How America changed its mind on Muhammad Ali

How America changed its mind on Muhammad Ali
10 min read
02 Jun, 2017
Comment: World famous boxing Olympian, black rights activist, Nation of Islam member and interlocutor between East and West, Muhammad Ali was as controversial as he was loved, writes Otman Aitlkaboud.
Ali was stripped of his heayvweight boxing title after refusing to fight in Vietnam [Getty]

Muhammad Ali's death last year at 74 followed his 32 year battle with Parkinson's disease. His successes in boxing, and his work as a goodwill ambassador, were as much a cause for the global outpouring of grief that followed his passing, as what was in later life a more prevailing appreciation for the young Ali, who often took on unpopular political stances.

On the day of Ali's funeral in Louisville, Kentucky, throngs of people watched and adorned his hearse with floral tributes, slowing the cortege's progress through the Louisville streets of Ali's youth, and on to his final resting place in the city's Cave Hill cemetery.

That Muhammad Ali's anti-establishment positions became more palatable with time was indubitable at his memorial service, where former US president Bill Clinton praised Ali for the efforts he made to "write his own life story".

Sermonising Ali's contribution to the world, the former president describing Ali's lighting of the Olympic flame at Atlanta in 1996 spoke of "weeping like a baby, seeing his hands shake and his legs shake".

In later life, Ali's broad appeal was evident, and news of his passing only served to reinforce the "transcendental" label often ascribed to him. His death conjured tributes and praise the world over. In Ali’s United States, his death momentarily brought consensus in the heart of an inimical presidential election campaign that was characterised by division and difference, drawing tributes from across the political divide, including from Donald Trump who had just six months earlier questioned the existence of Muslim American sports heroes.

Muhammad Ali's anti-establishment positions became more palatable with time

With the warm words and tributes made by statesmen, dignitaries, Hollywood stars, interfaith and community leaders present at Ali's service and beyond, it almost seems hard to contemplate a reality in which Muhammad Ali was not universally loved. 

Fresh from his Olympic gold medal triumph at the 1960 Rome Olympics, the 18-year-old sporting paragon, still known then by his birth name Cassius Clay, returned to his Louisville, Kentucky home.

An exceptional young man who had witnessed the fairness of the Olympics through its award of its top accolade to him, Ali momentarily must have thought that the recognition of him as much as his talent would continue to endure.

While the Olympics may have imbued Ali with a new sense of egalitarianism and of his own exceptionalism, the town of his birth still clung on to the last vestiges of the segregationist racial policies of Jim Crow that continued until 1965.

Former 1968 Olympic gold medalist Muhammad Ali lights the first torch to start the Olympic Torch Relay 04
December 2001, at Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta, Georgia [AFP]

Ali being barred from entering a restaurant in Louisville's downtown because he was black was the catalyst for the legend that developed surrounding the fate of Ali's Olympic medal; reportedly throwing it into the Ohio river. If true, his action may have been a riposte to the Olympics, and indeed to Muhammad Ali himself for daring to believe that talent and fair competition on a global stage would have any bearing in his hometown's treatment of him. 

'I am America,' Ali once said. 'I am the part you won't recognise. But get used to me.'

The slight in the Louisville diner and those which Ali endured growing up in an era of gross racial inequality moulded him. His boxing could only offer so much in providing a release for the anger that he felt, from not only the racial humiliation that he and African-Americans continued to experience, but also against the violence inflicted upon Americans of all creeds participating in civil rights protests across the country.  

The Nation of Islam

Ali's need to channel the anger he felt at his country brought him to the attention of the Nation of Islam, whose spell he quickly fell under. The militant black separatist movement fighting for secession within the United States, first made contact with Ali through the group's charismatic member, Malcolm X.

Ali secretly became a member of the organisation at 18, and officially announced his conversion to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam in February 1964. The announcement came a day after Ali's defeat of Sonny Liston with the declaration that he'd renounced his "slave name" of Cassius Clay for his "free name" of Muhammad Ali.

It was Ali's connection to the Nation of Islam that informed his view of America's war in Vietnam

It was Ali's connection to the Nation that informed his view of America's war in Vietnam - and it was his opposition to the war that alienated Ali from mainstream America. Some were never able to forgive Ali for what was seen as a crucial unpatriotic misstep in his avoidance of the draft in 1967.

The now famous protestation that Ali said - or did not say - "No Viet Cong ever called me a n*gger", regardless of its veracity, embodied Muhammad Ali's beliefs. His conscientious objection to war in Vietnam was underpinned by the Nation of Islam's belief system, M. Cooper Harriss, a religious studies professor at Indiana University wrote:

"To be authentically black like God, the Nation of Islam preached, is to be Muslim. Only by the recognition of and purchase into this identity may one become free - spiritually, to be sure, but free moreover from the colonialism of Christian America and its European adjuncts."

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Harriss continued, "This is the theology that underlies Ali's famous resistance to military induction, diminishing any 'quarrel' with the Vietcong."

The combination of Ali's black consciousness, separatism, political activism and refusal to join the draft in the Vietnam war alarmed America - it wavering from both domestic strains and its fight with communism abroad. America set out to silence Ali, at first through its attempt to convict him for his draft refusal, and finally through revoking his boxing license.

Both indignities for Ali fell on the same day in Houston, Texas on April 28, 1967. Following a short court hearing that found him guilty of draft-refusal, America's boxing authorities stripped Ali of his heavyweight title and banned him for fighting for three years.

 Muhammad Ali addressing a Nation of Islam meeting at the New Victoria Theatre in London, 1974 [Getty]

Avoiding jail but unable to ply his trade, Ali turned to that other facet of his that made him into a global institution: his voice, and with it his singular ability to draw considerable crowds that he both alienated and galvanised.

Shunned by mainstream America Ali took on the mantle of university speaker, his peripatetic campus wanderings throughout the US, in his capacity of minister for the Nation of Islam, informed students of his new found faith - his allegiance to its dogma permeating both his discussions on civil rights and colonialism. 

The path to redemption

By 1971, Ali began his very public path to redemption, his conviction and five-year sentence quashed upon appeal by the United States Supreme Court, Ali was able to resume boxing.

Much had changed in the four years since his boxing ban and the Vietnam war no longer enjoyed the broad support it once had. The growing anti-war fervour and the support for many of Ali's positions that he encountered during his ban from boxing must have chafed against the doctrinaire separatist ideology of the Nation of Islam that Ali routinely parroted. 

Muhammad Ali gave oxygen to the Nation of Islam

Bill Siegel the director of the documentary The Trials of Muhammad Ali in an interview spoke of how these encounters with white college students changed Ali: "It forced him to become even more himself and develop himself as an independent thinker, and also to recognise that he had allies that he didn't know he had, meaning white college students, who were coming around to where he was."

Ali believed he spoke the truth to power, whether commentators or admirers cared for his castigation of America or were offended by it - some developed a great admiration for him, aware of the glaring sacrifices that he made in a period in which Ali might have been in his boxing prime.

The most vocal support of all came from the Jewish American sports broadcaster Howard Cosell. He chided the New York State Athletic Commission for stripping Ali of his heavyweight title in 1967, and insisted on calling him by his name Muhammad during an era in which opponents and commentators sought to deny the normalisation of his new identity.

Cosell's support to Ali was longstanding and their friendship very much in the public eye inspired a joint biography, Sound and Fury by the American writer David Kindred.

Muhammad Ali's character, multifaceted and often contradictory, bewitched and alienated.

While sections of America took steps to rehabilitate Muhammad Ali in the US, the superstar never needed such support in developing a relationship with the global South. His resonance among beleaguered populations the world over went beyond admiration for his sporting prowess. His championing of the rights of black people in America and visits to Ghana, Nigeria and Egypt in 1964, ensured that Ali would be able to call upon unaltered admiration in Africa throughout his career as a boxer and into later life as a goodwill ambassador.

Global appeal

Ali's global appeal, in spite of and because of his stance on not fighting in Vietnam, saw his star rise in countries experiencing decolonisation. Ali's global draw was such that dictators jostled for position in their attempts to host his fights, using Ali and his universal attraction as a ploy to divert focus from internal issues.

Fights with George Foreman in the Congo, (then Zaire) Kinshasa in 1974, and in Manilla in 1975 followed, and encapsulated Muhammad Ali's transcendental stardom more than any other sports star at the time, and arguably since. 

Muhammad Ali's later years courted less controversy, the high profile acquittal of his draft dodging charge and the American public's own shift in their attitude to war in Vietnam, helped soften mainstream America's attitude to Ali.

Other factors also played their part, the death of Ali's mentor in 1975, the Nation of Islam's leader Elijah Muhammad saw his successor and son Warith Deen Muhammad lead most followers of the organisation towards mainstream Sunni Islam. This saw its influence rapidly diminish, even after attempts of the NOI's revival by its new leader, Minister Louis Farrakhan.

He became an important interlocutor between East and West through his role as goodwill ambassador

That America's accelerated embrace of Ali may have followed his conversion to a more orthodox strand of Sunni Islam may seem hard to understand today in an era where Islam and its largest sect is dogged by the terrorist crimes of the nihilist Islamic State group (IS), but Ali's 1975 conversion proceeded the tumults that the September 11 attacks unleashed.

Muhammad Ali gave oxygen to the Nation of Islam, and his severing of ties from them meant that the once very real threat that they posed to the US establishment was much reduced.

Ali retired in 1981, the onset of Parkinson's disease that was diagnosed three years later meant that public appearances were rare. 

Muhammad Ali's character, multifaceted and often contradictory, bewitched and alienated.

What endured of him was his unparalleled conviction, even after his degenerative disorder left him much diminished, he became an important interlocutor between East and West through his role as goodwill ambassador. His brief appearances changed lives, quite literally in Iraq - where his involvement in negotiations with Saddam Hussein in the run up to the Gulf War saw the release of 15 American hostages.

His appearance at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 warmed people's hearts and softened those that had long been critical of him.

"I am America," Ali once said. "I am the part you won't recognise. But get used to me." America, and indeed the world did get used to Ali, and for many Ali came to represent a quixotic version of America, universally loved, his righteousness standing out in a world that increasingly felt without honour.

Otman Aitlkaboud is an Executive Committee member of the Arab-Jewish Forum working on improving relationships between Arabs and Jews in the UK and beyond. He formerly worked at conflict resolution think tank Next Century Foundation and for the European Union External Action service in Armenia.

Follow Otman Aitlkaboud on Twitter: @OtmanA

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.