Years later, I would learn and train to box in the Navy. I’m not sure that I ever made my father prouder than my voluntary service and my taking up his favorite sport.
But something else was happening as I watched Ali in and out of the ring. A social consciousness was developing in my young mind. As a young Latino in a largely white school, I was in 2nd grade when the man known as Cassius Clay refused to serve in the Army. I had heard grumblings against the war at family gatherings and didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. I didn’t understand forced conscription. I didn’t understand foreign policy (a policing action?). I was preparing for my First Holy Communion and was devout in my faith as I progressed through my catechism classes. I only understood that Cassius Clay, soon to become Muhammad Ali, was practicing his faith and was being punished for that practice. I wasn’t old enough to understand the persecution and prosecution, although I grew to understand in the coming years.
I remember sitting around the dinner table and, on occasion, we would roll the portable television into the dining room to watch the news. Walter Cronkite would give us reports while film footage from Vietnam rolled. We would hear body counts and those wounded. We would watch closely to perhaps catch a glimpse of a loved one that had been drafted and was “over there.” As our family sat around that table and broke bread, a different kind of communion took place. We came together as one, thankful that our cousins were not part of those body counts. We were thankful they weren’t part of the wounded.
Over the years, demonstrations against the war had been a regular occurrence. We saw draft cards being burned early on, then campus protests began in earnest. In March 1968, the My Lai massacre took place. On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. In June 1968, Bobby Kennedy was shot dead. In August of that year, the Democratic National Convention exploded into violence demonstrations.
In 1970, Kent State demonstrations resulted in the National Guard shooting and killing 4 students. Four million students across the nation protested. Later that year, two more students were killed during demonstrations at Jackson State.
As time went by, my brother became of draft age. We’ve never talked about those times, but I was always fearful that he would be drafted. We weren’t rich, not the kids of Senators, millionaires or CIA Directors. For people like our family, the draft was a way of life…and death. Ali showed that it didn’t have to be.
Then came Ali’s return from exile. In March 1971, came the fight between Ali and Frazier. The loss of Ali’s boxing license and exile from boxing for three years had taken its toll on Ali’s speed and stamina. He lost that fight. But in what was arguably Ali’s greatest battle, in June 1971, what had looked like a 5-3 loss for Ali (Justice Blackmon had recused himself and a 4-4 tie would have upheld a lower appellate court ruling against Ali), Justice John Marshall Harlan was given The Autobiography of Malcolm X and became convinced that Ali’s refusal to serve was truly based on Ali’s deep-seated religious objections. Justice Potter Stewart convinced the other Justices of this fact and in what appeared initially to be a 5-3 loss became an 8-0 victory for Ali.
This very well may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back when it came to the Vietnam conflict (the U.S. Congress hasn’t declared war since WWII). As protests grew and Nixon became embroiled in Watergate and eventually resigned from the office of President, in disgrace, our attention was often diverted, thankfully, to The Champ. From The Rumble in the Jungle to The Thrilla in Manila, our country (and my family) would focus on Ali’s return. Some of us cheering for Ali, some not so much.
Still reeling from the Civil Rights struggles of the 50’s and 60’s America became more and more aware of the struggles our country still faced. From the anti-war protests of the 60’s and 70’s; to the Paris Peace Accord in 1973; to the fall of Saigon; America sustained deep and festering wounds. Our Nation’s reputation was scorned, the conflict had no clear victor, veterans were not welcomed back home, and our country had to make a comeback.
What Ali had to overcome in his personal life, our Country was forced to do the same. The Champ did it with the resiliency of character and a commitment to his faith. In his private life, there were many problems. Failed marriages, promiscuity, financial problems. In the years to come, his struggle with Parkinson’s disease helped us to know what true courage looked like. When President George W. Bush placed the Medal of Freedom around Ali’s neck, it was as if every kid of color, every kid that grew up in poverty, every kid that grew up with the cards stacked against them, every kid that grew up with a physical or cognitive disability, shared that Medal with Muhammad Ali. He was more than a champion in the ring. Ali was a champion for the disenfranchised. Ali was a champion for the marginalized. Ali was a champion for racial and gender equality. Ali was a champion for justice.
And he was a champion for peace.
At a time when this Country, and the World, needed hope, Ali was there to provide it.
Muhammad Ali, you truly were The Greatest. Rest in Peace.